No Home for Children

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.

rodolfo_amoedo_-_dorso_de_mulher_02

Painting of Rodolfo Amoedo

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.

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She Face

On my 22nd birthday I said ‘Nothing,’ to my father when he asked me what I wanted for a gift.

I have spent all these years in unfelt luxury – so part of home, school, (the car trip between) and family vacations that luxury metaphored as life for me.

But in this one year I have been working, doors came open; new people, those from unfamiliar backgrounds, new ways of carrying out life fell into my view, bringing to my knowledge the carefully knit blanket of my own social ignorance.

This sudden exposure has made me question everything – from the increasingly capitalistic working of day-to-day life to the innermost intentions of every human interaction; like a curious baby wanting to touch and feel every part of its world.

So here I am, an unbridled horse, let loose and galloping wild in its capacity of youth, with an unsettling doubtfulness tagging along by the tail.

Sometimes to rest the mind, this horse goes farther. To places and characters well-defined, in contrast to life, and neatly put down in papers. Flaubert is a tonic. In my most self-conscious moments, as I think of my new surroundings and my role in them, I fall into the comfortable trap of considering myself a romantic, as a protagonist making sense of life in the sort of experiences he has only been reading about.

(Given the times we live in, it becomes imperative to declare I am not drawn to the romances of Bhagat and Singh and their cohort of self-proclaimed bestselling authors. I would like to think I belong to the classical period, the finer ground.)

Opposite my house is a newly constructed bungalow. On the first floor, in the façade, opens a baroque-like window showing me a face, which when I turn away and collect my thoughts I realise stands for concrete meanings, an embodiment of my mature imaginings and which, in a moment of truth, belittles my self-worth and makes me feel inferior.

I find it difficult to look at it at a stretch, afraid she would catch me, even though she is always bent down, perhaps fixed on the garden below.

I see this portrait twice every day; very warm when I start for work, nightly cold once I am back. At all times, her face carries a cosmetic of sadness and poses a mystery, making it all the more attractive and intriguing.

The she face

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

I see her father is a proud man, expectedly snob. His wife is nothing less. However, in my comparison, I guess our riches could be matched and that my family would not be embarrassed in calculating for the girl’s hand.

A week before today her parents crossed over and visited mine. They were very happy to invite us to a party they were throwing.

Today evening, I dress to my best, thinking I would get to say hello to the girl, and if lucky, shake her hand.

It is a very swish party; the music is contemporary, maybe even futuristic; red wine keeps flowing from bottles to perpetually empty glasses, bringing to mind the generous stock of blood in a Tarantino; cummerbunds, with rinds for faces, sail on the lawn, always attentive to any turn of the head; young women, trending with 1970’s Hollywood fits now, are supple in their movements, their practised English creating a cacophony; some old women, all with cropped white heads like an agreed uniform, discuss post-millennial Indian feminism; the lights are minimalistic and that aches my searching eyes.

My mother and father have gone into groups that take people like my mother and father. My counterparts, young men and women, are in a gel, and as if by a tacit understanding I ignore them and they ignore me. It is very amusing to see how people of my age instantly categorise me as a foreigner.

She is still not here; or maybe I am so used to seeing her framed face that I am not receptive to her whole now –

She is coming out of the house, unaccompanied and hesitant-or-shy. The usual sadness is dispelled, as if she has only been waiting for this night, and in its place is something stronger I cannot immediately place.

I take a step in her direction, assuming two leftovers would naturally feel belonged when together. As I walk towards her, I prepare. As I walk towards her, I am also deviated to her. She is in a gown that is the colour of tea served in Ladakh. Its hem reaches her – she is gone! She jumps into a car that has been noiselessly revving until that moment and it whisks her off through the gate that opens to the road on the side of the bungalow.

A few minutes of murmur later it is revealed to the paused party that their only girl has eloped with one of their drivers.

The glorious notion that I am a romantic has been built on small negative aspects, like nostalgia, but now, when a tragedy strikes so pitilessly, in the form of a driver getting to take away such a girl, when it dawns upon me that the imaginings of mine she represented are turning into pleasant realities for another, the romantic notion is not at all comfortable, it is throbbing.

Another chapter of formative years.

 

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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Ashamed to Narrate This

The rain still sprayed at my face when I decided to step out from under the overhang. The wind was harsh, sending stormy clouds hurling into one another in a confused somersault. I decided to brave anything just to attain home and sleep well before tomorrow’s marathon.

