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Authors: Mike Stocks

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“Amma, Appa is too unhappy,” Kamala says from the bedroom, where she and her sisters are disconsolately watching a film on the black-and-white TV.

“Amma, Appa is too depressed,” Jodhi says.

“Amma, I want Appa back,” Leela says, and starts to cry.

“Amma is too unhappy too!” Amma raps. “Amma is too depressed too! But Amma still speaks and cooks and looks after her daughters!” She turns on her heel and stamps outside
into the bungalow’s little backyard, where she breaks down.

A miserable Murugesan glances in on Swami’s miserable daughters, then follows a miserable Amma outside.

They stand there, trying to compose themselves, Amma murmuring “Ayyo-yo-yo” at the tribulations of her life, Murugesan wondering what to do about Swami.

“Why do you look so anxious?” Amma says, with a slightly bitter twang.

“Swami, that is why, Swami is worrying us at the station – I think he is playing some strange game with his old colleagues. He saw D.D. Rajendran, you know that?”

“Know it? How could I not know it?! They came for him in the middle of the second pre-engagement meeting!”

“Do you know why they met each other?”

“I know nothing about my husband any more.”

“Sister, yesterday I heard something from a friend who’s a traffic cop. He was making an inquiry to an administrator in the Office of Police Welfare, and he ended up being told that
DDR is behind a submission to the Pensions Committee of the Police Board of Control for Swami’s disability pension to be reviewed—”

“Ayyo-yo-yooooo!” Amma shrieks – how can things get even worse like this?!

“No no Sister, calm yourself, they are talking of increasing it from half pay to full pay – and he’ll probably get it, you know how these things work with men like
DDR.”

Amma’s new expression – how to describe it? She looks like a woman who has had so many hopes dashed in recent times that another hope looming up is as much a source of terror as
anticipation.

“Full pension?”

“Full pension.”


Full
pension?”

“Yes yes, very fullest whole pension.”

“Why, Brother? – why would DDR try to get us a full pension? What does he care whether we live or starve?”

“Exactly, Sister. Swami’s got something on DDR, is what I’m thinking, so DDR is buying his silence.”

There is a long pause as Amma contemplates this information.

“Why is he buying so much of it?!” She sniffs. “Still…” She scratches at her head. “Somehow my husband is trying to help his daughters, even if he has
switched off from life. If we get a full pension, that would be very wonderful,” and she wonders if she should start being kinder to Swami again.

 
8

Leela is lying on the cool cement floor of the living area, on her side, with her head in Pushpa’s lap. She has stopped crying. They watch TV listlessly, some 1970s film
in which super VVIP film star M.G. Ramachandran – later to be Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu – is fighting dozens of assailants simultaneously, divesting them of their vicious array of
machetes as though enjoying some harmless funfair game and sending each one of them flying through air – where they appear to linger rather higher and longer than is strictly natural –
before they come crashing down on car roofs and conveniently placed stacks of cardboard boxes and handily heaped piles of rotting vegetables. Pushpa is stroking Leela’s hair as she watches,
and occasionally insulting her younger sister with an affectionate “You big baby!”

Jodhi sits cross-legged close by.

“What about Kamala?” She asks, during a lull in the action.

“Amma sent her shopping,” Leela says.

Their sadness feels as though it is altering the nature of the moments they are passing through; each minute in front of that TV feels like an age. The film is lurching from scene to scene, and
now MGR is temporarily befuddled by lust, his eyes rolling in his head as a group of plump beaming beauties dance a chastely suggestive routine around him.

“Easy for MGR,” Pushpa says. “Gets rid of his enemies easy as anything, has girls dancing around him morning, noon and night, solves all problems, and later he’ll be
nearly kissing number-one sweetheart.” No one answers. “Easy for him,” Pushpa sighs once more, and then, for good measure, she finishes off by slapping Leela on the rump and
declaring “You big baby!”

“Jodhi, will you ever kiss Mohan?” Leela asks. “He is very handsome.”

“Don’t talk to me about Mohan,” Jodhi begs her. “Don’t talk to me about kissing. Don’t talk to me about Mohan and kissing.”

“Okay okay.”

“Or kissing and Mohan.”

“Okay. Only asking. Why don’t you like him anyway?”

“You wouldn’t understand, you’re too young.”

“Understand what?”

“Real life,” Jodhi sighs morosely.

