Mane by Naran

    translated from Tamil by Shaarvari Shreenath

    Spring, 1972.

    Aathiyappan felt like ants were crawling all over his body. This feeling had persisted since morning. Whenever this happened, he felt an inexplicable excitement bubbling. This was not unlike when water dripped from male elephants’ ears when they were in heat. But he did not understand why he was suddenly feeling like this when he had not in a long time. He was, after all, 59 years old.

    Driven by poverty in Vembar, he had arrived at Virudhunagar as a teenager for survival. Aathiyappan had started as a load lifter in the cotton mill and eventually made his way up to being a trader known for making quick profits in the purchase and sale of cotton. Now he was the biggest cotton merchant in the district. All his wealth was set to go to his son Kathiresan who took care of the day-to-day running of the trade. He was exactly half his father’s age.

    Aathiyappan was taller than average, and his skin was as dark as the rain drenched bark of a palm tree. He wore a white terry cloth veshti with a white shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His hair, now more white than black, sat up like recently fluffed up cotton. Aathiyappan had a skin disease ailing him since his youth. Patches of scale-like skin now covered most of his body. Unable to bear the itching, he spent half his time scratching which caused large white scabs to flake off and fall, leaving stark white lines on his skin.

    Ganapathiyammal was preparing lunch. Aathiyappan left his chair, and silently stood behind her, his chest touching her back.

    “How many times have I told you not to come to the kitchen scratching yourself. What if something touches the food,” she said irritably, telling him to leave.

    He pulled away but stood there looking at her as if to say, at least, just for today. Time passed as Athiyappan watched his wife’s face remain pinched, his own expression unreadable. Suddenly he surged forward to hug her, his hands clutching at her body desperately. She swiftly detached herself from him, and harshly slammed a plate of rice on the counter. She looked like she was in hell as she went “chee!”

    The ants from Aathiyappan’s body hastily crawled down his body and scattered.

    “How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t like it. At this age! Do you want it to stick to me too?” Ganapathiyammal shouted. Aathiyappan quietly left the kitchen, went back, and sat on his chair again but he could not be as relaxed as before. He thought it might help if he went on a walk till the end of the road. He stood up, wore his shirt and left. Midway, he changed his mind and made his way to his cotton godown in the next street instead.

    He listlessly walked past a tree showering bright flowers as if it was not worth admiring. He took out the big iron key he had stowed up in the wooden beams and opened the godown–an old but spacious black stone building. The roof was thatched with red tiles held up by strong wooden pillars. Most of the space was taken up by piles and piles of cotton fluff, with the rest stuffed in sacks stacked high.

    There might have been enough cotton to weave clothes for everyone in the world, to cover the wounds of the sick everywhere. But man would not be kind enough spare even a single swab of it to dab at the pus oozing from one’s blisters. It was this thought that scratched away at Aathiyappan again.

    One could never predict when a craving would come clawing up to the surface. If they could predict the appetite, then perhaps they could curb it. There was nothing more tortuous than lust overwhelming an aging body. Being unable to satisfy or even suppress the urge only left embarrassment for one to feel. Aathiyappan could not think of a more wicked fate.

    It might have been at least a decade since he had last experienced any release.

    Back then, he did not have as much itching or blisters on his skin.

    Now even Ganapathiyammal had crossed 50. While she had the usual ailments and frustrations that plagued women her age, the reason for her pulling away from him was his disease.

    Earlier, he stayed back at his godown willingly, working long but happy hours.

    Aathiyappan sensed someone entering the godown. It was Kathiresan. He came bearing brass pots with kuzhambu and rice. His face remained tight, unreadable. Ganapathi must have said something to him, and he did not lack the maturity to pick up on the subtlest of barbs. How else could he have learned the trade so quickly from his father?

    “You should just stay here in the godown, appa,” he began. “I will bring you your food here. There is a small baby in the house. It will not be okay if it falls in the food. And you too keep scratching and scratching. If I say we should go get it checked at the Madurai government hospital, you refuse. What you intend to do with all this wealth, I don’t know!” 

    He put the containers down with a thud and left. A little while later he returned with a bag containing Aathiyappan’s clothes and daily use items, kept it in the corner and left.

    The old man’s ego kept him from eating. He lay on his coir cot. He did not go to the cotton market for two days. During afternoons, truckloads of cotton either got moved out or shipped in. At night, when Ganapathiyammal came by with dinner, she would bring Kathiresan’s baby girl with her. Even when the baby came to him, he remained quiet.

    As Ganapathi gathered the lunch vessels in her wire braided basket one night, she revealed that she had hired a woman from nearby Meesalur to clean up the godown. Aathiyappan said nothing.

