TRANSLATED FROM THE TAMIL BY DR. S. VINCENT
The little one won’t talk much. She is in her fifth standard. Kuruvimookan, Aamai and her, they have a team. ‘Aamai’, which means a turtle, indeed is true to her name. An active chatterbox, she prefers to keep her distance from the games and would happily spend hours gazing at the clouds and insects. But for the little one and Kuruvimookan, it wasn’t worth playing if it didn’t leave them sweat-soaked. Everything else was as pointless as the turtle inside the well. Even now, the little one’s mind was all flared up as she watched the dry fish market from the bridge. Nobody could run faster than her from the entrance to the last shop. Last week, Kuruvimookan had claimed that he could. This Monday, she stood there alone. If Atha came this way, looking for Nanthiavattai at the Pillayar garden, then there would be no escaping her reprimands.
That afternoon, Aamai led the conversation away from games to elsewhere and Kuruvimookan commented on his ability to run faster than her. Furious, she left them right away and did not even turn to look at his face till the school was over .
He should not have said that. The boy had moles on his tongue which meant whatever he spoke would come true. This left the little girl disturbed; it was too much. She kept thinking about it. “What’s the matter, big girl! What’s with this long face! What happened? Did anyone tell you anything?” asked her father and sisters. However, she could not control her agitation. There were only her father and two sisters at home. Her mother passed away when she was just a few months old. So her mother’s mother, Thanamari Atha continued to live with them. She had come to help in the delivery. She had no husband or siblings and her only child was their mother. She had been living alone in the village. After their mother’s death, she had come to the town to live with them. The eldest and the elder sisters did not like Atha very much, or that was what the little one always thought. She thought that her relationship with Atha was something special. She could not have known that all the younger children in a family thought like that.
Kuruvimookan said such a grandmother will be lost soon, like the other elders in the town have disappeared. In recent times, they could not see Kareem Thatha, the old man Sevai, and the old Aachi. Her elder sisters refuse to disclose anything to her. Many stories are being circulated by girls and boys of her age. The Government had given an order now it appeared. If someone did not answer their questions, then they would be put in jail. This was the story which most people had heard. But there was no consensus about the type of questions they were going to ask and they could not come to any decision. Would they ask questions from subjects like Social Science? Kuruvimookan had said like this. That too he declared it with unbelievable certainty. So she decided to test what he had said. But she could not get a chance for it till sunset. Atha and the eldest sister were discussing something. And they changed the subject when she came there. They also asked her to go out. “Don’t you have homework to do? Why do you loiter like a cat?”
What they said reminded her of the disappearance of cats two years ago. Many cats including Suren, which had been coming to their house, disappeared. But the elders were left unaffected. Whenever they were asked, they would tell them stories. Kareem Thatha who had just disappeared, told them stories about the jinn who stole the cats.
“That jinn was born in fire when Allah created living things,” he said. “It used to go around ravenous and thirsty. During the rainy season, it went to sleep, seeking warmth in the cold, woke up when the rains abated and guzzled all the water from the tanks during summer. A great sage once prayed to Allah, to put it to sleep permanently. By the power that the Sage got, he beat the jinn with a broom made of peacock feathers and tied it. As long as the sage was in the town, it would get his permission to go to a far-off place, eat cattle, empty the tanks and come back to its original place. If it tried to escape, it would be beaten. Once, the sage went to a village in Mecca to help the people there, but, in his absence, some mischievous kids freed the jinn who had been hungry for a long time. But the famished jinn now had no strength to hunt big animals. So it went out and fed on kittens. Only if the sage returned, the jinn could be controlled,” Thatha said.
The little one had great affection for that cat. That was why she named it Suren, after her science teacher whom she liked very much. Once Suren brought a squirrel, put it at her feet and looked at her. It loved her so much! Even when she pushed it away twice, the cat brought back the squirrel again and looked at her face anxiously. Finally, realizing that she did not want the prize catch, it took it away, greatly disappointed. When she narrated it to her sister happily, she pitied the squirrel and spoke with contempt about Suren. So the little one did not tell anyone else about it. “During those long nights, where did the cats go? Had the jinn grown big enough to carry the elders now? Or did the jailers who took away the elders, catch the cats also? I must ask father to get me a phone. Only now the eldest sister had a cell phone. She would not give it to me. Now, many children in the school had cell phones, secretly or even openly. Only they knew a lot of things.” She was thinking all these things and gradually dozed off.
