Author: Ki Rajanarayanan
Tamil Title: Naarkaali ( நாற்காலி)
Translated by: Vasantha Surya (From the translated volume Place to Live (2005), Edited by Dilip Kumar, Penguin Books India)
A house without a chair?
Everyone in our house suddenly began to feel this way. And that was it: the matter was placed on the family ‘agenda’, and the debate commenced.
A friend of the family had paid us a visit the day before. He was a sub-judge. The man could have come in a veshti and shirt like any of us, couldn’t he? But no, he had to turn up in `suit-boot’. All we had in our house was a three-legged stool whose total height was just three-fourths of a foot. Paati, our grandmother, always sat on it when she churned the curds to make butter. As her figure was on the plump side, our grandfather had got the carpenter to make the seat a little extra broad.
The sub-judge, too, was a little on the portly side. There being nothing else in the house for him to sit on, we brought out the stool. He leaned one hand on its edge and attempted to seat himself. One fiendish thing about this three-legged stool was that if you leaned on one side of it instead of depositing your weight directly on top, it would fling you down. We had fallen from it so many times whenever we failed to observe this precaution before climbing on it to steal a taste from the ghee-jar hanging from the rafters. Just as we were thinking, Poor sub-judge! He’s going to fall! And were about to open our mouths to warn him, he had toppled and was rolling on the floor.
Unable to hold back our laughter, the three of us–my younger brother, our littlest sister who was the baby of the family, and I raced to the back garden. Whenever the howls were about to subside, my sister would do an imitation of the sub-judge leaning his hand on the stool and keeling over. This would prolong our laughter. A further cause for mirth was the memory of how our parents had struggled to remain polite and suppress their own laughter as their guest took a tumble.
When the three of us had finished giggling and tiptoed back into the house like pussy cats, there was no sign of the portly sub-judge. Or of the three-legged stool. `Has he taken it with him?’ asked my baby sister innocently.
It was after this event that the decision was taken to get a chair made for the house. But there was a practical difficulty: no sample was available. There wasn’t a single chair in our village.
Neither was there a carpenter who knew how to make one.
`So let’s buy a ready-made chair in town and bring it here, that’s all,’ was our big brother Peddanna’s idea. My father rejected it, saying no city chair would prove durable. Then Athai, our paternal aunt, came forward with the information that a highly competent carpenter was available in a nearby village. To hear Athai tell it, not only was there no style of chair he didn’t know how to make, but the Governor himself had bestowed high praise on the chairs he had made.
When she heard the second part of Athai’s little speech, Mother’s look said, Yes, yes! She’s seen everything! She pointedly turned her face away.
Appa called the servant and sent him to the village to search out that far-famed carpenter. Discussions began on the kind of wood to be used for making the chair.
‘Teak, of course,’ said Paati. ‘Only a chair made of teak will be easy to lift and to put down, and yet be strong and sturdy.’ She sat with her legs stretched out in front of her, stroking her calves and shins. Our paati was very fond of her legs.
At this moment, in walked Maamanaar, our maternal uncle. Peddanna ran inside and brought out the three-legged stool. For a while the very house shook with laughter before things settled down.
Actually, however, Maamanaar was in no danger. He always sat in the same spot whenever he came to our house. Chop off his head, and he’d still sit there and nowhere else. It was the southern corner of the front hall. Having seated himself on the floor, leaning against the pillar which stood there, the first thing he always did was to unwind his turf and shake out his long hair. Then he would give his head a good scratching and tie up his turf again. This was his invariable habit. Having done this, he would peer closely at the floor around him. Peddanna would pretend to join in the search. With an impudent smile he’d remark, ‘It doesn’t look as though you’ve dropped any coins around here!’
Whenever Maamanaar came to our house, we tried to riddle him with our jokes and pranks. They fell like paper arrows on him. It’s only my son-in-law’s family making fun of me, after all, he seemed to say serenely, without actually opening his lips—like a stone Pillaiyaar by the wayside. Whenever our teasing and heckling became too pungent, Mother would pretend to scold us, ending always with ‘You donkeys!’
As soon as Maamanaar sat down, Amma quickly got up and bustled off to the kitchen. Appa scurried behind her, meek as a baby goat, but intent on seeing what she was up to. When she returned a little later down the long passage from the kitchen, bearing aloft in one hand a silver tumbler full of buttermilk flavoured with asafetida, Appa was right behind. Unseen by both sister and brother and entirely for our delight, he made faces and minced along, mimicking her walk exactly, with his empty hand holding up an imaginary tumbler: It seems her brother has come on a visit! Look at her fussing over him and serving buttermilk! He seemed to be saying.
The aroma of asafetida in the buttermilk made us want to have some right away. We were quite certain it must be just to drink buttermilk that Maamanaar came to our house so often. The buttermilk from our cow was divine nectar, no less. And Maamanaar was the worst miser in town; we believed he was so greedy he would never give anything away free.
