I have no doubt in my mind as regards the beginning. About whom should I begin describing? All except those who had begotten me are dear to me. Yet the one who will live forever in the light of my memory is Sister Silomia. Her eyes have always showered love and affection, as soothing as the moonlight, on me. Sister Silomia, who always offered advice and prayed that our dreams would forever retain their privacy, slept as usual and awoke no more. It was during a winter season that her heartbeat lost its regular rhythm and we prayed collectively in the open quadrangle of the Mission Hospital for her. We all threw a handful of earth on her grave in the cemetery and came back with tears in our eyes. The word ‘we’ stand for the orphan children.
On the first day of every week, we cleaned the half-walls of the orphanage in the name of Saint Mary. What usually happened was that a lot of official patronage and hypocritical affection landed on our orphan status and changed into fungal and weed-like growth. Father Varghese who had advised us to clear the fungus and uproot the weeds from time to time and retain the purity of the heart, died in a jeep accident. Very soon he was reborn in the kitchen as a kitten. We were forced to accept and revere this evidence of the superstition that was based on the great attachment Father Varghese had with the orphanage and its inmates.
The kitten that ate only what it was offered and which did not drink milk with eyes closed as all kittens did, became the favorite of even
the ill-tempered cook Ulahannan. The rear wheel of the blue van of the bread company ran over the yellow kitten and it died. The smashed remains of yellow pulp were gathered up. Only the melon-seed like teeth remained attached to the jaws. The cruel cook shed buckets of tears. The thirty-year-old housemaid, Shoshamma, murmured, he has enough crocodile tears to shed though he has no mercy in him. Before her husband beat her to death and strung her up, we had never liked this Shoshamma Chettathi. After her death, we all loved her. We praised all her good qualities and lighting candles for her soul, knelt in prayer.
We toiled by day in the fifty acres that belonged to the orphanage. Cutting away the thorny undergrowth and removing the gravel and rocks, we cleared the paths. We ignited the grave of many a dead leaf heap. We did not pray for the souls of all those leaves, which seemed to ascend to the blue skies in the form of smoke.
I usually dreamt. I dreamt hundreds and thousands of dreams, helter skelter, from the red sunset of unconsciousness to the dawn of consciousness! The morning chimes sprinkled a few cool drops of water on my sleepy face. Then I sprang awake, reconciling myself to the reality of the morning. Though I sat in the western corner of the prayer room, I did see the cockroaches of sin creep up Father Paily’s habit. As it was a usual sight, I did not remark on it. It was Father Paily who bore the entire expenses of the twentieth birthday celebrations of Prestina, who was now seated in the front row with her head bowed in prayer. There were stains of sarcasm in the smiles on the faces of some orphans who were praying. When we stepped out of the prayer room, those who hadn’t sinned did not pick up stones; they merely kicked them away to make the path clear.
We were always served cold, overcooked pulses and kanji. Beyond the shutters, the insides of the ovens belched smoke. The furls of smoke were like souls in search of salvation. We had always considered Ulahannan, the cook as a distant savior, whose arrival was imminent. It was the cook who was the favorite. He alone valued our stomachs more than our hearts.
There were gold bangles on the hands that distributed sweets and one rupee coins that Good Friday. Just behind the beautiful madam was
a handsome guy with rough, brown, uncombed hair, loose garments and gold-framed glasses.
‘Where is your daughter?’ Father Paily asked. Looking at the lines of the orphans, she said, ‘She is at home. She will be upset if she comes here and sees the circumstances here. She is so sensitive.’
We accompanied the parents to the gate. We did not understand the exchange of English words that were spoken by them and dispersed. We took up the coconut-leaves-broomsticks and buckets of phenyl for our collective work.
At night the dream chariots that carried the parents, rolled fast. Countless faces! Is my mother among those faces? What did my father look like?
Once Sister Silomina made me sit next to her, ran her fingers gently over my palm and told me, ‘You came here one summer night. At midnight we heard the cry of a newborn infant. It was I who took up from the ground the little bundle wrapped in an old rag with the pattern of black flowers on it. I named you after the night on which we found you, one of night’s many synonyms.’
