Authors: Manu Joseph
The good thing about the nun’s vow of silence is that she and Ousep do not have to endure the warming up, and the imagined hilarity of calling each other old.
‘You can speak,’ Ousep says in a good-natured way. ‘Nobody is watching, and both of us know there is no God.’
Her smile informs him that she has already forgiven him. He tells her what he wants. She looks as though she knew he would come for this one day. She writes on her notebook in good Malayalam, and in a beautiful miserly hand. She writes that she will go to a far corner and write down everything she remembers. That is exactly what Ousep wants from everyone. People liberating him from their company, and going away to a far corner and writing down everything they remember of Unni in small precise paragraphs.
She gives a quick written apology for not offering him tea because that is not a privilege she has. She goes about twenty feet away and sits on a bench, which is attached to a desk. After thirty minutes, she gives him a bunch of papers.
Unni Chacko, Somen Pillai, Sai Shankaran – that is the order in which she has named them. He asks her why she wrote Somen’s name ahead of Sai’s. She curls her lips to suggest the order is not important. She sits staring at the floor. It does not
appear that she wants him to leave yet. She writes in her notebook, ‘Why did he do it?’
‘I want to find out,’ Ousep says.
‘Can you take a guess?’ she writes.
‘No. Can you?’
She shakes her head.
‘Unni told his friends something very odd,’ he says. ‘He told them that he knew a corpse. Does it make any sense to you?’
She shakes her head. Then rises, joins her palms and leaves. As she walks away she rubs her eyes like a child.
Ousep reads what she has written. About fifteen years ago, she was transferred to Madras from Kerala. She had not taken the vow of silence then. Somehow, Mariamma came to know that the nun was in Madras, and she began to visit her at least once a month, and they would chat about the people they knew. At some point she started taking Unni along to meet her. The first time Unni came to the convent and sat here in the same hall, he was probably eight years old. He was ‘an extraordinarily beautiful boy with soft, curly hair’. He was probably fascinated by her, he would keep staring. As he grew older, and taller, his visits grew rarer, though Mariamma continued to visit every month. He would accompany his mother only in the rains, to hold her umbrella on their way to the convent. Once when Mariamma came to visit, the nun gave her a note saying that she had taken a vow of silence as her sacrifice to Christ. Mariamma understood that there was no point in meeting her any more, for what use is a silent nun? But, two years later, when Unni was seventeen, he came here with the other two boys. They met her six times, and every time they came unannounced. They asked her many questions but all their questions had only one objective. They wanted to know whether anything extraordinary happened to her because of her silence.
She presumes that they expected her to make startling revelations but she had very unremarkable things to say. ‘There is a peace in your chest when you are silent for vast amounts of time, a sweet sadness, but nothing beyond this.’ They were very disappointed when she wrote on a piece of paper that she did speak, though rarely, when demanded by the Mother Superior. It was very tiring to write down answers to their questions, and her meeting three adolescent boys did not go down very well in the convent. Eventually, she asked them not to visit her.
‘There was something about them, there was the light of God on their faces, but still there was also something odd about them. They were searching for something and it seemed to me I could not show them the path. Unni was relaxed, polite. He asked very few questions but he listened very carefully. I think he was very amused by me. Once, he asked me if I was happy. Strange, nobody had ever asked me that question before. “Yes,” I told him. Somen Pillai seemed to be a serious boy. He never spoke. I found his eyes very disturbing. He seemed to believe that he knew something deeper about the world than the others. Sai was simple, excited and very curious. He spoke in quick short bursts.’
SOMEN PILLAI LIVES IN a stout independent house with a pink front. It stands at the end of a narrow mud lane, which is flanked by similar homes. From their dark windows and doorways people stand and gaze, looking bored, expecting a greater boredom to reach them; it is as if they know that the extraordinary does not exist.
Somen’s home is one of those houses that have eyes – the guest is fifty feet away, a cheap unchanging blue curtain behind the large front windows moves an inch, and the main door opens slowly, as if much thought has gone into the act. The hosts then emerge to greet or repel. Behind the squat house, tall apartment blocks loom.
