Tamil Title : Suyaroopam (சுயரூபம்)
Author : Ku. Alagirisami
Translator : Vasantha Surya (From the translated volume Place to Live (2005), Edited by Dilip Kumar, Penguin Books India)
In the village of Vepankulam there were two hundred houses, each with its own proud history. For some years now, because of the failure of the rains, a scarcity of jobs and the haphazard escalation in the cost of living, the only thing left in each house was its past glory.
And at this time, in this village of so much proud history into which so many had been born, among those who had crossed their fiftieth year was a certain Vee Ka Maadasaami Thevar. Being known as the grandson of Veerappa Thevar gave him a keener pleasure than hearing his own name, for that valorous ancestor of his had once sliced off nine heads because one of them had dared to utter a harsh word against him. This grand old man of implacable resolve had on another occasion come away from his own younger sister’s eldest son’s wedding without `moistening his hand’ despite being repeatedly and patiently importuned with tears and prayerful entreaties, and many theatrical prostrations with joined hands, by whoever was present – all because that impudent sister had snubbed him once, long agon. Maadasaami Thevar took pride in relating these matchless deeds of his noble grandsire to every two-legged creature he happened to meet all through his life.
One morning, this grandson of the renowned Veerappa Thevar and the only son of Kandhasaami Thevar, he who was feared by Death himself, this resident of Vepankulam known as Vee Ka Maadasaami Thevar, rose early and finished his ablutions. Going east of the village he went to the well in somebody’s chilli field. As he was cleaning his teeth with some fine sand, a certain Muthiah Thevar suddenly materialized in a most unexpected fashion, and roared, `Oh great Thevare! How much longer do you think you can get me to walk up to you at the end of every month to claim the one-quarter-of-a-quarter of a rupee that you owe me? Or are you going to tell me you need more time? If I’ve made a thousand trips, you’ve already made a thousand flimsy excuses with that tireless mouth of yours!’
Wanting to teach Muthiah Thevar a lesson for churlishly claiming a debt in the presence of a person of another caste who happened to be drawing water from the same well, Maadasaami Thevar retorted, `Are you implying I’m so afraid of you that I am skulking around trying to hide? Or maybe you’re thinking of slicing off my head the next time I cross your path? I don’t quite get your meaning.’
`Well, if you’re not skulking around trying to hide, shouldn’t you be at home?’
`Oh, yes! I should drop all my work and stay at home just because you’re going to turn up!’
`Why all this fuss, ayya? You just fling what you owe me and then what do I care what you do? Stay in the house or stray in the jungle! After that why should I go searching for you?’
`It’s only money you want, isn’t it?’ Maadasaami stood up very straight and threw the question at him.
`Then what else am I asking for? Got your doubts about even that or what?’
`Ei, Muthiah Thevare! This talk needn’t go on any further. This afternoon the money will reach you, just see! Going on and on like this…’
Muthiah Thevar moved off without allowing the rest of it to enter his ears. What was the point of standing there anyway?
Maadasaami Thevar scooped up some water into his mouth from the canal, gargled and spat out a scornful Thoo!
He started walking eastwards in the direction of the Rani Mangammal Road, which is called the Trunk Road nowadays, linking the metropolis of Madras with Kanyakumari. The path he trod branches off from that highway, between Kovilpatti and Kayathaar, to reach Vepankulam half a mile to the west. At the spot where the Vepankulam path meets Mangammal Road, Murugesam Pillai’s tiffin shop stands in a shack all by itself. It caters to travelers waiting for the bus in the shade of the nearby tamarind tree and to the bullock-cart drivers and pedestrians heading north and south on that highway. This establishment, founded twenty years ago on the basis of faith in a continuous stream of patrons, had not only earned for Pillai five or six acres of dryland and a tiled house with a cement floor, but had made possible the weddings of his three daughters as well.
When Thevar reached the tiffin shop, Pillai was busy attending to customers. It couldn’t be said that he did not notice Maadasaami Thevar’s arrival. More accurately, he did not care to notice it, engrossed as he was in serving the travelers waiting for the bus, and thus converting eatables into cash. Thevar tried to make his presence known by chatting of this and that. But as everyone knows,
Good men’s words are wasted
On the mean-minded.
Just as the great Rama’s arrows penetrated the breast of the demoness Taraka, Maadasaami’s words merely entered into one ear and flew out through the other.
