Short story – The blue eye

The greatest storyteller of all, the old crab-crone, sits brown and withered on the searock, like one of the salt-streaked ferns clinging to its sides; the spray of the seafoam tosses against her hunched back and turtly neck, and streams down her shriveled breasts like silvered locks, gleaming with the wisdom of all the added years of her ancestors who dwell deep within the blue depths of the sea.

When the storyteller sitting on the searock, the old crab-crone, with silver waterlocks of wisdom and long brown fingers, bent with age, twisting, shapeshifting, starts her story, try to ignore its ten beady red eyes (they will try to catch your eye, but take care not to fall into that trap – for that is just the first one, and stories have many traps, and it would not do to fall into the wrong one). Listen to her, for, if your gaze wavers for but a moment, the story tends to slip between your fingers like silverfish and plunge into the depths of the deep blue sea, never to return.

“Before the world,” she began, “before the world was even a thought in Father’s mind, there existed a story, the primordial tale. And when the storytellers of old sat before Mother and filled her dreams with the tale, till they foamed to the brim, she was filled with desire.

“For all stories, whatever they may tell you, are sacred repositories of desire, their mouths bound up tight with a million sacred chants and tied criss-cross with a million sacred threads and left alone in a lonely place where puny humans fear to tread.  But we storytellers are fearless and go everywhere, and when we find storypots we pick them up, hold them close to our ears, and rattle them cautiously. The feelers in our ears unfurl and touch them, their fine hairs standing on their ends as they hear all of what the storypot has to say. This is not easy to do, and we storytellers sometimes turn grey just training to listen; it would be more accurate to call us story-listeners, for even as we tell, we listen, like a child hearing with astonishment her own prattle for the first time.

“We carry the storypots very carefully as we travel from town to town, for we know that but a sideward glance from the right person with a sharp ear can pop the pot open. For just as the right story can rouse desire even in the Great Mother, a single glance of desire can inspire an endless, fruitless search for the right story. Every glance of desire yearns for the story that will complete it. Stories seduced by desire bloat with its weight; they fail to mellow into their destiny. But can you fault a full glance, pregnant with meaning like a raincloud, for wanting to know where it came from, and where it shall go? Is it not like an illegitimate child curious about its origins and destiny? But, ah! Who knows whose glance may fall on whom, which seed may sprout where, and who can tell why these things happen the way they do!

“The only thing we understand, for our part, is the value of a story. When the time is right, when the listener is ready, we open their mouths and let them yawl, and as the story unfurls and swings its head, the scent of desire fills the air, sweet like the flowers of tender spring.

“When such a story is told, and in a moment of understanding, you turn to glance at it with your full gaze, the desire bound up in it enters your hearts, and lays down quiet, an egg in your heart, a seed in your soul. If all this has happened to you, you wait. Then you wait some more.

“Then one day the eggs hatch into birdlings that take glorious flight, and you hear them beat against your chest, their wind in the windows of your soul. The seeds sprout trees that bears fruit as worlds, each different from and more wondrous than the last. And thus it was with the tale that my ancestor told. Mother’s eyes fluttered open, and when she looked out at Father with a sideward glance, he split his brow open to return her glance and a seed was sown in Father’s fertile, ever-awake soul. Out of that seed was born our world.

“What story did that ancient storyteller tell the Great Mother that aroused such great desire in her, you ask? What was the story that inspired that single glance from which the whole world burst forth? I am not sure whether I can say, or whether you are ready for the tale yet. Or maybe you are, for what do I know about human hearts brimming with desire? A storyteller only knows foam – foam of the ale, foam of waterspray, foam of the seafroth. My tongue runs away with itself when I speak, and it may weave that tale, warp and weft, with the one I will tell you today. If it is your destiny to meet its seed today, you will, and what a glorious occasion that will be for the universe and the Story! Bells will chime, clouds will gather, and rain will fall on your parched lands as the most perfect seed of all lands there, like a babe landing into the world from the womb.

“But that is only if it is your destiny, and we storytellers have no truck with destiny, we shake our fists at it because it is a story even we cannot understand. The only story we can’t weave, for its loom is time itself, and when we meet time in the alley, it is our destiny to pound our heads upon it till our skulls break open and the stories pour out like blood and brainmush. So I will do my due and tell you the tale I am meant to tell you today, the tale of the blue eye, which as the purveyors of the tale know is nothing but the tale of the sacred glance itself.

“Dear listener, a single glance can set the sea on fire. So listen carefully, and take not the power of my story lightly. It takes one glance to burn you whole from within, and one glance for the seed of seeds to flutter their skin and plunge their fresh dewy shoots into your hearts.

“So, listen to my tale, composed by the storyteller of the silver way, daughter of the peacock-voiced, bearing ten red eyes on her fingers, a lute in her throat, a blade in her tongue and a breast that brims to embrace you in her story’s fold, like the purple mountains, like dunes, like waves – listen – in the three-footed peacock meter –

A long time ago in these very lands, before the time when love could be stolen, wedded or barred behind chains of custom and propriety, there lived in the brown wastelands a daughter of a chieftain, of such uncommon beauty and pride; the beacon light of their race, their last hope against the vagaries of their world. For their land was dry, hard and brown, the sky above was mercilessly white and blinded them with its light, and so it had been since their storytellers could remember.

Strange hills of rock jutted out over their land, like stone breasts run dry. The daughter had climbed up to the top of their tallest hillock, strong, brown and kind like the body of an ancient ancestor, unfurling like a stone flower in the middle of their land, and saw that there was no water as far as her eye could see, nor a patch of green. The hillock itself held neither fern or moss; save one or two trickling rivulets, the paths of the hillsprings on the lava hillock were blackened stonetracks; their gods who were housed deep in its hearts remained where they lay, unadorned, unmoving, unspeaking. No milk, no water, no moisture came from their stone gazes.

Bones and carcasses were strewn over the paths that led to the chieftain’s house and he has given up his own son to the drought. His daughter was proud and sat with her back straight, the corpse of her baby brother in her arms, unwilling to even shed her tears when every drop of water was measured out. The day they buried him, she decided that she would drive westward, ascend the hills, and beg, borrow or steal water from the clouds – or die trying.

The chieftain’s daughter had skin the colour of rainclouds at dusk, purple-black and luminously radiant. She stood erect, muscles taut, her feet turned out west, and her gaze burning through the harsh landscape like the searching light of a beacon for a glimpse of the blue hills beyond. Her race was proud of her gaze. It may seem a strange thing to be proud of, but pride always rests in what is left unseen, simply because it is too puny to enter into the ambit of one’s towering gaze. And the depth of the chieftain’s daughter’s gaze turned outward, like blazing searchlights, like two embers of forest flames, that all smallness and meanness skulked away in the light of its fire. Her gaze looked through most people as if they were not there, even her own mother couldn’t reach the height of her gaze when her hips grew wide, her shoulders grew broad and her bosom grew round. But most astonishing of all, her gaze burned right through her own reflection in the polished mirror of brass that sat in her room; it was said that even the mirror turned its gaze away when she approached it. Her astonishing comeliness of face and features, coupled with an utter disregard for her own gaze in her own mirror, made her unreal in their eyes. Only the humble and the suffering could command the grace of her gaze at their will, before them, she seemed to grow shorter in size, liquid and melodious in gaze, bending her neck and taking them on her back kindly like a mother of birds.

So when she whittled down the spine of an ancestor who had died of thirst in the drought to make herself a walking staff and announced that she would head west alone to conquer the western mountains and beg, borrow or steal rain from its clouds, no one said a single word in opposition for they knew that she was their last hope, that her straight back and searching gaze could whittle out whatever little moisture was still left behind on this earth. They bid her farewell, her feet raising a dry dust storm under the diamond white sky as she took her first step westward.

For thirty days and thirty nights she journeyed westward. The moon waned and waxed full again. Everywhere people looked upon the purple-black figure with an erect spine and unwavering gaze with the dust of many lands on her feet. For a long, long time she walked on dry land, not unlike her own, and she met dry, thirsty people, not unlike her own. She told them of her mission – to beg, borrow or steal water from the clouds up the blue mountains to the west, and promised them that she would bring enough for both her people there and her people here.

As she kept walking the lands changed, and there were sometimes even patches of green – a grove of palms, a grove of coconuts, a paddy square. The people here looked more rounded and well-fed than her people back home and her people on the way, and they even offered her more water to drink in one sitting than she had seen in an entire week back in the brown, dry, dusty wastelands. She drank no more than her rationed drops, for so she had promised herself when she set out, and asked for a story instead, for, she said, that would slake a different kind of thirst.

Then they told her the story of the blue mountain, that had become a man; it had grown a green moustache now and stood up against the winds. It caught the clouds like fish and wove them into a fine headwreath of white that it wore on its crown. The arrogant blue mountains were taking away all their clouds, they said; and that was the reason for why they had none.

Upon hearing the tale, the chieftain’s daughter stood up and hit the ground hard with the tip her staff whittled down from human spine; a cloud of dust rose around her. Her eyes blazed, and she swore that the blue mountain would be tamed into giving her her rightful water. The people, now her people, clapped and cried; they called her the beacon of their race, their saviour and their hope. She bowed to their love and set her gaze westward, as if she could drill through the great mountain with the power of her gaze alone and walked resolutely to the rhythm of her staff.

And as she walked even westward, where the red sun dipped low over the lands stretching far into the horizon and Venus rose in the twilight, she saw it, the first outline of blue against the sky. Remember that she lived in the drylands, and has never seen a mountain in her life; the outline of blue rose up before her eyes, glowing unearthly, full of some strange beauty, impassive, unyielding, as if it would be satisfied by nothing but heaven itself.

Her gaze was still resolute, and now fixed on the mountaintop rather than the horizon, so she threw her shoulders back, lifted her neck and walked straighter. The moon waned again, and it was only on the day of the third waxing moon, at daybreak, that she saw the outline of blue had slowly crept nearer, and now there it was, peaks of blue and purple, undulating in the light of dawn like a wave of flowers, with a sea of forest green to ford before she would reach the pass. It was more colour than she had seen in an entire lifetime.

When the sun came up, and it was a very lazy sun, unlike the strong white brilliance of her browncountry, the green rose up and filled her eyes, a flood of fecund light. How many shades, and how many sounds! The brownlands had cicadas, and chameleons, and porcupines and snakes; but for the occasional chirp or hiss, or the swirl of dry earth in a hot wind, it was a largely silent land. This strange green land hummed and thrummed with life. She walked through the thickets, through groves of banana trees, fording small streams, planting her stick into the now damp foliage – there was water underfoot – and up the slope. The roots had twisted together to form knobbly steps; unused to the terrain, her tread stumbled, her feet curled up against the unfamiliar moistness of the roots and soil. The coarse, wide trunks of trees teemed up densely and challenged the natural majesty of her straightlined path. The mountain seemed to know her presence and seemed to have sent a small army to make it known that she was on foreign terrain. Like a swarm of renegade bees, determined to bring all the honey in the world back to the bosom of a single flower, a broad leaf unexpectedly swung through the air and drenched her face with fresh rainwater; she swung her neck angrily like a cobra and hit out against the foliage with her staff, tearing it end to end from the leafstalks, crushing it underfoot. The sharp scent of fresh green rose in the air around her, awakening the dragonflies; they brushed past her face with their delicate mirrorwings.  A cluster of vines brushed against her forehead; a delicate string of parrotbeak berries broke against her neck and spilled down her shoulders; they stuck to the browned and weathered bark of her single garment as they fell, shining in the forestlight like stars on a moonless night. Streaks of sunlight filtered through the foliage and fell on the floor in soft lightspots; they lit up her frame as she unseeingly, unflinchingly, walked through, her gaze unmoved by any of the new sights the mountain slopes held for her. Birds called overhead, monkeys swung from vine to vine, green tree-snakes rose a beady eye to look at the strange intruder from beyond, smelling of earth and sun and palm-sugar and toddy.