Maamanaar had bought that milch cow for his little sister, our Amma, at the Kannaavaram cattle fair. Whenever he came over, the cow, give it a pat and some words of praise. Always few and frugal. For Maamanaar was wary of the evil eye and didn’t want his own too-ardent look to bring ill-luck upon it.
My youngest brother and sister doted on its little calf. ‘As soon as the milk dries up he’s going to take the cow back…and the calf will go back with it!’ My little siblings’ fearful anticipation of this separation increased their fondness for the calf and their bitter feelings for Maamanaar. The baleful glare from their two small faces should have pricked and pinched him all over. But there he was, drinking his buttermilk with relish.
Maamanaar showed a lively interest in the deliberations about the chair and let it be known that he would like one made for himself as well. We, too, were glad of some support in our enterprise.
‘Neem wood is best,’ he declared. ‘Keeps the body cool. No one who sits on a neem-wood chair will ever suffer from piles.’
When he mentioned the neem tree, Appa covertly flashed him an astonished glance. Appa had been talking to our farmhand only the day before yesterday about cutting down the ancient neem and laying it out to dry! Its wood had seasoned and become diamond-hard over long years of standing in the unwatered cattle-pasture.
Peddanna said, ‘Making it out of a poovarasu log would be really good. That’s a firm, fine-grained wood, without knots. It’ll be fine and glossy. And strong, too’.
Our elder sister said, ‘All those woods have a whitish colour. Horrible to look at! After a few days we ourselves will start hating the sight of them. So what I’m saying is, better make it out of some wood with a dark colour. Like red sugarcane…or sesame oilcake…But then it’s your wish’. A luxury chair, fashioned out of some shiny black wood with a mirror-like gleam, with carved from legs, a back curved to support a reclining spine, rear legs stretching as though yawning languorously…The vision flashed before our eyes and faded away.
It struck everyone that what she said was absolutely right. And so it was at once arranged for two such chairs to be made, one for us and another for Maamanaar. When both chairs were finished and delivered at our house, we didn’t know which one to keep for ourselves and which to send to Maamanaar’s house. If you saw one, you didn’t need to look at the other. They were like Rama and Lakshmana. Finally we sent one off to Maamanaar’s. And at once there was the doubt: had we sent away the better of the two?
One by one each of us tried out the chair—and didn’t have the heart to rise from it. Each felt obliged to get up only because the next person had to have a chance. Peddanna sank into it with an appreciation ‘Ah…h,’ rubbed his hands on its smooth arms, tucked up his legs and folded them under him. Athai said, ‘We have to stitch a cover for it at once, or it’ll get dirty’.
My youngest brother and sister fought over it all the time. ‘You’ve been sitting on it for so long already! Get up, da! It’s my turn now!’ she’d shout at him.
‘Ayyo, I’ve just sat down! Look at her, Amma!’ he’d say, crinkling up his face as though he were going to cry.
Like fire the news spread all over the village that a chair had come into our house. Grown-ups and children came crowding in to have a look at it. Some ran their hands over it. One elderly person picked it up.
‘Quite heavy! He’s made it sturdy,’ he said in praise of the carpenter.
Some days passed. One night, at around two, someone banged on our door. Peddanna, who was sleeping on the inside verandah, opened the door. An important person in the village had just died, they said. Our chair was needed, they said, and took it away with them.
Since the deceased was someone of consequence to us, we went as a family to attend the funeral. But when we went to the house of mourning, what a sight met our eyes! It was on our chair that they had propped up that eminent personage for his last journey!
So far, whoever died in our village had always been made to sit on the floor. A grinding stone would be laid on the ground and propped up to keep it from rolling away, and braced upon it would be a gunny sack stuffed with millet straw. On this slanting bolster the corpse would be placed, as though it were reclining.
Where our village people had now picked up this newfangled notion of seating corpses in chairs, we had no idea. People had moved from floor-tickets in cinema halls to chair-tickets…Whatever the cause that was the beginning of our chair’s tribulations.
When the ‘festivities’ in that household were over, they dropped our chair off in our front yard. Just looking at it gave the children a fright. We had the servant take it to the well at the back, scrub it down with a handful of straw and wash it with fifteen large buckets of water. For several days no one had the courage to sit on it. We just didn’t know how to make it usable once more. Fortunately, one day a visitor came to our house. The chair was ordered in for him, but he said, ‘Don’t bother, I’ll just sit down here!’ and went towards the cloth-mat.
Alarmed that he would seat himself there and neglect the chair, the entire family rushed up to him to persuade him to sit on it. The moment he did so, my little brother and sister fled to the backyard. Then they kept peeping in from time to time to see if anything happened to him.
It was not until the next day, when a local elder dropped by and happened to sit on it, that we were reassured of its safety. ‘Already he’s practicing how it’ll feel!’ Peddanna said secretly into my ear.
