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Tamil dalit literature

Alakiya Periyavan

The Village with Walls in All Directions

Alakiya Periyavan

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One

1It was night time when they went in with their machetes. As soon as they got outside the village boundary they went to the mango tree where people worship the Great God and looked carefully around. It looked twisted and gnarled, crawling up towards the sky, that tree did. Its rough leaves rattled, karu-karu, in the wind. In the night, it felt like that tree was a great big living being just standing there, heaving a helpless sigh.

2Chinnasami beckoned with his hand and parted the hedgerow that grew almost up to the tree, and then he crawled through into the field. The others followed him. You could hear the sala-salappu of the hedge, and sounds of a few birds. The incessant chirping of cicadas sounded louder than ever.

3Anumanda Reddi’s land lay fallow, an expanse of grassy tufts. In the daytime, cattle and other animals from the village would be all over the place, grazing. This bit of land had been left this way for years, with no crops sown, and as a result it was just resting, with little dwarf-like niirttheengi and kaattaamanakku bushes here and there. The grassy field felt nice on the men’s feet. Their footsteps sounded like the muruk-muruk of cattle tearing off mouthfuls of grass as they grazed.

4When they crossed Reddi’s land, they moved carefully through some bamboo canes. Coconut trees were waving gently on Nagendra Naidu’s land. The thorn-hedge trees looked really tall. From time to time you could clearly hear the sounds of motor vehicles on the highway that was just a holler away.

5“Easy, boys. You gotta fell ‘em like we done marked ‘em off with a stretched string. We need to drop at least ten or twenty coconut trees. We’ll take care of that cannonball-tree by the highway last thing. When we’re all finished we can pull out these two fence posts here. Then, once we cut that fence over there by the mango tree, well, then we got ‘er done and we got us a road.

6“Nobody talks. Work fast. Whatever happens, wait till all the trees are down, then we get on with the rest of the job.”

7He bounded over the barbwire, and he went up to the first tree to be felled, Chinnasami did. There were trees standing all over the place in the night, blocking their way. Chinnasami grabbed his machete and swung the first stroke, like he was splitting the night itself. Then the silence of the night crumbled completely at the sounds of all the rest of the machete-strokes.

Two

8The sounds of trees falling traveled clear to Senthaamarai’s ears. Her house was like it was pasted onto the edge of the village, and she was sleeping by her doorway, moaning in pain. The noise was loud. A bunch of birds, roused from their good night’s sleep, made a racket, sa-looo, as they scattered. It’s probably just the neem trees, she thought. It was nice, that sound.

9“Hey, take it easy, buddy, take it easy! Just cut ‘em down real careful. If anybody comes, we cut him down too. Anyway, we can take care of that in the morning,” Chinnasami’s voice erupted in a frenzy of anger and worry.

10Senthaamarai’s nerves twitched. Her body perspired, despite a cool midnight breeze. In anger, she felt hot all over. She wished she were out there with him, holding a big weapon in her hand.

11She kept thinking about what happened yesterday. She kept thinking about it and her body shuddered and drooped, burning in humiliation and anger. Because of Ramadan she had worked only half a day at the colony factory. As soon as the factory bus brought her back and dumped her off in the middle of the main road, she saw the tailor’s shop that stood right there, and she hollered out, “Did you finish my sari blouse yet, brother? You ready for me to go home and get you the money?”

12“Sure, go on and get it,” he said with a little smirk. So Senthaamarai went right on home without saying a word to anybody along the way. You go right through the main street of the Naidus’ part of town, turn north, and walk along the riverbank to get to her part of town. Senthaamarai went into her house, deposited her bag, and got the money out of her trunk. She hurried back to the tailor’s shop.

13“Here’s your money, brother. How’s the fit?”

14“Whoa—I told you to go get your money, but I didn’t think you’d come back this fast. It’ll be ready tomorrow,” the tailor said sarcastically, looking at Senthaamarai standing there glowering. “Besides, you already done gave me one blouse for a pattern to fit, din’t ya? All you have to do on this one is give the word and I can feel right in there and sure enough check your size!” The tailor’s smirk never left his face. Senthaamarai’s whole body throbbed in anger and indignation.

15“Now what you talkin’ about? If the blouse ain’t ready, you just tell me it ain’t ready. Don’t make me go home and then talk bad to me. You know what’s gonna happen if I go home and tell my brother on you?”

16“Aaw go on, git outa here. I ain’t sewing no blouse for no Pariah. You gave me something and I accepted it. What the hell is your brother gonna do? Go on—tell him to try me!”

17“So you ain’t gonna sew for Pariahs, you just want you some Pariah pussy, huh? You better watch out.”

