Authors: Mike Stocks
Jodhi, Kamala, Pushpa, Suhanya, Anitha and Leela
– Swami recites the mantra of their names while he opens his exercise book and places it to the top right of the table –
loving daughters, pretty daughters, talented daughters, dutiful daughters, lively daughters…
Six daughters! What was Lord Vadivela thinking of, giving me six daughters and no sons? How could anyone find dowries for six daughters, let alone a cripple like me on a half-pay
Jodhi’s marriage has been at the forefront of Swami’s and Amma’s anxieties for a long time. “How will we marry this daughter of ours?” – this is what his wife
is always saying, or thinking, or stopping herself from saying, or pretending not to be thinking. Most of their savings have gone on Swami’s medical expenses. “These days you need a new
Honda scooter with indicators and everything if you want a very good good-boy dowry,” Amma worries. “Jodhi would have to be a computer programmer or an engineer to get a good boy
without a very good good-boy dowry – how can an English Literature student get a good boy, when we can’t even afford a new bicycle? What kind of good boy does a bicycle get? Do we want
some low-down worthless boy wobbling around on a Gupta Hero Bicycle? But if we take out a loan for a scooter, then how will we get very good good-boy dowries for the other five girls? Where will
they get their good boys?”
Swami does not have answers to any of these questions. He only knows that it’s a matter of personal honour and inviolable religious duty to marry off his daughters at Bollywood-blockbuster
expense, and the first instalment of this bankrupting epic could be coming soon. Trusting in Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, some months ago Amma had set to work with one of Jodhi’s
numerous aunties in finding a potential match for Jodhi. Oh, these two formidable ladies, they have firm ideas as to what kind of boy he should be: a suitable boy from their own Vanniyar community,
a dutiful boy, a kind boy with a first-rate education, a boy with prospects, a boy of varied accomplishments, a boy good-looking enough to merit their own lovely Jodhi, a boy whose skin colour
isn’t too dark, a boy without bad smoking or drinking habits, a boy with respect for the old traditions, a good Hindu super gem of a boy into whose A1 household Jodhi can be happily
To put it more concisely, Amma has taken it into her head to bag the most expensive boy in India.
Jodhi’s auntie claims to have found just such a boy. His name is Mohan. He is a distant acquaintance of the family, and possibly a relation, being a cousin of Amma’s sister’s
cousin’s friend’s tea-stall owner’s brother’s people, who happen to be related to Swami’s brother’s wife’s sister’s father-in-law, via the
father-in-law’s mother, who is dead, but who had close family links with the tea-stall owner, or the sister, or somebody else; and he lives with his parents and extended family in a brand-new
apartment complex in the third-best district of the nearby town of Thenpalani. His father, whose name is so long and unpronounceable that he is universally known as Mr P, holds a respectable
position on the railways, while his mother Mrs P is a housewife. There are two other brothers who unfortunately, for the purposes of Amma’s six-daughtered matrimonial masterplan, score her
idiosyncratic and very lowest rating of “useless”. The younger brother Anand is very useless indeed because he is expert in sleeping and in being expelled from educational
establishments for world-champion laziness – people say he is so lazy that he eats bananas with the skins on – and he is known to write poetry and also to stare for hours on end at
mundane objects for reasons no one has succeeded in pinpointing. The much older brother Devan – thirty-two going on forty – is even more uselessly useless than the younger one, because
he is unforgivably happily married. But the middle brother, Mohan… he is not useless in any department, he gets Amma’s highest ranking in every aspect, his attributes make her mouth
water. Take, for example, his educational accomplishments. Not only does he have a first-class degree from Madurai University in Computer Programming, but he has also won a nationally prestigious
and lucrative scholarship to study for an M.Sc. in Applied Computer Programming at the South Indian Institute of Integrated Information Technology in Bangalore. In a matter of months he will be
heading off to that place with all the other very clever high-fliers. After another year, he’ll be earning like a film star. Amma and Jodhi’s auntie are in full agreement: the boy is a
On the verandah, flicking through
The Eight Songs
, Swami shakes his head uneasily at the thought of him, this Mohan, this supernatural being
. There is something wrong with this
. Of that he is convinced. Why would the parents of this young Krishna even consider his own poor Jodhi, dowryless as she is? But his wife won’t listen, and who can control a mother
when it comes to plotting the welfare of her children? Already the priests of both families have consulted their charts and scrolls, and those two learned gentlemen are as one in confirming that
with Guru on the ascendant in the sixth house of Mohan’s horoscope, and with Sukran favourably placed in Jodhi’s fifth house, everything augurs well for long-term marital bliss.
