The Scream of the Earth

Bangarappa will not return from the hills with this barber’s knife. The knife that was used to shave the head of the female sinner should be thrown in the holy water of the pond. Let all the sins and the hair that the knife exorcised repose at the depths of the pond.

It was not a barber’s knife though it was used to shave the hair.

Before dumping everything into his shoulder bag, Bangarappa took the knife once more in his hand.

Let this be your last job. Bangarappa intoned.

All at once a scream arose from the immeasurable deep.

Do not shave my hair. Our jasmine plant is in flower. I want to don strands of jasmine and go for the festival of Theerthahalli.

The knife shuddered in his hand and cut his thumb. When he folded it, the knife was stained with blood.

As he sucked his cut thumb, Bangarappa lost himself in the headiness of the cut. In his mind’s eye, there opened the casement of dreams. Then a country path.

A bedecked bullock cart proceeded at a spanking pace along the country road. In the cart were a bride and her groom. On either side of the path stretched fields of sunflowers. A yellow carpet of full bloomed sunflowers! It was only when he awoke to the cracking sound of the whip that lashed the oxen, that the bridegroom saw the fields of sunflowers. When he took his place in the cart he was blinded by a dark cloud. The long and luxuriant tresses of the bride could not be hidden by the chela she had been draped in. As the pallu of the sari drawn over her head like a veil slipped, the jasmine strands that adorned her became hair visible. He remembered the white clouds that appeared above the dark mountain. How many jasmines will have to be used to adorn her hair?

He asked the sunflowers.

The yellow world swung in its cradle.

He bowed his head in bashfulness.

He whispered in her ear that first night: We’ll plant jasmine on the banks of the Kurunji Lake. Then as the aura of strangeness left them, she smothered him in the luxuriant profusion of her hair.

She tended her hair, as she would, the sacred field. When the people of the village wondered at her hair, he too started loving it.

He began to buy expensive ivory combs when he went to buy his tools. She applied oil and combed her hair neatly every day. She made her hair virginal by donning flowers. As she stood with unbound hair in the sun to dry her tresses, he was reminded of the fields of rakhi.

When did the herd of elephants destroy the rakhi field?

Bangarappa awoke from the nightmare of a strong hand that held a palm full of kanakambara flowers. The hair then turned, Medusa-like, into snakes. He sucked at his thumb from where the blood still flowed.

Oh my God! I must have drunk quite a lot of my own blood.

Bangarappa walked out in search of the gum of erukku.

To Bangarappa, the night was hell of a nightmare.

A long line of people had come to shave their hair. Bangarappa was gaping at this sight when someone handed him the knife. With a sob Bangarappa disclaimed:

I am not a barber.

The people who had come to shave their heads laughed.

Then a voice ordered.

From now, you’ll do this job. You will be in these hills for all time, unable to put down your knife. Begin your work. With great difficulty, he shaved the first head. But as he approached the second one, hair had already sprouted on the head of the first one.

Once more there was uproarious laughter. From the depth arose a curse. Barber, you shall not descend this mountain.

I am not a barber. I am a farmer. I want to return to my land.

Bangarappa got up in a cold sweat after the fervent appeal and declaration.

He realized that it was a nightmare when he heard the farewell song of a night bird perched on the branch of a tamarind tree. A thin light filtered through the window. Bangarappa was troubled by his inexplicable dream. He got up convinced that all meanings will be revealed at the top of the mountain. He woke Seethamma and decided to catch the first bus to Verambadi. They had to reach the top of the mountain before it was scorched by the heat of the sun. After finishing their morning chores in a hurry, they reached the bus stop to find the bus waiting patiently, apparently for them. The bus usually stopped in their village at night. As soon as they got in, the bus commenced its journey. There were few people on the bus. Bangarappa tried to determine if there was any one who would climb the mountain. He could not find anyone. Seethamma did not sit with Bangarappa. She sat in a seat in the front. Bangarappa was disturbed by the sight of Seethamma’s flushed and tear ravaged face. As the bus started moving, her hair cascaded over the edge of the seat to the floor of the bus.

When it touched his feet, he started as if stung by a snake. Bangarappa feared to look at Seethamma’s hair. He chose to move to a farther seat. As he lifted the shutter of the window and looked out at mist-shrouded fields, the knife moved through the strands of his consciousness. The knife swiped across the uneven surface, full of pus, boils and blood. Hair clumps collapsed before the onslaught.

This is the pilgrimage of the female sinner. After the shaving, after the descent, the seeds of ragi must be sown in the purified fields. In the cool bed of a but fashioned out of creepers, Bangarappa was frightened as sinful thoughts crowded his mind. Seethamma was not his now. She was an impure idol. Until it was cleansed, she could not be installed in the mind of the priest. It was not under the misapprehension that the shaving would effectively get rid of all sins, that Bangarappa got ready to ascend the mountain.

