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Hot Chilly— S. R. Lal

Jun 25, 2023 | Fiction | 0 comments

TRANSLATED FROM THE MALAYALAM BY K.M. AJIR KUTTY

 

Hot Chilly

Image Used For Representation

 

Have you had the experience of living all alone at a time when you have already stopped banking on leading a hopeful life?

The doctors are telling me, though discreetly, that I have little time left. My doctor says that I have not attained yet the ripe age of embracing death and further admonishes me to come to hospital in the company of a relative only. I have antagonized all those blood ties who would have stood by me in the hour of need. They have moved so far that it is impossible to reconnect with them anymore. I have not given anything to anyone who genuinely deserved some kind of assistance from me; not even a paisa when I was able to do that. I had invented my own excuses for that and staunchly stood by them. And I have neither the ability nor the strength nor the confidence for reuniting the severed relations either. Thinking about such a plight alone will deter me from making any further advances or inferences. 

A woman, not exactly a woman, someone who can be aptly called a crone, comes in the morning, and does some chores for me before going off. She is a magician who makes things disappear the moment my watchful eyes lose their vigil. Of a fact, I ignore a few of her thefts. Nowadays servants are hard to come by. They are just interested in going to work in flats and apartments. They can claim their pay for the hours of work done there. They just do not have to sweep up an old house like this. The old woman makes a show of sweeping clean the rooms and the courtyard. And then she goes into the kitchen to cook some rice and two insipid curries. In between she will curse a hundred times a lot of people whom she hates. Further, she will talk to herself and take some breath by leaning against the wall. Chastising or not bothering to fault her will be to my advantage. It will be difficult for me to find someone else if she kicks the job and goes away. 

It is the auto rickshaw driver who comes next. He is a youngster, indulgent, and enjoys frivolous moments. But when it comes to taking money from me, his lighter mood will be off. He is a devil who cuts your throat with a smile. These days it is he who comes with me to hospital. If called up, he will appear before me instantly. He will be entrusted with the most pressing needs of mine. He has rates for everything he does. He is too busy to do his jobs in a relaxed manner. He loves his family. He will not do a thing leaving his wife and children behind. I have already handed over a list of names of people to be informed of my death when I finally die one day. In case nobody turns up for my cremation, he will perform the last rites all by himself. After somebody has died, it is immaterial whether his or her last rites are performed properly or not. 

It is two days since he and three days since the old woman came last. He had told me that his father-in-law was seriously ill and was hospitalized. He may have kicked the bucket, in all likelihood. His phone is constantly switched off. He does not have the courtesy to phone up and tell me what the matter is. 

As the old woman has failed to turn up, the hearth in the kitchen remained unlit for three days consecutively. I will crawl and stagger into the kitchen to make tea or black tea. I just do not know how to cook anything else. I poured some hot water into the rice left over from the previous days’ meal and made it into a sort of gruel and drank. The kitchen has remained empty since last night. I am extremely hungry. Now there is no hope of the old woman coming today. That is an old clock which may come to a stop any time. Has it stopped running? Who knows?

Day and night are alike, listless. There is nothing to be done. As the moments were thus moving on, the squeaks of squirrels were heard from the mango tree in the courtyard. That was ground enough for me to think about the mango tree.

I am working in Palakkad. I am as sprightly as any youth. In the evenings I would roam about the city. Hamza, who was a peon in my office, would come with me to help. He would soon retire from service. He was always anxious about his home. He married quite late. It was because of his concern for his sisters that his marriage was delayed. In case I popped into his house, he would not allow me to go without giving me a treat. Once I said that the mango, he had treated me with, was quite delicious. That was a good reason for him to make a seedling of it by planting a mango seed in a grow bag. 

The day I was transferred from Palakkad, to my surprise, I saw Hamza at the railway station with a mango seedling in his hand. I had deferred taking home a mango seedling on many occasions before. ‘If not now, when would you take it home, Sir?’ The railway station was crowded to the hilt. And I had neither a berth nor a seat reserved for me. I was just thinking about getting home somehow. Meanwhile, Hamza disappeared into the crowd taking leave of me to get to home to see his sick child. Capitalizing on his absence, I pushed the mango seedling under a bench on the platform. ‘Sir, did you forget this?’ Grumbling about my indifference, look, Hamza is entering my compartment. That damned fellow has come again with his sick child to see me off. 

