Vidya Panicker, a writer from Kerala, India has her poems, stories and translations published or upcoming in journals and magazines including The Feminist Review, Muse India, Himal South Asian, East Lit journal, Aberration Labyrinth, Spark journal, Indian review, Indian Ruminations, Raed Leaf India, Brown girl magazine, Femina fast fiction, Contemporary Literary Review of India, 4and20poetry.com, and Reading hour magazine. Some of her work have been translated and published in other Indian languages as well.
She won the second prize in the All India Poetry Contest 2014 held by the Poetry Society of India and is currently an editor on the poetrycircle.com
Before the rains
Sudhappan woke up to the persistent early morning sunlight seeping in through the holes in their rotting coconut thatch.
Every year, when the rains began, their mother promised herself that after harvests, they would get a new roof weaved. This item would go down further and further on the list of their expenses and priorities, until the next rains, when every single glass, cup, pot, pan and coconut shell would be dispersed on the floor of their tiny hut, to collect water dripping down the roof, with the 4 of them huddled in a corner, shivering from cold and the shock of thunder and lightning. With the monsoons just over a month away, Sudhappan realized that this year would be no different. Fortunately, the schools remain closed until the rains subsided as they would function as relief shelters for the ones displaced during the imminent floods, which always accompanied the rains. Their hut, along with a handful of others was situated at a slightly higher elevation, which barricaded them against the rising flood water most of the years.
Sudhappan recalled the year when his mother hastily packed their scanty belongings inside a cloth bundle and the family waded their way through the landscape where the earth and water had merged into one, and a week-long stay at the shelter where people fought each other for a bowl of rice gruel and a mouthful of water. Their hut was all but gone by the time they returned and mother sold her last bit of gold, a nose ring with a single stone, to rebuild it. The thatch has not been weaved ever since and while the hole on mother’s nose, where the nose ring once sparkled, slowly sealed itself, larger ones grew on the decaying roof.
That morning, Sudhappan had too many thoughts in his mind, the muddles and concerns of a 12 year old, albeit one with the most modest dreams. He sat up on his mat and looked at his thighs – more hairy and muscular than he remembered them. He could not wear a half pants to school anymore. He had to get a white mundu. The roof was still a challenge, so was hunger. Their supplies would not last beyond a week or two and the next harvest was still 4 months away. From the concerned looks on his mother’s face every day during dinner, her eyes darting across her 3 growing children and the insufficient gruel on their earthen plates, he know that soon they will resort to freely available food, straight from their backyard, including yam, tapioca, papaya and all edible leaves. As the panic of an uncertain tomorrow started lacing with the lethargy of his still sleepy body, Sudhappan stubbornly shook his head and got up. He had to do something, anything, to help his mother. He didn’t want her to go through another bout of emotional outburst, when she would question no one in particular as to why fate was mean to her, why she had to bring up 3 children alone, why their father had to die so young, and why nothing was ever enough.
She was right too. Born in an affluent Nair family that owned acres of paddy fields, she was married to a man who was almost as rich, but had a rather narrow view about what life meant, which included alcohol, gambling and procreation. Subsequently, after 8 years of their marriage, all that was left were 3 children, half an acre of land and a body inflicted with multiple ailments, some of them meant to be whispered and not mentioned in public. He died a slow, painful death, with his wife watching and caring for him dispassionately. Not welcome back to her house or her husband’s, she settled down in this dilapidated hut that was once meant for the laborers in the field and fought her way through life, one day at a time. None of these adversities were strong enough to prompt to bend her head or to compromise on her principles in life, though.
After washing his face with the water from the pond in front of their hut and scrubbing his teeth hard with a mango leaf and saw-dust ash, Sudhappan called out to his mother and told her that he was going out. His mother looked up from the red-brick fireplace on their front yard (another luxury of summer months), wondering why her only son was leaving the house this early, obviously not to the temple as he had not taken a bath yet.
“Don’t you want to eat something Sudhappa? I have fried some yams”, she told him.
