Bamboo Shoots – Dilip Kumar

Tamil Title: மூங்கில் குருத்து (Moongil Kuruthu)

Author: Dilip Kumar

Translator: Nakul Vāc

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Even before Columbus discovered America, the weekly pay system was already in place in the tailor shops of Kovai. This was true of Mr.Krishnaji Rao’s shop as well. Like most of the shop boys, thanks to the generous Thatti[1] passes we got, I went to the movies on Thursday nights. We were getting corrupted watching peerless film classics like “Kulamagal Radha” (Noblewoman Radha), “Gulebakavali”[2] (The Rose of Bagavali) and staining our Lungis[3] embracing in our mind the ample assets of the dream girls from those movies. My elder brother had run off to Chennai and was lost for good. We had already “given away” my sister in marriage to an Estate manager in Nilagiri. Her beauty fetched her a little bit of luck as well. My younger brother was employed at the readymade factory at a salary of Rs 50. Me, at Krishnaji Rao’s shop.

We lived in an Idli selling widow’s house in New Thyagaraja street, populated mostly by weavers belonging to the Devanka Chetti caste. A slur on the science of construction, this strange sanctum sanctorum. Entering this, piercing the darkness, you could see Mother who had lost my father, reduced to a dazed profile, all dressed up in white. Father’s scream after scream, when his piles had reached its final stage, his final scream as blood oozed out from his anus, had left a lasting scar in my four-year old mind. In those days, mother’s wails sounded like the muffled cawings of a maimed crow, sliding down the roof. Even today, during calm nights when the mind is free of its noisy tumult, once in a while, that voice comes alive.

Mr.Krishnaji Rao was a Maharashtrian[4], short and stout. He uttered a lot of dirty words and also drank a lot. But he was very shrewd at his Business .As a result of this, he had become close to the British Collectors and Officers of that time.

His long business life was studded with several unforgettable moments: Wrestling champion King Kong, bowled over by the compactness of the suit tailored by Mr.Rao, in a fit of enthusiasm lifted him over his head and cuddled him as if he were a child. Stitching a “Kadar” shirt for the great leader Kamaraj was yet another memorable event.

In those days, he earned a lot of money. After failing in his movie making ventures, he frittered away what was left on the Anglo-Indian prostitutes of Pothanur. Nowadays he survives mainly through his college contracts and on the generosity of his erstwhile youthful customers who had all gotten old by now.

Sliding from its days of abundance to its present day poverty, his house cum tailor shop stood opposite to the cinema theatre at the corner of Nawab Hakeem road. The table, chairs, counters and sewing machines – lacklustre, all of them looked ancient and dilapidated. A sort of dimming darkness pervaded the shop, always.

The shop was rectangular in shape and Mr.Rao was using its back portion as his house. His wife who had borne one son and three daughters for Mr.Rao was not a great beauty but had a firm physique. Very fair, her body of forty years still shone with the charm of a thirty year old. Her left ear had gone deaf from the slaps and punches administered regularly by Mr.Rao during his frequently inebriated states. Their eldest daughter Sumithra who was studying PUC[5], with her bland face that looked as if it were paved with cement, often lay disheveled during the afternoons, her in-skirt riding up, revealing her legs. (Thanks to the tinkling of the telephone inside the house, once during Mr. Rao’s absence). The second daughter Gowri was thirteen, with large eyes and a wagging tongue. Next, the boy, at eight years of age, with cavity-ridden teeth was a monkey who went about badmouthing everyone. Lastly, Sulochana nicknamed ‘Ladoo’ was just three years old, but defecated almost thirty times a day.

Gopinath Rao, Padmanath Rao, Govinda Rao, Deshpande, Raghunath Rao, Panduranga Rao, Mallikarjun Rao – Mr. Rao had hired a veritable army of impoverished Maharashtrians. Sukumaran (10 yrs old) who did minor tasks was a Malayali. I kept accounts and was a Gujarati.

When I say accounts, I do not mean any complex task involving massive ledgers and turning over page after page of entries. I had to keep a tally on the day’s ‘collection”[6] during Mr. Rao’s absence. After he got back, he sat bare-chested and made loud sucking sounds as he smoked his “Scissors” cigarette. You had to wait for the opportune moment, when he was in an affable mood, to hand over the collection. In addition to recording the ones and twos[7] that my fellow Raos borrowed on a daily basis I also had to note down the measurements on a piece of paper and hand them along with the cloth to the Cutting Master Gopinath Rao. (Gopinath Rao resembled a Hindi film villain from the fifties, with a faded pock marked face and fiery eyes that terrified all onlookers). When he and Mr.Rao got into minor spats, he would deliberately cut a size 22 for a request marked 32. He would also tamper with the measurement slip that I had written and get me into trouble as well. After this my virtue as well as my Mother’s chastity, will lay tattered and tarnished after suffering a choice lashing from Mr. Rao’s tongue.

