Authors: Manu Joseph
So what has happened now? What has landed on Ousep’s lap? ‘An unexpected message,’ he tells the walls in his drunken moments, ‘provided by the unnatural level of incompetence of
the Indian postal department.’ He does not say anything more, she has asked him several times, she has even asked him through crafty whispers during his deep sleep, but he does not say what he has found. Whatever it is, it has made him knock on doors again, he is asking questions again.
There is only one clue that Mariamma holds, and she knows it is not as insignificant as Ousep imagines. Unni left without leaving a note for his mother, he left without explaining his action to her.
She turns off the lights and wanders in the hall, wanders in the darkness, feeling the peace of the quiet, imagining that she sees the same emptiness that Unni sees. What is so great about the light that falls on the world, what is so great about what we see that a woman must mourn her son? But then she cries.
She wakes up early in the morning, to the fragrance of paradisiacal breakfasts and the long whistles of steam from the kitchens of happy people, and the monologues of children memorizing their lessons. And Subbulakshmi’s morning chant from a thousand bad radios, which sounds like a medieval woman’s list of complaints in Sanskrit about the men of her time.
THOMA AND HIS MOTHER tiptoe into Ousep’s bedroom. His lungi is still hanging from the fan as a noose. Ousep is sleeping fully naked, his mouth slightly open, legs spread wide. They can see his large luminous testicles, which look rough and industrial. ‘Like something the Soviets have made,’ Mariamma says. She covers her man with a bedsheet, muttering, ‘He has no shame even when he is asleep.’ Thoma wonders whether one day his own organ will be so large, and assume this weird asymmetric
shape that has no name even in Euclid’s geometry. He is too shy to ask his mother whether this is the fate of all men.
He has seen his father this way many times. He goes into the bedroom often to see whether he has had a heart attack. Lots of fathers have gone in their sleep, and Thoma is afraid that his father, too, will go that way. When Ousep is asleep he looks dead. He does not move and you have to concentrate on his stomach to see if he is breathing. Thoma’s mother, too, goes often to his bed to check if the man is alive. She usually stands with her hands on her hips, and stares, waiting to see a hint of breath in him, or a toe move.
That was exactly how the three of them had stared at Unni’s body when it lay in the hall under a white shroud. They stood around him for an immeasurable amount of time, in a deep hopeful silence, and waited for him to wake up any moment and burst out laughing. He really did look as if he was just sleeping. They waited, until the hearse driver came and rang the doorbell.
Ousep rubs his nose. He is alive, today. Mariamma climbs on a chair and removes the noose. An hour later, Thoma stands with his school bag strung on his tense shoulders. He wonders how many people heard the commotion in his house last night. Probably everyone. He stands facing the front door, too ashamed to open it and step out for all to see. But he has to endure the shame, as he does every morning. ‘Fight, Thoma, put fight,’ he says. And he opens the door.
THERE ARE THINGS MARIAMMA tells Ousep, looking him in the eye and addressing him in the third person, which have a stinging literary quality to them that reminds him of what they used to say in his village – all wives are writers. His favourite is her description of the way he walks in the morning despite the shame of the previous night. ‘As if he is going to collect a lifetime achievement award from the president.’ It is true, that is how he walks in the morning. With healthy strides, feet landing with purpose, head held high. But he is more aware than she imagines of his disgrace. She may laugh if he tells her this but the truth is that, as he irons his shirt this morning, smoking two cigarettes at once, what is on his mind is an old question. Can he be a better person, a responsible man, a good father? Is it so hard to be all that, to be regular, to be everyman?
Through the bedroom window he sees her marching towards the gate in her thin rubber slippers, going somewhere earlier than usual. He does not remember ever seeing her from this distance. What happens to men when they see their wives from afar? Mariamma looks like any other person in the world. Small, harmless, unremarkable, which she is not. It makes him feel oddly triumphant that she does not know he is watching her – Mariamma, up to something, going about her day, resolute and solitary.
She is not part of the sisterhood here. She is not included in their evening chatter, no one tells her gossip. Women do not call out her name, they do not wait at the gates for her to come down so that they can go to the market together. No one gives
her recipes. She is only a subject of their compassion, which is a cowardly form of self-congratulation. She makes them feel they are better than her. They pity her for her man, for the loss of her child, for the way she walks along the road talking to herself, scowling sometimes, smiling sometimes. And her poverty, who can understand her poverty?
She owns many volumes of hardbound books. Those she reads with great relish, though she moves a finger beneath every line as if she is semi-literate, which she is not. She has a telephone. She has a glowing fair peel of the high class, she is an economics postgraduate, and in her demented moments she evokes the name of Milton Friedman to complain to him about the imbecility of socialism. Yet, in that house, the life of Colgate is squeezed out of it until it is a flat strip of thin tortured metal. Then it is violated by toothbrushes and even index fingers for several days. The brushes are not thrown away until almost all the bristles disappear, and after the brushes do die in this autumnal way, the two postgraduates and their son use their fingers to clean their teeth until Mariamma somehow makes new brushes appear. Soaps are used until they go missing in the crevices of the body. Ousep has seen the strange sight of Mariamma staring at an empty oil bottle left standing inverted on a frying pan.
