Translated from the Tamil by Dr. S. Vincent
“Keep quiet,” said the little girl to a younger and thinner boy with a blank face. Hiding his laughter in the ‘thud’ ‘thud’ of the train, he turned to look outside the window. Trying to sit comfortably, I looked at them. The girl would be ten or twelve, a little dark with a body grown ahead of her age, which veiled the childishness of her face. It was somewhat consoling that there was a little crowd on the platform as well as in the compartment.
It was because of this little girl and her brother that I chose to sit here though there were other vacant seats. They sat facing their mother and I sat next to the mother at the window seat. “Samosa, tea…” The cacophony of the vendors withdrew slowly as the train lurched forward. The people and the houses began to slip away from sight, and the fences and the trees with their green leafy covering came running with us on both sides of the train, like fortifications. In the midst of the creepers, small violets and white flowers gleamed in the morning sunshine.
I could sense that the boy and the girl did not appreciate my sitting near their mother. They did not respond to my gentle smile even before I sat down and avoided eye contact completely. I just observed the mother. She was middle-aged with a facial resemblance to her son. Her hair was cut like a man’s and was unkempt. Her thin sari, equally ruffled and disorganized exposed parts of her obese body. She pointed with her right hand at something and staring in that direction, broke into laughter. She repeated the gesture at something else a bit later. Before I could realize that she was not in a normal state of mind, another peal of loud laughter came from her. Hand outstretched as if she was threatening the world with that explosive laughter, she outshouted the noise of the train. She was frightened a little. I moved closer to the window. The behavior of their mother in the presence of a stranger should have made the children ashamed and grief-stricken at the same time. Both of them looked at her apprehensively.
Then, she became quiet. Her head hung low. One could not guess her mood. I turned my face and looked at the children with concern. They stared back at me before quickly turning away, making it clear that they did not like my presence there.
The girl rummaged through the small bag of luggage which they had kept under the seat along with others. There were old aluminum utensils for cooking in one. There were some grocery items in a gunny bag and some old clothes in another. The girl admonished her mother to keep quiet, for which the woman had only laughter as her response. She behaved as if her mind was in some far-off place altogether and continued gesticulating to someone or something. The boy quickly scooped something out something from the bag and it appeared like chili powder. He spilled it on the floor. The girl adjusted her mother’s sari and sat in her seat.
I observed the woman carefully now. I hesitated to ask the children how she became like this.
She was in a different world. She cringed her nose as if she was inhaling an unpleasant smell. Her eyes were shifting without any focus as she was looking at things not present there. A myriad of expressions kept playing on her face as it would happen in a conversation.
The woman stretched out her finger once again and let out a guffaw of laughter, actually unleashed it, strange and uncontrollable. It was the like the giggling of children you would hear when one of their playmates slipped and fell down. But this woman’s laugh was different. Soon, she started coughing; something was caught in her throat perhaps and tears started streaming down her cheeks. The girl and the boy exchanged looks and smiled at their mother. On seeing them, her laughter became louder. I was not sure whether she could recognize her own children. Now her eyes were fixed on me, it appeared. I smiled a little. But she did not seem to notice it. I realized that her eyesight had no focus. It did not fall on me but went through me.
The girl sitting opposite got up and stood in front of me guarding her mother against my sight. She did not like me looking at her. She caressed her mother’s hair lovingly. She arranged her sari also. But without realizing what was going on, the woman continued laughing. It did not appear that she understood her daughter or her activities. As soon as the girl went back to her seat, the boy took his turn and stood touching her mother’s shoulder for some time. He looked in the direction in which his mother was pointing her finger while laughing. There, trees were moving fast. Flowers in different colors passed them by. Streams of fresh water gushed into the fields. Men plowed, women weeded. At a distance, a black bird flew against the white clouds gathered in different shapes in the blue sky. The boy held her mother to him and started crying. He pulled her head to his stomach and hugged it. His sister got up hurriedly and took her brother back to his seat. Now the woman stretched out her hand in some other direction and continued laughing.
In the meanwhile, the train had reached the next village. A boy was selling sundals. The aroma of it filled the compartment and I craved for some. I wondered whether I could eat some sundal. But I hesitated to eat in their presence. I could get some for them but they would in all probability refuse to get it. Even now the woman was laughing. The boy selling the sundal looked at her strangely, passed by but lowered his voice. One wouldn’t know what prompted him to do so.
The woman changed her tone. She wrinkled her forehead now and had a forlorn look. Her expression seemed to be sad and tears rolled down her cheeks. She lay down on the seat all curled up and squeezed her eyes shut. She started wailing aloud which soon climbed down to a whimper like that of a child. A woman from the next bay peeped at her and went away. A man from the next bay came to her and patted her, his face crinkled apparently in frustration or perhaps in sorrow. He should be her husband. At once, the woman stopped only to explode into a bout of wailing. He stared at the little girl. She was trying to evade his look. She opened the stainless steel vessel, took out two chapattis, put them on a paper plate, and handed it to her mother with some chutney. But she cried without opening her eyes. The girl thrust the plate into her hand. She could not hold it. Then, the girl picked off a piece from the chapatti and put it in her mother’s mouth. She stopped crying, got up, and started eating.
“Mother must be hungry, that is why she cried,” said the boy and cut the chapatti into small pieces and put them on the plate. The woman, smiling at some far-off thing, ate hurriedly. The boy caught hold of his mother’s hand and put it in his mouth. He got two more chapattis from the vessel and put the pieces on the plate. There were a few left on the plate and she refused to eat any more. The girl ate off the leftover. Her brother took some chapattis to his father in the next bay and came back to join her sister.