18She yelled at him in anger, but Senthaamarai felt like it was cutting deep into her. When she saw Chinnasami, she figured she’d beset keep quiet, just chew up and swallow the grief that rose up all the way into her mouth.

19The first thing that struck her eyes when she got off the bus was that tailor’s shop. Whenever she saw it something would immediately rise up all the way to her head. She’d clear her throat, and spit.

20Two or three days later when she was coming home from work and passing through the Naidus’ neighborhood, there was something that made her feel uneasy. Nobody else was coming along with her. This time she was alone. The other factory women were working different shifts.

21When she got past the town and began walking along the edges of the fields, her fear increased. When she came to the turnoff that takes you back into town she stopped. The main path forked, and descended into the dry river bed, rising up again on the other side into a forest. Senthaamarai wondered if she should go down into the river bed and come back up into the village by the cremation grounds. She gathered up all her courage and began walking along the path to her part of town.

22She heard a sala-salappu noise in the sugarcane grove by the side of the path, like people moving around in there. It sounded like dried sugarcane leaves rubbing together. Senthaamarai stood still in shock, when out of the sugarcane field came the tailor, and he blocked the path.

23All day, right up to dusk, like she’d been smacked by a ghost, Senthaamarai stayed curled up in a ball in a corner of her house. Wherever teeth and fingernails had torn into her skin, she felt piercing pains.

24She came in like the wind, and fell down. Her body ached like a wet towel that somebody has wrung dry. The bleeding would not stop. She changed rags two or three times. The pain when she had to urinate stung like it came from deep in her belly.

25Mother had not yet come home from work. Who knows which field she went to work in? Father was out on the porch, coughing. A couple of times it sounded faint, like he was calling her from inside a well, but then he’d settle back down. She heard the sound of Chinnasami coming. Whenever he came he’d be talking with somebody in the street.

26“Hey, Pa? Ma not here yet? Why ain’t she swept the entryway?” he asked as he was coming in. He looked carefully around once he got inside. As soon as he saw Senthaamarai curled up by the wall, he got a lump in his throat, and he got scared. He went over to her.

27“Hey, sis, whatcha doin’ laying down like that?”

28Like a child, Senthaamarai lunged at him and grabbed his feet, and she wailed.

Three

29For years and years the people of that village had been submitting their petitions to the authorities. They needed a separate access road to the village. They went and tried at many government offices, both at the district and at the state levels.

Dear Sir:

We are Adi Dravidar people from the above-mentioned village. Day laborers who rely on agriculture. We live very close to a Naidu village to our north, and to a Gounder village to the south.

To the east of our village there is a river. We have to pass through one of those high-caste villages to reach the highway, as there is no direct access. While we are going to and from our village, as we pass through these two high-caste towns, it happens that our young men are pulled into fights, and that our women are harassed. As a result we are fearful whenever we leave our village, and when we return. There is a path, used by our ancestors, that leads westward from the edge of our village to the highway. But these days that pathway has been taken over by upper-caste people. They have annexed it as part of their land.

Respected Sir, we humbly request you please to give this your careful consideration, and do whatever is necessary to provide us with a direct route.

Thank you.

The common people of the village.

30Those petitions were not read, or they were crumpled and fell into wastebaskets, or they were lost in dusty old file folders, but the separate access route never materialized. There was no longer any point in asking anybody. The young men of the town decided, “We just best cut ‘em down our own selves, them trees that’s in the way of us gettin’ to the highway.”

31They were sitting on the porch of the Mariyamman temple, talking this over. Old man Perumal objected.

32“You don’t want to do nothin’ like that, boys. That’s awful. It’s irresponsible. And then, who’d have to pay?”

33Chinnasami jumped down from his stone seat on the porch and ran over to smack the old man. He was panting in anger.

34“You old fart! Back then you all worshiped your landlords, you drank your gruel, and you left your wives and children to them. I’m gonna cut you down, even before I go cut down them trees—you son of a whore!”

35He went back and sat down again on his rock, but his anger didn’t cool down at all.

36Senthaamarai’s face scratched across his heart like long fingernails. He picked up a water pot that was sitting in front of the public water tap at the roadside, and he threw it down and smashed it. Then he started walking down into the riverbed, followed by several of the other young men.

37He sat right down in the middle of the riverbed, Chinnasami did. As he walked you could hear the sand crunching under his feet. In his rage he kept thinking couldn’t he at least tell these friends of his, who had come this far with him, about what happened to his little sister? But he knew he could not. Her face upended that thought and squashed it. He could not even imagine what would happen to her if the whole town found out about this.

38“The water done got here a week ago, but you ask them Gounders and they’ll tell you it ain’t never come. Meanwhile, our women have to run around and haul water in these damn pots from the Nayakkars’ fields.”
“The Panchayat President is from our neighborhood, but he just runs around suckin’ them all off. So where is the water gonna come from for this town?”
“There’s one way and only one way, boys, we cut ‘em down. We cut them trees down. Humble service with your hands tied done gone out of fashion, buddy. We got to show them we done rose up above all that.”

