Borrow One! – Appadurai Muttulingam

Tamil Title: ஒன்றைக் கடன்வாங்கு (Ondrai Kadanvaangu)

AuthorAppadurai Muttulingam

Translator: Nakul Vāc

A.Muttulingam

I was of the age when I believed that a car would go all on its own if I kept touching the steering wheel. I was probably eight or nine and I would do anything in the world just for an ice-cream. When they give you a round glass cup filled to the brim with ice-cream and top it with a soft red cherry it looks lavishly beautiful and tastes much more delicious. In a way lying was also like that. Every lie needs to be spiked with a tiny bit of truth. Great lies are manufactured like that.  I knew this when I was four years old. The thrill, fun and playfulness I experienced when uttering a lie I never got from anything else.

My house-rules were very confusing. Whatever tasted lousy was deemed good for my health. Castor-oil was good, bitter-gourd very good and spinach was supposedly the best. Heaven forbid we should put any of these in our mouths. Ice-cream, now that is real yummy, chocolate delicious. Sugared twisties, once you start you can never stop eating them. Unfortunately these goodies were banned. Even when they made sugared twisties at home these were locked up and kept out of reach on one of the top shelves. Despite this the quantity kept steadily decreasing. Witnessing the speed at which I pilfered them my brother would say “Easy bro, at this rate the twisties would go straight into your head’. I didn’t worry too much about getting caught. I had a bunch of lies at hand.

There is a method to the crafting of lies. I told a whole lot of them to my class teacher at school. There were no grand plans. He would ask something, and lies would flow out on their own as soon as I opened my mouth. But in the instances where I didn’t get caught, all the thrill, fun and excitement engendered by the lie, gave me all the incitement I needed to persist at it.  “Why haven’t you done your homework” the teacher would ask. “Our goat ate it Sir!” The poor soul will fall for it. At home my Mom would ask “Why so late, your brother arrived a long time back”. “During the 12.00 O’clock puja Padmanabha priest fainted”. Only the 12.00 O’clock part was true in what I said.

Several important incidents in my life occurred when I was nine years old. One morning Mom was suffering from severe stomach ache. My father beckoned me in a thundering voice. At times, when he screams we could almost hear the echo as well. “Run fast to the midwife’s house and fetch her now” he ordered. School-dress, house-dress, outside-dress and night-dress were all one and the same for me, so I left as I was, in a hurry. I was a sloth only at home, but outside I was a sprinter.  All along, the streets were lined with Tamarind trees that were laden with fruit. I plucked a few low-hanging ones and ate them. At edges of the fence termite-hills lay amassed; some of them were even taller than me. The day before yesterday I had seen a snake come out of those very hills. As I hurried past that dreadful spot I was brought to a sudden halt. Sniffing the ground, a stray dog stood ominously. It owned this street and had chased me several times before It looked at me through the upper corners of its eyes and snarled. It would surely chase me if I took off. Luckily a tall old man came walking by, holding a hen upside down by its feet. I grabbed his other hand and started walking alongside him. Forgetting its enmity the dog started to lick itself and lay down.

The old man had to bend down to peer at me and I had to stretch my neck backwards to get a glimpse of him, as if I were looking at a plane. It felt as if he were at a great distance. Only after his lips had stopped moving did his words reach my ears. “How old are you” he asked. Usually folks asked me my name first. “I am 12” I replied. I think he believed it without any hesitation. “How about you, how old are you” I asked. “I have 3 dhotis, one shirt, two shawls, one decorative upper garment, one cow, four goats, a pair of slippers and one umbrella. I keep count only of these. If someone steals them I would know instantly. I don’t keep score of my years, who will steal them?” Bah! how handsomely the old man tricked me. Henceforth I too should not reveal my age. “Whose son are you?” “Vinasithambi” I blurted as that was the name that came to my lips at that moment. “Vinasithambi? I don’t think anyone like that lives around here? “His voice sounded feebly. I was already hundred feet away, running!

It was my luck that the rail-gate was closed. I have never traveled by train but had heard that watching it run gave the impression that it was faster than a bird flying. At any time one could stand gazing at it for hours. On both sides of the track people gathered to watch the train pass by. We could hear it whistle ‘Coo’ and in the distance where the tracks curved, a puff of smoke wisped towards the sky. The train burst into the station with the front and rear ends of each compartment rattling and shaking all over. With half the train thrusting outside the station, a solitary man stepped down from it with a huge fish secured firmly in a palmyra basket. For this single man, his fish and palmyra basket that gigantic train had deigned to stop at a small village station and was now preparing to leave. The train smell vanished and we were now engulfed by smell of fish.

Outside the shop next to the station a moustached youngster was sitting on a broken bench. A board above his head issued a “Don’t Spit Here” warning. He was probably 30 years old and was wearing a long- sleeved white shirt and a matching dhoti. A green hand-kerchief was tucked in his shirt collar. As if someone were holding a knife to his back he sat very erect and drank his tea. The folks who were standing around him bent down reverentially as they spoke. His sitting posture gave him the appearance of an emperor. I remembered that he was Rowdy Shanmugam the local thug. After he finished his tea the shop owner stepped down and took his glass back.