Among the customers was a man from his own Vepankulam. Pillai fawned on him, addressing him as `ayya’ and `raasa’. Watching it all from his corner, Thevar thought contemptuously, Murugesam Pillai is just the sort to make much of petty thieves and worthless donkeys, just because they’ve piled up four or five coins.
Everyone had eaten and left. Having seen off one contingent of guests, pillai got ready to attend on another. But unfortunately, Thevar was the only customer waiting to be served. With no one else around, Thevar felt emboldened to launch an assault on the fortress of Pillai’s good opinion.
`What’s the matter, annachi? You’ve gone so thin, what’s the reason for it?’ he began.
`What, thin? Hunh! I’m just as I always was!’ retorted Pillai, giving him a sidelong glance of disdain. It choked Thevar’s next question in his throat.
A bus drew up. A lone traveler alighted from it, and Pillai received him effusively and invited him to a meal. `I’m not hungry,’ the man announced, trying to wriggle away, afraid of being inveigled into spending at least half, or as much as three-fourths of a rupee. But was Pillai going to let him off? He rushed forward and seized him by the hand.
`Let go of my arm, ‘ya! Won’t a man eat if he’s hungry? Grabbing me like some damned moneylender!’ The man angrily shook off his hand and strode away in the direction of the village.
Murugesam Pillai was much mortified. To hide it, he turned to Thevar on purpose, and began to talk with him, making it seem as if the person who had just snubbed him so rudely was a youngster in whom he had a close and affectionate interest. By this stratagem he intended to convey that such talk was not to be regarded as an insult or a loss of face, coming as it did from such a special person.
Delighted that the great Pillai had finally realized he was someone of consequence whose opinion mattered, Thevar began to feel a renewed self-confidence. `Whatever you say, annachi, boys nowadays don’t know how to behave to “quality”.’
`But he’s not like that at all. He’s a real gem of a boy!’
`Let the boy go, annachi. Leave this talk! Tell me, how’s business now?’ Thevar enquired.
`Oh, so-so. Like a temple car wobbling along without an axle. Haven’t been able to set eyes on the capital I put in.’
`They’re saying it’s a good business, though?’
`That’s what they’ll say, that’s what they’ll say! What’s it to them? They’ll go so far as to say Murugesam Pillai’s a robber and a swindler and keeps the loot tied up in heaps of bundles! But don’t I know how I’m slogging here? It’s my eyeballs that are popping out! Now look, there’s Maankannu, my third daughter, who came home in the month of Aadi and still hasn’t gone back to her in-laws’ house. I’m planning to send her back with a four-strand pearl chain around her neck. But I can’t even get my hands on enough to buy two sovereigns of gold!’ he said gloomily.
Thevar let out a great belch of hunger. Then, feigning sympathy, he asked as though he were a mere child who had no idea of such things, `But will two sovereigns be enough for a four-strand pearl necklace?’
`Go, that’s a good one! Look, I have ten sovereigns already, thambi! But I’m aiming to make it out of twelve!’
`That’s right, annachi! What we do, we must do grandly! For whom are we doing it? For our own dear child, isn’t it?’ Thevar feelingly expressed his total sympathy.
Oh, ayya’s so concerned! said Pillai to himself.
And what Thevar said to himself was as follows: As if any grandson of Veerappa Thevar would care that this fellow can’t give his daughter a chain! Just my luck, having to listen to such trash! Here people are wandering around trying to get half a bellyful of gruel and this upstart’s daughter needs… what? A pearl necklace! Four strands of it! Like they say,
While the belly’s crying for kanji,
The hair’s screaming for flowers!
If Thevar hated having to show sympathy for a `paltry fellow’, Pillai equally detested being the target of a pauper’s sympathy. Unwilling to extend the conversation, he remained silent for a time. Having glanced down the road to the north and south, he sat down to his morning meal.
The sight of Pillai placing idlis and vadais before himself, dipping them in coconut chutney and consuming them, set Thevar’s heart thudding. Day before yesterday his stomach had been filled to half its capacity. Yesterday it had not been filled at all. And today, having brushed his teeth out of the sheer force of a lifetime of rigorous, caste-clean habits, here he was, a human being emitting famished belches one after the other! And there was Pillai feeding himself, with no feeling for the one who was watching him.