I had to dust the shop, the dust that refused to go away how many ever times you dusted it. I also had to write Gowri’s leave letter and her composition[8] describing her “Excursion”. “Ladoo” had to be cuddled and Padmanath Rao’s dirty jokes had to be appreciated as well. In the time remaining, I could open an accounting ledger in front of me and pretending to tally accounts, keep staring at my face emptily in the dulled mirror hanging above the table.

It was a Saturday.

Mr.Rao had left in the morning. In the theatre opposite, a new film featuring one of the “stalwart actors”[9]. Those who could not get tickets for the 2.30 show were already queuing up now for the evening show.

It was a double action flick and the first hero, bearded ,with tattered clothes ,was staring emptily while the second was fiercely battling a lion. Next to them, thrusting one of her big breasts in profile the heroine stood smiling baring her teeth as if she had nothing to do with all this,. Although the nose of that famous Tamil heroine looked slightly blunter than her real one, the genius who drew the poster, understood the dictum that nothing other than the breasts and thighs should look prominent on Tamil actresses. He had made up on the breasts what he had lost on the nose.

Gopinath Rao stood at the door and amused himself looking outside. Inside the shop, it was calm.

Generally, at this hour, the Raos chatted enthusiastically. About tailoring, sewing machines, a machine that could do buttonholes that they did not have there…..Irrespective of where they started these conversations, they almost always, in most cases, ended up in topics related to sexuality,akin to all Indian arguments. That day, they were silent, as if they did not have anything to talk about, not even on this topic.

The collection for the day was not exceptional. Until three in the afternoon, not even Rs.15 had been collected. By then, each one separately, had enquired with me once or twice, as to how much we had taken in so far. We had to get at least 200 Rupees by the evening, in order to make payments for the week. No one had any hope that this was possible.

These kinds of hardships were not new to the employees of Mr.Rao. This happened in the last week of the month, almost every month. The previous month, with Mr.Rao away on a trip to Bangalore, on one of those collection-less Saturdays, Mrs. Lakshmibai sent us all home with two liters of rice. Mr.Rao however was not one to indulge in such extraordinary deeds. If we don’t collect enough today, we would have to go home empty handed without even a bag of rice.

Gnawed by the fear about the pay, everyone was working half-heartedly.

Padmanath Rao was recently married. He was hoping to get an advance of twenty Rupees in addition to his pay, which would allow him to fetch his wife from her parental home. Lacking cheer, he often stood up, went outside and kept smoking Beedis.

I thought of my Mother. She too would be expecting that I come home with the pay.. She had already declared that afternoon, that we would be running out of rice today. On top of this, tomorrow was father’s death anniversary. Whether the food they fed the Brahmin reached father or not, I thought that Father could have avoided being a pain in the neck, at least by choosing  not to die during the month end. But I immediately regretted having thought so. After I grow up, I should invite the entire town for a feast on my father’s anniversary , my mind shamelessly resolved .

Anna and Karunanidhi were ruling the roost then. People were after the Tamilnadu lottery tickets like dogs. Only rice could be bought cheap. In a foul smelling dull yellow color, two measures for a Rupee. Mother had even fondly christened it ‘Rubber Samba[10]”. Including the non-existent servant maid, the four of us got 12 kilos of rice and 4 kilos of wheat flour, altogether totaling thirteen Rupees and change. My brother’s boss was a devil who refused to advance any money whatsoever. Our ration had to be purchased, as per our usual plan, with my weekly wages. I was sitting expectantly facing the door, waiting for the plan to succeed.

Panduranga Rao started talking with Sukumaran.

We could see Mr.Rao approach, crossing the road from the opposite direction. Having roamed in the sun, his face had reddened like an apple past its prime. With every step he took, the folds of his belly jiggled loosely. Mr. Rao’s paunch was uniquely distinct from all other paunches in the world.