I had never in my 21 years exercised my limbs, except only to wave at one of my parents to get me what was away from my arm’s reach. But I was running this marathon tomorrow because she would be there.

Locating my bike in the dark was difficult. All of them in the line were glistening with cold pimples on their naked skin.

When I finally identified, there came a lash of wetness, back to back, upon my back. Post a short struggle to start the vehicle, by which time I had become as wet as a dripping leaf, I took to the road, driving as fast and as slow as I could manage on the glossy surface.

It was raining pins and needles. Icy cold prickles syringed my nape, making me cringe as if in embarrassment. The new monsoon freezed my exposure. I struggled to view the road through the coloured water on my glasses. Blinking red, constant yellows. An occasional green granting us permission to move, in a smudged tone. It was like running around in a pub, pushing through a hybrid of psychedelic colours; but since my knowledge of pubs sprouted only from books and films, it felt immature to imagine this. Also, I had to concentrate on the road.

I left OMR and scurried into the service road. And immediately regretted. I was cutting through the logged rainwater, sending waves on both sides and inviting some quantity into my shoes. They were new shoes and new socks, bought especially. I lifted my feet and placed it awkwardly on the crash guard. Thankfully the road was empty with no audience.

*

I hurried up the steps and stopped outside the closed door. Shaking my shoes and wringing my socks, I dislodged murky water in the corner of the veranda and silently reclined my shoes on the wall. As I pushed open the door my nose picked up the acrid smell of extinguished candles. Father was there on the sofa, sitting with no vest, and not bothering to towel his wet chest, mother emerged from the kitchen carrying a ladle, sticking to the insides of which was hot pulp of some vegetable.

I crossed the hall on my toes into my bedroom, and stretched the socks on the clothesline there. ‘Why are you drying them here?’ Mother asked, following me.

‘I want them ready for tomorrow’s marathon.’

‘Don’t you have another pair?’

‘This is Puma.’ I hoped she would appreciate that.

I had dinner, but only a little, prompting a question from my mother, ‘You can’t eat properly either when you are too happy or too sad. Which one is it?’ I thought I blushed.

Ashamed to Narrate this

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

All I knew next was jumping onto my bed. I had slept like a dead. In the morning, I responded sharply to the alarm – later a great surprise to mother, father and the alarm clock – and hoisted myself and beamed at nothing. While telling myself that I was a brisk young man ready to run a marathon, I jumped down from the bed and landed on the pool of water formed overnight from the clothesline. Shluck! Something dragged my feet and I banged my left arm on the frame of the bed. There was a momentary blankness; freaky heartbeats and mind full of emptiness.

I brought myself to existence, like pushing the head out from a dark womb, and searched for meaning, looked for cause and effect from my position on the floor. I tried to get up, to open the door my parents were banging, but I was lying flat on my back with legs undecidedly hanging in the air, unable to voice anything except buckets of breath.

*

But all is well that ends well, isn’t it? She called me after returning from the marathon, asking in a tone of concern (I would like to assume) why I didn’t show up that morning.

Should I ask her to read this?

 

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

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The Goddess in the Backyard

WITH ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATION BY SWATHI

I. Birth

I wiped the black soot and the beads of sweat decorating my face with the unused corner of the already dirty cotton rag. What colour it had once been as a part of one of my old saris, I can’t think; but I was sure it could still be of some use as there were one or two less dirty places available in it.

I closed the aluminium vessel cooking the day’s ration of rice, and stood up to leave the kitchen and go to the shady backyard where the ‘city woman’ was waiting to interview me.

The one plastic chair we owned was positioned for my seating, while the chic woman sat opposite on one of the stone blocks we used to wash our clothes on. She was making ready a big black camera that sat atop a three-legged stand beside her. On her lap were a notebook and pen. Pinned to her breast-pocket was a circular insignia with the words ‘Centre for Action and People’s Development’ cribbed together at the centre.

‘Thank you for agreeing to this conversation,’ the lady’s face radiated, her gratefulness very evident. My mother-in-law, after putting on the clothesline the last wet sari from the iron bucket, turned round to get into the house. On her way, she gave us each a disapproving glance; the more intense one was surprisingly targeted at the other lady. Surprising as it had gone to another person even as I was there to uncomplainingly receive it.

