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.

Translation: Periyamma’s Words

(Translation of Jeyamohan’s short story பெரியம்மாவின் சொற்கள்.
This story won Asymptote magazine’s 2017 Close Approximations translation fiction prize, as judged by David Bellos)
Come, go, stop, food, clothes, son, daughter, road, house, sky, earth, night, day—these words came rather easily to her. If I said those words in Tamil, Periyamma would reply with the corresponding English words. It was only when Periyamma jumped to say ‘cat’ before I could say poo– that I realized I was quizzing her in order. So I changed the order. But then Periyamma started saying the English words just by looking at my eyes. So I pointed at different animals and asked what they were. Periyamma said naaipoonaikozhi in Tamil and then translated them—‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ ‘hen.’ It was only after Periyamma had mastered a hundred basic words—she would say them even before I could ask—that I moved on to concepts. That was when all hell broke loose.

Periyamma was not my periy-amma, big-mother, a name usually reserved for one’s maternal aunt. But everybody in our town called her that. Her house, they called the Big House. Situated in the town centre, that bungalow was built by Periyamma’s grandfather Thiruvadiya Pillai a hundred and fifty years ago. The word about town is that when it was built, the glass for the house sailed in from Belgium, the teak came from Burma, the marble from Italy, and the iron from England. The people who came to grind limestone for its walls stayed on permanently in our town, and as a result our town acquired a Lime Street. Our carpenters also moved in during that period. Periyamma’s wedding took place in that bungalow. That was the first time a mottaar came to our town. The newlyweds were paraded about town in that Ford motor car. Periyamma was not to step foot into that car ever again.

It has been forty years since Periyamma’s husband passed away. Her only son Arumugam Pillai had been a lawyer in Madurai, and he died there. His four sons were variously placed in Chennai and Delhi and Calcutta. None of them are alive now. A daughter of the oldest grandson is a doctor in America. She is the only person who has some semblance of a relationship to Periyamma. Periyamma went on living in that town, an ancient relic in the eyes of its fourth-generation inhabitants. In the olden days their family had six thousand acres of land to their name. Over the years, it had shrunk in various ways to a hundred acres. Those hundred acres had been neatly partitioned and sold over thirty years ago. In the end, all that was left over for Periyamma was that house, two acres of land around it, a good sum in the bank, and her jewelry. But that was more than enough for her to live in state.

Ever since my mother could remember, Periyamma lived in that bungalow with three servants, but alone otherwise. Even as the day dawned, she could be found standing in her courtyard and ordering her servants around in a loud voice. Every evening there would be a recitation session from the epics at the little wooden temple in her house. Muthusamy Pulavar would specially come to recite the verses for Periyamma. Earlier, his father used to do the honours. Following this session, there was usually a bhajanai, a vociferous group-singing session with much clapping of hands. Finally, there was the distribution of eats as sacred offering—the savoury sundal, the sweet sarkkarai pongal, bananas, puffed rice. I did not miss a single day of this when I was a kid.

Their house was built on a plinth so high that it rose well above the head of a standing man. There were eight huge steps carved in stone in the front and rear of the house. Once when Periyamma went to the backyard to wash her hands, she got dizzy, fainted, fell, injured herself, and lay in bed for eight months. Her great-granddaughter in America arranged for doctors to visit her regularly. Though she had begun to limp back to health, it was clear that things couldn’t go on as before. That sickbed changed Periyamma’s heart. The woman who had declared that she would never leave her house for all those years prepared herself to go and live in America with her great-granddaughter.

However, the great-granddaughter’s husband was a white American. All four of her children, two boys, two girls, were white. The great-granddaughter did not speak Tamil herself. I had an M.A. in English Literature—obtained through a distance-learning “correspondence” course—and was working in the town as a teacher and office assistant in a small school. The great-granddaughter emailed me, asking me if I could teach Periyamma some basic English. I was the only person from my town who was in touch with her. Buyers were coming with brokers to buy the house and break it up for sale. Arrangements for the visa were being made.

I was given three months. Within the first two months, I was able to teach Periyamma many words. Periyamma was astonished by the fact that the tiny kosu was a terrifying species called a ‘mosquito’ in English. She thought that the utterly feminine madhulampazham in Tamil turned robust and manly when it became ‘pomegranate’ in English. But she liked ‘umbrella’ more than kudai. This was because, lest she forget umbrella, I had told her the story of Cinderella. ‘Banana’ was like a question to her (bana-na?), mango seemed to be a word of welcome (mango!), and potato was like a muttered grumble (potato . . . !). In anticipation of these little puffs of surprise, Periyamma, after an early bath, waited for my arrival at eight o’clock every day, clad in nothing but a plain white saree and stripes of sacred ash on her forehead and her bare, blouseless shoulders.

