In Tamil: Subrabharathimanian
English Translation: Prof. Ramgopal
The morning sky was dull. The moon had gone somewhere and had disappeared. The clouds gathered together, formed and
deformed giant shapes. It was days since Muthulakshmi looked at the morning sky like that. Benazir told that she would escape from the dovecote for two days. “Is this place so congested? Of course, there may not be enough space to move around freely, but there is space enough to lie down. Instead of calling the houses dovecotes, one could call them line-houses. That is more convenient and easier,” Muthulaksmi thought.
Benazir was going home. As the morning journey would be less tiresome and more comfortable, she had chosen it. It‘s a twelve-hour journey. She had received an urgent message to come home.
She had some chit money with her, a small amount.
“They’ve asked me to come home immediately as though they have some secret for me! Perhaps my father or mother may be ill!”
“Why, there may be some good news!”
“I don’t think so!”
“On reaching home you’ll know it…Why worry now?”
Muthulakhsmi had earlier thought that she should quarrel with Benazir over the bad experience she had had at the ration shop.
But when Benazir came late and told her about going to her native place on an urgent trip, she did not open the topic. Muthulakshimi felt that she should not have looked at his new dress so eagerly.
His Jeans were torn here and there. There were holes in his shirt too. He was wearing a stud in his ears. His black hair was dyed brown here and there.
“There is no separate queue for you!”
“There is no separate second queue for you!”
“I told you I know that!”
“I mean the one for the handicapped!”
“That too I know!”
“It’s enough if you have understood!”
“You have come for attaching an additional sheet to your ration card. You can attach an additional hand as well!”
“You’re crossing your limits!”
“It’s just a suggestion!”
“You can attach an artificial hand!”
“Will it work? I don’t know!”
“Can you spend your whole life with your single hand? Can a single hand produce sound?”
“It’s alright. What others can do with two hands, I can do with one hand!”
“I don’t think it’s a wise decision!”
“As you are standing just before me in the queue, I have to hear what all you say!”
“I’m telling what someone else will tell you!”
“Can you say anything …mm?”
“I told you frankly what I’ve felt!”
In the meantime, the queue moved forward, pushed her and made her stand before the clerk in the ration shop. The man standing near her had a yellow card. There were some white cards too. Will there be any separate card for sugar? She had no separate
card on her name— it was included in her father’s card. Perhaps, it would have been deleted, she thought. The inner sheets in the cards were almost protruding outside them.
“What’s this? Your card is in the name of a man?
“Are you a man?”
“It’s the house owner’s card!”
“You are a woman, aren’t you?”
“Yes…Do you need to do any research to know my sex?”
“The way you stand invites some analysis!”
“ Oh! My God!
“OK. Why talk unnecessarily? You ask the house owner to come!”
“The house owner!”
“I’ll ask him to come!”
She was angry and felt irritated over Sennappan and the fellow who stood before her and asked questions. She also was angry with Benazir for having given her that work. People always asked those who were without a job to do any sundry work.
“Sister I want to ask you something. Don’t mistake me!”
“OK. But don’t ask about my family!”
“No. It’s about me!”
“I came and stayed in your house. What made you put me in a mill?”
“First I thought of taking you with me to the banian company. But there you will be given only sweeping work first. It will take months to get into the checking section. I asked Basheer what to do with you. He is in the sixth house. He’s a mill-broker. He told me that he would talk to somebody.”
“I doubted for a while that you are a broker!”
“If I am a broker why do I rot in a banian company like this? That income would be enough. But there will be no peace of mind!”
“Do you want to become a broker?”
“No! If I become a broker, whatever happens anywhere will fall on my head. People who work as brokers need much courage. They must be ready to tell lies casually. This peace of mind given by Allah is enough for me! Just for a thousand rupees, they would put anybody anywhere. The wages of that sin would hit somebody in my family, somewhere, sometime!”
“Just a doubt sister, that’s all!”
“It’s a good thing that you have your doubts cleared!”
“But still why there is anger and irritation over Benazir… One can spit on a known face only! If Benazir knows about this anger and irritation what will happen? She may decide that she should not help anybody anymore!” Muthulakshmi pondered over.
Muthulakashmi had prepared tamarind rice in the previous night itself. In the early hours of the morning, she had prepared coconut rice too. The room was filled with the sweet fragrance of the food preparations. Such rare, mouth-wetting smells could be felt only in places where hungry people lived.
“Have you prepared the tamarind rice for my people at my home too- it is so much!”
The fragrance of the tamarind rice filled the whole room. She had put some ground nuts too in the tamarind rice. The nuts shone like stars in the sky.”
“Sister, why don’t you taste a bit now itself?”