The lady across me, unreceptive to the frigid look of my mother-in-law, crossed her leg and picked the pen. Without taking her eyes off me and with the smile on her face intact, she tucked a few strands of her hair behind her ear and then adjusted her thick-rimmed glasses. These trivialities brought to the forefront of my mind a very recent memory – of the personal discovery of my own modest beauty… only a month ago. Though before this period my eyes had many a time chanced upon the hazy mirror in the hall, I had rarely taken in and acknowledged the ‘look’ of the woman in it. But this one month had been very different. I was unable to discern the new feminine changes stirring deep within me. Yes, I had looked into the mirror scrutinisingly in my early adolescence, but they had only been curious examinations to measure the rate at which my hips curved and breasts developed, and vainly to find out why I felt strangely insecure even in the same environment I had been living in for 12 years. They were not, to put light on the matter, objective assessments of myself through the simulated gazes of the opposite sex. This one month had been very different.

‘Can I have your name?’ The lady brought me back into this world.

‘Kaveri,’ I caught myself uttering the word I had long lost touch with. No one in the house now called me by my name. A wave of a hand or, at times when I had probably seemed of some importance, a ‘You!’ would be my summon.

‘Your date of birth, please?’

‘September 20, 1990.’ Possibly the worst crime I had committed during my long intolerable existence was my birth, maybe also bearing the unluckiest of birthstones. Not because I had unapologetically killed my mother while coming out of her, but because I was born a girl in this society (the place being Manachanallur, Trichy), which had as its punishment for girl children not the relatively acceptable female infanticide, but this crueller inveterate notion of child marriage. My father brought me up with the little motherhood he was allowed to assume, to bestow on me the little packets of happiness I was lucky to receive, only to be robbed of everything on my sixteenth birthday.

A gush of wind blew past me. It rustled my hair, and I thought it also brought to me the scent of his sweat. The lady, looking up at me from her notebook, resumed her questioning. ‘How long have you been married?’

 

II. Death

‘I was married for three years, until my husband died in 2009.’

Maybe I had made the lady uncomfortable, because the smile was now receding, and the tucking of the strand of hair was unsteadily done. ‘I am sorry. I didn’t know –’ she blurted out.

‘Uh – you… can you tell me about your education?’ She asked, clearly intending to change the topic.

‘I have studied till tenth standard at one of our local schools here.’

I still vividly remember the day I was told I had ranked first in school in my HSC examination. I came home, walking on the one-foot broad pathway and showing all my teeth at the appreciatively nodding rice crops, to share my great news with father, but he had news of his own for me. I was to get married soon to a man twice my age. I had realised very early in my life that I was meant to become a teacher. The interest I had for helping out my peers at school, and the lady teacher who continuously encouraged me to take up higher purposes had cast their shadows upon my reality. Until that day, I didn’t know I was harbouring unrealistic dreams, unsuitable for women to even subconsciously dream.

‘Can you, if you don’t mind, tell me about your early married life?’ The question was obviously hesitant.

I smiled in return. I didn’t know if it was because of my uncertainty in replying, or if I was masking a trace of snigger at the inexperienced, unworldly woman sitting opposite me.

‘The extreme effort on my part when in my own house with my father was to sit by the working cooker and keep count of the whistles while he was shortly away. But once I entered this house, with a millstone round my neck, I was expected to do all the household chores with the utmost perfection. When something went wrong – which was often the case – living in the house became difficult for me. And by the time I could adapt myself to what I had been pushed into, the man I was married to died, thrusting on me undeserved blame, and around me an ominous air for the society to smell wincingly. The millstone got heavier.’

Silence prevailed, only to be later broken by the strident sound of a metallic object hitting the stone floor inside the house. It sounded more intentional than strident.

I tried to recover the distracted woman with a question. ‘Have you stopped child marriages?’ She gave me a few exemplary cases and highlighted in them all her organisation’s timely intervention. She then returned the question and added, ‘You must be very cautious after what happened in your life. Always meaning to stop the injustice served to you.’

The question took me on a journey via many memories, but I kept returning to the memory I shared with him.

