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Tamil dalit literature

Bama

Summer Rain1

Bama

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  • 1 Summers in Tamil Nadu are extremely hot and arid. Very occasionally, though, it rains, bringing rel (...)
  • 2 Seevu-chews, which are savory snacks, and dates were traditionally used in barter by men who carrie (...)

1“Hot seevu-chews2 for your old pewter pots, brass pots!... Any old pots to sell?... Aluminum pots?..,” Makkaali screeched in that falsetto voice of his, makin’ his rounds, street after street.

2He set out early of a mornin’ and he tramped around, but it warn’t no use. Nothin’ but hunger grabbed him in his emptiness. Nary a drop of fresh water even touched his teeth. His eyes done wsent all bleary-like and his tongue went all dried up and cracked. He was giddy with hunger. His only way to keep a-goin’ that day was if he wandered up and down all day long and got him some old pot or other he could sell for a dime or a quarter.

  • 3 This refers to a folk story about a queen who ruled her own world, but had no clue about how the re (...)

3“At least I can let myself starve and make it through the day, but this boy here, he can’t stand bein’ hungry. Ever since she died my life done been worse than a dog’s. Once I caught tuberculosis, what little endurance I had done got up and went. Out of the blue I’ll start my chest-rattlin’ cough and my bones ache, I can’t stand it. If she’d a still been here at a time like this, she’d a-figgered a way to get me to the gummint hospital. But who’s there for me now any more? Whenever I think about this boy Thangaraasu, it feels like my heart’s a-gonna explode. Now he’s in third grade. Whatever happens, we have got to get him educated, she swore to herself. As long as I live and breathe, I have to achieve her goal. After my eyes are finally shut once and for all, he’ll fend for himself, one way or the other. And am I gonna make some kind of a man out of him if I keep him in school? He’s such a simple, poor boy. He ain’t clever like them other boys, he just roams around like Queen Alli.3 So what’s this boy I fathered gonna be like when he grows up? What model will he follow? Like they say, ‘If you sow one kind of seed, that’s what will sprout.’” Makkaali kept thinkin’ on this lesson as he walked to the handpump. He took the basket down off his head and pumped water to wash his face. He picked out a busted pot from the basket, filled it up with water, and slurped it down. He unwound the cloth towel from ‘round his head and rubbed his face good and dry with it. He went over to the foot of a neem tree near the village chavadi, took his basket down again, spread out his towel, and laid himself down for a bit. That’s all it took: he was so giddy with hunger, he fell right into a good sleep. Even while he was sleepin’, though, he kept one hand on his basket. Once before, while he was a-sleepin’ soundly this way some kids scooped up all his dates and seevu-chews, then gobbled them all down and ran off. Makkaali kept himself at least a tad bit alert ever after that.

4“Hey, boy... Makkaali, wake up! Boy, if you sleep all the time, how you gonna do business? Ever since your wife died your son’s done wasted away to nothing. Now look, man, here’s another kid done brought you a pot. His momma washed out this curry-pot, turned it upside down to dry, and I guess she went off to work or something. Then it looks like the kid smashed it and picked it up and brought it over here to you. Go on, man—ask him about it.” When Velucchaami came into the edge of the shade and made all that racket, Makkaali woke up and sat up.

5“I just lay me down a minute ago, Sir! My eyes dragged me into sleep like that. Okay. Now then, boy, what was it you want?”

6“Brother, take this here and give me some seevu-chews, brother!”

7“Whoa now, this sure is some heavy kind of a pot! It’s a good quality pot, too. But it’s dented up real bad. Looks like it would be worth all the seevu-chews I got! I’ll have to knock all them dents back out before the shopkeepers will weigh it and buy it from me. You couldn’t dent it this bad even if you threw it on the floor,” he said.

8Makkaali set the pot on one plate of his balance-scale, and a pile of seevu-chews on the other plate. He kept pilin’ up seevu-chews, but that plate kept on a-goin’ up, up… ..and never went down. He figured this was one of them old fashioned heavy pots, and he kept pourin’ on the seevu-chews. Even after he piled on all of his seevu-chews, the two plates still didn’t balance. He took hold of the balance-scale and said,

9“I ain’t got enough seevu-chews here to pay for your pot, little guy. If you want, you can take it home and bring it back tomorrow. I’ll bring enough with me tomorrow, then.”

