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Tamil dalit literature

Sudhakar Ghatak

A Lump of Clay1

Sudhakar Ghatak

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  • 1 The Tamil title of this story, Kaimmaṇ, is a play on another Tamil word, kaimpeṇ, which means widow

1The palm tubers stuck out of the basket, so Molavi ducked gracefully as she came inside, and not a one of them scraped on the bamboo rafters. There was Rengaayaal, looking at herself in the half broken mirror, the one without its silver backing, jagged, with sharp edges and a bottom half just big enough to show your face, stuck up in the lamp niche in the wall. The roof was thatched so tight that even though it was the middle of the day, there was very little light indoors. Before she got married, Rengaayaal would sit in the front doorway, feet together and knees spread out, propping up the mirror with her toes, and really look at her reflection. Now, though, if she took it outside to look at herself, the neighbors would say, “Why, just you look at that widder-woman a-showing off!” Even when she does go outside now and then to look in the mirror, it is just because she needs to, not that she really cares. Maybe the mirror lost its silver backing because nobody ever really used it—who knows? Rengaayaal likes the oval compacts that you can fold up best. She doesn’t actually use her mirror much, but every day it keeps finding its way into her hands.

2Day after day the neighbors keep sending their kids over.

3“Rengaa, look at this Kaaliyaankutty standin’ here needin’ a good hair-combing. I got to stir this kanji on the stove, and here’s all this fuss about combing hair.”

4“You think your husband’s a-comin’ home? That why you need to pretty up?” Rengaa would ask, teasing them.

5“Sister, she needs it parted over to one side,” they say, and hold out the mirror.

6“Your playmates gonna like you best if I part it over to the side?” Rengaa chuckles and takes the mirror, mixing her laughter in with the little neighbor girls who come over to get their hair done. Sometimes it takes a long time to comb all that hair.

7“It itches up top of my head,” they’ll say, and she’ll need to look through for lice before she finishes combing out their hair. Even then, while she’s looking at the head of hair she’s combing out, she will not look at the mirror the little girl is holding out in front of her. The girls do, though, and they see the face behind their heads in the mirror.

8“Sister, you got a hair stickin’ outa your nose!” they say.

9“Ain’t you engaged to that barber the next street over? You just tell him to come on over and snip it off,” Rengaa retorts. Then, “Hoo-boy! Here, you’re done,” she says, her face smiling as she looks in the mirror. But it’s only the girls’ faces that she sees.

10“You ain’t ready yet? Pullin’ you is harder than pullin’ a temple chariot!” Molavi said as she set her basket down. Rengaa was fretting over whether or not it was worth it to take four pottery cookstoves along to sell in the market.

  • 2 Ethnographic note: It is customary for potters to take on this role.

11She remembered yesterday, when Father had looked those stoves over and said, “Pongal’s a-comin’ up. If we can sell all o’ these, that’ll make us enough to get some sugar cane to chew on.” So she told Molavi that she guessed she’d best come along to the market with her. If Father had been strong like he used to be, he would never leave home in the morning like she was going to do. He’d leave right after supper the night before. And he wouldn’t be taking one basket full of earthenware. He’d hire a bullock cart. There would be earthen saucepots lined up and strung with ropes on both sides of the cargo bed. There would be soapstone pots, hanging in their stands made of twisted hay, and little pots, but it’s all gone. Now it has shrunken down to just four or five earthen cookstoves that he made who knows when, and they’re halfway blackened from sitting around. To look at them, nobody would think they were new stoves. There is no potters’ street in town, and her father was not a potter anyway. He just picked up pottery making somewhere along the way. He sort of turned into a potter. And whenever the children got heat rash on their bodies, it was her father who wrote out the magic spell for the talisman.2 He’d write it out early in the morning before anybody else woke up and could watch him do it. But now his potter’s wheel lies unused, out near the pigpen, and nobody cares. Even his clay has gone bad. He only made a couple pieces of pottery to use around the house, and when Rengaa came back home he stopped the whole process.