 

III. Life

I came to know that Manimekalai – a girl who had only crossed her fourteenth milestone – was to be married to a merchant from the next village. With courage that had by then become familiar and a newfound determination, I set out to do what I had done on a couple of other occasions. I dialled the government helpline and informed them of the proposed ritual. It was duly stopped by authoritarian intervention, and when enquired as to the informant, the officers maintained the case of anonymity for my benefit. However, the family on the girl’s side was strongly bent on finding out the Samaritan responsible for their failure to get their daughter married into a monetarily undemanding house. They eventually succeeded.

Untitled

Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

Karikalan – a man I had scarcely known until then – came to my rescue, and into my acquaintance, during the confrontation with the family of wounded honour.  It was patently clear from his supportive arguments that he understood my case well. And as far as I knew, he was the only person in this small but terrible world to look at me as a life. His compassionate sight was welcomingly new.

Karikalan had come to my village only a few years ago. He moved in, with his blind parents, to the dilapidated house at the end of our street. The word was that he had completed his diploma in some branch of engineering from the town college, and that he was going to work for the sugar mill that had recently come up in our village. His skin – I noticed when he first came to our backyard carrying a sack of raw mangoes for my mother-in-law – possessed a dark tone. His exposed torso was muscular, and very uncomfortably, to my morality, admirable. He displayed a warm smile when his eyes first met mine. I immediately bent my head down and rushed to the kitchen. There, within the smoky, smothering dark walls, I clicked my knuckles, repeatedly asking myself what possible charm that man could hold to my irrevocably damaged, monotonously routine life. I trained my senses, my mind importantly, to ignore the substance of his presence in my small, terrible world.

My training reined me in well until the day he raised his voice for me during that seemingly inextricable, but ultimately futile confrontation a month ago.

‘Have you ever thought of starting a new life?’

The question caught me unawares.

