Vanangaan [Translation]

A translation of B.Jeyamohan’s Tamil short story Vanangaan (2015). The Tamil story can be read here.

My name is Vanangaan. It means ‘he who does not bow’, a stubborn stiffneck. Yes, that’s really my name. If you want my full name, it’s K.Vanangaan Nadar. No, it’s not my clan-god’s name or anything like that. No one in my family has had this name before me. No one in my caste or kin has such a name. I haven’t met another man with this name. Why, I have never met a single person who has even heard of this name.

It was my father who gave me this name. From the day he gave me this name till the day he died, for twenty-seven years, he kept talking about my name. After getting my engineering degree, my first job was in Bhilai, far to the north. To their ears, our names are all the same. However, the Tamils and Malayalees there used to ask me about my name.

It has been four years since I have come back to Tamil Nadu after retirement. I have a house in the suburbs of Nellai where I live with my wife and daughter. My daughter and son-in-law are disgruntled to hear me use my full name everywhere. Why don’t you just call yourself ‘K.V.Nadar’, they ask. That’s how they refer to me. I don’t, I prefer to use my full name everywhere. If someone looks up in surprise and asks me about it, then I proceed to tell them its story.   

My father’s name was Karuthaan. It means ‘darkie’. Did he also have a surname? Nadar? Well, don’t ask me that. You have no idea about the caste order of those days. There were many kinds of Nadars. Those with lands to their name and pride in their hoary clans would call themselves Nadars. They had homes with courtyards and outhouses and orchads; fields and haystacks and cowsheds. They paid tribute to kings.

For the rest, it was an extravagance to even have a name of your own. My father was born dark, he became Karuthaan. His brother had a large lip, so he was Sundan. His sister was a little more light-skinned than the rest, so she became Vellakutty. It was just like how you would name dogs. I’m not talking about the caste landowners’ dogs, they had fine names. I’m talking about the streetdogs.

My grandfather’s name was Ezhaan. Seventh. He could have been the seventh child. His mother had had nine children, two survived – that’s right, just like dogs. I have seen grandfather’s sister Kunji when I was young. A dark, crooked old crone, but she had a tough body. Though withered and shrunk and shriveled and humped, she lived till eighty. Till she died, she worked in the fields – bearing loads of manure on her head, fetching water for the vegetables, planting banana trees. She was hauling a whole cluster of bananas to the local market, when, with an ache in her chest, she stopped to rest outside a palm sugar shop. She lay down, closed her eyes, and with an expression on her face as if she was enjoying an agreeable breeze of wind, she died.

My grandfather worked as a yearly-wage labourer in the house of a land-owning, upper-caste Karai Nair in town. Their people owned lands and groves all over town. They had two managers, also from the Nair caste, called Kariyastha Nairs, who took care of all the property. For harvesting cocounuts and braiding baskets from coconut fronts, they had fellows from the Kaippalli caste. To pound the grain, women from the Achari caste. Pulayars took care of the rice fields. For all the other menial jobs, there were Nadars. Each caste of workers had its own leader, an overseer. This man was the soverign king of his little kingdom with power to slaughter and bury at will, no questions asked. The rest were consigned to live as the lowest of the low, under the very land his feet stepped on.

In that order of things, everybody was below somebody else. One of the markers of your place in the structure was splittle. Your saliva. If the overseer spat on the wage slave, the wage slave could not wipe it off as long as the overseer was still there. If the manager spat out a long, red stream of chewed-up betel nut juice on the overseer in a fit of anger, then the overseer would have to stand there take it with a meek smile. But the manager waited with a spittoon ready for his master, the Nair, and whenever a member of the Nair’s family puckered up his betel-chewing mouth in readiness to spit, he had to bring it forward under the man’s face. And if someone from the king’s clan visited, the Karai Nair himself had to carry the spittoon and deferentially follow at the heels of the guest.

There were no daily-wage labourers in those days. The wages were grain, given twice a year during the harvest. You brought the grain home, dried it, and stored it in pots. If you occasionally husked and boiled a little to make some hot gruel, it might last you for two or three months. It took a lot of mental fortitude to make that grain last till the famine month of Aadi. On all other days, you had to make do with the gruel that was doled out of the huge cauldrons at the landlord’s house, along with cassava mash and sour greens. That was only for lunch. At dusk, after the day’s work, you could make a detour into the forest and forage for something that you could cook and eat. That was dinner. Mostly root vegetables. Sometimes greens. If you were lucky, you got a rabbit, or a mongoose, or a bandicoot.

It was a life where you were unaware of the existence of any part of your body except for your stomach. Like an evil spirit seething with unquenched rage, your stomach kept simmering all over. I have heard my grandmother say that hunger is like when the roof’s on fire. Whatever comes to your hand, you fling onto it and try to put it out, there’s no need to wait and examine whether it is worth losing or not. For hunger is the greatest torment that there is.

My grandfather started going to work the day he started walking. He has no memory of a day when he did not work. Backbreaking work that was peppered with thrashings and an unending volley of abuse was followed by an abject weariness at the end of the day that made him drop off to sleep right where he stood. He woke up before dawn the following day to kicks and thrashes to do it all over again. This was all the life he knew. The only knowledge he had about society was how deep he had to bow before different classes of people. His picture of society was simply a hierarchy of deference.

One day, during work, my grandfather hid in the bushes to eat his mid-morning meal. It was the month of the harvest, my grandmother had made him some rice gruel the previous day. She fermented the leftovers overnight and brought it along with her in a little pot. My grandfather loved the sour, fermented day-old cooked rice. While he was hurriedly gobbling it up, the grandson of the Karai Nair happened to go that way to the Sastha temple along with the manager. He was fifteen. He spotted my grandfather eating in the bushes.

When my grandfather saw him, he got up and brought his hands close to his chest and bending over like a manacle, sat down on his haunches and kept his eyes cast down. The little pot with the  gruel was next to him. What passed through the boy’s mind, I don’t know, but with his foot, he kicked some mud into the pot. “Eat!” he said. When my grandfather hesitated a little, the overseer brought down his switch on his back and started hitting him repeatedly.

Like a man possessed, my grandfather lifted the pot to his lips and in a single gulp, downed everything in the pot. Then, retching and heaving, he sunk back on his haunches and arched his body into the ground. The boy kicked mud on my grandfather again, and left the place sniggering. The manager and the overseer joined him in his mirth.

At a distance, my father, Appa, was carrying loads of rice seedlings. To his eyes, my grandfather’s bent, shrunken body looked like a pile of dung. He could smell the stench, he thought. He could see the foul odour and the worms rise from it. At that time, he was filled with an unbearable hatred his father. His heart longed for the man’s death, right then, right there. His tears spilling over into the sludge of rice fields, he turned and walked away.

That night, he spoke to his mother in the presence of his father. “I’m going,” he said. “Ask your son where,” replied my grandfather. “No more place for me here. My food lies elsewhere,” said my father. “That’s right, as if you have food set aside for you waiting somewhere. It’s your good fortune that you get some gruel here. If you don’t want to starve and die in the street, just do your work and be,” replied my grandfather, not looking at him.

“So when every passing dog kicks up mud into my gruel, should I drink it?” Appa burst out. “You sinner, you dare to speak about our master?” cried out my grandfather. “Our lord, our master who feeds us?” and in rage, he picked up the first thing lying around, a broomstick, and started hitting my father over and over. “You are not my son! No, you are a thankless dog… you are not my son at all!” he shouted breathlessly.

The coarse sticks from the broom poking him all over, his body burning, my father stormed out of the hut and sat in the pit dug for planting the little coconut tree. When it was well and truly dark, my grandmother came outside. “Let it go, child… you know his nature. You come in, I will give you some steamed tubers…” she put her arm around him and led him back into the house. They ate the steamed tubers to quench their hunger and slept. But at midnight, Appa woke up and left the house.

However, they caught him easily. When he entered the main road in Nattalam, the man lying on a haystack keeping guard caught sight of him. At the same time, his dog also saw him. It bounded out barking and caught hold of him. The guard came behind the dog and tying him up with the cloth around his waist, dragged him back to his master’s house.

The next morning, the first thing the landlord saw was my father lying outside, bruised and mudstreaked. My father’s overseer was summoned, he got twenty strokes with a switch. They dragged my grandfather there and buried him waist deep in the manure pit. He brought this hands together imploringly. “Master, golden master… he is naive, he does not know what he’s doing. Take heart, please take heart, don’t kill him…” he wailed.

The landlord had the habit of petting his elephant, the tusker Kochaiyappan, every morning. The animal was brought to his front yard in the morning and stayed there restrained through the day, it would be taken back only in the evening. In those days, it was considered auspicious to have a tusker standing in front of your house, its big ears gently fanning back and forth. The servant Nanan Nair brought out a big platter with jaggery and coconut for the elephant. An idea struck the landlord.

“Bring him,” he said. They bound my father’s hands and legs and brought him to the landlord. In accordance with his instructions, they hammered down a stake deep in the space between the four legs of the elephant, and tied my father to that post. My father screamed and flailed in panic. Once he was under the elephant, it was as if his breath had stopped; his sheer terror was visible only by the gentle tremor on the surface of his body. In some time, there was shit and piss coming out of him.

The landlord sat there laughing for a while and then got up. “Let him be there till dusk. Let Kochaiyappan decide whether he should be killed or not,” he said, and left. Appa slowly came back to his senses. In some time, his fear disappeared. Till the end of his days Appa used to marvel at this memory – how his mind became so clear, how he could succinctly remember every little thing that happened that day.

Each leg of the elephant was like the base of a red cotton tree that grows in the jungle, full of cracks and folds; massive and rounded like a felled trunk that had been planted there. It had toenails like the white undersides of cut rootlets. As time passed the toenails started looking like the teeth of a massive demon. They seemed to be sneering at my father. Over his head, the underbelly of the elephant loomed like the stone roof of a low cave. Its penis was like an enormous plough.

Twice, the elephant brushed my father with its trunk; my father thought it was a blow and jumped in terror. After that, the elephant left him alone. With three legs firmly planted on the ground, the animal lifted and shifted his fourth foot on the ground; you could see the underside of the foot then. It was like a huge bundle of clothes. My father noticed that it was shifting its weight often, now on this leg, now on that, and thumping the ground with his big foot. When it tore apart a sugarcane stalk, the animal landed on its foot sending soil flying into the air, Appa yelped, “Ayyo!” Then he observed how the animal was placing the stalk against its foot very carefully. Huge balls of dung landed on the ground behind him with a thump, with the scent of warm, moist vegetation rising off them. Urine the colour of moss poured down on the piles of dung like a mountain stream. Appa’s body had the rank stink of elephant piss.

In the evening when the elephant was taken away, Appa kept lying there. They dragged him away and secured him to a coconut tree with some rope. They brought out my grandfather who was neck deep in the manure pit, and gave him a blow, “Get out of here.” The hot manure pit had burned his skin. His shrunk skin peeling off his body like on a cooked stork, he beat his fists on his chest and cried aloud, “Spare my son, golden master! My keeper, my god… my lord, spare my son, I beg you!” Wailing thus, and getting many more blows in return, he left the place.

All through the night, my father loosed the bonds on his hands bit by bit with his teeth. Then with a sharp stone, he cut the rest of the bonds. He escaped into the darkness of the midnight. This time, he avoided all the roads and thoroughfares. He sneaked his way through the plantations and bushes and fields.

While he ran, his heart with filled with revulsion towards his father. He kept spitting in disgust all the way. The next day, he wondered what fate was in store for his father. “Motherfucker, let him die,” he told himself. It was only sixteen years later when, one day, we were all eating day-old rice together that Appa realized that, even in the throes of prolonged hunger, his father had never touched old rice since that fateful day. He had dissolved into tears then. As Appa used to say “If a man is born wretched, even his revenge can’t be wrecked upon anything except his own body and stomach and soul.”

Appa went from Nattalam to Karungkal and from there to Thingalsandhai. From there, to Nagarcoil. He was eight years old then. He had no truck with books and learning, he couldn’t read or write. He knew nothing about the world outside Nattalam where he had lived till then. Not even second-hand knowledge. In those days, you could reach those towns only by dusty country roads where only carts could travel. There were fields on both sides, occasionally interrupted by small towns. Most of the area was rocky jungle land. Since there were plenty of jackals and wolves in the area, people rarely ventured out at night.

However there is something such as a blissful ignorance. It has a strength beyond what one might imagine. This is one of the lessons that I have learned in all my years of existence. When a man is utterly guileless, God has to to slacken some of his merciless laws for him. He doesn’t have an option. It was on the back of that strength that my father managed to go so far.

When I mentioned this one day, Appa laughed. “Go on now, you senseless fellow. My whole body reeked of elephant. Do you think wild creatures would come near you if you smell like an elephant? How else do you think I managed to escape from the landlord’s yard? Twelve dogs they had on guard, twelve. They took one sniff at the elephant odour coming off my body and promptly scarpered away, their tails tucked between their legs.” My father was like that till the end; his rationality always trumped everything else.

The next evening, Appa reached Nagarcoil. He would have walked thirty-five kilometres. He was used to hunger; his dark, slender frame was used to all kinds of deprivations. When there was a forest fire, Appa used to say, there were always some branches that wouldn’t burn, but lie on the forest floor, burnt and blackened with soot. They used such sticks in their fields. They were diamond-bodied, it was said. No matter what you did, they would neither bend nor break. Appa was like that.

Appa has no memory of what he thought of Nagarcoil. Like an animal, he walked through the streets of the city looking for something to eat. His body was covered with mud and slush. He had covered his loins with a sheath from the betelnut tree tied around his waist. However you should have seen my father. It is rare to see a man more handsome than he. He looked a bit like Denzel Washington. He had kind, gentle eyes. Back then, his eyes would have been even more beautiful. They would have been like rounded stones lying at the botton of a jungle stream – dark, cool, lusturous.

There was an idli stall run by a man called Ganesan near Parvathipuram. Appa scraped the leftovers from the used banana-leaf plates heaped outside his shop, ate it and went to sleep right there. Ganesan was a good businessman who could drive a hard bargain. He knew it as soon as he saw Appa that this boy could work like a bull. He summoned the boy into the shop and gave him a wide-mouthed vessel full of day-old rice and leftovers. Once his stomach had come to it senses, Appa could stand straight. He told Ganesan his name. However, despite repeated questioning, he refused to state the name of his town or any other details. Ganesan realized that he would never be able to get a word more out of this fellow.

Appa worked there for four years. Every morning, he would wake up early and walk a furlong to a stream from where he would fetch pot after pot of water to fill a big wooden trough. Then there was work in the idli stall, till it closed at ten in the morning. After that, he would bring the dishes to the trough and clean them thoroughly with sand and ash. A second round of fetching water. In the evening, after the shop closed business for the day, he washed all the dishes again. It was midnight by the time he finished. He was the last one out every night, locking up the stall behind him.

Tired to the bone, he dropped off to sleep the minute he stretched himself out on the raised narrow porch at the back. However he was up when he heard the first chimes of the church bells in the morning. Ganesan used to often recall the one time when it was raining heavily, and how Appa slept through the downpour like a log though he was soaked to the bone. Appa never got sick. He only ate leftovers – he thoroughly scraped the bottoms of the dishes before washing them and made a meal out of it. No one ever called him aside to give him food.

However, Appa had escaped the violence and abuse of his former days. With regular food, his stomach filled out and his limbs became strong as iron. “A strapping figure, just like the demi-god Maadan, eh? You pube?” Chellappan of the betel-leaf stall used to say affectionately. However Appa now faced new insults. He was never allowed to touch freshly cooked food. Once, when the banana leaf covering a heap of cooked rice flew away, Appa took up another leaf and went towards the food. Ganesan flew out at him. “Hey! No! Don’t touch it! Get out! Out, now!” he hollered.

From that day onwards, he started seeing his new limitations. Except for the narrow sliver of a porch at the back, he was not allowed to sit down anywhere, in front of anybody. Nobody ever gave anything directly to his hand. It would be placed down, he had to pick it up. When he walked on the street, there were always a few people who hollered at him from a distance, “Get out of the way!”

However Appa was happy. He was growing strong, in body and in mind. He had learned to read on his own, and started reading every last piece of paper that passed through his fingers. He learned to do arithmetic. He had even learned to read English letters and started reading a few words here and there. When he was thirteen, he found a new job in Ambrose’s tea stall opposite the court in Nagarcoil. There, he worked as a server. Sometimes, he even cooked the food.

When he was fifteen, a school teacher who had made his acquaintance as a customer at the tea stall saw him reading a page from a tattered English newspaper. “Thambi, till which class did you study in school?” he enquired. “I have never gone to school,” said Appa. “Never?” he asked. “No.” He looked at Appa for a while keenly and asked, “Then how did you read English? Did you work for some white man?” “No, I learnt to read it on my own.”

He could not believe his ears. However, he had no other choice but to believe what he had seen. He said, “Karuththan, how old are you?” Appa was twenty then. “I think you can sit for the first form exams. I will give you the books. You just have to study for four or five months.” Appa read the books he gave him and in a month’s time, he knew them by heart. Till the end, I was astounded by his mental acumen. When he was eighty-two, eight months before he died, he sought out the new pastor at the church here and started learning Latin from him. The pastor still says that if he had only lived a couple of years more, he would have become a great Latin scholar.

Appa wrote the first form exam – that would correspond to our sixth grade – in the Scott Christian College and passed it in the first attempt. He kept working at the same tea stall and studied for the ESSLC exam, also passing that successfully. That is, our eighth grade level. After that, he had paid the fees to appear for the Matriculation exam. Since he was diligent with his duties at work, Ambrose the tea-stall owner had faith in him.

It was in 1921 that Appa met the man whose memory he kept on his lips, every day, every hour, in wonder, in awe, till the last day of his life. On the twelfth of July at eleven in the morning. It was a blazing hot day. A man, maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, dressed in a black coat and a white pleated dhoti, a white bow tie fastened around his neck in the manner of lawyers, entered the stall and sat on the bench. “Get me a cup of hot tea, son,” he said.

In those days, only Nadars used to visit that shop. There were very few lawyers among Nadars back then. Even the few Nadar lawyers were from Bungalow Street, they were London Mission Christians. They walked and talked like Anglo-Indians. They treated the other Nadars worse than the upper caste fellows did. But you could make out from one look that this man was from the south, from Vilavancode. His counteance, his gestures, were all typically provincial. He had undone the buttons of his coat for the heat and lifted his collar high above his neck. He had rolled up the sleeves of his coat till his elbow.

Appa said, “On that day, I did not know who he was. However at first glance, my heart figured him out. Even today the sight of him that day fills my eyes – the way he came in and sat and jiggled his legs and blew on his hot tea and he drank it… if you had seen the way he held himself, you’d have thought was a rural Nadar alright. With his shirt off you would think that he’d scale up ten toddy-palms in the blink of an eye… the Bungalow Street lawyers would have laughed in his face if they had seen the way he was swirling his tea and blowing on it.”

When he was paying for the tea and making enquiries about Abraham’s office, he noticed the book in Appa’s hands. “What is that book?” he asked in the lilting manner typical of Vilavancode folks. “Matric… I have paid the fees for the exam,” he said. “Oh,” he had replied, and getting the directions he needed, left the place. This man’s name was A. Nesamony. He was from a town called Palliyadi near Thuckalay, hailing from the Peruvattar family that owned a little land and some orchads. His father’s name was Appavu Peruvattar. He had completed a BA degree at the Maharaja College in Thiruvananthapuram and a BL degree at the Law College there, and was a bar-at-law at the Nagarcoil court.

Yes, the selfsame man. The man now known as Marshal Nesamony and held in reverence by the Nadars of Kanyakumari as their leader even today. In his time, he was the face of the Congress Party in Travancore; he was the party, the party was him. He won the elections and became the Member of the Legislative Assembly from Travancore. He was instrumental in the forming of the modern day Kanyakumari district and its unification with the post-independence state of Tamil Nadu, he founded the Travancore Congress to facilitate this. At one point, he was the leader of the Tamil Nadu Congress Party. Till the end, he was a Member of the Indian Parliament.

There was a major scuffle the very first day Nesamony went to court. With his legal briefs in hand, he entered the court.There were seven or eight chairs and four three legged stools laid out there. Though the stools were ostensibly meant for the juniors, it always happened that the Nadars ended up perching on the stools. Nesamony went directly to a chair and sat down. The public proscecuter M.Sivasankaran Pillai saw him sitting on the chair; it brought a scowl to his face. He left the place. No one sat near Nesamony. When he realized that he had been sitting there all by himself for half an hour, he realized something was wrong.

The bench clerk Paramasivam bent down discreetly and told him what the source of the problem. The Nadars may sit on the stools. That was how it was. Blood rushing to his head, Nesamony got up and started shouting. “Sons of bitches! If the damned, if the downtrodden don’t have a place here, then what justice is it going to serve?” he hollered, and grabbing the stool, took it out and threw it in the middle of the yard in front of the court. Room after room he went, seizing all the stools, one after another, and flinging them out in the yard.

When Appa was in the tea stall, a clerk from the court came running. “That Palliyadi fellow is making trouble there… he’s off his head.” Some more people came running. There’s going to be murder, they prophesied. “Ah, the son of Palliyadi Peruvattar… he doesn’t know to behave himself. Young blood!” said an old man. In some time Nesamony arrived there, drenched in sweat, short of breath, his clothes askew. “Tea!” he ordered. When Appa gave him the tea, he downed it in one gulp, and flinging a coin on the table, left the place.