Doubts still crawled over me like silk worms. I asked, ‘Sister, my mother . . . ?’
Sister explained it all very calmly. ‘When the sun rose the next day, a number of people rushed to the railway track on seeing a body with the head severed. I think that was your mother.’
The story became stale as time wore on. I often imagine a body with a severed head. She must have given me a surfeit of breast milk before laying me in front of the orphanage. Why did she do what she did? Why did the people at the orphanage bring me up? These were questions that had no answers. Why should I stumble in the dark trying to find answers to these questions? It is true that I am growing. Every minute, I was growing.
It was during dusk on a certain day that the flower showers of time declared me truly grownup. After the initial surprise, a secret store of new knowledge filled me like honey. All my friends who gathered around were full of good-natured quips that they lighted up like crackers in the anxiety of the dusky darkness.
Sister Anna Maria called me to her room and stroked me affectionately. ‘My dear daughter, the red sun that has arisen in you today will set between the noon and the midnight of your life. Between now and then, there are many things you have to observe. Before you accept the reality of it all, you need to become aware of the destructive flames of all that you shouldn’t do. Move away from these destructive forces. You must understand the vagaries of man’s flighty behavior.’
At night, my dreams were all of red ants. They were bearing away a dead body that weighed more in death, a procession that went on till midnight. The howl of a dog that moaned from the streets caused me to start awake all through the night.
I ran about. At the height of the zest, things fall apart. After running about to collect the scattered beads and after picking up each one of them, I looked up. I had stopped before Sister Anna Maria. In a voice that I alone could hear, she said, ‘Grown up girls shouldn’t play like this.’
I stood there, not daring to look up, feeling guilty. Sister Anna Maria gave me a friendly warning that my laughter will swell and roll towards the railway crossing, and failing to see the warning of danger will shatter to pieces.
After that I did not laugh often. I could not bear to see others laugh.
I was afraid that the harness would break.
Beyond the walls of the orphanage ran a huge canal carrying all the dirt and sewage of the city. Beyond the canal were railway tracks. The night trains ran over the corpses of many dreams. Climbing atop the roots of a huge tree that stood by the walls, as a child, I used to always wave to total strangers in the trains. Some of them would wave back. I was, however, unable to remember even a single face clearly because all the faces faded into a blur.
The flow of seasons and the flight of time made me restless. The rains were heavy. Sometimes, it began with strength, lost it, and then dragged on with a threat of renewed strength. The summer that followed also did not show mercy and sank its teeth into long sweltering days. Dreams were strangled by sweat at night.
We countered daily obstacles by scrubbing the walls, by disposing the leaves that the worms had attacked, by adding fertilizers in the soil
that held the plants of the garden and by cleaning up the wounds that had been formed in our inner selves. From one end of sleep to the other I spread out my dreams, like clothes, to the air. The breeze was strong. Some dreams did fall. Others fell on the mud. Quite a few got tangled in the barbed fence.
As my story extended in this manner, there occurred a crisis quite unexpectedly. Slowly my sleep grew lighter. There was slowness in my digestive system. My taste buds seemed to have lost their edge and I lost my appetite. My mind could concentrate only on one thing. It was he who was responsible for it all.
Now it is time for his story.
He had come to teach the unlettered amongst us. He slung on his shoulder a bronze colored cloth bag that looked both heavy and about to fall off. In it were a number of first lessons that were like sweet bunches of grapes. His loose, gray shirts effectively camouflaged his thin, dark body. The breeze caused his shirts to cling to his body.
There were only a few who did not know to read or write. I sat with them in a bench merely because I wanted to see him. When he wrote ‘aa’ on his slate, we all said ‘amma.’ The next time that he wrote ‘aa’ for a three-letter word, many intoned ‘achan.’ A few innocents said ‘anaatha’, which meant orphan in Malayalam.
Writing on the slate, erasing it and listening to his interesting stories, I too sat with the learners. His eyes were soot dark. His clean- shaven cheeks made his shiny, millipede lips shiny. The question as to why I was interested in him and as to why he was able to influence my orphan heart was rapidly merging into one another.
