Authors: Manu Joseph
On his way out, he sees Mythili Balasubramanium going down the stairs. Does she know why Unni died? He has asked the question many times but without conviction. The way she is now, with her adolescent reserve, and circumspect walk, and breasts whose time has begun, it is easy to forget that she was just a child when Unni died. That child still survives as a dark portrait by Unni. In the portrait, she is in a coffin, her large interested eyes shut, her hands clutching an unidentifiable flower resting on her chest.
Almost every day, all through her entire childhood, until the day Unni died, she spent hours with the two boys. She was Mariamma’s imagined daughter, Unni’s assistant, Thoma’s matron. She used to pretend to be frightened of Ousep, she would never meet his eyes. Some days, in the mornings, she would stand outside his room and peep in, and when his head turned she would run away. But when he managed to meet her eyes and smile, she always returned the smile. She did not hate him as others did. But that was then. A little girl who probably believed all fathers must be nice.
The girl whom he imagines this way is a bit younger than the one in the coffin. She was twelve or thirteen when Unni drew her in the
Album of the Dead
. In the black diamond coffin, she
lies in a blue frock that reaches to her knees, her hair is tied in two flying plaits by red ribbons, and she is wearing silver anklets around her wrists, as she used to then because her mother did not let her wear them around her ankles. Her mother said Mythili was too young to wear anklets. Even now the girl is not allowed to wear them. Mythili’s mother, like the mothers of all daughters, has the same pornographic eye as men. They see sexual omens in anklets and skirts and flowing hair and long earrings that nod in the wind. They imagine, correctly, that the sex of their daughters is hidden in innocent places, as the soul of a vampire is stored in improbable objects.
IT IS THE FIRST day of the ‘fast-unto-death’, and not many people have turned out to watch, but if it lasts another two days there will be great crowds on the road – men screaming and laughing, alcoholics singing, women weeping without sorrow, boys hurling stones in the air. But now there is peace, and a deep sullen silence that has the quality of a mishap. Ousep scans the area for a sturdy young man, smartly dressed and not very clever.
Not more than fifty people stand behind the wooden barricades and gape at the ten men on the pavement, who are sitting in line on the mats they have brought from their homes. One of them is special, there is a table fan by his side. They claim they will starve to death unless the state government clearly spells out how it plans to protect the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The men are in starched white shirts stitched for the event and
that are bunched in a way that magnifies their groins. There is a long silver torch beside every fasting man. The reporters know that the torches contain stuffed bananas
instead of batteries, which will be consumed when the martyrs go to urinate.
The fasting men return the stares of the spectators through a distant blank gloom, and when they grow tired of looking sad they take sips of water from plastic cups or join their palms for the photographers. Behind these men, young subordinates stand nervously, as if they are afraid that if they sit they too would have to fast.
Two large muscular goons are setting up a sound system, stringing a Casio keyboard to loudspeakers. The goons are in lungis, which are folded over their knees, and the hems of their long striped underwear are visible. They have a problem, it appears, as the man who knows how to play the keyboard has not turned up.
‘Do you know how to play this thing, you motherfucker?’ one goon asks the other, somewhat fondly, as he extracts a wire from his sack.
‘Doesn’t matter, motherfucker,’ the first goon says, looking at the keyboard without fear. ‘You play white. I’ll play black.’
The fasting men and their supporters have occupied a fifty-metre stretch on the pavement, between a public urinal and a giant five-storey-high plywood cut-out of superstar Rajinikanth, who looks over the city in a golden leather jacket and tights, and dark glasses, his face pink because hoarding painters do not have the courage to paint him black. Vehicles have been diverted from this section of the road, and policemen are lingering on the deserted stretch, wondering, as always, what they must do to kill time. On the other side of the road, facing the fasting men, a row of crude food stalls has sprung up on the pavement, where reporters and photographers and some of
the curious spectators are stuffing hot food into their wide-open mouths.
The voice of Ilango comes from behind. Ousep barely recognizes him; he had met Ilango three years ago. How boys grow. As Unni becomes soil, the sons of other fathers, how they grow.