39Chinnasami lay on his back in the sand, staring blankly at the sky, and said all this with determination.

Four

40In the morning the police came to town. The whole village had crowded around to stare at the felled trees.

41“Shoot, man, they sure enough overdid it when they cut down them trees!” hollered somebody from inside the crowd. Like you could stretch a string from the main road straight to the village, the route that Chinnasami and his bunch of guys had opened up was marked by their felled trees.

42Three police vans rumbled up and made a lot of noise. Their boots thudded timu-timu as they waded into to crowd searching out men to grab and kick and load into the vans. The Nayakkar who owned the land where the felled trees lay, and his relatives, came running up with the police, and pointed out who lived in the cheri.

43“You cut ‘em down like they was newborn babies, like they was little kids! The motherfuckers!”

44“Don’t let a one of them Pariah dogs get away!”

45The crowd dispersed and fled. A detachment of police ran right into the cheri. Two paddy wagons followed, sirens wailing.

46From the cheri you could hear the sounds of women shrieking and screaming, from a long ways away. As soon as they set foot in the village the police started beating and kicking whatever men and women they saw. They burst into homes and dragged the men out and threw them into the paddy wagons. A few escaped the police and made for the riverbed, or into the fields. The Village Headman saw the police vans and came running, begging,

47“Sir, please! I’ll get ‘em for you! Don’t beat nobody up!”

48“Huh? You pig… climb in the van too, then, boy!”

49By the time the sun was starting to get really hot, the police wagons started to move on out. Sitting there in the paddy wagon with the men, Chinnasami’s face was swollen, blood was streaming out of the sides of his mouth, and it was black. He looked with regret at his mother, fallen down in the middle of the street with the breath knocked out of her, and at Senthaamarai, sobbing and wailing. He tried to look normal, to sit upright. He would not give in to crying, but it kept gushing out of him.

50When he was being beaten and dragged out of his house the women in his street shouted at him,

51“This all happened because of that menses-drinker over there!”

52At that, more kicks rained in on him. A little while after the police vans had gone, lots of the houses were empty, locks hanging on their doors.

53When the hot sun really began to bake the town, things finally calmed down. Dogs, cattle and goats were the only things moving, or making any sound at all. In the evening, though, some of the Nayakkars came right into the cheri and threatened the women.

54“Now, what was you all thinking, girls? That it would help if somebody cut down those trees? We’ll burn down you and your whole village. You stinkin’ pussies! Tell the men in your houses to approach us like they’re supposed to. We’re telling them: clasp onto our feet and cry out, ‘Lord! God!’ to us. If you do, we’ll tell ‘em to set the boys free. Otherwise we’ll fix it so’s they ain’t a-gettin’ out of jail for years on end. And then, for you, we will be everything.” Then they left.

55Some of them tittered while they were saying this. When night fell, the night watchman came and started in telling story after story. He said they’d filed five cases each against forty people the police had picked up, so they would not be able to get out on bail.

56“Whoever heard of five cases for each one of ‘em just for cuttin’ down them trees? And it ain’t just against them forty people, neither. They told me they done made out a list of a hundred more. Said they wrote out complaints against four more who work for the government. They’s wanting us to cross our arms and stand before our lords and masters like in the old days. Tonight, house by house, the police are a-comin’ back to pick up all the rest of the men.”

Five

57Panic spread through the heart of the village that night. That was the first night in their lives that the women went with no men. The women felt like a huge flood was going to drown their village that night. Some of the women spent the first part of the night in the streets, sitting and talking. Some of them would get up and go to the edge of the fields. The men who came to meet them there spoke quickly, and began to eat the food the women had brought.

58From far, far away, they could hear the sounds of some police motorcycles, coming closer to the town. In the dark, they could clearly see those white dots. When they heard the loud noise of the vehicles turning in the vicinity of the Pata Vettamman temple at the edge of the village, the men quit eating and ran back into the fields.

59“Let no man escape, sir!” a policeman shouted as he got off and stopped all the rest of the motorcycles. The Village Headman had come with them, and he hollered out. The women all ran or walked into the village and shut their doors. The darkness was suffocating. You could hear the dogs snuffling around all the streets.

60Policemen began beating on the doors with their billy clubs. They broke into the houses, looking for men. As the rhythmic sound of jackboots tore through the silence, the women shrank back into the walls, hiding their children.

61“Hey, honey, who’s here in the house? Is Ambudiyaan back yet? Let us know if you need help. We’ll come.”