Her English lessons were turning out to be the greatest delights of her life. This was because Periyamma had never gone to school. She did not know how to read or write even in Tamil. In those days, it was considered disgraceful, almost a sacrilege, for highborn women to learn anything: akin to throwing their doors open, walking out, and standing in front of their houses for all to see. It was only when her husband died and she donned the white saree that she began to listen to recitations of the epics. She now knew the epics well enough to fish out an apt story for any situation. In addition, she created her own stories too. Once she had made up a story and narrated it, it became part of the epics for her; the next time she would say it, she would really believe that it was a story that had flowed down the ages to reach her.

I did not necessarily plan to teach her abstract concepts. However, when Periyamma knew enough words and tried to use them in a sentence, she needed them. “See this naayi . . . dog. We say that it has nanni. What is English for nanni?” she asked. I said, “Obedient.” She knew to add ‘is.’ After dutifully repeating “Dog is obedient,” she asked, “So obedient means nanni, yes?” I said, “Well, no, obedient means panivu— humble, docile.” “Dratted fool! When has this ever been panivu, eh? I call out to it, and it sits just like that for five minutes before it deigns to turn and give me so much as a look . . . you call this animal panivu?”

I looked at Vettumani. She was right. You could see from its movements that Vettumani considered itself a venerable monarch. “Faithful,” I proposed. When I explained what “faithful” meant, “Right. Like you could leave a piece of fish unguarded with this one around. The other day I had some dried fish brought in and before I could take it inside, he had stolen it. He’s a real rogue!” I thought some more and said that perhaps one could use the word ‘domestic.’ “What’s that?” I explained. “Really? Have you gone mad? This one here comes home only to eat . . . ” I had no idea what to say. Could you say ‘thankful’? Are dogs thankful? Or grateful? But do these words describe dogs? I employ those words only in my job application letters.

I was hitting walls everywhere. Finally, I came to a decision. I told her the story from The Odyssey where Ulysses comes home after an epic voyage of twenty years. Ulysses returns, diseased, thin, and frail as a beggar. His best friend, even his beloved wife, fail to recognize him. But his fine dog Argos recognizes him immediately and frenetically wags its tail to welcome him; it dies right there. On seeing that, Ulysses is moved to tears. Everyone realizes that the newcomer is Ulysses. He rejoins his wife and children and regains his kingdom.

Tears were flowing down Periyamma’s cheeks. “That’s fate for you! Even if you slather oil all over yourself and roll on the ground, only the earth that’s meant to stick on to you will stick to you, yes?” Then she continued, “Remember how when the emperor Dharumaru went to heaven, a dog went with him?” In the epic Mahabharata, Dharuman walks up the Himalayan mountains to heaven with his four brothers and wife Paanjaali. Somewhere along the way, a dog joins them. While the others drop to the ground one after another in sheer exhaustion, Dharuman walks on with unflinching determination, not looking back even for an instant. The dog goes with him. They approach the peak. A celestial chariot comes down for them. Dharuman is asked to get into the chariot. Dharuman says that the dog who accompanied him all that way should get into the chariot too. He is told that dogs don’t have heaven. Then I don’t need heaven either, replies Dharuman. I will not abandon a dog that followed me all this way, he says. The dog transforms into Dharmadevan, the god of righteousness, and stands before him. I was just testing your sense of right and wrong, says Dharmadevan, and brings Dharuman’s brothers and Paanjaali back to life, and takes them all, including the dog, to heaven.

Periyamma wiped her tears. “That’s called nanni. That animal had nanni, didn’t it? It went all the way with him, no? It’s not right to leave it behind and go on, yes? That’s why Dharumaru did not abandon it; he is Dharumadevaruhimself, isn’t he?” I came back to the word nanni. “I was talking about the feeling Ulysses’ dog had for him,” I said. “Then what about Dharumaru’s feeling for the dog?” she said. Both of us sunk into thought. “Well, his nanniwas a reciprocation of its nanni, no?” said Periyamma. I agreed. But can two people reciprocate each other’s thankfulness or faithfulness or obedience? I asked whether we could call it ‘kindness.’ What does it mean, she asked. It is what the two of them showed to each other, back and forth, I said. Periyamma agreed. I said, “Dog is kind.” Periyamma said, “Dharumaru is kind.”

