CHILD AND GOD
As the body moved rhythmically, the pounding rod was leaping down from Ayah’s hand into the mortar and rising up ... the softened raw rice was getting transformed into flour...
I sat on the floor and kept shaking the flour through a sieve. I put back into the mortar the broken rice that stayed on the sieve.
My children kept playing hopscotch a little away in the yellow light of the setting sun. The eighteen months’ old grandchild of the Ayah was crawling all over the floor and trying to pull out the tiny bud that was peeping out of the plantain.
A little while ago the Ayah had come with this child in her hip and was saying: “This Sunday is the one restful day for me. They have the school even on Saturdays now...” I told her: “The children have been asking for Pittu for many days. I put three measures of raw rice for soaking. That hopeless Sakku has not come for work today ... Will you please pound it? I will sieve and fry it. Now a days if I swing the rod, I get chest pain...: She left the child on the floor saying, “all right, amma” and took up the pounder.
As she is pounding with a frequent deep breath with sweat streaming, she stops for a moment, and turns to look at her grandson. He has by now gone near the old woman. She keeps the mace aside, takes up the child and leaves him near me saying: “Mischievous fellow! He is just like his father. He is already trying to cross through the fence.” The little one is saying `aa’, `oo’ in his language to lisp some complaint and waves his hands.
As she began pounding the flour again, I asked her: “Is this your son’s child, or daughter’s?”
She smiled mischievously at me. “Son’s baby. Now tell me which son’s child ...” she said significantly.
For one moment I did not follow what she meant. She was delighted with my confusion.
“Ayah, are you mad? Only your elder son Venu and daughter Valli are married. If it is your son’s baby, it can be only that of Venu. Is there a doubt?”
The Ayah began to laugh uproariously. She stopped pounding for a moment. “Amma, you have lost. Look at the child properly and tell me. Which son’s baby?”
I turned to look at the child. He is eagerly trying to catch an ant that is speeding on the floor. Spittle is drizzling through the side of his lips. He looks like the very image of prosperity. Wheatish complexion, like his father ...
Then why all these riddles from her?
“No ayah, I just do not understand. How can I, when you speak in riddles?” I said accepting my defeat.
“Okey, I will tell you. This is the baby of my last son Chellappa ..”
Though Ayah did not laugh now, her betel-stained lips appeared to twist in laughter...
I did not understand.
“What Ayah? Chellappan is not yet twenty. So you have got him married?”
“Ohho, one can become the father of a child only if one is married?” she countered me.
I was totally confused...
“And the child’s mother?
“So who is the mother?” I asked and she replied sharply: “My elder daughter-in-law.”
“Amma, Kanakam, wife of my eldest son...”
I looked up from sieve, stopping the work and said: “What are you babbling ayah?”
“No babbling. That is just the truth.”
Now the pounder began to descend with greater speed, pulverizing the rice.
I did not ask anything. I am silently sieving the flour.
“Yes, amma, this is known to all my neighbours. There is no secret about it. Venu is in the army. When he had come on a two months’ leave, I selected this Kanakam from Palakkarai and had the wedding celebrated. The month after he returned to work his father died. He came here for that and spent a week. After he left, for three months Kanakam was having her periods, making her sitting apart. When the fourth month came, I asked her: “I have not seen you sitting apart this month. She said, `Oh, I have had this problem even before my marriage. I get it once in three months. Within two months she was vomiting and suffered from fainting sensation. When I took her to the Thaivilai hospital, the doctor said she was three months pregnant.”
“Blast him! Who was it!”
“I asked her just this way. Your husband has left you in my care. Suppose he asks me, what do you mean my wife is three months pregnant? What can I reply? Oh, I questioned her in so many ways, but she wouldn’t open her mouth ... I was feeling quite helpless. As the days passed by, her tummy is getting bigger and my heart is going pit-a-pat ... I could not even eat properly ,,, One day I took her to her mother’s house at Palakarai, told them what had happened and left her there. Later I got the news that she had delivered a baby, I did not know how I was going to inform my elder son. Just then a letter came from him that he was on his way. Oh, I thought my heart would break, the way it began pounding ... there was so much uneasiness within me ... my mind had plenty of hobgoblins spreading suspicions ... suddenly I had a suspicion like an ant crawling ... when I get out of the house, I take ten children to the convent school, then take their lunch, and then bring them back home. Later it will be past seven by the time I go to the market and return with groceries... Both the two younger sisters of Valli who is married will also go to work and return home only when I come ...next, I have two sons. One works in a timber shop. Another chap is in a workshop. If they leave in the morning, they will return only at midnight ... That left only Kanakam and Chellappan who makes cardboard boxes for packing jewellery. So I caught hold of his shoulders like mad and shouted: Come, tell me the truth. You should know. If you do not tell me, I will bang my head on the floor at your feet and am going to die ... When I screamed so, he got afraid: `I do not know anything. Sister in law invited me and I said yes ...’