‘You don’t really have to spend the rest of your life this way. We can offer you any help towards your moral and social upliftment… you need only ask.’

~~~x~~~

All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am becoming.

The street I was taking was moonlit (the streetlamps worked only occasionally on their own temperament). A bright little star was coming into view from behind a dark monsoonal cloud. Everything around me suddenly seemed hopeful and no longer intimidating. Maybe the ‘city woman’ had a hand in this, in my decision. Because after her departure at lunchtime, I was immersed in a cascade of thoughts, mental conjectures, and their possible consequences, only to come out anew a few minutes back. Yes, I was heading to Karikalan’s house.

A stray dog snarled at me from somewhere in the darkness enveloping my surroundings. I walked with my head straight and chest high. A couple of men crossed me from their trip to the local liquor shop, their unsteady eyes were disbelieving about my external presence. I walked with my head straight and chest high. I passed the house of the head of the village Panchayat; he was sitting on the pyol chewing betel leaves, with his grown-up daughter reading a chick lit. The completely bald man narrowed his eyes and stuffed me with his silent dogmatic questions. I walked with my head straight and chest high.

I entered Karikalan’s house.

 

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

You may also like Kalyana Samayal Saadham.

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Design

WITH ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATION BY SWATHI

In the year 1933, while India was trying to wriggle her wrists off the strong grip of George V, the Lever Brothers Company was doing good business in the country with its popular brand of Sunlight soaps. The Presidencies were registering surprising demands for the brand, indicating the entrance of Sunlight into most households.

To further its popularity, the administration pushed for some intense marketing. As the year was nearing its end, a creative mind in the company lighted up with the idea of publicising the brand on print calendars. This was succeeded by a noisy, smoky debate, over crystal jars of iced brandy, on what should be the visual of such a calendar. While some voiced for the painting of a British model wrapped in a thin bath towel and displaying the soap in her open palm, the others felt this could only alienate the brand in the eyes of conventional Indians. After a long period, it was decided, amid empty bottles and coughing clouds,  that the calendar would have lord Krishna standing with Sunlight soaps at his feet.

A celebrated painter came up with a quick design that was at once shipped to Lever Brothers’ partner printer in Germany. Mr Karlheinz’s first impression of the design was singular. Unlike his apprentices, he didn’t dismiss it with a casual glance and proceed to printing. Mr Karlheinz was forced to pause, soon disturbed in ways inexperienced by him, and for the rest of that night, remained awake and affected; as if the design, by mistake, had been imprinted on him.

The figure in the design had muscular arms, flat, sturdy chest and an unwavering look, all as of men, but the angular position of the head, curving of hips and glistening of facial skin suggested femininity of the extreme. Man or woman, Mr Karlheinz was yet to decide, but was sure the figure’s attractiveness would appeal to both sexes, with the obvious exclusion of unfeeling men.

The eyes that looked back from the design possessed a teasing mystery. The long, linear nose directed him to the lips, stretched below in a smile that could have as well meant the man knew everything about him, his printing press in Rothenburg, all he had done and all that was coming. His well-groomed wavy hair and rouges on cheeks could only be the decorative interests of his mother, Mr Karlheinz guessed, and the long, slender garland round him the bubbling love of young, wanting ladies. The velvety stole rounding the shoulder, with its one end sailing on the floor behind, and the peculiar turquoise feather at the top of the crown, looked like perfumes of times past, nevertheless potent and fascinating to Mr Karlheinz’s eyes.

A carefully chosen green sash, perhaps by an admirer, girthed his yellow Indian lower cloth. And many ornaments of gold, intricately shaped with all senses in oneness of their outcome, were fit round neck and waist, and on wrists and anklets.

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Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

Even the sun, as if with only one purpose, shone directly behind the man’s crown. After all, Mr Karlheinz felt there was one serious misplacement in the design; whoever thought it right to mar it with a bar of English soap at the bottom!

Upon spending months personally making facsimiles of this design, and overseeing their shipping to India, Mr Karlheinz could no more resist taking a trip to India, to learn more of the man and possibly visit him. So with the last batch of calendars were packed Mr Karlheinz’s baggage of daily necessities and the original design covered in secure layers.

On one stormy night, it was announced that the ship had docked at Madras. An hour later, our German, with one hand roofing his eyes and the other clutching his baggage under his wide armpit, jogged into a ticket booth at the port’s exit. A middle-aged man in a black coat and white turban was sitting busy at the counter. Seeing a red mark on his forehead, very similar to the one worn by the man in the design, he asked in a loud, exuberant voice, ‘Sir! Where I can meet this man?’

Mr Seshadhri, removing his eyes from the bills between his fingers, turned to see a foreigner holding an image of lord Krishna. His practised eyes and ears not registering English, he decided it must be a foreign fool in search of Moksha. ‘At Srirangam, Trichinopoly,’ he quoted the first thought that flashed across.