The next day, Periyamma was in high spirits. She pointed me to the kind rooster, the kind crow, the kind servant girl Kunjamma, the kind coconut-man Arunjunai Nadar, and the kind green-turbaned fakir who came to seek alms. It was a cloudy day, there was no sun. There were little drops of rain in the cool air. She asked me whether you could call the skies kind. Maybe, but not toomuch, I said. I thought about the right word for it and came up with ‘beautiful.’ What does that mean, she asked. Then she asked in a very, very hesitant voice whether she could call the rooster and crow and Kunjamma and Arunjunai Nadar and the fakir ‘beautiful.’ I hesitated even more before saying, “Yes.” Once we had made it to that word, the two of us sat for a while, enveloped in rapture, looking at the dark clouds rimmed with light. Then we came to the conclusion that we could as well call the skies “kind.”

In the next few days, we started understanding many words easily by trading stories. “Hey, what would you call the arul of Thiruchendur Murugan?” asked Periyamma. I did not know whether the Tamil deity Murugan could profess arul in English. So I recounted the story of Jesus turning water into wine. Periyamma cupped her chin in her hands in astonishment, at a loss for words. I called Jesus’s act ‘compassion.’ When I explained what that was, she objected. “Even humans show compassion, no? Look, I was talking about arul.” Then I proposed ‘grace.’ “That’s different. I’m talking about arulArul is Murugan’s karunai, no?” Karunai, karunai, karunai, I muttered to myself before settling on ‘mercy.’ “That’s our Yesuvadimai’s daughter’s name! That girl is a nurse, yes?” When I explained what that meant, “You blooming idiot, that’s erakkam. What sort of dratted god-worship you do, I don’t know. See, what the policemen show towards us is erakkam. Condescending pity. What Murugan shows is karunai. That’s what we call arul.”

In a very soft voice, I said, “Love.” Periyamma looked at me suspiciously. I avoided looking at her. “Then what about the lavvu cinema that our Chellammai’s daughter talks about?” she asked. “That’s a different lavvu,” I said. The old woman grew furious. “Stinking carcass! I’ll tan your hide with a broom!” I was almost in tears by now. “There’s another story,” I said. “Okay, tell me.” She seemed to have relented a little. I told her the story of the ascetic Sabari from the Valmiki Ramayanam who wished to offer the tastiest fruits to Raman who comes to her forest; she first bit into each fruit to make sure they were sweet before offering it to him, even though it was now tainted with her saliva. After telling her the story I was a little confused about why I had told her that story in the first place. Both stories are about food, I consoled myself.

Periyamma peered at me with her wizened eyes. I could tell her brain was on overdrive. “But it was the poor to whom he offered wine,” she said. “Yes, Periyamma. But Raman was also a poor man when he came to the forest, no? He would have also been thirsty, yes?” Periyamma accepted that that was true. I went on, “The god Krishnaru also did the same thing, didn’t he? When he went to Paanjaali’s house to eat, there was no food left, but he filled his stomach on a single speck of spinach that was stuck to the vessel!” I said. Periyamma broke into a broad smile. “Yes,” she said. She thought some more and said, “What we offer the gods, they give back to us. Right!”

Immediately I said, “Bond.” “What’s that,” she asked, knitting her brows. “Bandham . . . you know, that thing that binds god with us? Neither can let go of the other, yes?” I said. The old woman beamed. “You are a learned one, child,” she said. So we settled on that word. I was a little relieved when we decided to use that word for everything god-related, from bhakti to worship to bhajanai to prayer to the savoury sundal.

The great-granddaughter Gomathi periodically got in touch with me from America to ask how Periyamma’s education was progressing. “It’s going great, Goms. She’s learning a lot.” “Really?” she asked apprehensively. Then, “Could you also teach her some manners and niceties?” “Sure,” I said, and then diplomatically conveyed that that would cost a bit extra. She didn’t promise anything. “Let’s see.” Periyamma’s visa formalities were getting wrapped up. The trouble was that her name was variously Chellathaayi, Vellakutty, and Kanthimathi Ammal in various documents. In addition, her husband had a sum total of four different names—Eragam Pannaiyar, Azhagiya Nambiyaa Pillai, Vaduga Pillai, Sorimuthu Appu.

