Translated from the Tamil by Dr. S. Vincent
“I have a silk shirt. How about you?” Ramasamy asked smugly.
Not knowing what to say, Chellaiah just blinked. Thambaiah thoughtfully looked at the sky. Mangammal, index finger on her nose and eyes half closed, thought about it too. The other children eagerly awaited a suitable response from these three. At school, Chellaiah and Ramasamy got into a competition. Ramasamy took out his fifth standard Indian History textbook. Chellaiah did not buy it this year. So, he took out the Civic Science textbook he had with him. Both started the picture game. Ramasamy would turn the page and show a picture. “Show me a picture for this,” he would say. Chellaiah would open his book and show a picture. The exchange of pictures ran through each page of their texts until the very last page. The boy who had the maximum number of pictures was the winner. Then the winner could laugh at the other saying, “You were not able to show the picture. You are the loser.” In the middle of the game, their mathematics teacher came in. He was a strict man. Boys could not continue any nonsense-play under his watchful eyes. And maths problems required that they keep their pencils ready. Picture games were hardly possible.
So, the game was suspended midway only to resume after the class under the neem tree.
The history textbook of Ramasamy was just about halfway through crossing the middle when Chellaiah ’s civics book had come to an end. Chellaiah lost the game. Children standing around them teased Chellaiah. As their brother was defeated, brother Thambaiah and sister Mangammal were visible down.
All started for home. But suddenly the competition took another form. “We have this in our house. Do you have it in yours?” Each asked the other. In the last part of this new game, Ramasamy asked Chellaiah: “I have a silk shirt. Do you have one too?”
Now they had walked half a furlong from the neem tree and were nearing Pahavathiamman temple. Neither Chellaiah nor Thambaiah could answer Ramasamy. But pushing everybody aside, Mangammal suddenly stood in front of Ramasamy. All the children watched her. Stretching her palm as if to a palmist, she said, “Aiye! Why do you need a silk shirt? Hm? It will be flimsy like a dried leaf; it will tear off easily.” Showing Chellaiah’s shirt, she said mockingly, “This is strong. It will last a long time without getting torn. Look carefully!” She then came and stood beside Chellaiah.
Ramasamy was stunned. This girl, this Mangammal, who was in the first standard, had defeated him, a boy in the fifth standard. He felt embarrassed. The children teased him now, “You have lost.” Mangammal came closer to her brother holding his shirt. They walked together like that. She was elated.
But Ramasamy was ready with his next question. “We have six cows in our house. How many do you have?”
Chellaiah again had no answer. Mangammal also did not reply. Thambaiah said, “He is rich! That’s why he is so proud! Hm… he can blow his own trumpet!” he said trying to manage the situation. Then Chellaiah asked, “That’s all right! We have nine chicks in our house. Do you have any?”
Ramasamy also did not hesitate. “We are not like you who eat chicken. Why should we have chicks? That is why we do not have any,” he said.
“That is all bluff. Do you have chicks or not?” Chellaiah persisted.
For Ramasamy, it was the mocking of the other children and not his inability to answer that he could not tolerate. He was about to cry. So he walked faster than the others. But the others also followed him walking as fast as he did. But the little child Mangammal could not walk fast. So, she had to run to catch up with them. Some children left the crowd as they reached their homes. As the number of companions decreased, Ramasamy’s feelings of shame were also getting less acute.
When they entered West Street, he and his three opponents alone were left behind. Of the school-going children, they only had their houses on West Street.
Ramasamy’s house was the first. So, he rushed to his house as if he was escaping his enemies. The three children standing in the street teased him saying, “Ich, ich, dog,” snapping their fingers.
Then a mustached man with a turban came out of the house. He was a servant at Ramasamy’s household. When he saw the three children in tattered clothes with unkempt hair saying, ”Ich, ich, dog,” he shouted at them, “You asses, are you going to leave, or do you want a beating?” The three children sprinted fast from that place. After they left, the servant said to himself derisively, “Beggar children! Dog! Asses!” and went about his work.
