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Tamil dalit literature

Imaiyam

Mother

Imaiyam

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1Sitting on the porch with his face wilted like he was caught up in some big dilemma, his head drooping, Karuppusamy sat staring at the floor. Three feet away Chellammal sat in the threshhold and stared at Karuppusamy. It didn’t look like he was going to open his mouth or even look at her. In the end it was Chellammal who spoke.

2“How come you don’t never bring your oldest boy ‘round here and let me see him? I can still see him in my mind. Why not bring your wife and kids here to visit for a coupla days? And you coulda done named ‘em somethin’ we can call ‘em… Suresh, Mahesh… hmmph.”
“I’ll send ‘em.”
“Whaddya mean you’ll send ‘em? It’s sure enough gettin’ to be a whole year since the last time them kids was here. They didn’t even come for Pongal or Deepavali this year.”
“I can’t send ‘em when they ain’t got vacation, can I?”
“Maybe you work three hundred and sixty days a year without takin’ a breath, but that don’t mean the kids ain’t got no vacations,” Chellammal said, and her eyes clouded up. But then her face got red. “Don’t you forget you was borned right here in this house! If your kids drink the water in this village they get runny noses. If they sleep in this house, your kids will get bit by mosquitoes, and they will die, right? Whatever happens to me you don’t care. That’s it. I done had two kids of my own, and raised ‘em too, ya know!”

3Karuppusamy stared at Chellammal. He ground his teeth just a little. Then he dropped his head. Chellammal never took her eyes off him. Just then four pigs crowded into the doorway and started snorting and rooting around the floor. “Shoo. Shoooo,” she hollered at the pigs and tried to drive them off. The pigs didn’t even move when Chellammal yelled at them, so she griped, “That’s the trouble with this town full of menses-drinkers! It’s a real big problem. I wish they’d all die in an epidemic but they won’t do that, you’ll see!” She stood up and really did drive the pigs off. She stood in the doorway for a bit and looked to see if anybody was coming down the street. “Man, it’s hot,” she said, and plunked herself back down right where she had been sitting before.

4“You didn’t even come and show your head when that kid across the street died,” she said. Her heart felt tight. “If we don’t take part in the good and the bad things that happen to our neighbors, then later on how we gonna look ‘em in the eye? Money comes, and money goes, but is that how we human beings are? Don’t we need to have at least some of the people in this village be there for us?” she said bitterly. “You think the people in your father-in-law’s house are all you need? Don’t forget to follow our own customs and show your head in good times and bad. Even if you have millions upon millions, ain’t none of it a-goin’ along when you die, son,” she said, but he acted like he hadn’t heard a thing and wiped the back of his neck with his kerchief.

5She started digging out the dirt under the big toenail of her right foot, and said, in a soft, weepy voice, “Neither your father nor nobody else in your father’s household ever even spoke one single word in support of me. And with these children I done had it’s turned out the same way. Now I’m so old I can’t hardly walk, and it’s still just me a-goin’ out to work so’s I can eat.” Her eyes clouded over. She sniffled two or three times.

6“Just come and live with us,” Karuppusamy said.
“What do you mean, come and live with you? What relationship would I have if I did that? You’ll get up with the sun, brush your teeth, and head on out, and you won’t come back till after it’s time to light the lamps. From time to time your wife will come by and set some rice down for me like she was feedin’ the dog and then she’ll go lie down. Look, she thinks she’d lose her status if she so much as spoke to me. All day long I’d just sit there on my cot, all by myself. Here, at least I can get around to a few places, see a few people, let a few words dribble out, and pass the time.”“I’ll ask her.”
“When did you ever ask her? It’s been a year since I asked you to bring me an inner-skirt for my sari. I don’t even own a change of clothes. I’m wearin’ one now that I got from the free ones they dole out to schoolgirls.”