Bangarappa had only seen Patel’s son adorn Seethamma’s head with flowers. Seethamma said that he stopped her and put the flowers in her hair forcibly.

I didn’t stand there willfully. I’ve not committed sin. Do not shave my hair. She shouted so — even in sleep. Bangarappa could gauge the depths of sin. If the hair is defiled by the touch, of a stranger, it can be shaved and the sin of being touched by a stranger can be expiated. Then if she dips herself in the holy waters of the pond, she can be made pure. Seethamma’s hair should never tempt anyone. The jasmine creepers will have to be uprooted.

As the bus reached Verambadi, the sunlight had illumined the world. The mountain was revealed in all its majesty. Bangarappa tried to determine whether any one was moving along the paths across the valleys and the fields of Verambadi. He saw none. A solitary walk up the hill was tedious. If there is someone to speak to, the tedium and the weariness will not be severe.

Climbing with the female sinner makes everything hard to bear. As she got off the bus, Seethamma wept. As she left the path across the valley, the sobs became louder. When they reached the valley, Bangarappa said: To not shed tears here and desecrate this holy land.’

That was when Bangarappa discovered that there was no drinking water in the earthen jar. Water would be available only after gaining the top of the cliff.

`Wait here, let me get some holy water’. Parting the creepers that smothered the wayside, Bangarappa went in search of water. Bangarappa knew that one of the seven sacred streams of the holy land was in the valley.

When Bangarappa returned with the pure water, Seethamma was crying. The thick forests of the valley echoed a deep scream. Bangarappa was scared by the scream that he heard in the lonely valley. When Seethamma. saw Bangarappa she fell at his feet.

‘I don’t want to climb the mountain. I have not committed sin. Kill me and abandon my corpse here. But please don’t shave my hair.’

Bangarappa was a changed man. He was like the priest who brandished the knife above the vulnerable neck of the sacrificial lamb.

Bangarappa broke a sturdy twig. When the cane first descended on Seethamma’s back, a crow flew down and sat on his head. Seethamma saw a white crow. Sensing a divine presence, Seethamma stopped weeping.

A white crow!

Seethamma clasped her palms.

Mother! Goddess!

When Bangarappa twisted around, the crow flew up. They watched the crow disappear in the green valley. Bangarappa saw a black crow. He felt that Seethamma was hallucinating.

Seethamma brushed away the streaks of tears. I shall climb the mountain.

They followed the upward winding path to the cliff-top.

Bangarappa leaned on the sturdy branch of the tree. So steep was the cliff that it sometimes caused abrasions on the knee as they ascended the narrow path. Seethamma’s steps faltered and often, she fell. Whenever she fell, she called in pain, ‘Amma’.

They puffed and panted up the hill for a long time. Bangarappa decided to call a halt and drink from the earthen jar. Seethamma saw that.

`Give me some holy water. I feel so dry. I’ll die now.’

`Your sin can be expiated only if you shave your hair. If I give you water before that, I myself will become a sinner.’

As Seethamma looked on, Bangarappa drank the water.

She dashed her head against a rock and wept aloud.

The sturdy twig descended on Seethamma’s shoulders yet again.

Seethamma crept up the mountain.

After they climbed the steep incline to the flat top of the mountain, they saw the temple at a distance. The pool in which the sinners had to dip themselves, was at a lower level than the temple. The heat of the noon flamed on the summit of the mountain.

Bangarappa put down. the bundle on the banks of the pond. He kept aside the paraphernalia for the pooja. Then he took up the scissors and the ‘ knife. Seethamma’s tired eyes focused on Bangarappa.

We have to descend the mountain after the noon hour. Bangarappa said.

Seethamma huddled on a stone by the bank of the holy lake. The holy water stretched below her like a mirror.

The scissors moved. Ripples broke the smooth surface of the lake. Blood flecked lips were ground between the teeth.

She saw parched fields.

She saw skulls and bones unearthed by the furrows that combed the fields.

She saw swaying trees and maddened bulls.

Then the fields were inundated by floods.

Bangarappa’s hand did not tremble. He remembered nothing then. The picture of the single bullock-drawn cart that proceeded along the path lined by fields of sunflowers, of the garden of jasmine or of the nights when he had. buried his face in the cool tresses did not flash in his inward eye. Bangarappa was a farmer who was clearing his land of weeds, before sowing the seed.

When he was done with the scissors, Bangarappa took up the knife. He sharpened the blade in a small stone and placed it on Seethamma’s head. The knife slipped and a sickle shaped wound appeared on Seethamma’s scalp. This soon developed like full moon, and Bangarappa knew the shedding of sin.