12“Rengaa, I was aimin’ to tell you yesterday. You know that so-called cousin of yours? Heard tell he’s over there in Puthangudi, but they’s a-sayin’ he’s become some kind of a Christian. He done wrote it up on a bicycle placard, and he’s pedaling it from town to town. And he done gone all puny-like. That was our sister from Maraanthuur told me about him, ya know?” When she heard her say that, Rengaayaal just could not pick up her basket and go outside. Molavi’s faced looked like she thought maybe she should not have said that. What Molavi had said was just meant for Rengaa’s benefit. You never could make out anything from Molavi’s face, but she always talked real plain. “So what if she aimed that at me?” Rengaa thought.

13Molavi arranged her bundles of palm tubers with her finger so there was no space between bunches, and untied one of the bunches. “I told him to bundle up two good ones with two rotten ones, and look how he done went and tied ‘em up! People pays two rupees for these bundles, and they’s four rupees’ worth tied up in ‘em. Now where’s the profit gonna come from doin’ like that? But if you tell them it’s time to drink moonshine, they all cut in front of the line,” she complained about how her husband tied up the bundles of tubers.

  • 3 Ethnographic note: While it is generally looked down on for a woman to have no necklace at all, it (...)

14She looked at Rengaa, coming over to where she was. The sight of her bare neck was sad, and Molavi said, “Go on, at least put a black bead necklace on that neck of yours and let’s go.”3

15“I had one but it busted,” she replied. Actually, Molavi already knew Rengaa didn’t even have a black bead necklace.

  • 4 This means that it’s long and complicated, and his connection is a pretty distant one.

16Even when Molavi talked about that so-called cousin, Rengaa thought she could keep from showing that it mattered to her. But Molavi knew very well that she could not. Molavi and the sister from Maraanthuur are always the ones who bring the news. Rengaa didn’t know what kind of unbroken relationship still held between him and her any more. She had wanted to marry him. He wanted to as well. They were distantly related. When he came around here, somebody or other would ask him who he was related to and he’d explain, and they’d listen. “Hey man, it’s like how do you get from Kumbakonam to Kora Nadu? What you talkin’ about?”4 And he’d laugh silently. He lived in Puuvizhuntha Nalluur, which means “The Good Town Where the Flower Fell.” She still liked it whenever anybody said the name of that town. He’s the one who told her how that town got its name:

  • 5 This alludes to an episode in the pan-Indian epic, the Ramayana.

17“When Ravanan was carrying Sita off5 a flower fell out of Sita’s hair, and it landed in our town—that’s why.”

18“Yeah, and you was there to see it fall, right?” Rengaa said.

19“We’re only supposed to tell people what we actually saw.”

20“So which did you see—Sita, or the flower falling out of her hair?” she teased.

21“I saw them both!” he’d say with a sly smile, and look up at the sky.

22And Molavi, if she didn’t even have Rengaa, her heart would sometimes dry up like the Rajan Canal, where there wasn’t even enough water to wash out a petticoat. She never went to the canal. Even the people who said they were heading off to bathe in the canal just went rabbit hunting in the bushes that grew on the banks.

23Molavi actually looked like somebody setting out to go to the market; her bundles of palm tubers were arranged neatly in her basket. But when you looked at Rengaa, carrying her five little clay pots and four clay cookstoves, she looked more like she had just bought them and was coming home from the market.

24“If I don’t sell these things, who’s a-gonna cry? So what if Pongal’s a-comin’? It’ll go just like it came,” Rengaa kept on fretting.

25“Hey, girl, look over there. Look at all them arikaadai sparrows there on the threshing-ground!” Molavi shouted.

26Again, that just reminded Rengaa of him. Rice had been harvested from the fields on both sides of the road. Arikaadai sparrows were hopping in and out of the bottom sheaves. One time when he came, they called to him to help with the threshing. Her father never was one to stand out in front and speak, but this time he said, “What you doin’ callin’ up a boy that don’t know the work?”