Mr Karlheinz caught the immediate train to Trichinopoly (which he had reverently written on a piece of paper now in his breast pocket). To all the locals, he seemed an enchanting white man noble enough to travel alongside them. To him, they seemed gifted people to be able to easily travel to his place on their whim. After a day of travel, Mr Karlheinz stepped down the compartment, unidentifiably covered in coal-black and different only in attire and height.

Being weary from the journey, he slept under the tattered roof of the station, and rose in the wee hours to resume his search. A couple of enquiries landed him just before the broad stone gateway of the Srirangam temple complex. Like the hundreds of visitors walking past him, he too marched in with rising eagerness and pumping blood. The design was closely held to his chest.

As he crossed corridors, courtyards and entered countless concentric walls, his pace became faster and faster in expectancy, but also slower and slower in an unreasonable fear entering him, like he was visiting a great authority, the lord of men, or even the lord of lords. His mind revolved endlessly in the mysticism of the man in the design, wondering, when it had the power to, how much more captivating he would be in real. With every step, the fluty music fuelled his yearning and drew his feet like magnet attracting innocent scraps of iron. Clockwise tracks and spiralling queues brought him closer and closer. Pairs of palms, enjoined and raised high, became a common sight among the visitors. Mr Karlheinz deposited his baggage in a corner he wouldn’t remember later and shoved the design within his wet shirt, and gestured similarly. Damp sweat, trickle of blood from a misstepped footing, an advancement of swoon and shut eyes were elements of his own design. He felt his body move with the crowd, sometimes being pushed, sometimes being pulled, but in the end, decidedly moving towards him.

As sounds, human and instrumental, rose in a confusing chorus, he felt the stoppage of a firm hand on his chest. Opening his eyes and wiping the stagnated tears, he could see a man before him, with no upper cloth, but with a lower cloth and that red mark on forehead. Mr Karlheinz however knew this was not him; because this had a pot for his belly and furrows on exposed skin, and that smile in the design was absent here. The man pointed to a board above. It read, ‘Only Hindus allowed.’ Now, Mr Karlheinz didn’t know if he was a Hindu. He forgot to consult his mother and wife in his haste for departure.

After an argument, which clearly upset his fellow visitors, who later proceeded on their way to meet him, Mr Karlheinz was removed to the main courtyard of the temple complex and shaken the index finger at. But he clearly could not be put off so easily. All around him were images and statuettes of him, also the red mark, and music emanating from the inner chambers. His want was immersed in all factors capable of its amplification. And so, Mr Karlheinz remained reclining on the pillar he was shown for the next 23 days.

His Holiness, Parthasarathy Kothandaraman, the Chief of the temple, observing a white man at the same place every day, with eyes towards the centremost block of  the temple, one night, went to stand by him, albeit maintaining a safe distance. As minutes passed, as the eyes didn’t seem to turn his way, as if fully consumed by their object, the Chief understood the man and his condition, and hoisted him.

Supported by the Chief, Mr Karlheinz, now reduced in his width, with his perilously wobbling trousers, began to walk by himself. With every step towards his chamber, life began to flow into him; eyes grew bigger, shoulders realigned, chest puffed and pace strengthened. Soon, the Chief was only an accompaniment in the darkness, a guide to this visitor. A line of doors were unlocked, little bells tinkling during such movements, and at last the door that led to his chamber, called the Garbagriha or Womb, was solemnly opened by the Chief, and Mr Karlheinz was shown the way in.

A mammothian human, darker than his surrounding darkness, emerged at an arm’s distance. He was lying on a coiled snake, which seemed terrifyingly gigantic, but unharmful. That smile was present on his face, now maybe in a gesture of welcome to this faraway visitor. The large, silvery eyes, seemed imposing and as if they were seeing him even in his sleep, which he must have literally fallen to, because he had not removed his crown, like tired children who doze off before changing their day-dress. At the other end of the chamber were resting his feet, tired from all the standing and posing for calendar designs, maybe.

Mr Karlheinz enjoined his palms and wished to raise them, but before he could, he fell face down, as though two fingers snapped somewhere and life was sucked out of him.

*You can find her other amazing artworks here.

You may also like That Family Festival.

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What War Does to Men

An episode from the Stri Parva of Mahabharata

With original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran

It is the end of the epic war. Kurukshetra, the valley of death, has in it thousands of hills of dead bodies with rivers of blood flowing round their bends. Mothers and wives, both palatial and civilian, are wailing and beating breasts in a frenzy of murderous energy. Flag poles, armaments, parts of warriors, elephants and horses, and even full chariots can be seen strewn on ground, suggestive to anyone present that restoring this piece of earth would take no less years.

The Pandavas, looking as if, after all their efforts, they have been the losers of this great war, have just reached the Court of Hastinapura. The doorkeepers bow six times and show in the group; Krishna, with fragrant garlands and a smug smile on his face, as if the drama he orchestrated has been completed in harmony to his fullest satisfaction, is seen to appear at the wake of the Pandavas, like a collyrium of clouds sailing past and revealing the always bright sun.