When Chellaiah, Thambaiah, and Mangammal reached home with their books close to their chest, their mother, Thayammal, was sweeping the front yard.
Mangammal rushed to her mother, crying, “Amma…” and clasped her from behind.
Mangammal, who was sprinkling water, pretended to cry, “Aiyyo, what is this!” and laughed lovingly. When the little child saw her mother crying, she could not control her laughter.
“Has Aiya come, Amma?” asked Thambaiah. Children of that village called their father Aiya.
“Not yet!” lied Thayammal with a laugh.
“Really?” asked Thambaiah.
“Re…al…ly…!” said Thayammal and laughed again.
Mangammal rushed forward and stood in front of her mother. Changing her bundle of books from her right hand to the left, she put her index finger on her nose between her eyebrows and turning her face to one side, she said, “Amma, I know! You are lying! Aiya has come!”
Thayammal was happy. She pinched her daughter’s cheeks and said, “You naughty girl!”
Chellaiah spoke in a disappointed voice, and said, “Hasn’t Aiya come?” He seemed to be terribly upset.
Thayammal entered the house. Pointing at a wooden box she said, “Open that box, Mangamma.”
All three opened the box. In the box, there was a bundle of clothes. They untied it and took out the clothes one by one. The next day was Deepawali Day. But for them, the celebrations started then itself. With great joy, they took out each one and identified whose it was.
In the bundle, they could see two mull vests, two pairs of trousers, a skirt, a green shirt, and a foot-long towel.
Everyone took his or her share, leaving out the towel. They did not know to whom the towel should go. So Chellaiah asked, “For whom is the towel?”
“For Aiya!” said Thayammal.
“Then for you?” asked Mangammal.
Thayammal laughed and said, “I already have two saris, why do I need more? Are we rich enough to get new clothes for everyone?”
“Then why does Aiya need a new towel?” asked Mangammal.
“Chatterbox! Chatterbox! Aiya does not have even one towel. How long can he wrap the old dhoti around his chest?” Thayammal said and placed her daughter on her lap.
It was dusk and it was becoming dark. Thayammal got up to light the lamp. She got the children to bathe in hot water. It was the month of Aippasi and it was raining every day without a break. The earth had gone cold. The wind was also damp. So, the children had their bath in hot water and when they came out, they had to face the fierce cold wind. They ran fast from the yard into the house.
When the children were eating, Thayammal told them that their father had gone to the neighboring village to attend the funeral of a distant relative, that he would return before noon the next day and they should celebrate Deepawali without waiting for him. After eating their food, they lit the small lamp in the alcove and sat down for doing their night study. Thayammal had her food and came to the yard to wash the bowls. There was a murungai tree a little away from the yard. She could see a dark figure under it. It could be the neighbor’s dog, she thought and turned in.
She spread the front part of her sari on the mud floor and lay down on one side. She was listening to her children reading their lessons aloud. After some time, “How cold is the floor! How can one sleep through the night!” she murmured to herself and got up. Her body was quite cold to her own touch.
Thambaiah asked his brother to go with him. As it was dark, he wanted his brother’s help to go to the yard to piss. Chellaiah went with him. Both boys could see the black figure under the murungai tree. But they were not afraid, as just then two men were going with two petromax lamps. The light from the lamps and the people going by emboldened them. They looked at the black figure more closely.
It was a boy like them.
At once the boys went near him. It was just beginning to drizzle. So, they stood under the murungai tree and were watching him.
He would be around eight or nine. He had no clothes on except a dirty loin cloth. As he felt that it would be cold if he sat down, he was sitting on his feet. There were three used banana leaves. The only house where people ate on a leaf and not in a bronze bowl was that of Ramasamy. The boy had taken the leaves from there and was eating the morsel of food sticking to them. Without saying anything, Chellaiah and Thambaiah stood watching him. The boy took from a leaf the leftover drumstick already chewed and spit out by someone and started chewing it. “Che, dirty, che,” said Thambaiah… The boy looked at them and bent over again. As if struck by something, Chellaiah admonished him, “Dei, why are you sitting at our doorstep? Go away.”
