Authors: Mike Stocks
“How many melodies he knows!” says Mrs P at last, nodding admiringly at Granddaddy – everybody turns to look at Granddaddy – from whom a flourish has just emanated; his
reedy tunes are yet to imprint themselves in everlasting tedium on Mrs P’s neurons.
“But when you ask him about it, he says he can’t remember anything, he just plays what comes out,” says an unidentified voice from somewhere over by the door, where second-tier
supporters of the pre-engagement meeting are craning their necks to watch the fun.
“That is the gods,” Mrs P says approvingly. “Our elders are closest to the God. That is only one of many reasons why we are giving you our respect,” she adds, addressing
her remarks to the oblivious Granddaddy and to a head-waggling stump-toothed aged parent of her own.
Amma nods gratefully. Amma is in awe of authentically fat women. Not only are fat women rich enough to buy lots of expensive fattening foodstuffs, they have enough free time in which to eat it.
Amma loves to see two fat wealthy ladies crammed nonchalantly into a creaking cycle rickshaw while some 45-kg fellow with pipe-cleaner legs strains to pedal them up a long, slow incline –
especially in the hot season. Amma regrets that she will never have enough money or leisure to be grotesquely corpulent.
There is a quarter-minute of free-falling speechlessness in this small packed room.
“What about your studies and what-all?” says Mohan – that human super-entity of cutting-edge computational developments – to Jodhi. Such excitement! Rapt observers near
and far try not to ease their buttocks into new positions expectantly, or to seem in any way as though this might be a significant incident deserving of the utmost attention. For these are the
first words spoken between Jodhi and Mohan. Certainly some incoherent mumblings and shy glances of mutual terror were exchanged when Jodhi and Mohan were first introduced, but since then –
nothing. Just vacant faces staring at whoever is speaking, and flat, clipped voices responding to anything that is being said to them. Who knows if these two youngsters are head over heels in love
or half crazed with horror? Some say it’s much the same thing. The couple are sitting side by side in white plastic chairs, like a King and Queen down on their luck; a court of parents and
elders are seated near them; making up the loyal subjects are brothers and sisters and uncles and aunties and cousins and intimates, all perching on armrests and table corners and small
protuberances of furniture, or sitting all over the floor.
What about your studies…
Amma’s eyes bulge out of her head as she gazes at Jodhi and wills her to reply. Jodhi swallows and shifts in her seat.
What about your
, Amma thinks,
what about your studies, what about your studies… DAUGHTER, SPEAK!
“Eng. Lit.,” Jodhi says.
“I know that,” says Mohan. “Eng. Lit.,” he says. “Like him,” he says, gesturing at his younger brother, “before he was—”
“Very very very very!” Mr P bellows, incomprehensibly. He doesn’t want his younger son’s latest expulsion from college broadcast willy-nilly at the pre-engagement
meeting, though he knows that everyone knows.
Amma beams at Mohan. What a beautiful boy, she is thinking. Actually, what an incredible salary he’ll soon be earning – that is a more accurate rendering of her thoughts – but
his good looks are certainly a bonus.
Amma’s sister picks up a plate of fried snacks and offers them around.
“No no no, no,” Mrs P says, taking one, taking two, taking three
as everyone watches admiringly.
“You see,” Mr P begins in a new and solemn voice, “now that we are having such a jolly time, the thing is, you see, dowry is the thing, we’d better think about dowry
situation, that’s the thing.”
“Dowry situation,” murmurs Amma with a head-wobble like a Thanjavur doll, as though there is nothing that can make her feel more soporifically at ease than this matter, as though
there is scarcely a topic under the sun or even beyond the edges of the known universe that she would enjoy investigating further than this one, at this time, in this place, under the
tongue-lolling, neck-craning, eye-bright scrutiny of her neighbours. “Husband better come first,” she says.
“Who is your favourite English author and what-all?” Mohan blurts out at Jodhi. He is on a roll now. He is not so very interested in the dowry situation.