As soon as she got up in the morning, she rushed to catch hold of Atha who was getting busy with her cooking.
“Atha, when is your birthday?”
“Once there was no rain and there was no cultivation for two years. Famine broke out in all the villages. I was born a couple of rains after that.”
“Tell me the date, Atha.”
“How do I know, Thayee? Who recorded it those days?”
“You should have it in your school certificate. Find out now itself and tell me.”
“Do you think I went to school?”
“Then you really do not know? Ask your father or mother or relatives or somebody.”
“Who do I have except you, thayee?”
That was enough. The little one broke down into tears. Atha could not understand what she had said to make her cry. Father and sisters also came. “I want to know Atha’s birthday, right now.” she kept nagging. She did not give other reason. Father was furious. “Why do you wail like this in the morning?” he yelled. Both the sisters took her away. By that time, atha’s face was wet with tears that trickled down her cheeks. The son-in-law had never been harsh towards her or said that she was useless. He was such a good man. But every so often she felt like a burden, not only to this family but also to the very earth. Meanwhile, they were asking for documents to prove the location of Atha’s birth. They said the information was for the census. There were many rumors going around, confusing everyone. Where would she go to find her birthday? She could remember that her name was Thanamari, only when somebody asked her for such information, for verifying the ration card. For everyone, she was only Atha.
What happened to Kareem, stirred up weird guesses among the people of the town. People who were saying that he was a different type of a person until recently, now started weaving new stories. Nobody knew for certain, what had happened to old man Sevai. It occurred to Atha that she should have been safe in the village, cooking and eating alone, instead of coming to this big town where people spewed all sorts of nonsense about various things. But who knew about the condition that prevailed there? To a person who had no place to go, all places were the same everywhere. The thought weighed on her heavily.
After the whimpering stopped, the little one told her sisters what Kuruvimookan had said. It appeared that the government people would ask everyone their date of birth. If anyone did not give proper answer, then they would be put in jail. That was how Kareem Thatha had been taken away. Next, they would get to their Atha also, the little one sobbed. The eldest sister consoled her. “Kareem Thatha is a Muslim. That is why they have taken him away. The police will not put us in jail.” But the little one whined saying, “No, old man Sevai is not a Muslim and he also has been taken away.” The sisters tried to pacify her, saying they would release them soon. The little one was somewhat encouraged. As the eldest sister said this, it should be correct. “She knows everything.”
That day the little one went directly to Kuruvimookan and told him, “They won’t catch my Atha. They arrest only Muslim people. Look, they are going to catch your Vappa ”. When he asked her, “You blabbing girl, who told you that?” she replied, “My sister learned it from WhatsApp .” When she said that she had seen it in WhatsApp, he hesitated and was scared. “They had said the same thing in the TV also,” she added this piece on her own. Last week Kuruvimookan’s vappa went to Chennai. When he was asked for the reason, he said that he had been summoned by the Jamaat . If Kuruvimookan had asked for more information, he would have scolded him. “What made you poke your nose into the affairs of elders?” he would have shouted. Kuruvimookan was seized with fear. What could he do if the police caught his father? His mother used to say, sometimes angrily, sometimes jokingly, that his father was not good at talking and that he did not know anything about the affairs of the world. If the police came and enquired his Vappa, he would not be able to manage. He forgot even ordinary things. His mother would often scold him because nothing could be found in its proper place. He decided to find out the date of birth of his father that night itself.
That night in the dreams of the children there were dark clouds. The cats that had disappeared, were licking the leaves of the strange plants that had sprung up in the arid lakes of the village. A jinn which had lost its teeth, was also loitering with the cats. They were playing with the cats, learning new words. The children were hunting the cats.
Nanthiavattai- Crepe Jasmine
Atha – mother, grandmother
Thatha – grandfather
Vappa – in Muslim community father is called vappa
Thayee – mother, a term of endearment
Jamaat – an organization of Muslims