7“It’s gettin’ late. Maybe I best be getting’ on, now.”
“You fell out of a tree and broke your left hand when you was in the seventh grade. I picked you up and carried you from town to town, even God wouldn’t put up with what I went through, son. I prayed your hand would heal, and for six months I couldn’t sleep the whole night long, and I couldn’t nap in the daytime, boy,” Chellammal said, and started to cry. When she started in crying, Karuppusamy couldn’t sit still any more. He felt embarrassed, and he wanted to get going. He started to say something, but said nothing, let his head droop, and started staring at the lines in his palm. In between sobs, she added, “And this year you didn’t even come for the village festival. Even today, you only came because there was a death in your in-laws’ household.”
“There ain’t nothin’ I can do about that.”
“What can you do now? Just try to come when I die, okay?”

8Karuppusamy jerked his head up and glared angrily at Chellammal. She wasn’t looking at him—she was rubbing away some phlegm that got on the floor when she blew her nose. At that moment Muukkan was coming down the street and saw Karuppusamy. He started in asking about him.

9“Hey Karuppusamy, when did you get in? You come for the funeral? How’s the wife and kids? You done gone and left your old ma here all alone. How long can she go on workin’ to get herself fed?” Muukkan started jabbering on and on, and Chellammal herself interrupted. “If he don’t see to my needs, who will? Why you standin’ out there in the sun, uncle? Why don’t you come back after the sun goes down? Then we can have us a good talk. My boy’s only goin’ to be here in the village today,” she said, and sent Muukkan on his way without letting him say another word. “Come on inside and sit down, son. We can’t be answerin’ to everybody who goes up and down the street. Not everybody will look the same way at us,1 and we’ll catch a fever, get a headache, or somethin’. You always was sickly like, even when you was little,” she said, but no matter how much she insisted Karuppusamy would not leave his seat.

10“I’m goin’,” Karuppusamy said.
“I’ll give you two balls of tamarind. Take ‘em with you,” Chellammal said. She stood up and went inside the house, and took down her stacked-canister set, took out two balls of rolled-up tamarind, put them in a bag, and gave it to Karuppusamy. Then she went and sat down. “And a measure of hyacinth beans, too. Who is there around here to eat ‘em? Would you take that along and give it to the kids, too?” she said. Then, not waiting for his answer, she took her stacked-canister set down again, got out the hyacinth beans and gave that to him as well. She sat back down like before and started talking to him again when all of a sudden, like she just then thought about it, she said, “When we went fishin’ in the village lake I got me enough fish to go for two meals’ worth of fish curry. I set ‘em out to dry, since it was too much for just one woman. When we have dried fish, you always like to eat it along with yesterday’s rice, even without addin’ salt, right? I dried ‘em and put ‘em away. Let me get you some, okay?”
“Okay.”

1 She is referring to the evil eye: some people’s gaze might bring them bad luck.

11She stood up and went into the house quickly, like a little child, and got the stacked-canister set down yet again, took out the dried fish wrapped in a sheet of plastic, and stuck that into the bag Karuppusamy was holding.

12“If anything happens, send somebody and I’ll come,” Karuppusamy said, and stood up. Chellammal said, “Walk a few extra steps and stop by to see your older sister before you go, son.” Her eyes watered.