In some time, twenty or so goons from Vellamadam came to the tea stall, looking for Nesamony. They pulled out Appa and enquired about him, threatening him with dire consequences. They went high and low, all over Nagarcoil, looking for him. The court was adjourned that day. The whole town talked of this incident. “These Vellamadam fellows, hacking and murdering people is child’s play for them,” they said. It had been far too long since the town saw a good murder, they said.

The next day, Nesamony arrived in a Thiruvananthapuram Pioneer bus from Palliyadi, along with fifty men armed with sticks and sickles. He entered the court with his legal briefs in hand, surrounded by these men. The men stayed in the yard outside the court. Slowly, the place started filling up. At one point, the upper caste Vellala and Nair lawyers had to flee the place surreptiously though the back entrance.

For the next few days, the court was not in operation. The town was panicky. People in the tea stalls and houses could not stop talking about this. The church got involved. The Bishop came forward to talk to the judges, there was talk of submitting an appeal to the resident British officer. This proposal was threatening to the upper caste lawyers. Many of those who had come forward with bravado in the beginning backed out. Even though a few junior lawyers without a case kept protesting, the seniors backed out.

When the court was in session again, there were new chairs that had been bought and laid out for everybody. Nesamony and his friends gathered as a big group outside the tea stall and drank tea. Appa made tea that day. A hundred and seventy eight teas.

Then, Appa saw Nesamony burgeon in front of his own eyes and become an important figure. He slowly stopped coming to drink tea; It became necessary to take tea to his office. When there was no one else in the stall to deliver the tea, Appa himself went there. There were always groups of people gathered outside of Nesamony’s office. You took the tea and walked past the women squatting on the floor, wailing and crying, and the people from the village arguing furiously, and then you would catch sight of Nesamony, shirtless, his white shirt and bow tie hanging on the nail behind him, his legs propped up on a chair in front of him, laughing and talking loudly. It was typical of Vilavancode folks to talk as loud as humanly possible all the time.

There were always some people in there. “Tea for everybody!” he would say. In a day, it would come to two or three hundred teas. At one point, they just hired a boy to make tea for the visitors. Wheever Appa crossed that office, he would hear Nesamony’s laugh and that loud, Malayalam-inflected voice. He would always wonder if the man ever went to court and pleaded cases. However, he was known as the most brilliant lawyer in all of Travancore. They believed that the case would be won if he only so much as came and stood in court.

Nesamony joined the Travancore Congress Party. At first he contested in the city council elections and was elected its President. After that, it became increasingly rare to find him in his legal office. That was when Appa passed the Matric exam. The schoolteacher Chellappan who was his friend told him one day that the British Government was seeking applications for government jobs in Tirunelveli. He encouraged Appa to apply. Appa had not thought about that till then. He was thirty-three years old. He had no intention of getting married either. His only interest was to go to the town’s Mission Library every day without fail and read.

“You’ll certainly get the job… there are very few candidates who have passed the Matric exam and know as much as you do…” said the teacher. Without much hope, Appa submitted an application.

He received an order to appear for an interview at Tirunelveli. The man who interviewed him was an Iyengar, a Brahmin from Madurai. He asked all the questions in English. Appa answered him in English too. “Did you study at the Mission School?” he asked. “No, I have never been to school,” he said. Iyengar nodded, his face showed his displeasure.

Appa returned thinking that he would not get the job. But in a month, he received a letter stating he had the job. Iyengar had given him the second place. He went to Madurai directly and started his new job. After the eight-month training period, he was transferred to the Survey Department in Tenkasi. All towns were the same to Appa, he knew nothing about Tenkasi. From Madurai, he promptly took the train to Tenkasi and started his new position. 

The day he joined work, he realized that he was not welcome there. The Survey Department’s main office was in Tenkasi. After he had signed in there, he was told to go to Ilanji. Not a single person in the office gave him a smile. “These days anyone can get a job by sucking some white man’s cock,” Irulandichervai, the man who stamped the seal on his order, grumbled loudly. Many people smiled at their desks without turning.

It was only when Appa went to Ilanji in a horse-cart that he realized why he had been assigned there. The whole of that province was, indirecty and directly, under the control of the jamin, a feudatory state, at Injikkudi. There was no law or order there apart from the jamindar’s – feudal landlord’s – orders. The lands could belong to anyone, it could have been earned by anyone, be registered in anyone’s name. If the jamin’s men wanted, they could take it. They could change any registration to their name. It was the practice there that any officer who came to that town had to be the jamin’s slave, there was no other option.

The office was locked. It was an old, low-roofed tiled structure standing by the dirtroad, behind a stone wall. There were all kinds of wild bushes growing wantonly around it. Something like a footpath snaked through the wilderness. Ilanji is a rainy place; all kinds of creepers climbed up the walls of the building and covered the roof completely. He made enquiries there and had the thalaiyari Sankara Thevar – a man appointed by the government as his dogsbody – open the door for him. The building had not been opened for seven or eight months; the whole place reeked of bat droppings. Appa swept the place and cleaned it himself.

Sankara Thevar gave him the complete picture on the first day itself. Appa went with him to call on the jamindar. The bungalow of the jamin stood in huge garden, on the bank of a stream, in the midst of tall coconut trees. At the entrance, near the gate, was the jamin’s office. The clerk and the others used to be there. The jamindar used to come there in the morning once, sign all the necessary papers, and leave for the day.

On either side of the long path leading away from the office, there were metalworked cages housing animals from the jamindar’s personal zoo. He had a few bears, some pythons and a leopard in them. Apart from these, there were other creatures as well – civets, porcupines, jackals, wolves, black monkeys. The office was always filled with the stench of their spit and urine.

The jamindar of Injikkudi was a keen hunter. He had employed a few Pathani Muslims for the express purpose of taming the horses he would ride on his hunts. He also had on hand some tribal men who laid out the traps for the animals. He had the habit of throwing his enemies into the cages with the bears and pythons and leaving them in there through the night. Sankara Thevar said that many such people had died horribly, torn limb to limb by the bear. A small boy had died of fright upon coming face to face with the python in his cage.

When Appa and the Thevar came to the gate, the accountant, a Pillai, came out and addressed Appa. “Hey, you are a Nadan, no? Look at you, coming in like that… stand out there. Don’t climb on the porch. Take off your slippers and put them in the corner over there.” Appa stood outside the office. At eight o’clock everyone in the office was served a glass of pathaneer. Everybody else got their palm drink drink in a earthen cup; only Appa was served in the folded scoop of a broad palm leaf. They told him to dispose of the leaf outside the building after he was done with his drink.

He had to wait there till ten o’clock. After standing for an hour, Appa sunk down to sit on his haunches. At ten o’clock, a davali-peon came in and announced the arrival of the jamindar Periyakaruppa Thevar. The jamindar had had this man dressed in the same livery worn by the davalis in the government’s court. In some time, just like in a court, a liveried footman marched in ‘left-right’ with a silver staff. He shouted unintelligible sounds that made no sense, but had the ring of English to it. Behind him came two men bearing band instruments, the bugle player blowing recklessly into the mouthpiece.

Finally the jamindar Periyakaruppa Thevar emerged, followed by a few attenders. He wore the uniform of a British lieutenant that he had got tailored for himself. There was a pistol in the holder on his waist, white gloves on his hands, and hunting boots on his feet; he came in shifting his portly frame with great difficulty. When he entered, everybody in the room got up and raised cries of praise enthusiastically. He had his right hand raised at shoulder level like Hitler’s soldiers. This performance seemed to be an everyday routine there.

When the jamindar climbed on the steps leading up to the office, he laid his eyes on Appa. Appa was wearing a white shirt buttoned up to the neck and a black coat over it; a pleated dhoti covered his lower body. He had placed his turban on his head like a hat. That was the uniform of all the government officers of those days. “This is a new one. He’s from Travancore. A Nadar,” said the accountant Pillai.

Without warning, the jamindar, started hitting Appa over and over with the cane in his hand. He was bubbling with rage. “Khabardar! Beware…you fool…” he thundered. He ordered the thalaiyariSankara Thevar to shackle up Appa and lash him which a whip. Pillai intervened and tried to pacify the jamindar. He explained that Appa was a government official and it would not be possible to restrain him or lash him. It was only when the subdued jamindar, huffing and heaving, let loose a long string of expletives, that the reason for his rage became apparent. He did not like seeing a Nadar stand in front of him dressed like that.

When he went in, Pillai admonished him and made him take off his turban and shirt. The jamindar would not hesistate to take off your head, he said. His ears burning with fear and humiliation, Appa complied and removed his turban and shirt. He crossed his arms over his bare chest. Red welts streaked across his body where the cane had caught him. When the jamindar came out again, he looked at Appa with malevolence. “Know your place and act accordingly, and you might leave with your head on your shoulders. Understood?” he said, and spat on Appa.

Appa turned and walked away silently, the jamindar’s spit trailing down his body. The spit burned his through body like acid. When he came back to his office, he sunk into a chair, and broke down crying. Sankara Thevar watched with a mild sneer on his face. That whole day and through the night, Appa sat just like that in his chair. Vague, shapeless thoughts flitted in and out of his mind. However, by the next morning, his mind had hardened like stone.

Appa stayed in the office building itself. There was a pond and a toilet in the office premises. He dug himself a woodfire stove at the back. He got his own utensils, rice and lentils, and made his own meals. The peon Kandasamy came in every day to assist him. Sankara Thevar came in when he pleased. Most of his work was at the jamin.

In a month, Appa had read all the files. The Iyer who had worked there before him had toed the jamindar’s line and hung on for eight months, after that he had pleaded for a transfer and vacated the place. Since then, no one had looked at the records. Appa started taking stock of everything carefully and compared the documents with their originals. Subsequently, he wrote a long letter to the jamindar. He pointed out the corrupt records, and instructed the jamindar to register the actual accounts and documents with immediate effect.

In a few days, the thalaiyari came and informed Appa that the jamin’s clerk wanted to see Appa in his office. Appa refused. In two days, he was told that the jamindar himself wished to meet him. Appa refused again. He could imagine how this would have upset the regular course of events at the jamin’s office.

The next day, Sankara Thevar came in with another Thevan who carried a spear in his hand. “Look, it would be good for you if you came with us right now. Wouldn’t look very nice if we have to drag you back kicking and screaming, eh?” he said. Appa responded with barely suppressed rage. “Take me if you can. We’ll know whether the British government – you know, the one the sun never sets on? – has the power to take care of its servants or not.”

The thalaiyari’s face turned ashen. He had never thought about him that way. The black man standing in front of him was a representative of the white man’s great empire! Cannons, helmets, rifles, horses, documents with official seals… he did not say a word more. He stood there for a while twirling his mustache and left. While leaving, he turned his head once to look at Appa.

The very next day, Appa signed the order dismissing Sankara Thevar from his duties. In the afternoon, when Thevar sallied into the office with stick in hand and twirling his mustache, his body giving off the faint reek of liquor, the peon Kandasamy gave him an official-looking brown document. “What is this?” he asked in panic; he could not read. “You’ve been dismissed by the Nadar,” said Kandasamy. Sankara Thevar was petrified and stunned. He had no idea that such a thing was even possible. He came up to Appa and shoved the document in his face. “What on earth is this?” “It’s a government order. It’s not meant to be manhandled like that,” said Appa. Thevar’s hand froze in mid-air. His face turned white. “You don’t need to come in anymore. You can attend to your duties at the jamin full time,” said Appa.

Sankara Thevar opened his mouth to say something, but closed it like a fish almost immediately and walked out in a daze. The next day he came back along with his wife Vandimalaichi and begged and pleaded with Appa. “Sami, master, lord, this wretched man drinks everything he earns. I make do with what little I can palm off and fill our stomachs a little with gruel. Show mercy, don’t hit us where it would hurt us the most!” Vandimalaichi pleaded with a child on her hips. The child watched the scene avidly. An older child, completely naked, stood next to her clutching her waist, digging his nose and staring at them. Thevar hid behind a pillar and watched the proceedings out of the corner of his eye.

“Alright, I’ll make an exception for you. I’m not the sort to fling mud into anyone’s food,” said Appa. To Thevar, “But look. You should come in here every day. You can leave only when I tell you to. You should do what I say. You’re responsible for everything that happens in this office. Got it? “Alright,” he said. “From now, you should always call me ‘sir’. This is a government order. It says so in this document.” “Alright, saar,” said Thevar. Unexpectedly, he made a smart salute.

The next day, the clerk at the jamin summoned Thevar and asked him why he had not produced Appa before them the previous day. Thevar was firm. “Look here, I am a government servant. My government is one that controls even the sun above. You can do whatever you want outside. In my office, saar is my boss. I am his servant. If saar orders me to, I will certainly chop off ten heads in a flash and pile them up in front of him. You shouldn’t mistake me then.”

“Will you chop off my head if he orders you to?” asked the accountant Pillai. “Then? The government tells me to do anything and everything saar orders me to do. You’re just a weakling Pillai. If saar orders it, I would even behead the jamin.” said Thevar. The accountant’s eyes almost jumped out of its sockets. This is an empire that has cast a spell to hold the sun in place, you know? See this notice?” and showed him the dismissal order Appa had given him the previous day. Pillai did not dare to touch it. When Thevar went back to the office, he recounted this tale to Appa.

For a month, this state of affairs continued. When the third notice was dispatched, the accountant came with the notice in hand to meet Appa. “What?” demanded Thevar of Pillai who was trying to sidle into the office unnoticed. “Saar is working, don’t you see? Let him call you, you can go then. Stay here,” he said. The accountant’s face turned pale. Then when he came in, he could not speak. Appa explained the problems with the accounts. “It’s always like this here. The government knows,” he responded weakly.

“Alright. Then I will write to the government,” said Appa. “No one writes to the government from here…” said the accountant. “Then? I need to do my job,” Appa replied. The accountant did not know what to say. “Periyakaruppa Thevar is a favourite of the British collector. He only has to say a word, and the white master will come running here. Did you know that our jamindar Thevar is the collector’s hunting partner?” threatened Pillai. Appa said, “I don’t bother with such things. I will write to them. Let the collector do what he thinks is right. Please let the Thevar know that I am doing my job.”

The accountant Pillai wondered whether Appa was off his rocker. Why did he wish to die foolishly? He knew how many people the jamin had killed and buried noiselessly. “Nadar, you look a bit like my son… let me tell you something. Don’t do this, okay? Apply for leave and get out of here. Get a transfer, go someplace else that’s more suited for you, get married to a good Nadar girl and be happy with your children. This is a town of murderers, they’ll hack you limb to limb and bury your body without a trace. Killing a man is child’s play for our Thevar.”

Appa replied decidedly, “Look, I’ve climbed out of a manure pit to get here. I’ve seen things that are far worse than death. I’m not going to be afraid of anything ever again. Your accounts and calculations may mean many things to you. You can play games with it, meet any ends with it. Me, I’ve just started climbing and got a foothold. This is my foothold now. It belongs to me and the seven generations that will come after me. When I go up, they climb with me. If I let go now, all eight generations fall down, see? So go tell the Thevar that Nadar is ready to die. Go!”

The accountant sat there for a moment, dazed and shocked and then left. Sankara Thevar cautioned Appa. “Saar, please don’t go out. They may be hiding in the shadows waiting to hack at you,” he said. Appa stayed inside. The next morning, the jamindar cantered in on his horse and alighted in front of Appa’s office. The huntsmen who accompanied him stood outside. He was dressed in hunting clothes like an Englishman. Appa did not get up. He did not welcome him in. The jamindar leapt up the steps leading up to the office with a long rifle in his hand. He stood outside Appa’s office and aimed the muzzle at Appa’s face. His hand was on the trigger.

For a moment then, Appa stared at death in the face. Then he said, “Shoot if you want to. It’s a lucky English officer who dies in service in his English office.” The jamindar lowered his gun. “Shoot! If you are such a pussy plucker, if you really think you have the license to kill and loot at will, shoot me and leave. But if I die, it won’t end so simply. You’re stirring up a hornet’s nest! We’ll come for you in droves. Wave after wave, our generations will keep coming for you. Let’s see how many people you can shoot,” said Appa. When he spoke those words, he felt like an audience of thousands was in that room, hanging on to his every word.

The jamindar had not excepted this show of nerve from Appa. He couldn’t think straight after that. His hands trembled. He lowered his gun in hesitation. Appa seized the opportunity.”You think you can shoot me and escape. I am the officer who is supposed to levy the taxes here. It’s not like you think, a collector cannot close this case at his will and pleasure. The white man will find you and hang you. If they decide to hang you, then they would have to give away your lands to someone else, and your cousins will line up to give evidence against you. How would you like that?” he said.

The jamindar slowly regained his poise: his face became still, his eyes narrowed into cunning slits. “You are a cunning fox… but we have had these smarts for ten generations and we’ve played all kinds of games with it. Let’s see. You are an officer in these premises only, yes? Try and step out. An elephant will stomp you to death. A Thevan who is passing you on the street will hack you. What can you do? Let’s see…” he said and left the building, stomping on the steps. He clambered on to his horse and cantered away, the horse’s hooves splashing mud and sludge in its wake.

Appa did not stir out of the office at all. Sankara Thevar had informed him that there were people hiding everywhere, waiting to kill him if he went out. The peon Kandasamy went on leave. But Sankara Thevar stayed behind in the office, armed with his spear. He ate what Appa cooked. At night, he kept guard on the porch, covering himself with a sack cloth; he did not so much as wink. During the day, he slept on the porch. But even the sound of a garden lizard was enough to rouse him to alertness; he sat up with his spear, ready to attack.

For twenty-seven days, this state continued. Appa never set foot outside of the office premises. Thevar went to the post-office, spear in hand, and brought in the letters, he also took back the outgoing mail. He bought all the groceries for Appa. Since he had the ‘government order’ as evidence in his pocket, he walked about with his head held high, unafraid of anyone.

Appa waited for days. Death waiting in front of him, hiding just out of his sight. It was then that, one night, Appa had a dream. That Nesamony came to his tea shop to drink a cup of tea. “Then, how are you, son?” he asked in a loud voice, lifting his coat collar high above his neck. Appa woke up with a start. Immediately, he wrote a long letter to Nesamony detailing the events that had transpired.

Appa thought that Nesamony might take the letter to the collector at Nellai, and maybe he could expect to get help from the police. However on the fifth day, a big group of about a hundred people came from Tenkasi to Ilanji, armed with sickles and spears. Leading the group, was an elephant. Loud cheers – “Victory to the Congress Party! Victory to Mahatma Gandhi! Victory to Pandit Nehru! Victory to Subash Chandra Bose! Jai!”

Appa was in the office in the afternoon when he heard the shouts and hoots and came out to see what was going on. Thevar stood at the gate with a sickle. “Please go in, sir. No man will cross this threshold when I am still alive,” he said. The first thing Appa saw was the tusker elephant that had mushroomed there like a boulder, blocking the gate. He did not understand what was going on. It was only after that that he saw Nesamony.

“Thevar, this is my Nesamony, the lawyer,” Appa said. “Who?” asked Thevar. “My leader!” said Appa and rushed out. Nesamony caught him in an embrace, heart to heart.”You’re born to a father, son, you showed them! You stood up to them! Son, we should always stand up, up in their face, anywhere. Let’s show them… let’s see who raises a finger againt you when you go out. Get up on the elephant,” he said.

Appa protested, “Ayyo!” “Son, I am ordering you to get up there now. Up!” He signaled to the mahout and the elephant bent down its front foot like a step. Appa climbed on its leg and holding on to its ear, threw his other leg around its neck and sat on its head. It was like sitting on a huge rock.

When the mahout signaled, the elephant rose. Appa went up high. All through his living days, over and over, Appa fervently kept describing that single motion – how many times, and in how many words! That movement up above would have been three feet tops. However it happened for an eon in Appa’s mind.

He kept moving up. Higher, higher, higher. The ground slipped under his feet and went lower and lower. The office, its tiled, sloped roof, went low. The branches of the trees went low. The streets, the men, all descended far below him. The sky with its light came low to receive him. He was surrounded by light. The light of the skies. Light that fills the clouds, light that makes the clouds brim over.

When the elephant started moving, Appa felt like he had turned into an elephant himself. “You know what an elephant is only when you climb on it. An elephant is power, understand? You feel like you can invade a fortress with a tiny pin… you should feel the way an elephant walks. That’s what you call a gait. Such majesty!” Appa could never find the words to describe that experience entirely. Appa walked on the sky, swaying, his gait gentle and majestic.

The group with Appa on the elephant at its head went through all the streets of Ilanji, shouting slogans.  When the people at the jamin realized what was going out, the gates of the jamin were closed. “Break it open!” ordered Nesamony. When the elephant lifted a leg and gave the gate an almighty push, the gate opened and promptly swung off its hinges. The elephant walked right to the entrance of the jamin bungalow. When the animals in the zoo smelled an elephant in the premises, they became restless. The bears and leopard walked around in circles. The jungle cats slunked in the corners of their cages and hissed in fear.