It is that mango tree that has grown into a big shady tree in the courtyard.

It was when my attention was turning toward the jasmine creeper at the foot of the mango tree caught between the possibilities of getting blighted or growing anew again that Mohanan appeared. That was a good thing to happen; otherwise, the jasmine would have mauled my mind. 

It has long been a habit with me to forget about people even if I have seen them three or four times. It is not on purpose that it happens so. Certain things will not enter the mind. However, I could recognize Mohanan the moment I saw him. He was the same old lean figure. Strands of hairs in his beard have gone grey. A thin film of oil has spread over his hair falling over the forehead. Standing in the courtyard, Mohanan is smiling at me. ‘Mohana, come on in…’ Mohanan is surprised at my invitation. Delighted at being recognized by me after all these years, he is calling me by my familiar name ‘Raamendra…’

‘Sitting in this posture is the comfort of the thing.’ Stretching his legs towards the lower sill of the door, Mohanan sat on the floor. Mohanan was in a hurry, it seemed. That is why, without tarrying any longer, he went all the way to Kunnumpuram School . Carrying my bag, I went with him, too. It is through the lane in front of his house that we walk to school. They have an oil-press pulled by a bullock for extracting coconut oil from copra. We call him by his nickname ‘Copra Mohanan.’ He does not bristle at it. On those days when coconuts are broken, they would keep coconut water by the wayside for the school children to drink. When overripe and dry coconuts beginning to sprout are broken, Mohanan would bring the tender sprouts to share with his classmates. He would not give it to anybody else. How delicious it is!

The place where Mohanan lives is called Chakkuparambil . People gave Mohanan the nickname of ‘Copra Mohanan’ so that they could identify him easily so to say. His father would walk behind the bullock when it pulls the oil-press. In the absence of his father, it will be his mother’s turn to go after it. Broken coconut would be laid out in the courtyard to dry in the sun. Crow feathers tied into a bunch would be hung from a tripod to scare away the crows. Mohanan can be seen aiming a sling at the crows with a stone placed in it. When he comes, he brings with him the scent of copra as well. He sleeps in the shed where coconuts are stored. His hair cascading over his forehead would appear to be dripping with oil.

True to its name, the Kunnumpuram School is situated on a hilltop. There were trees around it. There is a vast field at the back of it. While Mohanan is engaged in playing football there, we will be playing the country game of kili , a comparatively innocuous game in which players seldom get injured. Whereas in football getting wounded in the hands or legs is certain. Kurup Sir is our P. T. Sir (Physical Training Sir). He will menacingly brandish his cane at those students who sulk in the classroom without making a beeline for the grounds for games and exercises. I loathed going to play during the P. T. periods. Stealing of meal packets on P.T. days is certain. If stolen, one must remain hungry till evening. There will be an omelet fried with a sprinkling of desiccated coconut stashed in the rice. Once the packet is opened, the greedy ones sitting next to me will snatch away half of the omelet. That was why the omelet was kept hidden within the rice. In fact, my mother was obeying my bidding in doing so. 

Murukan came running up to me and said, panting, ‘Don’t tell anybody. It’s Copra Mohanan who steals your meal packet…I saw him wash his hand at the tap. The moment he saw me, he dashed towards the field.’

Mohanan is playing kabadi as though nothing has happened. He is on a ride in the court of the opposing team. It is certain that his attention was disturbed by my presence. The opposing team caught him by his legs and floored him. Ordinarily it does not happen. Mohanan is hefty; even if four or five players catch him, he will easily reach the touch line along with them.

