|Apr/May 2015 Fiction|
Photograph by Rus Bowden
Ayyanarpatti ran out of firecrackers by mid-afternoon on Deepavali day. The mala-wala explosives were the first to go as they were exploded synchronously just before dawn. The Shivaji and Lakshmi single "bombs" were next, lit next to oblivious senior citizens who shuddered and covered their ears as the sound reverberated across the village. Sissy crackers—sparklers, ground chakras, flower pots—outlasted the rest but not for long. The young cracker-bursters went back to their respective homes to convince their fathers to procure more firecrackers, but no one paid them any attention. The interminable celebrity interviews on the various channels were proving to be too much after the gluttonous Deepavali feast, and most of the adult citizenry was dozing in front of the television.
So when Arumugam sauntered down Upper Street with a green plastic can in one hand and a bottle of arrack in the other, he had the street all to himself. "The world has turned lazy," Arumugam said to himself. He held up the green can and looked at it thoughtfully. "But they will come out soon enough," he muttered as he walked to Rathinam's house and poured some of the contents of the can on the kolam in the front yard. He repeated this in front of a few more houses on the street before finally reaching his house. He walked up the steps and knocked on the door. No one opened, and after a couple of minutes, he knocked louder.
"Open up. It is me!"
The TV volume went up a notch, but no one came out to let him in. He gave up and walked along the narrow passage on one side of the house and peered in through the window. The kids were sleeping, and the women—his wife and daughter—were intently staring at the screen. He headed for the bore well in the backyard and emptied what remained of the green can next to the well. He filled the empty can with arrack from the other bottle he was carrying. Hearing a door open, he looked up furtively. Selvi, his daughter. He quickly threw the now-empty arrack bottle to one side, held up the green can and waved it like a flag. Selvi saw him but took no notice. She removed a few clothes from the line and went back inside, firmly closing the door behind her.
His own daughter, Arumugam seethed, doesn't even acknowledge his existence. He swiftly walked back to Upper Street. What kind of a life was his? A stray dog's life. They kept food out for him every day, and a sleeping mat in the veranda, but there was nothing else in the world he could call his. His wife had not spoken to him in decades; his grandchildren ran away when they saw him; his daughter looked through him and didn't hesitate to lift her hand to thrash him every once in a while. He thought of Selvi when she was just a little girl—she would look on in wonder when he took her to the textile mill where he used to work a lifetime ago now. He promised to weave her a paavaadai for every color that existed in this world, and she clapped her hands in delight and hugged him tight. What happened to his little darling? Tears stung Arumugam's bloodshot eyes. Through the haze, he noticed a girl approach. Not his little Selvi, this one looked much older.
"Hey you, Nithya, stop!"
Young Nithya braked and looked up at Arumugam in surprise. She was on her way to town to buy firecrackers, and here was this alcoholic holding up a green can like a traffic policeman holding his STOP sign. He was swaying back and forth.
"Get out of the way," she told him. "I don't have time to waste."
"Watch me die before you go. I am going to drink this!"
Arumugam swung the can closer so she could read the label. Nithya recognised it: Catch, a local pesticide.
"Uncle, get out of my way." She, like most of the villagers, was used to Arumugam's potvaliancy and didn't really believe he was going to carry out the threat.
"You listen to me girl. Summon everyone. I am going to drink this in front of the whole village."
"Tiger, tiger!" she shouted, referring to the story of the man who cried tiger too often, only to find that no one came to his rescue when there was an actual tiger about.
"You don't believe me? Call them all. You will see me die in front of your eyes."
Well, what was the harm, Nithya pondered. It might enliven an otherwise listless Deepavali, and provide the perfect diversion for her stealth trip to town. She parked her bicycle and ran to the nearest house.
Selvi looked up from the newspaper, irritated. Someone was knocking so hard, the door was going to come unhinged.
"Open the door. This is Muthu."
Muthu? Muthu was the local councillor, the man about the village who liked to get involved in everything that went on. Selvi had seen him an hour earlier heading to the mango grove with his band of political do-nothings, carrying lorry loads of hooch. He was back in the village already? Selvi got up and walked towards the door.