After the return of Unni’s comic, Ousep has been here probably eight times. And every time, before he can reach the gate, the door would open and Somen’s father would step out or the boy’s mother would, or the two of them together, or the door would not open at all. When they do appear, they step on to the porch and stand with their elbows on the short iron gate, and wait for him. But the only thing they have to say to him is that Somen is not home, and that he does not want to meet anyone.
Ousep has met the boy only once – three years ago, a week after Unni’s death. Somen, with a mop of accidental stylish hair that rolled dreamily, large moist eyes, a deep dimple on the right cheek and a smile of discomfort, listened with a piercing stare, but when he spoke it was as if he had not been listening. He spoke slowly, carefully, with an inarticulate superiority, as if his thoughts were too complex for words. And he had the same complicated self-regard when he said something as excruciatingly ordinary as ‘We were just three friends who lazed around and talked.’
The door opens before Ousep has reached the gate. Somen’s parents step out, amble to the gate, looking in many directions, and stand with their elbows on the gate. They do not speak a word but they look conspiratorial, which is what man and wife truly are; when they stand together that is what they are – accomplices.
They have never called him in, and in return they give him
their honest shame. They are Malayalees and they know Ousep Chacko as the promising young writer from long ago.
‘He is not home,’ the father says with a feeble glance from behind thick spectacles. He is in his formal office trousers but is bare chested, and there is a small towel on his shoulders. He is a manager in Canara Bank, and his wife is a teller in the same branch. She is looking grim right now, as if she is counting cash. A tidy, dignified woman, like most women in the world. She may have never stood even for a moment in her life in any of the gymnastic ways of Mariamma. What is it like to sleep with a calm, feminine woman, who does not address the walls?
Ousep is distracted by someone who has appeared at the doorway. The boy’s parents panic for a second, they turn to the door and seem relieved when they realize it is just the maid. She is mopping the doorstep, her slim fair back fully bent from the hip. Ousep feels a stab of longing. Her face has an austere diminished beauty about it, as if it is not her place to be any prettier. How could she be allowed to be? A maid in Madras has to be ugly because that is her assurance to the mistress that she will not awaken the egalitarian muscle of the man in the house.
‘What must I do to meet your son?’ Ousep says.
‘Maybe you should call first,’ the father says.
‘Nobody ever picks up the phone.’
‘You say that, Ousep, but that is so strange. We are at home in the mornings and evenings.’
‘When exactly is he home?’
‘I don’t know, Ousep. He has his ways.’
‘You say he does not go to college.’
‘That is what I say.’
‘How can a boy not go to college?’
‘Some boys don’t and that is all there is to it.’
‘Something is wrong, I can see that much,’ Ousep says.
‘You see stories in nothing, Ousep. That is your way. You are a storyteller.’
THOMA CHACKO DROWNS HIS head in a bucket of water and keeps his eyes open so that they become red. He holds his breath and stares at the blurred bottom of the bucket. He imagines a world in the aftermath of a giant sea wave, a world that has been engulfed by the sea as foretold by Unni, he imagines these to be the final moments of his life. His lungs are about to burst but he holds on. How terrifying it is to drown. He hopes a fall from the building’s terrace is less painful. The cracking of the skull is a very different form of death, it is faster. Though the best way to die is to be shot in the head. That is what Unni said. ‘The explosion of the skull, Thoma, that must hurt but only for a moment. Once the bullet reaches the brain, there is no pain. That is the beauty of the brain. It is the brain that makes you feel every inch of your body, it is the brain that makes you feel pain, but the brain itself has no feeling.’
What might have gone through Unni’s mind in the final moments before he jumped, what was he thinking? That afternoon three years ago, Thoma was asleep, but he had sensed the presence of Unni in the bedroom. He knew his brother had walked in, even stayed for a while before leaving the room. He remembers that. That, and an unfamiliar dream in which a woman is screaming, and running away from a giant tsunami. If Thoma had been awake, Unni would have sat down on the bed for a chat and even the thought of ending his own life might not have crossed his mind. Everything would have been different. But Thoma had slept.