Below his hairless chest, it secretly began in the upper reaches of his stomach, gently rose forward, without any sense of urgency made a semicircle, then abruptly descended, slid and vanished. Most of us might have known from occidental tales that the beautifully proportioned breasts of beauties of royal descent were the models for wine goblets. But we cannot reasonably expect Indian potters or football manufacturers who did not bother too much about elegant design to have known this. As a result, unfortunately, Mr. Rao’s paunch continued to jiggle with no one to admire it.

Before the other Raos noticed, Mr.Rao entered, putting down on the table the clothes package he held in his hand. I was already up on my feet.

Oblivious of Mr. Rao’s entrance, Panduranga Rao was bugging Sukumaran for the meaning of a Malayalam expletive that he knew. Mr.Rao stood observing them quietly like a spy.

All the other Raos waited , looking out of the corners of their eyes.

Blushing and simpering Sukumaran lifted his head and as soon as he saw Mr.Rao he was frightened and stunned. Mr. Rao exploded with anger. Flinging at Sukumaran’ s face, the clothes package that he had earlier laid on the table, he lurched screaming “Fucking prick, are you smiling?” The clothes package hit Sukumaran’ s neck and scattered. As he bent down shivering, a slap caught half his cheek and half an ear. “Mother fucker! Instead of doing his work, he is laughing and horsing around, fucking hair on a prick.”  Continuing his abuses Mr.Rao turned towards Panduranga Rao. As if he were waiting just for Mr.Rao to turn, he quickly looked down , pretending to be intent on his work. His action angered Mr.Rao even further.

“Aiy, what is all this talk, don’t you have brains, you sister fucker” Mr.Rao yelled in a loud voice. As Panduranga Rao started to say something to assuage, Mr. Rao immediately cut him short. “I am asking you, why, why you Mother fucker?” he screamed out even louder. Then he muttered one or two words and raised his voice again, “Old mother fucker ! Old mother fucker”  he said with decisiveness and quickly reached his chair and sat down.

Panduranga Rao, feeling deflated and shrunk, started to stitch a button on the sleeve of a coat that lay on his lap. Panduranga Rao must have been around sixty years old. Bald headed. Just, last month, his adolescent granddaughter had passed away.

Mr.Rao, his anger yet to subside, was breathing heavily.

Gowri having borrowed that week’s edition of “Rani”[11] from the corner storeowner Soopi, had just entered the shop. As soon as he saw his daughter, Mr. Rao’s anger abruptly switched towards her. He beckoned her in a harsh Marathi. Having realized only then that Mr.Rao had already returned, Gowri momentarily hesitated. Then slowly, with fear, she went close to him. Five sharp Marathi questions received only four responses mixed with fear. Then suddenly, in response to the fifth question, a slap fell on Gowri’s cheek. She moved away, crying. Mr.Rao stood up and tried to catch her. Gowri’s braid got caught in Mr. Rao’s hand for a moment but slipped way. Gowri ran inside. Chasing her, Mr. Rao too went inside. Along with Gowri’s wails, the four or five slaps that fell on her neck and back, were also heard.

As if nothing had happened, Gopinath Rao came in nonchalantly. He set aside noisily the scissors that was at the centre of his table and then unfolded the piece of cloth he had to cut next.

A little while later, the phone started ringing.

Mr.Rao informally chatted and joked with the caller and by the time he finished the call and came out, a substantial portion of his anger had vanished. Over and above the din of the operating machines a silence prevailed.

By the time I overcame my hesitations and asked permission from Mr.Rao to go out for a cup of tea, it was already seven o’clock .As I got on the street, pushing aside the night show crowd, I suddenly felt liberated.

As I walked a little further, I ran into Natarajan who ironed clothes. He was wearing a turban. Natarajan was a lazy bum who drank away the money his wife earned by doing shoulder hurting washing work all day. He was also the one who “quenched” Mr. Rao’s thirst for alcohol. On seeing me, he came near, smiling. “Is that fellow Rao there?” he asked. When Mr.Rao wasn’t in his vicinity, it was his habit to address him using a casually disrespectful manner. As I nodded my head in response, he cheerfully said “See you”, picked up pace and walked away.

The radio in Nambiar’s shop was broadcasting the program for farmers. As the tasteless but hot tea went down my throat, I felt a little bit more energetic. Inside the shop, there were many people. Mostly these were thrifty eighteen-year-old shop boys, and miserly over fifty clothing store clerks. Tea that was sold elsewhere for fifteen paise could be had at Nambiar’s shop for twelve.