27To that, he said, “It sounds like fun. I’ll join in,” and he did. But pretty soon he came back out. They asked him, “You got done with your threshing all that fast, huh?” but he didn’t reply. He came over to Rengaa, who was looking for some soap in the lamp-niche in the wall. He said, just loud enough for her to hear, “There are these arikaadai sparrows out there on the threshing ground. If you go close, they get scared and fly away. That’s why I came back.”

28“Great! You’re such a good worker!” she said, and she laughed. She hadn’t realized there were arikaadai sparrows on the threshing floor.

29He said, “If it was regular sparrows, there would be a whole flock of them, they wouldn’t be scared, and they’d mess up the piles of rice. You can’t control them,” he explained.

30“The sister from Maraanthuur might come today too,” Molavi kept running her mouth, bringing out from memory into the open everybody who was connected to him. The sister from Maraanthuur was related to him somehow as well. The sister from Maraanthuur knows where all the neem trees are in all the villages around. In this town she has two different kinds of sisters-in-law—husband’s sisters once removed, and wives of her husband’s brothers. But everybody, from the littlest to the biggest, just calls her the sister from Maraanthuur. Her job is to go from town to town and collect neem seeds to sell. Weeding and transplanting rice, like other women do, is something she knows nothing about, or if she does know how she won’t do it. And she never tells you what she does when neem seeds are not in season. In town, in the evenings, she sells a deep-fried sweet made with flour, coconut and jaggery. It’s an open question how much she makes out of these two jobs, but she has never had any regrets. You can never tell what will fall out of the mouth of this sister from Maraanthuur, or when it will come. There is no way to call her. She just comes and sits at the foot of the neem tree by Rengaa’s house. People will see the white fertilizer sack she brings along, realize it is her coming, and collect the neem seeds to give her.

31While she is measuring up the neem seeds, some man will say, “Hey sister, you’re counting three-quarters of a cup like it was a full cup!”

  • 6 The god of justice.

32“Where are your eyes? Did you leave them in you wife’s ‘thing?’Now watch me carefully while I measure this. This is the way Dharma6 measures things, man!”

33Then a woman says, “You’re not paying us enough for these seeds,” and she’ll retort, “I am paying too much. Give me your husband!”

34She’d reach out and grab around the waists of the naked little boys who gathered to watch the fun. “Hey fellas, I ain’t never gonna buy these little chili peppers!” she’d say with fake disappointment showing on her face. A smile would play around on Rengaa’s face. When everything’s done, she’d gather up her white sack and heft it up. Just as she’s about to leave, sometimes Molavi would ask, “Tell us that story about the ole man that ate the goat’s nuts.”

35“Jeez girl, I gotta tell that three hundred times for every breath I take! Go ask that ole man you married. He’ll climb up on you and tell you the whole thing!” Rengaa had heard the story too. You can’t tell it with a straight face, but the sister from Maraanthuur would tell it without laughing even as much as a mustard seed.

36All day long while she was walking to the market, Rengaa wondered why the memory of him kept coming up. Her memories of him never got worn out or crushed completely. And she could not understand why they could not wear thin and leave her alone. Whenever he came to see Rengaa it would be dark, about when it’s time to light up the kerosene lamps. And when he did come, he’d always say he was on his way somewhere, that’s how he was.

37“Did you spill some boiling water on your feet—that why you hurryin’ on over here? Stay and have a bite to eat, why don’t you?” her father would say. “Don’t bother,” he’d say, and then he’d leave. It was drizzling rain the last time he came, and almost as soon as the rain hit the ground the frogs made one big racket. Father, when he heard the frog noise, said, “When the rainfall soaks into the ground and the frogs start going korrr-korrrr, you know what that means? They’re shouting in code, ‘Bring the bucket. Bring the spade. Bring the bucket. Bring the spade. Start your work in the soil, boys.’” And although he never talked much at all, that night even he talked a lot with Father. Maybe he thought news about him should spread through other people or something. Even the news that he got a job as a security guard in a sugar factory was something the sister from Maraanthuur related. And when she said that he wore a khaki uniform to work, Rengaa was really happy.