He is a healthy boy with new powerful muscles and he sways in his own private gale of youthful forces inside him. Somewhat happy, unlike the other vanquished boys like him who go to third-rate engineering colleges. His little, exaggerated gestures have a phoney rustic servility about them, as if he is about to ask for a loan. It is tiring just to watch him, and Ousep feels a great relief at the thought that he will probably never meet him again.
‘I am sorry I asked you to come here,’ Ousep says.
The boy puts his hands on his mouth, and says, ‘How can you say “sorry” and all that. You are Unni’s father. You can ask me to come anywhere.’
‘I am working, Ilango. I have to file a story about the fast. That’s why I asked you to come here.’
Ilango looks at the fasting men but he has no curiosity about what is happening here.
Ousep lights two cigarettes and leads the boy to a tea stall on the concrete pavement, where they sit facing each other on wooden stools that have unequal legs, a rugged aluminium-plated table between them. For a while they stare in silence at the fasting men on the other side of the road.
‘You know why I wanted to meet you,’ Ousep says.
‘Yes. Please ask me anything you want, Uncle. But I am very curious. What happened? Why are you asking questions about Unni? I hear you have spoken to almost everybody in the class. I hope everything is all right.’
‘Everything is fine. Let’s imagine it is not important why I am asking about Unni.’
‘I don’t know why he did that,’ Ilango says, ‘I really don’t know. After the twelfth-standard board exams I was not in touch with him. He did what he did a few weeks after the exams. I heard about it much later.’
‘I didn’t come for that. I want to know more about Unni. That’s all there is to this. Tell me what you remember. When he was in the twelfth standard, the final year of school, just months before he died, that’s the Unni I want to know. When he was seventeen, how was he in class?’
Ilango’s eyes focus on a spot on the road. He is probably trying to extract something important from his memory, something significant. Everybody wants to tell a good story. That is the problem.
When Ilango speaks, his voice has lost all its elaborate modesty. He speaks with a severe fondness for a friend who was shy, who liked to sit in a corner and sketch, but could be interrupted any time. Ousep has heard this many times. The reserve of Unni that yielded to the faintest tug of friendship.
‘Unni didn’t talk much,’ Ilango says. ‘I think he liked to be left alone. But if you went to Unni and if you talked to him, he would let you talk. And he would listen carefully, like a girl. He was interested in what you were saying. When you spoke to him you knew he was imagining what you were seeing in your head. And you would wonder, what’s so important about what I am saying?’
‘Can you recall a conversation?’
‘Once, I told him about a cat on my street that did not have a tail. He asked me a lot of questions about the cat. How it behaved, how it ran, stuff like that. I don’t know why. He asked me if I thought the cat knew it didn’t have a tail. How can I know something like that? That was the way he was.’
‘Why do you think he was that way?’
‘I don’t know. I think he liked to collect a lot of information. And he did know a lot of strange facts. Actually, I don’t know if they were really facts. One day he told me that the most powerful booze in the world is found in Kerala. He said it is called Jesus Christ.’
‘It’s true,’ Ousep says.
‘Why is it called Jesus Christ?’
‘If you drink it you will rise only on the third day.’
Ilango scratches his chin with an open mouth, and looks around.
‘Sometimes he did say things that were totally strange, which simply cannot be true,’ he says.
Ilango rubs his nose. He is not trying to remember, he is probably coming to a decision. ‘One day he came up to me and said, “I know a corpse.” I asked him what he meant by that and he just laughed.’
‘What did he mean?’
‘He said, “I know a corpse”?’
‘What does that mean?’
‘I’ve no idea.’
