Translated from the Tamil by Dr. S. Vincent
The river was massive, at least for us. But never did it flood or foam nor did it ever dash against the banks, just glided gently on. Without fanfare, undulating softly without ever revealing its depth or the fierceness of its current, it ambled quietly like a hermit embracing everything on its way. It seemed innocent, childlike even… without a swirl, without foams. Pebbles and fine sand glimmered on the banks. The branches and leaves of the trees by the bank lowered into the water like old women washing their hair in the river— one might worry that they would break and fall into the river. But how many years had passed! How many bouts of rain, how many storms had I seen? I had experienced everything. I took a dip and stood up facing the east. A shiver ran down my spine. But I did not want to stop with the first dip. I had an unbridled desire to wallow in the river like a buffalo moving from side to side gasping. I struggled for breath, shivering. You must see my face when I struck the water with my swaying hands, dipping again and again…
On the dhobi’s rock, Kusa Chettiar 1 is fishing with his pole. Why did he need to do it at this age? He had folded his dhoti up to his loin. He had made another dhoti into a turban for his head. He now squatted on the rock folding his long legs. He was all wrinkly and shriveled up from face to toes. His skin peeled, likely due to constant scratching. A coconut shell with cut-up worms was at his feet. His grandson, sitting beside him, fixed the worms in the hook and handed it over to his grandfather. He kept it in his hand as he waited for the pull. A tug and ah! He lands the fish on the rock. The old man’s face made way for a streak of a smile when he looked at the fish grappling for life on the rock. Again the boy fixed the worm in the hook. He sat with his pole, gaze fixed on the water. He must be at least ninety or more… He might have been a playmate of Virumandi Thevar 1.
“Chettiar, It’s me,”
“Gopal Pillai’s 1 son…”
Chettiar’s vision cleared. The hand holding the rod shook as he turned at the grandson. He gestured to me to come forward. When I went near him he spat out the saliva.
“O, Aiyya’s 2 son..?”
A minute of silence followed.
“Your father is younger than me. It was your grandfather, Sivagnanam Pillai, who was my age, and also, Seemachu Aiyar 1. We used to be playmates. All of them dissolved in this very same river. Now only Virumandi Thevar and I are left. He too lies crippled, I am told. I am the only one crawling about.” He kept looking at the bubbling river.
“How is Aiyya?”
“He is all right.”
“Great man, your father. He should live long,” he said. Raising his hand up he continued, “That pair of elephants, on your terrace,” he paused for a moment and asked, looking at me with anticipation, “Are they still there?”
“They are there,” I said. His face brightened.
“It is I who made them. A gift of elephants… nowadays that practice is gone.”
“In the past, I used to come occasionally to catch a glimpse of your father. Pch… now not anymore.”
“I’ll tell him, Aiyya. That Chettiar inquired about him… he will be very happy.”
“What are you doing? business?”
“No, I am a teacher in the next village.”
“Is it? Be blessed.”
“I’ll be off now, Chettiar Aiyya.”
“Have some rice water, lad.”
“It’s all right…”
“It’s good for the heat.”
“I am heading home anyway. You better keep it for yourself.”
He had an old pot full of fermented rice water with pickles on the lid.
I was on my way. I entered Chinna Naikar’s farm and turned towards the cart road. I climbed up the threshing ground and walked. Only to this ground would they bring the harvested crop. After the first and second threshing, the cart would start. Virumandi Thevar would come in the first cart. There, on the stacked hay, my father would sit with Thevar standing beside, as always.
Thevar had a robust physique; chest, broad like a winnowing pan with thick muscles bulging out; round shoulders; three-inch mustache twirling upwards and very dark. To tell you the truth, this was a different kind of darkness, dazzling as if oiled. He was like a carefully carved sculpture. But I used to wonder how many could actually appreciate his figure and smartness? It was only used to frighten children and calm crying babies. The very words, “Here comes Thevar, Thevar has come,” would make children tremble in fear. I also was afraid of him when I was young. But it did not last. Thevar’s body only was daunting, not his heart. Even a mild blow could shatter it to pieces. However, hardly anyone had known it that well, except for my father. He knew it.
