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Tamil dalit literature

Vili. Pa. Itaya Ventan

Shadow House

Vili. Pa. Itaya Ventan

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1Pavunu was old, and her body was starting to shudder. It no longer had in itself the strength to take a notion to run around and do something. She just felt worn out all the time. One by one she started getting wrinkles all over her body.

2It was no easy thing for her to go outside her street. She walked without using a cane. Proud of that, she was able to totter along.

3She was short, and her face was dark. Her sunken eyes looked like they had fallen into a ditch. Her feet were shriveled and tiny as she went along. The calves of her legs were drawn and creased, like the lines you put up on a wall to keep accounts for the curd-seller. Her hands had turned black, like they’d been smeared with tar. All the lines in her palm were worn down and looked dim.

4Ten or twenty years ago there were lots of little huts all along the street. Now the situation had changed. You could count on the fingers of one hand a house here, and another there, along four or five streets.

5The little pond to the east always used to be filled to the brim with water. Even in the heat of the summer, it stayed the same, and never dried up. Pavunu lived in the street to the west of the pond. Upper-caste people lived on the other three sides. Because of the pond, none of the households there ever had to suffer from water shortages.

6Hand pumps, or motorized pumps, it didn’t matter, the water just came spurting out tirelessly. People told all kinds of stories about a spring that was in the earth under the bed of the pond. “Otherwise, there would sometimes be water shortages.” “Yep, that’s right.” A lot of people would talk like this, acting like they had conducted some serious research into the matter. She had struggled and managed to buy herself a hand pump on credit and have it installed. Now it was rusted and broken, and she was not able to get it fixed.

7Whenever Pavunu thought and thought about all this, it felt like a spear had pierced her heart. Superficially, she knew why things were no longer the way they used to be, but she didn’t really, internally, understand the meaning of it.

8She picked up a little brass pot and headed out to the store. On the way Maarappan looked up from his porch and saw her. He had betel leaves and areca nuts in a plastic bag in his hand. He took out two whole nuts and stuck them in his mouth. Crunch. It sounded like his teeth were breaking.

9“Hey, Pavunu, where ya headin’ off to?”

10His hand went back inside the bag. His face turned toward her with a little


12“I’m goin’ to get me some tea. You want some, brother?”
“Naah, naah…” he dragged out his reply.
“Why not, brother?”
“Nothin’… just I ain’t got no money just now.”
“Okay, I’ll buy. I’ll pour out a little for you.”
“Well okay, but don’t bother.”
“So, brother, somethin’ else on your mind?”
“Naah, nothin’ really. You been sayin’ you wanted to pull your hut down and rebuild it, what happened?”

13That brought Pavunu up short. Her mind stumbled over what he had said, and her whole body broke into a sweat.

14Slowly, slowly she tried to cross the street. From the curb, the noise of all the vehicles rose up and tore at her ears. Worse than that, Maarappan’s question was drilling her insides. Memories were being sawed up with a buzz-saw, it seemed like, and lay cut into little pieces.

15Whenever she took to thinking about her house, her rice just would not go down her throat. Even if she added meat curry to it and mixed it up really well, she would barely be able to get it down, and the rice would be mixed with her tears.

16It had been a long time since her husband died. Her son was taller than she was, and had grown into a man. But he was of no use at all to the household. The house did not benefit from any effort of his. It was all just Pavunu, on her own.

17When the pond filled up and overflowed during the rainy season, it would flow through a canal into another pond nearby. Things would be damp during the rainy season. And when it really came a gully-washer, in every house they would put up torn old straw mats, sacks, clothes, anything to keep the blowing rain from getting inside.

18And beyond that, water would flow in through holes in the roof, and a sticky wetness would rise up all through the house. When it rained it was a big job to clean all this. People would shiver in the damp and the cold. Pavunu would wrap herself in a torn sheet. “How well the rest of the town is a-livin’. We got stuck out here like this in this ditch…” Pavunu would lament over and over.

19Because her child’s behavior was not good, she found herself unable to take up any project and see it through to completion. All on his own he got together with a woman, and they had two children. But he did not treat her well at all. They fought all the time. And not just words and shouting, either. People came from her daughter-in-law’s household and they were ready to murder her son, they fought so hard. In the end, her daughter-in-law left their little boy with Pavunu and took her daughter back with her to her mother’s house. And with that, she was outa there. That was fifteen years ago. She never came back.

20“Why does Pavunu put up with that good-for-nothin’ son of hers?”
“So what if he don’t know how to read even four letters, he could still earn at least four bucks. How come you don’t never ask him to do nothin’…?”
“He eats your food and rattles around like a fat bull, and you take care of him and his kid…”

21When these angry curses about him exploded all up and down the street, she could not stand it. If she summoned him and asked him about it, he’d make up some lame excuse or other and say, “What are you-all a-tellin’ me to go and do? I’m out of work. And wherever I go, as soon as they see me they don’t like me.”

22Even when he did take on a day-labor job now and then, his day-wage never made it all the way to the household. He’d dissolve all of it in gambling and drink.

23Pavunu figured he was as much a cross to bear for her as he was a problem for everybody in the whole street.

24Eventually he started talking back to Pavunu. When he ground his teeth and stood up angrily, it turned into a routine: she would just cower and shrink.

25“There I am, cleanin’ up everybody’s shit in this entire town, all by myself. I struggle and manage to get by. And you gonna beat me up…”

26Pavunu called a street assembly and asked them to intervene. All the important people in their street came. They found fault with both of them, first one, then the other.

27“Ever since he was a little kid, you done raised him up to be an idler, so how you gonna change that now?”
“Yep, while I was raisin’ such a kind of a kid, I coulda poisoned him when he was still a toddler, right?”