62Trembling at the sound of the billy club, Seeliyammaal opened the door. Her gut felt like she was going to shit all down her legs.

63“Your husband, he’s on our list, too. Tell him he better turn himself in, or we’ll count out every bone in his body.”

64The Village Headman came up with some more policemen from the lane across the road.

65“Four houses on down the line, Sir. His wife is pregnant, Sir. He’s one of the ones that cut down them trees, Sir.”

66While the Village Headman was speaking, he walked on down the line and stood by, indicating which house. It was a long time after they rapped on the door that it finally opened. A furious policemen hollered, “They caught your husband and hauled him off this morning—right—now where’s your brother? He inside? Tell him he’d best turn himself in at the station tomorrow. If he don’t we ain’t a-gonna give you no special consideration even if you are pregnant, no way.”

67Pavun retreated, and nodded her head. The policemen went on to the next street. The Village Headman went with them, pointing out houses.

68The policemen went to a Christian church just outside the village to spend the night. When the Village Headman came back to town the women all cornered him.

69“Was it them Nayakkars and the Gounders that voted you in, or was it us? Who do you think you are? Ain’t you one of us? You done handed over our men like it wasn’t nothin’. Was you born to a Pariah, or was it some upper-caste farmer?

70“Whoa, there. Clear your throat and look me straight in the eye. Look what your men done did. They sure ‘nough done asked for it.”

71“So what did they do? It ain’t nothin’ to you. And how long now has it been that we have to go through their village? The water tank is in their part of town. The community hall is in their part of town. The ration shop is in their part of town. That’s where the bus stop is. Everything is over there, now ain’t it?”

72“What are you gonna do about the old people and the children? That’s just how it is anyway. We have to depend on them for everything, and so now we’re going to bite the hand that feeds us? You all best just shut up and go on.”

73He started up his motorcycle, and drove off.

74“Sheesh. You have drunk my menses! Muniyamma must of done had him by one of their men. That’s why his mind thinks like that,” said the women. They looked bitterly after him, and they spat.

75“What’re you all still a-talkin’ about. Go to bed,” said the night watchman, doing his rounds of the streets.

76But Pavun couldn’t sleep. The night grated on her, krrr-krrr. She didn’t know how long it had been. The house was dark. Her stomach hurt. She couldn’t get to sleep for ages after the policemen had come and gone.

77She kept thinking about how the police had beaten her husband up and dragged him off. Stealthily, three times, her brother-in-law came to see her. The police had asked after him, too! The women had said they’d beat him blind, and grief grabbed at her heart.

78Pavun called out softly to her aunt. Worried, Sinnatthaayi got up and turned on a light, her own heart fluttering. She led her out to the back yard, then brought her back in and sat her down. Then she ran off to collect the neighborhood women.

79It didn’t take long for the women from that street to arrive.

80“It ain’t her time yet, is it? Just seven months, ain’t she? Wonder what these here pains is all about. Let them be struck by the plague—they would not spare her even though she’s pregnant, and they done terrified her and she’s in shock!”

81The women were all talking at once. They brought something for her to drink. A little time passed. Then, from where Pavun was you could hear the soft sound of a baby.

82Sinnatthaayi was on the verge of tears, and said, “Well, girl, would ya look at this? How’s this premature baby a-gonna make it?”

83It looked like a baby mouse. As the women began to leave, Sinnatthaayi bent over, close to Pavun’s face and said, “Don’t worry, dear. It’s in God’s hands.”

84She swaddled the baby up tightly in her lap. Neither of them slept any more that night, until dawn broke.

85Early in the morning the village’s peaceful slumber was broken. From another corner of the village a woman raised her voice in a wail. The moment she heard that voice cutting into her heart, Sinnatthaayi shuddered. She unwrapped the baby lying there in her lap and looked at it. There it lay, sleeping cozily. She lay the baby down on a straw mattress and pulled it over, close to Pavun. Pavun’s eyes wandered, bewildered.

86“Just watch the baby a bit. I’ll go see what’s goin’ on, and I’ll be right back,” said Sinnatthaayi and she came back in almost as soon as she’d left.

87“Saavitthiri from the house on the corner—her child just died. It’s a shame, a three-month-old baby.”

88The women from the cheri all gathered in front of Saavitthiri’s house. The night watchman was sitting near the house. Policemen came and looked, and then they left.

89As daylight was breaking, a few of the women picked up shovels and crowbars. They went down to the riverbed and began digging a grave in the cremation ground. When the grave was ready, Senthaamarai came and let the people know.

90Saavitthiri was sobbing, but the women took the baby’s body from her and carried it as they walked. By the time they had it buried, as they were walking back home, the sun had gathered up its fierce heat, and the town was quiet once again.