The woman got up lifting her fat body from the seat. Her hand was meddling with the hem of her skirt. The girl guessing her mother’s need took her to the toilet holding her hand. In a short while, we could hear her calling her brother. The boy rushed as if he had been expecting the call. After some time the siblings brought their mother to her seat holding her on both sides.
The girl’s shawl was wet. The moment the woman sat down, I could smell the stench of blood. I twitched my nose and turned aside. On seeing it, the girl covered her mother with an old blanket. But when she stretched out her hand laughing, it fell off. The front of her sari was stained with blood. The stench was unbearable. Though I was tempted to leave the place, an urge to see the behavior of the woman and watch the reactions of the children made me sit in my seat. In order to breathe fresh air, I sat closer to the window and started watching the world outside. The wind that hit my face irritated my eyes.
I looked at the morning sun shining bright. It was turning red as if someone had poured blood over it. Red light spilled all over. The clouds also appeared as red packages. It seemed as if it was raining blood on the land and blood was running in the streams, blood had collected in small puddles in the fields. The wind itself appeared clean now, washed off of its bad odor. However, the wind was suffocating me. When I was about to get up, the boy came near his mother, sat on her lap, and started swinging as if it was a swing. The woman was laughing, looking somewhere as if recognizing something in all directions.
I could hear her husband who was in the next bay talking to someone. “We are going to Velankanni. We will stay there for ten days. We must leave her in the convent. Don’t know whether the sisters will agree. Two of the people from my town have shops there. They said Mother Mary of Velankanni will cure her. She was treated by many doctors. I had my trust in human beings. Only a waste of money. Hereafter we have to trust God only. I have prayed that if she is cured, I will present a golden cross. I don’t know whether it will take a year or two for her to be cured…”
The husband was speaking to someone. As he was speaking, the children were looking at me. “This is our story, get to know about it,” they seemed to say. I was overcome with pity and sorrow. But what could I do to help them? Which God wrote on their forehead that they should suffer like this at their tender age? Only the woman seemed to be fortunate when I looked at her and her children. She would not feel any pain or misery. I wondered what kind of feeling we would have if we knew nothing was happening around us. We would not feel the burden of the family; there would be no difference between joy and sorrow.
“I have also to go out to work. It’s difficult for the children to look after her. They have no time to study. They cannot also watch her suffer. That is why I want to leave her somewhere away from our eyes. If they refuse to keep her in Velankanni, I will try the durgha at Pappoor. There, they chain such people and give them treatment, I heard. We have to go there if we do not get a place at Velankanni. You see, the children are very young and they find it difficult to deal with her. If it is their fate to have a mother, they will have her. If she is alive after her mental illness is cured, we will come and take her back. Otherwise, it is all in the hands of Velankanni Amma…”
The man went on talking. He seemed to feel better after unburdening himself by talking like this.
“How many doctors could we see? In the beginning, she was not like this. She would simply sit quietly for hours together without speaking anything. At least she could have continued sitting like that. After taking her to doctors, she had become like this. Neighbors used to advise us to do various things and had brought her to this state, I think. But what is the using of blaming others? What is destined must happen…”
The man’s voice rang out clearly, drowning the noise of the train. Poor man. Nobody could guess how much he had suffered. As I heard him speak, my heart went out to him. I stared at the sky. Now its color had changed. The red had disappeared and it looked pale. The little black bird was still flying above the horizon along with the train. It appeared as if it was helpless to find its direction. I was filled with remorse. I turned my head away, swallowing my tears. The woman was sitting with her head between her legs.
The girl sitting opposite was stretching two of her fingers to her brother. Crying, he touched both fingers one after the other. The girl’s face was grim. “Will you cry or not when you leave mother?” she asked him. She wanted him not to cry. It could be understood that if he cried, she could not bear it. What she could do if she also started crying on seeing him cry, she thought perhaps. They could not be with their mother. The feeling of pain that their father was adamant about caused her face to lose its color. The boy was still touching the fingers alternatively. I moved towards the next bench, pretending to go to the toilet. Only then I noticed that there was nobody except him in that bay. He should have been talking to himself as if he was addressing someone. I hurriedly returned to my seat.
The train stopped at a station now. I stood up. The children looked at me sadly. It appeared to me that their eyes begged me to be with them. Of course, my stop was still a couple of stations away. But I was in a dilemma whether to get down there itself or go to some other compartment. But I got down. As if the train was waiting for me alight, it started off. The woman laughed again. When the train passed me, I could see the faces of the two children in every window. Both of them were stretching out their fingers. All the people standing on the platform were running after them to touch the two fingers.
Sundal— boiled chickpeas
Velankanni is a coastal town near Nagapattinam. It has a shrine of Mother Mary and pilgrims visit it from all over the world. They pray for various things including a cure for mental illness.
The Durgha is a Muslim place of worship and in this particular durgha, mentally challenged persons are given treatment.
The title of the story Hunchback Crescent is a translation from Tamil Koonal Pirai. The Tamil title is taken from Thevaram , a collection of devotional poems, and Kurtralak Kuravanji , a collection of folk songs. The phrase koonal ilam pirai means slouched/ bent/ crooked young crescent which adorns the hair of Lord Shiva. I preferred hunchback because I thought it depicts the distortions in God’s creations. Will He come to the rescue of the mentally challenged woman? Perhaps He is more callous and indifferent than the onlooker. As flies to the wanton boys are we to gods.