Tamil Title : தஸ்தாயெவ்ஸ்கியின் முகம் (Dostoevsky’s Face)
Author : Jeyamohan
Translator : Nakul Vāc
No one had expected Pa Kavundar1 to fall that soon! There were very few in our village that did not expect or wish for his downfall. As Dostoevsky said – people who look up at towers, they all wish to see them come crashing down (You have read Brothers Karamazov, haven’t you?). Pa Kavundar himself looked like an ancient temple tower. Tall, dark, gone to seed, it was widely believed that he was born for scuffles –in his life’s long road he had not done any real work. Grandpa Kavundar’s British Khaki2 shirted earnings were not subject to any oversight and he had converted all of that into land before he kicked the bucket. At the age of sixteen Pa Kavundar let the world know that he had taken charge by slinging a sickle around his waist. We had to remove it at his deathbed as it wasn’t easy to turn him over. The sound that emanated from Kavundar almost felt like a growl.
By this time a sweet dream had already begun to gestate in my mind: the disease could create a window of opportunity to close, without further expense, the on-going proceedings of eight criminal cases. Ugh, right? I am an odd character. You might have guessed this already when I was yakking about Dostoevsky in the beginning. Shades of Oedipus complex cannot be ruled out as well. My mom was akin to certain forms of goat, reindeer and hare – when she accidentally dropped utensils, even the ensuing sound sent a shiver down her spine and set her trembling. That such a character could live with father in holy matrimony for twenty years is one of the many wonders of Indian Tradition. When father, having gotten up on to the raised porch, sat down, unslung his sickle and thundered “Kitnamma”, various organs in Mom’s body will start quivering at different frequencies. Father was using her as a jewellery rack, to supervise the kitchen and indeed as a machine to do other related tasks. I had never seen them talking naturally, face to face. All you could hear were roars and moans alternating one after the other. For instance, let’s imagine the following scene: a Kavundan who had no money to harvest cotton, comes at the door, removes his turban, tucks it under his armpit, stands reverentially, let’s say he asks to borrow money. Pa Kavundar sharpening his nails with a huge sickle, without deigning even to look at him, ponders. Afterwards he turns inside, calls “Kitnamma” in a thundering voice that makes mother hen run helter-skelter, its stomach all tied up in knots.
Mom comes running, all atremble, stands behind the door and peeps outside: the tenant farmer Kavundan must have remembered seeing the eyes of a rat in a dark attic.
“Where the hell did you vanish, headless corpse, didn’t you hear me calling.”
“I am here, Sir3 ”
“Anna4 Kavundan wants to seed cotton”.
“He’s wailing about not having money to start the sowing.”
For this too, there was a silent response.
“Are you deaf, it’s like speaking to a damn wall”
“I am listening Sir”
“His kid apparently got sick and he had to use the money he had for the cotton seeds. The motherfucker has gotten drunk and is braying here.”
“No, no Sir, it’s the truth”
“Shush, filthy dog, are you butting in, when I am talking to my Kavundacchi5 ”
“I won’t open my mouth, Sir”
“If you won’t speak, will your father come here and vouch for you, don’t get sassy, you sister fucker.”
The farmer will scratch his head and give a sheepish grin.
“What are you saying now?” he would turn towards mom.
“Your wish, Sir”
“Hmm, Ok, you think we should just give him the money”
“Shit, will your wastrel dad Marappa Kavundan, will he come and repay? Scavenging dog, don’t wag your tongue, I will stitch your mouth shut, just you watch…”
Can we afford to lend to these worthless assholes, they come here as if I was sitting on a pile”
A distressed mom will now shuffle.
“Don’t you hear me talking, what do you have in your mouth, stuffed dumplings? That your dad Marappa Kavundan cooked?”
“It is not like that, Sir”
“Finally, what are you saying? Not to give him the money?”
“Bloody bitch, is it your father Marappa Kavundan’s earnings, whore, are you playing the fool with me, I will rip your head off…I will.”
Pa Kavundar very well knew that he could indulge in all this only if he gave the money eventually. The mental state of the debtor was also easy to guess and was not a big cosmic secret.