The ayah’s face grew tight. She stopped pounding the rice and wiped the sweat pouring from her face.
`How did you inform Venu?’
Now she laughed.
“When he came, he inquired for Kanakam. I said she has gone to Palakarai. You better bathe and eat. Full of train charcoal ... He looked at me strangely. When he had bathed and eaten, he again asked where Kanakam was. I said, “she has gone to her home for the delivery.” “What?” he asked. I said: “It is a boy. Just a month old”.
“Are you teasing, mother? I am coming only now after my visit when father died!” he wondered.
“It is the truth” I said but I could not meet his eyes. As if he had been struck by a devil, he screamed: “Who is it?”
“Oh boy, do not get incensed and do something foolish”, I said and made him sit beside me. Then I began telling him vaguely about old tales concerning his father and uncle, and that way tried to pacify him.
I could not control my inquisitiveness. “What is the old story, ayah?” She laughed and began.
“Amma, long before Venu’s father married me, his elder brother had been married. In those days, the smithy was in the front of our house. It seems the brothers used to be doing goldsmith’s work there... When my husband was at home., his brother would not go inside the house ... when the elder brother was at home, the younger one would not go in...” The ayah winked. I understood.
“oh, so he has taken after his father ...”
“Listen to all, amma... Only when Venu’s father married me and brought me home did I know all these things. After some days passed by, when my husband was in the smithy, his elder brother would sneak in ... I would slither away to the outside street, or go away into the neighbour’s home. At night my husband would chide me. `Hey Muthamma, why are you so proud? My sister in law doesn’t avoid me like this ... For her myself and my brother are same. You also be like that...”
But I was adamant. “Your sister in law may agree to it. But as far as I am concerned, I am wife to you alone. If you do not accept this, you better take me back to my natal home ...
Oh, he was quite incensed.
One day, I was thinking of this and that, and was blowing at the oven, sitting on the floor. Suddenly somebody embraced me tightly. I could not even breathe. I ran crying “thief, thief ...” The neighbours came with sticks and began laughing when they saw the elder brother standing with a stupid look ... After that, he never came to me. But my husband was very angry. He went away from home, wandered around a bit and then returned...” Ayah is laughing.
“Alright, was your son satisfied?”
“Was there any other way? When he lunged at Chellappan later knowing the truth, I told him, `Why don’t you consider it a bit? What could he do? So young. He is ten years younger than your wife. Somehow he has committed a mistake. Always women should be careful. I spoke about myself, didnt I?”
Neighbourhood elders came and advised him. “It is sinful to reject a girl like that. Go and bring her. Is it some stranger? Only your younger brother! Young ones did this without thinking of the consequences. But because of that do not destroy your life and their lives ...” They calmed him down alright. Finally Kanakam came with her son to our house ...”
Her grandson is now in my eldest daughter’s hands and is happily screaming `aa’, `oo’. I looked at him and asked:
“Does Venu take the child in his hands?”
Ayah laughed showing all her teeth.
“Need to ask about that? Chellappan is not like Venu. He talks to everyone readily. So this fellow became close to Chellappan. Looking at him at a distance, this little one will lift his hands. This makes Venu very angry. When he laid down a rule that he should not touch the boy, I simply told him: All you say is understandable. But children and God are common to all. There is no stain in the child. What can they do for the wrongs committed by elders? ...”
(Tr. Prema Nandakumar)
TOTTERING AGE – A NEMESIS
Waking up in the dark is a nightmare for any old person. It’s all the more threatening when he’s lonely. He woke up in pitch darkness. Mind wavered. His torch flashed. The hands of the wall clock were crawling towards three.
Freak calls of nature are part of old age nemesis. This afflicted him very badly. He had to scurry to the toilet often to answer those unpleasant calls. It was an ordeal indeed.
“This happens,” the doctor used to say, “to almost everyone, who pushes on seventies. A minor operation on the bladder will relieve you immensely. But, there is a problem. You’re allergic to antibiotics. That’s what puts me in a dilemma. That’s the reason why I have second thoughts. It’s better to learn to live with it.”
At a snail's pace he moved from the bathroom to the dining table. Decanted hot water from a flask. Gulped it. Stood still. His mind was desolate.
Again the usual bout. A streak of pain ran to his neck through the spine.