Benazir, before taking a meal every time, used to take one small onion, a piece of amla and a bit of jaggery. Somebody had told her that if she took those things before taking food every time, they would increase the body’s resistance. Benazir never failed to take them.”
“It’s a big bonus to our health to live without any disease in this dirty town of winding ditches,” she once told Muthu.
To the people who work in the mill, the management itself gave jaggery. Muthulakshmi had heard that jaggery would easily drive the cotton dust down that was caught in the throat. But the mill in which Muthulakshmi was working under the ‘Sumangali’ scheme did not provide any such thing. They gave something, resembling a mask. One could close one’s mouth with that. If it was tied a bit tight, it made breathing difficult.
Within four days the mask would give out a foul smell. So nobody wore it. She had often thought that she could do as Benazir did. “Amla is easily available,” a person living in the line- houses told her. He used to take a small piece of coconut instead of amla. “If one keeps his body intact, he can command respect,” Benazir had told her
In the evenings the ladies in the line-houses gathered in front of their houses to draw decorative drawings on the ground. Otherwise, they remained inside. Nobody sat on the steps in the courtyard to greet their husbands.
“Is this an office job to go and come at fixed hours? They may come at any time; they may go at any time. The nature of the work in the banian company is like that!”
Nobody could find out whether Gopanna, living in the fifth house, was in the house or not. He came at odd hours. He stumbled for balance as he walked home. His wife used to tell that very rarely he came walking straight to the house!
Once the doors were closed, nobody opened them again. Taking his lunch bag in the morning, Gopanna returned only late night. Benazir had told her that almost all men living there were like that only.
“‘Eat and go when the Fate calls you’-the people living in this compound are perfect examples!” Benazir had told.
“Won’t they lit crackers together even for Deepavali?”
“All have come from far off places … their native places are elsewhere. For Deepavali they would be in a hurry to go to their native places even three days before the festival. When the ‘Karthikai’ festival comes, they firecrackers recalling Deepavali. Nowadays, ‘outsiders’ mean not only people from Kerala or Andhra but also people from Nepal, Orissa and Bengal!”
“To whom to rent a house- nobody follows any guideline. Anyone who is ready to pay the advance can easily get a house for rent here. Nobody cares about their whereabouts!”
The landlord was living in Thennampalayam. Every month he would come on the first Sunday to collect the rent. If not, Sennapan living in the second house would collect it and keep it.
Sennapan would attend to the problems in the three toilets or bathrooms. If there was any drainage- problem, or there was a quarrel in sharing the water from the two drinking water pipes,
Sennappan would play an important role. On these matters, he would pass his suggestions onto his wife. That he would do only in Kannada. On such occasions, Kannada would rule the roost.
Whenever he had time he talked about the problems of line-houses. To a line- house in Badmavaram, a newcomer came. He took the wife of a fellow worker in a dyeing factory and was living with her there. One day the ‘old husband’ of that woman came there with an acid bottle and threw it. The uncovered portions of the ‘new husband’s’ body were badly burnt. There were blisters in his face. Wherever clothes covered, pieces of clothes stuck on his skin. The wounds were more than 30%. As the incident happened in a line-
house, it became a police case and three was a big problem.
“Here everybody is a drunkard. They have time enough only to drink and fall flat. So, no such problem here. That’s a good thing any way!”
“What good thing? Falling flat after drinking?”
“Otherwise they would land themselves in trouble!”
Once Sennappan told Benazir about two such drunkards who drank excessively. They were Nepalese and were working in a dyeing factory. They were young. After drinking heavily, without knowing what he was doing, one fellow took the compressor tube and inserted it into the other fellow’s anus.That fellow’s belly grew larger and larger and burst out. He died. The ‘murderer’ got a seven year sentence. Four people lost their lives!”
“Only two people!”
“No! The dead man, the jailed man, and their two wives— four people!”
Muthulakshmi accompanied Benazir, saying that she would see her off in the bus stand. It seemed that the unhurrying Time was hurrying everyone!
“You have a separate bag for carrying food…OK?”
“After you’ve started cooking, I could not help taking more food! Your preparations are very tasty. You told me that you would cook mutton today!”
“I’ll cook it after you return. I’ll cook whatever we get, even if it is a quail!”
There is a Sunday market- one which had newly come up. When she went there to buy chicken, Muthulakshmi got some new information- there was something new-a new variety in the chicken market, known as ‘Janatha Chicken’. It was selling like hot cakes. The people from Odissa waited eagerly to buy that. The bits of bone- waste with pieces of flesh sticking to them were kept in a freezer and sold. They cost less than the normal variety. One could prepare soup or put some spices and make some sort of curry.
She cooked once, just to feel its taste.
“This is in great demand, sister. People stand in the queue to buy it! Poor people!”