10“No, brother, this here is plenty! Just gimme what you got there. It don’t matter,” the boy said as he scooped up the seevu-chews and scurried off.

11Makkaali’s heart was really happy. That pot must weigh more than two kilograms, he figured, as he walked home. He went inside, got him a hammer and started workin’ the dents out. The rim was bent so far inwards that it closed up the mouth of the pot, so he took an iron rod and straightened it back out. And when he looked inside the pot, there was this big ole stone! He was shocked, and sat down. So that was why the pot felt so daggone heavy, he thought. That’s why the kid asked so nice-like for them seevu-chews and then grabbed them and scurried off in such a rush. Once he took the stone out, the pot was pretty light-weight. All them seevu-chews done gone. And on top of all that, he was cheated by this little boy who was just born yesterday. That really tore Makkaali up. He thought about goin’ tomorrow to that same street and askin’ the elders there for justice. He laid himself down, but sleep refused to come and take him away. He just could not console himself.

12“It was such a little boy that cheated me and got away with it. When that pot felt so heavy, I shoulda opened up the mouth and looked inside. I’m old enough to know better. A tiny little kid done tricked me and got away with it,” he lamented, and just lay there.

13Thangaraasu came home from school and saw his father sittin’ there, upset. “Hi, Daddy. Did you bring me a seevu-chew? Where is it?”

14“Ain’t got no seevu-chews today, son. A little kid, just a tad older ‘n you tricked me outa all of ‘em. Such a little kid and he already knows how to do things like that! You still don’t know the tricks and wiles of the world. Even I don’t know ‘em, what am I doin’ puttin’ it on you? Okay, you just sit here and keep the fire a-goin’ in the stove. I’m goin’ to Mathaaru’s store to get us a little rice on credit.”
“Bring me somethin’ to eat, too, Daddy!”
“Whaddya mean, bring you somethin’, too? We ain’t got money enough to even buy rice! Now, how am I supposed to bring you somethin’?”

15Thangaraasu sat down at the stove and fed sticks of wood into it. Before he left, Makkaali set a clay pot on the stove to cook the rice in. Thangaraasu added thorn twigs one by one to the fire. When Makkaali came back from the store he saw Thangaraasu stuffin’ a whole bundle of thorn twigs into the stove, and he shouted, “Hey you stupid kid! In just the time it took me to run to the store and back, you done went and burnt up all them twigs! Now what are we gonna do for wood to cook the rice with? And even after burnin’ up all them thorn twigs the water still ain’t a-boilin’! Move over, boy, … git up and git over there. You best go on over to the lakeside and gather up a couple more thorn twigs.”

16“Two thorn twigs?”

17“Jeez, you son-of-an idiot! If I say a couple twigs, do you have to count out exactly two of them before you bring them back? Go on, git. Just bring back what you can. I’ll add the rice as soon as the water boils. You done fed the fire all this time, and the water still ain’t boiling!” he said, and lifted the lid. He looked in, and there warn’t no water in the pot!

18“I am a madman, son! Look, I didn’t even pour water in the pot before I went to the store. Okay, I’m the one who didn’t put the water in. But you done been clownin’ around too, boy. When no steam came out of the pot you could at least have lifted the lid and looked, couldn’t you? All that firewood wasted!”

19He took the lid off and poured in some water. He sent Thangaraasu around to Gramaw’s house and told him to bring back a little bit of firewood.

20When the water was comin’ to a boil, Thangaraasu asked, “When water comes to a boil, why do we hear this ‘ngoy-ngoy-ngoy’ sound, Daddy?”