Though there was no sign of the boy leaving the place, he was definitely frightened. He scratched his head with his left hand and started wiping the leaf fast.
“Why don’t you go to your house?” demanded Thambaiah.
Now it started raining. Chellaiah and Thambaiah decided to drive him off before it became heavy. “Go away. Or I will spit on you,” said Thambaiah. But the boy did not seem to get up.
Thambaiah decided to kick him off.
The rain now was getting fiercer.
Thayammal was anxious about their children and wondered what they were doing in the rain. She came out and shouted, “Chellaiah…”
“Mm…” was the reply.
“What are you doing there in the dark?” she said and came near them. She had no time to think anything about the boy. She hurriedly led all three boys into the house. The boy stood in the lamp’s light. His body was full of blisters. His hair was full of lice and scales of dandruff. When he came closer, there was an unbearable stench from him. Mangammal was stunned to see the boy in such a condition.
“Who is this, Amma?” she asked.
“We don’t know,” she said and went in to fetch a piece of cloth for them to dry themselves. As soon as she turned away, Thambaiah told him threateningly, “Go away.”
Chellaiah pushed him off.
Seeing them, Mangammal also unintentionally said, “Why don’t you go away?”
That was enough for the boy and he started screaming. Not knowing what was happening, Thayammal came rushing.
“Why do you cry, boy? Keep quiet,” he said and asked her children, “What did you tell him?”
“When we ask him to go away, he doesn’t go, Amma,” replied Mangammal.
“Che, you mustn’t speak like that. You keep quiet, boy. Don’t cry,” she said and tried to console him.
The boy stopped crying but could not control whimpering.
“Keep quiet, thambi. Don’t cry,” she said again.
Chellaiah and Thambaiah dried themselves with a piece of cloth given by their mother. Mangammal said, “Poor boy! Give him the cloth.” Thambaiah gave it.
“Did you eat anything?” Thayammal asked him.
“He eats the leftovers, Amma. He got the banana leaves thrown off Ramasamy’s house and eats the leftover. Nasty,” Thambaiah said, twitching his nose. At once the children laughed. “Look, Thambaiah, hereafter don’t say like this,” his mother admonished him. Then turning to the boy, she asked, “Who are you? Which is your place?”
“Vilathikulam ,” the boy answered.
“Don’t you have a father and mother?”
“No..?” Thayammal asked.
“Um…they are dead. Amma died last year. Aiya died when I was very young.”
“Don’t you have brothers or sisters?”
“You don’t have even a sister?” asked Thambaiah.
“Unfortunate,” he said and stopped.
“Why did you come here?” asked Thayammal.
“I am going to Kazhugumalai.”
“Who is there for you?”
“My aunt,” the boy said. He had come all the way from Vilathikulam on foot and had come up to their village. He had taken four days for covering this distance of twenty miles. On the fourth day, he had to stay in this village as he was hungry and it was dark. The next morning, he had to walk eight miles to reach Kazhugumalai. He was not sure whether his aunt would drive him away or keep him with her. He had never seen her. She was only a distant relative. And someone suggested that he could go there, and the boy trusting their words had started on foot from Vilathikulam.
Thayammal came to know these details from the boy bit by bit.
“What is your name?” she asked at last.
“Raja,” he said.
Then he was given some food. After he had eaten, Thayammal got the bed ready for her children. As the mud floor was wet, they could not sleep on the palm leaf mat. So, she dusted three tattered gunny bags and spread them on the damp floor. On them, she placed the mats, side by side. Raja lay down at the south end. Near him, Chellaiah and Thambaiah had to sleep. Thambaiah had half his body on one mat and another half on another. Thayammal and Mangammal had their bed at the north end.
They could hear crackers from somewhere. Though the Deepawali was on the next day, some hyperactive boy had started bursting crackers.
On hearing it, Mangammal said, “I want sparklers.”
“Me too,” joined Thambaiah.