As she walked in the foliage thinned, the light grew stronger, and a strange roar could be overheard from afar, like the sound of wardrums announcing the arrival of a merciless enemy king. The forest cleared into a sphere of green light and the thunderous roar came into sight, a magnificent waterfall inescapably tumbling over to fill wide green pool, reflecting spray and sunlight, a marvelous dance of diamonds. And above the waterfall, towering over her head, rose the first of the blue mountains, with its raiment of royal purple, sceptre of green and crown of misty cloud.


For the first time, her gaze lifted up in wonder to take in the mountain, the whole mountain, its skyclad, cloudbearing majesty. It seemed to gaze down upon her, the steady blue gaze of a curious child. “Mountain, I come for your water”, she whispered, before she regained her sense of self again. She was not used to lifting her gaze for any reason, so she simply turned again to her path, looked ahead and walked forward, around the falls, up the hill. The relentless mist from the fall soaked her, but her tongue remained untouched, her lips stayed closed like a lotus bud in a fragrant pool.

Flowers and bees and wide-leafed trees; shrill insects and luminiscent birds; strange snakes in the undergrowth that slithered cool over her foot but had no bite in their fangs. She climbed higher and higher, and the countryside around her fanned outward like a sheet of glass, green and filled with light. She slept on convenient rocks, and woke up in a flare of green, speckled with dew and covered with yellow blossoms, bees hovering round her, a lizard curled up at her heels. She dusted them off her frame impatiently and implored the mountain each morning, “Mountain, my people are thirsty, I come for your water.”

For another full mooncycle more so she climbed, taking no more food nor drink than the lowest of her people in the brown droughtland, but the cloud-shrouded of the mountain stretched farther and farther into the sky. As she climbed higher, the land she had covered and left behind stretched out in front of her eyes, a vast vista, a green wall near the bottom of the mountain slowly turning to parched brown, stretching out as far as she could see, with not a cloud above it or a glassy patch of water to grace the land. The music of waterfalls could still be heard on every bend of the mountain, clouds sometimes floated low below her feet, bees swarmed around her eyes and hair, the call of elephants could be heard from afar, and her body and feet were constantly cool from the dew and spray. It was nauseatingly green. But she kept walking up the hill, drinking but a drop a day, throat parched, tongue parched, lips parched, soul parched. Then one day, for the first time, she broke. She raised a tired, confused eye up at the mountain; its cloud-tipped heights seemed so far away.

In a moment of anger, she shook her staff up at the mountain. “Mountain!” she thundered in her voice from brownlands, its hard consonants momentarily silencing the shrill, coy calls of the birds and insects, the gentle coo of the forest around her. “Mountain! Release your clouds or I will fight you for it!” she said, and she meant it. Her voice echoed over the hills and came back to her, a thousand shattered fragments.

As if in response, the skies turned black. Angry clouds gathered together and flashed fiercely. A clap of thunder; a raincloud seemed to burst open overhead. Like a single touch of blue pigment in a bucketful of water, a single large raindrop landed flower-like on her forehead, the caress of a dragonfly’s mirrorwing. It slipped down her face like a fingertip, a brushstroke. It curved past her frond-like lashes, slipped down the valley of her nose; it rose and it fell, with the tremble in her cheek. It landed on her lips, and stood there, for but an instant: poised, hesitant, quivering.

That drop of rain passed her lips, it touched her tongue. It tasted blue. Her eyes flew open, and for the first time, her eyes darted from side to side, trembling like a peacock. How many eyes had opened up in her, the chieftain’s daughter from the drylands, whose race was proud of her single-minded, undivided gaze? Dear listener, that was when she saw him. A great cloud of black with lightning tusks emerged from the wilderness, and he was riding the raincloud, bamboo staff in hand, strong of frame and long of limb, his gaze fixed upon her, out of eyes blue and glassy like a wildcat’s. He stared intently, as if transfixed, all on her and on nothing but her.

The chieftain’s daughter trembled from head to foot like a peacock that had just discovered its thousand eyes, and then, as if she had suddenly made up her mind, lifted her head to meet the full gaze of the blue-eyed mountain man with all of her newly awakened eyes. Their eyes met, for but a second, like the height of an eclipse, when the gentle moon comes face to face with the full fury of the sun. She blinked, as if she had finally understood something. Then, as if sweeping her fanned feathers back into a train, she turned around and walked back into the forest, through the thicket, down the mountain. And the blue gaze followed her.

A trickle of blue flowed underfoot as she made her way through the foliage, down the hill again. Little rivulets of blue sprung out of the soil like side glances on her way to join the main stream. When she reached the bottom of the blue mountain the stream had swelled to the size of a small rainfed river. She did not turn around to look up at the mountain with its cloud-crowned peak, but she could feel its mute gaze on the back of her neck. Her eyes were set forward, her gaze was unflinching, and she trudged back, through the foliage and forest, back to the edge of the brown lands. As she walked, she saw that the new river had made its bed and flowed ahead of her, announcing her arrival as it carried in its wake mountain flowers and fragrances. It flowed underground and overground as it pleased, it erupted into lakes and ponds where it wished. The people streamed out in joy to welcome their saviour, but hesitated when they saw her eyes – for her eyes were fixed as if in a trance or a dream, her eyes did not see them. Those who dared to look into her eyes saw that they carried in them brilliant bits of blue, and it was then that they realized that the woman in front of them had carried water from the mountains back to them in her eyes.

As for the chieftain’s daughter, she saw nothing but the gaze of the blue eye. For its presence stayed by her side like a giant, silent lake, blue and agonizingly deep. She walked with her spine erect, neck straight and eyes fixed on the horizon past the brown, for she knew that one gaze of hers, filled with longing and desperation, would betray her to the blue. Yet she saw, as her people saw the sun, as mountain people see the rain, as sea people see the salt of the sea’s wind, everywhere and nowhere, the agonizing call of its blue depth. For it stayed by her side, silent and deep, one big blue eye that was always fixed on her.

The river she carried back in her eye flowed underground for the longest time till she reached her own people. When she took her last step, and finally hit the ground with her staff to announce the completion of her journey, the river blossomed forth from that final step of hers into a wide-armed blue lake. Her people were overjoyed, and there was no more thirst in the land. It never ran dry after that, for, they said, it was fed by an underground spring, whose depths nobody could gauge, and who has any business gauging the sources of water springs anyway. But the storytellers of old, our teachers and ancestors attest, that once a year, early in June, unfailingly a single black cloud swayed in from the west, with the slow, majestic gait of an elephant; its lightning would flash blue before it rained copiously over their lands.

The chieftain’s daughter never brought a single drop of the lake water to her lips all her life. When she returned from her journey to the blue mountains to the west, teeming with life and green, she threw her staff to the ground, and with deliberate steps, ascended the brown hillock that stood in the middle of their land, and took shelter in its deep, womb-like caves. She was never seen in the plain again. For unlike the mountains of the west, these barren hillocks the drylands are not obscenely green; they are lava flame petals cooled into rock-flowers, kind and merciful; they have their own springs; and when a woman looks into her mirror and finds out her eyes have turned blue, and when her own mirror laughs at her in jest and ridicule, it is such a spring that she turns to. The chieftain’s daughter lived in the caves up the hillock and ruled her people from there. But from where she sat, she could see the lake every day, the lake that fixed its agonizing, piercing, unflinching blue gaze upon her, the gaze that followed her like the light of the sun, that enveloped her like the coolness of the night.

And that is the story of the glance, the gaze, the blue eye, the story of desire, although, like all tales about glances, I cannot tell you what story can fulfill the longing of gravity that a single such glance is pregnant with, for such knowledge, as my teachers with storypots held to their ears used to say, exceeds even the most glorious storyteller of all.

Translation: Devaki Chithi’s Diary

A translation of the Tamil short story ‘தேவகி சித்தியின் டயரி’ (1999) by B.Jeyamohan.

Amma, my mother, sent me to find out whether Devaki Chithi was coming downstairs to get her coffee or not. I pushed against the door of the room where Chithappa and Chithi, my uncle and aunt, usually sleep; it was locked. So, I marched out of the front door, climbed up the drumstick tree on the right side of the yard, and peeped into the room through the open ventilator above the window. I was filled with a strange mix of fear and exhilaration. It almost felt like surreptitiously drinking raw, stolen eggs. Chithi was not changing. She had the electric light on; she sat on the floor against the wall writing something. From time to time, a bashful smile would flit across her face. She scratched her neck and feet once or twice, as if she had been stung by mosquitoes. On the clothesline lay the yellow saree that she had been wearing earlier that day. The cupboard was open, I could see the silverware and sarees in it. On the huge double bed, Chithappa’s discarded lungi lay askew. When the saree swayed in the breeze, Chithi looked up with a start. She closed her notebook. I gasped; I thought that she had seen me. However, Chithi took up her notebook and started writing again. I could hear my mother on the other side of the door calling my name. Then, she was calling Chithi. “Devaki! Devaki!” Chithi closed her notebook again and looked at the door. She tucked her hair behind her ears and smoothed it into place. But still she did not get up. Amma hammered on the door. Chithi got up in a hurry. She put the diary in a safe-box inside the cupboard and locked it up. Then she piled the sarees on the safe-box, locked the cupboard, and placed both sets of keys in her handbag. Dabbing at the dots of perspiration of her forehead, she opened the door.

Amma had Vini’s underwear in her hands. “What were you doing?” she asked, knitting her eyebrows.

“I was changing.”

“All this time? Didn’t you hear me call you?”

Chithi said nothing and walked out. I shinned down the tree and went to the backyard. She was already there doing the dishes. She smiled fondly at me. “Mani was looking for you, did you see him?” she asked.

“Who? Tall Mani?”

Chithi laughed. It was like someone had turned the light on. “So, he’s Tall Mani? Who is Short Mani then?”

“K. Thapasimani. Ninth standard.”

“And who is that?”

“Anthony sir’s son. He’s a bad boy.”


When I was trying to think why exactly he was a bad boy, Vini came out. “Chithi, I’ll do my homework tomorrow. It’s a holiday tomorrow,” she said.

“What holiday?”

“Thiruvalluvar Day,” I eagerly butted in. “Chithi, Thiruvalluvar is dead.”

“Oh no! Not that old man with a long beard?” asked Chithi.

Amma called from inside the house, “Vini, you donkey, where’s the tumbler? What a brat, never listens to a word I say…Vini” she shrieked. Vini ran inside. I signaled to Chithi that I was leaving and ran out to the street where the temple car stood.

The next day, when our neighbour Rani Athai, Amma and Paati, my grandmother, were sitting around picking the greens, they started talking about Chithi. Chithi had gone to work. Thiruvalluvar Day did not exist for her workplace, possibly because there was no picture of Thiruvalluvar on their walls.

“So…looks like Queen Elizabeth has bought herself a new saree?” said Rani Athai.

“She earns, she buys, she wears,” said Amma. “Is she like the rest of us? Resigned to the kitchen and coal-dust forever?”

“Well, why don’t you go out and work if you like?” said my grandmother. “Who’s stopping you?”

“In my family we don’t do such shameless things. Imagine — sitting and gossiping in front of strangers, getting told off by all and sundry…”

“That’s a day-night saree. You can wear it all day long, flip it over and wear it again at night. It stays fresh. Gnanam teacher’s wife has one in green. Four hundred rupees, she says. You can’t get one under three hundred,” said Rani Athai.

“It looks nice on young women,” said Paati.

Rani Athai looked at my mother out of the corner of her eye and smiled. “Paati, no, even some older women wear it. The other day at the temple I saw a lady from the East Street wearing it.”


“Of course!”