Thevar would always be around. He would bring firewood. He would bring snake gourds, bottle gourds, pumpkins, country beans, and other vegetables. He would always come with something or the other claiming it was found on the fence or was just lying on the bund. Who could be as thoughtful as he was? All this was not something done on instruction from someone. It was in his nature. Nobody knew where or how he got all these things. “It came just like that,” he would say and sit down. He would convey some important matter to my father and leave after some time. Just to see Thevar was enough for my father to brighten up. Sometimes Thevar would disappear and not be seen for many days together. Then, my father too would not be his real self.
Occasionally, at odd times, he would appear lugging a big jack fruit on his shoulders balanced on a bundle of straw, the sap dripping from it. He himself would cut the fruit. He used to have a special, sleek, sharpened knife sheathed at his hip. He would take it out with a flourish. We had a tamarind tree planted by him in the front yard. He would spread an old sack and sit under the tree with his legs spread. He would then hold jack fruit erect between his legs like a baby about to be bathed and would start carving it. He would cut it vertically and take out the pods. It was, really a beautiful sight, as he collected the pods without spoiling any one of them. He would put them in a heap on a plate. The aroma of the jackfruit would permeate the entire street.
“Thevar, take a few home,” my father insisted on one such occasion.
“Home? What a joke!”
“She left saying her sari smelt of jeera. Her father is a thief. Shouldn’t he have at least knocked her on the back of her head and sent her back?”
Mother sat at the threshold sifting the broken grain. It was her comfort zone. She would stretch her feet to the street. Once the chores were all taken care of, she would come and sit like that. She did not know how to be idle, to remain without doing anything. So, relaxing, here too she would be sifting or sieving one thing or another, polishing the brass utensils with tamarind or would be shaping pots with wastepaper-mache. That day, she was sifting the broken grain.
She suddenly turned and saw Thevar. “Again she has fought and left you?”
“It seemed she had gone home to help in farming the dry land…?”
“She won’t stay there if she had earned some money…”
“What misunderstanding, Achi? In her village, Sokkalal, the beedi man was showing cinema and she had gone to see it.”
“She had dragged the children along with her.”
Mother looked at Thevar for some time. She didn’t say anything. She turned her head away. “What kind of behavior is this?” she murmured and continued her work. Thevar also did not respond for a while, only stared at the tamarind tree, at father, and then at mother sifting the corn.
“Her father is a common thief, Achi. Last new moon day, he parted the thatched roof of a house to jump in to steal something and was caught. It was I who got him out of the police station.”
“What is this, Thevar?”
“Yes, Achi, the past was different. Now, the times have changed. It was all over with the times of my grandfather. Nowadays it is only in the name Kallars 3— times have changed, Achi.”
“If I had not also attached myself to Aiyya, I also would have gone with them…” said Thevar, wiping his forehead. His eyes were red. As if she had read his mind, mother asked, “Why to grudge now?”
“Is that slut not reason enough?” he sneered.
“Educate your children and raise them well, Thevar.”
“Yes, Aiyya. I want to make the elder boy a policeman. But… chinnaiah 4, all run away on seeing a policeman to the stream… Our clan always is scared of seeing a man in khaki uniform…”
“Put them in school, Thevar.”
“It’s all God’s will,” said Thevar.
Father looked at the tamarind tree. It was a short-fruit species. Thevar got it from somewhere and planted it. Nobody took any interest in watering it but it had managed to grow into a big tree.
“Aiyya. This year there will be a good harvest.”
“Last year was a disappointment…” said mother.
“It’s like that Achi. Good yield comes every alternate year.”