I first read up on manners and etiquette on Wikipedia. I came to the understanding that white folks were really somewhat particular about manners. I explained to Periyamma that to have good manners was to be a cultured, sophisticated person. “At this age do you want me to strut about with a silukku saree and a shiny parasol? Go on with you!” she said dismissively. Gently, I told her that it was not silk sarees and parasols that I was talking about. Perhaps I could tell her what constituted good manners, I thought. “First, one should not speak loudly,” I said. “So they make the deaf-mutes gentlemen over there, is it?” she asked. I said that one should always welcome the guests politely. “These are things one knows if they are born in a good family . . . we already have that, don’t we?”

I wasn’t sure what else to say. I felt that manners were nothing more than knowing to say the appropriate English words at the right times. I taught Periyamma eight such words—thanks, very kind of you, please, and so on. Her ‘excuse me’ was only an indistinguishable hiss from her toothless mouth. “How am I ever going to remember all these words? Just teach me one word to say instead of all this,” she said. I thought for a bit and taught her to say the word “Sorry.” If she appended the word to anything she said, that would become good manners. What does it mean, she asked. Sadness, sorrow, I said. “So one should always be sad . . . yes?” she asked bemusedly. “Periyamma, now Seethai was always sad, wasn’t she?”

Periyamma understood everything in an instant. “Seethai . . . now, she was a great lady, wasn’t she? A princess, but what a gentlewoman! How unassuming! She measured her words . . . never wasted them . . . ” she said. “Poor thing, her ill-fated life was what it was.” I jumped to say, “Yes, that’s what I mean. Seethai, she had manners . . . ” before I realized something else. “But the women over there, they are not like Seethai, Periyamma . . . ” I said. “Then? You just said that they were . . . ” “Well, like Seethai. But they do not have karpu like Seethai,” I said pointedly. “Then?” she asked. “They have something else. Like karpu. But a little different.”

“What’s that?” she asked. I could tell that Periyamma’s mind had already tied itself into knots. How do I say it? “Chastity,” I said. I tried crawling closer to the meaning, “Piety.” The meaning did not sit right. “It’s their country’s karpu,” I said. Periyamma’s eyes looked lost. So I reached for a story again. “Like Seethai, they have an epic there too,” I said. “Tell me that first, instead of going around in circles like this . . . ”

I narrated Helen of Troy’s story. Periyamma was appreciative of the fact that she was the daughter of Zeus. “A divine princess!” she remarked, hand on chin. “Periyamma, she was the most beautiful woman in all their stories over there,” I said. “Of course she would be . . . she is an ethereal maiden, isn’t she!” she said. When I came to the part where she gets married to the King of Sparta, Menelaus, I felt a bit apprehensive. I related how she saw Paris, the prince of Troy, and fell in love with him, and how she went away with him to Troy. Periyamma must have been absorbed in the story; she did not seem to object.

I could feel my own excitement rise as I narrated how the Mycenaean kings set out and laid siege on Troy and how the war took place under the leadership of Achilles and Agamemnon. “This Achilleesu is just like our Archunan!” said Periyamma with wonder. Hector’s death was received by Periyamma with tears. “Like how our Karnan died,” she mumbled. When I finally told her about how Troy was won by deception using the Trojan horse, Periyamma sat in silence for some time and then said, “The Pandavas killed Bhismaru by using this Shikhandi fellow, no? War is always like that. ‘He gets things done, the one with good hands; but the one with a ready tongue, wins all the lands,’” she quoted.

Now I felt that I had come to the crux of the matter. “Remember that king who was originally married to her? He brought her back and made her queen again.” Periyamma nodded. “Periyamma, women like these are like our Seethai for them,” I said. She glanced at me. “Not like Seethai, you mad fellow, she’s like Paanjaali. Paanjaali is also a pathini, yes?”

I sighed heavily and relaxed a little. “Your great-granddaughter is like Paanjaali too. Just one less.” “What?” asked Periyamma. “The man she is living with now is her fourth husband. She has four children in total from the first three marriages,” I said. Periyamma said, “She is from over there, isn’t she? Those women marry the men they like and live proudly with honor and happiness.” Resting heavily on her palms, she rose, slowly straightened her back, mumbled the names of her gods, and said, “But we have that here too. Kunthi had six husbands, no?”

To be honest, I was a little disappointed. Periyamma asked again, “What do they call it, their women?” “Karpu,” I said. “You wretch, not that.” “No, no, Periyamma, women and men . . . they have—they each have this thing no? That,” I said. No more words came to my mind. “We say—maleness—the quality of being a man—don’t we? Like that, the quality of being a woman—the femaleness,” I said. “Yes, that’s right. What does the white man call it?” I groped about for a word, and said, “thinking.” “You are always thing-ing,” she brushed aside my hesitant suggestion royally. ‘Think’ sounded to her like thingu—eat. I thought a bit more and said, “Brave.” Even I thought that was an idiotic suggestion. I had an impulse to say ‘virginity,’ but I suppressed it.