Ousep is startled by the laments of women. There are about twenty of them, village women, who stand in a swarm on the other side of the road, behind the wooden barricade. They are facing the fasting ringleader, the man who has the table fan beside him. They are beating their breasts and wailing, but they also show the mild wonder of recent arrival. They cry in a distracted way, throwing glances all around, even looking up at
the sky, though they know it very well. They are in tattered saris, blouseless, their hair tangled in brown dirt. Most of them are old, some are very young, but in a bestial way. Their wails are composed of the same three words, which probably have no meaning when not delivered in a dirge. They keep kissing the tips of their fingers. It is as if they are begging for food from a man who is fasting to death. But then a woman shows him a banana and it is now clear that they are asking him to eat, they are begging him not to starve to death. They are probably from his village. Someone must have told them that a son of their soil has decided to sacrifice his life for the Tamil cause. So the gang of malnourished women have descended to dissuade this man, whose full belly sits on his lap as if it is something dear to him. He looks at the women with valiant gloom, and their laments grow. He is probably trying to suppress a laugh now, so his face turns more serious. Then, in a master stroke, he turns the table fan towards the women. In the burst of air the women break into giggles. They try to cry again but their lungs are tired now, and they soon fall silent. They sit on the road and start chatting among themselves.
All this will go one day, this animal poverty, it will vanish. And future generations will not know, will not even guess, the true nature of poverty, which is the longest heritage of man. Shouldn’t this be preserved somehow, like old colonial buildings, shouldn’t abject poverty be preserved as historical evidence? That is what socialists are trying to do in this country. Everybody misunderstands their intentions. They are noble conservationists, working hard to preserve a way of the world.
Ousep and Mariamma were socialists once, like all the informed young men and women of the time, slim people in love who thought they knew how to make the world a better place, a place as happy as their beds. But Mariamma was not as
naïve as him. One night she told him, her head on his bare chest, her hair all over his face, ‘But an idea that overrates human character is bound to fail. Look around, Ousep, in every way of the world, only ideas that do not overestimate human nature succeed.’ Ousep quoted her in his popular Sunday column. Not many young journalists could get away with quoting their own wives, but then every odd thing that Ousep Chacko did in those days was heralded as ‘Style’. Other writers started quoting their wives in their serious political columns, and that became a brief journalistic trend. Until, inevitably, it became a farce and died.
Ilango is not affected by the women, he sees nothing in what has just happened. But he says, pointing to the women, ‘According to Unni, those women are not as sad as we think they are. They are happy. According to him, everybody is happy. And people who are unhappy are only fooling themselves. For someone as clever as Unni it was a weird view.’
Ilango’s eyes grow feeble as he quietly sips his tea. He does not speak for a while, then he begins to chuckle. Still he does not speak. Ousep does not push, he waits.
‘There was something Unni started doing in the final year of school which he had never done before,’ the boy says. ‘If a teacher was absent, or during the lunch break, any time the class was not guarded, he would quietly go to the teacher’s table, climb on it and stand in total silence, until all murmurs stopped and all eyes were on him. Then he would tell us stories, his own stories. And when Unni told a story … now how do I say it? I am not a smart boy. I don’t have the words to describe what I felt. When Unni told a story standing on top of that table, it was as if there was no other sound in the world. As he spoke you saw pictures in your head, you saw faces, and you could smell things that you did not know had smells.’
This, Ousep has heard many times. The class of adolescent boys falling quiet as Unni approached the table, his smooth athletic leap on to the table, and then his dramatic silence, which infected all and killed the final chuckles. But what is odd is that several boys claim this never happened, or that they do not remember seeing Unni do this. That is strange. An act of this nature would have many witnesses, and it did happen in all probability. Then why would many boys want to deny it? What is even more odd is that the boys who describe Unni’s storytelling do not remember any of his stories.
‘Do you remember one of his stories?’
That was quick.
‘You remember the little details of how Unni told his stories, but you don’t remember any of the stories that he told?’
Ilango’s large, expressive Adam’s apple rolls, as if it has become self-aware.
‘I don’t remember. I wonder why.’
Ousep lights his cigarettes. ‘Do you smoke?’ he asks.
The boy shakes his head, almost wounded for being asked.
‘Why do you smoke two cigarettes at once?’ he asks with exaggerated respect in his tone.