Thevar was part of our family. Our house was his pond where he floated about. Father was his master. Though he was like his friend, Thevar would not stand in front of him. When father was seated on the thinnai 5, he would stand too far away from him with his towel around his waist. But father had never treated him as a servant. When I was young, Thevar would carry me on his shoulders, not to the market but to the east of the village where there was a temple. It was an Aiyanar temple with the deity sporting a mustache like the horns of a goat on a horse with a mane. There would be blood-stained cock-feathers all around. In the fierce wind, the palm leaves of the fence groaned… The ash smeared all over, Subbu Pandaram, the priest of that temple, would chant some mantra. There was no way to get at the meaning. He hardly ever meant to give the meaning of the mantra.
I was in for a surprise at every turn and he would point to the bulls plowing. Viruma Thevar would be at it, his body all covered in mud. One could not even see his figure. Thevar would show me the flock of ducks gliding in the single sluice. He showed the nests of weaver birds. A noise like a baby screaming came from somewhere. How did it even occur to him to show all this fun to me? I guess, to do this, one must have a heart. That big heart which Virumandi Thevar had aplenty.
It was his responsibility to stop my cries. He would sit under the tree to tell me stories. But I won’t be in a mood to listen to him. Even though I had stopped crying, my whimpering would continue. My mind would not be in Thevar’s story. However, I would be looking at Thevar’s face. The tips of his mustache would sway in the wind. The ear studs would sparkle in the sunlight. He would sit leaning against the tree.
An elephant used to come to my village occasionally. When it came, the whole street would come alive, not just the urchins and children, but also the elders. The kids were woken up to see the elephant. How Thevar knew about the visit of the elephant, nobody knew. He would rush to the house. “Achi, the elephant has come. Give me the young master…” he would say. He would have me seated on the elephant’s back and go with it up to the corner and then make it turn. In the end, he would give it a pot of water to be sprinkled on me. The splash gave me goosebumps.
During the Full Moon Day in Chitrai month, the deity would come to the village in a procession with burning torches and petromax lamps. Thevar kept me on his shoulders, my feet around his neck like a garland, as I clutched onto his curls like a bunch. Thevar loved me very much. Where did that love come from? You cannot find it through any kind of research. It was he who taught me swimming. Many varieties of experiences that brought awe and fear— all came to me through Thevar.
Father would go for evening walks to enjoy the breeze. He would walk all the way up to the big river, mostly by himself, crossing the canal and bunds of the fields. The boughs and leaves of the trees on the bank would break the silence of the evenings. There were no sparrows, just a few kingfishers… sometimes on the dhobi’s rock Kusa Chettiar. With his fishing rod, gazing into the water, father would cast a smile. When there was nothing to speak about, he would sit on the sand. Sometimes, Virumandi Thevar also accompanied him. Father would not talk to him too. He would immerse himself in the pervading quietude of the place. A kind of satisfaction as if everything to speak had been spoken, would play on his face then. Father was not educated. He had learned some verses of Thirupugazh 6 and Ramalingar’s Arutpa 6 from someone. He would just delve into those lessons with his eyes closed.
That particular day too was no different. Father sat planting both of his hands on the sand, his body slack, head bent and eyes half-closed. His mind was wandering elsewhere. Chinnakutti came and stood before him. He stared at father for a bit but shifted his gaze in another direction avoiding eye contact as he spoke… “Hereafter, Virumandi Thevar will not give lease amount to you. If anyone crossed it, nobody knows what will happen…” his voice faltered. Father was shocked. He looked at Chinnakutti. Thevar stood ten feet away. The moment he looked at Thevar, father’s head drooped. His lips became dry. Only for a moment. Afterward, everything became clear to him.