She said, without turning, ‘The last drop, Ousep Chacko, is not a literary hyperbole in your home. Apparently, it really exists.’
‘How grotesque this looks, Mariamma Chacko. I thought you had more class.’
That made both of them laugh, their laughter rising in pitch in competition, neither willing to stop and grant victory to the other.
The foam sofa in the hall, which is shrouded by an old
bedsheet, has a giant secret hole in the centre. The landlord, who arrives every month and screams for his rent, was invited in by Mariamma only once; she made him sit on the sofa, and as he sank into the hole she laughed. Other men come asking for their money, including an enormous red-faced Afghan moneylender in his Pathani suit who twists Thoma’s hand only partly in jest. And there is a sad book salesman who begs to be paid for the books he delivered five years ago – a complete set of William Shakespeare, all the great Greek tragedies, fifteen volumes of the
and the best English short stories from an innocent age when short stories were really stories.
The Chackos are poor because Ousep is poor and too proud to live within his means, not because he drinks. People who do not drink do not understand drunkards. He does not have to buy his drinks, he has many friends who want to buy him liquor. That is the quality of drunkards, they have a lot of friends. Because what men find most endearing in other men are their tragic flaws. That is why alcoholics never run out of friends. In the light of day, Ousep is too strong, too clever, a solitary man. But when night falls he belongs to all men.
He takes the screwdriver, opens the back panel of the long-defunct radio, and removes the folded sheets of paper. This is Unni’s final comic, he finished it the morning he died. It is called
How To Name It
Ousep has not been able to make sense of the comic. Only Mariamma would be able to decipher it for him but the problem is that she plays a significant part in it, she is a part of the riddle, which is bizarre. She is probably hiding something about the boy, something important. But why? If Ousep is going to show her the evidence that implicates her in the
mystery of Unni’s death, he has to do it when the time is right. She is a crafty woman. But he too is crafty. Equals, that’s what they are. To each other the only equals.
Three years ago, after Unni died, Ousep had set out to find an explanation. Through the memories of the people who knew the boy, he discovered a son whom he had not imagined. Unni Chacko, who appeared to possess a superior detachment, apparently also had an unnatural curiosity about the world around him, as if he could see something extraordinary hiding in plain sight. In the days that immediately followed the boy’s death, people opened up to Ousep and told him what they knew. But nobody could explain why Unni did what he did.
They said, in their lame ways, he had dark thoughts, he spoke a lot about death, he went to the funerals of people he did not know to see the faces of the newly dead and draw their portraits. Friends insisted that Unni must have had a deep secret grief though he never showed any signs. Behind the light on his face there must have been an ordinary sorrow. Find his sorrow and you would find his reason, that was what they implied. Even now, people want to believe in the theory of Unni’s sorrow because that is what they want his death to be about. The tragic defeat of the unusual, and so the triumph of the normal.
This is how people resolve suicides – by considering it a consequence of unbearable grief or by manufacturing motives. Or through the inordinate importance given to the final note of the dead, which is usually only a confused half-truth.
There is something comical about a suicide note, the only known penultimate act of a living thing, and Ousep is glad that Unni had the artistic arrogance not to succumb to a cliché. But Mariamma does fear that the boy must have explained himself on a piece of paper which might have got blown away. It is a
reasonable fear. Ousep has always marvelled at the confidence of people in their final moments, leaving a note behind in the complete faith that it would be found by the intended recipient.
But the truth is that every suicide remains a mystery for ever because the only person who really knows all the fragments of the motive is gone. That was why Ousep had to give up three years ago. He had tried hard to piece together the circumstances of his son’s death but in the end he had to accept that he would never succeed. But about six weeks ago, something happened.
Ousep was going down the stairs when he saw the postman walking up, holding an envelope in his hand. It was a strange sight to see the postman so early in the day, and without his sack. The man was holding just one object – a large envelope. But Ousep would not have thought much of it if he had not seen the name on the envelope – Unni Chacko. The postman then told him the story of this mail, which was among the twelve letters he was returning that day to various homes in the area.
Three years ago, some boys had thrown firecrackers into the postbox attached to a lamp post on Pasumarthy Street. Most of the letters were burnt. But some were only slightly damaged and they lay in a cardboard box in the post office, until a new manager there finally decided to return some of the letters whose senders’ details were still legible. So, three years after Unni had posted a letter to someone, it was coming back. But that was not extraordinary in itself.
On the front of the envelope was Unni’s name and address, probably written by a clerk in the post office who had put the boy’s mail inside a fresh envelope. The front of Unni’s original envelope was badly damaged, its top half almost entirely gone, so nothing of the recipient’s details had survived. But the bottom half of the envelope was intact. Here, Unni’s name and
address were written in his distinct extravagant hand. Inside the mutilated envelope was a bunch of papers that were in good condition, as if nothing had happened, like Unni’s face when his lifeless body returned from the morgue.