Appa was far above the rooftops of the jamin bungalow. He kicked at its tiled roof with his foot. The crowd cheered and hollered. For half an hour they stood there and chanted slogans. Victory to Mahatma Gandhi! To Pandit Nehru! To Subash Chandra Bose, to Kamaraj, to Nesamony! Then they went back to Appa’s office on the elephant.

Appa got off the elephant in front of his office. He felt like there were still some remnants of the elephant’s movements left over on his body. He felt a pleasurable ache in both his thighs. When he kept his legs apart and walked, he felt like he was floating on thin air. “Do you know? On that that my gait changed. After that, my gait always had that elephantine sway in it!” Appa used to say. After dropping Appa off at the office, Nesamony and his group took leave. “No one will lay so much as a finger on you from now on. Be strong!” said Nesamony, before he left.

Yes, after that Appa worked in Ilanji for seven years. He lodged complaints about the jamindar’s financial irregularities. The lands were measured again and partitioned to the right people. At one point, the jamindar’s cousins started working in Appa’s favour and helped him in many ways. When Appa walked on the street, the people who crossed him on the street moved aside and greeted him courteously. They always gave him a wide berth, almost wide enough to fit an elephant.

“In their eyes, I was still travelling around on the elephant,” said Appa. “Because there was always an elephant in my heart. There was an elephant in my gait, see.” The elephant became a part of his name. He always called himself Aanai Karuththaan Nadar, Karuththan Nadar the elephant, even in his letters to me. “A man on an elephant can never bend in front of another. He will not be accommodative and play nice and let people walk over him. Understood?”

Appa got married when he was working in Ilanji. I was born. When I was about to be named, the name struck him suddenly. “Vanangaan”. A stubborn stiffneck. One who does not bow his neck in submission anywhere. Amma asked, “What’s that? It’s a weird name.” “No, that’s going to be his name. Vanangaan Nadar,” said Appa. My father gave me an inviolable order at birth.

When I was seven months old, my father took me to Palliyadi to visit Nesamony. Nesamony was reading the newspaper in his living room. He entered Appaavu Peruvattar’s big house and stood in the front hall, facing its famous son. When he asked Appa to sit down, Appa dragged forward a chair, sat down and placed me in the man’s arms. “What’s his name?” asked Nesamony. Appa told him. His face broke into a smile.

The Riverbed of Butterflies [Translation]

A translation of B.Jeyamohan’s Tamil short story ‘Padugai’. The story can be read in Tamil here.

Singi used to say that the riverbed of butterflies could be found on the slopes of Pandrimalai, beyond the Pechipparai dam and the lake. On lonely nights, I can still hear his low-pitched voice and his tone-deaf singing, interrupted by spits and ‘hrumph’s and liquor-reeking belches. His body was like leather; he credited its robust fitness even at the age of eighty to liquor. Those were nights when the only discernable sound was the rustling of palm leaves when they caressed one another. The shadows of leaves swayed on the moonlight streaming down on the threshing floor. On such nights, Singi would tuck his legs underneath his body and sit in that curious way that any mention of his name immediately brought to my mind. Rocking back and forth, he would start tapping a three-fingered beat on the hourglass-shaped udukku’s lizard-hide membrane, and begin to sing our town’s tales from seventy years ago. His voice kept going even after Venus rose in the eastern sky in the wee hours of the morning, a single silver spangle between the heads of the palm trees. We would rest our backs on beds fashioned out of hay and listen to him, barely awake, flitting in and out of dreams, wandering around in strange trances with Singi’s voice trailing in the background. When we came back to our senses with a start, his voice would still be emerging from the darkness, a solid truth anchoring us in the real world. There would be a glimmer in his eyes. Just before dawn, his head would loll and his voice would break, but never has he actually finished a story. He would simply slump on the ground where he sat. He showed signs of life again only when the sun was high in the sky. Till then, he lay there, surrounded by flecks of spit. Muthamma would come in with a broom in her hand and raise her voice. “What a fine sight! The young masters from good caste getting together with this Paraiyan fellow and lying here like this, heads and feet everywhere! Master, young master…” she would wake us up. “Why do they have to come here, I ask? They could catch a cold, or something worse, and whose loss would that be? No more, I say, not my circus any more. Singi, Singi…look at the way this Parai fellow sleeps! Singi…” she would holler. Singi would lie there, spread-eagled on the bare floor. Next to him lay the udukku, echoing and evoking the sounds it made through the night in our heads. In the light of day, the memories of the night would be very far, almost a dream. During the daytime, Singi would not look like someone who had anything to do with the events of the night. His dark, emancipated body, dew-laden and dusty, would shudder softly with every breath. Rain or shine, it did not matter to him; he was like the sturdy palm tree that stood at the corner of the threshing floor.

Singi used to say that he was born when they were surveying the land to build the Pechipparai dam – all his stories began with his own birth. Slowly, there would emerge a beat in the story, a length in his lyric, and it would turn into a song. The udukku would join in spontaneously. One of the tales that he never tired of telling was the history of Semban Durai.

In those days, if you travelled past Kulasekharam, it was dark enough to mask an elephant even at the height of the noonday sun. And beyond that, like Mooli Alangari’s tears, it rained thirty days a month. It was a forest where jackals feasted on the leftovers of tigers. You couldn’t see the ground for the lush undergrowth. You couldn’t see the sky for the close leafcover. And snaking through, like the dirty white thread worn across the body of an old Brahmin priest, was a one-horse track. It wound its way past Pechi’s bosom, past the Perunchani hill, past the wilderness of Nedumangkadu, and landed at the feet of the deity Ananta Padmanabhan, in Thiruvananthapuram. That was Pechi’s empire. Save for the nails of wild creatures and the feet of the Kani tribes, nothing, not even the scent of the townspeople, could set foot in there. Pechi was the daughter of Brahma; she was the queen of the hills. She was headstrong and no one could subdue her; it was Semban Durai who finally brought her under his thumb. At first, he lured the Kani people by giving them gifts of palm-sugar and weed. He roamed the forests at his will and pleasure, fearing neither the draughty winds nor death itself. Under his heavy tread, the green of the forest withered brown and wasted away. When the forest animals took sight of him, they tucked their tails between their legs, lowered their snouts and scattered in panic. The birds in the sky beat their wings madly, flailing in agony.  If he raised a finger and made a gesture, “Stop!”, even a tiger would stiffen its tail, squirm its body, lower its face and stop in its tracks. Semban Durai was not a man. He was a black demon, a bhootham, who had formerly stood guard at Indrani’s palace in the kingdom of Indran, king of the gods. As a punishment for his misdeeds, he was cursed to take the form of a man. Bound by the power of word and sound, he descended to earth. The kumpiniyan – Company fellow – controlled the bhootham with more mantras. He made the bhootham lift unliftable loads, perform unspeakable deeds. With boons, with gifts; with mandates, with decrees; came Semban Durai, to subdue Pechi; came Semban Durai; to lord over Valli – so went Singi’s song.

Even when we were children, the Valli river had dwindled to a blue ribbon. In the rainy season, very rarely, you could see it spanning both banks, soil-scented and swirling along. “You should have seen her then! The way she lay, the way she walked… ‘twas Semban Durai who tamed her and put her in place! He got the better of that cunning aruvani’s arrogance!” He pointed to the entrance of the Sivan temple and said that the floodwaters would rise all the way up there in those days. “What do you think you have seen, young master? Do you know how many women that daughter of a widow-whore has herself widowed? The bitch would rush out, sweeping everything in her wake – uprooting banana trees full of fruit clusters and coconut trees with flower-laden heads. See the way the troublemaking moodhi lies now, like a wounded rat-snake, but don’t believe her. She is full of poison. If Semban Durai had not arrived in time, this daughter of a blind whore would have swallowed alive the whole of these parts.” When Singi opened his mouth, Valli was always subjected to a volley of abuse. One rainy season, she had flung her hair open like a banshee and roared down here, and Singi’s father and mother and house and garden had all been washed away to the shores of Thengaipattnam. As Singi used to say, “She’s a blind mooli, a harbinger of misfortune,a blight on the clans.”

It was an evening when the skies were like wet glass. We had gone to see the big dam at Pechipparai. The fierce Valli was left unfettered there; she lay there like a good girl, coyly swirling blue, confined to the bounds of her cement walls. A little water trickled down the sluice like a tear. The bran-coloured mud on the banks carried impressions of a thousand footprints. Radhakrishnan pointed to a distant hill and said, that’s where you can find Singi’s riverbed of butterflies. The hill that he was pointing to looked like it was made of blue smoke. Just above that, a cloud, softly lit, seemed to have frozen in place like a smooth sculpture of crystal.

There was an artificial garden on this side of the dam. A croton plant, gloriously red, looked like a child from the city who had lost her way and wandered into the forest. The few massive trees planted there had gone to sleep. There was the sound of swirling water, the ruckus of homecoming birds. At the western edge, under a teak tree, lay Semban Durai’s grave. For no apparent reason, they had painted his grave in a blinding shade of yellow. They could have painted it green, Durai’s favourite colour. Or even red. “Look here, little master, you will not believe me. We will never see such a man again, yes? Has the little master ever seen a man who was ruddy white, a semban? Ruddy hair, ruddy eyes, ruddy nose…from head to toe, that man was ruddy white. Don’t know what he ate, but if he opened his mouth in a grin, it looked just like a tiger’s. There was no need for him to say a word; it was enough for him to just look; and just like that, you would wet your pants. He was a bhootham, yes he was. A ruddy white bhootham!”

Semban Durai, the Ruddy-White Master who had conquered Pechi, now lay under a tree reeking of bird droppings, in a lush green thicket, all alone. It was not possible to read the name on the grave. The people who managed the site had recklessly whitewashed over it many times. If only he was able to walk, he would not even be in the area, I said. How did he bear to stay under the shade of croton plants? Why him, even Pechi would have run away from that place, said Radhakrishnan, pointing me to the small form in the place of worship dedicated to her. On a large square-shaped stone platform, there stood a gnarled, knobbled, mighty, old tree.  It was teeming with large, thick leaves. Its branches were low on all four sides and hung over them like a tent. Inside, it was half-dark. The ground was damp and slippery with rotting leaves. The bronze face of the goddess was nailed on to the tree. Under it, there was a dark sacrificial stone. The flowers from a week ago lay scattered there. There were flecks of vermilion smeared everywhere.

I felt like I could hear Singi’s voice in the air.

“’Twas Pechi’s blood

That rained down the hills

’Twas Pechi’s hair

That Semban Durai plucked away…”

The Kani folks leading the way, hunting hounds at his heels, and riding a red steed, Semban Durai went to see Valli, his prospective bride, whom he would conquer and tame. On seeing the virgin girl who rushed past him, curling and swirling, he laughed in amusement. “You like to run? Run on. Let’s see how long you run,” he said. “Semban Durai is not going to turn his back on this place without putting you in your place.” Valli, frightened by his threats, ran to Pechi and poured her heart out. An enraged Pechi confronted Semban Durai in the forest. Elephants hanging down her lobes, a python girdling her breasts; her feet on the hills and her head in the clouds, baring fearsome teeth and poisonous fangs; eyes spitting fire and a thunder-like laugh, she manifested before him, in all her glory. All living creatures stopped in their tracks: a sparrow in flight froze in the sky, a falling cascade hung halfway down the hill. The forests shivered; the skies echoed her thunderous voice. Pechi bared her lightning-teeth and demanded, “Have you come to shear my hair, son? Have you come to restrain my daughter, son?”   

Durai did not flinch. “Pechi, if you are a demon, I am a fiend. Do you think your little games will scare me? Get out of my way and stand aside, you moodhi!” he said. Pechi realized then that he was not an ordinary man, there was some mischief afoot. She made herself as small as she could, and took the form of a petite kurathi, ahill tribe-woman, decked in pearls and sandal paste; and with honey-sweet words and froth-like laughter, she stood coyly before him. She summoned up all her coquetries and smiled at him with meaning. She summoned up a hundred enchantments and argued with conviction. Pechi had the authority ordained by the creator Brahma himself. She had given her daughter, Valli, a boon. To restrain Valli is to restrain Pechi herself. The curse of Brahma would destroy the whole world. Pechi, the queen of the hills, is the goddess who protects the lands. She bestows on them medicines to cure their maladies; offers them fragrances to keep their fasts. She protects them. The wild creatures and the Kani people are her children. No stranger should walk around after having betrayed Pechi. It’s not right to harm her children; Pechi will not stand by and watch it. The anger of a mother will destroy whole clans. End civilizations. Don’t test me, run while you can, she said. Durai would not yield. “Do your best to stop me. I came to marry Valli, subdue here pride, restrain her. I will leave only when she is restrained. Do what you can!” he said.

Pechi was trembling with fury. Banging her fists on her chest, screaming with rage, she turned herself into a hurricane and whirled into the forest, dancing like a dervish in a paroxysm of frenzy. Her dance of fury sent deer flying into the air; the mighty jungle trees shuddered like reeds. She whistled down the mountains and entered the town, sacking it clean. Roofs and eaves took to the skies like kites. Cows and goats were flung into the air and died when they crashed to the ground. On the fourth day, there was a downpour of demoniac rain. Floodwaters barraged the town, melding homes with their gardens, fusing fields with their borders. On the fifth day, came Valli. Her hair flying in the wind like palm fronds, howling, beating her breasts, her red saree cascading like waves, she entered the town. She grabbed everything from the stacks of hay to the pots in the kitchen. At the dawn of the tenth day, the whole town was filled with red mud as if it had been swept clean and smeared with cowdung. No one knew where they had come from, but wherever you turned, there were birds. Crows and eagles and storks and sparrows flapped their wings over the muddy tracts. They quarreled and scraped raucously. All through the night, they sat on the roofs and cried, “Pechiyammo, Pechiyammo! Pechi, my mother! Pechi, my mother!” The townspeople were filled with fear. Was it Brahman’s fury? Indra’s curse? They shuddered. What god had they displeased? They appealed to the goddesses at Malaikkavil and Mudippurai and promised them tributes if they relieved their agony. To quench the fire in their bellies, they foraged for lily tubers and mudfish in the slush.

Pechi would not be appeased. There was no melting her heart of stone. Wearing a leaf-skirt, with a coir-box at her waist, with flaming eyes and bellowing breaths, she walked through the town. “Spare my children, Pechi!” wailed the goddess at Mudippurai, falling at her feet. Pechi grabbed her hair and flung her aside. The sword-and-trident wielding goddess from Malaikkavil came to battle with her; Pechi simply kicked her away. I will not spare you even if Brahma himself orders me to, she cackled. Grabbing a handful of poisonous seeds, she flung them all over the town. Where the poison landed, like a patch of forest land struck by lightning, the place blackened and wasted away. The stench of burning corpses followed at her footsteps. The goddesses at Malaikkavil and Mudippurai stayed in their temples and shed tears of sorrow. There was no one who could restrain Pechi. Indeed, the only one who saw her go about town was the shaman-priest Muthan. “Pechi has descended; now she will not rest till she levels this town,” he announced, running from street to street. Semban Durai had touched Pechi and defiled her; that was the reason for her anger, and that was why their town would be destroyed, he said. He said that to pacify Pechi and cool her down, it was necessary to sacrifice a billy goat and offer her worship on the banks of the Valli. “But where will we go for a goat now, O priest?” pleaded the townspeople. Muthan peered at them through his bloodshot eyes, “It’s enough that you dare to make such excuses to Muthan. Don’t take them to Pechi’s ears. She is a devil,” he warned. Everybody cursed Durai. They expected the priest Muthan who had accused Durai to perform some black magic against him. That’s not as easy as you think, said Muthan. He told them that he had perceived with his magic that Durai was not a man, but a bhootham. However, the townspeople, faint with hunger, would not agree to an expensive sacrificial ritual.

Singi would narrate emotionally: it was right at that moment that Durai rode in. Mounted on his red horse, with a hat, boots and a fine coat on, and a double-barreled gun in one hand; with the chendai drummer announcing him, the town’s dogs surrounding him, with a couple of Kani men for guard, he entered town. Upon seeing the fine entry of this stranger, the women and children ran and hid away in their houses. When the chendai drummer announced that all the townspeople should gather around, only a few brave men came forward. The drummer said that they needed wage labour to work in the Pechipparai hills. The workers would be given two annas a day and their stomach’s full of cooked seeraga samba rice, three times a day. The townspeople hesitated. No way he was going to give them so much food and money, he’s just pulling our leg, they said. Immediately, Durai increased the wage to three annas. The head of the Pulayans clarified the amount a few times and made sure that he was hearing right. Then, “The people from our caste will come, master,” he said, falling at the chendai drummer’s feet. The golden words of three annas and three full meals a day spread like wildfire from town to town. Some elderly Paraiyans were astonished. Is this really happening in Pechi’s empire, they wondered. This signals the end of times; the town will be destroyed, cautioned the upper-caste Nairs. The youngsters spat on the ground, “Tell Pechi to go fuck herself.”  There were waves of hungry masses ready to leave. The priest Muthan went into a trance and pronounced oracles at street corners. “Do you want to see all of Pechi’s power? Should she reveal her whole self to you? Is it not enough, what we have just seen?” he leaped around in frenzy. Till the first lot left the town, there was confusion all around. “Rather than stay here and stink, it’s better to go there and die. Durai has promised to provide our gruel. As if Pechi allows us to stay here, that moodhi,” said Kandan Pulayan, and left with a group. And from the next day, the whole town started migrating to the hills. Hordes of people and their cattle herds travelled up the Valli river, foraging, eating, shitting, hooting and shrieking, stopping their journey only by night. The sound of their hooves echoed through the muddy towns they passed by. The riverine waterhens, displaced and restless, entered the town and raised their voices plaintively, foreshadowing bad omens. There was panic and deathly silence all through the town. When Muthan saw even the most faithful of the townspeople leave, he couldn’t bear it any longer and jumped in front of them, blocking their way. A teenager called Gnanamani threw him into the river. Later, he kept saying that he thought the man was capable of swimming and surfacing.  However, the priest Muthan was never seen again. A strange excitement had taken root somewhere in their midst and spread through the horde, overtaking them. A group went around, singing merrily at the top of their voices. They danced madly to drumbeats. When the skies turned pink, when they had lit fires beneath the trees to cook their dinners, men and women danced in circles. All eighteen clans forgot all notions of kinship and coupled with each other. Bawdy songs floated through the silent night, piercing the ears of the townspeople who lay in bed, unable to sleep.

Singi said that in the riverbed of butterflies, there are no trees. It is a marshy slope, never completely dry. There, the sun has just light, no heat. The land there becomes moist when touched by the wind. It’s lush, full of green. “You cannot see a green like that anywhere else, young master! When the sun rises up high in the sky, what a scent it kicks up! The fragrance of the green turns your head. And what flowers! The shrubs are full of flowers…sometimes you can’t see the leaves for the petals…red and yellow and blue…what shall I say? Is there any colour that you can’t find there? Is there any flower that you can’t find there? That is Pechi’s womb! And who is she? She is our mother!” he used to say. His eyes would widen. He would stumble over his words. The udukku would be rattling hard. Suddenly, he would lower his head, take a deep breath and start singing.

Semban Durai first planned to imprison Valli at the northern bend of the Koratti hill. It is a place where Valli bashfully bends and gives way as she passes downhill. Ants started to feast on Pechi’s body. They bored through her right breast, and her left breast gorged up. In pain, Pechi turned over and rubbed herself to relieve her agony – just a rub – and the ants and their homes were flattened to dust. Valli, freed of her restraint, cackled and leaped downhill. Where there had been a mountain, there was a pass now. Durai did not lose heart. When he had rice in hand, were ants going to be scarce to find? He tried building again, a short distance away. Pechi’s army of elephants came teeming in the sky above thir heads. With their ivory tusks flashing silver, they attacked. Water rained down, bridging land and sky. Valli ran with all the energy of the charging elephants. Like a mighty snake, she wound her body around the various malais, slithering and twitching around the hills. Iluppamalai crumbled down. Kadambamalai had deep cracks in it. Ten days later, when the sky brightened, the footprints had been washed away and the forests were pristine once again. Clusters of green leaves cried, Pechi! Pechi! Valli lay like a satiated python with its stomach bulged full, curled and languid on the hills.

Durai could also not take it any longer. He fell at Pechi’s feet. “Forgive me Pechi,” he cried, weeping. In the middle of the thickest, darkest jungle, he built a flame pit and subjected himself to a regimen of rigorous, torturous penances. He sacrificed goats and billies. Along with all his brothers – ghosts and goblins and devils and demons- he offered sacrifices to Pechi. Pechi would not yield. He pleaded, he wept.  When nothing else worked, he drew the sword at his waist and pressed the blade to his neck. He bellowed, “Here, take the head of a bhootham. I say this with Brahma himself as witness. Here, take my head and be satisfied.” Whe he raised the sword, Pechi relented. She took form in the sacrificial fire and danced frenziedly. She came as the wind and cackled with glee, causing all eight directions to shake and tremble. “My offering, give me my offering!” she demanded. “I want a human sacrifice, and I want it now!” she bayed, dancing in fury. “How many men? Just say how many,” said Durai. “A thousand and one,” said Pechi. “That’s all? I’ll give it,” said Durai, unperturbedly. “Where? Where?” demanded Pechi, hopping around impatiently. “On the slopes of Panrimalai, there are a thousand houses. Take them, Pechi. Not a thousand, you moodhi. Five thousand. Take it and be satisfied,” said Durai. She cackled; the forest quaked and trembled. “Promise me, promise me that you will be grateful for the blood you drink!” Durai urged. Pechi danced in fury. She whipped her hair out and slapped it on the ground, in solemn promise.

