“This one is not a straight one, I’d say. His father and mother meek as meek can be and they put up with this mule and no-gooder.” Madathil would have gone on, angry and whining but Muthurattinam wished to pipe in. “Agreed. All their boys are like that, but they can be handled. But this one…this Ammasi… is good for nobody. Belongs neither here nor anywhere. He is self-willed, too much so.”
“Who do you mean? That grandson of Irulayi’s? O, my, he is one who emerged out of his mother’s ribs that’s what,” put in Jayamma, busy threshing the dry green gram.
Ammasi was all of twenty. He was an eyeful and of a class apart, the women would vouch for that. The older ones of the village loathed him but the younger lot adored him unabashedly.
Grown well for his years and with a black moustache, Ammasi looked good, with a fine physique. His teeth flashed whenever he smiled, like kendai fish jumping over sun-lit water. God knows what he used to shine them with! His talk was doused in sarcasm but wasn’t groundless. The fellow seemed to be whiling away his time but he actually knew the lay of things about him. News of his acts of omission and commission floated around the village the whole day. I often felt that the village was too garrulous about his ‘badness’ than was warranted. They hardly bothered to understand him. I for one certainly think that he was right in what he did. I got to know it all from the horse’s mouth, after all.
I met him as I went my way to wind up my morning chores. We both talk along the way. When I asked him what the matter was about, that I’d been hearing from here and there, he just shirked the issue. And kept smiling, as he talked.
“Machaan, you tell me what’s wrong with this. Yesterday I cleared the logged water channels in Parasuraman’s fields and was back home by noon.
I drank up my share of the gruel and climbed a bus, to go to Nettiyakkal.
“Why to Nettiyakkal?” I asked.
“Listen, Machaan. The women in our market street told me that there was a well-digging job there. At the bus stop, there was such a crowd that it was tough even to get a toehold.”
“Did you pick a quarrel there?”
“Bit of a nuisance you are, Machaan, saying just what you please! Listen, and don’t interrupt.”
I kept my cool and told him to carry on, aware of his abrupt nature. I promised not to interrupt.
“In that thick crowd I made my way and found a seat and sat down.
He — Chandrasekharan — also got into the same bus. You know Chandrasekharan? That upper – caste farm-owner in whose fields my father works. And what did he say when he saw me? Now look. I am reproducing the dialogue, word for word, just as it happened. Listen.”
“Elei, you are that Madasami’s son, aren’t you?”
“Right you are, I am the son of Madasami.”
“Elei, don’t you know who I am?”
“Why not? Well, do I know you? You are Chandrasekharan, right?” “He now lifted up his waist-cloth and took out a beedi from his drawer pocket. Machaan, why this beedi now? You think. At that moment, I had lit a beedi and was smoking as I talked. I light one now to give you a total picture.”
“All right go on with it. A big actor you are, indeed! But you tax my patience.” I felt irked somewhat.
“Calm down, Machaan. And look.”
“You keep sitting after knowing who I am? Get up. I will sit.”
“What do you know of how I got this seat? I am already crushed to a paste before I could grab this seat. I’ll be off at Nettiyakkal. Then you can sit.
“Elei! Up! It’s only till Nettiyakkal that you’re going, isn’t it? Stand aside for me, who is your master after all. Have you no respect at all? While your master stands, should you be sitting?”
“Master? It’s my father who is ploughing your fields right now. How and when did you become my master. Even if you stand on your head I won’t get up.”
By now the beedi was stub. He threw it off and let out a guffaw. The mischief evident on his face and the laughter caught on to me.
“So you never got up, till the end?” I persisted on knowing more.
“God forbid! Me? Get up? But you thought it ended there? No. Now ‘Elei, you are provoking a landlord who fills your stomach and no less. You have no loyalty — not even the size of a mustard – of what your father has. When a big man comes along the way, the pallas and pariahs stand up even so humbly. What do the likes of you youngsters know of all that?”
“You! I won’t get up and that’s that. Talk a word more and things will sound worse.”
“I got off at Nettiyakkal. He kept swearing under his breath right through. I didn’t open my mouth. This was what happened, Machaan….And our men chew it over without end and make pulp of my name.”
“How did the village get wind of this so fast?” I asked Ammasi
“That’s further piece of rubbish. Chandrasekharan complained about me to Father. The old man went on a shouting spree and made sure that the whole hamlet heard him. The womenfolk here aren’t any good either. All said and done, should a young chit of a pariah sit while a highborn man stands? Brags too much, and what for? Thinks he’s there to rule. Bad times are surely stalking him.” Ammasi laughed at my rendition
“This is still alright, Machaan. What did you think that old wreck paniyaramuthu has to tell? These landlords are like our gods. Can we survive without them? Foolish blighters, these young lads. They say that a dog never bites the hand that feeds. But this dog is throwing itself on the body, fangs and all. The landlords have but to will it…his entire teeth will be knocked off.’’