Six

91Senthaamarai couldn’t bear sitting in her house, looking at her father and mother. Her mother fell down like a corpse, and cried incessantly. Her father wasn’t speaking. But he was coughing. When he started wheezing, it didn’t end easily for him. It stretched on and on. Softly, softly, trying to lighten the load on her mind, she went and joined the women. Since there was no daily labor work for them to go to any more, they quickly finished up their housework and went around from house to house gossiping.

92Except for old men and boys there were no men in the village. Only in homes with telephones could you hear a man’s voice. The women clustered around, and when they heard their men’s voices, they ran up and spoke to them in reply. But even that kind of talk was reported by the telephone exchange in the next village over.

93They went out to the fields, and came back at midday. They bathed, changed their clothes, and then it was time to talk to the police again. The policemen never once climbed down from their perch up on the church vestibule. Tender coconuts, coffee, milk, curry-and-rice, and so on arrived periodically for them, sent from the homes of the Naidus.

94Saavitthiri’s baby’s death, and Pavun’s baby’s premature birth sank the women into a state of shock. Sleep grabbed hold of them all day long. From every house in the cheri, from the hottest part of the day right up through evening time rose the sounds of snoring. It sounded like tigers growling. The policemen sat nervously around too, alert and afraid.

95Senthaamarai came to in the hottest part of the day and drove her sleepiness away. She sat there wide awake. The portia tree by the front door gave her a bit of shade. A hot wind blew through the village. The wind came from the mountains past the river, and across the baking fields, where it filled itself with the scent of young grain wilting. To Senthaamarai it felt like someone or something was putting the people and their homes in a solar kiln and baking them. The regular sounds of snoring came to her and filled her up as though they were growls. Scenes of her brother’s blood streaming down his swollen face as they hauled him off to the police wagon pricked and tore at her, coming back again and again into her thoughts.

96A few people came visiting from Ambur and from Peeranaampatti. One day they brought some rice. Senthaamarai knew they were trying to get the people who were caught up by the police out of jail. They went to a lawyer, and they said each house had to raise at least a thousand rupees. That festered in the women’s bellies like they’d eaten live coals from a fire. They were coming back this evening. Senthaamarai and the other women thought that they needed to join in with these people and go see the men who were hiding in other villages, and that they needed to go see the Collector.

97When dusk began to fall the women came out of their houses and looked pitifully into each other’s faces. Fear of the policemen who were going to come in the night seized hold of them. Last night they went into Kupputthaayi’s house there on Center Street and started dragging her confused daughter outside, but she screamed, and they ran off.

98That evening, as the women’s eyelids were drooping, the sounds of jackboots began to be heard again. Fear rose from their bellies and stitched their eyelids open. Ripping through the silence of the night, the sounds of boots wandering the streets entered into their bodies like evil sprits, and shook them to the core. Even when they shrank back and curled up, it sounded like those boots were tramping inside their hearts. When the policemen came, even the dogs didn’t bark. Tucking their tails between their legs, they dug holes in the dust near compound walls and crumpled into them.

99Senthaamarai asked the people sitting and talking across from where she was to come and gather around before they went to sleep. A few stout, strong women gathered and began patrolling the streets. They started on one side and walked all around.

100“Sisters, pick out some choice words and let ‘em hear it!” Senthaamarai said to some of them. Drowning in the bitterness that filled their hearts, they shouted their abuses out in the streets as they walked around. Words that had been rubbed into their private parts spilled out into the streets like piles of excrement. Like the sticky, slimy sputum that her father spat up, Senthaamarai kept on spitting out curses. Sinnatthaayi threw it at the policemen that they ate her shit and menses.

101Throughout the first part of the night the women kept their houses shut up tight, and sat together around the Mariyamman temple. When the sound of policemen’s boots began to be heard from the boundaries of the village, their ears all turned in that direction. The policemen walked right past the women, their boot-leathers squeaking pol-pol like they had been soaked in water. The women spat, and their curses spewed out on the policemen, covering them like sewage sludge. They hung their heads and held their noses and walked on by viluk-viluk.

102“Lick my ass, and git on outa here!” Sinnatthaayi looked straight at the policemen and hollered out loud. Senthaamarai could not help laughing. Then everybody started to laugh. Then the whole village started to shake in their laughter kala-kala, like dried out peanuts in the shell.

103The women spent that whole night talking.

