Authors: Mike Stocks
,” Swami warns periodically, as the cow pats loom up; Alexander, absorbed in the hostile press of the crowded street and the sheer effort of wheeling a grown man down
the rubbish-strewn road in the high heat of the day, has a habit of stepping into them in his bare feet.
Swami looks at his watch. “Hurry up,” he grunts.
* * *
Amma, Jodhi, Kamala, Pushpa, Leela, Granddaddy, Auntie and Uncle on Appa’s side, Auntie and Uncle and Auntie and Uncle and Auntie and Auntie and Auntie on Amma’s
side, two of Amma’s close cousins (fellow gurus in the mysterious arts of matchmaking), and an unmanageable number of random well-wishers and gossip-ravenous neighbours are all crowding the
little bungalow of Number 14/B. Jodhi has barely said a word from the moment she woke up this morning until now, patiently submitting to whatever Amma tells her to do, even when what Amma is
telling her to do is incompatible with everything else that Amma is telling her to do. Granddaddy too does not speak. Ever since his wife, Amma’s own mother, died ten years ago, he has
preferred music to people, obsessively playing his flute all day long. It is a special flute, fashioned by his own hand from a storm-damaged sacred peepul tree in his ancestral village; it is a
flute which he regards as god – god whom he can carry tenderly in his hands, god whom he can render his very breath to and worship with music; it is a flute that he resents being parted from
for any longer than it takes to swallow the meagre amount of rice and pepper water that his family can persuade him to eat for the sustenance of his scrawny frame, because who in his right mind
would voluntarily divide from god, even for a minute? As he plays, everyone else except Jodhi is talking non-stop. None of them can imagine the chaos that is shortly going to be unleashed.
“Why did you wear this when I told you to wear that?”
“What time will they come?”
“Give it to me Auntie, I’ll do it.”
“Respected Granddaddy, please stop playing your flute, my head is hurting.”
“Father, now remember what I said, as soon as they arrive I’m taking the flute, just this once – the boy’s family don’t want to listen to you and your
“Sister, what will you do if this boy is the ugliest boy in Tamil Nadu?”
“Leela! Don’t bother your sister, you’ve seen his photo, you know he’s a nice-looking boy.”
“Truly truly ugly, so ugly that we all scream and run away?”
“Leela, enough! Leave your sister alone!”
“Yes Amma – but what if we all faint from an inability to withstand his skin-puckering ugliness?”
“Shall I eat this?”
“What time is it?”
And then the panic, because “Amma, Amma, Amma they’re here!”
“What? Don’t be silly, don’t, you, I… Oh my God they’re here, they’re so early, where’s Appa?! Jodhi go and sit, Sisters, Brother come with me, Kamala
take Granddaddy’s flute away – oh my God, why are they so early?! Oh my God –
While Amma and Pushpa and a dense crowd of uncles and aunties and a surge of minor hangers-on go out onto the verandah as an advance welcome party, and while Kamala wrestles decorously with
Granddaddy over possession of the flute, and while other aunties and uncles and sisters arrange Jodhi in the designated chair, Leela and Pushpa rush to the window and ogle in high excitement at
what is taking place outside. A small burgundy Maruti van is disgorging a village onto the roadside – boys, girls, women, men, middle-aged relatives, antique patriarchs, shifty
ne’er-do-wells, chortling householders, bespectacled intimates, incapacitated crones, complaining extras and a range of hungry freeloaders.
“Ayyo-yo-yo it’s an army!”
“I never saw so many people in one Maruti van.”
“Which one is the hero?”
“Where is he?”
“Ayyo-yo-yo look at that fat lady! Who is that fat lady?”
“Oh that is so fat!”
“That is very fat!”
“Did you ever see a lady so fat as that? Is that the Mummy?”
“A lady as fat as that must sit in the middle of the van, or it will fall over, isn’t it?”
“There he is – here is our Mohan! Here is our Sita’s Rama! He is coming!”
“Don’t be so stupid.”
“Jodhi, I think your boy is the very tallest person there! He is very handsome!”
“But goodness what a very fat lady!” Leela repeats. “I can’t stop looking at her!”
“Good afternoon,” says a deep and unfamiliar voice.