What Unni had posted was a comic, fourteen pages in all, not including a covering note written on a page torn in half. It is a brief scribble that does not address anyone. The note says: ‘Just finished it this morning. I know you will do it for me.’ The note is dated 16 May, the day Unni died.
The comic begins with a giant portrait of a smiling, bald, middle-aged man, whom Ousep does not know. He is a tough, rustic man. He is sitting in his armchair, on the porch of his home, in the shade of a jackfruit tree. The setting is clearly a village in Kerala. Unni was born in Kerala but was brought to Madras when he was still an infant. He had not visited the land since. He had no reason to because his parents had slowly broken away from their large complicated families, much to the relief of almost everybody involved.
The bald rustic in the comic now stops smiling and slowly turns serious, as if he has seen an apparition. He is clearly terrified. He begins to run. He runs down a winding path, through a forest of rubber trees. He falls down and looks increasingly terrified as the apparition approaches him. The comic then abruptly cuts to Egmore railway station in Madras. Someone, probably the narrator, who is not shown but from whose point of view the entire story is being told, boards the train and travels through the night. The next morning, the train passes through the green hills and the ancient villages of Kerala. Finally, it reaches Kollam station. The narrator, who is still invisible, now takes a crowded bus, then walks down the narrow paved lanes of a village. There he meets several people, and in some of the frames the characters are obviously talking
because there are dialogue bubbles, but the bubbles are blank. Unni probably thought he would fill them in later, a future which he denied himself. The villagers lead the invisible narrator to the banks of a stream. The narrator finally approaches the house that was shown at the beginning of the comic. But the bald rustic man is not sitting in his armchair on the porch. There is no one here. A large, amiable, middle-aged woman appears. Something strange happens next. There is the image of a giant bra as a suspension bridge that spans a wide river, linking two mountains. The comic then returns to the amiable middle-aged woman. She leads the invisible narrator into the house, gives him or her a cup of coffee, shows a wall where there are several photographs of the bald rustic man. Then she takes the narrator through the house, through the long dark corridors and empty rooms and finally a storeroom, which is filled with jackfruits and bananas. She points to a bulb on the high ceiling. The next panel, the penultimate page of the comic, has a giant image of the bald rustic, now looking benevolent. This man clearly exists somewhere, he cannot be a work of fiction because his eyes have the certainty of a creature that has seen life. The man is smiling and peaceful, and he is giving a thumbs-up sign, which is uncharacteristic of his age and place. But he is evidently a man who has won, won something. The final page is shocking. It has a dramatic colour portrait of Mariamma standing on one leg, the other leg raised as if she is about to leap, and her right hand is pointing upwards. Her blood-red sari is hitched up and folded at the waist, exposing a bit of her thighs. Her thick black hair is flying in tumult. Her lips are curled in and her eyes are wide and angry. She is placed like a trophy on a wooden stand that has inscribed on it a string of Malayalam letters that make no sense. Obviously, the comic needs prose to convey its meaning. It
even has blank bubbles for dialogue and narration. Unni’s works usually are not so dependent on prose.
So, what happened on the day Unni died? He completed the visuals of a comic, posted it to someone, went somewhere for three or four hours, got a haircut at noon at St Anthony’s Hair Stylists, as confirmed by the barber. He returned home, played a bit of cricket, went up the stairs, and twenty minutes later decided to die?
The intended recipient of the comic remains a mystery. And what is the meaning of the final window of the comic – Mariamma in full tumult? The covering note, which shows no hint of affection, suggests that the recipient is a male, but Ousep is not sure. Maybe it was meant for a young lady who told Unni that her fat unhappy mother reads all her mail.
From the day Unni’s mail returned, Ousep began to haunt the same boys he had interviewed three years ago, and some newer ones. He does not tell them about the mail, he lets out only stray hints. He wants to be careful with the information he holds until he fully understands what was going on in Unni’s life.
The boys Ousep had met three years ago are almost men now, they are around twenty. That would be Unni’s age if he were alive today. Twenty. A handsome young man whose narrow, interested eyes might have surveyed the world with restrained amusement, a young artist with the opaque seriousness that cartoonists usually possess. Unni Chacko, if he had allowed himself to live, would have grown into a formidable man.
Ousep thinks of the day ahead, the strangers he has to question. He finds it tiring to talk to people. That has always been his flaw as a journalist, his secret weakness. It makes him uncomfortable, especially when he is not fortified by good rum, to stand in front of a person, to be seen, judged. How nice it would be if he could sit in the confession box of the Catholic
priests, behind its ecclesiastical mosquito net, and listen to the old friends of Unni – those intimidating new men who are boys one moment, adults the next. Some even have fully grown moustaches, their voices have changed, and there is something about their manliness that makes his heart ache for Unni. Unni, who will never shave, who will never stuff his wallet in the back pocket of his jeans with all the preoccupation of a man. What is it about life that even Ousep Chacko believes it is a lottery?