104“See what bad trouble this all done brought down on our village? The men folks goes runnin’ all around the town, and this here is how we end up a-livin’!”
“I heard Saavitthiri’s Aampidi and their son are in Bangalore. Some of them are in Katpadi, and some are in Madras.”
“Have you heard the story about the headman’s son? It’s atrocious, girl. Poor boy, he walked in the riverbed all the way to the highway in Ambur and caught a bus. And you know Sivalingam? His son went to stay in some village with some kinfolk or other, but he didn’t know where he was heading, so I heard he spent a whole day in a sugarcane field. Sheesh!”
“Where all they done gone! They crossed the river and done high-tailed it to the creeks, or into the mountains, sleeping the night in the fields. I heard some goodhearted Gounders are hiding some of our men in their homes.”
“All these politicians, well, they came by and took a look, but then they went along their merry way. Didn’t get nobody out of jail, did they? If you ask ‘em about anything they just beat you up.”
“They bring this lip-smackin’ chicken, mutton, and all to give to them cops, so then you think after they done ate all that up, that they ain’t a-gonna come and beat on us?”

105In the middle of the night the hens joined in with them and they all went and talked and clucked in a corner. When the sun was just rising over the town, the Village Headman stood in front of the Mariyamman temple and hollered out, “What was you all a-thinkin’, female donkeys? You shittin’ and pissin’ all down your legs, and now you’s acting real big? Who’s gonna screech at the cops like that? Whatever you was gonna expose to them, they just a-gonna cut it off and throw it out. Now how’d you like that, huh?”

106He was bare-chested, the Village Headman was. His potbelly hung out and it jiggled whenever he spoke.

107“I’m telling you real nice. Now listen up. All you women come right up to the Nayakkar and fall down at his feet. Then I’ll see to all the rest of it. And in case you don’t do it, ain’t none of them men getting’ out on bail. And no man can’t set foot in this town again. It’s bad times for this town, bad times. One child done died. Ain’t no tellin’ what might happen next. Them boys don’t even clean their own asses, then they put themselves up front, well, then this is what they get. You gonna grab onto their tails, and just follow them? Go on, git!”

108The village women had been thinking of going to Velore in the morning with a petition to give to the Collector. Now it looked like everything was going downhill. The Village Headman had ruined more than half of it, and then he left.

109“They’re rich. How is people like us, dead from hunger, supposed to butt heads with the likes of them? What’s gonna happen if we go and butt heads with them high caste people?”
“Hunger and famine? How can you get by when you got kids? Maybe we’d best do like the Headman says, and beg.”

110The women said they’d heard there was a dividing wall being built, as tall as two men, at the place where you go from the riverbed into the Nayakkars’ part of town, and by the Pata Vettamman temple that marks the edge of the Gounders’ part of town. As recently as yesterday evening, though, there was nothing there. How could they build that wall in just one night? Did they hire ghosts to build it? The women discussed all these things.

111When the sun started scorching, like it was baking you, Senthaamarai gathered a few of the women with her and they all went down to the riverbed near the wall. They stood there for a while. At the base of the wall, like a section of the ground in fact, there was a hole just big enough for a dog to squiggle through. She knew that after the tree-cutting episode, a thorn fence had been set up just to keep people from the cheri from entering into the main part of the village. But she never thought they would build anything like this wall.

112Some of the women who worked in the colony factory, and some of the people who were friends with the Village Headman, had been pushing the thorns aside so they could go through. Now she wondered how even they would manage to get through. She figured that if they could get enough people together they could push the wall over. She believed that since it was newly constructed and still damp it would fall over easily. She stopped some of the people who were heading to the colony factory.

113“We can push this wall over. Just stand there a minute.”
“You and your brother always up to your same tricks. Anyways, we can get through. If you miss even one day at the company, they’ll hire a Muslim in your place.”

114“We don’t want no more trouble. One way or another if we make a big gap in the wall, the Nayakkars will sure enough take care of it. That’s enough for me!”

115The women crowded around the hole in the wall and pointed behind themselves with their hands like tails. They scrunched down, stuck their heads in the hole, and came out the other side. Senthaamarai and her friends were so surprised they couldn’t stand it.

116The women were even better at squiggling through than the men who were friends of the Village Headman. Like snakes, they lay down on the ground and crawled on their bellies through the hole, those men did.

117All day long Senthaamarai was thinking about going to Velore. That evening, Anbarasi came over to see her. Senthaamarai knew that she was pretty friendly with her brother, Chinnasami. Since the two women liked each other a great deal, they started right in talking intimately. Love showed bright in Anbarasi’s eyes. The whole time they were talking about Chinnasami, tears welled up and fell from her eyes. She looked thin and wilted in her ash-smeared body. When Senthaamarai started telling her about how they beat him and dragged him, Anbarasi really burst into tears. Anbarasi then told how the police grabbed him and took him away, and how her mother kept shouting at him, right through her tears. She kept talking about going to Velore the next day.

118Rain suddenly started to fall early that evening. Senthaamarai came outside her hut and looked at the sky, but there was not a cloud in sight. Like a pimply face, there were little stars and big ones all over the sky. That seemed decidedly odd to her. Still, it was raining, and a really noisy rain at that. The wind was tossing the tops of the coconut trees at the edge of town. This rain was beating down with a chilly wind, like it was winter time. Her father was lying down out on the porch, but when his breathing became labored she went inside.