The next day, even before dawn, Pechi had had her fill. A thousand huts had settled in her belly. For ten days after that, she continued her frenzied dance, and spent all her fury. On the tenth day, as she had promised, she came in front of Durai. Durai sequestered her spirit in an iron nail, and nailed it to the broad trunk of a Vengai tree. He ordained a yearly sacrifice and a monthly worship on the full-moon day every month for the goddess Pechi. He made her an offering of turmeric and a sacrifice of a mature black goat and started his work. Valli’s dark days had begun. After Pechi had been subdued, there was no one for her. Semban Durai grabbed her long hair and curled it around his fist, and finally tamed her arrogance.

Bathed in soft sunlight, the riverbed of butterflies on the slopes of Pandrimalai brought back the memories of Singi like an old, familiar ache. There were lush thickets of green as far as the eye could see. Flowers, masses of colours that filled the eyes made it yearn for something. A slight breeze was enough to set up curves on the carpet of flowers. Butterflies everywhere, like flowers in flight. They were unbelievably huge. “Never catch those blasted butterflies, young master,” Singi would say. “Each one of them is the eye of a dead man. Twitching, twitching, they eternally twitch and wander around here, poor souls.” Eyes, flying here, flying there, their eyelashes fluttering urgently. Their gazes everywhere, all around. I caught hold of Radhakrishnan’s hand. “Let’s go,” I said. The butterflies from the riverbed had taken over the slopes and the valley as well. They withered into the water and swirled with it. They fell into the drinking water and twitched in agony. They sat on the large implements that had bored holes through Pechi’s body, on the rails that sucked her lifeblood and took it to far-off cities, and they trembled. Like bits of coloured paper, they were all over the mud. They were stuck to the dark, wet roofs. Their bodies kept hitting the glass fronts of the buses; they kept slumping down. From within the dewy green of the forest, the butterflies kept coming with no end in sight.

The King of Sweets [Translation]

A translation of B. Jeyamohan’s Tamil short story ‘Pradhaman’ (2018). The story in Tamil can be read here.

Pradhaman

‘How many coconuts?’ asked Aasan, the masterchef, doubling up his ankle-length vaetti and tucking the cloth in at his waist. I had not finished counting. “About four hundred, I think,” I said. He came and stood by me, hands on hips, and turned his eye around. “More like five hundred and thirty,” he said. I looked at the pile of coconuts and then looked at him. “They are a bit smaller than usual. Give me the exact number when you finish counting. If we have six hundred, that would be good. Even better if there are fifty more. We want coconuts with plenty of milk,” he said. “Why?” I asked. “Lei!” he made an impatient noise, “Didn’t you feel the adai, how it’s turned out? It’s a little thicker than usual, will soak up lots of milk,” he said, and went back.

Maniyan and I finished counting the coconuts together. There were exactly six hundred and thirty of them. “What does he carry up in that head of his, some sort of a calculating machine?” asked Maniyan. “He is very particular about keeping count,” I said. “Some head, up there. But what did you think the whole culinary enterprise was? A lot math and measurement,” said Maniyan. “I mean, taste is in the numbers, yes. But there is always something beyond numbers in good food, something divine. The gods should arise out of the food… the flavor is something else altogether then.”

I looked at Aasan making his rounds, inspecting each ingredient, issuing orders. I have never seen him pick an ingredient up with his hands. He estimated everything with his eyes and nose. To test coconuts, he would ask someone to knock two coconuts against each other as he watched. “They’re tender, put them aside for milking,” he would say. But I was dumbstruck when he asked for a similar examination of two blocks of jaggery, and then pronounced, “There’s lime in it, keep it away. Go tell Kumaresan Pillai that we need the jaggery replaced.”

Nothing seemed amiss to me when I looked at the iron-coloured mounds of jaggery heads. “Lime?” I asked. “They add lime when they boil the palm sugar juice to extract the jaggery. Makes the jaggery nice and white, rock-solid, but it shows its face when we make the syrup. It’s the motor owner’s precious daughter who’s getting married tomorrow. You know what they say. Like an elephant in a festival street, the dessert is king in a feast. Whatever else we manage to do well, if the dessert is messed up, then it’s no good. So go tell them to replace it,” said Aasan.

I stood there wondering whether I could ask Maniyan to go with me. Aasan turned to him. “Dei,” he ordered, “go see whether we have enough tamarind wood for the fuel. Just a third of the lot needs to be dry, make sure the rest of it is green,” he said, and turned to look at me. “Go, go tell them,” he said.  As Maniyan moved away, I hesitantly went to the section where the kitchen utensils were stored.  Subbu Pillai was standing there. “What?” he asked. “Aasan wants the jaggery replaced,” I said.

His face shrunk into a frown. “Did we pay for the whole load of jaggery just to go back and buy more? Just use what you have,” he said. “I cannot tell him that. If you want you can go and talk to him yourself,” I said. “Just go and tell him I said it can’t be done. Go on now,” said Subbu Pillai. “Aasan didn’t send me here to talk to you. He sent me here to talk to the owner,” I said. “To the owner? Do you think the owner sits there to tally your jaggery accounts? You’ll get it hard with a slipper!” he said.

I gave him a look and went into the house. He ran in behind me. “Son, listen to me,” he pleaded. I understood what he was afraid of. “So, you are the one who purchased the jaggery?” I said. “Me? Buy jaggery? I just made a bulk order…” said Subbu Pillai. Then he sighed. “Do whatever you like. That’s what he gave me, and that’s what I brought in. I don’t know anything else,” he said. As I resolutely walked in, he followed me, “Son, hang on, wait!” But by then I had entered the ladies’ wing of the house.

A sea of colour bobbed before my eyes. I had never noticed till then that there were so many shades of silk, that women wore so many different pieces of jewelry. And it was not like I was new to weddings: it has been three years since I started accompanying Aasan on his wedding catering rounds; I have worked in eighteen wedding kitchens so far. And if Aasan was invited to cater a wedding, they were grand, seven-story-canopied affairs, with the bride wearing at least three hundred sovereigns of gold.

Subbu Pillai’s wife approached me. “What do you want?” she asked. “I want to meet the owner,” I said. “You can’t meet the owner now. The lawyers are here, he is talking to them,” she said. “We want the jaggery replaced. Aasan says there is lime in the jaggery that we received,” I said. Her face changed. “You don’t have to go in there and bring this up now. I will talk to someone and make sure you get a replacement,” she said.

‘No, Aasan said that I had to tell the owner. So, I should go in and tell him,” I said. “This dastardly fellow, I don’t know what he has gone and done now. If this reaches the owner’s ears, he will slipper him…son, you wait here, let me go and talk to the man who handles the goods and make sure that you get some good quality jaggery,” she said. She clutched my arm. “Wait, what’s the hurry now? Here, one minute,” she said. I was not sure what to do.

She pulled at my arm, “Come in.” “No,” I said. “Why are you squirming like a bride? Come in now,” she said, pulling me into the room. “Stay here,” she said. I hesitated, “No, I…” but she would not listen; she took hold of me and plopped me on a wooden chair. She brought me a plate with a fried lentil vadai and a sweet laddu on it. “Eat,” she said. “No, I don’t want anything,” I said. She lightly smacked the side of my head.  

I took a bite of the laddu. “The jaggery should be of first-class quality. You can’t fool Aasan,” I said. “That’s right, keep eating, I will go right out and make sure the shopkeeper sends you first rate jaggery soon,” she said, and walked out. I was left alone in the room. The room had lots of things lying around. Brass utensils, wooden boxes of all sizes and shapes. A cane basket full of flowers. The scent of rose perfume filled the room.

As I sat munching on my snack, a girl entered the room. She looked at me, one eyebrow raised. “Who are you?” she asked. I got up. “Aasan, jaggery…” I said. “Oh, you are here with the catering group?” she asked. “Did Amma come here?” “Amma?” I asked. “Yes, Amma, my mother,” she said. “Who?” I asked, when I heard a voice at the door. “What are you doing here?” A middle-aged woman wearing a mango-yellow silk saree and a red-stone addigai around her throat entered the room.

The little girl said, “I was looking for you. Everyone over there is asking for Neela.” The lady placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Who’s the boy here?” “I came here with the catering group… in the kitchen,” I said. “Who’s catering?” she asked. “Aasan,” I said. “Aasan?” she asked; her eyes narrowed just a bit. “Velu Aasan. From Thirparappu, the Nagamootu house…” I said.

I was not sure why her face changed the way it did. “Oh,” she said. Then she lightly smacked the little girl on her shoulder. “Go tell them that I am coming,” she said. The little girl flung her long plait with its soft three-balled kunjalam bobbing at the end behind her back and went away, her thighs rustling within her long silk skirt, her anklets jingling.

The lady turned to me “Are you Aasan’s son?” she asked. “No, I came here with him,” I said. “How many children does he have?” she asked. “Children? But Aasan is not married,” I said. “Not married?” she asked. “Yes. Aasan keeps vow by Hanumar, the bachelor god. He never married,” I said. “Oh,” she said, and then, “Alright, finish your snacks.” But she sat in front of me right there on a three-legged stool.

I was not sure why she was crushing and twisting the end of her saree like that with all her fingers. The silk saree had been finished up by tying the threads at its end into a row of knots like little kunjalams, and here she was, twisting and scraping, as though she wanted to undo all of them. When my eyes met hers, she smiled. “When did you arrive?” she asked. I had finished my snack and was looking around for a suitable place to put my plate away, her question caught me unawares. I started. “Who?” “You. All of you,” she said.

“We came early this morning. Then we sorted all the goods. Aasan came just now, in the afternoon. You must have seen our van standing outside? It says Sri Chitra Caterers, Thirparappu on the side.” I said. “Yes,” she said. “Matador,” I said. I liked to keep that word in mind and use it when I could.

Subbu Pillai’s wife came in. “I have asked them to haul away the old stuff and bring in fresh jaggery. Good stock. Your Aasan can eat his stomach’s fill if he likes,” she said. I nodded and went out of the room.

Maniyan came up to me. “Why does he want so much green wood for the fire?” he asked. “The green wood makes up the second layer. It stays and burns for a long time. The dry wood will burn away like dry leaves,” I replied. “Oh,” he said, and then looked at me out of the corner of his eye, “So you have decided then? This is what you want to do for the rest of your life?” he said. “Book learning doesn’t agree with me,” I said. “Eating agrees with you, I suppose,” he said, and wandered off to see to the wood supply.

I went to Aasan. “They said that they will send someone over to take away the jaggery right away,” I said. “Who?” he asked. “Subbu Pillai’s wife,” I said. “So, he has a hand in all this. The bastard. It doesn’t matter how many times you warn them, they won’t stop getting their hands on the good stuff. If we don’t keep watch on everything, then it is we who are stuck with a bad name,” he said. He turned to Murugesan. “Lei! Get my chair.”

Aasan had an armchair that he used when he wanted to sit down in the store room. He took it along with him in the van wherever he went. Murugesan brought in the chair. Aasan sat in it and swung his legs over to rest them on the armrest. As a rule, Aasan spoke to no one. And if he did speak, it was to swear or scold. I have never seen Aasan smile. “He is a bhootham, a goblin. One of the twelve thousand that catered at the wedding of the gods Siva and Parvathi long, long ago, now reborn like this,” Maniyan used to say.

Manoharan, Sivaraman and Muthusamy got together and started sorting out the items from the grocer’s in front of Aasan. From where he sat he called out to me, “Start scraping the coconuts. The milking can wait till later. Go check whether the vegetables are prepped.”

After weighing which of these tasks I should do first, I decided to go and check on the vegetables and went to the chopping section. There were mountains of eggplants glowing purple in the lamplight, green flower-stalked okras piled up, clusters of stout plantains and raw bananas. The men had just settled down with their long knives and chopping planks, ready to start dicing. They were talking among themselves. Some of them were rolling up betel leaves, smeared with lime, peppered with areca nuts, to tuck into their mouths.

“Aasan was asking whether you had started prepping the vegetables,” I said. “Go tell him that we are on it,” said Namachchivayam. “Looks like he’s the heir,” said Umaiyorubagan. I avoided their eyes and went to the place where the coconuts were piled up.  A hundred extra coconuts had been delivered in a sack. Arunachalam and Shanmugam had started breaking the coconuts. A huge brass cauldron was placed there to catch the water when the coconuts broke.

When the first coconut broke with a slight ‘tup’ like a cracker and the water streamed out, I felt the usual light frisson of excitement run through me.  Arunachalam never hacked at the coconut more than once; it was not even a hack so much as a gentle tap like a head-butt. I could never break a coconut without hacking away at it at least three times. “Only when you can break a coconut in a single tap will you start learning what cooking really is,” said Arunachalam.

 “That’s no big deal,” said Murugesan. “You see up on the coconut there’s a bump? You need to tap it just above that, right in the centre of the curve. Not hit it with a lot of force. Go close to the spot with the knife and rap it hard. Your arm should have a lot of power when you bring the knife down,” he said. But I never had the firmness of hand to do it right, there was always a tremble in my arm.

As if they had heard a good joke, the coconuts kept breaking into broad grins in Arunachalam’s hands, revealing their white kernels as they splintered into two and fell to the ground. “You want some coconut water?” asked Arunachalam. I shook my head to say no. “Check how many thiruvalakkutris we have,” he said.

We usually bring in our own coconut scrapers. The coconut scraper is a contraption with a balancing plank made of wood or metal; a swan neck that curves upwards at one end of the plank is tipped with a circle of sharp teeth for scraping. The ones we bring in are at least three times bigger than the domestic scrapers that you find in household kitchens. Ours are meant for the men; the diminutive scrapers in the domestic kitchens are the ‘women’. I examined the scrapers in the sack. “Eleven,” I said. “That’s not enough. It looks like we left a few behind. Go borrow four or five thiruvalakutris from the people here.”

“But we can only find female scrapers here,” I objected. “That would do. However, four or five of us need to keep scraping to finish everything on time. Remember, we have six hundred coconuts to scrape!’ said Arunachalam.

When I entered the kitchen storeroom a second time, Subbu Pillai was there again. “Now what? Your asafoetida stinks of cat piss?” he asked. “We need some thiruvalakkutris,” I said. “Why? Don’t you bring your own coconut scrapers when you come to cook? Next you will come asking us for knives.”

When I went in, the lady with the redstone addigai entered. “What do you want?” she asked. “A thiruvalakkutri,” I said. It was the local word for the scraper on our side of the hills, close to the Kerala border. “A coconut scraper?” she asked, replying in Tamil. “Wait, let me see if there is one around,” she said, and disappeared into the small room adjoining the kitchen. Subbu Pillai’s wife was there, placing flowers into small boxes. “He’s asking for a coconut scraper,” she said. “A thiruvalakkutthi? We need one here. There are two more that he can have,” she said.

She opened a palm leaf basket and fished out four scrapers. “Are these enough for you?” she asked. I felt its scraping edge with my fingers. “It’s gone blunt,” I said. “That’s all we have,” she said. “If you scrape it with a file it can get sharper, you know,” said the lady with the addigai. I remembered that we always had a file on us. “Yes, true,” I said, and picked them up. They kept sliding out of my grip.

I put them down, looked around, and finding some banana fibre, used it to tie them together. Still one kept sliding out. “I’ll take that,” she said. “No,” I said. “Lei, give it to me,” she said and came with me bearing the scraper.

I placed all the coconut scrapers in the room with the coconuts. “Only four?” Arunachalam turned to ask, when he recognized her. “Ammini, madam, is it you?” His tone was deferential. “Do you live around here now?” “I came early this morning,” she replied in a low voice.

“So, I take that are related to the motor owner?” asked Arunachalam. “Related on his side. His sister is married to the motor owner’s nephew,” she said. “Oh, like that? I see…” said Arunachalam. “Alright, see you then,” she said quietly and turned around, when Arunachalam said, from behind her, “He is over there, by the hearth.” 

She turned and gave him a penetrating glance before going inside. I looked at Arunachalam. He smiled. The lady had a slightly plump, round face; her shoulders glowed bright like a tender banana leaf. She was very fair, so you could see a very faint moustache above her lips. On her erect, prow-like bosom the addigai sat in place as if inlaid in gold. 

“Look at her gait! Like an elephant!” muttered Murugesan. “The gloriously slow gait of a noble elephant…” he said.  Arunachalam indicated with his eyes that I was present; Murugesan looked at me and flashed his yellow teeth.

I followed her. She stopped in hesitation just ahead of the row of open fireplaces. Placing one hand on her hip, she sighed deeply. Afraid that she would turn around and see me, I moved slightly to the right where bundles of banana leaves had been stacked on top of one another. I picked up a few bundles that had rolled away and placed them on top of the stack.

She kept standing there for some time. She did not turn around. She didn’t seem to be aware of anything around her. She looked beyond the small doorway into the kitchen where rows of open hearths had been constructed on bricks laid against each other.

I peeped into the doorway so that I could see what she was looking at. Aasan was standing next to the first fireplace. Bhaskaran and Karunakaran were piling logs of wood on the hearth that had been washed and cleaned with cow dung. It was customary to start cooking the feast by placing a small, shallow rounded vessel called an uruli on the fire, heating ghee – clarified butter – in it, and roasting pieces of green chillies and ginger to make a dry ginger curry as a side. Start from the ginger, the ancient manuals say.

Diced ginger and green chillies lay waiting in a palm leaf basket. There was also a very small ball of jaggery in there. The dry ginger curry is tasty only if an appropriately small amount of jaggery is added to it. Kumar and Madhevan brought a tub of ghee to the wood-fired stove, lifting it on each side by a rope tied to the sides of the tub. Aasan bent low and examined the ghee with his eyes. It was yellow and grainy like sand.

Baskaran arranged the logs properly and turned to look at Aasan. Aasan gently dug out a small portion of the ghee with a ladle and laid it out on the logs. Even from afar, my hair stood on its end when I saw the ladle’s edge gently caress the surface of the ghee. The sight of the wee little dollop of ghee melted my heart. When Aasan handled ghee or butter, it was always a very gentle affair, as if he was coaxing it out with a feather.

Kumaresan Pillai held a little brass lamp; he extended its small flame to Aasan. The men were blocking her view. When she reflexively crossed the threshold and stepped into the kitchen, her hand dropped to her side; the gold bangles she had stacked on her arm clinked against each other as they slid down to her wrist. Hearing the sound, Aasan turned around, and saw her. His mouth slightly agape, his eyes fixed on her. Then he turned and placed his palms over the flame in Kumaresan’s hand. “Great mother, Mahamayi, goddess of illusions!” he said, bringing his palms together.

With a slight quiver in his hands, he picked up some camphor from Kumaresan’s plate. He kept it under the log with the ghee on it, lit another bit of camphor, and placed the flame on the first. The camphor caught fire with a start; the ghee picked it up and blazed forth up into the air. The blue flame leaped up, twisting and curling like a tongue whose buds had awoken to taste.

Aasan picked up the small, shallow uruliand placed it on the fire. Kumaresan and Baskaran covered their mouths with their palms and ululated. Aasan scooped out three dollops of ghee with his big ladle and upended it over the uruli. As the ghee melted and ran down the deep curve of the vessel, he turned around; Baskaran was standing ready with a plate full of perfectly diced green chillies. He quickly picked up two big handfuls and tossed them into the crackling ghee. He brought his palms together, “Mother! My goddess!” and then with a sigh, he signaled to them to continue, and walked back towards his chair.

Baskaran started tossing the green chillies with a brass ladle. The aroma of the chillies roasting in ghee spread through the kitchen. Borrowing fire from the first hearth, the others had already started lighting the rest of the fires. The sides – dry vegetable curries – would go on the flames first. Seven sides usually, including citron, gooseberry and bilimbi. The dry gravies and the lentil-vegetable stews would be cooked next. The preparation of the lentil-and-tamarind heavysambar would commence only at midnight. The gravies with ground coconut in them, just before dawn. It was only at dawn that the huge, bronze urulis for the pradhaman, the king of sweets, would ascend the fire.

When the pradhaman became mellow and creamy, the men would remove the urulifrom the wood-fired stove and take out all the logs. On the same stove, they then placed huge pots filled with water. The water would start boiling as soon as the pot touched the stove. Then the rice went in, and a lid was placed to cover the top of the vessel. In a short while the cooked rice would emerge at the mouth of the vessel, blocking it and building up like bubblefoam. Then we would haul out the rice with huge slotted spoons, spread it out on mats, and keep it covered with banana leaves and a second mat on top. This way the rice would keep hot as if on slow-burning husk-fire till the food was served.

The salt-and-tamarind tang of the sides would waft through the kitchen at first. Then came the smells of coconut and cooked lentils. But when the first scent of the pradhaman emerged, all the other aromas would melt into the shadows. The scent of melting jaggery, creamy coconut milk and steamed, mellowed rice-flake adais could turn one’s head. A hush fell over the kitchen then; people engaged in various tasks in all corners would stop and watch. It was like we were in the temple of the goddess at midnight, waiting for the moment, when, roused by the clamour of the urumidrum, the oboe-like magudam, the pot-shaped muzhavu and the bells, the oracle-goddess suddenly wakes in the body of the priest. Before the first growl in his throat, before the first tremble in his limbs, his eyes would have already signaled the arrival.