Dhritarashtra, blinded but aware of all that has transpired, and so greatly disturbed outward and inward, is at the edge of his throne. Sanjaya, his charioteer, and Gandhari, his ideal wife and also the mother of one hundred mighty men, all killed by Pandavas in the war, flank the throne. As the announcement of the arrival is whispered, the king leaves the throne and walks down, his grandeur and enormity not smudged in the least by his heavy loss.

Yudhistira, the first among Pandava brothers, steps forward to embrace the king and to receive the blessings of a father-figure. The embrace is conducted, but formally, and the king utters no words of goodwill, understandably. Next, Bheema, the giant, the strongest of them all, like ever possessed of a destructive cyclonic storm within, steps forward to embrace the king. His foot covers many measures of the floor and lends a sense of shiver to the palace itself. Even a blind can understand it is Bheema approaching him.
As the last step that would lead to the embrace is about to be taken, Krishna, Vasudeva, the conductor, the dramatist, the playful, raises his hand and gestures Bheema to stop right there, with the smile on his face intact. A giant pillar, round and tall, made of the strongest iron, and immovable by any man or beast that exists, suddenly emerges between the king and Bheema.

Pillar on Fire
Original illustration by Swathi Venkateswaran*

Dhritarashtra, sensing Bheema close in front of him and overcome by grief and anguish, as a father who doesn’t carry meaning anymore in that position, throws his arms, each weighing a boulder even in that age, around the giant iron pillar. At the next moment, the pillar is crushed to grains and reduces to a heap on the floor.

A loud sound, torturous to every soul in the Court, emanates from the chest of the king. In realisation of his mistake, he cries like no man has ever cried. ‘I killed you in my grief, my dear! Forgive me.’ Even one hundred deaths did not deserve this cry, for who was Bheema, but another son to him. He has played on his lap as a child, has been fed by him, been coached by him on the field, had his growth overseen with love and fatherly affection by him. But now, why did the same hands, which have always been tender and protective of this son, kill him in an embrace? The king, thought to be above human vagaries, beyond the crippling emotions of man, bends down before the heap of metal and shakes in guilt.

*You can find other amazing artworks of her here.

 

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That Family Festival

When Tabu’s mother breathed for the last time and closed her eyes, Tabu’s plastic clown, the wacky battery toy he calls ‘circus man’, clapped his hands and smiled his painted smile. The boy’s father, entering the room to stop the clown’s noise, discovered his dead wife and started.

After the doctor had come and gone to do the unnecessary vetting, after chests and breasts were beaten, the body of the young lady – not beautiful, but all the world to Tabu and father – was lowered into the rented glass box. Soon, plies of coloured flowers began accumulating over the box. Friends, relatives and neighbours visited to do the same ritualistic enquiry. Tabu’s friends, all little like Tabu, came to gape and whisper at the glass box and leave with their parents, attaining a sense of maturity.

The incense stick was replaced. Flowers and garlands were shoved off to leave way for the oncoming batch. Tabu’s father’s manager dropped in with his decorated wife, and before leaving, announced a week of paid leave. Tabu’s paternal grandmother, a mentally weak old woman, settled down at the head of her daughter-in-law with a large bowl of flour. Mindless of her surrounding, she poured in tumblers of water and began kneading as hard as her age and mind permitted. She had been meaning to do this for many days. For that night’s dinner, Tabu’s mother had planned to cook the packet of penne he had picked in the supermarket. But now with no one to intervene in her kitchen activities, the old woman concentrated her energy on the solidifying mass to get out of them soft rotis. Her husband loved her soft rotis.

That evening, Tabu’s father and three uncles shouldered their dear dead to the cemetrey a kilometre away. Once at the ground, a tussle erupted between the elder uncle and his two younger brothers on whether to bury or electrically burn. Tabu’s father pleaded with the warring factions to stop arguing, but they kept vetoing the opposite’s decision. Losing patience, Tabu’s father slapped the elder brother. As if suddenly realising their bereavement, all three calmed down. Tabu’s mother was presented in a copper container an hour later.

Back at home, Tabu’s grandmother had washed the floor and was waiting for others and her husband with set plates and a hot pack of soft rotis. Tabu was on her lap, trying to retain his mother’s face and silently praying it should stay with him forever.

A week later, Tabu’s father nailed his wife’s newly framed photograph beside his father’s.

Co-authoring with Mr Tharoor

 

Jan 25, 2016;

The Hindu, India’s national newspaper and a reputed fourth estate, organised its annual literary fest The Hindu Lit for Life 2016. As a part of this festival was its new addition, the Tweet-a-Story contest, that used Twitter as a platform for budding writers to contribute to a short story initiated with a line by the popular author, politician and former UN under-secretary Mr. Shashi Tharoor.

I, to grab the chance to write alongside such a widely know personality, entered the contest. Many of my tweets being selected to contribute to the development of the story, at its end, after a week, I was selected by the team behind the contest as one of its four Top Contributors.

The rife word is that the story is getting published, and that the top contributors would be acknowledged as co-authors of the story.