He opened the cupboard and took a bottle of medicated oil and poured it on his palm. The pain on his back was increasing. The painful part of his body badly needed immediate application of oil. But, his stretched hands couldn’t reach the affected area.
His attempts to smear the oil were abortive.
He had sired four children – all brought up well. God had been generous in gracing his progeny with prosperity.
“The children and grandchildren live in distant places. They have to make their own living. There is no point in blaming them. But, what about my wife?
“For a decade, she shirks her responsibilities. She avoids her duties. She plays truant. She escapes by feigning old age infirmity.
“She doesn’t stay home for several months now. She hadn’t been nursing me. How the hell did she help me, when she was here? However, when she was here, she used to offer a share of the food she cooked for herself. Now, that’s missing.
“Well! In a way, that too is good. That helps me – my freedom – the freedom to fast – to starve – at my will.
“Anyway, there’s nothing new about her habit.”
– He took a trip down memory lane with a smack of nostalgia.
“Is it proper for you to stay with your children in faraway places, for long periods at a stretch, leaving him alone in his tottering age?”
– people asked her often.
“So far I have cooked to his taste. Now, I am also equally old. My health too fails. Even requests for a paltry sum to buy medicines or condiments end up in endless squabbles.”
– the enigmatic woman pleads innocence with a handy stock reply.
“Now I’m old. One reason could be that my personal magnetism has lost its glamour.
“However, it had been her habit for all these forty plus years of married life. Whenever she was on family way she used to leave the home uncared for and stay with her parents in the same town. No worries about her home. No worries about her husband. Habits die-hard. In a diehard like her habits die still harder.
“Months together she would stay with her parents. She had never kept her schedule to return home. Until my marriage I never ate out. I didn’t know how to make even a cup of tea. So what? I was contended with anything that was available. Now, out of necessity, I have to eat out in all sundry eateries. What else could I do? I have a stomach!
“After our marriage we started living together separate from my parents. Since then solitude engulfs me. And that solitude perpetuates perpetually until this tottering age.
“Last week, my friend Narayanamurthi called on me. He saw my plight. He couldn’t bear it.”
“It’s indeed difficult to live with physical hazards inherent to old age. Applying oil on the back, preparing warm water for bathing etc. are real ordeals. One needs care, help, assistance, or whatever you feel like calling. Well! What’s wrong in engaging a nurse for doing these chores? What harm is there? There’s no other go. You are afraid of hush-hush rumours and the resultant character assassination. Therefore you want to avoid engaging one. Then you have to pay the price for it.”
– Narayanamurthi revealed his mind.
Sleep was lost. It wasn’t even four. What way could getting up that early help? A drizzle rustled outside. Cold wind cuddled the body. Parts of body pined for some mild warmth.
A snide laughter swiped deep in his mind. What a beastly mischievous craving at the fag end of life?
“What a sin it’s? Doesn’t the adage says after having sired children one should treat his alter ego as his mother?
“She doesn’t have any interest in this.
“Perhaps that’s why she avoids me.
“I knew that the man has to initiate. Any way, I had never forced her against her wish. Why then such thoughts transgress at this damn old age. It’s the age in which one is anxiously looking forward for the animal instincts to die away.
“What concern does she have for this odd yearning when she cares a dime for my starvation that spans for several months?
“Could you dub this yearning unethical? Is it against any ethics for a body to crave for another of the opposite sex, or perhaps even the same? Is it unethical or antisocial? Is it just to draw it a parallel to rape?
“Anymore lying idle would drive the brain topsy-turvy. It would rob today of all its charm.”
– his thoughts cascaded
Slowly he turned to his right and got up. He felt dizzy.
With closed eyes, he tried to forcibly dispel his surging thoughts. He wanted to have his mind replete with nothingness. He prayed his favourite gods for this.
“You’ve several cardiac problems. It’s not at all advisable for you to stay alone for months together. Is there any misunderstanding or running feud between you and your wife? Why does she desert you at this advanced age?”
– Dr Damayanthy was concerned the other day.
“No, she prefers to live with the children.”
“Won’t the children advise her against abandoning you? Otherwise you too could stay with them.”
“I too go, but I can’t stay there for months together.”
But … …
But … …
“God knows how she helped, when she was here?”
– A muffled inner voice intoned.
“Perhaps, she could avoid my straying from hotel to hotel.
“…. And in the event of a mishap or a tragedy, she could inform the neighbours and children. But the peace I breathe…?
“Is it proper to ignore the doctors advice? No, of course, not at all. Once, when she was not here, dizziness knocked me down unconscious at midnight.