I came out of the teashop and started walking towards the Town Hall. I could see a big crowd gathered near the town hall. A dense black smoke rose from its midst. I started to walk faster. As I got closer to the crowd I could sense the acrid odor of burnt rubber. As usual, the Nari Kuravar[12] folks were burning pieces of tire and cooking their food.

The crowd had arranged itself in a semi-circle and at its centre two policemen were beating the Kuravars with a stick while abusing them with dirty expletives at the same time .Fearing the beatings the Kuravars got agitated and started to run helter-skelter.

A little way from the edge of the gutter, amidst the dried up pieces of shit, on top of a stove improvised out of three stones, rice was being cooked in small, tiny pots. Until then somehow the policemen had not observed those pots. But now one of the fellows had spotted them. The next moment, he reached out and kicked the pots. He did this with sadistic glee. The pots rolled and fell into the gutter. A piece from one of the broken pots, overflowing with rice, remained stuck at the gutter’s edge. On seeing that, the other policeman reached out, kicked that as well, and pushed it into the gutter. The crowd looked on, passively.

Missing their mark, some of the blows intended for the Kuravars were landing on their children too. The children were screaming. A few Kurava women were wailing and crying along with them.

After a couple of minutes, as if he were tired from having accomplished something, the cop who had kicked the pots turned around. On seeing the crowd he started to get into a rage again. Before he started to abuse, I walked away.

When I returned to the shop Mr.Rao was bantering with a customer enthusiastically.. Moreover there was evidence that showed several other customers had visited the shop and left. Padmanath Rao finished the inner stitching of a shirt collar, flipped it with a jerk and looked up. On seeing me, he smiled showing his teeth. The money required for disbursing the pay must have been collected.

I too felt a bit relieved.

It was half past nine.

Panduranga Rao shook and folded the coarse cloth that was laid out earlier that morning to enable people to work sitting on the floor. I went and sat at my desk and verified the accounts of each employee. I then started to convey it to Mr.Rao one by one. The salary disbursement routine ensued.

Mr.Rao took the Rupee notes, a few at a time, from his pocket and started handing them over. He was very intent on not letting others know how much money he had in his pocket. Why, unnecessarily draw attention to the money in front of this battalion of coolies, get their hopes up and provoke them to ask for an advance on their future wages, deny them and have them curse him as they went back home disappointed. Mr.Rao did not wish to get involved in all this unpleasantness.

After a few minutes everyone left after having received their wages. Somehow, by a stroke of luck, Padmanath Rao alone managed to get a twenty Rupees advance payment.

Mr.Rao and I were left alone.

After a moment of thought, Mr.Rao looked at me and asked in Hindi, “ Is it okay if you get your pay on Monday ?”. Mother’s fiery nose came to mind, I felt my stomach churn. In a lowered voice I said , “Got to buy our ration, tomorrow” . Mr.Rao went into deep thought once again. After a few moments, as he was taking out all the money from his pocket, Mr. Rao said in a strict disdainful voce “I will ask my wife if there is a need for money at my home. If there is none, I can give it to you else you would have to get it on Monday. He then went inside and called for Lakshmibai.

Lakshmibai needed hundred rupees. When Rao counted the money he had, there was only seventy-five. He gave sixty rupees to Lakshmibai and said something in Marathi. He then turned towards me and said “Only 15 rupees is left and I need it for my expenses tomorrow, there is no other way other than you getting your wages on Monday . He then went and sat on his chair. Disenchanted I tried to shut the last door that needed to be closed.

Mr.Rao, who was looking at me intently, suddenly thought of something. “Why don’t you go to the college tomorrow morning and deliver the coats ?  If you get the money, you can take it and it would be useful for me as well.” After he said this, hope started as a spark and pervaded like a fire in my mind. With great eagerness I nodded vigorously and accepted his proposal. “It’s getting late, you can come in the morning and pack the coats” Mr. Rao said. Just then, theatre manager Ramanathan from across the street, came in , shouting enthusiastically “Hello … Rao”. It was always a “Special” day when Ramanathan showed up.

Theatre manager Ramanathan clad in a white Dhoti and shirt, rings on his fingers twinkling, was a pleasure prince! The theatre was the property of his father-in-law who owned a jewellery store. After exhausting all his wealth wagering exclusively on the choice snails that ran at the horse races at Guindy[13], he clung to this straw for almost twenty years . His wife’s body was covered all over with leucoderma.