You can read the complete story here.


May 25, 2016

The result of the contest is published, with my name under the eminent Shashi Tharoor’s. I take great pleasure, and a little pride – just a little – to present the same here: LFL_TweetAStory

Deaf Jeff

On the 83rd floor of the New York skyscraper was located Chilton’s Pharmaceuticals – a publicly-traded drug development company successful on the scale of Proust. Its new drug, CP-41, was under clinical research to address the cancer of prostate.

The entire floor was busy on account of the seasonal board meeting, to which now all the old chit-chatty directors were heading. There was only one person in that conference room who wasn’t an executive, and he was there to attend to their thirst and such whims. It was the office butler, Deaf Jeff.

Mr Chilton, the founder, a highly altruistic man, had the warmest of feelings for Jeff. He had personally overseen the day-to-day life of this disabled man, and had made him the softest comforts at work. To aid Jeff in his duties, and also to lessen his own employees’ efforts in reaching out to Jeff, he had bought him a mobile phone and had indicated by explicit gestures that it must at all times be in the Vibration mode. Jeff had smilingly nodded.

Chilton croaked his throat and spoke, ‘My dears, I deeply regret the message I have for you today. I want to –’ ‘Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today… I want to be a part of it, New York, New York,’ Sinatra sung from inside Jeff’s pocket, while he calmly stood there behind Chilton, ready to rush to the table of bottles if anyone saw him. As the song played, all the old eyes turned to Jeff, who, upon sudden synchronous demands, rushed to the table of bottles but on return didn’t know whom to address first.

‘Jeff, dear, come here,’ Chilton calmly waved. Jeff jogged to the chief and thrust the bottle under his nose. ‘No, dear. It’s your phone. Phone. It is ringing, you see. Your phone.’ Jeff unearthed the device and stared at the blinking screen. Chilton stood up, attended the telemarketing call, cut it, and put the device on Vibration mode. Jeff displayed the sincerest apology to Chilton and the board, and resumed his attentive stance behind Chilton.

Chilton again croaked his throat and spoke, ‘My dears, I want to convey to you all that CP-41 failed the Phase III trial in the Boston site. Yes, the results are firm and irreversible. As you might infer,’ all the grey heads were shaking frantically in disbelief, ‘our investments are going to yield us nothing. And that could mean potential crash of our stock.’

Twenty minutes after the board meeting, Jeff was walking fast on the platform. He pushed and nudged and slipped and slid through the thick throng. Wiping the sweat, Jeff entered Watson & Sons on Wall Street.

‘Hey, Jeff!’ His broker called out.

Deaf Jeff turned to the sound and said, ‘Look Mike, I want you to immediately dump all my Chilton stocks.’

Heard you, chief,’ Mike pulled Jeff’s portfolio and clicked a button.

Chilton’s Pharmaceuticals made headlines the next day. Thousands of families skipped a beat; some even two and three. While important and depressed people were crowding the reception on the 83rd floor, Jeff was happily arranging bottles for them.

Was

I am travelling to Madurai for my colleague’s wedding. She is not a friend; I pass reports across her to my manager sitting beyond. That is it.

On all sides of the chugging compartment are people from my office. Even my condescending manager and his officious assistant are there in an undisturbed corner. My two neighbours keep their energy in check, unable to do anything exultant with me beside. You would see the energy of people increasing as you go farther and farther away from me.

Had this journey happened a fortnight ago, my mother would have called me on phone for every station I passed. She becomes passionately restless if her knowledge of my whereabouts and well-being starts to become unsure. However, I still think of her in the present tense, as if she still lived; but somehow, ‘She was’ sounds very odd.

Death is always happening, but the instantaneous stop takes time to register; much time if the dead is your mother.

She always had this pure, well-meaning concern for brides known, or heard or dreamt. She would begin a sincere prayer for the life of the bride, and would express satisfaction whenever she heard the woman was doing well. I think it was because her expectations from her own marriage were shattered by itself. Well, with a doubtful lawyer for a husband, doubtful not only in court but also at home, expectations are meaningless to expect. He still doubts my mother had a lover as a young girl, but I knew she was a ten, and he was so imperfect and ill-fitting for her.

We are travelling to the mandapam the marriage is to take place in. Homogeneous people busily go and come and sell and smile. But nothing sticks, except images of mother-son duo wherever seen. As we pass urbanised rural areas, I see a cat frantically running from under a tree to the next with the nape of its littlest kitten so carefully caught between its lips. Mothers always seem to be anxious.

After bath we join the ceremony. A reception is happening, and now we are standing in a line to wish the couple and present our collective gift. The manager has not joined us; he must be sitting somewhere with his officious assistant stooping beside.

We are in the dais now with the couple. The man is in a suit and my colleague – she is not happy exclusively by my presence there, but shows her teeth nevertheless – is in a north-Indian garb. We take a group photo, the gift is handed over, hands are shaken and warm embraces are made. As we begin to descend on the other side, I don’t know why but I stop. Taking my mother’s golden ring, I present it unthinkingly to the bride. She looks at me for too long, so I drop it onto her palm and leave. Mother would have done that; nice and kind she is. Was.