Authors: Manu Joseph
She thinks she has heard him but she is not sure. A moment later his heart-stopping scream eliminates the comfort of doubt. He is somewhere below, probably at the gate. She clenches her fists and mumbles a Hail Mary. She can hear him announce the name of every man in Block A. She goes to Thoma’s room. He has heard his father but he pretends to be asleep. She whispers to him, ‘Don’t worry, Thoma. It is just for a while.’
‘Can’t we run away?’ he says.
‘One day, maybe.’
‘What are we waiting for?’
‘There is a time for everything. We are waiting for the right time.’
‘I think we have reached the right time.’
‘I am afraid,’ he says.
‘Don’t be afraid, Thoma.’
‘It’s not that simple.’
‘Don’t be afraid. I am the Rock, Thoma, and I shall never fall.’
She goes to the front balcony, and from behind the limp clothes hanging from the wire, she looks. Ousep is standing near the gate, lit by a street light, his hands spread. He is barely able to stand. He is still calling out the names of the men who live in the block. He mentions their names, their door numbers
and where they work. Even in this state the man’s memory is sharp. The guard emerges from the darkness in his underwear, hopping as he puts on his trousers on the move. Ousep looks at him and makes a face, holding his chin with his fingers. The guard zips his trousers and stands erect. He is nervous, he does not know what he must do, so he takes his whistle out and whistles. That makes Mariamma laugh. Ousep walks a short distance and picks up a large stone from the ground. The guard looks at the stone very carefully for a moment, and runs, in a clever zigzag way. He goes to the far corner of the playground, near the swings that are too still. Swings that have no children in them; she cannot bear to look at them for some reason.
Ousep aims at a window, then at another, but he does not throw the stone. ‘Sleep, my friends, sleep,’ he says as he walks unsteadily to his left, his arms dead, back stooped. His deep voice, whose tremendous strength surprises even her, rips through the sullen calm. ‘In your conjugal beds, you sleep. There you commit unspeakable acts. Comical acts. Failed acts. Man does many things with wife as witness. The stories that must not be told. Despite everything, man is safest beside his wife, isn’t that true? Who can deny that? Man is safest beside his wife. Far from the treacheries of orphaned women and their wild love. Never stray too far from home, my friends. Quietly, men must pass through life. Great dangers lurk in the paths of men who live like men. Quietly. We must pass.’
Ousep drops the stone and covers his mouth with both hands. He walks with exaggerated stealth in what he believes is a straight line. He looks at the brown earth and begins to laugh. ‘Can I tell your dumb adolescent sons something?’ he says, looking up at the windows. ‘As the semen dries in their hands, can I tell them something? Can I give them some news from the future?’ He lets out a long escalating laugh that awakens the
crows. ‘Boys,’ he screams, ‘you will become men in the age of women.’
The voice of a man from one of the top floors says, ‘Is there a watchman in this place or is it a eunuch that we have hired?’ Ousep throws the stone in the direction of the voice. The stone crashes against the concrete. The dissent perishes. The guard appears again in the circle of light, tries to wrestle with Ousep. In the scuffle he tears Ousep’s shirt. Ousep looks at his torn shirt and fixes the guard with a severe stare. The guard looks frightened but stands his ground. ‘What do you want to see?’ Ousep screams. ‘Do you want to see what I am made of?’ And he tears open his shirt. And it looks as if he is about to take his trousers off. Will Ousep do that?
Mariamma runs into the bedroom, not knowing what she wants to do. She takes the Best Writer award standing on Ousep’s table, holds it by the silver angel, and runs to the balcony. She flings it at him with all her strength. It lands a foot away from Ousep. He looks at the award, and at the sky, the award again and the sky. He picks it up and shows it to the world. He says, in a calm voice, ‘Once upon a time.’
She goes to sit on the kitchen floor, near the black mortar from where she can see him enter. When he arrives he stands in the hall, holding his shirt and the award, and stares at her. But he does not say anything. He walks to his room and shuts the door.