Mr.Rao and Ramanathan were longtime friends. They drank arrack out of the same cup. They slept with the same woman. On occasions when new films were released, if the business wasn’t that brisk at Mr. Rao’s shop, Ramanathan would give us 25 tickets for each show during the first week. Natarajan and I, we both mingled with the crowd and scalped 1.90 tickets for 9.00 Rupees. Natarajan was a street-smart ‘Emden’. In addition to the commission, he would also extract from Mr.Rao 50 paise per ticket .

As I stood in front of Mr.Rao, to take his leave, Ramanathan looked at me with a gentle smile.

“On your way, ask Natarajan to come here” said Mr.Rao. “Students will leave for the movies or some place or the other. Only if you leave as early as six in the morning , you can catch them” he warned me. I concurred and came out.

Natarajan’ s house was in Dhobi-Khana[14]. On entering his small house I saw him lying, with his big shadow, cast by the chimney lamp. Seeing me, he got up and welcomed. Lucky me, he was sober and in control of his faculties. I conveyed Mr.Rao’s message and started walking home.

As I reached Thyagaraja New Street, I heard a Telugu voice asking, “Bawa[15], what is the time?”. It was the woman on the street who was waiting for someone and asking someone else. It was already ten-thirty.

The door was closed perfunctorily but not locked. Mother had dozed off with her glasses on while she was reading “Akanda Ananth” (a Guajarati magazine related to religion). I bent down, removed her glasses and kept them aside. Mother was sleeping like a child. With sunken eyes, hollowed out cheeks and loose folds of flesh her face looked ravaged.  Thin lines of wrinkles criss- crossed her forehead. In her youth her hair was flowing in densely curled waves. Now it looked tired and flat. It had grayed around the ears as well.  Yes, Mother had become old. How many days; how many years !. She had gobbled up years and the years in turn had eaten her away.

By the time I washed my face and came back Mother had woken up and was sitting.

When I told her that I had not gotten my weekly wages, she got into frenzy and cursed Mr. Rao’s entire family. Then she got all confused and went silent.

I felt relieved, that all of Mother’s anger had expended itself thus, in a single line and then subsided. One or two moments transpired in silence. As I was thinking, about the possibility that she had not yet grasped the matter fully “Rascal, knowing that your father’s death anniversary is tomorrow, you have come empty handed !. Aren’t you ashamed, you filthy dog!” She erupted suddenly, as if she couldn’t believe what I had said. She got up excitedly with hands raised and charged towards me. Forgetting to put down her raised hands, she then stood and started berating in a strange mixture of Tamil and Gujarati. She paused in between phrases for a few seconds , raised her voice and continued her rant.

With her mind focused only on the litany of abuses she was unable to finish most of the phrases she had begun in anger. Whenever this happened she stuttered and cursed me as well. I patiently listened.

Although the subtext of Mother’s abuses was focused on Mr.Rao, its locutions were ostensibly directed  towards the Brahmin[16] who was to come tomorrow. The Brahmin was a Tamil. To invite Gujarati Brahmins was beyond our means. In addition to feeding him and offering him a fee of Rs. 5.25, at least a towel worn over the upper body had to be given. We had decided several years back, that the abjectly poor Tamil Brahmin who sat on a raised thinnai in Sullivan Street, enjoying cheap talk while sweat  coursed all over his bare dark body, would do for us. The Brahmin who was asked to come to our house the next day, how would he react to this situation? As I imagined this, I was both amused and saddened .

After a few minutes my brother entered suddenly, having parked noiselessly the cycle that belonged to the shop where he worked. After he came in, mother kept silent for a moment. Then, wanting to bring him up to speed on the matter, said “Tomorrow you guys eat mud, and serve mud to the guy (the Brahmin) who is going to show up, as well”. On seeing shock and gloom that spread suddenly on my brother’s face, mother, her despair seemingly reduced, started to breathe more regularly and waited, observing a silence pregnant with meaning.

My brother having inferred a bit about the situation, was trying to confirm it by looking at me confusedly. He then hesitantly asked “Didn’t your boss give the money?” As I nodded in response he started to look crestfallen. Mother had now gotten another person to share and justify her anger. The malice that she had bottled up for a few moments re-emerged. “How could he ever bring home his pay? Only after that ruined Rao is laid, strapped to his bier, will he be able to get it. “That gambling dog, drunken dogsbody”. Mother kept on ranting.

My Brother was watching her intently. In an attempt to control her he suddenly shouted loudly “Enough of lectures. You better stop now”. Mother refused to be silenced. Instead, she pounced on him “Is what I am talking a lecture to you, filthy dog” . Brother had grown used to remaining quiet .