Whenever anyone called ‘master’, he would turn around. I called out for I wanted to tell him that a book was poised to fall out of his bag. When I stopped him, I had no idea that I was about to joke about it.
‘At this rate, when you get here, there would be just an empty bag.’ The entire orphan gang, right behind me, laughed collectively.
The laughs turned into the deluge of a mountain stream swelled by the rains and flowed inwards. Beyond the wooden railings, Sister Anna Maria was watching. As soon as we saw her, we dispersed.
After finishing his job, he went back. We accompanied him to the gate. He had taken leave of Father and Sister earlier. I felt that a thin film of wetness touched his eyes when he said goodbye. It was me whom he had singled out in particular. As his eyes circled the classroom, they inevitably, dwelt for some time on me.
He moved away from the gate. If a strong gust of wind blew, he would break into two. If the gust were really strong he would be buffeted like a dry leaf. Will he be lost to me in the dusty beyond?
Hearing the thunder of the June monsoons, we shivered in fright. Dreams took leave in their fright. One day, as the thunder abated and when I closed my eyes in a sense of security, dreams crawled up to me!
Together with the needle sharp rain there was also a light sunlight that day. As I stood on the verandah, leaning on the wall, with my hair loose around my shoulders to dry, I thought of the superstition that rain and sunshine together foretold the wedding of the white man. Beyond the courtyard along which ran a gutter that carried away the rainwater, I saw Sister Anna Maria beckoning. That was unusual.
When I reached her room, after circumambulating the courtyard and verandah, she was relaxing on her chair. Beyond her was an almirah fronted by glass. My shivery legs moved forward. Tension was mounting high.
Sister opened the file in front of her. She took out an inland letter from it. Her eyes moved across the lines in the letter. Her smile eased my tension.
‘Do you remember the man who came to teach you letters, my child?’
‘Do you think of him every day?’
My mind, which had attempted to reply, now retreated into silence. I did not have to stand shyly for long.
Sister Anna Maria got up from her chair. She came to me and lifted my chin. Pushing her specs up, she said, ‘This is his letter. He loves you and only wants to know your opinion.’
I saw my reflection in the glass almirah. A dark and thin girl. Under slender eyebrows gleamed little round eyes. A pert, short nose. Gap-toothed. Hollow cheeked. Below the shoulders was hair in rat-tails that extended a span. Did he like this beauty? Then I too liked the thin dark handsome guy who was shaken by the wind.
The minutes stretched. Sister made me sit on a stool close by her seat. She opened my mind so easily. She took out all my secrets.
‘You are lucky, my girl. May God bless both of you,’ she intoned in English.
She crossed herself. She looked at the picture of Christ’s sacred heart that hung on the wall. She held me close and kissed me on my forehead. The date and the time of my marriage were fixed.
The bridal garland that was offered by the lady collector, the new clothes that the poetess offered, the radical social organizations that offered the sweets and the lightning flashes of the cameras of the media, gave added meaning and pleasure to the treasured moments of the orphan’s wedding.
After the bustle, there were again the familiar faces. We, who had raced on the green meadows of borderless friendship and who slept tiredly, only to dream. From the blue expanse of the sky, Sister Silomia descended from the angelic hosts, to whisper in my ear, ‘May your dreams be a secret forever.’
From beyond the wall, the train to Madras hooted and passed by enthusiastically. Morning trains and the hordes of strangers traveling in them will now become a memory…
I held his index finger. I managed to retain my self-control till I had passed the huge tree and the high gates to get into an auto rickshaw. Unable to say farewell, I pressed my forehead on his shoulders and wept. The group that had come to bid us goodbye was heartbroken. Sister Anna Maria consoled them. They lifted their right hands in farewell. Their left hands were busy brushing off tears.
I looked back from time to time. The inmates, the orphanage and the chapel were fast receding. I pressed my face on his shoulder. Where was that enthusiastic excitement that made me long to climb the branches of the little known world outside the convent walls?