Never mind planetary movements and the stars, Swami complains – we don’t have any money! But Amma won’t listen to such matter-of-fact objections. She trusts in God. She trusts
in lots of gods. She trusts in all of them, every last one, even the ones that nobody else can be bothered with any more, even the goddess Santoshi Mata, even Maangadu Amman, who is especially
obscure. The priests have already been asked to decide on an auspicious date and time for the first pre-engagement visit, and that meeting is only a few days away.
The forefinger of Swami’s good hand traces the path of a love poem written in the full glorious flowering of ancient Tamil culture. He nods in melancholy appreciation of the poem’s
beauty. As he reads, he can see his moustache lurking at the base of his field of vision. Just as a young woman is considered peculiar unless she is wearing jasmine flowers in her hair, “A
man is not a man without a moustache” – so his mother had told him, nearly thirty years ago.
And is a man a man, who cannot walk or talk or sing? And is a man a man, who cannot make
his daughters scream in mock terror by picking them up and trumpeting like an elephant? And is a man a man, who has no work to do and no way of purchasing a brand new Honda scooter – with
indicators and European crash helmet and all the trimmings – for his daughters, who all deserve their very good good boys? No. There is nothing I am good for but reading and thinking. What
kind of a man,
Swami would like to know,
He turns back to the poem and digests the words sombrely. A few lines strike him, so his finger revisits them:
“On the night of their marriage ceremony
the low will be the high and the low,
the high will be the low and the high.”
He copies out the lines in his notebook, thinking how they are true: not just in birth and death are the rich and the poor equal, but in sexual congress, when all become beasts,
and gods. Then he writes a comment underneath:
Perhaps everyone who has ever lived is somehow one person only
. There is a comfort in such notions. And it is insights like these which offer
a small hint as to the extraordinary fate that is going to overtake him.
He remembers how much his body had shaken with terror and desire on his own wedding night. His wife had been so very beautiful. “Film star matrimonials” – some wit had come up
with the phrase early on, during the morning of the ceremony; a perfect description for such a handsome couple, it was still doing the rounds eighteen hours later on platform five of Mullaipuram
station, when a vast wedding party had waved them off on their three-day honeymoon. Later, his heartbeat drumming against hers, the train moaning past dark-drenched villages, he had entered her and
had known she would conceive immediately. That was the beginning of Jodhi, right then at the beginning of the marriage.
Inside the bungalow, Amma is reaching for a large volume called the
that is face up on a shelf, so that, some twenty-two years after creating her, she can chastise her eldest
“What is the number Appa is shouting at you?” she scolds.
“Four Hundred, Amma.”
“Why are you so naughty, provoking him all the time?” she asks, pursing her lips as she searches the pages.
“But Amma, I don’t know anything about all this Classical Tamil that Appa reads.” Jodhi prefers Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh and E.M. Forster. Her dissertation is on English
novelists of the 1930s.
The “Four Hundred” with which Swami had rebuked Jodhi refers to a couplet from the
, otherwise known as
The Sacred Couplets
, by the ancient poet
Tiruvalluvar. There are 1,330 sacred couplets in
The Sacred Couplets
. And although no one has fully comprehended the scale of Swami’s achievement, nor its connotations, since losing
his employment he has memorized all of them by heart, like some kind of divinely blessed holy man.