Wiping off the dust, he came out of the court. He is looking at me from the corner of his eyes. I called and drew him nearby. He stood before me like an obedient dog wagging its tail. He is doubly taller than me. Mohanan swore by his mother and father and finally by the Poolanthara goddess . ‘I have not taken it. Somebody must have told a lie to you, Raamendra…See, I’m playing kabdi here…then how can I …?’

I took hold of his hand to see if I get any scent of it…Mohanan did not expect it. It did not give out any scent other than the odour of the red sand.

But it seemed that Mohanan was shaken. His face turned a little gloomier.

As school was dispersed for the day, fear gripped Mohanan. Like hunger, sunlight in the lane at that time is lying in wait for its prey. 

He came after me.

‘I haven’t taken it…I don’t know anything of it…’

Mohanan was stupefied to hear that his theft would be reported to his home. He is hardly able to think of it. He ran ahead of me and stood as an obstacle across the opening in the fence around his house. The game of kili is also played like this. The opponent will not be allowed to pass. Anybody vying with Mohanan will be defeated. At that time, his father came with the bullock. He is walking with unsteady steps; he is obviously weak. Having been caught in the obstinacy of my opinion, I sprinted toward his father and finished telling him everything in a moment. He had not expected at all that I would have made such a move. In fact, Mohanan also had rushed to the spot to give his version of the incident. All that I could see then was the coming down of a heavy stick of guava with whizz, with which his father used to beat the bullock, against Mohanan. 

The scene of action on that day ends with that.

A clearer and sharper view has emerged only today.

Mohanan running toward his father with a look of helplessness, his father lunging toward him with a roar, the whizzing of the guava stick, Mohanan falling to the ground writhing, his pitiful cry, the bullock turning panicky and running helter-skelter, his sisters standing with fright, Mohanan coming to school with us the next day as usual, then he stopped coming to school, the death of his father, Mohanan and family shifting residence from Chakkuparambil to somewhere else, leaving the oil-press alone at the mercy of rain and shine…

Then I had to go to Elamkulam to see Mohanan. In fact, I was sent there on punishment transfer. Wherever I was transferred to or posted to, people were waiting there with a lot of money! All that I had to do was to be keen on playing the game, taking care not to fall into any trap. The only difficulty I had to face was the long journey. Tired of sitting for long hours, my buttocks would rupture. And I had to get back to town to be at the place where I stayed. When I see people around my office building on the day on which I go home, I will be mad with anger. It was on one of those days that Mohanan also came. I did not recognize him from his appearance. Mohanan accosted me and renewed the old acquaintance. I kept aloof, showing not so much camaraderie. He has come to obtain a caste certificate and an income certificate to apply for a scholarship for his son. 

Mohanan accompanied me till the bus stop telling me about marrying his sisters off, about his mother’s death, about his marrying a girl he loved, and about his smart son shining in his studies. He told me that now he was making a living out of carpentry. And his son was not like him. He would certainly succeed in life…Mohanan still further went on loosely elaborating on this and that. I just remained a silent and acquiescing listener throughout. By then the sun had come down as low as the foot. The bus was coming up the gradient. 

It was when I returned to the office that I came to know of Mohanan making a scene in the office before going away. ‘Once I go home, I will take two or three days before finally making it to office. No certificate will be issued on time.’ Mohanan came into the office fuming with anger and indignation. He was quite agitated. ‘These guys here are all puppets taking bribes…nothing will happen unless their palms are greased, Raamendra.’

‘Get up…you get up…’

Mohanan rises from the seat, startled. That was quite necessary. How many of those people have been made to tremble like this?! Isn’t it power that is in my hand?

‘Did I tell you to sit here? Once the certificate is ready, you can collect it and go. You need not hang on here anymore to teach us courtesy and things like that…Understand?’

Mohanan holds his palms together in obeisance and bows to me. He gets out of the office.

While stepping out of the office, he turned back to look pathetically at me. But it is absent from the train of scenes saved for the day.

Now I must ask Mohanan how he found my house.

‘I took much trouble to find your house, Raamendra. I asked people in my village. Nobody had any idea where you lived. I come to Poojappura every month…I come here…’

‘Who is staying there?’