She went and stood next to Aasan. Her bangles tinkled. Aasan turned around indifferently.  “They said that you would be here,” she said. Aasan did not look directly at her. “Yes,” he said, “How are you?” He turned as he spoke to Baskaran and summoned him. Baskaran offered a rolled betel leaf that Aasan tucked into his cheek. “Your husband is here with you?” he asked. “They are all here. My son is studying in Madras. He couldn’t come. But I have brought my daughter along,” she said.

He said nothing. “He is also here. His brothers, mother, they have all come,” she continued. “Yes, I heard that you are related,” said Aasan. “Yes, we’re close relations,” she said. “It has been a while, no?” he asked. “Yes, you don’t come to our side very often, do you?” she said. “Why come there? The folks in Nagarcoil on that side of the hills don’t appreciate the taste of our cooking. My area is over here, near the Kerala border. The Tamil fellows complain that our cuisine is all red rice and coconut stew.’

“But the flavour here is something different,” she said. Aasan did not reply. “To be honest, it has been fifteen years since I last ate at a good wedding feast,” she said. “Why? You don’t go to feasts over there?” he asked. “They cook everything so differently over there,” she said. Aasan said, “Yes, they don’t have pradhaman over there. Only a lentil-based sweet porridge. Here we have coconut in everything,” he said. “Yes. Where’s taste without coconut?” she said.

Aasan looked up at her. “Honestly, there is nothing called taste. Taste is just what the mind gets used to,” he said. She said nothing. “If we will it, we can train the mind. We should strive to train it. Instead if we stay fixed on one taste, we will end up losing a million others. This world is filled with all kinds of flavours. South Travancore is just the few kilometres from Mavelikkara to Thuckaley. Our cuisine is prized only within these borders. The world is wide open! What does an American eat? What is an African’s palate like? Everyone eats for taste, you know.”

“But not all taste is ours,” she countered. “All taste is taste. The mind should not control the tongue. You let the tongue be, it will go forth and get used to all flavours,” said Aasan. “It’s all good to talk about,” she said.  “Why?” he asked. “Nothing,” she said, and then, “I’m leaving.” “Sure. I have things to do as well,” said Aasan. She kept standing there. “Alright. I will be there at your daughter’s wedding. I will fill the air with the aroma of my pradhaman, okay?” said Aasan. She said nothing and walked away.

Aasan turned to look at me. “Go check if the vegetables are prepped. We should start the scraping the coconuts soon,” he said. I looked as she walked away. I turned to Aasan. “She has a daughter,” I said. “Why, did you go sniffing at her ass?” asked Aasan. I shook my head as if to say no and then went to the chopping section again.

Even as I entered, the fresh green scent of cut vegetables hit me in the face. Evenly diced pieces of okra and eggplant were piling up in front of my eyes. The men joked and talked among themselves as their hands did the chopping reflexively. “Who does this fellow think he is, Aasan’s tail? He’s here to oversee us?” asked Madhavan Patta. I completely ignored their talk and sat down to look at the vegetables. It had only taken them an hour, and they were almost finished.

I went to the area where the coconuts scraping was in progress. An array of banana leaves was laid out on the floor; the men sat with their scrapers on the leaves, one folded leg balancing the plank of the scraper. Amidst what sounded like hundreds of pigeons cooing together, the coconuts turned into mounds of white foam. I took up a spare scraper and sat down to scrape. I had sort of learned how to scrape coconuts by then. You take a broken half of a coconut, choose a sharp edge and scrape three times till the kernel is all grated and gone. Then you start from the bald spot, turning the head round and round till all the coconut is scraped out. If you get the rhythm right, then it’s really easy.

Rhythm is integral to doing anything well. For the rhythm to be right, we must not think about it at all. There is a rhythm in our hands, a rhythm in our eyes. Only when our mind interferes with the rhythm do we miss a beat. When you are scraping a coconut at top speed, it just takes an instant, one missed beat, for the scraper’s teeth to take off your flesh. It’s more painful than a knife wound; it takes a long long time to heal. The cooks call it catscratches. “Catscratches? The next ten days are going to be really sweet,” they would say. Catscratch marks never fade.

We scraped up the grated coconut heaped on the banana leaves and placed it aside in palm-leaf baskets. Uncle Nagu and others fed them slowly into giant stone mortars and ground them with huge stone pestles. “People in my town say that when it comes to Malayalee cuisine, there’s so much coconut that you need a press for the grinding,” remarked Mani Mama. “Yes, there’s coconut in everything,” said Kumaran. “And what have you seen, young grasshopper? You should have been at the wedding of Moolaiyamveettu Pappu Thambi’s daughter. Forty baskets of coconut pulp leftover after the milking. They brought it all back and buried it under our banana trees,” said Unnamulai. “They could have fed the cows with it,” said Kumaran. “For what joy? For the cows to eat it all and spray us with its shit?” said Unnamulai.

“Coconut makes our cuisine, there’s no doubt about it. But the coconut comes alive only in a good pradhaman, when it melds and mellows with the ghee and jaggery…” said Shanmugam. “And when I say pradhaman, I only mean adai pradhaman, made with real steamed rice flakes.  Anything else that’s called pradhaman, we drink it thinking it’s adai pradhaman,” said Unnamulai. “Why do they call it pradhaman? Let’s see if you can tell.” “Because it’s the first…the king!” I piped up. In Malayalam, pradhama means ‘the prime one’. “But they serve it last,” he countered. “In the temple, the principal god gets his offering last, no?” I said. “The boy is sharp,” said Unnamalai approvingly. “There may be thousands of flavours, but the pradhaman’s taste is supreme. Like the prime minister of the country.”

“These days, in Nagarcoil, you can buy ready-made adai in the store. Just tear the packet open, pop it into coconut milk, boil it, and presto, your pradhaman is ready,” said Kumaran. “That’s all made of refined flour. Its stretchy and bloated. A good adai is made from white raw rice. Not once has Aasan bought ready-made adai from the store. The taste of Aasan’s pradhaman lives up to that reputation,” said Shanmugam.

“Aasan has people at home to make the adai for him” I said. “So, did you make it?” asked Shanmugam. “Yes, I stood by while they were making the adai yesterday,” I said. “How do you make it?” asked Kumaresan. Aasan always makes sure he supervises the adai-making himself. “You first grind the soaked rice in water and spread it out on a banana leaf. You then roll up the leaves, steam them, and dry them in the sun,” I said. “In the sun?” asked Kumar. “No, no, not when the sun is very hot. If it dries completely, it becomes brittle,” I said. “But it should not sour up. It should dry in a day. Otherwise it turns sour.”

“What a finicky job. It’s just easier to get the ready-made adai. As if the fellows here can tell the difference,” said Shanmugam. “That’s why you are grinding coconuts over here, and he sits in the chair over there,” said Mani. “Aasan has restraint. He never indulges in anything. He would have made a thousand batches of pradhaman, yes? I have never seen him drink a sip. Not even seen him place a single drop of it on his tongue.” “He knows what sweet is,” I said.

“You know when the pradhaman mellows and melds together? In a surprising frission of sweetness? That’s the only time I bring my hands together in reverence, ready to fall at his feet – Aasan, guru, my teacher! Otherwise who would want to work under this man who flares into a temper at the drop of a button? Has he ever said a kind word? Offered a smile? Stone-face!” said Shanmugam.

I went back to tell Aasan that the coconuts had been milked. “Ask him whether this is done,” said Narayanan as I passed him. He was finishing up the avial, a yoghurt-and-coconut vegetable gravy, with coconut oil. “He’ll tell you if it’s not done. The scent is enough for him to tell,” I said. He kept stirring the avial with a long wood-handled ladle and added a little more coconut oil to it. Aasan made a little grunt from where he sat. “See?” I said. “He can stay right where he is and tell all the flavours,” I said. “What flavour does he know when his tongue touches nothing,” asked Murugan, who was standing next to him. He was stirring the lentil curry.

Sukumar who was standing to my right and working on the dry thuvaran asked, “Why doesn’t he taste anything?” “If he tastes one thing, then the taste sticks to his tongue. After that, he is not able to taste anything else,” I said.  “It’s said one who tastes everything has no taste buds left.” “So, you don’t eat as well?” asked Manikkam. “Only sweet things,” I said. “That’s right. He’s at the right age to taste all the sweet things.”

They hooted with laughter. You could speak your mind when Aasan was in the room. He had no ears. No tongue either. Just grunts. I wandered off again to the area where the coconuts were being pressed for milk. The ground coconut was now being sieved through a new cotton vaetti, five feet long. Two men held the corners of the fabric weighed down by the ground coconut, wound it around and wrung it tightly to extract the milk.

I returned to the kitchen again. The avial and the dry vegetable curries were being taken off the flame. Two men passed a bamboo rod with ropes wound to the ends through the two curved ‘ears’ flanking the huge vessel to haul it up. They set it down on mounds of sand spread out on the storeroom floor and closed the mouth of the vessel with a bronze plate.  It had taken me whole a year’s experience in the kitchen to learn that there was a knack to finishing up the gravies and taking them off the flame. The gravy keeps boiling in the vessel from the residual heat even after it is removed from the flame. If we let our tongue guide us and wait for the dish to finish cooking completely before removing it from the flame, the gravy tends to get overcooked. The vegetables go soft, the lentils go dry and the taste is ruined.

“Knowing when to take the gravy off the flame is like befriending a twelve-year-old girl. When friendship ripens to love and mellows into marriage, the girl would also be mature,” said Murugesan to me. When I said nothing in reply, he laughed. “The fellow is shy!” he said. “Look here, you can learn everything that there is to know about this world just by standing in a kitchen. Get your brother some betel leaves and areca nuts and cigarettes whenever I ask, I’ll teach you everything,” said Murugesan.

Four people brought in the giant urulifor making the pradhaman. It came swaying gently like a boat held aloft by waves. Aasan threw a careless look at it. They lowered it on the hearth where the coals had been spread out readily. From where he sat, Aasan gestured with one hand for the men to lift up the west end of the uruli just by an inch. When I looked, everything seemed to be fine. However, when the west end was adjusted, I could see how it sat in place even better.

Tin barrels filled to the brim with coconut milk were brought in, rigged like palanquins and hoisted on the shoulders of the assistants. As the uruli filled up with the milk, the phrase it always evoked came to me once again. An ocean of milk. Someone would inevitably say that at this point. “That’s enough. Any more milk, and Vishnu would come here to lie on it,” said Kumaresan. “With snake in tow,” said Murugan. They all laughed. I have always observed this. Whenever we start on the dessert, an unusual mirth fills up the room.

The coconut milk had come to a boil; it was thickening up. When cow’s milk boils and creams, a mild meaty smell fills the room. But when coconut milk boils, it has the scent of sweet grass. Then there’s the scent of the ghee melting into the mix. An even finer sweetness. You would think at this point the taste would be sweet as well. But it would be a little sour, with an oily texture that stuck to your tongue. When it became a bit thicker, Murugesan liked to add jaggery and coffee to it and drink the concoction.

The adaihad been kept soaked in molten jaggery syrup. They transferred the pieces onto slotted spoons and slowly lowered them into the boiling coconut milk, making sure that the rice flakes were not sticking to each other. They kept the coconut milk on a boil till it started becoming creamy. As it boiled away, they added more coconut milk, a little bit at a time.  The jaggery lumps were covered with a cloth and hit it with a pestle till they crumbled to bits. They boiled a little water in another vessel, added the jaggery to it and cooked it till it became syrupy. Using a ladle, they scooped off the syrup from the top and filled a big brass vessel with it. When people make pradhaman at home, they tend to mix the jaggery directly into the coconut milk. But I have noticed how when we make a huge quantity of jaggery syrup, the stuff that lingers at the bottom is grainy like sand and tastes very different. So even when I cook at home, I don’t skip the additional step of making the syrup and straining it.

The creamy coconut milk had now combined well with the jaggery syrup. As it thickened, a film of cream covered the surface; bubbles broke out on the top. Murugesan and Kumarannan kept stirring the mixture to keep it from burning at the bottom. So far it only had the scent of boiling coconut milk and melting jaggery syrup; now it started acquiring the redolence of a sweet porridge. However, it had not quite reached the particular aroma of a fine pradhaman yet.

They laid another small vessel on a hearth to the side and melted balls of ghee in it. They brought in the freshly made ghee and added it in small quantities to the spluttering pradhaman, while they kept stirring. The aroma of the pradhaman did not arise even then. Aasan made a grunt and beckoned me with a finger. I got the spittoon for him. He spat into it, rinsed his mouth with some water in a jug nearby, and sank back in his armchair again.

Most of the people around the kitchen had stopped whatever they were doing and were gathered around the hearth with red, spitting coals; by then the flames had been fully doused out. They were waiting for the rise of the pradhaman. Although the men who were stirring had their eyes on the pot, their ears and bodies were trained on Aasan.

The armchair made a loud creak. The sound echoed through the room. Aasan stood and extended his hand. Murugan came forward with a long, wooden-handled spatula. He placed it in Aasan’s hands and scampered back. Aasan scraped the edges of the uruli with the spatula and slowly spiraled his way to the bottom where it hit the surface with a loud metallic clang; he flipped it over just a bit. The aroma of the pradhaman arose, filling all corners of the kitchen.

சிறுகதை – ஒளி

அழகுக்கடைக்கு முன்னால் ஒரு ஆண்பிள்ளை இவ்வளவு நேரமா நிற்பது? ஃபிலோமினா பொறுமையிழந்தாள். கூட்டத்திலிருந்து நகர்ந்து பத்ரகாளிக்கு அடியில் போய் கைகட்டிக்கொண்டு நின்றாள். அவள் தலைக்கு மேல் தூணின் பொந்தில் ஏற்றி வைக்கப்பட்டிருந்த அகல்விளக்கின் தீ காற்றில் படபடத்தது. எதிரே ஊர்த்வதாண்டவர் ஒரு காலை தூக்கி மறந்துவிட்டவர்போல் கனவில் ஆழ்ந்திருந்தார்.

ஆரன் உடைந்த தமிழில் உற்சாகமாக பேரம்பேசிக்கொண்டிருந்தான். ஃபிலோமினா அங்கு இல்லை என்று உணர்ந்ததும் சுற்றும் முற்றும் பார்த்து அவளை கண்களால் அடைந்து, “உனக்கு எதுவுமே வேண்டாமா? நிச்சயமா?” என்று கேட்பது போல் ஒரு புருவத்தை உயர்த்தினான். ஒன்றும் தேவையில்லை, சீக்கிரம் வா என்று அவள் நெற்றி சுருக்கி தலையசைத்தாள். இன்னும் விரைப்பாக கைகளை கட்டிக்கொண்டு தலையை திருப்பிக்கொண்டாள்.

பாய்ந்துகொண்டிருந்த குதிரைவீரர்களைத்தாண்டி மண்டபத்தின் உள்ளே வரிக்கோடுகளாக வெளிச்சம் கற்தரையில் விழுந்தது. வேறு வெளிச்சம் இல்லை. கல்லும் நிழலும்தான். பித்தளைப் பாத்திரங்களும் ஜவுளிகளும் செறிந்த கடைகளைச் சுற்றி எல்லோருமே பெண்கள். எல்லோரும் ஆரனை கொஞ்சம் வேடிக்கையாய் பார்ப்பதுபோலத்தான் இருந்தது. கடைக்காரரே, அவன் ‘அண்ணா இது என்ன’ என்று ஒரு புசுபுசு குஞ்சலத்தை பந்துகள் ஆட கையில் எடுத்து கேட்டபோது சிரிக்கத்தொடங்கிவிட்டார்.

தன்னைநோக்கித்தான் சிரிக்கிறார் என்று தெரிந்தாலும்  சட்டைசெய்யாமல் அவனும் அவருடன் சேர்ந்து முகத்தை சாய்த்து நாணத்துடன் சிரித்தான். சற்றே நகர்ந்தபோது கடைக்கூரையிலிருந்து தொங்கிய ஒற்றை பல்ப்பின் ஒளி நேரடியாக அவன் முகத்தில் விழுந்தது. ஃபிலோமினா நின்ற இடத்திலிருந்து மீண்டும் அவனை பார்த்தாள். ஒரு வாரத்துக்கு முன் புதிதாக பார்த்தவள் போல்.

பொன்னும் தவிட்டுமாக சுருள்சுருளாக தலைமுடி. திறந்த முகம். இளஞ்சிவப்பு நிறம். கூர்மையான மூக்கு. பேசும்போது மேலும் கீழும் வேடிக்கையாக ஏறி இறங்கிய மரவட்டை புருவங்கள்.  ஆனால் அவளுக்கு அவன் கண்களை நோக்கித்தான் அப்போதும் பார்வை போனது. கன்றுகுட்டிக் கண்கள். தேன் நிறமானவை.

ஃபிலோமினா சட்டென்று கடைமுகப்புக்குச்சென்று “போதும், வா,” என்ற உத்தரவுடன் அவன் கையைப் பிடித்து இழுத்தாள். சுற்றியிருந்த பெண்களை கண்டுகொள்ளாதவளாக பொந்துபோல் நீண்ட கற்தெருவின் இருளுக்குள் அவனை இட்டுச்சென்றாள். “ஃபான்சி ஸ்டோரில் ஆம்பிளைக்கு என்ன வேலை?” என்று அதட்டினாள். “ஃபான்சி ஸ்டோரா? அப்படின்னா?” என்றான் ஆரன். அய்யோ இதுகூட தெரியாதா, என்னத்த இங்க்லீஷ் பேசி வளர்ந்தியோ, என்று சலிப்புத்தட்டும் குரலில், “அழகுசாதனபொருட்கள விற்குற கடைகள எங்க ஊர்ல அப்படித்தான் சொல்வாங்க,” என்றாள்.

ஆரனுக்கு அந்த வார்த்தையைக் கேட்டதும் ஒரே பரவசம். “நிஜமாவா! நிஜமாவா!” என்று கேட்டுக்கொண்டே வந்தான். அவனை அது என்னவோ செய்தது. சொக்கிப்போனவன் போல அந்த வார்த்தையை சொல்லிக்கொண்டே வந்தான். “ஃபான்ஸி ஸ்டோர்! நிஜமாவே அப்படியொரு பேரா?” கருங்கல் இருளிலிருந்து துலங்கி வந்த வெள்ளி அம்மன் முகங்களைப் பார்த்து, “இதுவும் ஃபான்ஸி ஸ்டோரா?” என்றான். ஜடை அலங்காரங்களும் ரவிக்கை பார்டர்துணிகளும் விளக்கொளியில் மின்னி மறைந்தன. “எத்தனை நிறங்கள்! எவ்வளவு அழகு!”

“எல்லாம் ஜிகினாப்பா,” என்றாள் ஃபிலோமினா. பொறுமையிழக்கவா சிரித்துவிடவா என்று தெரியவில்லை அவளுக்கு. “இங்க இந்துக்கள் வீட்ல அவுங்க சாமிய அலங்காரம் செய்றதுக்காக வாங்கிக்குவாங்க.” “மேடம் எதுவும் பாக்குறீங்களா?” என்று இருளுக்குள்ளிருந்து ஒரு குரல். “அண்ணா, இது என்ன?” என்று ஆரன் தனக்குத்தெரிந்த ஒரே தமிழ் சொற்றொடருடன் நிற்க அவன் தோள்வரைகூட வராத ஃபிலோமினா அவன் கையில் அடித்து, “நீ சிற்பம் பாக்கணும்னுதான புதுமண்டபத்துக்கு கூட்டிகிட்டு வந்தேன்? கடைக்குக் கடை இதப்பாரு, அதப்பாருன்னு நின்னா, அப்புறம் எங்கிட்டு? வா, இங்க ஒரு பெரிய நந்தி இருக்கு அத ஒக்காந்து வர,” என்றாள்.

ஏழுகடல் தெருவுக்குள் பீறிட்டு வழிந்த ஒளிக்கு எதிராக வந்து அவர்கள் நின்றபோது, கடகடவென்று கால்கள் முன்னும் பின்னும் ஆட ஓடிக்கொண்டிருந்த தையல் மிஷின்களின் ஒலி ஒரு கணம்  நிற்க  தையல்காரர்கள் அனைவரும் அவர்கள் இருவரையும் தலைதூக்கி பார்த்தார்கள். மீனாட்சியம்மன் கோயிலின் சந்தடியில்தான் பிழைப்பு என்பதால், மானுடத்தின் பற்பல அரிய மாதிரிகளை பார்த்துப்பழகி ஓய்ந்த கண்கள்தான் என்றாலும், இந்தக்காட்சி அவர்களுக்கே சற்று புதுமையாக இருந்தது.

ஆறடி உயரத்துக்கு நளினமான உடற்கட்டுடன்,  இளஞ்சிவப்பு குர்த்தாவும் ஜீன்ஸும் தோளில் ஜோல்னா பையுமாக, விரல்களை மடித்து மடித்து பேசிய ஒரு வெள்ளைக்கார இளைஞன். சாம்பல் நிறச் சுடிதாரும், வயிறுவரை வழிந்த நைலான் ஷாலும், கறுத்த முகமும், வழித்துவாரிய பின்னலுமாக அவன் அருகே குட்டையான தட்டையான உள்ளூர்ப் பெண்.