28Every one of Pavunu’s words dripped with the struggles and the miseries of her life. She just wanted to work like other people hired by the municipality and drink her kanji or her kuuzh. And she wanted calmly to build her a good house on the tiny plot of land that she had been deeded. Her gripe was that she could not do that, and it drilled inside her, continuously. Her stomach burned hotter every time she looked at her ruined house. “Okay, so my son’s gone bad, but I can still try to make a good man out of my grandson.”

29As she came back into her street, lugging the tea-pot with her, what she saw looked like an aerial photograph of a lot of ruined houses. Lots of walls had crumbled and fallen down, dilapidated and dissolved by rain.

30The pond was full of water, but brilliantly green water plants covered it now. In the old days, it increased your happiness just to look and look at the pond water, but nowadays it was your fear for the lives of the householders that increased whenever you looked at it.

31Houses were really dense around the pond, but the spring had dried up. There was no longer any good water. Rather, it looked like all the sewers in town ran into this one big sewer. Thorn bushes, grass and shrubs filled the banks. And snakes would often find their way into people’s homes. They were afraid.

32During rainy seasons, as the water in the pond got deeper and deeper, rainwater and sewer water mixed together and stagnated. Foam that looked like soap bubbles, some as big as white eggs, would burble up. Swarms of mosquitoes stuck to the floating mud.

33One time a snake got into Saambaatthaal’s house and bit her child. She picked him up and ran to the hospital in the pouring rain, but he died before they got there. They came into lots of houses like that, but the people usually beat them to death. One time, Pavunu saw one in her house, in the thatched roof, wrapped around the casuarina ridgepole. She hung up her kerosene lantern and saw its slimy color, and summoned the people in her street to come and beat it to death. Then she could rest.

34Since then, though, she began to be scared. In the rainy season, all the water from the streets would gradually come and start to fill up the pond. Except for just one or two houses, water gets into all the other houses and causes damage. Besides the water, raw sewage, trash, dead leaves, bugs, worms, and all kinds of crap gets into people’s homes. Right in front of her eyes she watches walls go potheer and collapse like mountains. Her heart, too, collapses, crushed. She ties up her household goods and hangs them from the roof. She takes her torn straw mat and huddles in the public buildings on higher ground by the road. She makes it through the night. She hugs her grandson tight. Pavunu does not know where her son went, when he will come back, or what he will be like when he comes back, and nowadays she no longer cares.

35The ditch along the side of the road had been blocked by urban sprawl, and there was nowhere for the drainage water to run. She joined with the other people in her street in petitioning the authorities about that, but nobody paid any attention to them. They had declared the pond to be public lands, and they did issue deeds to her people, but they never hauled in the stones and earth it would take to raise the ground to a livable level.

36Lots of other families, one by one, had already sold off their falling-down huts and moved out, but Pavunu refused to leave that spot.

37“Hey, brother, go get you a cup.”
“I’m gonna give you some tea. Drink it!”

38His eyes were dim with hunger, but this gave him renewed energy. Maarappan’s face blossomed.

39“Awwright, I’m a-comin’!”

40He brought a cup from inside his house. Pavunu poured him some tea from her pot, and he received it gently, then sorrrrr, he slurped it down.

41Pavunu started drinking right out of the pot.

42“You asked for a loan, didn’t you? Did you get it?”
“For buildin’ a house.”
“The money-lender won’t budge.”
“Yeah. When you was workin’ you never could get it together to build you a good house. Now you done retired, who’s gonna lend you all that money?”
“Yep. Year by year I take out a loan an slap some more mud on the walls, take the roof apart and re-thatch it, then when it rains it all falls down. Before I can pay off one loan, the next burden arrives. You tell me what I oughta be doin’.”
“Well, I can see what you’re doin’, can’t I?”
“Then and now I’m a single person. What can I do? I don’t get nothin’ outa my son. My caste community, its branches and bunches, the rest of my people all done flew the coop because they was all starvin’. Who else can I approach with my hand extended?”
“Tell me, brother.”
“Why do you keep fightin’ it like this? Just shut your dang mouth and sell this place. Move somewhere else.”
“Nope. I can not…”

43Pavunu rose up in righteous anger. It was like something was poking and prodding her from inside. Her eyes boiled red. Maarappan got very uncomfortable. Pavunu dropped her brass pot, and let it roll. What was left of the tea spilled out.

44“What I mean is…”
“Don’t say nothin’, brother.”
Her breath heaved in and out.
“No, it’s just that you’re really sufferin’ like this…”
“I can’t, brother. I really can not. Even if I die, I have to die on my own land.”
“Are you gonna live in this dream-world your entire life?”
“I’ll tie up my stomach and tie my mouth shut, so I can use all my pension money to rebuild the house. If I can’t I’ll just lay myself down and die on this here earth.”

45Maarappan was asking what everybody was asking. She used to go and look at house after house as she cleaned out the shit from homes all over the village. At the very least, instead of a thatched hut, her house would be made of stone, with walls one brick thick and a solid roof. That is what Pavunu wanted to build. It is incessantly following her in her thoughts and in her dreams, as though it were her shadow.

46Pavunu’s eyes dimmed. None of Maarappan’s consoling words could bring her under control.

47“Before my breath stops, I’m a-gonna build that house right. You’ll see!”

48It was like she was looking at the pond and issuing it a challenge. Filled with the tears of so many people from that street, the pond glistened in the sunlight.


(1962) is a Dalit writer from Villuppuram in Villuppuram District. He is a prolific writer, with over 120 published works, including novels, short stories, poetry, a folk song anthology and literary criticism. He works as a Revenue Officer in Nellikkuppam.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2011

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