Cigarette! he ordered and the owner handed him a ‘Three Roses’ cigarette. With the long hemp rope that was smoldering there he lit his cigarette and took a puff. The way he dragged in and blew the smoke looked very stylish. As if by magic Veerasingam showed up at my side and gently nudged me with his elbow. He was my classmate and I had no idea as to how he materialized there. “He has committed three murders. Wait and see, today there will be one more” he whispered. “How do you know?” “That’s the plan they are hatching now” he replied. Shanugam’s unfolded left sleeve hung loose and long. Perhaps hidden there was a knife. The thug got up suddenly and began walking followed by his two sidekicks. “This village’s headcount will go down by one” One of them said and the other laughed. As they left there was a slight breeze. It blew over me as well and I stood there slightly shivering.

Veerasingam had come there to rent a bi-cycle. He was two years older than me and had a face that looked as if he had food inside his mouth waiting to be swallowed. He was a great runner and would keep running even if his heart pounded hard, but he couldn’t ride a bike. He was on familiar terms with the shop owner who let him borrow his bicycles on rent. As he was forced to monkey-pedal he had to go round in a circle before coming towards me. He held my face, turned it towards him and said “Why don’t you try as well. As I don’t use the seat I only have to pay half-rent. You don’t need to pay’. I needed a bike that was little smaller or legs that were a little longer. “This is no good for me. I am getting a new one from Colombo” I said. Without batting an eyelid, Veerasingam bought my story.

A newlywed bride and groom were going to the temple with a retinue of well-wishers. The marriage ceremony must have just ended that morning. The bride looked downwards, her chin almost touching her chest. All the jewels she had worn on her hands, head and neck were now glittering in the sun. Encircling her neck was a Thaali, the marriage pendant. Even her braid was adorned by a long jewel. A special puja was performed for them at the temple. Someone kept repeatedly scaling the belling-wall half way and jumping down in order to ring the bell. The newlyweds and their retinue were served sweetened rice from the temple. The person who distributed it looked at me and asked “Are you hungry?” He didn’t know that I was the guy who invented hunger. My folks had made a vow to the temple and tied a square five cent wrapped in a piece of cloth as a talisman around my wrist. I stretched out that hand with the talisman and a little bit of sweet rice plopped into my palm. I stared at my palm and there was still plenty of space leftover for more.

Suddenly I felt a huge wave of hunger gnawing me. Until then I had forgotten about it. Now a fear started to haunt me. If I went home late my little brother would have finished my share of lunch. One day when I came home late he was eating out of my plate that had blue flowers painted on it. The plate with the red flowers was his, ‘Why are you eating from my plate?” I lurched at him. His red plate out of which he had just eaten lay unwashed right next him. As I was late he had almost polished my plate as well. “Why the hell did you eat my food” I screamed. Being the smart-ass he was he replied “Your food?  Did it have your name written on it?” I stood there dumb-founded.  “A man can wait for his food, but food cannot wait for man”

The sun shone high and the street adjoining the temple glittered. Like edges of a burning letter the sky simmered gathering brilliance. The treeless street stretched out emptily into the distance. Afar a black cow was ambling forth. After a while it looked like a man bearing something black. Only after the figure came closer I realized that it was Lalitha teacher who taught us Math at school. She was wearing slippers and was holding a black umbrella in her hand. As if she were enjoying the scenery she was approaching slowly. Her yellow-bordered Sari flapped around her legs repeatedly. I liked her. Like the eye-doctor’s board with big letters at the top and tiny letters at the bottom she would start writing at the top of the blackboard with big fonts and end up with tiny ones as she neared the bottom.

As if a black and white photograph converted itself into color she had decorated her dark face by plastering it with face powder. “What should you do to subtract five from four?” “Don’t know teacher”. “Can you take five from 4” “No”  “If you don’t have enough you have to borrow one from the next” she would say. My father never liked the people who came to our house to collect debts. But our teacher was telling us to borrow. I was very confused. She squinted a bit in the glaring sun and asked me “What are you doing here”. Once when someone died they were flying the school flag half-mast. We were all ecstatic for the unexpected holiday. But that day I saw the teacher crying. She was very kind-hearted. She asked me again as to what I was doing. “I came to borrow the Math text book.” “From whom?” Two lies of equal weight popped up in my brain and I told one of them. “OK, OK, you wouldn’t last in this heat, run home” she chased me away and walked unhurriedly holding her umbrella aslant.

Beneath the tamarind tree two women jostled me and moved ahead. “The greatest wonder in this world occurs at the moment when one life separates from another and they become two” one of them said. “This has been going on since the day the world began and no one considers it a miracle anymore.  Everyone thinks that the village headcount will increase by one.” replied the other. I remembered what Rowdy Shanmugam’s sidekick said about the village headcount going down by one. Two people stood talking to my father beneath the tree. Father’s voice was laced with laughter. From inside the house came the sound of a baby crying. The midwife fetched a basin full of dirty water and emptied it outside.

“Where the hell were you?’ my father shouted. Our dog which was lying there suddenly rose and ran away. The day’s events went past my mind in reverse order. Two women, teacher, temple, newlywed couple, Veerasingam, Rowdy Shanmugam, train, old man, dog, tamarind fruit…. Father was waiting for an answer. I took in a bit of air and filled my lungs. I remember the last time father slapped me his palm lines left an imprint on my face. Usually several lies gestate in my mouth in the space of a second. But that day my brain came up empty. ‘If you don’t have enough, borrow one’ as teacher would say. I think I will do that.

***

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