38Then she said, “Now that he has a job, they done found him a bride from some place else.” Rengaa didn’t even have a day’s time to fret over whether or not this news could be true when she was surprised to hear that the wedding had already taken place.

39“They say the bride owns her own tiled roof house.”

40“A tiled roof house done turned into such a big deal,” was all that Father could say. Rengaa didn’t like looking at tiled roof houses after that. “What did he say?” she thought about asking. The sister from Maraanthuur thought there was something that Rengaa wanted to ask her about, just by the way she looked.

41“What was he gonna say, that boy who absorbs everything but keeps quiet? Out of the blue, he just went off and left everybody. And nobody knows how he changed like that. They even got a saffron-colored wedding announcement.”

42Father went out and sat on his broken potter’s wheel. Then he said, “Bring me my spade, girl,” like he just woke up, and he set out. He dug up some clay somewhere, plopped it in a basket, brought it back, set it down, took out a lump of clay, and just sat there: he couldn’t figure out what to do with it. All Rengaa could do was stare into the intense heat of the sun.

43There was a bunch of karisaalaanganni greens lying next to the grinding stone. If you grind them up and rub them into your hair, it will help you feel cool. While Rengaa was working it into her hair, Kannaayiram—the guy who sells that rose-colored cotton candy—he was talking with Father.

44“Don’t hold back, man! He ain’t got no women around to pester him, he’s got his arms and legs, and a job shoving chaff into the machine.”

45So that was it: Kaniyaaram was proposing to arrange a marriage for Rengaa. But nobody ever asked Rengaa about anything. Molavi would borrow Rengaa’s blouses without even asking, anybody who came around wanting buttermilk would just pour it out for themselves without checking with her. She didn’t even have her turmeric stick for taking a bath—they said they’ll just use it once and bring it back, but they took it. And now nobody asked her anything about the marriage plans. The talk that Kannaayiram had with Father went all the way into details like the Turkish chrysanthemums and the green holy-ash herb leaves that were to go into the garland that the chaff-pushing bridegroom was going to put around her neck. What she got out of it all was a nice oil lamp and a grain-measure scoop. You went to the end of the village and crossed the canal on a bridge made of two palm-tree trunks. Then you walked on down into his village. She couldn’t even remember who came to the wedding. There were not many neem trees in this new village, so the sister from Maraanthuur wouldn’t be coming around. There were just a lot of rattan fruits. But even though there were no neem trees, and in the fierce winds of the month of Aadi, with her hair plastered with dust from the fields, the sister from Maraanthuur did come to visit her, and that in itself was unsettling. It had been a long time since she had seen the sister, and the aroma of neem flowers seemed to emanate from her body.

46Rengaa didn’t even have time to ask, “When did you get here?” before the sister, feeling bold because nobody else was around, hiked up her tie-dye sari and said, “I just got done sticking it in here, and then I came on over,” and she roared with laughter. It was just like being back in the village.

47She told Rengaa that the so-called cousin had gone off somewhere else to work, but that he is now going around with his head hanging down. The woman he married was no longer living with him—maybe his flesh was not enough for her itches, who knows? Maybe it was for keeps, maybe just for fun, but what the hell, she ran off with another man. So he figured she was going to be okay, but he went to pieces. He got him a bicycle and now he’s roaming around. He even comes to places like the Crossroads Market, it seems. She acted like she didn’t even hear the sister talking, but she really did listen carefully. She was a little ashamed to offer her a drink of her cracked-rice kanji. All that chaff-pusher husband of hers was able to bring home every day was this old cracked rice.

48All the villagers were scrounging around for seeds to plant, whether it rained or not. Even though the sister from Manraanthuur was the one who brought all the news, it was other people who told her Rengaa’s news. Rengaa’s chaff-pushing husband was electrocuted while he was pushing chaff into the machine, and just hung there.

