A Winding Sheet for Mathai

Ever since I could remember, he had looked the same. Dark, tall, spare bodied. Long limbs and taut muscles. Just like a statue chiseled out of rosewood.

No one could say for sure how old he was. They say he had looked the same when father came to Ernakulam for the first time to do his schooling. Since he always kept his hair cropped short, I could never tell whether his hair had started going grey.

He occupies a very prominent place even in the earliest memories of my childhood. He had a never-ending stock of stories. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a work of fiction as much as I did his tales and jokes.

We children looked forward to the days when he would come to work on our land. We used to crowd round him when he took a break from digging the land, putting away the mattock to sit on his haunches and open his packet of paan.

‘Mathai! Mathai! How come you are so dark?’ ‘People say you are sayip. Where is your madamma?’ The questions piled upon him.

‘That’s right, kochemane. Mathai was born in Parith. Mind you, in Parith. I couldn’t stand the cold so I came over. On my way here, the ship sank in the Black Sea. For two days Mathai floated in that water. It was then that I got so dark. I tried scrubbing myself with coconut husk and incha. But the colour doesn’t come back.’

How many times did we listen to this stuff! Yet it never seemed to pall on us.

He would deliver speeches in the French language. That is, he would make gibbering noises and would stop only when we collapsed with laughter. Come the rains, and Mathai would present himself in a straw hat and a swadeshi slipper fashioned out of the leaf sheath of areca palm. He would have a whole lot to say about them too.

‘There’s this man Gandhi. He says we shouldn’t touch imported stuff. That’s why Mathai doesn’t go in for an umbrella and a pair of slippers.’

The yarns he would spin!

Every year on the day of Uthradam, he would change out of his workaday clothes into a clean mundu and would come to get his share of rice and koppu. He would bring a bushel of beans too. His pride wouldn’t allow him to present himself empty handed, with no ‘offerings’ to make. He used to take food at our house on the second day of Onam.

Amma would hand out the dishes and we would take them out to him. We used to fight among ourselves for the privilege. When everything had been served, he would seat himself before the leaf, and we would present ourselves to watch. How interesting it was to watch the food disappearing in large mouthfuls!

As, one after the other, we started school and graduated to higher classes, we grew out of the habit of tailing Mathai to listen to his talk. Still, Mathai’s tall tales continued to be one topic of conversation that all of us found equally entertaining.

Then the war came. Most of the young people began to leave home to enlist in the army and to swell the labour force in Assam. Prices rose. Still people had money. Even round the necks of Pulaya girls, dark- skinned as the sky at dusk, delicate gold chains glittered, proclaiming as it were, the girls’ pride in their men who risked their lives in far off lands to send home money.

Once the young men left, the older ones who stayed back had a good time. Since there were fewer men available to work on the land, wages increased.

Mathai refused to leave the place. He stayed home. With what airs and graces he used to come for work in those days! It would be eight or nine in the morning by the time he turned up. Well before sundown he’d get in, putting the mattock away.

‘It isn’t four yet and he’s stopped work. By the time he turns up it’s nearly noon. And then he is in a hurry to leave. Nice of you!. Being our old hand, is this how you should carry on here?’ Amma tried to reason with him.

‘What do you know, kochamma? Wasn’t that the five o’clock train that you heard just now? They need work only from nine to four in the harbour. And they also get a noon interval. Get someone else to work on the land. You’ll see.’

So that too was tried. A new labourer was called in to build the fence that year. After having him and his friend work hard on it for two days, Mathai had to be called in to finish it.

It was during one of those days that a dark, strapping woman came, bringing Mathai his lunch.

My younger brother came running in and called: ‘Amma, Mathai’s madamma has come!’

‘Oh, come on! Mathai’s wife has been dead for ages.’ ‘Okay then, ask him yourself.’

What he said was perfectly true. Amma couldn’t help laughing. ‘Why did you bring this upon yourself in your old age, Mathai?

Do you have no other way to spend your money?’

‘It is easy for you to say that, mistress. I have married off my two daughters. There is no one at home. You really can’t expect me to cook my food after a hard day’s work, can you?’

A few months later, one day, when the young woman brought him lunch, she was seen carrying a small baby, a cute little thing who was as dark as his mother.

Mathai hauled him on to his shoulder as soon as he set eyes on


There was something oddly touching about the picture they

presented – the man who had toiled through life to the sunset of his days and his child perched on his shoulder.

His life centered round the child. ‘It’s been forty years since I set eyes on a male child, master. It’s been years since the one from my first marriage died.’

The days went by. The war came to an end. Those who had enlisted in the army were being sent back home. Assam too did not offer any more jobs. Those who had left home in high spirits returned, crestfallen. There

was surplus labour in the country, but the demand for labour did not increase. Wages began to come down. The prices of rice and victuals didn’t drop. Everybody was happy as long as the money brought in from outside lasted. Then they sold whatever they could, and stood staring at starvation in the face.