அவர்களுடைய பார்வையை உணராதவளாக ஃபிலோமினா அங்கிருந்த சிற்பங்களை சுட்டிக்காட்டினாள். இரண்டாள் உயரத்துக்கு ஒரு வாராகி. ஒரு துவாரபாலகன். வெளியே கூசும் வெயிலில் நின்றாலும் தவம்போல் அசையாமலிருந்த நந்தி. “இவ்வளவு இருக்கு பாரு,” என்றாள்.

ஆரன் வாராகியின் சிற்பத்தை அண்ணாந்து பார்த்தான். அவன் தலைதாழ்த்தியபோது அப்படியொரு சிலையின் இருப்பையே கண்டுகொள்ளாதவர்போல அதன் அடியில் ஒரு தையற்காரர் அமர்ந்திருப்பதை கண்டான். தடித்த கண்ணாடியும் காதில் கடுக்கனும் காதிடுக்கில் பென்சிலுமாக இருந்தவர் தையல் மெஷீனில் நூல் பொருத்திக்கொண்டிருந்தார். ஆரன் பைக்குள்ளிருந்து ஒரு வரைபுத்தகத்தை உருவி கிட்டத்தட்ட அவர் காலடியில் முட்டி மடக்கி அமர்ந்தான். முதுகை வசதியான தூண் ஒன்றில் தோய்வாக சாய்த்துக்கொண்டு வரையத்தொடங்கினான்.

அவன் தூணையும் சிற்பத்தையும் வெறும் கோட்டோவியமாகத்தான் வரைந்தான் என்று ஃபிலோமினா பார்த்தாள். தலைக்குமேல் எங்கோ மேகத்துக்குள் உறைந்த கனவுபோல். அந்தச் சிற்பத்தின் காலடியில் யாரோ படைத்திருந்த ஒற்றைச் செண்பகப்பூவை மட்டும் தெளிவாக தங்கமும் சிவப்புமாக வரைந்தான். ஒரு தீமொட்டு. அந்த நிறத்தின் நிழல் கல்லில் விழுந்தது. கல்லே சிவப்பும் மஞ்சளுமாக கமழ்வதுபோல்.

அந்தக் கல்லின் ஒளியில் தையற்காரரை வரைந்தான். ஃபிலோமினாவும் அருகேயே அமர்ந்து உள்ளங்கையில் கன்னத்தைத்தாங்கி தாளில் நகர்ந்த பென்சில்முனையை பார்த்துக்கொண்டிருந்தாள். கீழிருந்து மேல்நோக்கி வரைந்ததால் மெஷீனை ஓட்டிய அவர் பாதங்கள் பெரிதாகவும், உச்சந்தலை சிறிதாகி கல்லோடு மேலே கரைந்துவிட்டது போலவும் தோன்றியது.

ஏதோ ஒரு கணத்தில் அவள் நிமிர்ந்து பகல் ஒளியின் பின்னணியில் தையல்மெஷீனை ஓட்டிக்கொண்டிருந்தவரை பார்த்தாள். பின் மறுபடியும் தாளை பார்த்தாள். தாளில் பார்த்தால் அவரை யாரோ அதே கல்லில் செதுக்கிவைத்ததுபோல் இருந்தது. தூசுபடிந்த கால்நகங்கள், வளைந்த விரல்கள், ஒடுங்கிய மார்பு,  கண்ணாடிவிளிம்பு, எல்லாம் படத்திலிருந்து புடைத்து வந்தன. அதுவரை அங்கு நிகழ வாய்ப்பளிக்கப்படாத ஒரு சிற்பம் போல. புதிதாய்த் தோன்றிய தெய்வம் போல.

எங்கு போனாலும் இப்படித்தான். நேற்று மீனாட்சியம்மன் கோயிலுக்கு கூட்டிச்சென்றிருந்தாள். அவளுக்குத்தெரிந்த வரலாற்றுத்துணுக்குகளை சொல்வதுவரை தலையை ஆட்டி ஆட்டித்தான் கேட்டுக்கொண்டிருந்தான். பார்த்தால் சிற்பங்களை விட்டுவிட்டு அங்கு வந்தவர்களைத்தான் விதவிதமாக வரைந்து வைத்திருந்தான். கைகூப்பி கண்மூடி கும்பிட்டவர்கள். தோள்களில் சோர்ந்து தூங்கிய குழந்தைகள். அரட்டையடித்துக்கொண்டிருந்த பட்டர்கள். கைவளை அடுக்கி நடக்கமுடியாமல் இடுப்பைப்பிடித்த நிறைமாதக்காரி. நெற்றிக்குறிகள். நகைகள். புடவை மடிப்புகள். பூக்கூடைகள். நெய்விளக்குகள். ஊதுபத்திச்சுருள்கள். சிவகாமியம்மையின் உதட்டோர புன்னகையை பார்த்துக்கொண்டிருந்த ஃபிலோமினாவுக்குக்கூட அந்த வண்ண வரைபடத்தில் இடம் இருந்தது.

“ஏதோ சிற்பம் வரையணும்னுதானே வந்த? அத விட்டுட்டு எல்லா வேலையும் செய்யுற நீயி,” என்று மற்றொருநாள் ஃபிலோமினா சொன்னாள். அழகர்கோயில் போய்விட்டுவரும் வழியில் ஆனைமலை பக்கம் வற்றிய கண்மாயைப் பார்த்து அதை வரைய வேண்டும் என்று ஆரன் கேட்க, நடுப்பாதையில் பேருந்தை நிறுத்தச்சொல்லி ஓட்டுனரிடம் திட்டுவாங்கி இறங்கிச்சென்றிருந்தார்கள். ஒரு உடைந்த பாலத்தின் மீது தொற்றி உட்கார்ந்து அவன் வரைந்துகொண்டிருந்தான். ஃபிலோமினா பின்னால் நின்று இப்படி சலித்துச்சொண்டிருந்தாள்.

“தெக்கால கேரளா பக்கமா போனா அழகழகான ஊரெல்லாம் இருக்கு. இல்ல நார்த்ல பனிமலை பாலைவனம்னு எங்கியாச்சும் போ. இந்த ஊர்ல என்ன இருக்குன்னு இப்படி வளச்சு வளச்சு வரையுற? எல்லாம் வறண்டு போன பூமி,” என்றாள்.

“இல்ல, உங்க ஊரோட ஒளி ரொம்ப அழகாயிருக்கு,” தாளிலிருந்து கண்ணை எடுக்காமல் அதற்கு பதில சொன்னான் ஆரன். அவன் விரலுக்கடியிலிருந்து வண்ணம் ஒழுகிக்கொண்டிருந்ததுபோல காணும் நொடியில் தாள் நீலமாகிக்கொண்டிருந்தது.

வானில் பொட்டு மேகமில்லை. நீலப்புடவையை யாரோ ஒருகணம் உதறியதுபோல் கானலாக படபடத்தது. ‘உஷ்’ஷென்று பின்மதிய வெய்யில் கொட்டியது. ஃபிலோமினா ஷால்நுணியை தலையில் போர்த்திக்கொண்டாள். வெயிலுக்கெதிராக கண்களை மறைத்துக்கொண்டாள்.

வெயிலை சுத்தமாக உணராதவன் போல் இருந்தான் ஆரன். “ஒளிய இப்படி வண்ணமா வரையறதெல்லாம் ஒண்ணுமே இல்ல. ஒளிய வெறும் ஒளியா வரையணும். அதிலேயே எல்லா நிறங்களையும் கொண்டுவரமுடியும் தெரியுமா…” நிமிர்ந்து புன்னகைத்து, “நம்மால இப்ப பார்க்கமுடியாத வண்ணமெல்லாம் கூட அதுல வரும்…”

“அக்னி நட்சத்திரம் வெயில் காயுது, ஒளியாம் ஒளி” என்று ஃபிலோமினா மூச்சுக்கடியில் சிடுசிடுத்தாள். ஆனால் படம் விரிய விரிய அவள் முகம் மாறியது. மீண்டும் அந்த வியப்பு. அவன் கண்முன்னால் தெரிந்ததைத்தான் தாளில் வரைந்துகொண்டிருந்தான். ஆனால் தாளில் இன்னொன்றும் இருந்தது. அது என்ன, அது என்ன என்று கண்கள் தாளை துழாவின.

வானைத் தொட்டு விளையாட ஆசைப்படும் சிறுவன் குதிகாலெழ நிலத்தில் எம்புவதுபோல் எழுந்த மலைகள். அலையலையாக கண்ணை வந்து அடைந்த கண்மாய் நிலம். வற்றிய கண்மாயை தாளில் பார்க்க வானையே கிண்ணமாக கவிழ்த்து வைத்தாற்போல் இருந்தது. வானத்தின் விரிவையும் விசாலத்தையும் கனிவையும் காத்திருப்பையும் அவன் நிலத்துக்கு சூட்டியிருந்தான். மேகங்களுக்குக் காத்திருக்கும் வானுக்குப் புரியாதா நீருக்குக் காத்திருக்கும் நிலத்தின் ஏக்கத்தை? இரண்டு கண்களைப்போல் அவை குரல் எழாத காதல் பார்வையை நீட்டித்துக்கொண்டிருந்தன. அந்தக் காத்திருப்பின் கண்ணியத்தையெல்லாம் தன் தலையில் சூட்டிக்கொண்டு பசுமையற்ற வெளியில் ஒற்றைப் பனைமரம் நிமிர்வுடன் நின்றுகொண்டிருந்தது.

சுற்றிவர கைவிடப்படுதலின் அத்தாட்சிகள். ஆபாசமாக வானை மறித்த ஃபிளக்ஸ்போர்டுகள். உடைந்த பாலங்கள். கைவிடப்பட்டிருந்த கிணறு. அதிலிருந்து ஏதோ காலத்தில் தண்ணீர் இறைத்து நிறைத்து இப்போது வடிவிழந்த குடம். எங்கும் படபடக்கும் பிளாஸ்டிக். ஒரு மனிதமுகம் கூட இல்லாத வெற்றுவெளி. எல்லோரும் ஒட்டுமொத்தமாக கைவிட்டுச்சென்ற நிலம்.

ஆனால் எல்லாவற்றையும் விளக்குபோல் ஏற்றிவைத்தது அந்த ஒளி. வெளியே இல்லாத, ஓர் ஊற்றுக்கண் திறந்ததுபோல் எங்கிருந்தோ சரிந்து வந்த, அந்த மாய ஒளி. எங்கிருந்து வந்தது அது? சாதாரண வெயில் அல்ல. சூரிய வெளிச்சம் அல்ல. வானிலிருந்து வரும் ஒளியே அல்ல.

சட்டென்று ஒரு கணத்தில் ஃபிலோமினா அதனை கண்டுகொண்டாள். இல்லை, அந்தப் படத்தில் அவன் கொண்டுவந்திருந்தது நிலத்தின் ஒளியை. கீழிருந்து மேல்நோக்கி எழுந்த வெளிச்சம் அது. நிலத்தையே கலமாக்கி அவன் படத்தில் ஒரு விளக்கை ஏற்றி வைத்திருந்தான்.

அன்று பேருந்தில் திரும்பிச்செல்லும்போது ஃபிலோமினா வெகுநேரம் பேசாமலே வந்தாள். நகர நெரிசலின் தூசு மூக்கை குடைந்தது. அவள் கண்கள் நீர்படிந்தே இருந்தன. சிம்மக்கல்லின் தட்டுமுட்டைத் தாண்டி மெஜுரா காலேஜின் பாலம் ஏறி இறங்கி பழங்காநத்தம் தாண்டி மூலக்கரையின் விரிந்த வயல் வெளிகளுக்கு வந்தபோதுதான் அவள் தன் குரலை கண்டுகொண்டாள். முன்சீட் ஜன்னலோரத்திலிருந்து புதுக்காற்று புசுபுசுவென்று அடித்துக்கொண்டிருந்தது. காற்றில் ஆரனின் கூந்தல் படபடத்தது. ஃபிலோமினாவின் ஷால் பறந்தது. தூரத்தில் ஜோடிக்குன்றுகள் எழுந்து வந்தன.

“எங்க ஊரு உண்மையிலேயே நீ வரஞ்ச மாதிரி அவ்வளவு அழகாவா இருக்கு?” ஃபிலோமினா அவளுக்குள்ளேயே கேட்டுக்கொள்வதுபோல் சின்னக்குரலில் கேட்டாள்.

“அதிலென்ன சந்தேகம்?” என்றபடி முன்சீட்டிலிருந்து திரும்பினான் ஆரன். வெயிலில் அலைந்ததில் முகம் நன்றாக சிவந்திருந்தது. கண்கள் சூட்டில் தகதகத்துக்கொண்டிருந்தன. “சத்தியமா சொல்றேன். நான் பார்த்த ஊர்களிலேயே உங்க ஊர்தான் அழகு.” புன்னகையுடன் அவள் கையை விளையாட்டாக தட்டினான். இரண்டு வாரம்கூட ஆகவில்லை. அவர்கள் பேசிக்கொள்ளும்போது கைதட்டிக்கொள்வது வழக்கமாகிவிட்டிருந்தது.

அப்புறம் ஏதோ தோன்ற, “இத நான் போற எல்லா ஊர்லையும் சொல்லுவேன்னு நினைக்காதே,” என்றான். வெட்க பாவனையில் சிரிப்பை பொத்தினான். விரல்கள் சங்குப்பூவைப்போல் நளினமாக பூத்து கவிழ்ந்தன.

அவளும் சிரித்தாள். கன்னங்கள் குன்றுகளாகி நின்றன. முகத்தில் அம்மைத்தழும்புகள் குழிந்தன. சிரித்தபோது வாயிலிருந்து தெற்றிச் சிதறிவிழுந்த முன்பற்கள் அவள் முகத்தை இடமிருந்து வலம் குறுக்காக வெட்டியது. முக அமைப்பை ஒரு கணம் குடைசாய்த்தது. குதூகலத்தில் நாய்குட்டியைப்போல இருந்தாள். பருத்த உருவம் சிரிப்பில் குலுங்கியபோது ஓட்டுச்சக்கரத்தை சுழற்றிக்கொண்டிருந்த டிரைவரும் அந்தக்காட்சியை திரும்பிப்பார்த்து புன்னகைத்தார்.

இங்கு ஒன்றைச் சொல்லியாக வேண்டியிருக்கிறது. ஃபிலோமினா தேவதாஸ் அழகியல்ல. நான் சொல்லவில்லை. இது அவளைச்சார்ந்தவர்கள் அனைவரும் ஏற்றுக்கொண்டுவிட்ட உண்மையாக இருந்தது. இருளிலிருந்து ஒளியை பிரித்து, அண்டகோடிகளை வானில் அமைத்து, எண்ணற்ற பேதங்களை சமைத்த ஒருவனின் இருப்பை எப்படி உண்மையென்றும், இயல்பென்றும், அவர்கள் ஏற்றுக்கொண்டார்களோ, அப்படியே ஃபிலோமினாவின் அழகின்மையையும் ஏற்றுக்கொண்டார்கள்.

அதெப்படி சொல்லலாம்? அழகையெல்லாம் அளவெடுத்துப்பார்க்க மீட்டர் ஏதாவது இருக்கிறதா என்ன? என்று நாம் உடனே பதிலுக்கு கேட்கலாம். அவரவர் கண்ணுக்கு அதுஅது அழகு, என்று சமாதானம் சொல்லலாம்.

இருந்தாலும் அழகென்று ஒன்று நம்மை மீறி அத்துவானவெளியில் எங்கேயோ இருக்கத்தான் செய்கிறது. ஃபிலோமினாவுக்கு சாந்தமேரி அம்மா. பெற்ற தாயேதான். அவர்களுக்கே “பாப்பா இன்னுங்கொஞ்சம் அழகா பெறந்திருக்கலாம் இல்ல?” என்ற விசனம் இருந்தது. பிறகு நாம் ஏது சொல்ல?

விஷயம் இதுதான். ஃபிலோமினா டிகிரி முடித்து ஐந்து வருடங்கள் ஆகிறது. வரன் அமையவில்லை. இத்தனைக்கும் திருநகர் அமைதிச்சோலை பூங்காவைச் சேர்ந்த திருவாளர் எம்.எஸ்.தேவதாஸ் எம்.ஈ. அப்போதே நூறு பவுன் நகை போடக்கூடியவர்தான். இருபது வருடங்களுக்கு முன்னால் நூறு பவுன் என்றால் பார்த்துக்கொள்ளுங்களேன்?

குடும்பம் தரமான குடும்பம். சொக்கத்தங்கம் என்று ஃபாதர் ஜெபராஜ் எங்கு வேண்டுமென்றாலும் பைபிளில் அறைந்து சத்தியம் செய்வார். ஆனால் உள்ளூரில் மாப்பிள்ளை அமையவில்லை. திருச்செந்தூரிலிருந்தும் தூத்துக்குடியிலிருந்தும்கூட வந்து பார்த்துவிட்டார்கள். என்ன காரணம் என்றால் என்ன சொல்ல முடியும்? அமையவில்லை, அவ்வளவுதான்.

குடும்பத்தாரும் முதலில் மனதுக்குள் தான் சொல்லிக்கொண்டார்கள். பின்பு ஒருவருக்கொருவர் பேசிக்கொள்ளும்போது உனக்கும் தெரிந்ததுதானே என்பதுபோல் சொன்னார்கள். பிறகு வெளிப்படையாகவே “பாப்பா இன்னும் கொஞ்சம் அழகா பிறந்திருக்கலாமில்ல?” என்றார்கள்.

இவ்வளவு ஆணித்தரமாக சொல்ல ஃபிலோமினாவுக்கு உருவத்திலோ உடலிலோ ஏதாவது குறைபாடு இருந்ததா என்றால் அதுவும் இல்லை. ஆனால் அவளிடம் ஏதோ பொருந்தாமல் இருந்தது. ஏதோ ஒன்று கூடக்குறைய இருப்பதுபோல். சாந்தமேரியே அதை உணர்ந்து அடிக்கடி சொல்வாள். “ஏய், நேரா நட! கூன் போடாம நில்லு! அப்படி விழிச்சு விழிச்சு பாக்காத!” ஆனால் சரியாக என்னவென்று அவளாலும் சொல்லமுடியவில்லை.

ஃபிலோமினாவின் தங்கை பிரிசில்லா வளர வளரத்தான் அது என்னவென்று அவர்கள் ஓரளவேனும் கண்டுகொண்டார்கள். குறிப்பாக இருவரையும் சேர்த்துவைத்து பார்க்கும்போது. பிரிசில்லாவும் கருப்பு, குள்ளம்தான் என்றாலும் பதினான்கு வயதிலேயே அவளுக்கு வளர்ந்த பெண்ணுக்கான முதிர்ச்சி வந்துவிட்டது. கருவண்டு முகம். அப்பாவின் கோலிக்குண்டு கண்கள். அம்மாவின் திருத்தமான களை.  வளர்த்தியான உடல். அதை கரகம்போல் பாங்காக எடுத்துச்செல்லத் தெரிந்திருந்தது அவளுக்கு. மேரிமாதா குழந்தை ஏசுவை தூக்கிவைத்திருக்கும் பாந்தத்துடனே எப்போதும் இருந்தாள். கண்ணசைவும் கையசைவும் உடலசைவும் ஒரு பாதியை மறுபாதி சரியாக சமன் செய்தது. அவளை நோக்கி எல்லா நல்வார்த்தைகளும் வந்தன. லட்சணம், திருத்தம், களை, அழகு, நேர்த்தி, பூர்த்தி என்று. இவளுக்கு வரன் தேட எந்த சிரமமும் இருக்காது என்று சாந்தமேரி இரகசியமாக பெருமூச்சு விட்டாள்.

பிரிசில்லாவின் உடலில் இருந்த இயல்பான சமன்பாடு ஃபிலோமினாவில் என்றுமே தோன்றியதில்லை. பாந்தமில்லாமல் பருமனாக இருந்தாள். சுழலும் பரிசலைப்போல் நடந்தாள். என்னேரமும் ஏதோ ஒரு பக்கத்திலிருந்து ஒரு பறவைக்கூட்டம் படபடபடவென்று வெடித்துவெளிவரும் என்பதுபோல் அவள் உடலில் ஒரு ததும்பல் இருந்துகொண்டே இருந்தது.

உடலில் குடிகொண்ட அந்த சமனின்மை முகத்தில் இன்னும் கூர்மையாக வெளிப்பட்டது. களைகளைப்போல் பிசுறுபிசுறாக வடிவமற்ற புருவங்கள். சற்றே ஒற்றைக்கண் பார்வை. இடதுபக்க யானைக்காது. சிரிக்கும்போது முந்தியடித்து தெறித்த முன்பற்கள். எல்லாம் சேர்ந்ததில் அவள் முகம் ஒரு கியூபிஸ்ட் ஓவியத்தைப் போல் துண்டுதுண்டாக வெட்டப்பட்ட விந்தையான உணர்வை அளித்தது. குடும்பத்திலும் பெண்கள் முகத்தை திருத்தி அழகுபடுத்திக்கொள்வது பாவம் என்ற நம்பிக்கை இருந்தது. ஆகவே அவள் தன்னை அழகாக்கிக்கொள்ள எந்தப் பெரிய பிரயத்தனமும் எடுத்துக்கொள்ளவில்லை.