Despite all this, father was a palpable God to mom…. Reason being – father will behave like an angel when he came home happily inebriated in the evening. Halwa6 in his right hand, Jasmine Flowers in his left. He would need help to climb the steps and get into the house. I was mighty flummoxed as to how this creature correctly finds its way back to the house. One of Salim Ali’s essays on bird migration clarified this doubt for me. The bird had fallen in the courtyard and was now fluttering its wings.
“Kitnamma, Kitnammaaa, where are you my darling wife, my sweetie pie?”
Mother would rush to support and help him climb the steps. “Kitnamma dear, goddess of my wealth and household, whatcha want, tell me, and I will get it right now. If I don’t, then I wasn’t born of a Kavundan”. Mother’s face flushed with great excitement.
They would need an hour to reach the wooden cot inside. Within that hour, emotions as diverse as lamentation, betrayal, love, sorrow and valor will flow freely. Erotic embraces were thrown in for good measure, as extras. Food would not go down unless it was literally fed by Mom. In addition songs were also rendered in a booming voice. The festivities would continue into the wee hours of the night. After that, deep sorrow. Then, after the lamentation for Grandpa Kavundar, a brief snatch of sleep. A general commiseration for the state of the world would then follow. By the time the rooster crowed Kavundar would be sprawled half-way between the bed and the floor. At around half past nine, Mom could be seen standing at the bedroom door, looking greatly distressed and unable to make up her mind about waking father up. Kavundar’s snores would be akin to the noise made by the blender.
Kavundar was frequently assailed by the doubt as to whether I was truly born of him.
He was confused in trying to establish, if by any chance twenty years ago, the sperm of a British officer stationed at the Royakotta estate, had found its way to me. To the best of his abilities, he tried hard to spread this rumor in our town. In this fashion, I was able to see an aspect of the “Old” Karamazov in my father. Apparently the Royakotta officer used to read twenty-four hours a day, got mad as a result and died. There were no monetary issues between my father and me! In those matters, he was very generous. His main grouse was that I had eliminated the criminal strain that had run through four successive generations of our family. He was pestering the Kasamuthaiyan deity to take him back before the general public comprised of sundry castes, bad mouthed the Macchootu7 Kavundar family without respect. It was his favorite deity. Wasn’t it just a divine incarnation of Kavundar’s special traits?
But it looked like Kasamuthu8 did not have too great an affection towards Kavundar. Otherwise, having ventured to the Mallupatti market to relieve his itch to brawl with the cattle brokers he wouldn’t have indulged his craving for the popular hooch admixed with “Battery” concoction9. It was indeed fate that the proportion of rectified spirit in that mixture was jacked up to an obscene level. We saw him later at the Hosur Hospital in a mellow state with liquid coming out of all his orifices. At that time with the only functioning organ, his mouth, he was questioning the Doctor’s birth antecedents because the doctor, in an effort to compensate the liquid loss had inserted a needle into Kavundar to administer glucose. Other folks who had participated in that marathon hooch fest had lost the use of their eyes, ears and mouth. Except for those all of Kavundar’s other organs had become dysfunctional. The doctor was of the opinion that having him die on the hospital bed after a month’s worth of treatment would prevent his soul from attaining the requisite peace when his life parted from his body. Kavundar was eventually laid on his back, in that huge cot made of solid oak, an heirloom that had seen seven deaths, one that was gifted to my great grandfather in appreciation of his services as a capable tax collector, a profession whose reputation in those days was equivalent to that of daylight robbery.
Father was inconsolable about his inability to reach out and kick my mom who was nursing him. His voice resounded in the house all the time. Dostoevsky says that generosity and sympathy greatly distress such characters. His inner eye was like a pole star; it plumbed all depths, didn’t it? When his body became dysfunctional, Kavundar’s brain started to function with perfect brilliance. This state made him remember rare expletives that would have aided in understanding more deeply, the culture and life styles of the distant past. When I couldn’t bear it any longer, I managed to ask the doctor if medical science could reveal a way to make his tongue as inert as his leg. Mother called me the scourge that will bring ruin to our entire family. For three days she avoided looking at me in the eye. Even the doctor understood that I was an oddball, and with a smile raised my hopes by suggesting that I wouldn’t have to lose much of my patience.