21“When water gets hotter and hotter, it dies, son. That’s the sound of the water dying.”
“So water is alive, then?”
“It has to be alive, son, ‘cuz when it dies we hear this sound.”
“So when we grill beef we hear this kind of a ‘ngoy-ngoy’ sound, too. Is that piece of meat alive too?”
“Hey son, you’re the kid that’s a-goin’ to school, ain’t you?… What kind of education are you a-gittin’ if you don’t even know that? When meat’s a-grillin’, can’t you see the steam risin’ out of it? That noise is that water dyin’, son. Then, too, try grillin’ some dried meat: you won’t hear that sound then.”
“How does the water get inside the meat?”
“Well, son, when the cow’s alive, it drinks water, right? And that water gets into the meat, right? You have to keep answerin’ everything for this kid! Okay, okay, come on, son. Let’s boil the rice and drink it down. Hunger done took a hold of my gut. At least you had your free lunch at school. Me, my hunger’s gonna murder me, son!”
“It sure has been a long time since we ate any meat, Daddy. When are you gonna git us some meat?”

22Makkaali didn’t answer. He wished he could eat some meat, too. But he was tryin’ to figure out where he could go to get the money.

23When the rice boiled, Makkaali and Thangaraasu drank their kanji hot. Thangaraasu spread out his straw mat in the front doorway and lay down. Makkaali sat down next to him and smoked a bidi. His stomach burned, as he kept thinkin’ about the kid who stuck the big ole stone in that pot and tricked him.

24‘Such a little kid, he must-a figgered a whole lot to get that big ole stone in there and trick me like that. Now supposin’ I do go back to their street tomorrow and tell them about it all, what are they gonna do? They’ll just take sides with that kid from their street. I am such an idiot! I shoulda hammered out them dents right then and there. But that thought never even crossed my mind.”

25“What’re you talkin’ about, Daddy?”

26“What can I say, son?” he answered, and told all about how the kid put the stone in the pot and tricked him.

27“Tomorrow, you go and beat him up, Daddy!” Thangaraasu said. He was mad.

28“You think people like us can go and hit people like him?”
“You’re a big person, ain’t you? So you can beat him up, Daddy!”
“What kind of a big person am I, son? If there’s money, then even a little kid can be a bigshot. Either you have to have money, or else you have to stick around with a bunch of people from your own caste. We ain’t got neither one.”
“In school today, too, Daddy, I was just mindin’ my own business and this kid kicked me in the stomach, Daddy, but I couldn’t hit him back.”
“Whoever it is, even if they hit you first, you should never hit them back, son. We can’t never pick fights with them. Big guys can be rude. People like us should never get angry.”
“But if they hit me while I am just mindin’ my own business, I am a-gonna git mad, ain’t I, Daddy?”
“Even if you do get mad, you gotta keep it under control, son. You have to say, ‘Sir, ’ and ‘Master, ’ and you gotta behave in a way that will make them pity you. What else can people like us do, son? You tell me.”
“And when the teacher beats me, I get mad at him, too, Daddy!”
“Now, the teacher is beatin’ you for your own good, son. You shouldn’t never get mad at him.”
“Are you tellin’ me I should just take it, when he beats me and beats me, and beats me?”

29“If he beats you too awful much, just bow down and say, ‘Please don’t beat me, Sir!’ What else can we do, son? You tell me. Okay, okay, go to sleep now, son,” he went on, and lay down too. Thangaraasu fell asleep soon after that. Makkaali stared into the night sky, and tossed and turned.

30Next mornin’ he sent his son off to school as usual, then picked up his basket, and started out. He made his rounds in four or five streets, then he came around to the same street as yesterday and pulled out his usual sing-song.

31“Hot seevu-chews for your old pewter pots, brass pots!... Any old pots to sell?... Aluminum pots?..,”

32Then, from the foot of that neem tree by the village chavadi, somebody else sang out, in exactly that same sing-song voice,

33“Hot seevu-chews for your old pewter pots, brass pots!... We got some old ladies to sell!... Pile ‘em on, Makkaali, boy!”

34Makkaali turned around and looked. That very same boy, the one who stuck the stone in the pot and tricked him yesterday, there he was now, mockin’ him!