‘My son…it is two years since he has been in jail. It is our fate, Raamendra. What else?’

From where shall he begin? While trying to tell the story of his son, this predicament will stare Mohanan in the face. Shall I begin from his childhood? Or shall I start with his school days? Or what about describing everything after he had obtained the scholarship? Mohanan has been experiencing this dilemma for around fifteen years. 

Finally, Mohanan decided to tell Raamendran the trail of events since his son got married. What is the point in detailing everything else to others? 

One day when I came home after the day’s work, I saw a girl sitting in the portico. A fair and good-looking girl. My wife and four or five women neighbours were standing with their hands held under their chins in wonderment in the courtyard. The girl had no hesitation in divulging everything. I also minced no words. I counselled the girl and tried to alert her until he came in the evening about the pitfalls lying hidden in such rash adventures. I showed her our bare walls and the kitchen where no firewood burned. I kept counselling her good behaviour and said, ‘Daughter, you have a bright future. Don’t jeopardize it by running away with him. You should not get your parents into trouble. I am telling you this because I have daughters, too.’

When he came home, I also advised him. Both remained unmoved. They went into a hurry, saying that staying any more in our house would be inauspicious. I gave him some money that I had saved for the day. We have not heard about them since then. We did not go out in search of them either. After two to two and half years, one day he came home all alone. Having got wet in the rain, he was shivering. I dried his head with a towel. I did not ask him anything. He did not tell me anything either. I could read everything on his face. Then he started to come with me for carpentry. He became adept at work. If it is so, let it be so. Then I found a suitable girl for him. Joyful moments slowly started to arrive in our home too. 

It was just then a theft case was slapped on him. That he snatched away a gold chain from somebody. The police arrested him despite pleading under oath that he had never ever visited the place from where the theft was reported. 

That was a trap set by the immediate relations of his former girlfriend to settle scores with him. They are influential enough to pull strings in the higher ups, Raamendra… If he is set at liberty from the jail, a new case will somehow be foisted upon him. It has become an order of the day, so to speak. Now he has been in jail for two years…

Mohanan took a deep sigh. He drew a picture on the ground. It looked like the bars of a jail door or something. Mohanan took the towel from his shoulder and wiped his face with it, freshening himself up. 

With the passage of time, now I cannot say whether what he says is true or not, Raamendra…If you listen to what the police say, you will think that their version is correct. He may be crafty enough to be a thief. And I do not have the ability to get to the core of the matter either. If I ask him questions persistently, he will say, ‘I don’t remember anything, father!’

You know, Raamendra, there is the story of Vellayiyappan. My granddaughter is now in the tenth grade. She is his daughter. The story is given in her textbook. I will make her read it aloud. On the day of his son’s execution, Vellayiyappan is going to Kannur Central Prison to receive his body. When the question, ‘Did you commit the crime?’ is put to him, Vellayiyappan’s son would say: ‘I don’t remember anything.’

Whenever I listen to that story, I want to break into tears.

Mohanan sobbed once, so it seemed. Or was he coughing?

Just then a wind came, scraping against the floor. But the trees stood sturdy, quite unmindful of it. 

He says there is no need to see any lawyer. ‘You need not take the trouble of getting me out of the jail, father… the magistrate will grant me bail after some time. That is enough. You need not waste the money you have now with you, father.’

‘Don’t you say that the offence you are charged with is something that you have never committed, my son?’

‘I haven’t done anything knowingly, father. I am made to suffer the results of a sin committed by someone else in our family.’

When I hear words like these, my heart will writhe, Raamendra. We too will feel like having committed some wrong. I will start nitpicking everything. I will be in the grip of doubts. It is days since I have slept. And it is because of that I set out from home looking for you. 

Mohanan tightly caught hold of the cloth bag that sat by his side as if he were holding something for support. It was a kind of soiled bag in which carpenters carried their tools. 

‘You shouldn’t get angry with me.’

Mohanan started to speak with a slur.

‘Long ago when we were at school, your packet of meals was stolen, wasn’t it? It was I who stole it.’