"It is that man," Rajam, her mother, said softly. "He is up to something."
"Thank God you are here! Arumugam annan is in a dangerous state of mind," Muthu cried as Selvi opened the door. "Nobody had the sense to call you until now. If I had not been on the scene, who knows...?"
"What is wrong with him?," Selvi demanded.
"I don't know how to tell you. You have to come with me now." He pointed to a crowd up the street. "Everyone is there."
"What has he done, Muthu?"
"Don't ask me that, please! I pleaded with him, and he has promised to do nothing until you and your mother get there. We have no time to lose."
"Thambi, please tell us what is the problem." It was Rajam from behind the door.
Muthu turned pale. "How will I tell you? It is a question of your thali. It is swinging in the wind." He swung his right hand back and forth like a pendulum. Rajam looked down and touched the gold pendant hanging from the chain around her neck, her thali. It was intact.
"If you don't come now, you will never wear your thali again." Muthu was close to tears now. "Arumugam annan is going to drink pesticide and kill himself."
Selvi stifled a giggle. Rajam shrugged. Muthu looked at them in surprise.
"If that is what he wants to do, why stop him?" Selvi said, in a dismissive tone.
"How dare you say that? You call yourself his daughter?" He turned to Rajam. "Did you hear what she said?"
"What do we lose? Let him do it." Rajam's voice was calm and final.
Muthu was shocked, to say the least. He was hoping to make the family see sense and effect a reconciliation. It was to be the headline of next week's district circular—"Councillor Muthu saves family from dire fate." What was he supposed to do now? Well, he wasn't going to give up so easily. He swiftly walked back towards the center of action.
A few moments later, Selvi received a call from her husband and Rajam from her sisters, all demanding the same thing: that they go immediately and rescue Arumugam, who was on the verge of consuming poison. At any cost. Selvi asked Rajam to turn off her phone and did the same with hers. A delegation of older citizens came knocking on the door soon after, but they went back empty-handed. "Such cruel women. What an unlucky chap that Arumugam is!" they murmured as they went out of sight.
A cruel family! But, Selvi thought, they chose not be remember how the family turned cruel. They weren't around to pontificate on cruelty when Arumugam beat his wife every night. It got worse when he was fired for drinking on the job. He was home most of the time, and he started harassing Selvi, too. When finally Rajam decided not to take it anymore and move back to Ayyanarpatti, Selvi was so traumatized she had stopped speaking altogether. It took two years before she would speak a full sentence again. But it did not end with that, of course. He followed them to the village a few years later, contrite and ready to reform his ways, but it did not last the month. Thankfully by then, Selvi was strong enough to pare off the blows. The beating stopped, but he still stole money, came home drunk, and woke the neighborhood in the middle of the night with his shouts. Lately, he had taken to frightening his grandchildren. Little Amuda, Selvi's three-year old, had nightmares every night, thanks to her loving grandfather who insisted on chatting with her every evening. A very unlucky chap indeed!
Meanwhile, back on Upper Street, Arumugam was showing no signs of giving in. He was standing on top of a mound next to the tea stall, holding up the pesticide can as if it were a sword. Closest to him were Chandran and Muthu, along with a number of other men pleading with him to give them the bottle. The women were standing to one side, hands over their lips, silent for the most part. The outer circle comprized of children who were tugging at their parents' shirts and saris, convinced that this spectacle was no substitute for real firecrackers.
"Anna, throw that bottle away. Whatever be the problem, you just tell me and I will fix it," Muthu urged Arumugam.
"What will you fix? My family is not even here to see me dying." Arumugam paused to take a swig out of the bottle. A collective gasp went up in the crowd.
"Which of you is brave enough to commit suicide? Here is a lesson for all of you—if you get no respect, there is no reason to live." He lifted the bottle again.
"No, no," they all cried. He stopped.
"Nobody respects me in this village. No one cares."