Eventually after mother’s wails subsided she started to simmer in lower tones. It was only then that I realized that I had been standing in the same place for a long time.

My Brother changed to a Lungi and switched on the kitchen light.

By then Mother who was more or less talking to herself , raised her voice and informed in passing “ As if all this were not enough, your sister brought bamboo shoots and dropped them here for tomorrow’s Kuzhambu(broth)[17].”

Instantly both our sights fell on the bamboo shoots, which lay hidden in the bag that was hanging on the wall. I went immediately, took them out and inspected them. They were wonderful, so tender, and fresh.

Bamboo shoots grew in abundance in the estate of father’s friend Nayakam. With the smoothness of a Brinjal , healthy sheen of the green banana and exuding the rough fragrance of plants – they released the  Kuzhambu that they had soaked up as they slid down your throat, that pleasure was something unique !. In addition to letting us make a Kuzhambu without the expense of lentils, it somehow also gave us the pride of eating something different. Everyone loved Bamboo Shoot Kuzhambu. Especially Mother and Father. Coincidentally, on the day father died, Mother had cooked this very same Bamboo Shoot  Kuzhambu. Barring Father’s death anniversary Mother would never eat it on other days.

Mother kept on staring at the wall. A slight redness spread over her nose and ears. Her breathing and hearing started to intensify. In a minute or two she might cry. Mother cleared her throat and without making too much noise cried with soft tormenting sobs.

When I thought about how Mother would not be eating Bamboo shoot Kuzhambu this year as well, it all felt very absurd.

After crying for a little while, Mother wiped her face with her sari and got up resolutely. She bit down hard and swallowed the anxiety that had spread over her face and her eyes were brimming with a knowing sorrow.

I hung the bag and entered the kitchen. Mother served the last meal of that week.

Long into the night, out of the dark, brother suddenly said something. With a voice suffused with sleep and fatigue, Mother said, “I will borrow two Rupees from the house owner and give it to you . After the priest arrives in the morning, get him a limited meal and a sweet[18] from Hotel[19] Krishna Mandhir. Next year we can have him eat at the house.” She then turned and laid the other way. On the street, as if tearing the darkness and the tranquility along a straight line, the patrol guard went by blowing a whistle.

Next day morning, it was already quarter past six when I started to leave the house. The house owner was a very strict woman. Mother cautioned me that she was going to borrow the two rupees on the condition that it would be repaid as soon as I came back in the afternoon and sent me on my way.

Nawab Hakeem Road was calmer than usual – Bearded Muslims noisily slurping their tea sitting on a bench in front of Mubarak Tea stall, faint moans of the Nadaswaram[20] from the tea shop radio, the narrowing and lengthening road, closed shops, beyond, reflecting the sun that had risen in the east, the sky was beginning to sparkle blue, white clouds, crows that cawed and disappeared, sparrows – everything  was delightful. The street was granted a break from its bitter and noisy everyday realities.

The sight of the tea stall induced a desire to drink tea. Should I spend the 15 paise in my pocket on the two cigarettes as per my earlier plan or on a single cup on tea? After indulging in this small mental struggle, I moved on , smoking the cigarette, which had won eventually.

When I reached the five-corner intersection a couple of mutton stalls were open. Stripped of life and skin the goats hung outside like formless mass of flesh with legs. Inside small incense sticks were burning beneath the picture of a God that was crowned with a red light. The whole place was permeated with the raw smell of blood.

In front of the theatre a crowd of people had already gathered for the floor and bench tickets. Almost everyone looked fatigued and half-asleep. They were sitting close to each other in two files huddled like frogs. Looking from the street I could see that one of the doors to the shop was open. Lakshmibai must have woken up. I climbed the steps with great hurry. As I placed my right leg on the second step, I felt a creeping sensation of stepping on something mushy. Shit! Before I realized and bent down it had squeezed through my toes and made a mess all over my leg. I hesitated for a second and then climbed up. In order to not the make the other steps dirty, I carefully avoided placing the front portion of my feet on the floor. I walked on my heel and reached the door. Inside Ladoo was loitering around bare bodied. I looked at her buttocks for clues as to whether she had defecated. I found a lot of them!.

Lakshmibai was sitting inside blowing the stove. Looking at my shit smeared foot, I beckoned her. She did not hear me. I called her again. That too did not seem to have reached her ears. Only when I shouted for the fourth time I remembered that she was deaf on one side. At that instant, I wanted to strangle Mr.Rao.