He wants to know whether making his eyes go red is a good excuse for wearing his father’s old sunglasses. It is important that Thoma finds a reason to wear sunglasses. His mother has just suggested that they ask Mythili Balasubramanium if she will teach Thoma in the evenings, maths especially. They are going to knock on her door and ask. Thoma wants to wear sunglasses when he meets her, she may respect him if she sees him that way. He does look dashing in wet hair and sunglasses, several people say that. They say, ‘Thoma, you look handsome right now.’ But would Mythili think that he has got conjunctivitis? Is it absurd to get the Madras Eye on a Saturday? And why does he suffer so much for her? When Unni was alive and they used to spend hours with her, he had thought she was an unbearable, talkative girl. But now that he is what he is, he thinks of her all the time, and the best thing about life and the worst is that she exists.
His eyes almost blood red, he goes to his father’s bookshelf and searches for the old green glasses, which are usually left on top of a stack of books. But he can’t find them now.
‘Why are your eyes red?’ his mother asks.
‘I’ve got Madras Eye,’ he says.
‘You were fine one minute ago.’
‘It always happens suddenly,’ he says. ‘Surely you don’t think my eyes would first turn violet, then indigo, then blue and the other colours of the rainbow spectrum before they finally become red.’
‘What are the other colours of the spectrum, Thoma? Let’s see if you know.’
‘I know. I know everything. I just don’t tell.’
‘Can’t you memorize it, Thoma? It is so simple. Just stick inside your thick head the word VIBGYOR. And you’d be able to name the colours of the rainbow any time.’
‘Don’t irritate me.’
‘Someone is angry with his mother today. What are you searching for, Thoma?’
‘Where are the sunglasses?’
‘I sold them,’ she says. ‘Come here, let me dry your hair.’
‘Why did you sell the glasses?’
‘There was someone asking on the church noticeboard.’
‘How can you do something like that, how can you take something from our house and go and sell it?’
‘I’ve done that all my life, you know that. All my gold bangles, they have become your shit, haven’t they?’
‘But you should not sell everything,’ he says. ‘Some things, you should not sell.’
‘How do you think I put food on the table some days?’
‘Always ask me before you sell things.’
‘I’ll only ask you if you’re hungry, Thoma.’
They walk out together, leaving the door open. Across the short corridor is Mythili’s door. There is something about that door, something arrogant. Another happy home shut to the Chackos. They stand at the door and wait. Thoma hopes Mythili will open the door holding a newspaper and ask, pointing to a headline, ‘Thoma, I wonder what KGB stands for?’
‘It’s been three years since we went to their home,’ Mariamma says, the way she usually announces a fact. ‘Neighbours right next door, good people, but we have not been here in three years. It didn’t strike me until now how strange that is.’
‘Obviously they don’t want us to go there,’ Thoma says. ‘Nobody wants us, can’t you see?’
‘That’s not true, Thoma. Mythili smiles at me when she sees me.’
‘It’s a half-smile, can’t you see? She used to love you. Everything has changed now.’
‘She loves us still, Thoma. She is a grown girl now, that’s all. She can’t behave like a little girl any more.’
‘Her mother definitely hates us. Elephant woman.’
‘Don’t say that, Thoma. She talks a lot to me from her balcony.’
‘She doesn’t talk to you, you talk to her. She just nods and hangs her underwear on the wire. She doesn’t even look at you.’
But Mariamma is not listening any more. She smiles at Mythili’s coir doormat, thinking of something, probably something entirely unconnected, maybe an unforgettable bird she once saw in her childhood. That is how Mother is. Her mind wanders. But at this moment she does look normal, more tame and womanly than she is at home. She looks prettier this way, even happy and wise. Which she is, though not many people know that.
‘Mythili was just thirteen then, three years ago she was just a kid,’ she says. ‘She is a big girl now, Thoma. A child yesterday, almost a woman today. In the blink of an eye.’
Thoma feels a warm ache when his mother mourns the passing of an age. How time flies. The lost years. Those were the days. He has heard these all his life, but only after Unni’s death did something in him stir at the sound of such phrases. The hurting sweetness of memory, it has no name in Tamil or Malayalam. That is what Unni said. But he said there is a word for it in English, which Thoma has now forgotten, a word that sounds like an ailment.