‘That was a time when father had been hospitalized. No meals were cooked in our house. I hadn’t eaten anything for two days. At our age, getting hungry frequently was common. I could not control myself, Raamendra…’

I could just say to Mohanan that there is no such incident etched in my memory. I can pretend innocence. Pretension is a fine ruse, isn’t it?

Mohanan moved up a little and sat by my side. He grabbed my leg suddenly. His hands were warm. But I felt like they were scalding me.

You forgot it thanks to your good disposition, Raamendra…that which I did under the pangs of hunger, how can I forget it? Nobody will forget it.

I am not spending any more time here, Raamendra…I am going…it will be midnight when I finally reach home…I will have to catch a bus…I am scared to go in trains.

Mohanan stood up as though he had been released from a dungeon where he was held for a long time. His face was brightening up. It seemed. He had something more to say or to do. He took out two packets from his bag.

I did not know whether there were any children in this house. We would be happy to see a packet in the hands of visitors whenever they paid a visit to our homes. Therefore, whenever I visited a home, I would carry a packet in my hand. It is baked snack of mixture in one of these packets.

When I started from home in the morning today, I took a packet of meals also. Mohanan said, offering the second packet as well.

I got one for you too. There will not be distinct kinds of curries or dishes in it.

He extended the packet of meals which had soaked in the vapour in the bag. I wanted to say a few good words to Mohanan. But nothing came out of my mouth. 

I had taken your packet of meals only once, Raamendra. Only once. 

Turning back, Mohanan said those words once again. He was not contented with saying it once earlier. 

The rumbling sound of heavy rain was heard from afar. I called out to Mohanan asking him to stay back until the rain tapered off. Mohanan may not have heard it. He held his bag over his head to shield it from getting wet. 

In the same manner as the rain, hunger too came rumbling. I opened the packet of meals. From the packet of meal covered in a steamed banana leaf, came the aromas to which I had been long accustomed. There was a ball of chutney ground with green chillies, ginger and shallots. Dollops of curd had been added at one end. When I had eaten two morsels, the yellow disc of an omelet came into view. The omelet had a sprinkling of desiccated coconut as well. Water welled up in my eyes and it flowed out. I just could not have controlled it. I had not bitten into any chilly. And yet, what was it that gave me the tangy taste and kept up the burning sensation inside? 


Also, read Martyrs’ Memorial by Sadhan Das, translated from the Bengali by Subarna Banerjee, and published in The Antonym: 

Martyrs’ Memorial— Sadhan Das


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 S.R. Lal

S.R. Lal

S.R. Lal is a prolific writer in Malayalam whose works have won many prestigious awards including Sahitya Akademi award, Kerala Sahitya Akademi award, Kerala State Institute of Children’s Literature award, the Abu Dhabi Sakthi award etc. His short stories and novels have carved a niche of their own in Malayalam literature and are widely read and critically acclaimed. He is Assistant Editor on Grandhalokam magazine, the organ of the Kerala State Library Council, being published from Thiruvananthapuram. 

 

 

K. M. Ajir Kutty

K. M. Ajir Kutty

K.M. Ajir Kutty is a bilingual writer, translator, and poet in Malayalam and English. His translations in English have appeared in journals such as Indian Literature, Chandrabhaga, The Antonym Magazine, and the Journal of Literature and Aesthetics. While his English poems are yet to be collected and published in a book format, a book of his Malayalam poems Kalanjukittunna Vasthukkal has been published. He won the M.P. Kumaran Memorial Award for Translation in 2009 from the Kerala State Institute of Language.  He hails from Edava, a serene seaside village in the northwest corner of Thiruvananthapuram District, where it shares a border with the neighboring Kollam District. Apart from translating into English several well-known Malayalam authors including Mahakavi Kumaran Asan and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, he has taken the lead in introducing Kerala’s Mappila literature to the English-speaking people at large through his translations. Ajir was recently chosen for the Jibananda Das Award for Translation 2022 at a poetry translation competition jointly conducted by The Antonym Magazine and the Bhasha Samsad, Kolkata.

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