    Next morning, a slight, fair woman arrived. Ganapathi came along, introduced her as Aavudaithangam. She had a sullen face but her eyes shone with light. When she turned around for something, Aathiyappan noticed her long dark tumble of hair that reached below her waist.

    She seemed to be 33. When Ganapathiyammal left, she went and sat by the entrance of the godown, staring at something in the distance, spaced out. Even when Aathiyappan returned from his afternoon trip to the market that day, she remained like that. As soon as he sat down on his cot inside, she brought him a jug of water. He noticed that something had changed in the godown. He realised that stray piles of cotton did not litter the floor anymore. Even the smallest of fluffs had been picked up and stuffed into now bloated gunny sacks by Aavudaithangam.

    She brought the lunch boxes and spread them out beside his bed. He observed how she did all of this without making a single sound and liked her instantly. As soon as he took one bite of the food, he noticed a change in taste. Later, when he lay back on his cot, he fell into blissful sleep without even realising it, while she fanned him with a palm leaf frond.

    She finished eating the leftover food, washed the vessels and kept them upturned in a patch of sunlight outside.

    Later, Aavudai sat at the entrance of the godown, staring into the distance, spaced out, again.

    At around 3 that afternoon, two midwives dressed in white sarees came by on their cycles. One of them had a grey box in her carrier which had a long black shoulder strap. Aathiyappan woke up when he heard one of them say, “Wake the old man up, please. We went to his house. They said he was here.”

    Aathiyappan washed his face and wore his shirt. The two women entered the godown and Aavudai followed. The younger one among the two instructed Aavudai to bring some hot water. A confused Aavudai went out to light the stove and fetch the water.

    Only after she returned, she noticed what was going on. Aathiyappan had folded his veshti above his knees. Layers of dirty cloth were wrapped around the parts of his legs which were now visible. Bits of dried, blood-soaked and yellowed cotton fell to the floor. The older woman peeled back the rest of it. Bits of cotton from the inside continued to fall. With her face contorted in disgust, the woman used two fingers and pushed away the cloth. The younger one remarked that the blisters had still not healed.

    After taking the pot of hot water from Aavudai, they began to dip balls of cotton in it and wiped away at the wound that seemed to be covered in yellowed ointment, darkened dried blood, and hardened pus. The older woman treated the wound like she was handling a dead rat. Aavudai did not look away from the two wounded legs and her eyes only got brighter and brighter as she stared. Soon the wounds had been cleaned and the legs looked like two freshly bathed babies. Aavudai’s eyes were heavy and moist now.

    The older woman dipped cotton balls in ointment and began applying it on the wounds. The younger one took out pieces of cloth and cotton and kept it beside her, ready to use.

    Aavudai could not handle the thought of the two wounded legs being wrapped up again. Without her realisation, tears flowed down her face in long ropes. She was surprised by her own actions. She started to think of the two sickly, wounded legs as her children. The woman who had resigned herself to a life without anyone to love, and to love her, felt kindness and deep affection bubbling forth for those two wounded legs.

    The older woman began wrapping the two legs up in the cloth and cotton. Aavudai wanted to scream, ‘Don’t close my babies up, don’t close them!’ She stuffed the bottom of her saree pallu in her mouth to stop herself.

    She turned her gaze away.

    Aathiyappan took out a 5 rupee note from his shirt pocket and gave it to the older woman. She looked at the note with betrayal, like it was not nearly enough to compensate her, but took it anyway and left. Aavudai turned back to look at the two wounded legs that were now wrapped up. It was all she could see. All she could think of were those two silenced, wounded, wrapped up legs.

    She went back to the entrance and sat down, fell asleep in that position, and woke up only after dusk had fallen. The godown was bathed in a soft yellow glow from a single fat bulb that hung over Aathiyappan’s bed. She rushed to the bed, and like a madwoman preventing her children from suffocating, yanked his veshti up above to his knees. Aathiyappan woke up, demanding to know what she was doing.

    “I need to see the wounds!”

    Aathiyappan’s brows furrowed further, “What?”

    She said the same thing again, this time, more firmly.

    “I need to see the wounds. There is a native herbalist in my town. He always said that wounds should not be tightly wound, they should be allowed to dry in open air.”

    “Okay, but what do you want me to do at this hour?” Aathiyappan asked.

    “We need to remove the cloth wrapping the wound.”

    “Let us unwrap it in the morning. Go sleep now..” even before he could finish, Aavudai sat down beside his legs hanging from the cot. He looked at her in confusion. Aavudai held his legs and gently began peeling back the cloth. Layer after layer swiftly slithered onto the floor. She alone could hear the sound of the babies suddenly gasping and breathing freely. She wiped off the thick ointment with cotton. Her face was aglow, eyes glistening as she stared at the two legs with adoration.