“Good luck! Immediately, on gaining consciousness I trudged my way to the entrance and opened the inner latch.
“There was some relief, after I plodded to the bathroom and splashed coldwater on my face.
“Stood in the pooja room for a while, slogged my way to the entrance and opened the door.
“It was dawning. Rain hadn’t stopped its rumble. Breeze carried raindrops that drenched me. It had been soothing. The damp ground was tranquil and serene.
“Coconut trees were nodding their fronds in the distant backdrop of the skyline… …
“The twilight were hurrying to recede to pave way for the dawn … …
“How long will I prolong? I have crossed all hallmarks of life. I was tame at turbulence – modest at turning points and crossroads. It seems I have discharged my duties almost well with the grace of almighty.
“Who can foresee? Who knows who overtakes whom?
“Why an idea of spending the last days together doesn’t strike my partner’s mind?
“ Poor soul! Who knows what her burning problems are?
“Even a second seems to be longer than years.
“It was news last month. Parasuram, my friend lives nearby. He is of my age. A family court has separated his spouse from him.”
He stood still – drenched in the drizzle.
“Why get drenched?”
– A courteous enquiry from the milkman. The milkman delivered the sachet. He sped away in his bicycle.
“While taking the milk to the kitchen a bout of excruciating pain streaked from the shoulder to waist. Lighting the stove and boiling the milk are of course nightmares at old age. But doing them unmindful of the ordeal is indeed thrilling.
“Is this thrill an isolated experience in boiling milk alone? No, it isn’t. It’s there in frequent cleaning the home, removing gossamer, sweeping the floor, raking the courtyard, washing clothes and such chores, of which one had no prior knowledge.
“This thrill motivates and emboldens one to face at least a few eventualities single-handedly, the hardships of physical infirmities, and depression notwithstanding.”
The doorbell rang, when he was trying in vain to reach his back to apply a handful of oil.
Slowly he reached the door to answer the bell. On looking out … …
A middle-aged woman. Perhaps he has seen her earlier.
“Sir, I think you’ve forgotten me. I had been working here on a short stint.”
“Quite probable. No maid has stayed long here.”
“Mr Narayanamurthi asked me to call on you. That’s why I’m here. He has told me everything about your plight. Madam is not home, I suppose. You stand with the bottle of oil. Please give me. I will smear in on your back.”
She treaded in.
Just a moment…
The bottle should change hands. That’s all. Nothing seems to be at fault.
“Since adolescence, those who have touched my body as a matter of right … …
“Once, before marriage my mother has anointed my back, as my hand couldn’t reach. Then came my wife. She had the exclusive privilege of touching everywhere. It was her monopoly. Isn’t it? So far, irrespective of circumstances – whether favourable or not – I haven’t allowed anybody else to touch my body.
“Henceforth … … now … … at this very moment.”
“And … …
“Physical needs shouldn’t drive us astray. Unmindful of hunger, taste, sickness, tickles, titillations, temptations, flirts, and itches, we should do our duties ourselves.”
– An adage, heard somewhere … …and forgotten…
“Now the pain has subsided. I can apply myself.”
He walked in without a second look.
(Translated from Tamil by R.Mohan Dhas)
THIS BIRTH, AN OCEAN
A constant movement of vehicles giving no inch of space in between: buses, vans, cars, scooters, auto rickshaws. Left to right, right to left, a streaming forth of ceaseless activity …
How long can one stand wondering how to get across the street? He stood at the edge of the pavement, asking himself: do I not have the courage of these people here performing circus actions with their hands and feet planning a move, even the women and children?
The National Highways Department had given notice to the owners of the houses for giving up their front portions on this road as the width was not able to cope up with increasing traffic. It was like yesterday when he had seceded in full length the front portion of the house where he lived with his family.
He took a step or two in the front and craned his neck backwards and looked at the ruined, raised house. Weeds had grown over thick and it looked like a forest dwelling, almost frightening the onlooker.
This was for just a moment. Immediately he came back to himself and began gazing at the road hoping for a little space to get across. Headlights poured brilliances to show off their leaping speed, blinding him. A concerto of horns determined to tear his eardrums.
Watching the number of vehicles from the left tapering off, he put a step forward, but was frightened by the speeding vehicles from the right and stepped back. He collided with people walking behind him. They began muttering …
Is there no relief from such irritations?
The peaceful agraharam does keep tempting him to come away to the place where there are houses on both sides of the road but there is no such traffic frenzy.
But how to cross this street?