Leela turns round to find that half her extended family, and a fair portion of the immediate neighbourhood, is staring at her, limp with dismay, while Mr P – a large, dark, hairy and not
entirely un-fat personage himself, who has slipped away from the throng outside and has just this moment entered the bungalow – is framed in the doorway of the room. He conducts a slow sweep
of all the mortified faces looking up at him, and settles his gaze on Leela. She screams.
“Somebody give me my flute,” says Granddaddy, into the void.
* * *
Swami is looking at his watch every few seconds by the time Alexander gets him to within half a mile of home. “Push!” and “Faster!” he is saying to poor
little Alexander, who is doing his best, but whose skinny undernourished thirteen-year-old body is not best-suited to a task like this. Straining and sweating to keep a good pace going, Alexander
gives a high-pitched grunt as he forces Swami’s wheelchair over a hump of fetid rags. Swami lurches in his seat. “Watch it,” a woman in front of them says angrily, feeling the
chair’s footrest bang into her Achilles tendon.
When it happens, it happens as these things ought to happen, in a manner appropriate to the clichés that witnesses will later attach to it – “suddenly”, “in a
flash”, “out of nowhere”.
Suddenly, in a flash, out of nowhere, a white man falls out of the sky. He bounces on the hard dirt road, directly in front of Swami – somehow he lands in a gap between the swarming
pedestrians, although not without knocking a small boy off balance. The screams seem to begin instantly and from everywhere. Swami gazes down at his feet to where the man is lying in the kind of
mangled position one would expect. He is looking at an ageing hippy with dirty blond-grey locks and a creased face almost orange from years of exposure to the sun. Their gazes lock together, and
Swami knows that the white man is moments from death. The expression on the man’s face is turning from confusion and pain towards a strange new place, somewhere between peace and vacancy.
A riot is developing around the dying man and Swami, surrounded as they are by angry onlookers, but neither of them is aware of this.
, Swami finds himself communicating
to this man,
– it is an instinctive offering, though what is being offered is unclear. And when he does this, he hears in his mind the
white man’s dying consciousness – he sees it, and feels it, and knows it; it is as clear and powerful as a panoramic view from a high peak on a cloudless day. The white man is already
leaving this world.
“I didn’t know…” the white man sighs. Who knows what he didn’t know, and to whom he is speaking? His eyes turn inwards to greet the death waiting within him.
The whole thing is happening in seconds, but to Swami it feels like minutes. He tears his gaze away from the fresh dead face and looks up to where the man might have fallen from, a seven-storey
building with a neon sign: “
Hotel Ambuli – full A/C – non-veg
“Saar,” Alexander squeals, trying to hang on to the wheelchair as hundreds of individuals turn into a mob. Swami feels the chair rocking this way and that. A woman is now standing
over the mangled white man and beating him ferociously with her husband’s tiffin can. With her other hand she grips her howling infant, the boy who had lost his balance and fallen over.
“He nearly landed on my precious son!” she screeches, thwacking the metal container into a dead man’s head. “My son could have been killed by this snow-faced sky
demon!” The mob eggs her on. Spittle flies out of her mouth, then springs back on its own trail to hang from her chin.
“Saar!” Alexander yelps desperately. He is no longer holding the wheelchair, he has been wrenched away.
“My – little – son,” the woman pants, cracking down the unlikely weapon. “My – tiny – son is – precious!” Now more people have joined in,
using their bare hands, as men shout to each other, at each other, to God and at the world. Swami is still in his chair, the white man’s bloody head inches from his feet. He isn’t
scared at all, he hasn’t felt as peaceful for a long time.
Snow-faced sky demon
, he finds himself thinking,
The chair tips back and he’s over, lying
there in the dirt with the dead man. People are scrambling over him and over each other, piling in to get at the white man and beat him: he’s white, after all, which makes a change, and
he’s dead, so it doesn’t really matter. Chances like these don’t grow on trees.
Swami briefly sees Hotel Ambuli again through the flailing arms and legs – “
What a Refreshing Place to Stay, for your Busyness and your Holiday
” – then feels
bare feet trampling him. He wonders if this is his death, and hears himself calling God,
Rama, Rama, Rama
, but not out of fear. It is more out of politeness, as one would call to friendly
neighbours through the half-open door of their house – quietly, in case they were busy, or sleeping.