It was mom’s frenzy that subjected me to great amazement. No jewellery. No decent clothes. Without the right amount of sleep or food. Always crying. Praying. Never deviating a bit from her nursing routine. She firmly believed that everything would get back to normal. Various folk deities continued to get offerings from her. Her wedding pendant was changed on a daily basis. Married women received flowers and blouses while Brahmins were gifted cows. I became habituated to the presence of a new astrologer each day and even the sight of a matted hair Sanyasi11 directly descended from the Himalayas, didn’t surprise me anymore. Once on hearing my explanation about the magnitude of the disease and its incurability, Mom started to dance as if possessed by the Spirit. The village womenfolk all felt that the Goddess would relent and show mercy by blessing her wedding pendant10, thereby ensuring a lasting married life. Some of them came to our house and said the same face to face and went back with gifts of rice and millet bundled in the free ends of their saris. I felt that there was a widespread satisfaction in the village that a modern day Savitri12 had appeared in their midst. Inside me I felt fear. What if Yama13 himself, forgetting the destructive rigors ordained for the age of ‘Kali’14 let Kavundan go free? Kavundar’s bunch of keys was now in my possession. When I checked the accounts I realized that Kavundar had left behind only that amount of wealth that he could possibly spend during the rest of his lifetime. I became a Kasamuthaiyan devotee.
Kavundar’s disease and Kavundacchi’s ministrations reached a climax. When Kavundar reached the stage where he could not talk much I became oblivious of his presence in the house. I barely saw him once a week, when the doctor visited him as a matter of formality. Kavundar now shriveled like a cotton rag that had lost all its starch, lay prone staring habitually at the roof beams. At the sight of the Doctor’s moving profile in white, mom would begin to beat her chest with violent thuds. This background music would reach a peak when the doctor examined Kavundar. As the doctor was leaving after having collected his fees from me, mother would run after him uttering lamentations. The doctor gave the usual assurances in the manner of doctors in the movies.
Eventually, after the lamentation that bid the doctor on his way, Kavundacchi came into my room. I was afraid that the folk art program might continue. Moreover my relationship with Kavundacchi was a bit complex. Most of the time she treated me like a “Peppermint” baby. At times, granting me the distance usually reserved for other males, she would blush all over when she spoke. One could not predict which of these would occur at any point in time. This had a lot to do with how Pa Kavundar had approached her earlier. In the moments when she behaved with childlike innocence, I loved the old girl. In those rare other instances as if she were a new face she would amaze and create a tingling sensation in me. Of late due to my indifferent attitude towards Kavundar, she had grown distant from me. Stealthily she came, with excitement in her eyes and stood quietly next to my desk. I intuited that she was in an unusual mental state and was a bit perturbed. To put it crassly, it felt like being alone with a woman with whom I had an incestuous relationship, with a fear of being seen by others. If you think about it, in one sense, one should not read too much of Dostoevsky. He decimates several lies that are the very basis of our lives.
“Yes, Mom?” I said. The silence was so obscene that I was forced to speak.
Mom looked around and wiped her face with the free end of her Sari.
“Tell me what you want,” I asked irritatedly.
“What did the Dockter say”?
“Until the time we sell the rest our property and hand it to him, he would continue to provide medicine”
Kavundacchi did not get as excited as I had expected. A little surprised, I looked up and stared at her. I could infer from her face that something was troubling her mind.
“Did he really say that it wouldn’t get cured “?
“You are mad. Haven’t I already explained this a thousand times? Not a chance for him to get cured. At the most, a month. Apparently Kavundar’s liver has rotted. What more do you want?”
Kavundacchi left my room instantly.