For some reason Lakshmibhai turned towards the door. On seeing me she nodded and smiled at me showing her teeth. She then turned to blow the stove again. Laddu kept alternately looking at me and her mother. Astonished, she stood there smiling. I kept staring at my leg and stood there.

After one or two minutes, when Lakshmibhai finally came outside to pick some firewood, she gave me some water to wash my feet. Peeved, she gave Laddu a pinch as well.

Mr.Rao had gone to sleep on the cutting table. Soda bottles lay nearby as evidence that he had drunk arrack.

In a hurry, I started to fold the coats and wrapped them in paper packages. I could gather nine of them. All of them were woolen coats. Even though they weren’t much they were still quite heavy. I took one Rupee from Lakshmibhai for the bus fare and left. As soon as I got off the steps she started to wash them.

Usually the college management collected the entire cost for these coats. Accordingly the quality of the tailoring would also be subpar. The inner linings would be made of cheap material. Students who did not like that could spend an extra ten Rupees and get an inner lining of a higher quality. All these coats had inner linings made of satin. Ninety rupees could be collected. I walked, ruminating on my share of fifteen rupees.

The college was about four miles away from the city. After you left the heart of the city you could see greenery along the sides of the road. Bare-chested milkmen walking, with cows following them, kids, women working in the fields…. Everything looked so natural. Even the bus driver and conductor seemed unhurried and calm. Once the day breaks in, they would all behave differently.

The student hostel was in the rear of that Engineering College. The path that ran close by the outer buildings of the college stretched almost two furlongs from the road. As soon as I got off the bus I lit the other cigarette from my pocket and started walking. In silence, the college was calm and peaceful.

After I had gone half the distance, a gardener wearing a khaki shirt came running towards me taking short steps. Perturbed, he said angrily “ Put down that cigarette, man.” Scared, I dropped the cigarette  and stubbed it. Until I went past, he stood with hands on his hips and kept staring at me. After walking for a bit, when I turned, I saw him bent at his work again.

The hostel comprised four huge buildings encircling a large playground. Each building had One hundred and eighty spacious rooms. At the centre of the playground four or five students were practicing cricket. As it was quiet I could hear what they were saying, even the lower registers. A few other students were jogging around the playground. One student alone, deeply self-conscious, was running, flailing his arms and legs like a Tamil film hero chasing the heroine who had gotten angry and run away.

Harihara krishnan and Seetharaman were in the “A” Block. Seetharaman’ s room was locked. In room 132, which was on the second floor, instead of Harihara Krishnan, clad in a vest and dhoti, a student was reading intently. Harihara krishnan had gone to his hometown.

There was no one in “C”. Three of them in “D”. In “B” only one student called Krishnagiri. The rest were in the “Old Hostel” that was situated behind these buildings. “D” block was calm and placid .Other than climbing up and down two flights of stairs I had nothing to show so far. Everyone had left for the town. As I was coming down the stairs, I came upon two students holding “Kumudam”[21] magazines in their hands. On seeing the packets in my hand one of them asked indifferently “What do you want ,are you from the dry cleaners ?” After I replied the other one started to whistle for no reason and they both went past me.

In Krishnagiri’s room four or five students, wearing Lungis were sitting on the bed and chatting. As I entered, after knocking on the door twice, they stopped talking. I picked a student who appeared friendly and told him about the matter. After I finished he thought for a moment and then said hesitantly, “He is sleeping”. It was then that I noticed: On the far side of the bed adjoining the wall, Krishnagiri was sleeping folded over in a bundle. One of the students came up with the idea to wake him. It was vetoed by another student. I stood there calmly thinking. By then, someone had already tried to wake Krishnagiri by slapping him on the side, below his hip. Krishnagiri kept moaning and tried to go to sleep again. Two other guys joined the other one and jointly with great enthusiasm they attempted to wake Krishnagiri.

As they pulled his blanket Krishnagiri got up with a start. Wrapping his Lungi which had slipped away, he was about to abuse the other students. On seeing me he got silent and was perplexed. Krishnagiri looked very thin and with a face that had not yet seen its first shave, he looked like a child. Small eyes that were lively and affectionate. “Good morning Sir” I began the conversation. After calmly listening to everything I said, he said that he did not have any money now and that he would come to the shop on Wednesday and pick up the coat himself.