The vehicle reached the center of the city. The path was through the market and the journey was a slow one. When the road branched into four, he said, ‘To the left’; when we reached the next junction he said, ‘To the right.’ After passing the mosque, the post office and the temple, we went to the left, then to the right and finally went straight. The streets grew narrower and narrower. On either side were gutters full of stagnant dirty water. Before the huts that lined the paths there were more of older people and young children. Piglets found heaven in mud pits. The stench of the air was unbearable.
The auto rickshaw could not go any further; the lane had grown so narrow. ‘We will get down here,’ he said.
Under the tin sheeted hut, on the floor that was gutted and dirt smeared, I spread the grass mat. When the lamp was put out, the black glass bangles clanged. None stopped us. With gluttonous appetite, we too tasted the fruit.
What followed were days and nights of sweet nothings. The chuckles that followed the starts when the unripe small coconuts fell on the roof! The smell of his sweat was as potent as musk in my nostrils. Sleep lay between us with open eyes. The night hours crept apace silently. The muezzin’s call sounded regularly from the mosque. The Harinama Keerthanam was heard from the temple quadrangle. Unwilling to leave the comfort of the mat, I forced myself to get up and run to the common water tap with the earthen pot for water.
Once he pointed out to me the high-rise colorful buildings that were coming up. He was brushing his teeth by the coconut tree. He said, ‘That’s Gandhi Nagar Apartments. Smugglers, politicians and film stars have great flats there. They have everything from dish antenna and swimming pool to round-the-clock security and medical services . . .’ He spat and washed his face. I was watching him. Without wiping his face and thus looking as if he were crying, he continued pointing to the earth on which he stood,
‘The name of this slum is Gandhi Nagar Colony. This area is full of pickpockets, pimps, prostitutes, underworld henchmen and a host of such others. We are all people displaced from the land that now is Gandhi Nagar Apartments. When the construction company took over the land,
we were all relocated here. Gandhiji’s name was given to the colony.’ He laughed like a child. ‘Gandhi versus Gandhi.’
The laughter seemed to go on forever. Placing his hand on my shoulder, he looked closely at me. ‘I know that you do not understand.’ Another spurt of mad laughter escaped him. His fat stomach became hollow as he laughed and paths were formed on his ribcage. Without a clue about the real state of affairs I endured the smoke of the kitchen and was lost in his lean strength. Days dawned and dusks fell.
At times he would leave the hut very early in the morning and sometimes came back before dawn, all tired out. On other days, he remained at home, lying flat on the grass mat reading. He would then stoop over the notes he made.
Slowly I came to realize that we were living by the street plays that he wrote and presented on the streets. I trembled in the wide expanse of his knowledge. Once I forcibly pushed open the gates of his past. Crossing corridors and long verandahs, I reached the center of the Naalukettu. It was from there that he began his journey as a rebel. Adding ire to the thoughts of the hungry and singing paeans on the ear of the laboring, cultivating the fertile mind of the unlettered with the seeds of letters, he grew in stature. Using his iron oars of idealism, he had reached the island of my life.
I came to know of my condition by my morning sickness. His dreams had solidified on my womb. He knew that his dreams were coming alive almost at once. That day he wrote long and hard. He came back late at night and embraced me tightly. ‘I have finished writing the last act of my play and have given it a title.’
‘What is its name?’
‘The Little Dreams of Long Sleep.’
I laughed long and hard. I thought he would ask me the reason for my laughter. That did not happen. After he had fallen asleep, I embraced him. His body was turned away from me. Here, my unborn child has grown as big as him. Now he is my dear son.
One New Moon night, at midnight hour, my pain was upon me. I rolled my head on the floor and cried aloud. I called for my mother. I cried
as loudly as I could. It was the drama troupe that took me to the hospital. As we sat in the auto rickshaw, he stroked my back. He could not speak. Sound seemed to recede beyond his throat.
Amidst the cries and moans of the first birthing came the virgin cry of the baby who added two something kilos to the weight of the earth. The noonday sun was boiling in the sky then. Wiping his sweat-streaked face and creasing his brows, he gave her a name, ‘Dharithri.’