Chinnakutti sold lekium 7 for improving potency. During the season of harvest, he went from village to village, put up his shop, and earned a lot of money. He wanted to invest it in the land. He owned a piece of dry land near an acre of wetland river-fed on the plateau and two acres of rain-fed land near the rocks which belonged to us. Once, an entire yield had fallen in the hands of robbers. Therefore Father had leased it to Virumandi Thevar. Chinnakutti asked father to sell it to him. Father refused to let go of the ancestral property. And anyway, Thevar was cultivating it. Why should he sell it? All this should have crossed father’s mind. But Chinnakutti was eager to grab the land. He had somehow learned of Thevar’s weakness and had him fall to the temptation.
Father did not sleep that night at all, and neither did mother. The night lamp kept burning. Only the chickens shifted and fluttered. What problem they had, nobody would know. All miseries wake up only during the night. After that incident, Thevar did not turn up gain. No lease money also came. How could Thevar pull this off, not visiting us? It was a blow. We could not come out of it. The land was swallowed by Chinnakutti. Everyone advised father to go to court. Father had only a smile as his reply for them. Not just then. Whenever anyone spoke about Thevar, he simply smiled. What was even the meaning of that smile? It was not meaningless for sure. But whatever it was, it was beyond our comprehension. That incident broke father.
Nowadays father would go to the river before dawn to take his bath. He did not walk in the street as before. He felt embarrassed. What was the meaning of such a long-standing camaraderie? He did not regret losing the land. His only sorrow was that Thevar’s mind had become crippled. Father did not go for walks now. His friends came to our house to meet him.
Thevar had fallen ill and was bedridden. What was once an active body, which did not worry whether it was day or night, was now paralyzed and half-broken. His right leg and hand and the right side of the body had no life. He could not move them. No herb or treatment worked. His life was trapped in the coir cot— sleeping, eating, and passing urine and excreta there itself. His only sky and river were flowing before his eyes, full of tears. He could not even wipe them. He could not control his dhoti when it slipped. He had no continence.
Everybody was put to inconvenience. It would be good if he passed away in one go. Thevar also was asking for it. Every day, I heard something about Thevar. My mind was filled with pity and I could not ignore it. And then, it became almost like a longing. An urge to see Thevar at least once. How long ago did I see him last? Not days but years had passed! I must see Thevar. I could not postpone it any longer. I had in me the face of Thevar who rushed along the streets, carrying me on his shoulders to see the elephant. No other face was there. My mind demanded that I should go and see Thevar. Would father be upset? “Why did you face the man who broke off from us…” would he speak like this to my face? No, father was not like that.
It was morning.
When I entered the street, I was hesitant yet excited. There was a poovarasu 8 tree in front of Thevar’s house. It used to have bunches of blood-red flowers. There would be the flock of crows around, pecking at them. The yard would be scattered with red petals everywhere. When you think of Thevar’s house, only the door would come to mind. It was a single door, tall, and awesome to look at. The house was a mud hut. One might ask why such a big door for that house? Only the door and the poovarasu tree were imposing. But now, both of them had disappeared. There was no single door. There was no tree. In the place of the mud wall, there was a cement-plastered one. It had a double door now, already old. It was not like Thevar’s house at all. I hesitated for a moment. It felt like entering a stranger’s house. What had happened to its majesty and liveliness? Inside the house also, it was like that.
Thevar was lying near the left wall. The coir in the cot had loosened. Around him were dirty soiled clothes. Was he our Thevar? My eyes and mind refused to accept it. Was it our Thevar? He was lying there broken to pieces. His face had shriveled with the cheekbones jutting out. His eyes had sunk into holes. Only that mustache was there, still bushy, twirling upwards. But there was no life in it. There was a stench all around, a mixed smell of disease, urine, and excreta. The smell itself shook a person. I could not speak, just stood there shaken. It did not strike me to ask about his health. He was sleeping with his eyes open.
“Who is it?” he faltered for a moment, straining his eyes to look at me.
“I asked who?”
“Aiyya’s son has come…”
Thevar’s body shuddered a little. Pressing both hands on the frame of the cot, he raised his body with difficulty. I went near the bed. “Don’t bother,” I said. Thevar straightened his body. His head and body shook. The left hand was holding the cot.