35“Such a little kid actin’ so big… besides the fact that he cheated me yesterday, now he’s makin’ fun of me, tellin’ me to go and pile up old ladies… They’s a lot of people there by that neem tree, too. And nary a one of ‘em criticizin’ that boy! All them guys laughin’ and makin’ fun of me. How can I go up to them and ask them for justice? Do them people even think we’re human? I trudge around through street after street and they think I’m lower than a dog. I’d best keep my mouth shut when I’m around these guys.”

36Makkaali walked fast, like he hadn’t heard a thing. He headed off in a different direction, and they called out to him even louder,

37“Hey, brother Makkaali! Please come over here, brother! I got me another heavy pot, just like the one yesterday, brother! You don’t have to wander all over the place, just pile up all them seevu-chews and give ‘em to me, brother, then you can go on home. Come on, brother!”

38Makkaali didn’t even turn around, he just walked on, faster still. To keep from hearin’ all their racket, he shouted out much, much louder than usual, “Hot seevu-chews for your old pewter pots, brass pots!..” Part of him was plain angry, but part of him was in a furious rage, and his whole body trembled. He didn’t know it, but tears was streamin’ all down his face. He felt like wringin’ that boy’s neck and killin’ him right then and there. His whole heart was blazin’ on fire. When he came to the corner, he did not continue down that street, but walked straight to the east. He just walked wherever his feet took him. At last he came to the Christian cemetery. He set his basket down on one of the tombstones and sat down at the foot of a banyan tree. That was that. He sobbed and wailed like his heart was gonna explode, and it was like all them tombstones wailed along with him. After one huge wail, slowly, slowly, he quieted down and cried silently for a while.

39Then all of a sudden, he didn’t know what hit him. His mind cleared. He stood up, and he went right back to that very same street, right up to that same bunch of guys at the foot of that same tree, shoutin’ out loud and clear,

40“Hot seevu-chews for your old pewter pots, brass pots!...
“... Any old pots to sell?...”
“… Aluminum pots, ..”

41He sang it all out forceful-like, unmistakable, right in their faces.

42He sure had changed. They could all see it. Sekhar, the boy who had tricked him with the stone in the pot, said, “Come on, boys, let’s go play somewhere else,” and took off runnin’ like the wind. The rest of the boys ran along after him.

43That evening when he went home, Makkaali found Thangaraasu cryin’. When he asked why, and what happened, Thangaraasu said, “In school today, Daddy, the teacher was goin’ to beat me ‘cuz I didn’t have no pen. Right away, like you told me to, I bowed down and said, ‘Sir, I am falling at your feet, Sir! Please don’t beat me, Sir!’ and I fell at his feet, beggin’. But then he said, ‘You should not fall at my feet, ’ and he twisted my ear, Daddy!”

44Makkaali didn’t say anything. He just kept a-lookin’ at him. Thangaraasu cried again and said,

45“What you told me to do was wrong, Daddy! The teacher said, ‘You should not fold your hands like that. You should not fall at people’s feet. That is obscene. We should only fall at the feet of God. We should never fall at the feet of human beings.”

46“Okay, son, that’s right. What he said is right. We should never fall at anyone’s feet. And we should never let ourselves be deceived by anyone. Yes, son. Go with courage wherever you go, son. You need a pen? We’ll get you one tomorrow, son. If anybody hits you while you’re mindin’ you own business, why you just hit back, son. You hit him right back, my little prince!” he said as he scooped Thangaraasu up and planted a kiss on his cheek.

47Thangaraasu looked into his father’s face. He could not understand what was a-goin’ on, but he thought his father’s face looked somehow different today.

Notes

1 Summers in Tamil Nadu are extremely hot and arid. Very occasionally, though, it rains, bringing relief and renewed vigor to the land.

2 Seevu-chews, which are savory snacks, and dates were traditionally used in barter by men who carried out this trade in old household pots.

3 This refers to a folk story about a queen who ruled her own world, but had no clue about how the rest of the world functions.

Auteur

(1958) is a Dalit writer from Va. Pudupatti in Virudhunagar District. She has published three novels, Karukku (1991), Caṅkati (1994), and Vaṉmam (2002), and short-story collections including Kicumpukkāraṉ (1996) and Oru Tāttāvum Erumaiyum (2003). She works as a schoolteacher in Uthiramerur.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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