49Rengaa eventually heard that when the sister found out about that, off in some village gathering neem seeds, she just sat there like a statue and said, “Aiyyoooo, what a shame!”

50The owner of the machine was a man named Burma Chetty. If you worked for Burma Chetty, the whole family had to keep working for him. The moment he heard that he no longer had a man to load in the chaff, Rengaa went to work in her husband’s position. Now she had a way to get her cracked rice. But Burma Chetty was also the reason she ended up with no way to get her cracked rice. He would sit at his cash box and his eyes would roam all over Rengaa. He stared and stared at her when she was bending over and straightening up, loading in the chaff. “I got ten young coconut trees up there on the bank of the canal,” he said baldly. You couldn’t tell what that little speech fit in with. When she was standing next to the machine, dusting chaff off her sari, and shaking out the cloth that went on top of her head to stabilize the chaff-baskets, he came around in front of her. Pop—like removing the gate panel in a garden fence, he pulled up her sari. “Hey, girl, let’s have a look in here!” he said. Rengaa didn’t even have time to bring her hand down and slap his hand, he did all that while she had her hands up re-arranging the cloth. She caught her breath and was going to say, “Go lift up your mother’s sari and show it off!” but Chetty said, “You’re nothing but a potter’s daughter, so why all this insolence?” Before he could get any closer, she went outside. Hot chaff particles were burning her arms, and her heart was burning, too. Did she cry? She can’t remember. When she told all this to the sister from Maraanthuur, though, she cried. Rengaa had two chickens in her house. She tossed out all the cracked rice from her winnowing tray for them. She picked up her nice oil lamp, and her grain measure too, but then tossed them onto the floor as well. She figured she’d cross the canal and go back to her village. Of the two palm trunks that used to be there, only one was left. While she climbed up on it, his face and the face of her electrocuted husband merged together in her thoughts.

51Father said to himself, “So here she comes, with her neck bare. If she stayed there like that the people in the village would keep on sniping at her with their teeth and mouths.”

52The girls from this village who came to get their hair done went to school in the next village. A few people were planting seeds in land that had lain fallow. Kannaayiram the cotton-candy seller had moved to town. Rengaa took to staring at her soot-stained wall for hours on end.

53In front of the market-grounds was an area that was covered with grass. Mixed in with the grass were lots of touch-me-not bushes. If you touch one of those touch-me-nots, the leaves will immediately close shut. But if there is a flower, the flower won’t close up. Even this was something that he had told her. Molavi was the one who started bringing up his memory, but she’s keeping her mouth shut now. Even if you were to tease her about it, by now his memory was overflowing in Rengaa’s heart. She never, ever, thought about her husband. If there was anybody who might be able to read her thoughts, they’d probably just hawk and spit at her. She found a place in the market next to a vendor of casuarina shoots where she set down her basket. The sun was beating down on her head, so she pulled up the end of her sari to give her a little bit of shade, but the sweat was running down her body anyway. Molavi picked up her palm tubers and stood in a crowded place, shouting out her wares. When the sun was at its peak, one woman stopped and asked the price of a cookstove. While she was coming, Rengaa had figured out what price to ask, but now she forgot what it was. Before she could say what the price was, the other woman had moved on. Molavi had sold half her bundles of tubers and was tying the money into the end of her sari.