“Aiyya’s son…” In a surprise, his eyes moved from side to side. He was looking at me. For a second, the eyeballs wandered here and there. There were drops of tears falling on his cheek. The tip of his nose reddened. He could not speak anymore. Suddenly, he took my hand and put it on his chest.
“I saw you when you were small…”
“How are you,” he said, looking at my face. It was a look devouring me. It was not enough for him. He caught hold of my hand. I sat at the edge of the cot. He caressed my back, unable to express his rapture and excitement. His body faltered. He was looking at me again and again. He could not bear it anymore. My body also shuddered. Is he our Thevar, I asked myself. Had that stateliness become like this? I could not recover from that shock.
“I saw you when you were small. Now, you have grown up into a big man,” he said, laughing. “How is Aiyya?”
“He is alright.”
“Only I had betrayed Aiyya.”
“Pch… leave it.”
“That is why God has punished me.”
“Don’t say that,” I held his hand firmly.
“Does Aiyya know? Your coming here?”
“He won’t say anything. He has a broad mind. I only had lost my senses.”
His eyes were filled with tears. His nose and lips quivered. I could not say anything. It was like getting caught in a storm. He gripped my hand firmly. I could not stay long. The past memories of Thevar and the broken reality of the present were shattering me. With great difficulty, I got up.
I came home after seeing Thevar. Father was sitting on his chair at the entrance. Should I tell father about my visit to Thevar’s house, or not? Was father still having his rancor? Would he ask “Why did you go after he had broken off with us?” But father was not like that. I knew his mind. However, I postponed revealing my visit to him. Father’s sight was on the street. He was always like that. He would sit facing the street. He signaled me to come near him.
“Do the workers come tomorrow?”
“Yes,” I said. He glanced at me. It was a kind look.
The front of our house was vacant. On the left was the tamarind tree. The space on the right was used to store implements. We had planned to construct two rooms on the right and the left after cutting down the tamarind tree. We had already called the masons. That was why I had taken casual leave. “Why do you ask, Appa 9?”
“Should we construct them now?”
“It would be comfortable for us…”
“Is it not possible without cutting down the tree?”
“No, Appa. Half the place is occupied by the tree.”
“Why don’t you try?”
“It is only a tamarind tree, Appa.”
For a moment, he was staring at the tree. It was a fixed look. His mind was thinking about something. Then he slowly looked away.
“It was planted by Thevar. That’s why I hesitated…” he said. His eyes moistened.
I felt very uneasy. I looked at the tamarind tree in my house. It had thrust its chest and was swaying its branches. I could see only that and not the roots that had gone deep down. They had spread throughout our house. I turned to look at my father. He was looking at the tree.
 Chettiar, Thevar, Pillai, Aiyar— caste names which are used along with the first name.
 Aiyya— father/ term of respect.
 Kallar— caste name, also means thief.
 Chinnaiah— young master.
 Thinnai— a raised platform in the front yard for people to sit.
Thirupugazh, Arutpa— devotional songs.
 Lekium— a siddha drug
 Poovarasu— a kind of tree with yellow flowers.
 Appa— father
The short story The River That Is Time is set in a village in Tamil Nadu , sometime in the sixties, perhaps. It depicts the simple life of the villagers, the major character with his mustache and sturdy physique occupying the center space. The emotional reaction of the educated narrator and his father’s expression of affection for his one-time friend and tenant who betrayed him are very subtly presented. The strength of the story lies not only in the delineation of the characters and in the portrayal of the background but also in the narrative style. The translator’s job, as in my job, became difficult when it came to translating the conversation between the characters into English as the Tamil idiom presents problems. I also had to resolve them without sacrificing the grammar and idiom of the English language. With the help of my editor, this has been possible.
Also, read a review of a collection of translated Tamil short stories published in The Antonym