Time was when he had lived in the ancestral home in a nearby street with his parents, grandmother, younger brothers and sisters. That was not an agraharam-which had a continuous row of houses. After his marriage he had brought his bride to live in this roadside house which was built in a higher plain.. He would stand near the bedroom window upstairs and would look down at this agraharam across the highway in early morning and the dewy dawn, buffeted by shocks administered to his mind, and keep watching with an emptied mind..
He looked up again, lifting his neck.
The same window frames seen through the trellis of green leaves belonging to a high tree. It was all vandalized now, looking empty … so many things dug out, leaving but plain holes …
If so, the place where he was standing … oh, was this not the lower portion of the reading room which was in the front, looking at the street, just past the ten-feet verandah one reached by entering the house from the street? So many friends had come here and they had conversed for hours with open minds. So many arguments ending in reconciliations.
No, he had not lived here even for ten years through it all …
Even in those days, there was traffic, noise and pollution though perhaps not to this extent. But when the government order came asking for the front potion to widen the street …
That incident when he remained not too shaken, when he did not go to the courts like others but voluntarily gave away the portion asked for …
“When we entered this house as two people, we had become six when we left.” More than that, those scars of experience on his mind …
“Sir, why are you standing like this?”
Somebody enquired from behind him. When he turned, it was Sitaraman with umbrella and bag in hand.
“Oh, to cross the road? This is a regular torture here.”
He gave the reply himself and moved forward muttering, “I have to go to the market.”
After all, this crowded road was the one that separated the front and the agraharams at the back that spread from the west to the east …
If only this road had not come in between, it would all be a single agraharam.
This agraharam at the back was twice as long as the one in the front. The point where this back agraharam met the traffic-ridden national highway was the elevated house in the south, facing west where he lived once. To the north was a small Siva temple.
After all it was this temple and the Amman temple at the other end of he agraharam that still kept his connections by welcoming him ever …
Ever so many people have to cross the road. But no proper arrangement has been made till now. As the land eastwards that was annexed had been made into a footpath completely, if only a couple of feet had been converted into a divider at the center of the road, it would have been a great help to people who wished to get across.
“Sir, how long are you going to stand here? The cars and buses keep moving all the time. You have also to cut across somehow like others.”
Sitaraman was returning from the market. He did not stop by, as his bag was quite heavy. As he walked towards the agraharam at the back, he said: “Hm, When will this old house of yours ever see good times?”
Was he the only one? So many have asked him. After the person who had bought it from him died, the house was said to be under a court case among claimants. It was also said that finances stood in the way of renovation. So more than thirty years have gone by? It was now look like a haunted jungle house. Terrible to look at, the deterioration denying that once a family had lived here.
How long should he stand thus? ‘When does one cross this human birth which is an ocean?’ The lines heard long ago echoed in his memory.
He moved forward and stood near a couple of men who had come down the footpath and were standing close to the road.
“If we are going to watch, we can stand like this for as many days as we want. They will never stop for us!”
“The drivers increase their speed to overtake us, if they see us getting ready to cross. Sir, you just come with us. We are also standing to get across. They might think twice about knocking us down, if we stand as a group.”
“The banks are giving loans vying with one another. The manufacturers of cars tempt them saying the consumer can take away the car without paying even a rupee. Look at the price of diesel and petrol! Yet people are buying cars and lorries and scooters. But the road remains the same old one. Where is the space for driving?”
“They do make space like four-lane, six-lane, flyover and express highway, don’t they? Couldn’t they keep at least a signal light for us, pedestrians? There is not even a zebra crossing. If they had put a traffic policeman, it would be such a help for old people like us, sir!”
It looked as though the vehicles had thinned somewhat. There is a light point that is leaping from the right … after all, it seems to be at a distance …here are people with him …it is dangerous to stand indecisively in the middle … he remembered getting into the street in a flash and moving up to the centre. Did the dot of the headlight overtake him? Did it crash into him as one …
It was like floating in cool waters … Is that the sound of the ocean? The noise of the oars in action … voice of people talking …
No idea of time.
Is this the heavenly procession made of the chariot of Time?
Is it a car in which he is traveling in a zig-zag manner … or, is that the white sky above?
Is this a car without a top? No, no. That is a concrete ceiling. This is a stretcher … hospital …
Consciousness was returning very slowly. The head was in a swoon. A sensation to vomit as if he would bring out all that lay in the intestines … a burning sensation in several places on the body …bandages …
As a movement of shadows, one or two familiar faces…
Again a hospital? Oh, the noises…
If so …
So the crossing of this ocean of birth has not been achieved as yet?
Again, he lost consciousness.
(Translated from the original by Prema Nandakumar)