She sits there, staring at Unni’s portrait on the wall and mumbling things. ‘I didn’t get away, Mariamma didn’t get away,’ she tells the cat. She is remembering a crime she committed when she was seven years old. She was playing with a black kitten on the riverbank. She buried it in a shallow hole and covered it with soil. She was about to dig it out when she heard someone scream that a girl had jumped into the river to
die. She ran to see what had happened. Five strong men swam to the girl and pulled her to the other side of the river. In all the fuss that followed, Mariamma forgot about the kitten. It was evening when she remembered. She knew the kitten’s mother, she saw the cat every day of her life. ‘Mariamma didn’t get away,’ she says. ‘Her son, too, is buried in the soil.’
Her hand rises, a finger wags at the ceiling. ‘But Philipose,’ she says, ‘you got away, Philipose.’
Ousep is slipping into deep sleep; he has a feeble, dying thought, an old unsettling thought that surfaces now and then. There are people in this world who wander through their entire lives searching for meaning, searching for an answer. For all his humour, Unni was probably among them. Could it be that Ousep, too, is searching, seeking an end that probably does not exist? Is he, too, searching for an illusory truth? Maybe the others are right, the regular people, they are usually right, aren’t they? They know the ways of the world better because they are the world. Unni died for the same reason that people usually kill themselves – he was miserable. There is nothing more to it perhaps.
Ousep asks himself why he smells kerosene in his room. The smell approaches and grows strong. Then it recedes and vanishes without a trace. And he is surprised by another question that he asks himself. He wonders what has made him ask this now. He has never asked this before. ‘Who is Philipose?’
SATURDAY MORNING, THOMA IS on the floor of the hall with his mother’s thick hardbound books, which are all about Very Serious Matters. As usual, he is searching their pages for a mention of India. Not ‘ancient civilization’ or ‘second-most
populous country’ or ‘agrarian society’, but something clearly complimentary. ‘India is full of clever people, who are secretly very rich, and the naked lepers you see on the roads are all actually Pakistani spies. And Indian boys are very handsome, though they do not know that.’
He sees his mother emerge from the kitchen with a blue bucket filled with water. She looks resolute and composed. ‘No,’ he says, ‘don’t do it.’ She does not do this every morning. ‘I must choose the days, Thoma, because of the law of diminishing returns,’ she once told him. Thoma does not fully understand the Law of Diminishing Returns, but he knows that she decides to enforce the morning justice only if Father has crossed a line the previous night.
‘No,’ Thoma says, sitting up. ‘Don’t do it.’
She flings open the door of Ousep’s bedroom and goes in. Thoma hears her scream with an evangelical shiver, ‘Reform this drunkard, my Lord, my God, he is the lost sheep, and you are the shepherd.’
He hears the explosion of water landing on his father, who rises with a deep moan. A moment of peace, then Thoma sees his mother sprint out. In these circumstances she does not merely run, she really does sprint, her arms oars in the air. Nobody in Madras has ever seen a woman of her age run this fast. ‘Thoma,’ she says, with a finger pointed at her bare feet as she races past him towards the front door and vanishes down the stairs.
Ousep emerges from his bedroom, tired and fully drenched and very angry, his fist on his forehead. He almost sings to the open front door, ‘You bitch, you mad bitch.’ And he walks in a daze to the bathroom.
Thoma takes his mother’s thin eroded rubber slippers from under the dining table and goes to the balcony. She is standing
on the playground, looking up, expectant. He throws her slippers down. She gives him a smile, raises a thumb, and marches to the church.
Other mornings, she tiptoes into Ousep’s room, puts her face very close to his and screams the Lord’s name into his ears. Or she hides behind the cloth screen and waits until he wakes up to scare him with a sudden howl. Thoma suspects that what she secretly wants is to give him a heart attack so that she can start her life afresh in peace, even if it is in greater poverty.
When Unni was alive she never used to sprint out of the house after the water treatment or the ghost scare. They used to stand together in the hall and laugh with their bodies arched until they were on the floor holding their stomachs. But with Unni gone she is not sure that she is safe. What if Ousep finally decides to hit her? He has never done that but what stops a furious man from losing control?
Ousep Chacko makes peace with the punishment, completes his bath, even shaves. When he walks into the hall, he sees Thoma facing the main door, which is now shut, and whispering to it. The boy has not heard his father. Ousep has a feline walk, unlike Mariamma, who shakes the air around her.