119In the morning the women who were getting ready to go to Velore gathered together. Some people started criticizing them.

120“Why do we hafta to listen to them sayin’ we best do whatever the Village Headman says? What’s he got his mustache for, anyways? He might have him a mustache on his face, but I got me one up my crotch! Let’s go, girls!”

121So they packed a good lunch and climbed down the cement steps into the riverbed. The fragrance of a recent freshet greeted them. Like lime spread all over the path, the silt was still soda-soda slushy. Here and there bubbly foam in clusters of river cane bounced tan and white as the running water caught them. They had never seen such a big rain as this one, filling the river way up its banks with flowing water.

122“When I was little I done seen it like this, girls, but ever after I ain’t never seen so much water!” said one of the older women.

123Even when some of them came to the river at the first rooster-crow that morning, it was still spread out there all dried up. They never expected it to flood so fast.

124Some of them said it was getting late, so all the women went down into the river. Heading east, they crossed the river current. When they got to Pacchakkuppam they climbed up out of the riverbed, and caught a bus going to Velore.

Seven

125The village lay there quiet, with no human movement whatsoever. Except for the people who had been caught up in the court case, and the ones who hadn’t gotten caught by the police and were wandering around, the rest of the men had come back to the village. Still, the town just kept its mouth tight shut. Only the children were playing. Even old people’s heads nodding, and the sounds of their canes, could not disturb the town’s serenity, though they tried. Women went out, and came back in again.

126Empty houses were filled with the sobbing of women and children’s whimpers. Children who knew very well what they wanted didn’t feel like asking their mothers. Only the whimpering of the babies-in-arms really hurt. Only in the eyes of children lying down on their straw mats was life filled to the brim, shimmering like lamp-wicks. The women’s soft touches rejuvenated those young bodies.

127With nobody to look after them, the earthen floors flaked, and the inner rooms of the houses lay covered in dust and dirt.

128With no men to lie down cozily inside, the women didn’t feel like sweeping, and so they didn’t. They didn’t know what they were going to eat. An angry wind blew around and around the houses like it had sucked out all the sap from their bodies.

129For the fire smoldering in their stomachs, they began to eat the wind.

130They started to climb in the doorways, on the porches, and on top of crumbled walls, with their mouths open. The women taught their children to gulp air whenever they felt hunger.

131Sucking in air and blowing up their bodies like balloons, they’d take a breath and go inside the house for a drink of water. The wind entered their bones, broke them into pieces, and wore them out. When some of the children who were full of air felt like they were floating and said to their mothers, “Ma, it feels like flying, Ma! If we really can fly, we’ll fly over to the fruit trees and eat us some. We’ll even bring you back some, Ma! Don’t worry!” the mothers clasped them tight and kissed them. They went to see their men, staying with relatives in other towns. Some of the women hung around, raising money to get the people in the case released.

132Two or three weeks later Senthaamarai’s father died. She was crushed. You could hear her shrieks over the loud din of the funeral band. Old man Puttakkaan and a few children stood outside the dead man’s house, burned bunches of dead leaves to tighten up the drumheads, and beat on their funeral drums. The night watchman asked the police for someone to send word to relatives in the nearby villages.

A lamp with a golden chain
standing on the water, burning,
still burns even if
it gets splashed with water – my
loneliness burns out
if I speak of it to others.

133Senthaamarai’s mother lay down next to her old man, beat her breast and cried,

On the other side of Velore
there live two lineages, o mother! – If
they hear that I have fallen
the whole of Velore will rumble over
and come, with my two lineages
out in front!

134The relatives began to arrive. Chinnasami’s empty place caused a huge wail. It seemed to Senthaamarai that a frenzy that really was impossible to contain was being contained. They buried the old man, and when they returned, a tense silence took up residence inside the village.

135Senthaamarai was gripped by the feeling that she had to see her brother right now. They chose a date and went to Velore. They had written out their petition and filed it, and now they were waiting to be summoned. There were more than ten of them. Her mind was struck by the excitement of going to see Chinnasami. But when her mother said she wanted to come too, Senthaamarai said she shouldn’t. They didn’t have the money in hand. In most of the houses in the village there was nothing to eat. And they said that there would be no work for the women in the fields of upper-caste people.

136A few policemen stood around the entrance to the jail; they shouted out whoever was on the list to go inside. Before you could go to visit with the prisoners in the visiting room, just to the east of the inner jail door, some people frisked you.

