Who would kill a seven-year-old for being too… innocent?
The child lying dead in the middle of the room, with his swathed head looking like an overgrown cabbage, continued to attract men, women, tears and snot through the evening.
Outside on the stoop, as the man was stammering his question to me, ‘How did my child die?’, the mother swooned down behind, unable to handle her grief. A couple of greying ladies together with the fat cook of my school struggled and carried her away. Though the question was anticipated, I still had not figured out how I was to reply.
We were seven students in the school and he was the youngest of us. For some reason, I had nicknamed the boy Mandu and it stuck. When his father enrolled him into the school six months before, I was called downstairs to take him into my care. He needn’t necessarily have joined the Paatashala – some Brahmin’s decaying house converted into a school for learning Hindu scriptures – for I have heard his father was a prospering trader in Madras with the capacity to afford an English education. Maybe Mandu was summoned by his fate.
While it was the sepia of early 1940s outside our village, the conditions remained completely black-and-white for us inside. Only countably few houses boasted Philips tubelights and the rest rendered themselves recognisable with kerosene lamps. For this reason, we students would assemble in the hall for the rationed dinner by 6 pm sharp, holding our plates and tumblers.
Mandu was a silent, harmless boy, giving strangers the impression that he was both deaf and dumb. But during school hours, when it came to listening to our teacher recite verses off his old bound book and repeating them, Mandu, with his shallow voice of prepuberty, enunciated flawlessly and often achieved the rare feat of impressing our teacher.
Mandu, literally following his father’s last words to him, stuck beside me at all times.
He reached my waist when we lined up for our meals, was plump all over the body, and had his lips pulled inward most of the time. Any question outside his purview of awareness made him pause and blink; not that he was particularly quick at other times.
Now the sun appeared to sink behind the grove across the lane and I felt habitually hungry. I still had not replied to the father, and as if he understood my situation, he didn’t bother to stop sobbing and ask me a second time.
My mind flew to the stout pillars of stone that guarded the entrance of her house. And the callus hand that had shoved Mandu’s little face against one of these pillars. I knew he had died immediately, or perhaps even a moment before in fear of striking the hard, rough surface.
‘What can I tell? He – he was pushed against a rock pillar.’
My diction shook the father’s body.
My teacher stepped down to his side and lowered him onto the pyol.
‘He is our only child… I can’t bring myself to accept he is no more.’ He lifted his eyes to me, ‘Tell me, son. Who did this to my child?’
It had all been fine until she stepped into our village and came to reside in the house at the end of this lane, holding in her hands that big brown box and a worn trunk. She could not have been more than twenty-five. I was not sure what made her topic so ripe to the villagers – whether it was her beauty that she unconsciously, openly carried about her, very unlike the conservative, obedient women we were used to seeing, or it was that layer of mystery that shrouded her background and made her independence further questionable.
We had all seen her coming alone in a horse-driven cart. Even the bachelors in the lane had hesitated to help her carry her belongings into the house. After a hopeful short wait, she had flung the loose end of her sari over her shoulder and carried them all in one by one, in the process shamelessly swaying her hips and entertaining the husbands standing behind their stunned wives.
From that moment, in the market, by the well, during performances of the touring troupe, and wherever people rubbed shoulders, the men – young, old and very old – always sought to know where Amaravati came from, if she was married and how she lived alone in that huge house; while the women focussed on the more cosmetic aspects like how she was the way she was.
However, the most fantastic and interesting angle to the story was the purported sounding of a male voice in her house. Vinayagam Pillai, a landlord living directly opposite her house, indeed a curious neighbour to have, shared with all who cared to listen, which was essentially everybody, that he would occasionally hear a strong male voice, especially late in the evening and early in the morning, speaking to Amaravati in Hindi or English.
I have heard the wife of Rangachari gossiping with my teacher’s wife that she once spoke with Amaravati over their party wall, and in the course of their brief conversation had come to know that she was a married woman and that her husband had proved to be so indispensable to the British Raj that they kept him tucked in Delhi. It didn’t sound very credible, but it lent credibility to Vinayagam Pillai’s inference that Amaravati was now and then visited by an outsider who did not stay longer than a night.
Since I had formerly completed my education at the Paatashala, I went with my teacher as his acolyte to most of the rituals and religious gatherings he was called to and therefore became the unintended recipient of all these rumours and facts. I used to come back and share these with the other students, who, all on the cusp of adulthood, except Mandu, would drink every word of mine with an increasing eagerness and wicked smiles.
Mandu, on the other hand, would attentively listen to me with open mouth and tilted head, as if preparing to recite all I had said. We boys might also, now and then, in his silent presence, discuss the vague prospect of venturing near her house in the night – a self-declared taboo even for the grown-ups in the village. Once it was flippantly commented that it would be appropriate to send Mandu, as our emissary, near Amaravati’s house; after all who would take him seriously. However, during all those instants, I had never wondered what Mandu must have been thinking.
‘Yesterday evening we heard in passing that the man who regularly visited her had come.’ I could see Vinayagam Pillai solemnly nod from the corner he was standing in. ‘We did not think it was anyhow important to us students and so went to dinner, and upstairs after that. Only when Man – only when Maadhu was missing in the dormitory, did I get the feeling that maybe he had become too interested he couldn’t resist strolling down to the end of the lane.’
A shriek of anguish from one of the inner rooms terrified us all. My teacher sent his wife to be with the mother. A couple of doors were closed to muffle her cry; even still she succeeded.
The father straightened and looked up at me, which only made my telling harder.
‘I stepped out to bring Maadhu back. On the way, I was wondering how silly it was of him to go near her house, and what would our teacher do if he ever found out.