The thought of yams revolted him, they were delicious for the first few weeks. By then the taste buds would no longer be functional, making them impervious to any tastes at all. Sudhappan longed for the breakfast of the rich—white fluffy idlis with steaming sambar and thick chammanthi, or vellayappams or idiayappams which chickpeas curry, as he had seen in his uncle’s house on an unwelcome visit there at the insistence of his mother who assumed that her brother would be happy to see a child of his favourite sister. Such delicacies were uncommon in their village, where people either gulped down the left over kanji – rice gruel from the previous day’s dinner or managed on some root crops from their own soil, and a cup of hot tea with very little milk and no sugar. Because their family hardly had enough for a single meal, left over gruel was never an option for Sudhappan and hence, month after month, his mother planted and pulled out yam, boiled and served them with a bit of crushed chili and salt.
“I will be back later in the day, will eat then”, Sudhappan replied to his mother and walked.
He ignored the subsequent questions from her as to where he was going. He had an idea, but he was not about to share it with his mother.
The most anticipated affair of the village was the annual temple festival, which lasted a week, starting from the day the temple flag was hoisted on the golden pillar, followed by days of special poojas and fun filled evenings of temporary stalls selling ladies’ fancy items, madammappooda– a kind of candy that melted in the mouth and resembled the white hair of a white woman, balloons, toys and peanuts, along with loud music and ballets and stage performances, and sometimes a projector movie show on a white cloth stretched and tied across two poles in the temple ground. On the 7th and the final day, the idol of Goddess was removed from the sanctum, and brought to the river bank 2 kilometers away, for her holy bath. On her way back to the temple after this prescribed bath, accompanied by drums and pipes, and the women of the village draped in cream mundu and veshti, holding lighted brass lamps with a long handle, the Goddess visits the homes of all her subjects, and gets back to the temple by late noon. The women who would by then be starving and fried under the sun were given free butter milk, before they got back home to their daily chores. One day later, the flag is brought down, marking the end of festivals and the village would go back to its state of perpetual somnolence.
That year was special. The temple committee had unanimously decided on arranging a special event for the whole week, a dance-theatre performance by a very popular club in North Malabar. The team would perform the great epic Ramayana in 7 parts, one per night of the festival. With the fiesta just 2 days away, the members of the theatre were already in the village, and were stationed in the temple guesthouse, which was more of an auditorium, partitioned for the males and females, with a makeshift open-roofed toilet, and the river flowing right behind it for bathing and other essential purposes. With over 30 people, who cooked and took care of themselves for 10 days, young boys were always handy; to carry pails of water, clean the utensils, chop firewood, help with the costumes, and similar paltry jobs, which were usually not sought after by adults. Sudhappan was walking towards the guesthouse, in hopes of finding such a job, which might get him some cash and real food for a week at least.
In fact, Damodaran, the manager of the club, was finding himself lost in the utter chaos of handling the lives of 27 actors and 7 members of the music band, attempting to squeeze in a few hours of daily practice before the team mounted the stage and was more than willing to share his workload with anyone offering help.
“You should camp here with us for the next 10 days and do everything that is asked of you”, he explained the clear and simple job requirements to the young boy in front him, barely 12, yet his eyes lighted in eager anticipation.
Sudhappan was also told that he could eat 3 meals with the team and would be paid one rupee at the end of his service. He happily complied with all the conditions, and went back home to seek permission from his mother. Like every other person in the village, she was a staunch devotee of the village Goddess and was already polishing her brass lamp for the procession on the final day of the festival. When Sudhappan explained that he would be involved in some work related with the temple fiesta, his mother had no objection, in fact she felt a certain pride over her son, who was sacrificing his holidays to serve the deity. Sudhappan promised to visit his home whenever he had time, kissed his sisters and walked away with a tiny bundle of his only other shirt and half pants.