Whistles are ringing, batons are flashing, members of the mob are being grabbed by the collar, by the hair, by the seat of the pants, and sent spinning. The police are here and are weighing in.
They lash out and force their way through, calling everyone sons of prostitutes in their time-honoured and reassuring fashion. The intent of the people goes this way and that way for a few seconds,
then sensibly goes that way for good. The mob divides into individuals again, onlookers only.
“Well Brother, what are you doing down there?”
Swami is looking up at the prodigious moustache of his old friend and colleague from Mullaipuram Police Station, Sub-Inspector K.P. Murugesan. He opens his mouth to say something.
“Dead, tiffin – didn’t know!” he says. It isn’t what he’d planned to say, but since the stroke he can’t be too fussy.
“Are you hurt?” Murugesan asks, speaking to him but looking with dread at the corpse.
“Saar!” Alexander shouts, finally wriggling his way through and taking his position behind the toppled wheelchair.
“Don’t worry boy, he’s very fine.” says Murugesan. “A bit shocked. We’ll get him up. Hey! You and you! Come here!”
Two constables lever the wheelchair up, then get Swami to his feet. He collapses into his chair, half-dazed and abruptly exhausted, as Alexander brushes him down with the dirtiest rag in Tamil
“Go home now Brother, have some tea, leave me to deal with this god-almighty disaster. My God, a dead white man,” Murugesan laments, appalled, “there’ll be hell to
“Dead before,” Swami says, indicating the body with his eyes.
“Yes yes, never mind these details.” Murugesan looks disappointed. “Dead before they beat him?”
“Alive when he landed or dead already?”
“My God,” Murugesan mutters, looking up at Hotel Ambuli, “what does it mean?”
* * *
A choice between Granddaddy playing his flute continuously and Granddaddy continuously asking for his flute back is not much of a choice. Granddaddy is playing his flute. The
immediate family members of both clans are corralled together in the little lounge. The most significant elders and one unidentified baby have been allocated the shiny blue fraying sofa. Two or
three dozen other people are thronging the remaining two rooms of the bungalow and the small back plot outside. Some of these people are hungry. They are stripping Number 14/B of edibles with the
automatic efficiency of a swarm of locusts. Meanwhile, Leela is miles away, mortified and hiding – “Such a little monkey,” Mr P keeps saying, ambiguously – and Swami is
missing. A disinterested commentator might hazard the opinion that this is not the smoothest possible start to a pre-engagement meeting, but the principal players in both families are coping.
“Oh yes, I’m sure he’ll be here any moment!” Mrs P says in the cosy crowded room. “We aren’t worried, please don’t concern yourselves.”
Her husband is mm-hmming enthusiastically in kindly support of his wife’s small talk, enjoying being at the centre of so much excitement and activity, so many interested well-wishers.
“Appa is maybe held up at the police station by some important problem,” Pushpa suggests shyly, wanting to make her father seem very grand.
“A long career in the police, I heard,” chips in an uncle of the boy.
“Oh yes, very long career,” Amma answers, “more than twenty years.”
“And still they are asking his advice!” Anand chips in, deadpan and mischievous, causing Amma’s left eyebrow to scale her forehead independently of her right eyebrow. She is
suspicious of this younger brother because he needs a haircut and because he says smart things and because she can feel a funny throbbing near her left elbow. If her right eyebrow scales her
forehead independently of her left eyebrow, then he’ll really be in trouble.
“Shut up,” says the gloom-laden Devan, scolding his younger brother.
For a moment Amma thinks he is speaking to her, and her right eyebrow quivers; while she doesn’t actively dislike this older brother, she doesn’t wholly approve of him because he is
“Government desk job is distinct possibility!” screeches Swami’s brother’s wife, from nowhere, and without a shred of evidence.
Government desk job? No one says anything for a moment, as though to mark the fact that Swami’s brother’s wife has over-egged the pudding. The unmarried young people on both sides
examine each other discreetly, Mohan and Anand sizing up the sisters, the sisters sizing up Mohan and Anand. Amma takes a moment to range her unqualified admiration over the petrified features of
that perfect middle brother, the saintly Mohan.