“Where do we go for money to get them, Mangamma? Ramasamy is a rich boy. It is all right for him to burst crackers to his heart’s content.”
“O, sparklers for me,” she repeated her demand.
“Don’t nag me; listen to what I say. If we burn the sparklers, will it fill our stomachs? I will give you dosai tomorrow. Eat as much as you like! Why do you need sparklers?”
Mangammal was adamant and started to whimper. Chellaiah had already gone to sleep.
Then there was the noise of people walking by.
“Is it an ordinary affair when the Zamindar himself is coming?” she was talking to herself. Then she consoled her daughter saying, “Mangamma, good girl! Don’t be adamant. We will get a lot of sparklers next year. Don’t you know how much we had suffered this year?” After that, her voice choked. She spoke looking at Mangammal. However, she was actually talking to either her own mother, or the old woman who brought her up, or as if she was retelling the story of the years of her suffering and distress. She ended her monologue with a deep sigh. “Mangamma, you too went to school one day without food, my dear. Don’t you remember? You could not even have a mouthful of porridge!” Now tears streamed down her cheeks. “When we struggle to have food, can you ask for crackers, my dear? Go to sleep,” she consoled her daughter, fondly caressing her.
“At least get me one sparkler!” said Mangammal.
Now laughing through her tears she said, “Only you are adamant like this. Look at this boy, does he ask for sparklers and crackers? Poor boy, he has no food and eats the leftovers from leaves. He does not cry even for food. But you cry for sparklers, Mangamma…”
Now Mangammal got angry with the boy. She did not like her praising the boy, and ignoring her. At once she said, “He has scabies all over.”
“If he has a father or a mother, will he be like this? Motherless child, who will look after him? His mother would have got him a new dhoti and shirt for Deepawali. Now does he think about all that?”
“Now he is asleep. In the morning, he will ask for it,” said Mangammal.
Thayammal started laughing and said, “You chatterbox.”
Thayammal gently pinched her daughter’s cheek.
She became desperate. What to cover the children with? She thought for a moment. Then she said, “Is this old sari more valuable than my children?” So saying this, she took out the old sari which she had carefully washed and folded for tomorrow and covered the children including Raja with it.
Then looking at Mangammal, she said, “Alright, go to sleep. In the morning, I will try to get it somehow.”
For the third time, she could hear the Chinese crackers burst.
Thayammal spoke to herself: “Nobody there would sleep tonight, it seems. It is a palace matter. People come and go. Ramasamy is also bursting crackers without going to bed.”
The boy who married Ramasamy’s sister was the son of the zamindar. Ramasamy’s father had brought him for his first Deepawali. Ramasamy’s father was a very rich mirasthar (landlord) in that area. Very elaborate arrangements were being made to welcome the zamindar. The groom came only the day before Deepawali. But before that, for more than ten days, the arrangements to receive him had been going on. He was saying nine times a minute, “Raja is coming. Everything must be grand.” And preparations were in fact very grand.
No reply. She had gone to sleep.
Thayammal put out the lamp and went to sleep.
When the first crow called, Thayammal woke up. It was not yet four. Fortunately, the rain had stopped. There was light drizzling and the noise it made on the palm leaf roof was steady. It was like that when corn was fried. People in their street had started celebrating Deepawali. One could hear the bursting of crackers and along with it the barking of dogs. Thayammal got up and lit the oil lamp. She was afraid that it might start raining heavily. So, she decided to wake up the children and bathe them. She could then do other things. The children got up unwillingly. Raja alone refused to apply oil to his body and take the bath. But Thayammal said it was thosham if he did not have a bath on the Deepawali day. But Raja was not ready to listen.
“Arappu (paste of leaves) will sting. I won’t.” He was adamant.
“I am not using arappu, only soap nut powder. It will be cool.”
“You must listen to me, thambi. Think of me as your mother. Come. Will I be rough in rubbing it to make it sting? Apply oil and take your bath. All the bad things will go along with this Deepawali. You should have your bath.” After much pleading, he finally agreed and came and sat for his bath.