“I don’t know,” Jodhi answers, startled. “I like Graham Greene.”
“I can make world-champion-beating anagram out of Graham Greene. Possibly several,” her suitor confides.
Jodhi isn’t sure what to do with this information, but she nods gratefully, and the two Ammas share their little smiles. And then there is some shouting and commotion outside, a turning of
heads, something of a small-scale bungalow-constrained non-fatal stampede, an “Oh my God!” from a startled Kamala and a bum note from Granddaddy and a booming “The little
monkey!” from Mr P as Leela fights her way into the room, panting “Amma Amma Amma!” She trips over an ankle and dives full-length into the throng, shouting:
“Amma, a flying white man fell on Appa!”
Swami – bare-chested, slack-breasted and yawning – is standing in the doorless doorway of the bedroom, still in his sheetlike lungi, looking out at Amma and Kamala.
The mother and daughter rose half an hour ago, bathed themselves in the cool dark, and then went outside to pour water from a vessel and pray to Surya, the sun, who was rising too. Women of
Amma’s caste do not normally worship in this way. Maybe that is why she does it. Now she and Kamala are performing puja to the family gods who live in the little wall-mounted shrine. For
every dawn of her married life, Amma has sought to see God and to be seen by God in this way. Later, the other three girls will get up reluctantly, and Kamala will draw a
their doorstep with rice-flour paste.
Swami loosens his lungi so that he can tighten it again around his waist – it is something he has learnt to do with one hand.
But how many times has the sun risen, Swami thinks. By how many people has the sun been worshipped? If you multiplied the one number by the other number, what kind of number would you get? Swami
is always thinking thoughts like these, but what else has he been thinking about during this past week? Of how Jodhi has lost her chance of a very good good boy because of him? Of course. Of how
his wife is embarrassed by him? Yes, that too. Of how he’d like to lie down on his sleeping mat, and go to sleep, and never wake up, just like the white man, the dying white man who said
“I didn’t know…” as he left this world for some other place? Yes yes, all these thoughts and more have come to him often in his misery and his wonder, as well as strange
ruminations and meditations concerning death gazes, the strange pink-white whites of a white man’s eyes, and that moment when the balance of power between a new brief light and an old one is
superseded by a dull glaze.
The fellow just – went away…
“I’m here,” Swami had said to him, from some part of his mind he hadn’t known was there.
“I’m going,” the man had responded.
It was neither speech nor thought, it was transparent communication, it existed outside any frameworks I understand, it was…
And the curious thing was, Swami had felt so calm as the white man was dying. Only later, under the indignity of everyone’s fascination, had he felt even worse than before. For when Swami
tries to convey the deeper resonances of his responses – to his wife, to his relatives, and to any of the neighbours and acquaintances who have been coming by to enquire after his welfare
– they don’t listen properly. They don’t want to hear him mumbling about abstract topics, it’s too difficult. They want to know what it is like to have a white man fall on
top of you. No one takes a blind bit of notice when Swami grits his teeth in frustration and tries, for the hundredth time, to explain that the white man did not fall
,” he fumes. They want to ask yes-no questions as to whether white men bounce, and if the fellow was bleeding, and whether he had blond hair; they want to know what
she looked like, that spittle-flecked mother who beat the dead white man over the head with her husband’s tiffin can, while the little boy in her frenzied grip was sent lurching this way and
that. As for Amma, what she really wants to know is this: “How could this happen at such a time? How could he do such a thing?”
Who knows if it is the white man she is referring to, or Swami.
When there is no hunger or pain or fear, what is peace or its absence except a state of mind one chooses? Swami knows this, but
I can’t endure any more
is the background mantra
playing over and over in his mind at this moment as he watches his beautiful wife at prayer; he is at the mercy of fore-thoughts that ricochet between half a dozen extreme problems: the white man,
Jodhi’s prospects, his crippled future, ultimate meanings, his humiliation, his wife’s anger – and partly, it is true, his breakfast.