Thoma’s fists are clenched and he is looking fiercely at the door. He is mustering the courage to open it and step out, to face the world after the night of shame. His father, almost naked in front of all, drunk and loud and pathetic. ‘You can do it, Thoma, you can do it,’ the boy is telling himself. ‘Fight, Thoma, put up a fight.’
How cruel it is for this sad boy in darned shirt and born-again shorts, and rubber slippers held together by safety pins. How cruel all this. Ousep knows, but then he is what he is, he cannot be a better person. Survive these years, Thoma, somehow hold
on. Life is far easier than it seems. A day will come when you will finally grow muscles in your arms; then you can take your anger out. You, too, can slap your father, see him fall. Your father would forgive. And many years later you can tell your woman about him. As you lie naked in the dark you can tell her about your bastard father. With some literary exaggerations, of course. That is allowed, a bit of colour is all right. And she will hold you tight and stroke you gently to heal your rare sorrows. But you must also know this, Thoma, you must accept the inescapable truth. Even an alcoholic gives his son a gift. A precious gift, in fact. You will never ever be a drunkard. That is how it is, that is how it goes.
The happiest men in the world are the men who swore that they would never become their fathers. That is how the alpha males became endangered. Their sons decided that they would not become their fathers, they would be decent men, they would not sleep with strangers through the night, they would instead wipe baby shit, they would know at all times the ages of their children and the names of their teachers, they would buy curtains, they would transfer food from large bowls into smaller bowls and put them in the fridge, they would not be their fathers. In a world full of new men who did not want to be their fathers, what chance did the alpha males have?
People like Thoma will create a similar world, a world where there is no place for drunkards and others like them. And the wild among men will have to seek refuge in failure to remain truly free.
Thoma is still deciding, he is still not sure whether he has the strength to go out in full public view. ‘Fight, Thoma, put fight, put fight,’ he is saying. He probably does a version of this every morning when he has to open the door and leave for school. It is a bit like a cold-water bath at dawn – the first mug requires
courage, what follows is not so bad. If Thoma can step out into the corridor he will endure the rest. But first he must have the courage to open the door. The boy takes a deep decisive breath. And gives up. Last night was probably a bit too much.
Thoma turns to go to his room and is shocked to see his father staring at him. ‘Did Unni ever talk to you about a corpse?’ Ousep asks.
‘No,’ the boy says without meeting his father’s eyes.
Thoma now has a good reason to open the door and step out, which he does. At that moment the neighbour’s door opens and Mythili appears in a blue salwar-kurta. Thoma does not look at her, he looks at the floor and runs down the stairs.
‘Mythili,’ Ousep says on an impulse. He does not remember ever calling out to her. He wonders whether she even knows his name. Somehow that would be flattering. She looks at him with a shy, stranger’s smile. What a dignified farce this girl is.
‘I want to have a word with you,’ he says, walking into the corridor.
‘I am going to the library,’ she says.
‘This will take just five minutes,’ he says. ‘I have to ask you some questions about Unni.’
Her mother appears, as expected, and stands with her hand on the door frame. She quickly surveys her own breasts as if to confide in them her suspicion of all men. With that bunch of steel keys hanging at her waist she looks the part of the sentinel of her girl’s treasures.
‘Mythili is going to the lending library,’ she says unhappily.
‘I need to talk to her,’ he says, looking at the girl. He tries to lead her into his house. ‘Come,’ he says, like an innocent, respectable man.
She looks at her mother, who glares as if it is all her fault.
Ousep tries to achieve the gentle vulnerable stoop and wounded eyes. ‘What happened, Mythili? You don’t like us any more? You spent your whole childhood in our home.’
‘You can talk in our house,’ her mother says.
Ousep was worried about this but now that the woman has said it he has no choice. She moves aside for him to walk in, and for the very first time he enters their home. It has the fragrance of all good homes, the smell of steam and herbs and invisible jasmines, and the faint memory of incense. The smell of moderate people. These are people who do everything that they are supposed to do. It is, in fact, bizarre that they have only one child and not two.
The girl’s father stands in the middle of the room, maintaining the impassive stare of disturbed authority. He points to a chair. Then he points a finger at his wife, and she disappears. How easy it is for some men. The man now points Mythili to a chair. As she sits, Ousep’s eyes rest on her slender body, and her father’s hard face registers a passing moment of defeat. He sits on the leather sofa and waits. Nobody utters a word for a while.