‘The lane was so empty and silent at that time that I could hear the voice of the man in Amaravati’s house, shouting in a different language, even at a few feet from this place. As I went closer, the door to her house seemed to open, and immediately, in the white light from inside, I could see a tall man pulling Mandu out of the house by his ear. I was shocked! Someone who has only been spoken of, never seen, was right before my eyes, and in his uncaring hands was Mandu weeping. I tried to run, but by the time I reached them, the man had pushed Mandu, who hit the pillar before falling on the ground at my feet.
‘Amaravati then locked the door and went away with the man and her few belongings.’
A couple of villagers, including the Panchayat Head, nodded their complement to my narration.
I must admit, at least to myself, that I had not been truthful to a grieving father.
I had been waiting for a long time to complete my formal education and escape the fetters of this village; to go to the town of Trichinopoly and find myself a footing in better conditions. I had realised long before that studying these purposeless scriptures was itself a sacrifice extracted out of me by my poor parents. And in addition, all the domestic jobs asked of me by my teacher, his wife and the school were torturous to my unwilling character. My palms were senseless, dead skin now.
So, when Amaravati entered our village, it was a fresh breeze of change to me. Sneaking around the drolls of the village and hearing them talk of her showed me the thrill of what men expected out of women, and on all Sundays, being accidentally present at Amaravati’s backyard exactly during her bathing ritual furnished me with unseen fantasies to occupy my lone time.
I obsessed over that woman. And one midnight, actually one of last week’s, I didn’t know how, but I was inspired to walk into her bedroom.
I had marked an opening in the hedge bordering her backyard. Once through it, I crossed the washing stone, the vestibule and entered the main hall. There was a soft voice of a man coming from one of the inner rooms on my left. It was a monotone. For a moment I considered withdrawing myself, but I ended up nervously inching in the room’s direction. Curiosity proved to be a swirling vortex, pulling into its scheme the weak.
As I pushed open the door in degrees, the man’s voice raised in decibels. Along with it, now I could hear feminine gasps, rendered more distinctly by every degree.
Amaravati was on her back, fully naked, with a pillow between her thighs, and her neck stretched backward on the bed. There was unexpectedly no man in the house, and the voice seemed to come from the brown box Amaravati had carried with her when she rode into our lives.
I could not definitely conclude which amazed me more – a naked woman engaged selflessly in a strange action, or the wonder of the brown box, with perforations, that spoke like a man. One was an answer to my nocturnal question, another was a question by itself.
It took me some time to see that Amaravati had stopped her engagement and was now staring into me. She invited me by a gesture of her head, which was mostly veiled by her long black hair. As I lumbered towards her with pacing heart, she moved her fingers over the box on the bedside table and touched somewhere – the voice was gone! Without turning her head in my direction, with her other hand, she pulled me into her bed.
The rest was like a half-remembered dream. I felt giddy throughout the process, but my body parts were conscious of what they were doing, or rather, all that they were guided to do. More than being a boon of vision to a blind, that night churned out very visceral experiences for me; an educational tour of my own body and its deep inner cravings.
When I exited her house, not at all wanting to, Mandu was lying crumpled on the pyol of a hut situated across the lane running behind her backyard. I sighed.
He must have heard the disturbance in the hedge, for he immediately jerked and lifted his sleepy head. Noticing I had finally come out, he jumped down carefully, clutched my upper cloth and followed me to our school. He never asked me anything about that night.
During the intervening four or five days my mind revolved around that one night – fighting hard against itself to recollect our efforts on bed, the ensuing pleasure that flowed out of me and the sound that gargled out from her stretched throat – but I could not retrieve much. I even started from school a couple of times to visit her (this time I took with me a small towel hidden in the fold of my dhoti), around the same hour, but one thing or the other prevented me from reaching her house. Twice it was Mandu holding onto me tightly in his sleep, threatening to wake up whenever I tried to release his clasp, and once it was a group of youngsters having a whispery meeting outside one of the houses on the lane.
Yesterday evening, Rangachari’s wife jogged to my school with her flabby figure bouncing within a nine-yards. She caught hold of my teacher’s wife and whispered loudly, ‘Amaravati is packing her house. She’s leaving tonight.’
I didn’t know what to make of it. Was I the reason for her sudden departure?
‘I don’t know,’ Rangachari’s wife scowled. ‘Must be because her story has begun to stink all over the village and it dawned upon her to quickly leave the place.’ Her tone was already wistful.
I waited with bated breath for the evening to sail past. After a half-eaten dinner and handing over Mandu to the charge of another student, I walked stealthily towards her house, taking precaution not to attract any attention in that silent space.
When I entered her house from behind she was already out on the front steps, meddling with the iron lock on the door. Hearing my footsteps, she paused and pushed the door open. Her oval face turned into an exclamation.
Amaravati rushed to the hall where I was standing and enquired why I had come there at that time. Even the tone of her question ragged my sincerity. And only then I myself understood that I was there on no purpose. I could not, after all, bluntly request an encore, although deep down that was what took me there. I stood numbed by her question.
I heard her repeating the question. A minute would have easily passed. Finally, she moved her body from the path between me and the front door and indicated the exit with her hand. What else could I have done? I walked out, down the steps and stopped on the lane. Amaravati turned a key in the lock, slipped it between her waist and the fold of her sari, and jumped into the waiting cart.
The big brown box that spoke like a man was behind the driver.
Very surprisingly, her walkout had no audience. All windows and doors on the lane remained shut, as if glancing at the wanton was itself a sacrilege.
In the wake of the cart, as the awoken dust fumed and settled, my eyes caught sight of Mandu sleepily standing across the lane. This boy!
He approached me as if nothing had happened, extended his arm and tugged at my upper cloth. I was so out of my mind, so confused, that I nudged him lightly. Who would have supposed it might kill the boy?
Like a thought from the past, wafted to my ears, the voice of the man from inside the big brown box.