“Emerald green will look good on athai,” said Amma, referring to her mother-in-law. Rani Athai and Amma smiled.

“Whatever…at this age, where will I go wearing something like that?” Patti pushed back her glasses. She brought a drumstick leaf close to her eyes to examine it.

“Why? You can wear it when you go to Subha’s house,” said Rani Athai.

“As if my son gets me everything I ask for.” Paati threw an angry look at the bunch of drumstick stalks in my fist. “What’s that?”

“A broom,” I said.

“Look at you. You are a boy, what do you need a broom for? Go away,” she grabbed the greens from my hand and flung it away.

I felt that if I wanted to stay there a little longer, I had to say something about Devaki Chithi as well. The diary came to my mind. “Amma, Chithi writes in a diary,” I said.

“What’s that?” asked Rani Athai.

“A diary. With a red cover. The other day when Amma was calling for her, she had locked her room and was writing in it.”

Amma’s face changed. Paati’s mouth fell open. They looked at each other. “How do you know?” asked Amma.

“I climbed up the drumstick tree and saw her,” I said. I immediately felt my stomach drop. “I climbed the tree just for fun,” I added hastily. “I saw Chithi lock the diary in a safe-box in her cupboard.”

“She writes a diary?” asked Rani Athai, looking at me keenly.

Amma laughed. “What else? She must have been writing her accounts. Making sure that the rest of us don’t eat up her salary,” she said. She turned to me. “Go see whether your father is still in the shop,” she said sharply.

“Appa?” I hesitated.


I went out. I felt like I had done something wrong. Appa was not in the shop. Varadan was there. I got a few raisins from him and popped them into my mouth. Then I went over to Nagarajan’s house and looked at his pigeons. I came home only for the midday meal. I knew there was going to be greens for lunch, so I wasn’t too keen. It was already two o’clock.

Amma was not in the kitchen. “Amma!” I called. The fan was creaking around in the hall; Paati and Vini were stretched out sleeping under it.

As I walked around the house calling out to Amma, I heard her respond from Chithi’s room. I went in. “Where’s the diary?” she asked.

“Chithi put it in the cupboard and locked it.”

“But it’s not in the cupboard!”

“There’s a safe-box under the pile of sarees.”

Amma moved the sarees aside. There was a safe-box. I took up a bra and examined it. “Where’s the key?” asked Amma.

“Chithi put the key in her handbag.”

“Oh, so she takes it with her wherever she goes? I see. Alright, come, let’s eat,” Amma snatched the bra from my grip, threw it into the cupboard, slammed the door and bolted it.

“I don’t want the greens.”

“There’s egg for you.”


“From the sambar. Come.”

As I was eating I could hear Amma and Paati conferring outside. Paati raised her voice suddenly. “I kept warning him that we don’t want a city-bred girl in the family, all fashion and fancy, but when did he ever listen to me? God know what she has written in the diary, that witch,” she said. Amma pacified her in a low voice.

I wiped my hands on my knickers and came out of the kitchen. Paati was nodding her head amicably to something that Amma was saying. Her mouth was half-open. I could see the fan rotate in her thick glasses. I wanted to go closer. Amma chased me out with a sharp rebuke. What were they saying? It’s very rare for them to be so friendly.

I went out to the street again. I didn’t know what to do. I belched; I could smell egg in my breath. I felt queasy. I felt that Chithi was going to get into trouble, and I was somehow responsible. Chithi is a good woman. She tells me lots of stories. The sight of her changing her saree shimmered before my mind’s eye. When she comes back from work, I should run ahead and tell her. I kept waiting in the street.

Appa came with Maadan. “What are you doing here?” asked Appa.


“Get yourself home, you’re always on the street,” he said, and kept walking. There was something inside the cane box that Maadan carried on his head. He flashed his big teeth at me. As soon as they were home, Maadan went to the backyard with the box. I went in. Appa stood on the raised verandah in front of the house and washed his feet. Vini was stirring some water in an ever-silver cup with a spoon. “I’m making coffee for Appa,” she said. I pulled her braid and went to the backyard, stopping at the kitchen on the way to pop a couple of cut okra pieces into my mouth. Paati was in the cowshed. In the cane box that Maadan had carried in, there was palm jaggery and a cluster of bananas.

“No school for the little one today?” asked Maadan.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the palm jaggery. It was hard. I scraped some out with a fingernail and popped it into my mouth. “Thiruvalluvar died,” I said.

“So that’s the thing?” said Maadan. “He’s the proprietor of a bus company in Nagarcoil. When I went for toddy tapping work in Cher’madevi, that’s the bus I took.”

“Is Cher’madevi very far from here?”

“Very far. You have to cross seven rivers to get there. But once you are there you can jump from one palm tree to another. Has the little one been on a bus?”

“Once, when I went to Kulasekharam. I went with Chithi then, remember?”

“That’s a town-bus. This is a city-bus. The seats are big, like mattresses. Soft and squishy like river-sand.”

I could hear Appa’s raised voice inside. I went in. Appa had just finished saying something, and Amma was replying with some heat. “What do I care, I am just saying what’s best for all. Then it’s up to you,” she said.

“So, what are you saying now?”

“Nothing! I have nothing to say any more,” she said, and huffed back into the kitchen.

Paati spoke from where she was sitting, “Narayana, there is some truth to what she says as well. Think about it. This is not like the old days. Back in our time a girl who had come of age could not be seen even by her own brother. But these days, see what they wear, what they do… it’s better to be careful, that’s all I’m saying.”

“Okay, okay, my head hurts.”

“Ask her when she comes. And what are we asking for? Nothing much. We just want to know what she writes. If there is nothing wrong in what she writes, then what’s the harm in showing it to us?” There were bits of hay stuck to Paati’s head.

“Will you please shut up!” Appa roared.

“Alright, do what you please,” said Paati. She fished out the hay from her hair. “Dei, go throw this out,” she said.

Vini stood at the entrance of the room shaking her leg, her thumb stuck in her mouth. Appa did not call her and seat her on his lap as usual. She moved forward. Appa turned and looked at her. He kept staring at her for some time. Then with sudden anger, he said sharply, “Remove that from your mouth, you donkey.” Vini took tentative footsteps back and then ran inside to her grandmother and started sobbing into her lap. Paati caressed her head.

In some time, Thatha, my grandfather, came in. He placed his bundle of almanacs in the room where we made the offerings to the gods and went directly to the kitchen. When Paati saw him, she reflexively folded her legs from where she sat on the floor, straightening them out only when he had left the room.

Thatha had his meal. He came out drying his hands on a towel. “Did Panchabi come?” he asked Amma. “He had said that he would bring a horoscope?”

“No, no one came,” said Amma. Then, “he wants to say something,” she said, gesturing with her chin to Appa.

“To me?”


“What about?”

“I don’t know.”

Thatha went out. Amma switched on the light. “Dei, it’s time for you to study,” she said. I opened my Tamil textbook and sat down to study. My heart was not in it. What would happen when Chithi got here?

I heard the sound of the scooter. I peeped out to the entrance. Chithi walked in saying something; when she saw Appa she stopped and walked in silently, her saree rustling. She crossed us and went to her room. Chithappa parked the scooter on the small raised verandah, picked up his shoes and walked in. Appa interrupted him. “Mani, come here just a minute,” he said.

Amma noticed me peeping out at the scene. “Keep your eyes on your book, you donkey. You want a kick?” she said. “Tamils cherished love, honour and valour above all. Tamils cherished love, honour and valour above all,” I recited. All of a sudden Thatha’s voice rose. “What do you mean, her private matter? If our family’s honour is compromised then is that a private matter?” he shouted. I kept reciting in a weak voice. “There are two kinds of love — love before marriage, and love after marriage,” and then I fell silent. Appa spoke to his father, “Appa, please calm down,” he said. He turned to Chithappa. “Let’s just ask her, Mani. This is such a small thing,” he said.

“But how can I… and something like this…” said Chithappa.

“If there is no secret, then what’s the problem? If you don’t have a problem, then I won’t interfere,” said Appa.

“As if we can ignore a family affair just like that? It’s our family’s honour that’s at stake,” Thatha said in a loud voice.

Chithappa also became agitated. “Now what has happened that you talk of honour? What sort of talk is this?”

“Shut up…go hide your face in her saree. Shameless fellow.”

“Appa, can you please stop talking?”

“I am leaving. I simply cannot bear all this.”

“Do whatever you like,” said Chithappa.

“Mani, look here. What’s the problem now? If there is nothing wrong, then there’s no problem. We just want to make sure, right? If you don’t like it, then there’s no need to ask,” said Appa.

From where she stood inside the house, Amma said, “With working women things are always a bit lax, here-and-there. It’s not as if he is unaware of this?”

“Go in!” Appa shouted.

“I’ll go in, what’s in all this for me?” said Amma. “I was just saying because your mother is fretting about the whole situation. Otherwise why would I care? I have my kitchen stove and grimy pots.”

Chithi came in. She had changed her saree. Pushing her bangles up her forearm, she went to wash her face. I could smell the perspiration rising from her body. “Chithi, Appa scolded me,” said Vini, following her in. Paati got up and went to the front room. “Mani, look here, nothing wrong has happened in our family so far. Not one person has had the opportunity to say a word about us…” she said.

“Alright. What now? You want me to ask her? Fine, I’ll ask,” said Chithappa.

Chithi looked at Amma and Paati out of the corner of her eye and walked to the front room. “What is it?” she asked Chithappa in a low voice.

“Bring your handbag.”

Amma turned to me. “Go fetch it,” she said.

I ran to get it. Chithappa opened it, pulled out the little key, gave it to me and said, “Dei, bring the diary.”

Chithi was puzzled. “What diary?” she asked in apprehension.

Amma grabbed the key from me, went into Chithi’s room and got the diary. “That’s my diary,” said Chithi angrily.

“It’s still your diary. They just want to know what you write in it,” said Chithappa. “Show them, let them be satisfied.”

“No. I will not show it,” said Chithi, in a voice I had never heard from her before.

“Don’t shout. Let them see. They are saying all kinds of things.” To his sister-in-law, “Anni, please read it out loud.”

“Why would I read it? The elders in the family can read it and do what needs to be done,” said Amma, enunciating every word clearly.

“No, I will not give it to you,” said Chithi, and ran towards Amma to grab the diary. Amma lifted her arm and took a step backwards.

Chithappa got the diary from her. Chithi, contrary to her usual demeanor, ran out behind him and blocked his path.

“See. And you say I’m making vile accusations,” said Amma.

“There’s nothing in it,” said Chithi. She was in tears. “Please give it back to me. Don’t read it. I beg you, don’t read it.”

“Look here Mani, you read it. If you are satisfied, that’s enough,” said Appa. To Chithi, “Look here woman, only your husband will read it. No one else will. Okay?”

“That is my diary! No one else should read it!” shouted Chithi. She looked like a madwoman.

Thatha got up from his chair. “Why? What sort of secrets do you have that even your husband can’t read them?” he demanded.

“There is nothing like that in there,” said Chithi sobbing.

“Devu, look here. If you make a scene what will people think?”

“No, please don’t…no one should read it.”

“Why should any woman have such secrets?” asked Amma.

“I swear on my marriage. There is nothing in there against my conscience. Believe me.”

“Then? What’s the harm if we read it?” asked Amma.

“I have just written down everything that came to my mind. But nothing illicit.”

“Look here Devu. There’s nothing in here that is as bad as what they fear, yes?”

“I swear on Thiruchendur Murugan…”

“So why fear? Let me read it. Problem solved.”

“No. No one should read it.”

“Do you understand what you are saying?” asked Chithappa, his voice raising in anger.

“No, no one should read it,” said Chithi, still in tears.

