Daughter of the River

by Sarveswari Saikrishna

Mari had never hated his mother more than now when she lay dead on the rope cot. Outside his thatched hut, sheets of rain flooded the courtyard, and splashed against the threshold, threatening to enter the house.  Usually, during such downpours, Mari, his wife, and his mother moved uphill to Perumal’s hut. But today he could not possibly carry his mother’s body to his neighbour’s house. But that was not the reason Mari hated his mother. He hated her because she chose to die during the peak of the monsoon. It was as if she conspired to die just to make her words come true. 

“This body won’t turn into ashes until I have a grandson to light my pyre,” his mother would say while egging Mari to ditch his barren wife. “ If your wife cannot give me a grandson,  then find another wife who would.”

Not to be cowered, Mari’s wife retorted, “I could have sired ten sons if you had given us some time alone. You hover over us like an eagle every minute of the day and expect me to have a baby. Listen, your son is incapable of getting it up with you snoring just a few feet away.”

“The Thalaiyar river will run dry if you say my son is not man enough,” Mari’s mother shot back, clenching her fist. 

“Then, don’t bring another woman into my marriage,” his wife shouted.

On good days, Mari would be away at the river banks washing clothes or delivering the washed ones to the village. But with the advent of machines to do his job, he found himself more and more at his house, acting as a referee between his wife and mother. 

Now his mother was dead, her mouth grotesquely twisted into a sneer and his wife was sitting at her head, sobbing. 

“Why are you crying, woman? Didn’t you want her dead long back?” Mari asked his wife.

“ At least I will have to put up an act, no?” his wife replied blowing her nose into her pallu nosily.  “God knows, your mother is capable of hoodwinking Yaman and coming back to earth.”

“Crazy woman. As if that is the worst that could happen. Did you wonder how we could cremate her body in this pouring rain? Our erimedu does not have a roof above it.”

“Aiyoo,” Mari’s wife resumed her crying though it was hard to know why. Was it because she was worried about sharing space with a body until the rain abated or was it because of the fate their caste faced?  

The likes of Mari who lived in the colony outside the village had a separate erimedu, a platform to cremate their dead. They could not use the one built by the government with roofing and other facilities because upper-caste people forbade the colony dwellers from using it. The southwest monsoon battered the land from June through August, and the people from the colony had no choice but to pray that no one from their family died during these months. God forbid if it happened, then, not only do they have to wait for a dry day to cremate the body, but also cross the roiling Thalaiyar river to reach their erimedu on the opposite bank. 

“Of all the months, this woman has to die during Vaikaasi just to spite me,” Mari was muttering when Permual, their neighbour came down from his hut hearing the commotion.

“Oh! God. How will we…?” Perumal started but immediately shut his mouth when Mari glowered at him. Perumal known for pointing out the obvious said, “What a shame we cannot burn her at the common erimedu. As if their ashes turn gold instead of dust after cremating.” 

It only irritated Mari more. Did he not know that, already? However, this was how things had been in the village for many decades and Mari, unlike his mother who was stubborn, always took the easy way out. And stubborn she was, even as a child. Mari’s mother would recount with pride how as a ten-year-old, she refused to come out of the Thalaiyar River when a few boys from the village wanted to take a dip. It was a common practice that people from the colony had to make way for the villagers when they wanted to swim. But Mari’s mother continued to stay in the waters despite several warnings. Then, one of the boys got into the river and dragged her ashore by her hair. Worse, when she returned home, her mother twisted her ear lobes for talking back to the ‘big’ people of the village.

“Adamant mongrel! You had the guts to refuse what was asked of you by the villagers. I hope you know your kanji comes from their hearth.”

Mari’s mother would stop her narration here, take a deep breath and end the tale with a dramatic flair. “From that day, I never stepped into the Thaliyar, not even once”  

Mari would roll his eyes every time she said that, murmuring, “As if her stubbornness will change the course of the river.” 

Her resolve was so extreme that she refused to help out Mari with washing the clothes at the river. 

“Your mother just uses that as an excuse to dodge doing work. Lazy woman,” Mari’s wife would complain as she carried the bundles of soiled clothes collected from the village to the river beds.

By now, a few more people from the colony arrived and the elders in the crowd suggested shifting the body to the centre of the one-room hut and burning a single lamp at its head. The sneer on the body’s face was set right by winding a rag around its chin and a rupee coin was plastered on its bare forehead. Its irreverent hands, which were lulling on either side of the rope cot, were brought together and set in place and so were the stiff legs. Mari watched his neighbours fussing about his dead mother and yet the problem of cremation worried his mind.  

He called Perumal aside and asked, “Anna, can we go to periya aiyya’s house and ask if we could cremate the body at their erimedu?”

“What!” Perumal’s exaggerated shock boomed beyond the clamour of the incessant rain outside. 

“They will skin us alive and feed us to their dogs,” he screamed at Mari ignoring his pleading gestures to keep it low. 

The young guns of the colony, Sekar and Jegan who were shifting the body looked at each other and then at Mari. Mari considered them the troublemakers, for these college-going boys were always looking for a reason to protest. Last year they wanted to enter the temple premises during Adi festival. A few months ago they wanted to fetch water from the common tap in the village. Mari knew that they would use his mother’s death as an excuse to create a ruckus. 