54“Hey, girl! Rengaa! Let’s go have a drink of sherbet,” she invited, and right at that moment, ten steps away, he was moving along. She couldn’t tell whether or not Molavi had seen him. And she wasn’t even positive that it was him, at first glance. He was riding a bicycle. When she saw him in profile, she was certain: it was him. She didn’t even turn in the direction of Molavi, who had just invited her to have some sherbet. Now it was clear that the guy riding that bicycle really was him. She remembered that the sister from Maraanthuur had said he comes to places like the Crossroads Market. In the front part, and the back part, of the cycle, on placards, there was something written and stuck up on bamboo poles. She didn’t know how to read, but Molavi did. But when she thought of asking her to read it, there she was, over at a bangle shop a little ways away bargaining for a black-bead necklace to wear on her bare neck. “Damn you, woman, why did you figure to be off right at this moment a-buyin’ that stupid thing!” she fumed. “Hey, Molavi,” she got ready to holler, but instead she hollered out Molavi’s real name, Kaamaatchi, and Molavi just thought they were calling somebody else. Then she got really angry and thought of singing out a whole string of abuses, but instead she took one single step forward, following the bicycle. When she looked closer at him she saw that tears in his shirt were mended by hand. The color of the thread didn’t match the color of the torn cloth. It looked like the whole shirt was torn and pasted together with invisible thread. It struck her clearly that time had well and truly chewed him up.

55Her father had come along behind her, too, and there he was, talking with an old man who had set out a lot of clay pots. He had lots of pots, too, just like Father used to have. The old man was asking him about something. Maybe it was about some complicated tricks of the trade, you couldn’t tell. Father stood there looking confused, like he was trying to remember something that he had forgotten, and abruptly but quietly asked for a chew of betel leaves and lime. She could tell that Father had not seen him. Or maybe he had seen him but was acting like he hadn’t, she wasn’t sure. He just rode right on past Father.

56Like kids too little for a bicycle, pushing the peddles just when their feet can reach them, he was moving slowly, but it looked to her like the wind was blowing him away, fast, out of sight, figuring to keep him hidden. His heels, pedaling the bicycle, were all cracked, just like hers were, from standing in wet places for long periods of time. She walked off and left her earthenware cookstoves and her pots lying there on the ground unsold. When she walked past her father, she thought he was calling her, “Hey, girl… hey, girl. Set those unsold pots out over here. That way they’ll sell.”

57All the things she had to talk to him about roiled up from the flesh under her bare neck, came up through her throat and made it all the way to the tip of her tongue. Then she had this empty hope that maybe, even in this very market he might have come across some plain women with bare necks, and that when he saw them they would remind him of her. Then, too, if he were to turn around and see her, she didn’t know what she would say. Then suddenly she fretted over what relationship there really was, between him and her. She remembered her unsold pots and thought, “Why couldn’t I give him these in exchange for some money?” but she didn’t say it, and then for a minute she wondered if she really wanted to take any money from him for this. Even if the sister from Maraanthuur had been there right then, and even if she hollered out, “Hey boy!” he wouldn’t have come. She looked all around in case she could happen to see the sister from Maraanthuur, but this place was just crammed with other noisy faces moving their lips. The sun was going down, and its light was getting red. He was pedaling fast off into the sunset. Molavi came running up behind Rengaa, holding out a black bead necklace. In the time it takes to snap your fingers, a crew of men started unloading sugarcane stalks and leaves from a bullock cart near to where she was, close to his bicycle, and the tightly bundled leaves at the tips of the bundles blocked him from her view. She thought she could holler out to him, but she didn’t know what she would say when she shouted, so she just stood there, just like that.

Notes

1 The Tamil title of this story, Kaimmaṇ, is a play on another Tamil word, kaimpeṇ, which means widow.

2 Ethnographic note: It is customary for potters to take on this role.

3 Ethnographic note: While it is generally looked down on for a woman to have no necklace at all, it is particularly poignant that Rengaa’s tali—her marriage necklace, something like a wedding ring but much more important—is missing.

4 This means that it’s long and complicated, and his connection is a pretty distant one.

5 This alludes to an episode in the pan-Indian epic, the Ramayana.

6 The god of justice.

Auteur

(1967) is a Dalit short-story writer from Neyveli in Cuddalore District. He received the ‘Katha’ prize for his short story ‘Varaivu’ [The Sketch] in 1997-98. He is a civil engineer by training and works for the state Public Works Department.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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