Chithappa gave her a long, penetrating look. His face changed. “So that’s how you want to play it? Okay. Then you leave me no option but to read it.”

Before he could open the diary, she leaped forward and snatched it from his hands. Before Amma could block her, she ran into the kitchen and locked the door.

“Devaki! Devaki!” Amma called, banging on the door. Appa, Thatha and Paati had gathered around the door. “Devu! Devu!” shouted Chithappa, kicking at the door with all his strength. Paati’s mouth was half open, she kept waving her hands. Thatha’s head bobbed like a chameleon’s. “Break the door open!” yelled Appa.

The sharp smell of kerosene rose from within the room. Then the ‘gup’ sound of something catching fire, the searing odour of something burning.

In a strange voice, Chithappa kept saying “Devu, Devu” as he pushed against the door with his shoulder. There was a lot of yelling and screaming. Suddenly the door opened. The room was filled with smoke. Chithi walked out, her hair stuck to her face with sweat.

“Devu, you…” said Chithappa. He looked inside. “You burnt the diary? You witch…”

Amma peeped in. “All burnt to cinder now. She got what she wanted.”

Chithi was panting. A single strand of hair was stuck to her eyelid on her tear-stricken face. She was calm, as if she had just finished throwing up.

Chithappa raised his arm to hit her. When he saw her stand calmly, he lowered it. “Whore!” he said, “Bitch!”

“I swear on my marriage. I have not sinned even in my mind. There is also nothing wrong in the diary. I am not such a person. Believe me,” said Chithi. Her voice broke.

“How can we believe you?” demanded Amma. “Why did you burn it?”

“That’s my diary. No one should read it.” Chithi slid down to the floor and hugged her knees with her arms. “There was nothing in the diary that was wrong. Believe me.” Then she buried her face into her knees and burst into sobs. Bits of charred cinder were stuck to her head. Her shoulders heaved. The dried jasmine strand that dangled from her hair swayed from side to side as she cried.

Everyone looked at Chithappa. He kept standing there looking at her. Then he went to his room. Amma told me and Vini to go to bed. All of us went to our bedrooms. No one said anything after that. I could hear Chithi sob in the hall for a long time. She curled up in the hall and went to sleep.

The next day Chithappa took her back to her father’s house and left her there. For a month, Chithi’s father and uncle kept coming and going. There were lots of discussions. The patriarch from the house up the slope also came once and stayed for a long time talking to Appa and Chithappa and Thatha. Chithi never came back. I understood that Chithappa had divorced her only three years later when he got married again.

(Translated from the Tamil original by Suchitra R)

Translator’s note:

In Carmen Maria Machado’s short story, The Husband Stitch, all the women have a ribbon knotted around various parts of their body — neck, finger or toe; the narrator’s husband is incessantly curious about the ribbon and wants to undo it. A more disturbing segment comes halfway through, when the narrator’s five-year-old son grows curious about the ribbon and tries to yank it off her neck with some violence. Devaki Chithi’s Diary is narrated through the eyes of a similar young boy-child, who inflicts the first unconscious violence upon Chithi; it is suggested that although just a boy yet, her claim on her personal space disturbs him somehow. The story moves through the child’s eyes, into the world of women, and comes to a climax in an arena of men where Chithi’s fate is decided. Throughout the story, a subtle finger points out how traditional gender roles are constructed within the family space; it is worth remembering that this story was originally written in 1999, nearly 20 years ago, before such discourse became mainstream.

One part of director Vasanth’s recently screened triptych film, Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum, is based on this short story.

On learning Tamil, polarized societies and the pursuit of truth and beauty.

Sometime last week, I happened to watch the Neeya Naana episode from 15.4.18. I often watch the show because I’m interested in observing and understanding its narrative — it’s also not a bad way to understand the pulse of the people. This episode did not disappoint. It was a discussion about mother tongue learning, with one group speaking for actively teaching their children the mother tongue (Tamil) and its literature, and the other group not so keen on it. Most of the people who were not too keen on their children learning Tamil in school were thinking from the perspective of what ‘value’ it would add to their child’s life. Learning Hindi, or a foreign language, their argument went, would help them if they needed it for their careers later in life; knowing to read and write Tamil guaranteed no such advantage. It was also not a ‘scoring subject’, and therefore unpopular among ambitious parents.

The show’s narrative, on the other hand, centred around positioning Tamil not just as a language, but a medium inducting its learners into a 2000-year-old way of life and ethos. தமிழர் வாழ்வியல் முறையை தெரிந்துகொள்ள தமிழ் படி was their refrain. Their narrative talked about having pride in the unbroken chainlink of a classical language, that has come to us down the ages. Cutting ourselves adrift from the language would distance us from our roots, they said. These are arguments not dissimilar to those I made in this essay recently. However, hearing this particular hour-long discussion, I realised something else, something important, something I realised about my own journey reading and writing in Tamil, that I will share in the interest of completeness, and because I feel it is precisely what needs to be said right now.

And that is this idea, the idea that both the parents who participated in the show, and the narrative Neeya Naana built, missed completely. Building in a young person pride centred around an external identity, whether it is religion, ideology, nation, or language, and more importantly, making the said pride, the focal point of their identity, almost never ends well. Learning Tamil, being Tamil, because it is your identity, because it is the identity of your ancestors, because you are Tamil, and because you need to take pride in your ethos — these are not invalid reasons to learn the language, but I shudder at each repetition of identity, identity, identity — at how fragile our sense of identity is, in the existential sense, and how we need to keep finding external anchors for it all the time. And then I think of the middle-class parents in cities and small towns, whose only ambition for their children is to score well, get a degree that gets a job that pays well, buy all the right things, and settle down, and I wonder where their sense of existential, let alone cosmic, identity will come from when the question inevitably starts gnawing at their soul.

And this is true not just of the Tamil identity, but any identity built around anyidentifier. There are similar arguments made over Sanskrit. A few years ago, when I was living in Pittsburgh, I met a family who spoke only Sanskrit at home. Their eight-year-old was a pro. What is the point of this NRI family speaking Sanskrit for their daily transactions, making up words for fridge and computer and wifi, I wondered — a language, which, in my understanding, was never a spoken language of the common people in the first place. Modern Sanskrit speakers, are too, in a sense, aspiring to a lost ethos, a particular way of life.

A three-day shibhiram organized by Samskrita Bharati includes an immersive experience speaking in and listening only to Sanskrit for three full days, and the company of talented, motivated and earnest youngsters, but also includes a morning yoga session, a sattvic lunch and bhajan satsangs in the afternoon. While this is not on the same level as claiming fantastically that the internet existed in the time of the Mahabharatha, or that the Kumari Kandam was the cradle of civilization, I feel they stem from the same impulse of insecurity, differing only in the type and degree of expression. Most talk of Tamil nationalism is fundamentally not different from Hindu nationalism in this essential sense — this narrative of pride in the ‘oldest’, ‘biggest’, ‘wisest’ and ‘best’ seems to be simply insecurity trying unsuccessfully to cover itself with the thin cloak of grandiosity.

We, the constructors and consumers of capitalism, its minions, its narcissistic handmaidens, are adrift. Our modern thoughts have made us question, and not without reason, the rigid, unyielding social models of our ancestors, but in the process, we have are also been cut off from their value systems. In its absence, our generation has found itself distanced from the natural support systems of extended family networks, clans and communities, as well as its values that served to provide meaning for their lives in the past. Instead, we seek fulfillment and meaning in the things we buy for ourselves (‘self-care!’ we say), we turn to entertainment to fill our time that gapes vacuously at us, and then buy more time with money because we can. Our arts are full of pessimism about humanity and human potential: humans are trash, we say brashly, indifferently, for who has the time or patience to engage with the said humans? And we huddle into corners, doubting, suspicious of the other, coming to rally in bubbles around some common thread of relief — the shared belief in the same God, the shared belief that the other group is made of sub-humans, the shared belief that speakers of the other language are out to make fools of us, and civil discourse is no longer possible with such morons. And what does that give us, but this deeply polarized world that we are in? One person says she fears potential rape in a cab because it carried a Rudra Hanuman poster, another person retaliates by namecalling all Muslims, jihadis, and all this hate is amplified a million times through our online and offline social networks.

I fear this climate of polarization, where furrows deepen with every Whatsapp forward whistling its way through networks of people who believe, with their whole heart, that they are right, their way is just, that they are dispossessed, pitiable victims who must rally back, or else. But more than fear, it is a deep distress that wells up in me — how insecure we are, and how unhappy, and how unsure. How alone, and how abandoned. How adrift. I do not know how to set this right, how to talk about this and make everyone else see what I see, that we are like people trapped in a ghostly castle, except that the horror of the situation is that there may be no ghost in this castle after all, and that we fear each other and have fallen to killing and raping anyone in sight. We are suspicious of the country, its systems and our fellow beings, certain in our that no one will step forward to help us in a time of crisis, and the only alternative is to band together in tribes, not around a shared set of positive values, but by making a shared front against something. This is the reason that any manufactured tribalism centred on pride makes me tremendously uncomfortable.

To return, in my case, I realize now that the reason I started reading Tamil was the same reason I attended the Samskrita Bharati meetings. It had nothing to do with pride, or even the need to find my identity in my roots. It had everything to do with my own love for wisdom and my pursuit of the truth, and my own desire to joust with this sense of fear of the fellow being that has overtaken our public consciousness, that of course, I am also not immune to.

My mother language, Tamil, and her sister tongue, Sanskrit, with all their complicated histories and are vessels, carriers of truth, beauty and wisdom. The languages themselves, their hoary origins, or an identity I can derive from associating with it, none of this matters to me. Languages are idea-vessels, where the form is the substance — the language itself, its words, its poetic devices and symbols, carries its particular insight and wisdom in it. I don’t look up to Tamil in awe because it is a 2500-year-old old lady, full of finger-wagging wise saws. I don’t derive my identity from being born in the ancient house of that old lady. Quite the contrary, the collected wisdom and beauty of all those years is available for me here and now. I can be a woman of the free world, of my time and age, thinking and reading new ideas in different languages, and still find as my contemporaries Valluvar and Ilango and Kamban and Bharathi. It is the pursuit of truth that, quite naturally, brought me back to my grandmother tongue (and what a sweet, yet upright and decisive tongue she has!) and not pride that she is my grandmother. This might have been the case even if I was not born in a Tamil-speaking family — how else would the Russian Tolstoy adopt the Kural for himself? Besides, I have ridden down the shaky raft of worldly existence with Kaniyan Poongundran, and I know better than to tie my ephemeral identity to something as simple as the language I was born with.

So, if I have children, I know I would not want to make an agenda out of teaching them Tamil, or teaching them Sanskrit, or anything else for that matter. I would, however very much like to teach them, if it’s possible, to discover their inner sense of truth, beauty and goodness. To love wisdom, uncompromising, impartial truth, with all their heart, and to have their actions guided by that sense. If they discover that, that alone, I believe, will be sufficient to guide them to all the sources and bosoms of wisdom, to each eternal spring that still waits patiently for men and women to discover it. I believe that journey will naturally lead them to Tamil, for its language and literature brims with truth and beauty and wisdom, and by that very process, it would wean them naturally away from developing any false sense of superiority and victimhood.

My own personal ideal, the reason I read and write and think and be, is truth, beauty, wisdom, and the sense of good and bad, right and wrong it unequivocally inspires. My loyalty is only to my pursuit of truth and beauty and goodness. Tribal senses of identity and modern ideological identities are tools, sometimes very useful tools, but if I fashion myself a hammer-wielder, then I am tempted to see every problem as a nail. And these are limited tools — a tribal sense of identity or an ideology cannot answer the grand questions of life, nor lead one on to truth, beauty or goodness.