சரி, தான் அழகியல்ல என்ற பிரக்ஞை ஃபிலோமினாவுக்கு இருந்ததா? சங்கடமான கேள்வி. அதற்கு யார் பதில் சொல்வது? ஃபிலோமினாவிடமே சென்று நாம் அதை கேட்கக்கூடாதல்லவா?

இவ்வளவு வேண்டுமென்றால் சொல்லலாம். பள்ளி நாடகத்தில் ஃபிலோமினா என்றுமே பாரதமாதா வேடத்துக்கு தேர்ந்தெடுக்கப்பட்டதில்லை. குழந்தையாய் இருந்தபோதும் யாரும் அவள் கன்னத்தைக் கிள்ளி அவளுக்கு மட்டுமென்று ஒரு சாக்லேட்கூட கொடுத்ததில்லை. அவளுக்கு யாரும் காதல் கடிதங்கள் எழுதியதில்லை. அவள் காதுபடவே சொந்த வீட்டு மனிதர்கள் “பாப்பா இன்னும் அழகா பிறந்திருக்கலாமில்ல?” என்று வாரத்துக்கொருமுறையாவது சொல்லாதவர்களும் இல்லை.

எல்லாவற்றையும்விட வருடத்தில் எட்டு மாதங்கள் அவள் தலைக்கு மேல் ஒரு பொட்டு மேகமில்லாமல் சலனம் மாறாத நீலமாய் வானம் விரிந்திருந்த நிலத்தில் அவள் வாழ்ந்தாள். ஒவ்வொரு நாளும் மாலைச்சூரியன் சிவந்து சிவந்து சப்பாத்திக்கள்ளி காயாகி அவள் கண்முன்னால் கண்மாய்க்குள் மறைந்தான். அப்போது வான் எருக்கம்பூவாக, பின் செவ்வரளியாக, பின் பவளமல்லியின் மருதாணி விரலாக நெகிழ்ந்து நிறம் மாறி இருண்டது. அரிதான மழைநாட்களில் நீர்பரப்பில் சாரல் தெறிக்க கண்மாய்க்குள் கெண்டைமீனும் கொக்குகளும் ஊறின. குன்றும் மேகமும் கலந்தன. அவள் வாழ்ந்த நிலத்தில் நிலவுகூட தங்கமானது. பாப்பாவும் இன்னும் சற்று அழகாக பிறந்திருக்கலாம்.

ஆனால் அப்படிப்பார்த்தால் ஃபிலோமினாவின் சுற்றத்தில் வாழ்ந்த பெண்களும் அப்படியொன்றும் பேரழகுப்பிறவிகள் இல்லை. எங்கும் இருப்பது போலத்தான். சாதாரண உலகில் அசாதாரண கனவுகளை பொருத்திக்கொண்டு வாழ முடியுமா என்று சோதனைசெய்துகொண்டிருந்தவர்கள். பெரும்பாலும் தோல்வியுற்றார்கள். தோல்வியுற்றாலும், பரவாயில்ல, என்ன இப்ப? நீதானே ஜெயிச்ச? இருந்துட்டு போக, என்று எதிரே இருப்பவனிடம் “காய்” விடாமல் சோழிமுத்துப்பற்கள் தெரிய சிரித்தவர்கள். ஃபிலோமினாவும் அப்படித்தான். திருமணம் ஆகவில்லை என்பதற்காக சிரிப்பு வந்தால் வராதே என்றா சொல்ல முடியும்?

அப்போதுதான் ஒருநாள் ஃபாதர் ஜெபராஜ் ஆரனை வீட்டுக்கு கூட்டிக்கொண்டு வருவதாக சொன்னார். ஆரன் பாஸ்டரான தன்னுடைய அமெரிக்க நண்பரின் மகன். கல்லூரி முடித்த கையுடன் இந்தியாவை சுற்றிப்பார்க்க வந்திருந்தான். கலைக்கல்லூரியில் படித்திருந்தான். மூன்று வாரம் பசுமலை காட்டேஜில் தன்னுடன் தங்கி மதுரைக்கோயில் சிற்பங்களை பார்க்க ஆசைப்படுகிறான். ஃபிலோமினா வரலாறு டிகிரிதானே படித்திருக்கிறாள்? அவள் சும்மாதானே இருக்கிறாள்? கூட்டிச்சென்று ஊரில் எல்லாவற்றையும் காட்டினால் என்ன, என்றார்.

சாந்தமேரியும் தேவதாசுக்கும் அந்த நெட்டையான வெள்ளைக்கார இளைஞனை பார்த்தபோது முதலில் விந்தையாக இருந்தது. மதுரை புறநகருக்கு வெள்ளைக்காரர்களெல்லாம் வருவதில்லை. கிட்டத்தட்ட ஒரு புது ஜீவி. அவனிடம் எப்படி பேசவேண்டும், அவன் என்ன சாப்பிடுவான், எங்கு உட்காருவான், அவர்களுடைய பின்கட்டு அவனுக்கு சரிவருமா என்று ஒரே பரபரப்பு. சாந்தமேரி தனக்குத்தெரிந்த நான்கு ஆங்கிலச் சொற்றொடர்களை நாளெல்லாம் மறுபடியும் மறுபடியும் சொல்லிப்பார்த்துக்கொண்டிருந்தாள். ஃபாதருடன் ஆரன் ஒருவழியாக விஜயம் செய்தபோது பக்கத்துவீட்டார்முதல் பாங்க் காலனி ஐயர்மார்கள் வரை கூடி நின்று கூச்சப்படாமல் அவனை விழித்து விழித்து வேடிக்கை பார்த்தார்கள்.

ஆனால் வந்த முதல் நாளிலேயே அவர்களுக்கு ஆரனை பிடித்துப்போய்விட்டது. அவன் அதிகம் பேசவில்லை. கழுத்தைக் குழைத்து, கண்ணில் குழிவிழ சிரித்து, நெற்றியில் விழுந்த பொன்நிற சுருள்முடியை விரல்களால் அழகாக விலக்கி, கன்றுக்குட்டி கண்கள் வழியாக அவர்களைப் பார்த்து புன்னகைத்துகொண்டே இருந்தான். அந்த வீடு அவனுக்கு குகைபோல் சிறியதாக இருந்தாலும் குறையில்லாதவன்போல் பாந்தமாக அமர்ந்து சாந்தமேரி சுட்ட தோசைகளை வெள்ளைக்காரத்தனமாக இரண்டுகைகளாலும் பிய்த்துத் தின்றான். இரண்டு ‘சுவீட்’ட்டுகள் வைத்தாலும் அலுத்துக்கொள்ளாமல் சாப்பிட்டான். அவளுடன் அடுப்பறைக்குச்சென்று நின்று தலைகுனிந்து பேசினான். அவள் அலறுவதை பொருட்படுத்தாமல் பாத்திரங்களை கழுவிக்கொடுத்தான்.

“பக்கத்து வீட்லையும் பாத்திரம் வெளக்க ஆளு கேக்கறாங்களாம்,” என்று ஃபிலோமினா குரலில் சிரிப்பைப் பொத்தியபடி சொன்னாள். “இவ உங்கள கிண்டல் பன்றா பாருங்க,” என்று உடனே பிரிசில்லா சத்தமாக சொன்னாள். இரண்டு பெண்களும் விழுந்து விழுந்து சிரிக்க ஆரன் தட்டை துடைத்துக்கொண்டே அவர்களுடன் சேர்ந்து சிரித்தான்.

அந்தக்காலத்தில் தானும் கொஞ்சம் வரைகலை பழக்கம் உடையவர் என்று அன்று தேவதாஸ் ஆரனிடம் சொல்லிக்கொண்டிருந்தார். எஞ்சினியரிங் மாணவராக இருந்தபோது மதுரையின் பழைய கட்டடங்கள் சிலவற்றை நகலாக வரைந்து வைத்திருந்தார். பூச்சி அரித்த பழைய தாள்களை பரணிலிருந்து எடுத்து தன்னுடைய சிறந்த படைப்பென்று கருதிய புனித மேரி தேவாலயத்தின் படத்தை காட்டிக்கொண்டிருந்தார். “எங்க? வேலையில சேர்ந்ததும் எல்லாம் விட்டுப்போச்சு. அப்புறம் கல்லியாணமும் ஆச்சு… மொத்தமா போச்சு,” என்று சலித்தார்.

“தம்பிக்கு கல்யாணம் ஆயிடிச்சா?” என்றாள் சாந்தமேரி. ஆரனின் முகம் சிவப்பானது.

“அவுரு பாக்க சின்னப்பையனால்ல இருக்காரு, இப்பத்தான் படிப்பையே முடிச்சிருக்காரு, நீயென்ன?” என்றார் தேவதாஸ். “நீங்க என்ன அப்பா மாதிரி சர்ச்சு தொழிலுக்கு வராம ஓவியம் சிற்பம்னு இந்தப்பக்கம் வந்துட்டீங்க?”

அந்தக் கேள்விக்கும் ஆரன் நெளிந்தான். ஃபாதர், “அவங்கெல்லாம் அமெரிக்காகாரங்க. இண்டிபெண்டெண்ட். அப்பா ஒண்ணு சொன்னா இவுங்க நேர் எதிரா ஒண்ணுலதான் போய் நிப்பாங்க. நம்மாளு இப்போதைக்கு எல்லாத்தையுமே சந்தேகிக்குற தாமஸ்” என்றபடி ஆரன் முதுகில் தட்டினார். ஆரனிம் முகம் இனி சிவக்க முடியாது என்பது போல் பழுத்திருந்தது.

“ஆமா, அந்தப் படத்த பாத்ததும் நீங்க உண்மையிலேயே இஞ்சினியர்தானான்னு அவருக்கும் சந்தேகம் வந்திருச்சுப்பா,” என்றாள் ஃபிலோமினா. எல்லோரும் சிரித்தார்கள்.

ஃபாதர் ஆரனிடம், “நீங்க ஏன் ஃபோட்டோகிராஃபி பன்றதில்ல?” என்றார்.

அந்தக்கேள்விக்கும் முதலில் வெறுமனே புன்னகைத்தான். பின், “ஃபோட்டோகிராஃபி முயற்சி பண்ணி பாத்தேன். பிடிக்கல. கையால வரையறதுதான் பிடிச்சிருக்கு. நான் கொஞ்சம் பழைய ஆளுன்னுதான் நினைக்கறேன்,” என்றான். ஆங்கிலத்தில் அவன் சொன்ன வார்த்தைகள் ஃபிலோமினாவுக்கு பிடித்திருந்தது. “ஐ திங்க் ஐ அம் அன் ஓல்ட் சோல்.”

“ஃபோட்டோகிராஃபிக்கும் பெயிண்டிங்குக்கும் என்ன வித்தியாசம்?” என்றாள்.

“ம்ம்… நிறைய வித்தியாசம் இருக்கு…” ஆரனின் பார்வை பட்டாம்பூச்சியாய் படபடத்து அவள் மேல் வந்து நிலைத்தது. “ஆனா முக்கியமான்னு பாத்தா ஒளி தான்.”

“காமராவுல லைட் டிடெக்டர் இருக்கு. அது வெளிய இருக்குற ஒளியால தான் படத்த உருவாக்குது. அதுக்கும் ஒரு அளவு இருக்கு. ஒரு தற்செயல்த்தன்மை இருக்கு. இயற்கையில ஒளி எங்க விழுதுன்னு நாம தீர்மானிக்கமுடியாதில்ல?

“ஆனா பெயிண்டிங்ன்றப்ப நாம பாக்குறதுதான். நாம வரையறதுதான். அதுக்குள்ள நாமளே நமக்கான ஒளிய உருவாக்கிட முடியும்.” பேசப்பேச அவன் கண்களுக்குப்பின்னால் மெழுகுவர்த்திச்சுடர் போல் ஒன்று அசைந்துகொண்டிருந்ததை அவள் கண்டாள்.

“‘உலகிற்கு ஒளிதரும் விளக்கு நீங்களே’,” என்று தான் உட்கார்ந்த இடத்திலிருந்து ஃபாதர்  சன்னமாக சொன்னார். ஆரன் அவர் பக்கம் சொடுக்கென்று திரும்பினான். ஃபிலோமினா மீண்டும் அவனைக்கண்டபோது அவன் தலை குனிந்திருந்தது.

“சரியான அப்பாவி. உனக்கே தம்பி மாதிரில்ல இருக்கான்,” அன்றிரவு படுத்துக்கொண்டதும் ஃபிலோமினாவே பிரிசில்லாவிடம் அவனைபற்றிய பேச்சை எடுத்தாள்.

“அம்மா ரொம்ப நம்பிக்கையோட இருக்காங்க, நீயென்னன்னா இப்படி சொல்ற?” சிரிப்பை அடக்கமுடியாமல் கேட்டாள் பிரிசில்லா. “‘தம்பிக்கு கல்யாணம் ஆயிடிச்சா?” அம்மாவைப்போலவே பேசிக்காட்டினாள்.

பெரியப் பேச்சாடீ பேசுற, என்று அதட்ட வாயெடுத்த ஃபிலோமினா, “ஐயோ அவன் என்னவிடயும் சின்னப்பையன். சரியான தம்பிப்பாப்பா,” என்று போர்வையை இழுத்துவிட்டுக்கொண்டு சுவர்பக்கமாகத் திரும்பி கண்களை மூடிக்கொண்டாள்.

“ரொம்ப காலம் முன்னால இந்த ஊர்ல மலையத்துவஜ பாண்டியன்னு ஒரு ராஜா இருந்தான். அவனுக்கு ஒரே மக. அவ பேரு மீனாட்சி. மகன் இல்லாத குறைய தீக்க ராஜா மகளையும் மகனாட்டமே வளத்தானாம். அவ மொரட்டுத்தனமா ஆம்பளகணக்கா வில்லும் வீரமுமா வளந்தா. சுத்தியிருக்கற ஊரையெல்லாம் சண்டைபோட்டு அடக்கினா. அவளுக்கேத்த மாப்பிள்ளன்னு உள்ளூருல யாருமில்ல. தூரதேசத்துலர்ந்துதான் வருவான்னு குறி சொன்னாங்க.

‘சொன்னதுபோலவே சிவனும் வந்தாரு. அழகன்னா அழகன் அப்படியொரு அழகன். எந்த பிராந்தியத்திலும் பார்க்க முடியாது. கைலாசத்துல என்னவோ சடமுடியும் கப்பரையும் பாம்பும் கணங்களுமா ஜாலியாத்தான் இருக்குறவரு. இந்தம்மாளுக்கு அப்படி வந்தா ஆகுமா? அதுனால அழகனா கோலம் தரிச்சு வராரு.

‘வந்து நின்னா, ஊருக்குள்ள வடிவா, சொக்கா, சுந்தரான்னு ஒரே ஆரவாரம். யார்ரா அது புதுசா எம் ஊருக்குள்ள? உங்கொட்டத்த அடக்குறேன் பாருன்னு பாஞ்சு போனா மீனாட்சியம்ம.

‘அவரு ஆயுதம் எதையும் எடுக்கல. சும்மா இவளையே பாக்குறாரு. அத அவ பாக்கறா. வில்லையும் வேலையும் எடுக்கலாம்னா அவளுக்குக் கை வெளங்கவேயில்ல. கண்ணும் அவன் பார்வைக்கு முன்னால எழும்பமாட்டேங்குது. வெட்கம்! ஒரு வழியா கண்ண ஒசத்தி பாத்தா அவன் அப்பவும் அப்படியே கண்வாங்காம பாத்துக்கிட்டிருக்கான். அவ்வளவு அழகு. அவ சிரிச்சுபுடறா.

‘சிவன் அவள இங்க வெச்சு கல்யாணம் பண்ணிகிட்டாரு. அப்புறம் இங்கேயே தங்கிட்டாரு. இப்பவும் அந்த ஐதீகம் இருக்கு… இந்தூரப் பொறுத்தவரையில இப்பவும் அவதான் மகாராணி.’

கம்பத்தடி மண்டபத்தில் மீனாட்சி திருக்கல்யாண சிற்பத்தை வரைந்துகொண்டிருந்த ஆரனைப் பிடித்து ஒரு முதியவர் நீ யார், எந்த ஊர், என்ன செய்கிறாய் என்று விசாரித்து, ஃபிலோமினாவை ஏற இறங்கப் பார்த்து, “ஓ க்றிஸ்டியன்ஸா?” என்று தெளிவுபடுத்திக்கொண்டு, சினேகபாவத்துக்கு வந்ததும் தானே முன்வந்து கோயிலின் ஐதீகக் கதையை சொல்லிக்கொண்டிருந்தார். ஃபிலோமினாவுக்கு நன்கு தெரிந்த கதைதான். இருந்தாலும் கேட்டாள். முதியவர் நன்றாகத்தான் ஆங்கிலம் பேசினார். ஆனால் அந்தக்கதையை மட்டும் குழந்தைத்தனமாக சொல்லிக்கொண்டிருந்த பாணி புன்னகை வரவழைத்தது.

“இந்துக்கதைகளெல்லாமே கல்யாணத்தப்பத்தியதா இருக்கே?” என்றான் ஆரன்.

“ஆமா தம்பி. கல்யாணம், கோலாகலம், திருவிழா, இதெல்லாம் இல்லாம என்னத்த வாழ்க்கை?” என்றார் தாத்தா. “மீனாட்சியோட கல்யாணத்தையே இங்க நாங்க ஒவ்வொரு வருஷமும் கொண்டாடுவோம்.”

உடனே பொறிதட்டியவன்போல், “இவங்க பேருகூட அதுதான். ஃபிலோ-மீனா!” என்றான் ஆரன். ஃபிலோமினா முகம்பிளக்க சிரித்தாள்.

“இந்த ஊருல பொறந்த அத்தன பொண்ணுங்களுமே எங்களுக்கு மீனாட்சியம்மதான் தம்பி,” என்றார் தாத்தா. அவளைப் பார்த்து புன்னகைத்து, “இதுல மதமெல்லாம் வராது” என்றார்.

கடைசி வாரத்தில் ஒரு நாள் அவனே அந்தப் பேச்சை எடுத்தான். “ஃபிலோமினா, உங்க ஊர்லல்லாம் எப்படி, ஏற்பாட்டு கல்யாணம்தானே? உங்களுக்கு கல்யாணம் ஏற்பாடாகலையா?”

அவர்கள் மேல ஆடி வீதியில் கல்லில் சாய்ந்து அமர்ந்திருந்தார்கள். ஆரன் மேலை கோபுரத்தை வண்ணஓவியமாக வரைந்துகொண்டிருந்தான். சரியாக வரவில்லை. பக்கங்களைத் திருப்பி மீண்டும் மீண்டும் வரைந்தான். கோபுரக்காற்றில் மரங்கள் சலசலத்தன. ஒரு வட இந்தியப் பயணக்குழு நிறத்தொகையாக கோபுரத்தின் பிம்பம்போல அவர்கள் அருகே அமர்ந்திருந்தது. பெரியவர்கள் குறுகுறுப்பாகப் பார்க்க குழந்தைகள் சுற்றி ஓடிஓடி விளையாடினார்கள்.

ஃபிலோமினா காலை மடக்கி சுடிதாரை இழுத்துவிட்டுக்கொண்டாள். “பாத்துட்ருக்காங்க… ஒண்ணும் அமையல,” என்றாள். “போன வாரம்கூட ஒருத்தங்க வந்தாங்க. சிவகாசிக்காரங்க. இந்து குடும்பம். இப்ப யாரும் அப்படி கொடுக்கறதில்லன்னு அப்பா யோசிச்சாரு… ஆனா அவங்களே வேண்டாம் சரி வராதுன்னு பதில் எழுதிட்டாங்க.” ஃபிலோமினா தோளை குலுக்கினாள். “அது கெடக்குது. நீ சொல்லு. உனக்கு கெர்ள்ஃபிரெண்ட்ஸெல்லாம் கிடையாதா?” விளையாட்டுத்தனமாக மாறியது அவள் குரல்.

அவன் முகம் சிவந்து தூரிகையை கீழே வைத்து அப்பாலே பார்த்தான். கழுத்து நெளிந்தது. “இல்ல, எனக்கு பெண்களை பிடிக்காது,” என்றான்.

“ஐய்யோ!” என்று ஃபிலோமினா கருத்த முகத்தில் பல் தெறிக்க கடகடவென்று சிரித்தாள். “என்னைக் கூடவா?”

அவன் சட்டென்று திரும்பி அவள் கையை பிடித்தான். திடீரென்று அப்படி செய்வான் என்று அவள் எதிர்பார்த்திருக்கவில்லை. யாரும் பார்க்கப்போகிறார்களே என்று சுற்றிப்பார்ப்பதற்குள் அவனுடைய கண்களில் இருந்த நெகிழ்வின் தீவிரம் அவளை கலங்கவைத்தது. “உன்னையா?” அவன் பார்வை நாய்குட்டியின் ஈரமூக்கைப்போல் இருந்தது. “உன்னை சொல்வேனா? உன்னைத்தான் எனக்கு ரொம்ப பிடிக்குமே?” என்றான்.