“Periyamma, it’s that feeling that makes you say, hey, I’m also a person just like you,” I said. “What the Malayalee fellows call thandredam?” asked Periyamma. I got the right word. Than—edam. My—place. Not quite right. Why place? “My” is enough. I said “Self.” “That’s in the cupboard, no?” she asked. “That’s different. That’s a ‘she-lf.’ This is ‘se-lf.’” “Oh,” said Periyamma, and then slowly said “se-lf” to herself. Then she looked at me. “We should speak softly, yes?” she asked. “Yes.” Periyamma soundlessly moved her lips to say the word. “These young girls, they use a feathery flowery thing to dab paduwer on their cheeks, what’s that?” “That’s a puff!” I said. “Self,” said Periyamma to herself again.

I taught Periyamma English through stories for another six weeks. I could do nothing to dispel Periyamma’s suspicions that the word ‘love’ was somehow inherently perverted. Hence we decided to replace that word with ‘dear.’ The next day, I observed Periyamma changing that to ‘near.’ I did not have time to correct it. The visa had arrived. The lands and the house and been sold. I had to escort Periyamma to obtain her medical insurance papers, her prescriptions, and her medicines.

In the midst of all this madness, I realized to my panic that there was so much more that she did not know, and decided to use a shortcut. A single word for many concepts, I decided. Not necessary, I don’t understand, I don’t know, could all be collapsed into ‘nice’; happy, good, great could all be ‘calm’; that would be easy for her, I reasoned. Anything she did not agree to could be countered with ‘well.’ In another week, we had crammed another forty concepts into twelve words.

It was I who went with Periyamma to the airport at Chennai to see her off. She was travelling all by herself. At the time of parting, she was excited and was trembling gently. When the wheelchair assistant from the airline was about to wheel her away, she called me to her side, and said, “You is bond.” I took her palms in my hands and touched them to my eyes. “You is kind,” I said. She placed her hand on her heart, said “Self,” and departed with a smile.

The same day, I wrote a rather decisive email to Goms and made sure I got paid immediately. I was certain that by next week, I would receive an email from her saying that none of them are able to make head or tail of anything that Periyamma says. 

(Thanks – Asymptote)

References for the Kuruntokai translation project.

A (growing) list of references and inspirations for this project.

Core references:

பாடல்கள்:
1. குறுந்தொகை: மூலம் + உரை: http://www.tamilvu.org;http://www.tamilvu.org/library/l1220/html/l1220ind.htm
2. குறுந்தொகை தெளிவுரை – புலியூர் கேசிகன் (பாரி நிலையம், 1965 (மறுபிரசுரம்,2008))
3. குறுந்தொகை: Wikisourcehttps://ta.wikisource.org/wiki/%E0%AE%95%E0%AF%81%E0%AE%B1%E0%AF%81%E0%AE%A8%E0%AF%8D%E0%AE%A4%E0%AF%8A%E0%AE%95%E0%AF%88

Translations;
1. Poems of Love and War, A.K.Ramanujan (Columbia University Press, 1985)
2. The Interior Landscape – Classical Tamil Love Poems, A.K.Ramanujan (NYRB, 1967)
3. Love Stands Alone, tr.M.L.Thangappa, ed. A.R.Venkatachalapathy (Penguin Books)

Others
1. The Smile of Murugan, Kamil Zvelebil
2. The Study of Stolen Love, David C.Buck, K.Paramasivam (now reading)

தாவரங்கள்:
சங்க இலக்கியத் தாவரங்கள், கு. சீநிவாசன் (தமிழ்ப் பல்கலை கழக்கம், தஞ்சாவூர், 1986)

Inspirations

1. சங்கச்சித்திரங்கள் – ஜெயமோகன் (2010)
2. ஜெமோ குறுந்தொகை உரை – தமிழ் பாரம்பரிய அறக்கட்டளை.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0S-GyhYoA6Q. Text: http://www.jeyamohan.in/23590(முக்கியமான கட்டுரை)

On the internet:
1. Sangam translations by Vaidehi – http://sangamtranslationsbyvaidehi.com/
2. Karka, Nirka – http://karkanirka.org/
3. தினம் ஒரு சங்கத்தமிழ்: https://dosa365.wordpress.com/

Art:
Zen Pencils