Dharithri had a cradle of cloth to sleep in. She would, at first, cry when she heard the sound of the unripe coconut hitting the tin roof. She would then slide off to sleep on hearing a lullaby before the next missile hit. Soon Dharithri was used to this. The unripe and small coconut became her plaything.
A quart of milk, a fistful of rice, and a toy—somehow he bought all this. At times the Street Plays and the Literacy classes would stretch into weeks. But he rushed home whenever he could to see his daughter. Looking at his daughter sleeping in her cradle, he once cracked a cruel joke.
‘When she grows wise, we must give her training in committing suicide. A tin of kerosene, a pumping stove, a strong cotton sari. If possible, on the great outdoors, deep wells or the railway tracks. That would be sufficient training material,’ he laughed madly.
I derived comfort, when I saw this as an idea for his next street play but outwardly I pretended anger. All tales have to end. My tale that had until now retained your interest is now flowing to its end like the mouth of a river reaching the sea.
One evening, at dusk, he rushed in. Lifting both his arms, he roared, ‘People, a storm has been born some distance away. Its deadly blast is fast approaching. At the time of the harvest there won’t be anyone who had sown it. Those who reap will not enquire about those who had sown the wind.’
At a distance there arose a collective wail. The flames approached and in the darkness people ran about beating their breasts. Before jumping onto the street, he said just one thing, ‘Escape.’
Blood froze in my veins. Numbness spread in my brain. There was no time to think. I had to do something. I took up Dharithri who was sleeping peacefully in the cradle. I wrapped her in clean old clothes. I laid her against my shoulder and patted her gently to sleep.
The fire had spread in the slum. I could see the skeletal roofs. The screaming and running humanity that thronged the streets had no faces. As I jumped down the steep embankment, I heard his roar again. ‘Do not kill. Do not kill anyone. The color of all blood is the same. All blood.’
As I looked on, I saw his final death cry. His body fell quavering onto the stone someone used for washing their clothes. The hounds sped away in the darkness.
It was like the ending of one of his street plays. There he is, laid low. The knife had measured the depth of his chest fully. In the flowing blood stream his right palm lay severed. He wrote with the fingers of his right hand. It was the fingers of his right hand which wrote that the color of human blood is the same. Naturally it had to be cut off.
Why am I not going mad? I see everything. I hear everything. On my shoulder, his dream sleeps. What will I do with my daughter?
I reach a firm decision. I know the path I should follow, its every twist and turn, its inclines and its junctions…
I crossed the over-bridge and the market. At the end of it was a gravel path. If I walked along it, I would reach the iron gates.
I panted beneath the trees. She greedily drank the last drops of the breast milk that sprang to my nipples. You should not be able to remember even the smell of the breast milk. You should not have anything to remember to sigh or grieve over. When you clean the fungus on the wall and cut the weeds, my daughter, Dharithri, your past must remain a silent and dark cave. Revel in the present.
The gate of the orphanage was locked from the inside. It had remained so even in the past. The gardener was the watcher too. He must be sleeping in the tiled place allotted to him, his torch under his head and a muffler wrapped around his head. The gardener was then a short dark man called Shanthappan.
There was a bluish light on the terrace. The Father’s room was steeped in darkness. Sister Anna Maria must have sunk fathoms deep in sleep. My orphan gang must be rising aloft and sinking apace in sleep.
In front of the gate, I laid Dharithri, wrapped in her clean rags. I knelt and bowed my head. Not to kiss her but to whisper in her ear, ‘May your dreams be secrets forever.’
Let me console myself with the thought that I will not have to wait long by the railway track along which there were many night trains.
“Swapnahathyakku Prayaschitham” (Mounathinte Naanarthangal. Ed. N.K. Raveendran. Thrissur: Haritham Books, 1993: 169-186), translated by Hema Nair R.
RAJANI M. – She is a young writer who displays great versatility in writing. The chosen story is a mature one which prompts readers to ponder on how talent develops into greatness. She displays rare sensitivity and a deep understanding of the bleak aspects of life.