அன்றிரவு அதை பிரிசில்லாவிடம் சொன்னபோது, “ஏதாவது லவ் ஃபெயிலியர் கேஸா இருக்குங்க்கா,” என்று உலகைப் பார்த்துசலித்த பாட்டியைப்போல் சொன்னாள்.

ஒருநாள் கோயில் மண்டபத்தின் கல்குளிர்ச்சியில் அமர்ந்தபடி, தன்னுடைய சொந்த ஊரில் தான் வரைந்த படங்களை ஃபிலோமினாவுக்கு காண்பித்தான் ஆரன். வெளியே காய்ந்த வெயில் ஒளிச்சிதறல்களாகவே மண்டபத்திற்குள் நுழைந்தது. அவ்விடங்கள் மட்டும் சற்றே வெம்மையுடன் இருந்தன. மற்றபடி கோயில்கல்லில் இதமான குளிர் உறைந்திருந்தது.

அமெரிக்காவின் வடகிழக்கு எல்லையின் வெர்மாண்ட் மாகாணத்தில் ஸ்ப்ரிங்ஃபீல்ட் என்ற ஊரில்தான் ஆரன் பிறந்தான். அந்த ஊரில் வருடத்தில் முக்கால் பகுதி நாட்கள் ஒளியே கிடையாது என்றான் ஆரன்.

அவர்களுடையது மிகப்பெரிய வீடு. கிட்டத்தட்ட மாளிகை. அப்பா பாஸ்டர். பாதிநாள் ஊரில் இருக்கமாட்டார். அம்மா நோயாளி. பாதிநாள் படுக்கையை விட்டு எழும்பமாட்டார். வேலைக்காரர்களிடமிருந்து ஒளிந்துகொள்ள வசதியாக நிறைய இடங்கள் இருந்த வீடு அது. குளிர் உறைந்த, இருட்டான இடங்கள். “பெரிய சிலுவைவடிவில் ஒரு சவப்பெட்டிகூட இருக்கும், அதில்தான் நிறைய ஒளிந்துகொள்வேன்,” என்றான் ஆரன்.

அங்கு நிறைய காடுகளும் வருடத்தில் பாதிநாள் பனியும் இருக்கும். பனிக்காலத்தில் நாளெல்லாம் இரவெல்லாம்  பனி பொழிந்துகொண்டே என்றான். நில்லாமல் பொழியும் நிசப்த இசை. அப்போது வானில் ஒளியே இருக்காது. சாம்பல்நிற கோட்டு போர்த்தியதுபோல் இருக்கும் உலகம். நிறங்கள் இருக்காது. ஒளியில்லாததால் நிழல்களும் இருக்காது. நிழல்கள் இல்லாததால் காட்சியிலும் ஆழம் இருக்காது.

அம்மா இறந்தபிறகு வீட்டில் இருக்கப்பிடிக்காமல் சுற்றியிருக்கும் காடுகளில் அலைகையில் பனியேந்திய மேப்பிள் மர வரிசைகளை வரைந்து வரைந்து ஓவியம் கற்றுக்கொண்டான். பிறகு பல ஊர்களை வரைந்திருந்தான். பிட்ஸ்பர்கின் கரிச்சுரங்கங்கள். நியூ யார்க் நகரின் சப்வேக்கள். தென்பிராந்திய கருப்பினத்தவர்களின் பொந்துவீடுகள். இந்த ஊரில் அவன் கண்ட ஒளியையும் வண்ணங்களையும் அவன் இதற்கு முன்னால் கண்டதுமில்லை, வரைந்ததுமில்லை. “உங்க ஊர் மொத்தமுமே ஒரு ஃபான்சி ஸ்டோர்!” என்றான்.

ஃபிலோமினா அவன் உற்சாகத்தைக்கேட்டு புன்னகைத்தாள். உண்மைதான். அவன் எங்கு நிறங்கள் செறிந்திருப்பதைக்கண்டாலும் நின்றுவிடுவான். சித்திரை வீதியை ஒரு முறை சுற்றி வர மூன்று மணி நேரமாகும் என்று பிரிசில்லாவிடம் பெருமூச்சுவிட்டபடி சொன்னாள். வெங்கலம், குங்குமம், பறக்கும் ஹெலிகாப்டர் பொம்மை, வெற்றிலை, மயில் இறகு, சுங்குடி சேலை, கரும்பு, மருதாணி, மல்லிகைப்பூ, காதில் மாட்டும் தொங்கட்டான் என்று எதைக்கண்டாலும் நின்றுவிடுவான். நாகப்பட்டினம் அல்வா கடையில் அல்வாவின் நிறத்தை வைத்து ஒரு ஆராய்ச்சி. கடைவீதியில் செண்பகப்பூவின் நிறத்தையும் மணத்தையும் வைத்து இன்னொரு ஆராய்ச்சி.

அன்று பேருந்தில் திரும்பி வரும்போது ஜன்னலிலிருந்து ஃபிலோமினா அதைப்பார்த்து உற்சாகமாக சுட்டிக்காட்டினாள். தென்கரை கண்மாய் நிரம்பியிருந்தது. மாலைச்சூரியன் சிவந்த பிழம்பாக அதில் இறங்கிக்கொண்டிருந்தது. கண்மாய்நீர் தீயின் வண்ணத்தில் அலையடித்தது. மேமாதம் கிட்டத்தட்ட முடிந்துவிட்டது, ஆகவே கண்மாய்க்கு தண்ணீரை திறந்துவிட்டிருக்கவேண்டும். அப்படியென்றால் மேற்கே மழை தொடங்கிவிட்டது. இன்னும் இரண்டு நாட்களில் மதுரைக்கு வந்துவிடும். ஆரன் கிளம்புவதற்குள் வரவேண்டும்.

“ஃபிலோமினா, நீ ஏன் எப்பவுமே கருப்பு சாம்பல் தவிட்டுநிறம் இதுல மட்டும் டிரெஸ் பண்ற? ஏன், வண்ணம் பிடிக்காதா?” என்றான் ஆரன்.

ஃபிலோமினா அஸ்தமன ஒளி முகத்தில் பட்டதுபோல் சிவந்தாள். பின் உடனே அவனை நோக்கித்திரும்பி அவன் கையைத் தட்டி, “ஆமா. உனக்கு எப்பப்பாரு நிறங்கள்தான்,” என்றாள்.

ஆரன் சிரித்தான். “இன்னிக்கி உங்க வீட்ல சாப்பிட சொல்லி உங்க அம்மா சொன்னாங்க. இன்னும் ரெண்டு நாள்ல கிளம்பறேன்ல, அதான் எல்லோருக்கும் ஒரு சின்ன அன்பளிப்பு வாங்கியிருக்கேன். அதான் உன்கிட்ட முன்கூட்டியே கேட்டுகிட்டேன்…” என்றான்.

சாந்தமேரிக்கு சிவப்பு நிறத்திலும், பிரிசில்லாவுக்கு பச்சை நிறத்திலும், ஃபிலோமினாவுக்கு வான்நீல நிறத்திலும், மஞ்சள் புள்ளிகள் வைத்து சுங்குடிச்சேலைகள் வாங்கியிருந்தான். தேவதாசுக்கும் ஃபாதருக்கும் வேட்டிசட்டை. “எங்கணப்போயி வாங்கினிங்க? நல்லா ஏமாத்தியிருப்பாக. பாப்பாவ கூட்டிப்போக வேண்டியதுதான?” என்று சாந்தமேரி அங்கலாய்த்தாள்.

அன்று விருந்துச்சாப்பாடு. சாப்பிட்டு எழுந்து கைகழுவ வெளியே செல்கையில் எதிரில் ஃபிலோமினா வந்தாள். “புடவை பிடிச்சிருக்கில்ல?” என்று கேட்டான். “எதுக்கிதெல்லாம்? சும்மா பெரியதனம்…” என்றாள் ஃபிலோமினா. தன் கைமூட்டால் அவன் கையை இடித்தபடி சென்றாள்.

கடைசி நாளன்று மதியம் அவன் கேட்டதுபோல் பரங்குன்ற மலையடிவாரத்துக்கு கூட்டிச்சென்றாள்.  வழிகேட்டு இருவரும் மலையின் மேற்கு முகத்தில் ஏறினார்கள். மரங்கள் செறிந்திருந்த மலைப்பாறைப்பாதை. கற்படிகள். ஆட்களே இல்லை.

அன்று வானம் மேகம் செறிந்திருந்தது. காற்றில் ஈரம். நாசியில் மண்வாசம். தூரத்தில் எங்கேயோ மழை. ஏற ஏற தூரத்தில் நாகமலையின் கோட்டுக்கப்பால் மேகங்களையும் மழைச்சரிவுகளையும் ஒளிக்கோடுகளாக பார்க்கமுடிந்தது.

படிகளைவிட்டு மலையின் முகத்திலேயே நேரடியாக ஏறினார்கள். எதிரே தென்கரைக்கண்மாய் ராட்சத முகமொன்றில் பதித்த நீலக்கண் ஏதோ சொல்ல வருவதுபோல் அவர்களை கீழிருந்து கண்கொட்டாமல் நோக்கியது. ஆரன் வரைந்துகொண்டிருந்தான். மேலே குன்றின் முகத்தில் ஒரு படையாக குரங்குகள் இறங்கி வந்தன. குட்டிகள் அம்மாக்களின் அடிமடியை பற்றியிருந்தன. ஃபிலோமினா மிரண்டு நகர்ந்தாள். ஆனால் அவை ஒன்றும் செய்யாமல் ஒதுங்கிச் சென்றன. ஆரன் அங்கேயே அமர்ந்து அவற்றை வரையத்தொடங்கினான்.

காற்று மாறியது. மழை நெருங்குவதுபோல் இருந்தது. “வா, இறங்கலாம், மழை வரும்,” என்றாள் ஃபிலோமினா. ஆரன் தன்னுடைய தாள்களை நேர்த்தியாக நளினமாக அடுக்கி கவனமாக தோல்பைக்குள் செறித்து வைத்து கைப்பையில் போட்டுக்கொண்டான். பையிலிருந்து இன்னும் மெல்லிய செண்பகவாசம் வந்தது.

அவன் ஒரு நீளமான காகிதக்குழாயை எடுத்தான். அதை ஃபிலோமினாவிடம் கொடுத்தான். “இது உனக்காக,” என்றான்.

மழை பொட்டுப்பொட்டாகத் தொடங்கியது. ஃபிலோமினாவுக்கு அதை திறந்துபார்க்க நேரமில்லை. தலையை ஷாலால் போர்த்தியபடி மரங்கள் செறிந்த கற்படிகளை நோக்கி வேகமாக நகர்ந்தாள். ஆரன் பின்தொடர்ந்தான்.

மலையின் அடிவாரத்துக்கு வந்தபோது மெல்லிய சாரலாகியிருந்தது மழை. கோடைமழையின் வருகையை அறிவிக்கும் நீர்ப்பதக்காற்றும் குளிரும் கிளம்பியிருந்தது. மெல்லிய பனிமூட்டம். ஆரன் ஃபிலோமினாவை பார்த்துக்கொண்டிருந்தான்.

“நாள காலையிலேயே புறப்படணுமில்ல?” என்றாள் ஃபிலோமினா.

“ஆமா, ஆறு மணிக்கெல்லாம் ரயில். சென்னைக்கு. அங்கிருந்து தில்லி. எட்டாம்தேதி டேராடூன் போறேன்.”

“சரி, அப்போ பார்க்கலாம்.” ஃபிலோமினா மெல்ல அவன் கையை தட்டினாள். “ஏதாச்சும் வேணும்னா வீட்டுக்கு ஃபோன் பண்ணு.” சம்பிரதாயமான விடைபெறும் வார்த்தைகள். வேறென்ன சொல்வது? இருவரும் முழித்து முழித்து பார்த்தார்கள்.

அவன் பார்வை மாறவே மாறாதா என்று ஃபிலோமினா வியந்தாள். நாய்குட்டியின் மூக்கைப்போல ஒரு பார்வை. பின்னால் நின்ற அசைவு அறியாத மலைக்குன்றின் நிறத்தில் கண்கள். கல்லும் தேனும் கலந்ததுபோல்…

ஏதோ ஒரு கணத்தில் அவன் “சரி, பார்க்கலாம்,” என்று சொல்லி புன்னகைத்து திரும்பி கூட்டத்துக்குள் மறைந்தான். அவள் சற்று நேரம் அங்கேயே நின்றாள். பின் அவளும் திரும்பி வீட்டுக்குப்போனாள்.

அன்று இரவு ஃபிலோமினா உடனே தூங்கிவிட்டாள்.

அதிகாலையில் முழித்தபோது, தான் எங்கே இருக்கிறோம் என்று ஒருகணம் நினைவுதப்பினாள். காற்றுவெளியில் விழித்துக்கொண்டதுபோல். கட்டிலிலிருந்து காலை கீழே ஊன்றினால் அது  மேகப்பஞ்சில் பதியும் என்பதுபோல். அது தன்னுடைய அறைதான், தன் படுக்கைதான் என்ற பிரக்ஞை வர கொஞ்ச நேரம் பிடித்தது. எழுந்தபோது வெளியே மழை சாற்றிக்கொண்டிருந்தது. இருட்டாகவே இருந்தது.

குளிக்கும்போதுதான் ஆரன் அன்று கிளம்பிக்கொண்டிருப்பான் என்றும், உடனே அவன் முந்தைய நாள் கொடுத்த படக்குழாயும் நினைவுக்கு வந்தது. கூந்தலைக்கூட சரியாக உலர்த்தாமல் நைட்டியில் கைகளைத் துடைத்தபடி தன்னுடைய அறைக்குச்சென்று அந்தக்குழாயை திறந்தாள்.

பிரிசில்லா பக்கத்து கட்டிலில் எழுந்து உட்கார்ந்து இந்த வேளையில் இவள் என்ன செய்கிறாள் என்று கண்களிலிருந்து தூக்கத்தைத் துடைத்தபடி பார்த்தாள். ஃபிலோமினா குழாயிலிருந்து எடுத்த தாளை படுக்கையில் விரித்ததை அவள் முதுகு மறைத்தது. அவள் மூச்சை உள்ளிழுக்கும் சப்தத்தைக் கேட்டுத்தான் பிரிசில்லா முழுவதுமாக முழித்துக்கொண்டாள். “அக்கா? என்னக்கா? என்னாச்சுக்கா?” பாய்ந்து எழுந்து வந்து அவள் தோளைப் பிடித்து கன்னத்தோடு கன்னம் வைத்து அந்தக் காட்சியை பார்த்தாள். அவளும் பேச்சறுந்து நின்றாள்.

ஃபிலோமினாவின் படுக்கை அளவுக்கே பெரிய தாளில் வரையப்பட்டிருந்தது அந்த ஓவியம். கண்ணை நிறைக்கும் வான்நீலப்பின்னணி. அதிலிருந்து தாளைக் கிழித்து பாய்ந்து எழுந்து வருவதுபோல், மண் நிறத்தில் ஒரு குதிரை.

அந்தக்குதிரை தன் தலையை கம்பீரமாக பின்னால் தள்ளியிருந்தது. ஏதோ அரிய நறுமணத்தை நுகர்வதுபோல் மூக்கை உயர்த்தியிருந்தது. அன்பு மிகுதியில் கைகளை விரித்து பாய்ந்தோடி வருவதுபோல முன்னங்கால்களை ஒன்றின்மேல் ஒன்று தூக்கியபடி உடலே ஓர் அசைவென நிகழ்த்தி நிறுத்தியிருந்தது. அந்த அசைவுடன் குதிரையின் ஒவ்வொரு பாகமும் எப்படியோ ஒத்திசைந்து சமன் கொண்டிருந்தது.

தன்னுடைய வெளிப்பாட்டை தானே கண்டு ஆச்சரியப்படுவதுபோல் இருந்தது அதன் முகபாவம். பாதி கனைப்பில் தலை திருப்பி சிலுப்பி வாய் திறந்து ஐயோ! என்று களிப்புடன் சிரித்தது. பல்வரிசை அதன் முகத்தை இரு துண்டுகளாக வெட்டியது.

அந்தக் குதிரை தன் முகத்தைத்திருப்பி ஃபிலோமினாவின் கண்களை சந்தித்தது. மின்மினிக்கண்கள். பொன்நிறத்தில் இரண்டு ஒளிப்புள்ளிகள். பிரிசில்லா மெதுவான குரலில், “ஓ!” என்றாள். அவள் குரல் வண்ணத்துப்பூச்சிபோல் படபடத்தது. “அக்கா! அக்கா! உனக்கு தெரியல?” என்றாள். “பாரு! பாரு!” ஃபிலோமினா அப்போது அதை பார்த்துவிட்டிருந்தாள்.

அதன் பிடரி மயிர் பின்னலாக நீண்டது. விலாப்பகுதியில் பளபளக்கும் தோல் நெளிநெளியாக வழிந்தது, அவள் அணியும் ஷாலைப்போலவே. மினுமினுக்கும் கண்களும் விளையாட்டில் சுழலும் வாலும் சிரிப்பில் திறந்த வாயும் தெறித்த குதிரைப்பற்களும் அவள் நன்கு அறிந்தவை. கண்ணாடிகளுக்கப்பால், நீர்பிம்பங்களுக்கப்பால், மலைகளுக்கப்பால், மேகங்களுக்கப்பால், ஒரு முகம், எங்கேயோ வாழும் ஒன்று…

ஃபிலோமினா நிமிர்ந்தாள். “உன் மஞ்ச பிளௌஸ் எங்கடீ?” என்றாள். பிரிசில்லா புரியாமல் திக்கினாள் “அக்கா… என்ன கேட்ட?”

ஆனால் ஃபிலோமினா காத்திருக்கவில்லை. எழுந்து போய் அவள் அலமாரியை திருப்பிப்போட்டாள். தேடி பிரிசில்லாவின் ரவிக்கை ஒன்றை எடுத்தாள்.

தேன் நிறமா? செண்பகப்பூ நிறமா? அல்லது மின்மினியின் ஒளிநிறமா? அவள் அந்த மஞ்சள் ரவிக்கையை கைகளில் ஏற்றி அணிந்து கண்ணாடியில் சரிபடுத்திக்கொள்வதை பிரிசில்லா என்ன சொல்வதென்று தெரியாமல் பார்த்துக்கொண்டு பதைபதைக்க நின்றாள்.

ஃபிலோமினா நீலநிறப்புடவையை எடுத்துப் பிரித்து விறுவிறுவென்று உடுத்தினாள். ஆகாயநீலம். மஞ்சள் நிறத்தில் ஒளிப்புள்ளிகள். மடிப்புகள் சரியாக விழாதபோது பிரித்து மீண்டும் கட்டினாள். பொறுமையின்றி உச் என்றாள். பிரிசில்லா அவளையறியாமலேயே ஓடிவந்து காலருகே அமர்ந்து அடிமடிப்புகளை சரிசெய்தாள்.

நீவி மடிப்புகளை சீராக அடுக்கி முந்தானையிட்டதுமே ஃபிலோமினா வேறொருத்தியாக வளர்ந்துவிட்டது போலிருந்தாள். அந்த வேறொருத்தி கைகளில் வளையல் அடுக்கினாள். கண்ணுக்கடியில் மையிட்டுக்கொண்டாள். கூந்தலை காதோரம் எடுத்துச் சுருட்டி பின்தலையில் ஒருநொடியில் பொருத்திக்கொண்டாள்.

குரல் கம்ம, “அக்கா அல்லிப்பூ மாதிரி இருக்க தெரியுமா,” என்றாள் பிரிசில்லா. அந்த வார்த்தைகள் தன் வாய்க்குள் எங்கிருந்து வந்தது என்று அவளே வியந்தாள். அங்கு நடப்பது எல்லாமே தன் வயதை மீறிய ஒன்று என உணர்ந்தாள்.  ஃபிலோமினாவுக்கு எதுவுமே காதில் விழுந்ததாகத் தெரியவில்லை.

மிகுந்த யோசனைக்குப் பிறகு, இன்னும் மெதுவாக, “அக்கா, இந்நேரத்துக்கு அந்தப் பையனோட டிரெயின் கிளம்பியிருக்கும்னு நினைக்குறேன்,” என்றாள் பிரிசில்லா. ஃபிலோமினா கண்ணாடிக்குள்ளிலிருந்து, “ம்?” என்றாள்.

நிறைவடைந்ததும், பிரிசில்லா நோக்க, அவள் நிதானமாக வீட்டின் நீளத்தைக் கடந்து நடந்து வந்தாள். வாசல் கதவைத் திறந்து போட்டு நிலைப்படியில் நீலப்புடவை சரசரக்க நின்றாள். சாரல் நின்று மேகங்கள் பிரிந்துசென்றுகொண்டிருந்தன. மழை புத்துயிர் புகட்டியிருந்த சாலையில் அவள் பாதத்தை வைத்தபோது மேகங்களுக்கு இடையே ஒரு ஒளிக்கீற்று பிளந்து வந்து பேரழகியாகத் தெரிந்த ஃபிலோமினாவைத் தொட்டது.

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.