Jodhi, Kamala, Pushpa and Leela wait for Amma to find sacred couplet Four Hundred, suspended as always between sincere filial respect and dread hilarity. Amma mouths the page numbers with
exaggerated respect – she can read, but she hasn’t made a habit of it.
“Sacred couplet Four Hundred is in section forty of Part One of
The Sacred Couplets
,” she begins. She always begins like that. And she always pauses before reciting the
words of wisdom:
“The learning that you achieve in this birth
Will benefit you in all seven births.”
Silence from the girls.
“Let us reflect on this thought-provoking nugget of wisdom,” she ventures, gamely.
The girls try very hard not to giggle or to catch one another’s eye. Quite recently Leela, forgetting the number with which Appa had chastised her, had generated an entirely random Nine
Hundred and Thirteen to Amma.
“Sacred couplet Nine Hundred and Thirteen is in section ninety-two of Part Three of
The Sacred Couplets
,” Amma had said:
The false embrace of loose women is like
That of a cursed corpse in the dark.”
Her face! They had all collapsed with laughter. Pushpa and Leela had slumped to the ground helplessly and cried in pain from the general hysteria. Even Amma had joined in. It
was the tension, which had to find release somewhere in that unhappy bungalow. But Appa had reacted very badly, and in the evening he had tried to drown himself in a bucket of water.
Mullaipuram is situated on the hot, flat plains of Tamil Nadu. An isolated goitre of rock protrudes from the face of the settlement. The rock is only seventy metres high, but
it is visible for many miles. Rival South Indian dynasties – the Cholas, the Pandyas and the Pallavas – fought for control of it for centuries. Then Tipu Sultan, the British and the
French fought over it for a further two hundred years, bequeathing ungraceful additions to the ancient and ruined fortifications. No one fights over it now. An employee of the Tamil Nadu Board of
Tourism climbs up it every day and sits in the cool of a dungeon to wait for tourists who do not come, tourists who will never come, tourists who will go to Madurai and Chennai and Pondicherry but
who will never come to Mullaipuram, not even with a pistol at their temple. This fellow has a pee, eats his tiffin, takes a nap, then climbs down some four hours early and goes back home to his
The rock carries on regardless, like they do.
Swami often goes on small trips into town. For short distances he limps, although a round trip to the nearest shop might take him twenty minutes. For longer trips he uses an antiquated
three-wheeled wheelchair purloined from an amputee beggar by police colleagues. Usually one of his daughters pushes him, but when none of the girls is available he employs a thirteen-year-old
Christian boy called Alexander – the son of a poor widowed flower-seller who lives in a shack built against the crumbling compound wall of the Indian Police Service bungalows. For five rupees
an hour the boy bounces him across the potholed streets. “What are you doing, squandering our daughters’ dowries on that stupid beggar boy?” Amma is always complaining. She has a
soft spot for that boy. She sneaks him snacks like
whenever Swami isn’t looking.
Alexander earns ten rupees today, because none of the girls is available to push Swami into town. They are too busy being harangued, beautified and instructed by Amma, for this is a very
important day. In only one hour, that mighty young god of the Information Technology Era, Mohan P, B.Sc. – holder of this year’s illustrious
Sri Aandiappan Swamigal Tamil Nadu
Information Superhighway Endowment Scholarship
– is due to descend on Swami’s family with his direct relations and indirect relations and maternal confidantes and household
neighbours and every Raman and Krishnan from Thenpalani who has a nosy nature and an hour to spare.
Swami has promised Amma that he will be back in plenty of time to wash his face, comb his hair, change his shirt and look distinguished. Alexander is pushing him down Station Street, in the
shadow of the rock. Swami is thinking about the shocking age of that great outcrop, which mocks the living matter swarming around it. And that, you know, is a consolation. They are returning from
the police station, which Swami likes to visit once a week or so to listen to the latest goings-on. There is a long-running case gripping Mullaipuram. The dissolute son of a state politician long
known for his extreme Eve-teasing and sexual harassment of young women has been charged with rape, and although the best and brightest brains of the Indian Police Service have been assigned to the
case, it looks as though the accused might not get off scot-free.