Just keep three or four idlis for me, annachi! Forgetting himself, Thevar opened his mouth to make the request…
Fortunately, what came out of his mouth were not words but another burp from a belly full of nothing but wind. Imagine what would have happened if he had asked! Murugesam Pillai would definitely have refused to give him anything on credit, and Thevar’s hopes would at once have been shattered. By restraining himself from making such an outright request, hope could be made to last out till the evening. Realizing this, and hoping somehow to get around Pillai little by little, Thevar began searching for ways and means of getting what he needed out of him.
In a little while, the next bus arrived from the north and three people alighted, all locals. Since Pillai knew they were on their way home and so would not eat anything at his shop, he did not bother to call out to them.
`Now if people keep turning away like this, I can see what you mean, annachi! How can you do any business?’
Hardly had Maadasaami Thevar finished asking his question, when the other snapped, `He who has planted the tree will see to its watering! What is your worry?’
He sat down with his back to Thevar.
Afternoon came round. A small boy who kept himself alive by running errands in Pillai’s house in exchange for his daily rice arrived at the shop with Pillai’s lunch. As was his wont, Pillai emptied out upon him his daily quota of curses, a veritable sing-song saga. Hertless scoundrel! Maadasaami Thevar in his turn cursed Pillai. But only in his mind. Wanting desperately to be on Pillai’s right side, he, too, berated the boy.
Pillai did not like this. `Thevare! Did you think he’s an orphan boy, or what? Just because I scold him, why are you singing in the background?’
It felt like a slap on the face. Showing his teeth in a pitiful grin, Thevar pleaded, `What did I say now, after all? I just gave him advice, that’s all.’ Small as he was, the boy glared like a lion at Thevar before he went away.
That the cordial relationship he had so carefully nurtured since the morning towards Pillai had been brought crashing down in a minute was a great disappointment to Thevar. Nevertheless, he stayed on, waiting for an opportunity to renew his friendship.
By seven that night countless buses had come and gone from Tirunelveli and Kovilpatti. Countless people had eaten at Pillai’s tiffin shop. When Pillai joked with any of them, Thevar laughed; when he talked angrily with any of them, Thevar egged him on; when Pillai had something sorrowful to relate, Thevar practically wept. His tyrant of a stomach drove him to do all this. The way he just sat there, on and on, a termite mound could have come up over him and hidden him—that was the only thing left to fix him to the spot. That was how devoted he had become to Pillai and his tiffin ship.
Business had not been all that good for Pillai that day, for ten or twelve idlis and some dosais had remained unsold. The leftover half-pot of coffee did not bother him. He never worried about the coffee. That pot was an ocean which never went dry. Mornings he would set it on to boil on the stove with a little coffee powder and coarse palm sugar. As he served it out, he would just add water and fill it up to the brim, transforming it to `coffee’.
At nine the last bus came and went. There would be no more business after that. It was unsafe keeping the shop open any longer in that lonely place in the middle of a scrub-jungle. Anyone could turn up to beat him up and rob him, and no one would know. So Pillai packed up his cooking utensils and provisions as usual, and prepared to go home. He took the coffee pot out to the back and emptied it on the ground. Putting the leftover idlis and dosais into a basket, he muttered, `That unlucky face comes and sits at the door of the shop like inauspicious Sanisvaran, inviting misfortune! How can there be any business?’
Thevar was in an agony of doubt. Should he ask for four idlis on credit? But once again the words refused to leave his lips. It was the old fear. What if Pillai said `No’?
Pillai picked up his cooking gear and piled it on top of his head. Then he locked up the empty shop and began to walk in the light of the moon along a short cut which branched off from the Vepankulam road. Not only did he not ask Thevar to come along with him, but he spoke no word at all.
Thevar felt unutterably humiliated. All day long he had shared Pillai’s joys and sorrows. Yet Pillai had no thought for him as a man! How it hurt and grieved him…He was so hungry! So weak he couldn’t even stand up. As if that were not enough, there was this feeling of shame.
Yet he followed Pillai. I should have opened my mouth and said just one word! I should have asked for it! But I didn’t.
How true it is, that
The child who cries
He thought, and halfway along the path he looked at Pillai and began, `Annachi, there’s something I…’
`What’s the matter?’ asked Murugesam Pillai.
`Oh, nothing…; He braved himself to say it, `It’s just those leftover idlis. Could you give them to me? I’ll bring you the money tomorrow morning.’
`So…! All this time that’s what you’ve been throwing out your net for! It’s just what I thought! Ayya, no talking about credit-wedit with me!’ Pillai told him, and walked along even faster.
`But it’s not as if you never give credit, is it?’