This was the way we had the chair ‘seasoned’ once again: the old people in the house sat on it first. The little ones were still afraid. ‘Please sit down a bit first!’ my big sister would beg my younger brother. ‘Why can’t you sit down first?’ he’d snap back.
It wasn’t until Suganthi, the girl who lived in the next street, came over and seated her one-year-old baby brother on the chair that the children began sitting on it without fear.
Again, one night somebody died and they carried the chair away. This began to happen more and more often. Sadly we let them take it away each time. The mourners who came asking for the chair understood our sorrow quite differently: they would assume we, too, were mourning the death of their kinsman.
It was irritating, too, to have our sleep disturbed. ‘Don’t know why these wretched dead people have to go and die at such unearthly hours!’ said my elder sister one night.
‘A fine chair we’ve made—for every corpse in the village to sit on! Tchai!’ said Peddanna wearily.
‘The chair was ordered at an unlucky hour,’ Athai declared.
Peddanna finally came up with an idea. He and I decided to keep it to ourselves.
One day Amma sent me on some errand to Maamanaar’s house. When I entered, there he was, seated in splendor on his chair and chewing betel. Watching him prepare and chew a wad of betel was an interesting pastime in itself. Carefully, with the utmost gentleness so as not to injure it in the slightest, he would open his brass betel-box. A span wide, an elbow long, and four fingers high, this prized casket was cleaned and burnished every day till it shone like gold. Taking out the betel leaves one by one as if he were taking things out of a pooja-box, he would lay them out with the devotion due to objects of worship. Though he would thoroughly wipe each leaf, he never pinched off the stalks (such was his parsimony!). Whenever he found a coarse-textured leaf he would strip off the veins running along its spine. Which made us always think of the whimsical riddle:
Grab Muthappan, strip off his spine
Smear him with ‘butter’, fresh and new
Bite into him and chew-chew, chew-chew!
Butter, of course, meant white lime paste.
Next, he would sniff the broken areca nut. Smelling it is supposed to ward off the strange, trance-like sensation that you can get chewing on a mouthful of areca nut. Then he would blow in it. That was for getting rid of any invisible areca-nut worms. This sniffing and blowing procedure was repeated several times, his hand transporting the areca nut from nose to mouth, nose to mouth, more and more rapidly, until oomm-oosh, oomm-oosh, oomm-oosh, oomm-oosh-dabak! Into his mouth the areca nut would go, having been noisily purified.
To find out how clean a person is, all one needs is to take a look at the box in which he keeps like paste for his betel. Maamanaar was a nonpareil in this respect. Not for him the wasteful and messy habit of wiping the excess on his fingers upon the nearest wall. You could press his lime-box to your eyes in reverence, it was so clean. His eveready flashlight, purchased a full fifteen years ago, looked as though it had just been brought home from the shop; he had looked after it so well. But the one acquired by our family at exactly the same time had sprung a leak. It was all dented and of a pitiable yellow colour, like a person who has been ailing for a very long time and is about to die.
That chair could be used by no one but himself in that house. First thing in the morning he would dust it himself. If it had to be moved, he would do it himself, very gently, setting it down soundlessly, as though it were an earthen pot full of water.
As soon as he set eyes on me, Maamanaar said hospitably, ‘Do come in, Maapillai! Would you perhaps like to chew some betel?’ Answering his own question, he added, ‘When schoolboys start chewing betel, chickens will grow horns and start butting us!’
I gave him Amma’s message and went home.
That night, at an untimely hour, there was a knock at the door. Everyone in the house was fast asleep. I woke up Peddanna. Some people from a house of bereavement stood waiting outside. Peddanna led them out into the street. I went along too. When they had finished telling us what they had come for, he coolly replied: ‘Oh, the chair…? It’s in our Maamanaar’s house. Go and ask him. He’ll give it.’ Having sent them away we came back inside and laughed noiselessly.
Fuzzy with sleep, Appa turned in bed and asked, ‘Who came?’
‘Oh, someone wants to borrow our…bullocks for threshing, what else?’ Peddanna said. Pulling the sheet over himself, Appa rolled over to the other side.
The deluge had shifted course-now it was Maamanaar’s turn to be swamped!
Several days later when I went to Maamanaar’s house, he was sitting on the floor and chewing betel. He greeted me with his habitual smile and chatter.
‘Why, you’re on the floor! Where’s the chair?’ I looked around. As he spread like on the back of a betel leaf, he gave me a probing look, and smiled. Then he said, serenely, “I told them to keep the chair. To use it for such occasions. A chair’s needed for that too, isn’t it?’
I just didn’t know what to say. Returning home I rushed in, intending to tell Peddanna this piece of news. But somehow my feet gradually slowed down by themselves.
(Thanks to K.Bala for his help in publishing this translation)
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