“Anand also is very handsome,” Leela declares, and Jodhi says nothing. “Devan is a fat pig,” Leela observes, by way of conclusion.

Soon they will have to rouse themselves and help Amma to cook the evening meal. Amma will make the chapatti dough, and Pushpa will knead it while Leela grinds cloves and fenugreek and cumin
seeds to the finest powder. Kamala and Jodhi will chop and slice and sizzle under Amma’s directions. Instead of happy banter there will be shouting from Amma, until all of them stop talking
for fear of irritating her, and this will make Amma feel guilty, so she will nag them to speak up for themselves, to not be like their silent father. Someone will probably burst into tears, and
something will go wrong with the food because of all the upset. Appa will refuse to come in and eat with them, he will sit by himself on the verandah and stare at the metal tray of food that they
will bring out to him. Perhaps he will eat some of it. Perhaps he won’t touch it.

Each of the girls is dreading the evening ahead.

“What to do about Appa?” Pushpa asks, after a lull in their desultory chat, and she sniffles involuntarily.

“Just sitting there and never responding to anything,” Jodhi replies.

“Can’t go on like this,” Pushpa says.

“Let’s not upset Leela again,” Jodhi tries, briskly.

Pushpa thinks about doling out another slap on Leela’s rump, and another “You big baby!”, but she hasn’t the heart for it. She moves Leela’s head round in her lap,
closes her sister’s eyes for her, and softly strokes her cheek.

“Very nice,” Leela sighs.

“Shall we sit with Appa?” Pushpa asks; but nobody answers. They have sat and sat and sat again with Appa, they have sat cross-legged at his feet as the Mullaipuram evening has passed
into night; they have sat on the verandah’s edge and chatted in low voices while Appa has stared relentlessly into his books; they have sat with him while being berated by their mother for
wasting their time; they have sat with him one at a time and they have sat with him all together, and Leela has even sat on his knee, where she remained for ten minutes, waiting for Appa to cuddle
her or tell her to get off. Swami did neither.

“What to do?” Jodhi whispers under her breath, in relation to all the problems of this world, concrete and abstract, personal and universal. The simple hopelessness of her question
sums up all their feelings so precisely that Pushpa instinctively repeats it, “Yes, what to do?” – and Leela too: “What to do?” she is saying, “What to
do?…”

The front door swings open and Kamala bustles in with a bulging shopping bag in each hand, bunches of coriander and lady’s finger sticking out of the tops, brinjal, onions, mangoes and
cabbage underneath. They hear her going into the kitchen, but they don’t bother looking round. MGR is cruising around Chennai in an open-topped sports car, successfully evading the attention
of not merely every gun-toting, lip-curling, villainous car-driving gangster in the criminal underworld, but also of all the forces available to an overly officious police inspector who has got
hold of the wrong end of the stick and is trying to arrest him. Kamala comes and stands in the doorway to the bedroom for a moment, watching the action.

“Where’s Appa?” she asks.

“Where do you think, Kamala? Just outside.”

“No he’s not.”

Kamala turns round and goes out into the backyard, where Amma and Murugesan are still talking.

“Hello Uncle, excuse me, Amma, where’s Appa? Did he go out?”

“He’s at the front.”

“No, Amma, he must have gone out, come and see.”

Kamala leads Amma and Murugesan through the bungalow to the verandah, and the three other girls traipse out behind them. Swami is not there. Amma and the four girls look up and down the street,
each of them ayyo-yo-yoing, trying to pick out his head, his shirt, his broken gait, among all those pedestrians.

“Hardly moves for five days,” Amma complains, pulling at the rings on her fingers frantically, “then disappears without telling us where he’s going and when he’s
coming back!”

“Calm yourself, my daughters,” Murugesan says to the girls, “be calm, Sister,” he tells Amma, “what are you worried about? Did you want him to sit here without
moving for ever? Can’t a man go for a walk before his evening meal?” He is not used to being surrounded by so many womenfolk without another man, he doesn’t know how to react, and
he even feels slightly annoyed that his words of comfort are not having the slightest effect.

“Ayyo-yooooooooo,” Amma gasps. “What did we do in our previous life to deserve this? What black deeds did I commit?!”

“He’ll be back for dinner,” Murugesan says brusquely. “I have to go now.”