"We all care about you. In fact, I am so worried, I have asked for a stand-by taxi in case something untoward happens. Look, the car is here now," Muthu said.
The crowd turned towards where Muthu was pointing to see an old white Ambassador slowly making its way down the street. By the time they turned back towards Arumugam, the bottle was nearly empty. He laughed and smashed the bottle on the ground. The pungent smell of pesticide filled the air. Muthu rushed towards Arumugam, who fell down, unconscious.
Deepavali was a popular day for accidents, and it was a while before the hospital would admit Arumugam. Muthu's supposed political clout did not come to all that much use. They had to wait for hours before a doctor tended to the patient and admitted him to the general ward. He was stable at the moment, but they were going to perform a barrage of tests the following day, the doctor said before leaving. They would have to wait for the test results before any diagnosis could be made. Muthu and Chandran thanked the doctor and headed back to Ayyanarpatti.
By late evening, everyone in the village knew that Arumugam was on his deathbed.
"There was nothing more that could be done, the doctor said. Inform the family."
"Look at how you die if you have an ungrateful family," they said, clustered around their verandas and kitchens.
"Apparently, Selvi did not even want to go see him at the hospital. Is she really his daughter?"
"There was talk of another man in Rajam's life before she came back to the village," someone whispered.
"Poor Muthu had in fact, offered to take Arumugam to a private hospital in Trichy, where he would have had better treatment, but Selvi flatly refused."
"And that hard-hearted woman who is going to be a widow soon—doesn't she have any shame?"
Ayyanarpatti went to bed, indignant.
Arumugam woke up early the next morning, feeling absolutely famished. He looked around and was surprised to see he was in what looked like a hospital. He remembered drinking from a pesticide can, but otherwise his memory failed him. A nurse passed by, and he asked her for food, but she glared at him and went on her way. She had done enough for him. He had thrown up a few times during the night. He looked in his pocket to see if he had any money. Fifteen rupees. More than enough for the bus back home. He waited for the nurse to leave the room and quietly sneaked out. By the time Selvi turned up at the hospital to check on her father, Arumugam was well on his way home.
The sound of firecrackers split the air as he alighted from the bus. Under cover of the excitement of the previous day, Nithya had managed to go to town and bring back a load of crackers, which she had then sold off with a comfortable mark-up. The kids were told to go easy on the crackers because of an imminent death, but of course that only served to increase their frenzy. They wanted to burst everything they had bought before news reached the village. They knew they wouldn't be allowed to any more once the village went into mourning.
A 2,000-mala-wala exploded into a thousand-odd pieces, just as Arumugam walked into Upper Street. Preparations were on to light the next set when Arumugam walked slowly towards them through the smoky wake of the mala-wala.
"The ghost is here!" They shrieked and ran home shouting. Arumugam was puzzled. Why were they running away from him? He wasn't drunk, not yet anyway. As he was pondering this, Muthu came out of his house running and fell at his feet. Arumugam looked down at him, thoroughly confounded.
"Anna, you are alive! I knew you would be fine," he said as he got up, embracing Arumugam.
Soon, the rest of the village came out in droves to see the man who had returned from Yama's door.
"Is it really him? They say when someone is so close of death, he visits places dear to them. You don't think...?"
"Sshh! It is him. He has come back from the dead."
"Miracle!" they cried. "He is walking! He must have been blessed by Kamakshi Amman herself!"
Everyone invited he-who-had-been-blessed into their homes. Arumugam was initially bewildered at the reception, but with characteristic opportunism, he was soon making the most of it. The next couple of days passed in a haze. There was no shortage of food and drink, nor of houses to stay in. He went to the Kamakshi temple every evening so that they could all be blessed by the Goddess in his presence. He didn't even think about home until a week or so later, when it started dawning on him that the villagers were slowly losing interest in he-who-had-come-back-from-the-dead. He made some inquiries, then waited another day or two before he set foot on his doorstep, just to be safe. No one spoke a word to him, but the plate of food was waiting in the kitchen, as always. The mat on the veranda was all his, too.