Gurumurthi and Karunakaran were brushing their teeth in the ‘old’ hostel’s courtyard . I approached and asked each of them separately. Along with the smell of two different toothpastes I got the same answer that I had gotten earlier from Krishnagiri. Lastly, I walked towards Rameshbabu’s room.

From his name I inferred that Ramesh Babu could be a North Indian. If that was right, I decided that I should speak to him in Hindi. In my mind I was already rehearsing my sentence phrasings and trying to make my speech richer by avoiding unpolished language. The door was half-closed. I knocked and opened.

Ramesh Babu looked as if he were avidly expecting somebody. Bearded and bespectacled he was so tall and wide that he didn’t fit within the confines of my imagination. As I looked at him, I was even momentarily scared. On seeing me he got up abruptly with a start. Then he came towards me hurriedly. For a moment he stood still, then with veins bulging, he questioned me condescendingly with his eyes. I hemmed and hawed hesitantly in broken English and managed to convey the purpose of my visit. Next moment he was overcome by rage “Did I ask you to bring it ?” he shouted angrily. I hesitated again and said “No”. “Then, go away. I know how to come and get it myself” he said and closed the door with a bang.

Looking foolish, I came out, bearing the coats. As I crossed the Hostel’s main entrance, about twenty to twenty five kid goats were being dragged inside to be served as meat for that afternoon’s lunch. Some of the younger ones jumped and bleated with glee as they ran.

At the shop, I intuited Mr. Rao’s absence. I hung the coats back and left after informing Lakshmibai in a loud voice that I was going home.

As usual there was a crowd in front of the theatre. The Kuravar folk had started to proliferate again on the roadside. One of the Kurathis[22], who was breastfeeding her child, was hawking an unusual potpourri of white garlic and safety pins. A Kuravan hung his head down and was intent on picking his ear. Grains of cooked rice that were scattered yesterday lay near them admixed with mud. It was very hot and I was very hungry. I slackened my gait and ambled slowly.At home, brother was reading the Question & Answer section from one of the back issues of “Mother-India” magazine. Mother lay huddled in a corner. After changing my clothes I too spread a mat to lie down. No one spoke.

Next morning as I was preparing to go to the shop Mother kept on staring at me. Although she was bright and clean after her bath, her face had indeed gone pale and tired due to hunger. I was combing my hair. It took me a while to comb it. Perhaps I deliberately took more time because mother was watching!

When I reached the front door, as if she were waiting for this, Mother picked up the bag she had kept nearby. “Here, throw this into the garbage before you go” she said and flung the bag towards me with great malice. The bag hit my legs and Bamboo shoots scattered all over the floor. They had withered and gone pale.

 My back towards her, I stood for a moment. I did not have the guts to look at her face to face. Along with the confusion in my mind enormous rage welled up in me from nowhere. “You go and throw it yourself” I said and walked away. Everything felt meaningless.

As I got down on the street, suddenly through a narrow passage from the opposite house, an eight-year-old boy, naked, and with his penis dangling came running fast and squatted by the roadside.

As if it were slapping me the sun beat down harshly.

***

End notes:

[1] Thatti refers to the banner like structure of plaited bamboos. Movie posters were typically advertised using these structures and placed in front of the local shops. In exchange the shop owner received passes for the movies that he magnanimously distributed to his employees.

[2] Popular Tamil movies

[3] Like the Sarong a traditional garment worn around the waist

[4] Someone from the state of Maharashtra (Western Region of India)

[5] Pre-University Course PUC is an intermediate two year course

[6] Takings for the day is typically referred to as “Collection” in retail shops

[7] Rupees

[8] Essays are referred to as Compositions in Indian schools

[9] In the 60s and 70s Indian cinema was dominated by a handful of actors

[10] Samba is a variety of Rice with a distinctly starchy flavor grown mainly in Tamilnadu

[11] Name of a Tamil magazine

[12] Ethnic Tamil Community comprised of tribal gypsies

[13] Racecourse in Chennai, Tamilnadu

[14] Washermen’s Quarters

[15] Telugu word with multiple connotations. Here a generic form of address

[16] The priestly caste

[17] Kuzhambu is a common dish in South India. It’s a stew based on a broth made with tamarind and pulses(Dals)

[18] Typically sweet was not included in the “limited” meal package served in restaurants. For that luxury one had to go for the “Unlimited” package.

[19] Restaurants are also called Hotels in India

[20] Wind Instrument popular in South India

[21] A popular Tamil magazine published weekly

[22] Womenfolk of the Kurava community

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