That look she had, I could not brush it off my mind. Suddenly a sort of fear took hold of me. That calmness raised a question. The depth of her eyes, it was no ordinary matter. If Kavundar passed away, would she do something to herself? Was she already steadfast in her decision? As I kept on thinking, that thought kept amassing more and more details and got solidified. Unable to sleep, I suffered. I resolved to observe the old woman very closely. She was not a coward. In the innermost reaches of my mind I knew this. One couldn’t tell, creatures like these were in a class of their own, beyond the limits of time, like the Mariamman deity residing in the street corner. She might even immolate herself on Kavundar’s pyre.
I wished to talk about all this stuff with the Kavundacchi and clarify myself. But I couldn’t even broach that topic with her. She continued to nurse Kavundar like earlier. She spun around busily like a top supervising the activities related to the paddy fields and within the kitchen she operated like a machine. “All of it was an act. Don’t fall for it,” I kept saying to myself.
This watchful attitude made it possible for me, contrary to my usual practice, to wake up on hearing Kavundar’s voice. It was midnight, Kavundar’s feeble voice called, “Kitnamma, Kitnamma”. Then the sound of soft footsteps followed by few moments of silence. Later, astoundingly, the distressed voice of an emotionally shattered Kavundar could be heard. It started out as a curse and ended as sob. Everything felt like a dream to me.
I got up in a hurry sensing that something strange was happening. Maybe -Yes, the mind’s imaginative leap, it’s terrifying. I thought that Kavundacchi was trying to kill herself along with the Kavundar. I ran towards Kavundar’s room trembling with fear.
The room was lit by a lamp. At the opposite door, Kavundacchi stood leaning on the doorframe, serenely emotionless. Her eyes were transfixed on Kavundar. Kavundar lay sprawled on his back and his eyes too were transfixed on her. His body was trembling and his face had gone pale. As the chill of my initial shock subsided I sensed that foul smell. Impulsively I took a step forward. Yes, Kavundar in his prostrate state was passing urine and feces. Like a battered man I looked at Kavundacchi. Along with the saffron on her forehead her whole face was afire. Her look was akin to that of a snake. It felt as if it was not she but some evil spirit assuming her form was standing there instead.
Fear froze my stomach muscles and tugged me. Still, it was crystal clear what I needed to do. I rushed and picked up the vessel from underneath the cot. His lips twisting askew Kavundar shook his head to stop me. When I did not heed his plea and started to reach for him with the vessel, with a voice full of rage and arrogance he shouted “Didn’t I say No, get lost you dog”. Then for the first time in my life, as if etched with a branding iron, I saw that scene, which I would never be able to forget. Kavundar, gasping, his body shaking all over, started to weep like a little child.
Without looking up at anything I ran to the garden. I wanted to keep running like that to a place bereft of human presence. Since then, I could never muster the courage to look Kavundacchi in the eye. Twenty-four hours later I returned home like a corpse. There was crowd standing in front the house. Kavundar had passed away.
Reading Dostoevsky and talking about him is an easy affair. But to encounter him face to face in your life – just try it and you will know for real.
1 Kavundar or Gounder refers to a community (caste) native to the Western Region of Tamil Nadu, also known as Kongu Vellalars. Caste names are also used as forms of address in India.
2 Under the British certain government employees (Policemen, Army etc) wore Khaki uniforms.
3 Wife addresses the husband using suffixes that signify respect. There is no equivalent in English
4 Anna means elder brother in Tamil. Generic usage along with the caste identifier
5 Wife of a Kavundar
6 Sweet Confection
7 Macchootu – Contraction of Macchi Veedu meaning Multi-Storied House, a rarity in some villages
8 Variation of Kasamuthaiyan, name of a deity
9 Illegal liquor (Arrack) is often made using ingredients from used batteries, fertilizers etc
10 Akin to the Wedding Ring in the West, married women are typically identified in Tamilnadu by the sacred pendant that they continuously wear from their Wedding Day. It is removed only at the time of their husbands’ death.
11 Ascetic – Holy man who has renounced worldly pursuits
12 Hindu legend symbolizing conjugal love’s triumph over death
13 Hindu God of Death
14 Kali Yuga – Age of the Demon/Vice – is the last of the four stages the world goes through as part of the cycle of Yugas described in the Indian Scriptures