Short Story – Bleeding

(Originally published in the extant little magazine Madras Mag, Oct. 2017)

Four hundred years ago, the world was shrinking like a ball of calico soaked in salt water.   Ships with multihued sails, proud masts and busy decks were riding the ocean and sailing eastward. Towns sprouted out of the beachy sand where the land and sea met. One day, in a village called Thariyur, forty weaver families also decided to head east, tearing themselves away from the land where their families had lived for thirty-five generations.

The chieftains and elders of the village could not digest the fact that forty families were, just like that, turning their backs on the lands where their fathers and forefathers had breathed, weaved and died, and going somewhere far away, never to return. In anger and agony, they turned their faces, and refused to acknowledge the small group that stood before them, waiting to seek their blessings one last time. Fine cotton cloth with broad kottadi checks danced in the wind on the clotheslines around them, and curled into each other like mating snakes. The hard, lined, remorseless faces of the elders emerged out of them, like the stone sculptures in a temple courtyard.

When it was time for the young rebels to finally leave – the sun was high in the sky, and it would be a day and a half’s journey to reach their destination – a withered crone came forward, the heavy brass pambadams on her ears glinting in the sun, her bare, brown, lined chest heaving with emotion. She scooped two handfuls of the dry brown earth, and threw it in their faces. “You dare to leave! You, blood of my blood, you dare to leave! May these breasts that have run dry feeding you lot fall off right now! Remember, remember – you have dared to leave, and you must pay the price. Now hear this! The clothes you weave and dye will no more hold their colour. You will dye and dye, but the colours will run away, just as you do. All your efforts will bleed away, just like the milk of my breasts and the blood of this land that walks away as if all of this means nothing!” The man named Madhiran, who stood at the head of that group, lowered his head, and took upon it the full force of her curse. The town watched as their broad backs disappeared into the brown haze.

The cloth from Thariyur was a prized commodity in all of the surrounding towns and villages. Nowhere else in the world is there cloth that is softer than this, they remarked with pride as they held the cloth to their cheeks and folded it up to ease the burdens they carried on their heads. Some castes in the Arcot region had a tradition that their wedding sarees and vettis should be procured from the handlooms of Thariyur. They would come as a group of twenty-thirty people, a long line of bullock carts along the dusty lanes, stopping by the ponds on the wayside to quench their thirsts. The town would first appear as a dot of colour in the dusty brown landscape to the sharp-eyed youngsters amongst them. “I see it! I see it!” they would hoot. As they neared the town, they would see long yards of onion-white cloth drying on the bushes. Then came the stretches of clotheslines. Dyed cloths of all hues would flutter in the breeze, and the women would already start planning the colours and the prints. The narrow village streets had tiny houses, with a vat for the vegetable dyes in the front, and the large looms in the back. The visitors would stay in the town for a week and marvel at the softness of the cloth.

However, the real reason that people flocked to Thariyur to buy their wedding garments was not just the fineness of the cloth or the brilliance of the colours. It was because they knew that the dyes of Thariyur would never ever bleed and run. Like the steadfastness of Arundhati and the chastity of Sitai, the cloth of Thariyur would never, ever, lose its color. They would remain like new till the end, their colours brilliant like the blue of a cloudless sky, like the red of coral beads, like the yellow-green of neem leaves.

The dying process was a secret that was held close to the chests of the weavers of Thariyur, passing from father to son to grandson for thirty-five generations. They had not married outside the village for many centuries, and so their faces all looked alike and their clothes never bled. Some said that the magic of the Thariyur weave came from the exceptional unity of its weaver families. Others said that it was a boon granted by the muni who lived on their lands, by the border of the village near the town pond. Still others said it was born of the bond between weaver and loom, water and cotton, cloth and dye, land and blood. A few believed that these men possessed strange powers, and they could also walk on water, grow to the size of an atom or as tall as the sky, and that it was not their fingers that wove the cloth or dyed it, but by the power of their words they could weave and dye and fasten colour to the cloth. The women who draped the Thariyur sarees around their bodies swore that it was the plentiful milk of their mothers’ breasts, cooled by such soothing cotton, that held the secret in it.

The tradesmen came to the village for silk and cotton, and the fishermen came for thick, flexible sails. The young women favoured linen that became one with their limbs, their colours and patterns giving flight to their dreams that took them, as if on Vadivelan’s peacock, all around the earth. The heavily checked kottadi sarees were for the matrons and crones. Each person in the village, according to their life and station, found the cloth to suit their needs. Thariyur cloth was wrapped around their sunbaked heads, fastened about their thin waists, folded and scrunched into their armpits in deference, tied as a single piece around their loins. When they handstitched long skirts for their whittled wooden dolls, young women used to save leftover scraps of the soft cloth that would never bleed in the menstrual huts, as rare treasures for the older women. As the generations grew in the wombs of these women, the cloths hung on the clotheslines near the huts for nine whole months, waving in the wind like victorious flags, gladdening the hearts of the whole village. The old women would remember their own maiden days with a fond smile as they tore up their wedding sarees and folded them up to make peethunis for the newborns. Wailing infants would take a break to track the colours of the cloths with their beady eyes, and drift off to sleep in the confines of its thuli once the soft cloth was tied around its waist. When the men who filled the hearts and lives of these women died and the biers carrying their bodies had crossed the town’s borders, their women could be seen near at the wells and ponds, dipping their sarees one after another into the waters, and bemoaning their fate – this man’s breath disappeared just like that, in a whiff! Yet I dip and I dip and I wring and I wring, but oh, would the colours on this cloth never bleed?

When the white man’s trading ships docked a few miles north of Mayilapuri, the local tradesmen made contact with them, and when they learned that the overdressed men were looking for more cloth, told them about Thariyur’s fine cotton. One look at the cloth convinced the whites that this was the treasure they had sailed in search of. For the first few years, they sent some of the local traders as middlemen to haggle with the weavers and bring the cloth to them. This cloth was received with tremendous delight in the markets at Southampton and London and Rouen and Paris. Calico skirts and chintz draperies came into fashion. Women wanted them by the yard for their chemises and underskirts. Their voices crying for “More! More!” washed up as waves carrying more ships on the Coromandel coast. The trading company thought it might be a good idea to create an exclusive production facility close to the fort that they were building by the coast. The cloth that would be woven and dyed there would go straight into the cargo holds of their ships. The white traders sent a few messengers to Thariyur, asking whether some of the weaver families could move east to the Fort and settle in its vicinity.

It was a time when that land was ravaged by war and famines, and the people were dying of hunger. There was no stable king or government. The rains had failed that year. Madhiran had buried seven children; he did not want to bury the eighth. He had observed the white folks when they had come to his village once or twice earlier to buy cloth. His sharp eyes were capable of reading men the way his fingers knew cotton. He could immediately tell by the swagger in their walk and the smartness of their clothes that these were not ordinary men. Their bellies swelled with prosperity, bags of money jingled at their waists, their muscles were strong, their eyes looked content. When he heard that if his family would move east to the Fort and weave for the company, they would be fed, clothed and unburdened of tax, he decided within his own young heart that he would go, no matter what. He spoke about his plans into the ears of other young men like him, in undertones, unobserved, behind the cotton bushes where cloth was laid out to dry. The picture he painted about life in the east, by the coast, was so alluring that his band of followers grew. News got out, and reached the ears of the town elders. The elders would have forgiven murder, but not the fact that all their young folks were thinking of cutting ties with their land and way of life, and wanted to unravel and break their unity. Madhiran stood before them, at the head of the group, his child on his shoulder, his wife mutely standing a few feet behind him. They received the town’s curse in silence and walked eastwards, towards the sea.


They walked in dejected silence, unhappy about leaving the only land they had called their own, frightened on hearing the old woman’s curse. Would we be able to weave the cloth that we have weaved for all these centuries? they wondered. Madhiran knew that they would never weave the cloth of their ancestors again. He knew that when the soil, air and water changes, the cotton and the dye change too. Things would no longer be the same. However, he had sense enough to not tell them that. “We are not going to the east just to weave cloth, we are going to the east to weave a city,” he told them. They listened with wide-open eyes, grateful for a story, any story, to relieve the strange burden pressing down upon their hearts. Madhiran started telling them the story of how the first towns and cities came to be.

It was a time when there were no cities and towns, and human beings lived in burrows. It was a time so long ago that there were no colours on the earth. Everything was black or white. We were scared of the world then, and we continued to stay in our disgusting burrows, afraid to even poke our heads out. It was a pity, for we also had wings then, but they were black with grime. We could have flown high in the sky like the birds, but we were like craven chickens, and stuck to the ground. We could have hopped from flower to flower and drunk their nectar like bees, but the flowers were black, and the trees were black, and we are afraid to approach them. We could have lived on the treetops, but we stayed underground and hid in the darkness.

Then one day, the first rainbow emerged in the sky. We had never seen colours before that, we were scared out of our wits. We hid deep in the burrows, certain that some calamity was to befall us. We closed our eyes and took comfort in the darkness. We prayed to our dark gods and huddled together. However, there was one young man among us, who could not forget the colours he had seen. He would close his eyes with his wings, and instead of the darkness he had known and worshipped all those days, his vision was filled with the dance of colours. For many nights after that, he tossed and turned in his sleep, and wondered how it would be if the colours came close to him, if he could touch them, feel them, smell them. The colours from the rainbow wafted through his dreams, and then he knew that he could make his world full of colour and light. He knew with unexplainable certainty that if only he could bring colour to the world, no one would live in burrows anymore, and no one would be scared. They would walk on two legs, and fly through the air, their very being filled with the delight and ecstasy the sight of the colours evoked in him.

He told his friends about his plan. We will wait for a rainbow again, he said. And when that happens, we will fly up towards it, and bring its colours to the earth. The burrow people thought he had gone mad; they were happy with the way they lived, and indeed, many of them had forgotten that they possessed wings at all. However, he managed to convince three others, and the next time the dark clouds and the pale sun came together, they waited at the entrance of their burrows for the rainbow, to emerge. At first sight of her splendid dress, they took off. As they flew higher and higher, the drab earth became smaller and smaller and fell off their feet. The colours of the rainbow shone, they became more real than what they had left behind. The men felt their wings stretch and grow lighter; they felt the wind in their faces and whooped for joy. They had flown so high that they were within reach of the rainbow now; it was trembling gently like many light cloths hanging on a frame, and shone as if with a strange light of its own. They flew through the rainbow; their feathers took on the colours they touched.

On seeing their audacity, the Sky god was outraged. He stretched out one regal leg, and with an almighty kick, sent them all spiraling to the ground. “The colours were meant for the sky; you have stolen them for the earth with your wings! You humans shall no longer have wings!” he cursed. The four men crashed to the ground. They died. Their wings fell off. But wonder of wonders! – everything touched by their feathers gained its own colour. The fruits turned red. The flowers became yellow. The earth that took up green turned into emerald fields. Water that drunk up blue became the sea. The sky fell in love with the blueness of the ocean and took it up as his own colour. The earth wore all the colours and all her treasures revealed themselves to man; however, own skin was still black. But the sight of the earth’s splendor awoke in man’s heart a feeling called beauty. The sky was beautiful, the earth was beautiful, the birds were beautiful, their beaks were beautiful, the trees was beautiful, their dancing leaves were also beautiful. Even when he closed his eyes, he could feel the beauty in his heart. His whole being pulsed with beauty. He was also beautiful, he realized. However, the blackness of his own body repulsed him, for since it reminded him of the darkness he had left behind, it was not beautiful. He spun cotton into softness, and dyed it with all the colours the world gave him, and draped them over his own body, and when he twirled, he felt more beautiful than ever before. After that, human beings emerged out of the burrows and lived in groups amidst beauty, colour and prosperity – green fields, purple mountains, blue rivers, brown earth. Burying their black past underground, they built houses above the ground and lived in them. To distinguish their new lives from the old ways, they decorated their houses with all colours except for the inauspicious black. They dyed cotton and silk and hung them from their tall houses as drapes and curtains. They painted their balconies with colourful motifs, and even dyed the earth at their feet with colours. They celebrated the carnival of life with the auspiciousness of colours; where there were colours, there, there were people, there, there was life. That was how towns and cities were born. Only those of us who know the magic of colours can build a city. And it is such a city that we will be building where we go, concluded Madhiran.