He strides off down the street, leaving five anxious women behind him. None of them notices, here on the verandah of Number 14/B, the copy of
The Sacred Couplets
lying open (at section
thirty-five of Part One) on the white plastic chair. At the bottom of the page is a ring of blue ink around sacred couplet Three Hundred and Fifty:

Cleave to that One who cleaves to nothing,

and so by cleaving cease to cleave.

* * *

You would imagine that the last minutes of a man’s life feel different in kind to other minutes. Perhaps some surprising aspects of love crystallize as never before.
Perhaps some unknown mental infrastructure, submerged in the consciousness, comes out into the open and is meaningful, or perhaps the mind carries on doing what it does, but with a sharp awareness
that soon it won’t. Perhaps rank terror comes howling and gurning down the narrowing chambers of earthly consciousness to render us appalled and knowing. Perhaps the end comes like a gift
that one accepts, or perhaps – but none of these “perhaps” happens to be Swami’s perhaps. He shuffles down the dusty roads of Mullaipuram in much the same frame of mind now
as he has been in for days. He is empty. There is nothing left of him any more except a self-esteem so low as to be its own unavoidable deathtrap. He ignores the greeting of an acquaintance –
doesn’t hear it or see it – and ignores too some fellow playing to the gallery with his warning shout about falling foreigners. Only a week ago the residents of Mullaipuram were still
delighting in such witticisms, but today no one heeds the call, and the man who makes the joke slinks away embarrassed. It’s possible there is something so ominous in Swami’s aura that
people are unconsciously picking it up. But what do these speculations matter? Swami is limping towards his death, stepping over the dead dog outside Anbumani’s Motor Car Fixings, heading for
the crossroads at Begum Street and Muthiahmudali Street, next to the bus station.

Swami has elected to be comprehensively and irreversibly run over by a bus, on the grounds that being run over by a bus is something he is capable of doing. And anyway, people are always being
run over by buses in Mullaipuram. Even people who have no intention of being run over by buses in Mullaipuram are often run over by buses in Mullaipuram – such a fate is one of the natural
hazards of this place. How could it not be, given the location of the town as a hub between three big cities, the crowded streets, the multitude of buses, and the recklessness of the drivers who
swing their dilapidated monsters out of the station with brutal disregard for the pedestrians packed against the corners of the junction?

Where, in Swami’s thoughts, are Amma, Jodhi, Pushpa, Kamala, Suhanya, Anitha and Leela at this moment, as he sees ahead of him the place he has in mind, and as the buses lurch and swing
round, one after the other? Everywhere and nowhere, that’s where. He is so convinced of his superfluousness to this world that all the things that most link him to it have fallen away, and
whereas once he tortured himself to the point of despair as to how he wasn’t able to look after his family properly, now and for the past week he has submitted to a new dynamic: because he
cannot, therefore he won’t.

“Bidis, cigarettes, betel leaves!” the street vendors are calling, “watches, combs, batteries!” they shout, “satchels, sandals, pencils!” – but nothing
is getting through to Swami apart from the sight that his eyes are fixed on ahead, the almost unbroken convoy of buses swinging round the corner of the junction, and now his distinct, dragging limp
is carrying him across the last thirty steps of his life. But he is too close to the shops, so he begins to edge out towards the interface of traffic and pedestrians, smelling the buses going past
and feeling the heat of their exhaust fumes in his face and the dust of their passing in his eyes, and there is this bus and there is that bus and there is the bus he intends to fall underneath,
that one, the dirty brown one coming out of the bus station now. Swami can see everything in his head, the precise moment and character of his tumble under the wheels, and still there is nothing
going on in his emotions that is much different to how he has been for days: that he ought to be dead, that he longs to be dead, that he will be dead.

What is this hand on his arm that he doesn’t feel? This voice in his ear that he doesn’t hear? A youngish man grabs hold of him from behind, and hisses, “You dirty bastard son
of a prostitute, this is your last chance, stay out of the white man case or you’re finished,” – and shoves Swami. It is not a vigorous shove. It is the kind of shove that could
hardly fell a child, but Swami is not noted for being steady on his feet – and down he goes, like a stone off a ledge, there at the side of the teeming street, inches away from the thundering
bus he’d set his heart on falling under. His good arm comes out instinctively to cushion his landing, and then he’s lying on his back, looking up at the complicated network of legs that
are stepping over and around him.

BOOK: White Man Falling
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