`Oh, I give credit, all right! I give credit to those who should be given credit. Now, if I were to go and give you credit, where would I go to correct the money?’
`How can you say such a thing, annachi? This grandson of Veerappa Thevar isn’t that sort of a man!’
`Oh yes! When I give you a loan, I’ll have to go to Veerappa Thevar to get my money back!’
`Liten, I’m giving you my word: any loan I take from you I’ll return, I won’t cheat you. I’m only asking you for tiffin that’s gone stale by now! And you won’t even give me that?’ he pleaded.
But Pillai took offence. `Stale, are they? Then why are you of all people asking for them, saar? Why don’t you go home and eat some hot-hot dosais, saar? Who says you shouldn’t?’
`Don’t be angry, please. I’m not one to ask for such things, usually. Somehow it’s happened that I’m asking you today…Why, in our grandfather’s day, our great-grandfather’s day, no one in our family ever had to beg like this! Once when our grandfather lost his temper he even refused to eat in his own younger sister’s house…did you know that?’
`Ayya, I know the life you’ve been leading! I even know the life that grandfather of yours led. Just stop pestering a man!’
Those calumnious words about his grandfather were exactly what it took for the seething volcano within Maadasaami Thevar to explode.
`You! What did you say?’ Thundering mightily, he pounced like a tiger upon Murugesam Pillai. This assault sent Pillai’s head load of utensils tumbling and scattering. The next instant their arms were locked in a struggle. The things they said, the epithets and curses—it was another language altogether. With all their strength they hit and punched one another.
Very soon it looked impossible for either to come out of the struggle without killing the other. The ghastly sound of their blows and shouts were floating away unheard and melting into the wind. Not a living soul was around to break up the fight. Until their arms gave way, they hit each other with their fists, and after that their teeth became their weapons. For hadn’t God given them teeth as well? Bites were added to blows. Very soon their bodies were streaked with blood.
This fearsome duel took place in the middle of the jungle for some time. At last it was Maadasaami Thevar who fell down, exhausted. How could he go on with it on a hungry belly? Like an empty gunny-sack being tossed aside he collapsed by the side of the path. Uttering every oath that rose to his lips, Murugesam Pillai majestically picked himself up and collected his belongings. No word, not even the sound of breathing, came from the spot where Thevar lay in an inert heap. Silence reigned.
Just as Murugesam Pillai was about to leave, Maadasaami Thevar’s voice emerged from a half-unconscious state, when he did not himself know what he was saying: `Annachi, won’t your heart take pity even now? It was all because of my hunger, annachi! That’s why I lost my reason!’ he begged, in a simultaneous plea for forgiveness and idlis.
But would that heart of Murugesam Pillai’s take pity? Instead it was anger that rose up in him, many times over.
`Here! Feed yourself and get lost! But why fatten that body of yours at all so shamelessly? On food you’ve whined and begged for!’ he said, even as he untied the cloth covering the basket and took out the idlis.
I? Beg and eat from this fellow? With a kind of desperate bravado, calling up every bit of his remaining strength, Thevar sprang once again on Pillai. As swiftly as he sprang, he received a violent jab in his stomach and dropped down. Rough stones cut him all over. He did not have the strength even to get up, let alone to resume the fight.
Murugesam Pillai spoke. `Why should I kill you, saar, and climb the gallows for nothing? That’s what I’m thinking. Otherwise it’d be quite a different story.’ With that final growl, he walked away.
As he lay there, all beaten up, Maadasaami’s heart was invaded by all sorts of fears. Supposing Murugesam Pillai went into the village and told everyone what had happened? What if he concocted a story about the great Veerappa Thevar’s grandson trying to stave off hunger by waylaying and robbing him?…And then, if the police arrived and bore him off like a criminal, with all the people of the village looking on…? It took him a long time to shake off these terrors.
From now on, let any misery befall me! What more can happen anyway?
When flames have once engulfed the head,
What greater fire can on dread?
Yes, I’ve been stripped—so what? There’s still my loincloth!
A greater shame there dare not be
For such as me!
I didn’t eat that dog food, those idlis thrown as charity by that mean—spirited fellow! Even such a fierce hunger couldn’t make me do it! That’s enough for me. I’m content…Content! If there’s any other shame coming my way—let it come!
Staggering homewards, Maadasaami Thevar tried to console himself with this thought.
(Originally published in Deepam,1969; Thanks to K.Bala for his help in publishing this translation)