The next 10 days were the best days of Sudhappan’s life. He slept with the other men of the club and got up early, without the aid of sunrays, as the auditorium had tiled roofing. The cook of the group would be the only other awake person. He would take a quick dip in the river and change his clothes washing the used pair, hanging it to dry on the clothes line near the guesthouse. The temple bells would be ringing by then, he would be the first one inside the sanctum. Removing his shirt, he would prostrate in front of the Goddess, lie down on the floor for minutes, enjoying the moisture of the morning soil on his skin, get up and drink the holy water that the priest would pour on his right palm. Completing the 3 prescribed circumambulations around the temple, he would then rush to the guesthouse, which would now be buzzing with human activity, his tasks waiting for him. Sudhappan would fetch water into the cauldron boiling tea, help the cook in chopping vegetables and washing utensils and later cut numerous banana leaves for the team to eat from. He joined them and relished large cylindrical pieces of puttu, with golden bananas, uppumaavu or kanji with pappadams as round as his head. The meals were always simple, yet no one questioned how much he ate, there was always something left over, besides the temple administration was paying, so no one really cared. Sudhappan soon became a little brother to everyone, and was privy to their ‘inside’ secrets – like the cook being an actor who quit because he wanted to play the king but was always destined to be the beggar, that there was an affair going on between Devaki and Kelappan, the Sita and Lakshmanan of the play, though both of them were already married (to other people), that Keshavan, the demonic king Ravana used wigs but pretended it was real. The next day, the festival began and by afternoon, the magic of makeup session changed the common, brown skinned men and women into gods, goddesses, demons and monkeys. The only regret that Sudhappan had was that he could never watch the show from in front of the stage. He was backstage, supplying water and bananas to the tired actors, helping them carry their equipment, cardboard and stage settings. Every day, the people of their village, engrossed in the drama of the Gods unraveling, would sit and watch it all till the very end, well past midnight, absorbing the surrealism into their dull existence, giving it some life, just for a day, not more.
Sudhappan never once went home in the next week, but met his mother and sisters on the temple grounds and had a quick chat with them before rushing off to the team. Damodaran, the team manager had benignly given him 10 paisa on the second day, with which he bought some peanuts and ginger candy for his sisters to munch on while watching the play.
Finally, Lord Ram killed Demon Kind Ravana and rescued his beloved wife Sita from Lanka. The joyous crowd praised the God and all was well in the world again. Not so for Sudhappan, he knew his real vacation was over and from the next day, life would again be sluggish and uneventful, and the only thing that mattered would be money and food and clothes. The team was set to leave in the evening of the day after the festival. Extra food was cooked so that after their meals, they could also carry with them their dinner. After packing all the food, much was still leftover. The cook had done it intentionally. It was not difficult for him to deduce that the little boy who astutely helped him with the chores was a poor kid with a starving family. With the consent of the manager, the cook packed all the leftover rice into a bamboo basket, poured the curry in a bucket, washed and cleaned for the purpose and packed a big jar of mango pickle –all for Sudhappan. If properly served, this could last the family for a week, while the pickle would stay fresh for months afterwards. As promised, Damodaran also gave Sudhappan his well-earned 1 rupee. Sudhappan rubbed the steel between his fingers for several minutes, making the plans of a rich man, before proceeding to bid farewell to his family of 10 days.
On his way back, with the basket of rice on his head, the pickle jar inside it and the bucket of curry in his right hand, Sudhappan imagined the joy of his sisters’ faces at the site of real food, and the relief on his mother’s. He could not wait to get home, but the ponds and fields of their village were treacherous, so he maintained his careful pace and walked towards the hut.
The sun was retreating by the time he reached home. His mother was waiting for him with anticipation that reflected in her worried eyes. He could smell tapioca cooking. So their rice reserves were over. “Imagine her surprise when she finds what is in the basket and bucket”, thought Sudhappan. She was surprised indeed, as she helped her son to lower the basked to the ground. The unfamiliar smell of good food had attracted his sisters, and a stray dog wagging its tail relentlessly also joined to watch the scenes unfolding.
“Did you get this from the temple?” his mother asked.
Sudhappan explained his job with the theatre team and how the cook packed this food for him and his family, with receding enthusiasm as his mother did not seem happy as he had hoped her to be, in fact she was visibly upset.
“What caste is the cook, is he a Brahmin, or a Nair? Is he at least a Hindu?” his mother probed further.
Sudhappan was speechless. He did not have answer to this question, he did not know if the man was Hindu. It had not mattered to him.
The delay in answering was the answer his mother was waiting for. Without a word, she took the basket, bucket and jar, and emptied the contents under the coconut tree on their courtyard. His younger sister, who until minutes ago had the saliva dripping from her mouth suddenly found water in her eyes too.
“We might die of hunger, but we are not going to eat the food touched by lower-castes, we are not beggars”, his mother muttered loud enough for him to hear as she pulled her two girls into the hut.
Sudhappan did not enter the hut for a long time, he squatted on the ground and watched the thrown away food. After a while, the dog which was watching the sight with increasing interest came back with a few friends and started eating the rice.
Fortunately, the animal was born casteless.
So was the one rupee coin inside his pocket, thought Sudhappan, feeling the cold of the metal with relief.