A little girl in their group turned to him with a thoughtful face. “Our ancestress said that the clothes we will dye will always bleed from now. Will the city we weave also bleed like that?” she asked.

Madhiran looked at her inquisitive face. “Cities always bleed,” he said. “It is only because the old Thariyur bled that we are going to go and build our own new Thariyur, you know?”


The town they founded as forty weaver families settling south of the Fort was called Chinna Thariyur, the Little Weaver-Town. Over time, weavers from the surrounding towns bled into Chinna Thariyur, and forty families became four hundred. According to the dialect of that land, the name of the town changed to Chinnatharipettai. If you visited Chinnatharipettai in those days, you would find cotton cloths of all colours hanging from the looms, swaying in the sea breeze. On the looms of Little Weaver-Town, an entire city, a civilization, a way of life was born. Pristine white cloth, the finest linen, became the Fort, and when it mellowed and yellowed, it became George Town. The same cloth dyed black became the Black Town. Cotton in mango-yellow became Ezhumbur; in all shades of green, it became Purasai, cloth coloured lotus-pink became Thiruallikeni, and in peacock-blue, it became Mayilapuri. When all these towns came under the white man’s crown, he made the weavers weave them all into a city and called it Madras, in honour of the first weaver of the city. The cloth that had found the city was also called Madras by him. Madras plaids were world-famous by then. But who knows – was it is the seawater, the salt in the air, or the curse on the heads of the Madras weavers? Their prized, colourfast cotton had, just as the old crone had prophesied, started to bleed. The brilliance of the colours disappeared in one wash. Nevertheless, the faded colours appeared stately and the cloth was just as soft, so the demand for Madras did not change.

Madras grew, adding more colours to the cloth on the loom. The towns in Arcot, Mysore, Andhra, and the Chola-Pandiya lands bled copiously in the following decades. People were flowing into Madras. Chettis, Padayachis, Nadars, Mudalis, Paraiyans and Paarpans, Muslims and Christians, Northerners and Easterners, Armenians and Anglo-Indians, all broke free from the roots of their lands and like ants, moved towards Madras in search of a new life. Each person – man, woman, child, was a new colour on the loom of Madras, and they were all woven side by side on the giant tapestry of the city. Many tongues were spoken. People of all shades, for the first time in history, started to live together in the same settlements.

But when cities are born, it is not just the colours that bleed and run into each other. Tears, blood, sweat, they bleed too. A town, a city, an empire – even it is an empire the sun never sets on – tell me, who is answerable for the blood that is spilled to build it? Whose curse willed it? Who will take the responsibility?

After India became independent, after Madras became Chennai, after the old looms of the city got locked up in museums, Madras is evoked as an emotion, a way of life. One day out of the year is observed for Madras; groups of people undertake Heritage Walks every day in the city. The Fort and the High Court and the Chepauk Palace and the Ripon Building are held up as specimens of Old Madras’ colonial glory. We take a collective sigh of pleasure in remembering the history of this city. We built this, our forefathers built this, this is our history, this is our treasure, us heritage walkers say. Each caste clutches the thread of their colour and begins a journey into the past, tracing their glory on the tapestry of the city. But I ask them this – can we say which cloth bleeds to make this city what it is today? Which colour bleeds into the walls of this city? Whose blood stains its glorious past? What colour bled through Madras’s port to Fiji and Jamaica, Singapore and Malaysia, to plant and sprout towns there? What is the colour of the little Madras that has sprouted on the Pacific coast?  What colour bleeds into the Madras that is Chennai, and tints our malls and storefronts, makes the ECR flourish, builds our real estate? What is the colour of the blood that still runs on its streets, and flushes into the Koovam?


In the 1950s, there was an American businessman who was fascinated by Madras plaids. A trader from Madras sold him yards and yards of Madras plaid cloth. However, the American did not pay attention when the Madras trader told him that Madras bleeds. The American businessman went home and sold his purchases for a huge profit to a clothing store called Brooks’ Brothers, but they were not at all pleased when they realized that the cloth bled colour. What a huge loss, they rued.

Their fortunes were however turned on their head by a clever advertiser called David Oglivy. He wrote the copy – “This cloth is handmade by the skilled fingers of Indian weavers who pour their sweat and blood and tears into the making of this cloth. They dye this cloth with the finest of all-natural colours. There is no cloth on earth that is softer than Madras. Guaranteed to bleed!” His ad campaign made the American people believe that the bleeding colours of the cloth signified the hard work and handicraft that had gone into the making of it. They were not buying just cloth; they were buying the work and craft of an exotic land. The same cloth was used as lungis by the rickshaw-pullers of Madras went into the making of shirts and pants and ties, marketed at the American upper class white males. They were sold at an exorbitant price, for they were not just buying cloth, but cloth that was guaranteed to bleed. That cloth is still called Bleeding Madras.


There is an apocryphal tale that somewhere in Yale University, there hangs a square of Madras cloth in memory of Eluhi Yale, former President of the British East India Company, a philanthropist and slave trader, who was born in the city. I have heard it said, but I don’t know how true the tale is – that there is a trail of black colour that continues to bleed from that square; that all attempts to stop the bleed over the years failed; that the frame has been cleverly constructed to stop people from noticing the ugly bleed.

Bleeding Madras, is still bleeding.

To Goldmund, from Narcissus


The morning will see you thrown upon the twisting paths

With the first light as your only guide

And the raging wind for your only friend.

The fork lies ahead, friend, and as you know

you shall go east and I shall go west.


The earth is your mother, the sky

Your father, every man you meet

A brother, comrade, and every woman

A moonly muse, the colors, the sighs

The scents, the tastes, the delights, Goldmund,

All yours.


You are no thinker, you have no use for

The logic of how your world works, for it is

But a poor substitute to the raging, pining

Heart that you are all of, Goldmund

Your artist’s heart.


Words are wasted on you, Goldmund, you feel

The anguish behind the poor shape of the words

That created those very words in the first place.

You are fiery passion, not for you

The subtlety of the exaltation

Of a head bowed in prayer.


You are a mother’s son, your head

Still resides in the folds of Her bosom.

Find you voice, dear Goldmund, find it

Not to speak words of inanity, not to

Translate your thoughts into language

But to sing those ancient melodies

The heartbeat of Life

Your mother’s song.

You will learn to sing, Goldmund.

Go forth into the large, lost world

And soak yourself in it.

Leave nothing unturned.

Make your peace with your nature

And revel in your freedom.

Feel it all, the pain

Of too much joy, the fleeting

shudder of the snowflake as she

Dies on your cheek, the anguish

Of birth, the fear of being stalked

by the reaper’s scythe, the emptiness

of life, the meaningless meander

The walk without a goal,

Do it all, feel it all.


You will remain unspoiled, I know.


And one day, when we are old men

Visit my cloister

And tell me your tale,

for I cannot join you

For your path is yours

and yours only.


Fare you well, amicus.


Inspired by Hermann Hesse’s ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ 

Short story – Just a Dream

The best part was that I knew it was a dream, through and through. The car ride. The mountain. The mounds of sand. I was even able to remember details, strange for a dream. I was able to recall the strong smell of the diesel in the car, the heat shimmering from the sand. I was able to taste the bile in my mouth. I was able to feel the sweat breaking out on my forehead.

It started in a room. A room with whitewashed walls. Red files neatly stacked in a shelf near where we sat. It was ‘we’, I knew so much. At least in that room. The flat tube-light with its stark white light and faintly pink edges.

The car now. We are in the car. Who is ‘we’? I can sense that a woman with bobbed hair is driving the car. She is ‘Mother’. That is what I call her. Not mine, but ‘Mother’ nevertheless. The red Wagon R moves slowly between the arches created by the leafless branches of the birch trees. Down the path, the leafless path. It is threatening to pour with rain any moment. Mother talks, volubly, like never before. He answers her. I chip in occasionally, monosyllabically. My mind is elsewhere. I have to go, I know, even if it is just a dream. But where?

I am driving now. Alone. That old white Fiat we had, once upon a time. MCZ 4129. Forty-one twenty-nine. The car I learnt to drive in. I am driving and there is a mountain visible in the distance. If I cross the mountain, everything will be OK. But will I cross it? Will I? There is sand on all sides. I drive. Like a maniac, I drive through the sand. The oppressive heat gets to me. Bright sun. Hot. Hot.

A stone. My windshield has a beautiful crack on it. Like a spider web. Another one. The third is a sharp one, ripping the front tire. Car skids to a halt. I know I have to get out, yet I stay in. I am shaking. Like a peepal leaf, I am shaking. The next stone finds the window next to where I am sitting. I open the door, shaking. “It is just a dream” I tell myself. “Just a dream.” My words of reason do not stop me from trembling.

The man who I knew was waiting outside is still half buried in the sand. I take tottering steps towards him. His matted hair hangs in strands around his bloodshot eyes and he white hair on his bare body is mixed with the wet sand. How can he be like this in this place, I wonder. I know I am afraid. Fear makes my tongue go dry, my eyes pop out.

However, the most frightening thing about his appearance is the vague familiarity of his face. I cannot place him, yet I know that I know him. The hot afternoon sun rains upon this strange scene. As I walk towards him, he pushes himself out of the sand and looks at me. There is an ironic smile on his face. He shakes the sand out of his air. I can read the promise in his eyes, and it scares me out of my wits. “Just a dream,” I tell myself. “Just a dream.” I close my eyes to the brightness.

I wipe the bead of sweat from my brow. I open my eyes with a start. Darkness. Finally, thankfully, darkness. I’m shaking so much that I almost can’t feel the hand holding mine and the other hand stroking my head. “That was just a dream. Just a dream.” The voice is thankfully familiar, thankfully soothing. Holding on to a finger from the hands, just one, I blink back the sleepy tears and go to sleep.

In the morning, I wake up when the sun pierces through the chinks in the closed curtains. Another day. I fold the blanket, my blanket, and move into the bathroom. I reach out for the toothbrush in the rack overhead, brush my teeth and place the brush back it the empty stand. I open the curtains to allow light into my room, my room with the long bed, the solitary table, the chair that goes with it. I open the closet, filled with clothes, mine, to pick out something to wear for the day. I walk into the kitchen. I make a single mug of coffee, and get the day’s newspaper. Sitting alone in my balcony, reading the news, sipping the coffee, I tell myself, “Just a dream.”

Fiction: The Kurukshetra Premier League


Lord Vinayaka, the elephant-headed god, the destroyer of evil, was reclining comfortably on his sofa on Mount Kailash after a heavy afternoon meal. After all, people insisted on treating him every single day with everything from coconuts to kozhukattais. No wonder, he mused, that Dr. Dhanvantri kept telling him to get more exercise on the treadmill. “But each to their own…no one will recognize me if I develop six pack abs” Vinayaka could not help laughing out loud at the imagined sight. He did ride a mouse for all his bulk, but somehow he could not imagine mice running down his arms as he flexed them!

Veda Vyasa was huffing and puffing as he approached Vinayaka. “O pot-bellied one, I bow to thee,” said Vyasa, starting with the customary greeting. Vinayaka smothered a grin, and patting his belly contentedly with the end of his trunk, bade Vyasa to sit down. “Tsk tsk. Vyasa, you are always out of breath. You need some regular exercise. Now, the treadmill…” he said impishly.