When he was a newly married man many years ago, and he used to watch Amma’s morning puja, he would tease her afterwards, saying, “Yes yes, this early-morning high devotion is all
very well in Tamil Nadu, where the sun gets up with us, but there are places on this earth where the sun gets up at 2.30 a.m., and then what would you do?” In reply, she would coyly hint at
how hard it would be to leave her husband’s arms at that time – but she would do it, because his welfare and the welfare of their family depended on the protection of the gods. But
there have been few such teases and loving hints since Swami lost the ability to say four words together in the right order, and there have been even fewer since Jodhi’s divinely handsome and
accomplished mate was marched out of the pre-engagement meeting by his mortified family because of the rollicking embarrassment of a white man falling on the father of the prospective bride. Though
make no reference to snow-faced sky demons plummeting from the firmament to expire on innocent Hindus, though the
contain no indication as to what such incidents may portend, though the 2,685 verses of the
Lawbook of Manu
incontrovertibly silent on this topic, nevertheless the parents of Mohan have taken a broad view that such an event is not auspicious.
The small, roughly made cabinet of the family shrine is fixed halfway up the living-room wall. On the inside of the open doors are cheap prints of Ganesha and the eight Lakshmis. Within, on a
shelf, amongst flower petals and brass plates showing scenes from the sacred texts, and next to a small stock of oil, wicks, clarified butter and lamps, are murtis of Murugan and Mariamman –
little statuettes representing the Gods. Samayapuram Mariamman, the feminine power who conquers evil and heals disorder, went wooshing up the family worship rankings shortly after Swami’s
stroke, when Amma desired sight of a god who could really understand her family’s plight. But as for Lord Murugan, the youthful warrior god, he can never be displaced in Amma’s
affection. The protection he affords is all-encompassing, and the boons he grants are legendary. And anyway he is so handsome and virile. Sometimes Swami is envious of Lord Murugan, particularly on
special occasions when Amma bathes him in coconut milk and dresses him and feeds him devotedly.
Behind Swami, the other three girls are stirring on their mats, under their thin blankets.
“Get up,” Swami says in a kindly way, once Amma and Kamala are done.
“Don’t snap at them for nothing,” Amma snaps, for nothing, brushing past him and into the kitchen to steam some idlis for breakfast. Since the catastrophe, she has barely
spoken to him except like this. She is still in maternal despair about what happened. For the first time in her married life, she is ashamed of her husband. Swami doesn’t blame her, he knows
she only wants what is best for Jodhi…
But is it my fault that people think a white man fell on me? Or is it my fate?
That second thought is worse than the first. But maybe it is
Poor Swami, he is a laughing stock. On the day after the incident, he was the lead story in the local newspaper. F
, was the headline. He is famous. When he goes into town, young men scream
“Keep back!” and point at the sky theatrically, as though more foreigners might plummet down at any moment. Jokers follow his painful progress down the streets, arching their necks and
looking up as they rap out their outlandish predictions:
“Mr George Bush!”
Nobody knows who Bernard Matthews is except the wit who first said it, a fellow who happens to know a thing or two about European turkey-farming, but everyone thinks Bernard Matthews is a
wonderful name, one that can bear much repeating. And yesterday, as Pushpa was wheeling Swami to the second-hand booksellers who lay their wares out on cloths near the spice market, a plastic
baby-doll came hurtling down from a second-storey window and bounced off his knee, to the helpless hilarity of a bunch of rowdies.
There is, Swami now knows, no worse feeling than being roundly ridiculed in front of your own daughter.
And is a man a man…
he had thought to himself at that time, stony-faced,
Swami trails past Amma in the kitchen and out into the little yard behind the bungalow.
I’ve lost all my dignity outside this small compound, and most of it within.
He steps into the toilet, closes the makeshift door and squats down slowly and awkwardly over the hole, with his lungi hitched up over his knees. He winces as burning sensations shoot up his
left arm; acutely painful, they nearly always occur when he squats down, ever since the stroke dumped one half of his body outside the control of his brain. There is nothing to be done about this,
the doctor says.