137When you went into the room where you could visit with the prisoners, it took a while for your eyes to adjust to how dark it was in there. The prisoners were there, waiting for their relatives, far away behind a chain link fence in a long cell. Because the people on the inside had to shout back and forth to converse with their relatives, that hall was extremely noisy.

138Senthaamarai’s eyes looked all around, searching for her brother. Chinnasami and his friends elbowed through the people in front of them, and came up close to the fence. When she saw him a wail welled up inside Senthaamarai. She started to cry. Anbarasi’s eyes filled with tears like beads on a string. She fainted, thinking of telling about the death of Saavitthiri’s baby.

139Chinnasami stood there, saying nothing. He grabbed tight to the chain link fence, beat his head against it, and sobbed in silence. It had been weeks since he had seen anybody from his household or any friends or relatives. His arms and legs had swollen in their longing for people. His brain was about to explode. He couldn’t hear very well what they were saying to him. They kept wanting to tell him more and more stuff, as though he understood. It felt like they’d leave, then, like dumb people, and they rattled on fast, emptying out all their words.

140“The lawyer says it’s coming up in the High Court. I’ll get out in a week,” Chinnasami said loudly to them. “Look after Ma. When I get out I can put this business to Pa.”

141When they were getting ready to leave, Chinnasami came even closer to the fence, his face frozen in anger, and he said to Senthaamarai, “I’ll get out. From now on it don’t make a lick of difference if what I cut down is them trees, or if it’s them people.”

Eight

142On their way home, Senthaamarai went to Long Bazaar in Velore and bought some medicine to put on the trees. For forty days after applying that medicine you can’t eat the coconuts from those trees, the shopkeeper told her as he sent her on her way. Plus, if you put too much on, the trees will die, he said. She paid close attention, and nodded her head.

143They figured for there not to be one tree left on the land belonging to the man who hollered about the trees being cut down.

144You could pour acid on their roots, and the trees would die. She knew that. But she and her cohorts could never go to all the trees and stand there pouring acid on the roots. They decided it would be a lot easier to apply the medicine.

145When they got back to the village, they whiled away the evening time, and then in the dark she and a few of the women set out. They measured out excessive amounts of medicine into polyethylene pouches and poked holes in them. Senthaamarai said they could dig down into their roots, and apply it.

146The trees were standing bolt upright, poking holes in the sky. Their bodies were buried in the dark. The women knew lots of stories about how those trees stood strong so that you can’t fell them. One woman who went out to cut some grass under these trees wound up buried with gravel digging into her back. Another tree branch was where a woman had hanged herself. When they were going to work, those trees kept calling to them to keep away. They knew that those roots were always waiting for them.

147Without making a sound, the women applied the medicine to all the trees they came across. When they put the medicine on the tailor’s tree, Senthaamarai felt an exceptional happiness. Several other women felt that way too, when they applied the medicine to specific trees. A few days after the application of the medicine, all the trees began to show the effects. All the men of the main village started going around tight-lipped trying to figure out how to keep their trees from falling down.

148More than a month passed. The celebratory news came that all of the men would be released from jail the next day. The village looked like it was recovering from some vile disease. That early evening, during the waxing of the moon, Pavun was sitting in her doorway with her baby wrapped tightly in her lap. The baby was squirming gently in its swaddling clothes. She thought again about how it was when the baby was really inside her. She had wanted to go see her husband, but because of the baby she could not. So, like a hen sitting on her eggs, she just waited there in the house.

149Late that night there were a lot of people in the village who could not sleep. Senthaamarai and Anbarasi spent the whole night talking. As dawn broke they began moving around. It sounded like the birds were making even more noise than usual.

150After daybreak, as Saavitthiri was going down to the riverbed, she saw Pavun.

151“How’s your baby?” Milk oozed out, in Saavitthiri’s fondness.

152“She’s gettin’ by, one way or another. I’m jinxed. Next time I just got to have me a strong baby that’s able to hang in there for all nine months,” Saavitthiri smiled in her sadness.

153Just after noon, all of the men who had been in jail arrived back in the village. At the edge of town, the men and the women re-united with great festivities. As soon as they came into view, they struck up the festival band. Everyone’s hearts were joined together in celebration. Senthaamarai brought the plate that rids them all of the evil eye, and stood out front. Pavun took her baby out of her lap and with her hands, she held it up to her chest.

Auteur

(1968) is a Dalit writer from Pernampattu in Velore District. He has published a novel, Takappaṉ Koṭi (2001), short story collections including Tīṭṭu (2000), Aḻakiya Periyavaṉ Kataikaḷ (2002), and Nerikkaṭṭu (2004), and three poetry collections, Nī Nikaḻnta Pōtu (2000), Arūpa Nañcu (2006), and Uṉakkum Eṉakkumāṉa Col (2008). He works as a school teacher in Pernampattu.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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