“As the old fellow went on, I felt like laughing loudly. He got worked up as he saw us laughing and swore a couple of times more.” We both laughed, Ammasi and I.
“Hey, buddy! What now?” I asked him.
And he told me in a slightly derisive tone. ‘Machaan’, today there is a village meeting. They are going to hold court and inquire into a murder and hang the fellow. You are invited.”
“Let the meeting be. Tell me what you did?”
“I am the one being tried. Do come.”
“And the complaint? What is it, this time?”
“Two days ago, Machaan, Muthukaruppan uncle told me to water Jayashankar mudalali’s fields.”
“Yes, I did see you, with your old spade, dressed up in sparkling white. I thought you were off to the smithy.”
“Well, Machaan, you don’t have to tease me Why? Can’t I go to work in good clothes? On that day I paid a rupee to Muthirulan and got that shirt ironed.”
“Yes. Yes. It was a crisp shirt, no creases. Now come to the point.”
“I went to Jaishankar’s fields. And there he was, standing near the pump-set. As I approached him with my spade, he spoke out.” Ammasi now mimicked Jaishankar’s tone.
“Elei, I told Muthukaruppan of your hamlet to send a chap to clear up the water channels. It’s late already and no fellow has shown up.”
“Muthukaruppan Uncle told me to do the work. So, here I am.”
“Do you look like one out to do work? You stand here like you’re heading for my office. You’re ahead strong one, right? Why did he tell you, of all people, if he couldn’t find a proper hand?”
“Now, what do you want to say? You need your water channels cleared up, Why should you bother about what I wear?”
“Elei, you know what time it is? Look at him showing up now, big man, like one out on a journey to a far off place.”
“Annachi you have a wrist watch. I don’t have one, Annachi. Annachi do tell me the time. I should buy me one as soon as I can, Annachi. And then Annachi, I can tell you the time.”
I laughed out aloud as the expression changed in his face from the one to the other. “Wait, Machaan, let me tell you the rest. When I called him Annachi — you should have seen his face, all back and bitter.
“Elei, what was that you said? Annachi? And you call me that in each breath? Who is Annachi to whom? A pariah bastard calls me Annachi?”
“Watch what you say. If I return your words that’s the end of your standing. Send me away, if you don’t need me,…but you spout filth.”
I walked off quickly. God knows what that fellow said in the village. And these fellows have called a meeting.
“So you are to be punished, for your rough language to a man of consequence?”
“Machaan, how dump can you get? You think they’re going to grill me over that? My crime is that I called him Annachi.”
The meeting gathered duly. The headman told him, Elei, Ammasi, do you know the caste of your birth? And the master’s caste? Who is Annachi to whom? Haven’t you any sense at all?”
Ammasi answered. “We are pariahs. He is a Nayakkar. Yes I did call him Annachi. And you hold a meeting to enquire into that?” He scratched his head, conveying that he was nonplussed. The young one laughed.
The headman controlled his temper. “Be brief. I am not here for a banter with the likes of you. Why did you call a highborn your Annachi?”
Ammasi was quick to retort. “He is older to me, that’s why. Or I’d have called him thambi.
More laughter, this time.
“This fellow won’t get to the point. Too dicey he is, for us,” pronounced the junior headman.
The headman began once more, his tone serious.
“Elei, we aren’t here to enjoy your humour. During all these years, have the Nayakkar men ever been addressed as Annachi by us pallas and pariahs? Young chit of a boy and you break rules and seek to tell us a couple of things, do you? Wasn’t it wrong to call him Annachi?”
Ammasi spoke in matching tone. “I said nothing wrong. Did I call him my uncle and seek his daughter’s hand as a matter of right? You raise so much dust for calling someone Annachi. Last week, when I called Irulappan, the scavenger, Annachi the whole lot of you harangued me, ‘Does he call koravan Annachi?’ Now you say why I call a Nayakkam an Annachi. As that old bag Puvati puts it, there is nothing better or worse about donkey dung, dropped earlier or later.”
“All men are just men” Ammasi was out in a trice, set towards home.
All eyes followed him as one would have a strange sight.
Translated from Tamil by M. Vijayalaksmi.
BAMA. Is a dalit writer who has already made a mark. Trained as an educator, she wanted to teach people from the less privileged and marginalized sections of society. She joined a convent but was forced to leave it since she found herself teaching only the elite. She started writing in 1992. Karukku, her first novel, was written in 1992. It was not only one of the first few pieces of dalit writing, but it also used the local dialect instead of the formalised language. Her other works are Kisumbukkaran, a collection of her short stories and Sangathi, a novel.
VIJAYALAKSMI, M. Prolific translator of poetry and fiction from Tamil into English. Her translations of T.M.Meeran’s Tamil novel, The Story of a Seaside Village has won critical attention.