Vyasa did not hear him. “My lord, there is a small cause for concern,” started Vyasa without preamble. “You remember the time you out wrote out the Mahabharata for me?”

How can I forget?” muttered Vinayaka. “Tongue twisting poetry, almost broke my fingers, and my last instalment of pay never really reached me…yes, sire, I do remember it. What about it now?”

“The thing is, those humans have unearthed some recent archeological evidence that actually goes to prove that the war at Kurukshetra never really happened.”

“What? So do you mean to say you made the whole story up?”

“No, no, my lord, back then those were facts.  But now, in the light of the new evidence, something to do with Secularization of  Historical Facts or some such thing we have to write it out again to pull in the new facts. Yesterday’s facts are today’s mythology, you know. Our old version gets support only from the VHP, and a half-hearted nod from the BJP.  But now in the light of the election results, it looks like they need a new secular epic now, to accommodate the fresh, ah, evidence. I really don’t understand modern Indian politics or history. It looks like historical evidence can now be conveniently arranged for, just like votes. The bottomline is that we have to make a revision of the epic. Soon.”


“Well, I was wondering if you could be my scribe again. We have a really good rapport. And with my beautiful poetry and distinctive phraseology and deep metaphorical allusions and character delineation, and with your…aah…tusk, we made up a good team the last time around.”

“All right, cut the crap and tell me what you would be paying this time around. I am not a mere copywriter any more, and I use my broken tusk only to decorate my hallway. I use a computer, complete with pirated Microsoft software, and I hope your dictation is as fast as my typing speed. And you would have to correct the typographical errors. I don’t do that anymore.”

 “Sure, sure, whatever, your terms. We have to get this done. We will receive funding from the Department of Religious Endowments and also from the Department of Correction of Historical Inaccuracies. And think of the fame…once we are done writing we can have a proper book release, with an evening tea, complete with those tiny biscuits with topping on them and champagne. All the Page Three glitterati would be there, and you might actually get a picture of yourself in the next morning’s Mites of India surrounded by beautiful ladies. I can almost see the headline … ‘The Elephant God’s Animal Magnetism.’ And the media watchdogs…they’d love the buzz you would create…remember the hype over the time you supposedly drank milk in some temple?  You’ll have all these ‘Breaking News’ updates just to yourself. Think, think of all that,” Vyasa was at the edge of his seat now. He could see that Vinayaka was almost sold.

“Welllllll….” drawled Vinayaka. “I’ll do it. But mind you, I want half the pay upfront and the rest before I give you the final version.”  

“Alright, fine. Like I have any other option. So let’s get this rolling right away, what say?”

“Alright, give me the one-liner. How is this going?”

“Well, the basics are pretty much the same. The Pandavas, the Kauravas, rival gangs, hate each other… anyway, the Pandavas are at Indraprastha when the Kauravas invite them over for a game of poker.”


 “Yeah, the recent evidence shows that the ancient Indians invented poker.”

“Eh? You’re not kidding? Well, I’m just the scribe. Ok, game of poker. And?”

“Well, Yudhishtira as we know is one preachy face; he cannot play the game, and he cannot say ‘no’ either. So he plays, pledges every damn thing he owns, or thinks he owns, and loses.”

“OK, and they go to the forest next?”

“Yeah, the thirteen year banishment.”

“So what next? The war, right?”

“That’s where there’s a change. Now listen closely. We Indians are supposed to be a peaceful race. Having a war that killed so many innocent people as a part of our mythology supposedly gives us this bad image on the world scale. Well anyway, they have unearthed new evidence now. What actually happened is this.”

Vyasa paused.

“Because of the huge casualties involved in war, Krishna and Bhishma chalked out a plan. They decided to replace war… with a game of cricket. A really short one at that. Only 20 overs. The team that wins the game gets the empire. The team that loses has to retire ignominiously into the forest, loses all right to hold a credit card, claim insurance and appear on reality TV shows. End of all civilized life!”

Vinayaka’s trunk dropped.

“Well?” asked Vyasa, pleased with the effect he had created.

“Well, what? First poker, now cricket? Mahabharata was in the post-Vedic Age. Cricket was invented by the Englishmen in the 12th century AD. And besides, if we release this book, Ashutosh Gowarikar is going to sue us.”

“No, no, no…that’s where you are wrong. Cricket was not invented by the British, it was invented by the Indians in the Vedic period. Later, it was carried to Europe by the nomads along the Silk Route. That’s what the new evidence says. ”

“Isn’t this, well … too much to swallow?”

“That’s where we come in, my lord. We have to convince them with our story,” Vyasa pumped his fist into the air. “Yeah!”

Vinayaka rolled his beady eyes. “Why do I ever let myself get talked into these things?” His large ears twitched.


Vinayaka opened his laptop, and started reading a few pages from his newly written manuscript to Vyasa.

Draupadi sat on the window sill, her hair hanging around her shoulders, chin cupped in her hands, staring out of the window. There was a peculiar expression of irritation on her face; the reader might imagine the physiognomy of Impedimenta in the Asterix comics as an approximation.

Yudhishtira, not really unlike Vitastatistix , walked to her, and asked her, “Is that brother of yours here yet?”

“If he were here, we would know, wouldn’t we? What kind of a question is that?” she snapped back irritably.

“Alright, alright, alright, I know you are still angry about what happened…but now that there’s the cricket match coming up, we will clobber them for good.”

“That’s exactly what you said when you were putting your last stake on the table. Fool that you are, you could not see a straight flush when it stares up at you in your face”

“Er…oh, here he is. Hel-lo Drishtadymna!”

Drishtadyumna came in, impeccably dressed in a conservative blue suit with a striped tie, laptop bag in one hand.”

“Hey, brother, howdy. I have the perfect strategy devised to clobber the Kauravas for good.”

“Humph!” said Draupadi, turning away. “Men!”

“Hey, hey, sis, your big brother is a management consultant. Straight out of IIM Ahmedabad!”

He winked, and Yudhishtra rolled his eyes. How many times did he have to be reminded? “Don’t you worry, we will chalk out the most perfect plan to wreck revenge on those evil cousins of yours.”

Yudhishtira said, “Fine, let’s get started. They want a cricket match now?”

“20-20.” said Drishtadyumna with smug satisfaction. “It’s called Kurukshetra Premier League. KPL for short.”

“Us against them, huh?”

“Yes and no. We are supposed to make up a team of eleven comprising players from all our allies, give it a name, find a brand ambassador, arrange for cheerleaders, advertise our team, appear in as many branded ads as possible, appear on TV and be interviewed by that hot newscaster on TenDTV, slander some member of the other team, if possible, slap him before the match, and in general, be as popular as possible. It matters, the ratings.”

“And…play the match?”

“Yeah. That too. Eventually. But what’s more important is the pre-match strategizing. You are lucky to have a management consultant, don’t you? Straight out of…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know that bit. So what is the Kaurava team calling itself?” 

“Well, they are called Hastinapur Headhunters.”

“Hastinapur…Headhunters? That’s… not really a name now, is it?”

“It is, and apparently it is supposed to instill fear into our hearts.”

“Right. I’m trembling in my shoes. So, what are we calling ourselves?”

“Indraprastha Indefagitables”

“Eh??? You out of your mind? What kind of a name is that? Indefagitables? What next? Vegetables? Card tables? No, no, no,  Draupadi dear, I’m not saying anything about playing cards now…that was just an expression…” after an apologetic nod to his wife who was looking daggers at him, he hissed to Drishtadyumna “How did you come up with a name like that?”

“Well, sire, according to KPL protocol the names of the teams must alliterate; it does not help matters that Veda Vyasa who designed the protocol is a poet. We cannot call ourselves Indraprastha Super Kings even if we are real super-duper kings. And, I flicked through the dictionary for a suitable adjective.” Drishtadyumna shrugged his shoulders. “If you would rather have it Indraprastha Incorrigibles or Indraprastha Inebriated, I don’t have a problem.”

“Humph! Technically we don’t own Indraprastha or any bit of land for that matter. We belong to Nowhere.”

“Well, if you want we can call ourselves the Nowhere Nondescripts or the Nowhere Nutcrackers…”

“I’ll crack yours if you give me any more of those dumb names…well, with a name like Drishtadyumna you would want revenge, but don’t wreck it on my team.” Yudhishtira was incensed. This is the last time I am hiring a management consultant, and this is the absolute last time that I am hiring a brother-in-law. “Seeing that we are nearly penniless, who is sponsoring us?”

“Lord Indra. I got all the papers drawn up, all that is required is for the two of you to sign. Just a small issue…” Drishtadyumna paused. “Being Arjuna’s father, he wants Arjuna to captain the team.”

Before Yudhishtra could say a word, Draupadi chimed in with “Finally! Someone sane at the helm!”

Yudhishtra gave her a glare, and said “Well…so long as we get our funding straight. And who is funding the Kauravas? The…ah…Headhunters?”

“They approached Lord Kubera first. But he wanted the team to call themselves the Queenfishers after his…um…distilled foods plant.”


“Why not? If one can fish for kings, why not queens? He’s a feminist, you know.”

“So what happened to the deal with Kubera?”

“It’s off. Some issue about the selection of players. You know how bull headed Duryodhana can get.”

“So who’s their ambassador now?”

“Varuna Deva, the god of water and rain. Nobody else was remotely interested.”

“Hmm… whatever. So when’s the match?”

“In a couple of weeks from now. At the Kurukshetra stadium. But we need to get all the publicity shots in before then.”

“Is our team line up decided?”

“Oh yes.” Drishtadyumna booted up his laptop to open a powerpoint presentation. “Arjuna is captaining, opening batsmen are Arjuna and myself. You can have a look for yourself. Bhima’s our principal bowling attack, with Ghatotkacha supporting. Abhimanyu in the middle order. You are the wicket keeper.”

“Let’s hope he keeps at least that well” muttered Draupadi.

“Hang on.” said Yudhishtira, looking at a slide showing eleven people lined up like Ceaser’s army. “What do these slides show? Who are those people?”

“Why, it is yourself and your revered brothers, sire.”

“And why is it that we cannot recognize ourselves?”

“You have been given a virtual makeover. That is how you are going to play. Once you okay this, we are going to get the make-up artistes from the sets of Dasavatharam to get it rolling.”

“What else?” asked Yudhishtira sarcastically.

“Well, I have booked four interviews, and we need to get the hoardings done. Plus the meeting with the cheerleaders. Arjuna’s getting a lot of offers for modelling, but we have to be selective and exclusive, haven’t we?”

“Right. So when do we practice?”

“Practice? Um…my schedule does not really have any provision for it, but I am sure we can fit it in somewhere in between.”

Yudhishtra raised his head to the heavens. “With friends like this, who needs the Kauravas?”


Vinayaka paused reading and said, “That’s how far I have got. How’s it?”

“Not bad at all” said Vyasa, effusively. “That modern Indian newspaper reader will love it.”

“So, tell me, what happens next? I’m looking forward to being a sports writer!”

“Oh, that’s bad. You see, the match did not take place.”

“Eh? But why?”

“Called off due to incessant rain. A couple of days before the match, Indra and Varuna got into a spat over a drink. Something about an ad that Arjuna was modeling for; Varuna made a rather unparliamentary comment about it, but Arjuna did model for a fairness cream for men”


“There was a huge fight. Indra and Varuna trying to outdo the other. Varuna rained so hard that the Ganga and Krishna and Kaveri flowed together; the entire land was inundated. Indra responded with such fierce thunderbolts that the entire armory…er…playing equipments of both teams were destroyed. Even the bloodthirsty Kauravas were horrified at the extent of damage these two, alone, caused. So, they decided to call the match off.”

“And what about the partitioning of the land?”

“What land? It was completely a water mass. Took centuries to drain. Nobody wanted it any more.”

“So what are the Pandavas doing now?’