The movement of the knife became rhythmic.

To Bangarappa, it became an experience. Not unlike post coitus slow draining of strength. Wearily Bangarappa collapsed after throwing his barber’s knife in the pond.

The crystal water of the sacred pond lured Seethamma as she sat with parched throat by its banks. But when the shearing was done, and she opened her eyes, the thirst had disappeared.

In the mirrored surface of the water, Seethamma saw her shorn head. It seemed to bloom like a white flower and became as large as the sacred pond. As the whiteness melted into nothing, she saw the blue of the sky in the depth of the sacred pond. As she watched, she saw a white crow appear in the sky. It became two, three, four, five.

As the sky filled with white crows, innocent as a child, Seethamma, entered the holy water. In a pang of agony, she called.

Mother! Goddess!

Breaking the sacred pond, an emerald stairway cleared before her.

Bangarappa did not lift his face from his knees even after the very ripples had died down. Hearing the sound of a crash, he started up to see the crystal surface of the sacred pond break as a white crow screeched a plaintive anthem and flew away. (1987)

Translated from Malayalam by Hema Nair R.

Translator’s Note

`The Scream of the Earth,’ the title story of the collection of the same name, is one of the most powerfully evocative stories that P. Surendran has written. In lyrical language, rich with overtones of eco-feminism, Surendran links deforestation and the ruthless shearing of Seethamma’s hair – both symbolic of male violence. It is also symbolic of the male fear of the wild space that is the domain of the female as opposed to man-made orderliness and structures of convention.

The most singular and significantly tangible presence in the tale is undoubtedly Seethamma’s hair. It brings to mind other texts where the presence of female sexuality is indicated by a profusion of hair. The fairy tale of Rapunzel the damsel with a profusion of hair that could span a whole tower is a case in point. Rapunzel’s hair is the ladder through which both the witch and the prince gain the tower. Significantly the witch, when she hears of the prince’s visit, cuts off Rapunzel’s hair, the symbol of her sexuality, as punishment. Shorn of her hair, weeping and desolate, she is banished from the tower (airy, cool and comfortable) to the desert (hot, uncomfortable and dry) where she sings sorrowful songs. In The Scream of the Earth,’ Seethamma feels dry and hot as she climbs the mountain leading to the shrine a la Rapunzel.

The folk tales and fairy tales of every culture are veritable treasure troves of tropes that relate female sexuality and hair. In India, there is a ritual, when women are shorn on their husband’s death. Rarely are they allowed to grow their hair. This is a social evil that has been curbed over the years. It surfaces also in cutting off the hair of prostitutes, as a mark of social ostracization that appears in rare instances to this day.

Shearing the wild profusion of the crowning glory is a punishment determined by patriarchy to curb female arrogance / sexuality. Women, on the other hand, tend to follow the conventional image of beauty by keeping their hair combed and well arranged. The refusal of Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas, to tie or comb her hair after she is dragged by Dushasana into the court of Duryodhana by her hair is the reaction of the angry woman at the affront to her feminine status. Her revenge at the insult inflicted on Indian womanhood by Dushasana’s monstrous act, is to swear to tie her hair only after oiling it with the blood of Dushasana. The touch of a male stranger can only be atoned for by his death. If Bhima, one of Draupadi’s five husbands, could maintain his wife’s honour by carrying out her wishes, Bangarappa of The Scream of the Earth’ chooses to punish the wife, the easy victim. Seethamma is a victim twice over for she was violated by Patel’s son who crowned her luxurious tresses with kanakambara flowers, something she didn’t solicit; and is victimised by Bangarappa, who sees the act of Patel’s son. He blames her for the trespass and subjects her both to corporal punishment and to the ultimate chastisement of shearing.

Seethamma is symbolic of the Earth despoiled by man. She is, like Seetha, gathered into the womb of the earth when her trials become too great to be borne. In the guise of the white crow, great nature infuses Seethamma with courage, fortitude and serenity. The scream that Bangarappa hears proceeds from the depths of the earth. It is as much the ‘Scream of nature as it is the unvoiced scream of Seethamma. If Seethamma’s sin is expiated by the shearing and the dip in the sacred pool from which she does not chose to return, Bangarappa’s sin can only be expiated by lifelong shearing that never ends. He is a farmer, the nurturer of the earth but is transformed by his act to a barber the shearer of hair, despoiler of earth. He would know no rest. Never again can he return to the cool life giving fields that soothes the psyche. From the cool, comfortable valley; he is stuck on the hot dry mountain where relentlessly he will be made to repeat his act of shearing, shorn of rest, self-respect and peace.

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