“This is the sign of a good boy. If I don’t apply oil to one of my children, will it be right? My children also must have a good life!” she told herself as if to someone. “This is the plight of motherless children. Three years ago, I had a fever. If I had gone then, my children would be facing the same fate now. They would also be standing in the street,” she thought. She then bathed the children. When she was rubbing Raja with the soap nut powder, he was crying, “Aiyo, aiyo!” Whenever he cried, she would say, “From today, all your scabies would be gone.” She said this repeatedly.
“We don’t know who this is! He had to come into our house because of the rain. Is it just to drive him off? The day he has come happens to be Deepawali. How can I discriminate among children? Those who see me may laugh at me. Let them. God will be with me and my children.”
She made dosai for the children. Her children were anxious to put on their new clothes. So, they hurried through their meal. Thambaiah left the last dosai half finished and got up. He could have eaten two more. But he was in a hurry.
People had started moving in the street. The rain had stopped completely. The light of the rising sun covered the village and the earth as a muslin cloth.
Chellaiah and Thambaiah applied turmeric paste to the new clothes and put them on. Mangammal too put on her skirt and blouse. He alone was standing with his loin cloth.
Thayammal stood helpless. After doing all this, what could she do now? She was agitated. She had not anticipated such a predicament. Could she give him the long towel or not? There was a painful debate going on within herself. She thought about the difficulty her husband faced without even a one-rupee towel to cover his body. She had known how he was ashamed to go in the street without covering the body and how he had lamented aloud, “I don’t have the means to buy even a towel.” Just facing her stood Raja silently, not saying anything, not doing anything.
Thayammal did not know what to do. She looked at Raja once just like that. Raja was staring at her without batting his eyelids.
“You have come to test me,” she said as if in bitterness. But bitterness was far away from her. Just to solve the problem in her mind, she let out such an expression. Otherwise, there had never been a shadow of bitterness in her words.
Then Mangammal got up and came to her mother. With her palms on her mother’s cheeks, she turned her face towards her. Then she said as if conveying some secret: “Poor boy! Give him the towel, Amma.”
The child stopped. There was silence for a minute. Suddenly, Thayammal’s face became distorted. She covered her face with the front part of her sari and started crying. Her sighs and sobs filled the house.
The child could not understand. She was afraid that her mother was crying because of what she had said.
The mother smothered her cries within herself. Her heart seemed to explode. Her voice also got choked and spoke in a feeble voice.
“Hmm… Go and get that towel for Raja.”
In the courtyard, the morning sun was shining brightly. In that golden light, Mangammal with her face with a tinge of turmeric was standing in her new clothes. She was looking at something. As she had plaited her hair loosely for it to dry, it was covering her ears and half of her cheeks. When the breeze entered her hair and tinkled her, she shut her eyes, unable to bear the joyous but shy feeling of satisfaction.
Thayammal was looking at her for a long time. Accidentally, she turned her face.
“My little princess, you are like Mahalakshmi (the goddess of wealth),” she said, forgetting herself in her ecstasy. That was all. She dragged her daughter in hurriedly and to ward off the evil eye, she put a sandal paste pottu on her forehead.
Then Mangammal ran off to the street. Near Ramasamy’s house, there were a lot of banana leaves that had been used as plates for eating. There were four or five people standing. They were chewing betel leaves and spitting all over. Ramasamy was dressed in his new blue shorts and bush coat which was a fashionable outfit for the village. He came running to her. Mangammal also walked looking at him. They met halfway. The moment they met, Ramasamy with great pleasure said: “Raja has come to my house.”
Like the villagers, he also called his brother-in-law Raja. But he said that this was only out of excitement, not to invite Mangammal to a competition. But she thought otherwise. She could remember the game played the previous day. So, she wanted to retort to hurt his pride.
She went half a foot forward. Without any hesitation or fear, she looked at Ramasamy, and showing her palm as if to a palmist she said derisively: “Aiye, has Raja come to your house only? Raja has come to our house too. Come and see if you want.”