The young and sturdy somehow pulled on. The older men who hadn’t bothered to leave home in order to strike gold – either because they couldn’t or didn’t want to – were pushed to the wall. They were the ones who hadn’t forsaken the land. But nobody cared for them now. Whom do you employ if not those who can put in more work for the same wages? Who wants the old when young men are available?

Mathai aged very fast. His old vim and vigour disappeared without a trace. Finding work everyday became an old tale. He had a couple of regular houses that hadn’t started hiring others.

It was the month of Edavam. The rains were slowly setting in. One morning Mathai came to our house. He changed into a kachamundu and started to dig the coconut bed.

‘Did you ask him to come? And why does he start digging so early in the season?’ Amma inquired of father.

‘I didn’t ask him.’

Amma went out into the yard.

‘Hey! What are you up to, Mathai? The rain hasn’t reached the ground yet. Shouldn’t you wait for the njattuvela before you start to make beds for the coconut trees?’

‘What do you know, mistress? Have you seen the sun shine for two days? It has been raining all the time, hasn’t it? It’s late as it is. It’s been two weeks since Thekke Madom people started work on their land.’

Mathai’s tongue had lost none of its sharpness.

‘If you can’t find work anywhere else you just turn up here. After all, no questions are asked here. We keep an open house.’ Amma went back in, muttering.

One evening I was sitting on the porch, reading. Father was sitting out in the courtyard. I heard the gate open. Someone was coming in. I could not make out the person at first. It was only when he came out of the shade of the mango tree and approached us that I saw him clearly. I was shocked. It was Mathai.

No, it was a corpse that had once been Mathai. He had changed so


His limbs had shriveled up and hung limply, as if suspended from his body. The smooth skin, once drawn tightly over his powerful muscles, hung in loose folds. His face and head were mottled with grey bristles. His eyes which used to look everyone fearlessly in the face were two hollows. And for the first time ever, I saw him dressed in a shabby, torn mundu.

Mathai moved into the yard and stood before my father. I didn’t hear either of them speak for a while.

They stood, silently facing each other. Two men who tried to make a living on their own, one with his brains, the other with his brawn. And the difference between the two!

‘Have you been ill, Mathai?’ Father spoke in the end.

‘Only ill with not having enough to eat.’ Father fell silent. What could he say, after all?

‘My child is starving, emane. It has been three days since the hearth has been lit. I’ll repay you some how, please, master-‘ He bit his lips. How could he frame that sentence, he who was used only to demanding his due and not begging? It seemed as though blood would spurt from his eyes.

Father rose to his feet quickly and went in. He came out and placed something in Mathai’s hands.

Without bothering to find out how much it was, he turned and walked away as though he’d been dealt a blow. He went out staring at the earth that he’d nurtured with his life-blood.

It must have been a couple of months later. His wife came to our house. She brought the child along too, now reduced to a swollen belly and skin and bones.

Mathai was laid up. It began with rheumatic fever and now he was bed-ridden. It had been more than a month since he went to work.

‘Why don’t you take him to the hospital, Rosa? They’ll look after him. You’ll get rice gruel too’ ? Amma advised her.

‘There is no point in going to the hospital, mistress. He spent two weeks there. They sent him away, saying he’s been cured and that he only has to be fed properly. He couldn’t get up when he got home. What’s the point in their saying he’s been cured? They always send people away to make room for those who arrive newly. Mathai says he won’t set foot inside a hospital even if he were to starve to death.’

‘Why don’t you find some work, Rosa?’

‘What work can I ever do with this kid, mistress? If I leave him home, he will cry and Mathai will get angry. He’d rather starve than have the child cry. Even otherwise, what work can I do now?’ She glanced meaningfully at her own big tummy.

‘It’s been four days since Mathai touched food. If I could get a handful of rice-‘

She came for broken rice for a couple of times. Then she wasn’t seen for a few days.

It was a holiday for my college. I was helping Amma slice vegetables. My younger brother came in and said, ‘Amma, there’s a woman waiting in the porch.’

‘Who’s that, Aniya?’

‘Go and find out for yourself.’ He ran away. I went to the porch along with Amma. ‘Well, isn’t it Rosa? What’s the-‘

Amma did not need to finish the question. Rosa began to cry. ‘Mathai’s gone, mistress.’

She somehow got it out between weeping. Mother offered her the usual platitudes.

She stopped crying. It didn’t seem as though it was on hearing Amma’s philosophizing that she stopped.

People like her had no time to mourn the dead. Their primary concern was with burying the dead.

‘What do you need now, Rosa?’ Mother asked her. ‘A nadan mundu for a winding sheet’

Every time I think of my childhood it is his picture that comes before me.

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