“Arjuna is a professional cricketer now, highest bid-for player on the IPL, the modern version of KPL. Bhima is a top notch star at the WWE, only he calls himself Mincemeat Pulpsquisher. Nakula, with his impeccable good looks, made a career for himself in Bollywood. He’s even got his own blog now where he clarifies points about his racy-pacey past. Sahadeva, the intelligent one, went to engineering school and management school, but quit his job to become a writer of alternative mythology. He’s a best-selling author now. Draupadi has a personalized fashion line; she writes 15,000-word posts on her Instagram saree page about how buying her sarees will make you a feminist.

“And Yudhishtra?”

“Well, he’s the one commissioning the writing of this book. He’s the Prime Minister of the country.”

Lines on the back of a peepal leaf

It was under the blue sky, yes, the same blue sky that roofs yourself and myself, the blue sky under which we have spent so many happy hours unmindful of its very existence, it was right under the blue sky that I got your message written on the peepal leaf scroll.

I was in the brown walled courtyard opening up to the sky, and I found your scroll when the wind put it into my arms. What I was doing there, why I was given the scroll, how I knew it was from you, I cannot say. I am describing a dream, you know. Like it is the way with all the dreams and the nightmares, the details are tweezed out with almost a cruel perfection, leaving only a blur at the edges. And the blur is perhaps the only reason that the essence is embossed upon the memory, and haunts the living daylights out of one. Which is why I attempt to capture the essence in the poorly shaped container of words…like trying to trap a gas in a liquid.

The peepal leaves I held in my hand were brown, fading, but almost perfect in its state of preservation. As if they had been curled and born on the bark and died and withered and windswept into your arms, just to bear this message you had to write to me. Stitched on one end, the broad upper curves. Stitched neatly too. You never told me you could stitch? But then there is so much more that you never told me. Not that I ever asked, of course. It was an original idea, I agree, making scrolls out of peepal leaves. You know I like leaves and trees and earth and soil and such abstractions. Was it why you had chosen to write that last message of farewell on leaves and give it to me? So that when the leaves fade, my memory of you would fade too? Or when the leaves wither into the everything-ness (as opposed to nothingness) of the earth as we know it, my memory of you would also move, expand and fill the earth with itself? So that there would be no memories left with me, I would bequeath them to everything and everywhere?

Don’t make me laugh, please, I am trying hard to cry over you. When the Sun torments the Earth, it is best that the Rain comes in to quench the pain. For whatever I may say about the nature of things being such and such, it is the Sun’s nature to burn merrily, and the Earth’s to bear with patience and fortitude, that there is peace in that, I am afraid that we may be taking things too far. Even the sharp reality of the dream only succeeded in making my heart, yes, Heart, heavy, heavier than I have ever known, but I could not weep and grieve, either for you or for me. Your calm denouncement of your Death, the suicide of our ‘I’, my sense of having ‘lost’ you, only gives me a profound sense of Destiny, of heavy rivers swelling and taking their course, bypassing the long roots from the wayside trees dipping into it, drinking from it. Not a thought does the river spare for the bystanders!

But then why does your water sweep the leaves off my arms and take them downstream to show them the salty oceans and the sunsets there? Is it on one of these leaves that you write your message of farewell and send them over, from wherever it is that you are? So that it is a double punch…one message of eternal farewell with the words in the letter, and another in the leaf, my leaf that bears the message, now returned to me? So that I cannot even deceive myself any further with illusions of you having them as a keepsake? 

You know me. You know that I cannot dream of denying you the right to your Life, the right to a lack of it, if only you wish it. You also know that you cannot deny me a right to mine. Whatever interaction we have had, whatever relationship we share, whatever prompted you to write a message of ‘farewell’ to me because you have gone away, forever, is all based on this unspoken fundamental. With such an understanding, what is the meaning of the lines you write to me, on the back of a peepal leaf? What farewell are you referring to? I know that you always fare me well, but must you underscore that in red ink on the back of a peepal leaf and let it flutter across the courtyard, under our blue sky, just because your Life as you know it is lost to you? Are you telling me, trying to tell me, that is, that you are forever lost to me and I to you, just because you are dead? Don’t I still have you, here, with me, now and forever, whether you live or die or hang between heaven and earth?

I do. And now, now, I realize what the farewell was all about. Maybe it was not that you were bidding farewell to me at all. You are just taking leave of that part of you that you have left behind in me. And when I let this peepal leaf flutter back with the wind, telling Him to take it where it wills, I am saying goodbye too, another goodbye, to the part of me that shall forever be yours. We are characterized by the losses we have suffered, only my loss is not you, it is myself. And with that loss, that goodbye, I welcome a new Me in me. The Me with the permanent citizen, You. Welcome, friend.

From the top of the lighthouse

I am the light
That shines in a stream
Across the sands of the beach,
Making the grains glimmer.
Running in circles
I shine on, to penetrate
To the end of the endless sky
Till the depths of the ocean’s profundity.
From the heights of the clouds
To the heads in the crowds
I look, I peek, I search, I seek.
My circles, they seem eternal;
I seek their culmination.
Myself, I seem shallow
I seek my depth.

Looking beyond me
To find myself;
Looking into the heart of the city
And the crests of the waves…
I guide the sailor on the mast.
The city that sleeps, I awake
In the prelude to dawn.
I look at thee, to find me
You look at me, and find you!
My search, unto me, 
Yet my light, you see.
Call me a ‘beacon’, you do
For I have shown your way to you
Your security, I secure
While my lack of it, I endure.

Necker cube

Once upon a time – don’t ask me why all stories have to have taken place at some definite time in the past – my story is timeless, I think. Still, for the sake of tradition, I say ‘once upon a time’. To resume, once upon a time, there was a woman, not unlike a certain person who refers to someone she knows as a ‘certain person’ while writing her little stories. I cannot tell you what she was like, for I don’t know it myself, and do we ever really know? But I know one small titbit from the history that her life was, and that is what I am going to recount to you.

This woman, one evening, was in conversation with her brothers. In the course of their exchanges, the girl happened to ask her brothers how long they would be around for her. The wise men knew, if not the exact answer, what answer they should not give, what hopes they should not stoke, what facts they could not hide. They spoke the truth, in a matter of fact voice, like they always did.

The woman heard the answer spoken, and asked her next natural question. She wanted to know whether there would be anyone with her till she was.

Her brothers knew the answer, because they had heard men who knew speak about it. They tried telling their sister what they knew, but she refused to believe it, because she saw that the voices of her brothers lacked conviction, and thought if their words were so flimsy that they could not believe it themselves, then why she should do it.

The brothers wanted to prove to the sister the truth of their words, and the sister wanted to know the truth. So they decided to approach a man who was known to know a lot of answers. They would take their question to him, they thought, and see whether he had the answer in his bag-of-answers.

It would be difficult to approach this man, though. He was and exceedingly busy man. His schedule was completely packed for most of the day, and he was constantly meeting people, mostly new ones, every single day. His mind would be filled with the details of all these people, and the bits of information they chose to bring to him, and all that he chose to take in. No, our people were not sure if they would get an appointment. For the appointment of a recluse, is the most difficult appointment to obtain.

Nevertheless, they managed to get five minutes of his time, and the woman put forth her question to him.

“Is there anyone on earth who will be with me forever?”

The great man thought for a moment, and replied, almost instantaneously: “No”

“But I am afraid to go on with so much uncertainty. When there is no definite end to anything, then why should I do what I do? Nothing matters anyway, not me, nor you. And this kind of apathy scares me. Can you please tell me why?”

“It was never meant to be that way. We were born alone and we go alone. It is a law of nature. What is there to fear?”

“The fact that everything seems so important, but nothing really is. Then, why should we do anything? What is the need, what is the desire, what is the will? There is a huge ‘why’ that looms above me. And that ‘why’ seems pointless.”

The great man then said, “It looks like you have not yet learnt to live with detachment. Your fear is but a consequence of that. I’ll give you a proposition. You be my secretary for the next month, live with me, and see what I do. I am sure you will get your answers by the end of the month.”

And so, the brothers left their sister with the man, secretly relieved.

The woman began her internship with her mentor. Her work involved making his schedule for each day, a week in advance, and making sure he stuck to his schedule. Added to this, she had to make sure that he took his meals at regularly spaced times every day, was on time for his insulin shots and was not disturbed when spoke with his wife for fifteen minutes, every morning, the only time of the day he spoke to her. For all this, she was paid in his time; she got an hour to talk to him at the end of every day. However, she hardly made use of this time for actually talking, and let him use his leisure hour as he usually used it.

No, her lessons were from observation. She saw the enormous number of people who spoke to this man every day. She made memorandums of their lives, as they told it to her, to be passed on to him. She got down names and addresses and other ways and means to contact all these people. She saw her mentor engrossed in the affairs of these people, twenty four by seven, learning about everyday horrors, yet eating his food with relish at the end of the day as if he had been born for the sole purpose of finishing that single meal.

She saw him address an old woman he had never set his eyes on before, and his eldest son, with the same warmth, the same equanimity. She saw him impervious to the circumstances of birth and death, of the vagaries of bonds and estrangement.

That night (it was almost three weeks since she had first come there) she addressed him during the one hour he had given to her: “How are you able to be that way? Don’t you feel pride when those people greet you and wish you and adore you? Don’t you feel joy when you speak to your wife and son? Don’t you feel dread when you know that all this is fleeting, and will soon be gone? Don’t you think of what you will do then, how you will sit and think back and feel everything all over again, only it will all be a memory, a have-been? How are you able to create all this, knowing well that it has to definitely go someday?”

The man replied: “Why is it that you have not spoken a word to me, about what you seek me about, all this time, but do so now?”

“I was biding my time. I was observing. There is more sense in silent observation and then talking than in empty talk.”

“Ah! That is exactly what I am doing. I am observing as well, except on a much grander scale.”

The woman said nothing, but looked back, waiting.

“You ask me,” resumed the man. “You ask me about joys and sorrows which are momentary and elusive. But then, is anything not elusive? No, as I told you on the first day you were here. You ask me what sense there is in creating something that is going to go. I ask you, when you know everything, everything, is going to go, what is there to lose?  There is equal chance for everything to go on the rocks, which seems to be their ultimate fate. So why not have it and enjoy it while it lasts?”

He paused.

“To me, everything I see is like an experiment. I have to account for the results, only to myself. So, I observe. I see what happens, I see what does not happen. It’s a poor hobby maybe, but it answers, for me, the questions that you ask.”

“But what about people? Why are they there? Is there any sense in allowing them to be there when you know that they will not be there always? Why this deception?”

The man laughed.

“People? All your people are all you. What you see of your people are what you see, nothing more, nothing less. So, does it not figure that so long as you are around they will be too?”

He continued: “You may wonder at the fact that I spend so little time with my family, that I am continually obsessed with the random lives of random people, including yours. Does this mean I don’t like them, that they mean nothing to me? Of course not. But don’t you realise, it’s all to do with me? Does it matter where they are, what they do and what they think, so long as I have their image with me?”

The woman said, “You care, don’t you?”

“Who said I don’t care? I perhaps care more than anyone else, and that is the reason why I am able to speak this way.”

“So nobody is definitely going to be around for me, for me, till I am here, except myself?”

“Nobody. Or everybody. Depends on how you see it.”

“A perfect Necker cube.” She laughed.



The woman’s internship was over, and she packed her bags to return, if not with all the answers, at least with the means to find them. Which was good enough.

She thanked her mentor for his help, and set out to leave.

After she had gone, the man sat back down.

He thought about the past month, the silent efficiency of the woman, her keen observatory powers that he had observed, and her persistence in fulfilling the goal with which she had come to him. His schedules had been run smoothly for the past month. He had enjoyed having her around.

And now she was gone.

He gave a short laugh, and returned to his work.