13“I’ll try.”
“Remember when your in-laws kept complainin’ that you was always braggin’ about studyin’, studyin’ all the time, and they would not let you marry their daughter? Now they’ve come so close you. Who was they lookin’ at and callin’ a hooligan? And you don’t feel like goin’ to see your only sister, who went to their house and fought for you and told ‘em, ‘Some day my little brother’s gonna have him a govermint job, he’ll sit like a king on a chair to eat, and swing his legs, and when I see that, I’m also gonna see the rest of the boys in this village clap their hands to their faces in amazement.’ And her husband had to go and die like the baby chick that became prey for a hawk, and she’s got four little ones to raise and the whole village feels sympathy for her miserable situation. And what do I have that I can give her?” she said, and she could not say anything more. She started to cry. In between sobs, she said, “Weedin’ in the mornin’, weedin’ in the evenin’, she’s the one who done put you through school.”
“I’ll go and see her.”
“You go and forget the ones who planted the plant and watered it, you only think well of the ones who come and pick the bloomin’ flowers. That’s the way this world works.”
“I’m goin’, I’m goin’.”
“When did you ever go? Three years ago? Even after she got married, every time she saw you, though she hid it from her husband’s eyes, she’d give you whatever she had at hand. She’d say, “Here, little brother, take this,” wouldn’t she? And today she’s like a worn out winnowin’ fan, ain’t she? She’s the only daughter in our family. Whenever she cries it’s a-gonna come around and haunt you: you’re the one who’s a-gonna pay then,” she said, and cried. While she was crying she said, “You don’t even have enough time to take care of your in-laws’ household.”
“Would you be quiet for a minute? All this naggin’ is why I don’t come here,” Karuppusamy said, and stared at Chellammal. And she stared right back at him. “Before you got your job, when you said you wanted to go to the interview, was there anybody in this town who trusted us enough to give us the two hundred rupees? You know how many people’s feet I fell at, don’t you. But we did not get one single penny. That tali your father tied before he died and left me with kids and no job, I wondered if it was big enough. That very day I pawned it, and sent you off. That was the only thing I had that came from your father’s household.”
“How many times are you gonna tell me this story? This naggin’ is exactly why I don’t come back to this town.”
“That’s what happened. Am I tellin’ a lie? You know the old saying, ‘The mother thinks one thing, but the child thinks another.’ Well, they don’t just say that for nothin’, son. I’m seventy years old. I’m still goin’ out and weedin’ in the fields to be able to eat.”

14“Who cares if that’s what happened?” Karuppusamy started to shout, when Raajii came along.

15“They said you was here. I thought I’d stop by and see ya,” Rajii said. But, like giving him a slap in the face, Karuppusamy sent him away, saying, “You go out and wait in the road, Rajii. I’m comin’. We can talk out there.” Rajii was dumbstruck. He did not reply, but just turned and left.

16Chellammal started talking about Rajii, saying, “He’s a son, too. All by himself he got together the dowry things for three sisters, and nobody didn’t find no fault with nothing. He still watches out for all three of them, come good times or bad. He lets his mother and father sit still while he provides ‘em with rice.” While she was saying all that, Karuppusamy snatched up the bag and started to leave, vrrrrr. “When it’s time for the bus to come, is that when you go flyin’ off?” she asked. “Wait. I’m comin’ too,” she said and went into the house. She rummaged around in an old trunk, looking for something. She found it, and gave him two hundred-rupee notes. He acted big, and tried to give it back to her. She insisted, and stuck the money into his hand, very naturally. “I sold a goat with a twisted face. They kept sayin’ to me, ‘Okay, I’ll pay you’, or ‘I’ll pay you later.’ They drug it out over a month, and only yesterday did they actually bring me the money. Now, what am I gonna do with all that money? Take it and buy a nice anklet for your daughter, in memory of me,” she said. Then she determinedly grabbed the bag from him, shut the door to the house, and said, “Come on, son. The bus is gonna come.” And she walked on ahead of him.

17Chellammal was on the verge of saying something when Karuppusamy snapped, “Come on, Mom, just shut up.” She acted like it never even reached her ears, but then she said, “Ever since the day I tied the tali knot and joined your father’s household as a wife that’s all I have ever heard from you guys. Maybe when I die you will figure out what’s good what ain’t. Son, did you come first, or did I? Was it through trust in you that I came to be born? Git outa here!”

Auteur

(1966) is a Dalit writer from Virudhachalam in Cuddalore District. He has published three novels, Kōvēṟu Kaḻutaikaḷ (1994), Āṟumukam (1999), and Ceṭal (2006) and two short story collections, Maṇ Pāram (2004) and Video Māriyammaṉ (2008). He works as a schoolteacher near Virudhachalam.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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