As if reading his thoughts, one of them said, “Why should we be afraid of using the facility the government provided for the village? Don’t our dead deserve a decent goodbye?” This coming from Sekar who spent all his mother’s hard-earned money to recharge his mobile, Mari thought. 

“Leave it to us. We will decide that,” Mari gave a curt reply and turned to Perumal. “Come with me, na.” Perumal reluctantly followed Mari who disappeared into the wall of rain. 

While crossing the bridge that led into the village, Mari noticed how menacing the river had turned after the rains. He wondered how the benign Thalaiyar, which nourished the fields, cattle and men irrespective of their caste, could rage and surge during monsoon. 

Aiyya met the grieving men on his verandah and expressed a suitable amount of sympathy to Mari. However, when Mari relayed his request, he hesitated.

“Mari, I can give you money for the funeral. I can even give you money to take the body to the electrical crematorium in the town. But please don’t ask me this. My men will give me hell if I allow burning a low caste body in our erimedu,” aiyya said, not without empathy.  

Knowing that it was hard to find an ambulance to transport the body to the electrical crematorium, Perumal pleaded on Mari’s behalf, “Aiyya, it is hard to carry the body across the river to our erimedu, especially in this pouring rain.”

‘Wait for a day or two. The rain will stop, and Thalaiyar will be tamed,” aiyya replied fishing out a couple of hundred from his veshti which now came with a pocket.   To the curious eyes of Mari and Perumal, aiyya explained, “My granddaughter bought me this veshti from town. Veshti with handy pockets. Modern world, no?”

Mari and Perumal nodded and turned back to walk in silence, their mind heavy with thoughts. 

Perumal, to lighten up the sombre moment said, “ Looks like aiyya can sleep with our Mookiyan’s wife but cannot allow the cremation of one of us in their erimedu, huh?”

“Maybe, he ogles at her body and imagines doing her without touching her,” Mari sniggered and immediately realised the inappropriateness of the joke in such a situation and said, “Now is not the time to ask irrelevant questions.” 

 When they reached Mari’s hut, it was overflowing with people who came to offer their condolence and many stayed back to witness the drama of resolving his mother’s cremation.

To the eager faces, Mari replied that they would have to wait until the rain abated to cremate his mother. So for the next two days, Mari and his wife shared their hut with his mother as always, their dwelling filled with a strong odour of incense and wilting flowers from the garlands worn around the body. By the third morning, the rain slowed down to a drizzle, and Mari took this chance to take his mother on that final journey. He was worried that the rain might resume if he waited any longer. The body was placed on a bamboo bier which was then lifted on the shoulders of Mari, Perumal, Sekar and Jegan . Not many followed the body because the pathway leading to the river had turned marshy. 

On reaching the swirling Thalaiyar bank, the intensity of the problem dawned on them. They could not use the bridge as the villagers did not like a funeral procession from the colony passing through their street. “How do we cross the river?” Sekar blurted out.  He was shouldering the front end of the bier along with Mari. 

“Lift the bier above the head and wade through the river,” Jegan replied from the back. “We did the same thing when chittappa died last year during the monsoon.”

Mari and Sekar placed their feet on the silty banks of Thalaiyar, gaining a firm hold on the slope that went into the river. Slowly, they inched into the river, like pilgrims measuring their steps in the temples. After many minutes of trudging in the chest-deep river with Mari’s mother hoisted above their head, they reached the other bank. 

It happened when Mari tried to climb up the slope. His feet slipped on the swampy silt, tilting the bier. Amid the aiyoos and ammas, Mari’s mother went sliding down into the river effortlessly and floated towards the deep end. “Amma, don’t go, amma,” Mari cried as the body bobbed away from him. Jegan and Sekar immediately jumped into the waters, but the eddied underwater made it difficult for them to spot the body. Every time they came out for a breath, they saw Mari’s mother floating further away from them, even as Mari and Perumal watched helplessly from the banks. 

For the first time since her death, Mari realized that he would never see his mother’s sneer again, would never hear her annoying cackle, would never get to fight with her again. All through the time, when Jegan and Sekar dived and came up with nothing, Mari kept thinking about how his mother never stepped into Thalaiyar when she was alive and how mortified she would feel for having been left adrift on her. But then the body went missing. Perumal would later recollect how the body buoyed up and went down thrice before disappearing forever. “Like a priest dunking into the Ganges,” he would say with awe to anyone who cared to hear. 

Some said the body was carried away into the sea downstream. Some said the body was stuck between boulders at the deep end of the river. However, many had heard a girl’s mirthful laughter along the banks of the Thalaiyar River. Those who were reckless enough to look in the direction of the cackle swore that they saw water swashing in the middle of the river as if someone was swimming in there.  But no one, not even Sekar, Jegan , Perumal or Mari who witnessed it happen, said that Thalaiyar took back her daughter who was dragged away from her by her hair.

Author’s Bio:

Sarveswari Saikrishna is a short story writer and a Kolam Writer’s Workshop Alumni. Her stories are published in The Bombay Literary Magazine, Out Of Print, Gulmohur Quarterly, Meanpeppervine, and TMYS.

If not sulking, she can be found actively imagining a world where she would be winning awards for the book she is yet to write.

Social Media handle links

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100010124764417

https://www.instagram.com/being_sarves/

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