Once, Swarnavelu went to buy quail or partridge. As he could not get any, he bought ‘Janatha Chicken’.
Muthulakshmi took the lunch bag. Benazir carried the air bag with clothes on her shoulder. She felt that heavy wings had sprouted out from her suddenly.
“Sister! Would you stay long…? I’m afraid…Your bag is so big … You take too many clothes with you!”
“You are wearing a new sari… Is there any special occasion?”
“I don’t know! Father was asking me often to come home. I’ve just decided to go now!”
“I had a feeling of doubt…that’s why…”
“Nothing! All my saris have lost their colour. That’s why I’m wearing a new one which I’ve bought last month.”
The freshness in Benazir’s face made Muthulakshmi think that there must be some good news. Suppose if she had to stay at her place permanently, what would happen to her? She must search for another room. In all the rooms she could recall four or five ladies
were staying. It would be too difficult to get a room where only two could stay. Another work to find. Wherever she went in search of employment, she had to show her half hand and had to explain the accident, Muthulakshmi ruminated.
The mill told her that her compensation amount had been handed over to Stephen, the broker who had put her in the mill. They told her that in the letter she had given earlier to the mill when she had joined it, she had given him a general authorization. “As the amount could not be brought into any account, he had told us that he would pay you,” the Mill told her. She had a plan to go Stephen’s place with Swarnavelu. But then it became very difficult to spot Swarnavelu.
They were walking slowly as though they were enjoying the cool breeze of the morning. The people who were sleeping in the umbrella shelters in the bus-stand were lying like logs. There were shadows under the tall neon lamp post. Its top had dissolved the blueness of the sky.
“You have to return alone!”
“How long is it since we walked like this in the morning, Muthu? We don’t have time. We can’t even if we wish! You are alone! Be careful! If you feel boring, get some clothes from Selvi sister and undo the stitches. You can while away the time so. We have to think what to do next!”
Benazir took a polythene bag from her airbag and gave it to Muthulakshmi: “It’s a new sari!”
“A new sari! But why give it here?” She received the sari with her one hand. “To receive a gift with one hand… isn’t it bad manners?”
“I can receive with what I have, after all!” Her hand was cut in an accident in the mill. When she was working continuously for three shifts, her hand got caught in the cone- winding machine and was crushed. She was in search of accommodation and landed in Benazir’s room. More than a month had gone! Which job to take up, she could not decide yet. Benazir had comforted her many times, saying, “Let’s us wait and see!”
“Just to make a difference! Had I given it in the house, it would not have sprung a surprise at all. That’s why I’ve kept it in the bag and am giving it on the way!
From the Annalakshmi bakery on the right side the song, “Maruthamalai Ma Maniye Murugaiyaa” was floating in the air. The mirrors showed different types of cakes in the glow of the lights.
“I remember the tent talkies in my village when I hear this song, Muthu.”
“In all places, one will remember tents on hearing this song!”
“Shall we have some tea?”
“Your bus may come!”
“I can catch the next bus. There are plenty of buses!”
“It is months since we have taken tea from a tea shop!”
“Good cooks won’t take food from hotels.
She was returning with the polythene bag. The bag dangling in her hand created a “swhish…swhish” sound whenever it touched her sari. She saw two people standing near Gopalan’s flower shop. One of them was Swarnavelu. He was talking to a girl who was standing very close to him. She had seen the same girl talking with Swarnavelu once, at the Mariamman temple entrance. Swarnevelu was talking with that girl with his back turned. That girl’s face was half-lit. It was very beautiful. Beautiful faces always evoked feelings of jealousy in Muthu.
Muthlakshmi walked fast. The bag that her cucumber like left hand held was about to slip. The entrance of the Mariamman temple was open and a song praising Mariamman, sung in a high pitch, was on the air.
The Kumaran street corner was filled completely with dolls made of clay. There were lots of Lord Vinayaga dolls with a big belly. Also there were dolls with big bellies to drive the evil spirits away. She thought that she would buy some doll, as it was a long time since she had bought a doll. But these clay dolls dissolved easily in water. The rain drops falling from the roof would easily dissolve them.
“Are these clay dolls?
“Plaster of Paris and then paper –mache!”
“Would they dissolve in water?”The woman who replied looked like a North Indian. She was wearing a heavy ‘garland’ made of beads. She wore in her hands bangles made of beads. For a minute, Muthulakshmi measured her with a strange look. She felt that she herself was dressed in strange clothes.
After seeing Benazir off in the bus stand, she looked for Swarnavelu. But he could not be seen anywhere. She had talked with him standing in many street corners often! “Today he wants a lady with full hands…mmm!” she thought. As she felt that her half hand had driven her away to the edge of the street, she covered it. The road was so long that she could see the bus disappearing as a dot at a distance. It was something of a wonder for her!