    Aathiyappan told her to go and sleep. She finally relented but slept facing her children. The wounds shone under the glow of the fat yellow bulb.

    In the morning, Aathiyappan went to the market, and upon his return found an old man waiting for him. He greeted Aathiyappan, telling him he is from Meesalur. Aathiyappan instantly knew why he had come.

    Cotton packages were being loaded onto a lorry. He thought perhaps Kathiresan was overseeing everything but when he saw him approaching the godown on his bike in the distance, he rushed in, only to find Aavudai handling the transaction, weighing the packages, and overseeing everything. Kathiresan said nothing about this upon his arrival.

    As soon as the lorry left, the old healer from Meesalur folded Aathiyappan’s veshti above his knees and began surveying the wounded legs. He dipped chicken feathers he had brought with him into a liquid that looked a lot like castor oil and gently ran it over the wounds. Its thick bitter smell assaulted Aathiyappan’s senses.

    He asked where else Aathiyappan suffered from the blisters, asked him to apply the oil over it twice every day, and assured him the wounds would dry up eventually. He even said he would return in ten days to check and left.

    Every morning and night, Aavudai would apply the oil using chicken feathers and the gentlest of touches. The wounds did not dry, but Aathiyappan told her that the itching had more or less stopped.

    The summer beat down heavily on them. One night, the usual light midsummer drizzle turned into a downpour. Even before it began, Aavudai quickly brought baskets of cotton and gunny sacks inside. Aathiyappan had eaten her tangy garlic kuzhambu with rice and was now reclining on his cot. Aavudai brought the pot of oil, stood staring at her two babies in the glow of the yellow light. The rain outside not only brought out the smell of wet mud but also stirred up her motherliness.

    “It died!”

    Aathiyappan looked at her with confusion.

    “Yes, it died,” she said, her voice hoarse with sadness. “My father was a cook – often cooked for weddings. He got me married to Pandi who worked under him. Both father and son-in-law would drink together. Three months after my wedding, my father passed away. Within seven months, my husband left me, ran away with Shanmugam akka who also worked with them. I was carrying his child.”

    Aathiyappan listened to her in rapt attention.

    “I sold my chain, we ate for five months. I sold my earrings, and we ate for another two. I managed all alone. My father’s friend, Mariyappan, worked as a carpenter. He was the one who took me to the Virudhunagar government hospital when the pain started. He left me there and did not come for three days. On the second day, I gave birth. It was winter, and I was left without even a rag on the verandah outside. The baby cried all night. Only those who were lying beside me gave me a mat and some cloth to wrap it in. At dawn, the baby was stiff. There was no need to take it home. The compounder suggested we bury it there, and demanded 12 rupees. I held the stiff body in my arms for two hours, handed it to him and left. I climbed into a rickshaw and on my way out, I saw the compounder throw the baby wrapped in paper into the garbage pile behind the hospital. A couple of dogs ran by swiftly. I sat in the rickshaw and tried to chase the dogs away by shaking my hands, but it did not work. That was all I could do then,” she said and broke down crying.

    “I met Mariyappan, asked him for a job so I could at least eat. He sent me to work at the elaichi merchant’s shop. His mother-in-law was charitable. She could not walk, had no one to clean up after she soiled herself. I was there for three months when she died. A few days later, they told me to leave. As usual, I went back to Mariyappan who promised me a different kind of job this time, made me stay at a house in the outskirts of town. That night he came there drunk. He — many times he…” she trailed off and continued to cry. “He was my father’s age,” she choked out.

    “Forgive me, please forgive me,” Aathiyappan broke down and fell at her feet crying. She remained still and quiet. “Will you go away from here?” he asked.

    She silently stood gazing at her children, completely still.

    The first thing Aathiyappan did the next morning was look to see if Aavudai was still around. She was right there, cooking in the little tin shed outside the godown.

    Aathiyappan began to feel weightless.

    The wounds on his legs never healed. For four years, Aavudai dipped the ends of her long hair in the oil and gently rubbed it over the wounded legs. Both of them liked it. Both of them silently prayed that the wounds never heal completely. Ganapathiyammal understood everything. She had begun to see Aavudai as her sister.

    One morning, Aathiyappan remained motionless on the coir cot, his gaze frozen towards the ceiling, unblinking. Aavudai immediately rolled up his veshti and held her two babies close. Both her babies were cold to the touch. She walked to the entrance of the godown and sat down, her body paralyzed with the realisation that the only two she had had left to love were no more.

    Kathiresan coincidentally came by the godown. Soon Ganapathiyammal came running. She declared that all the rituals will take place in the godown itself. Aavudai asked to be allowed to tie up Aathiyappan’s body and wash it. Kathiresan did not fight her. Kathiresan propped his father up in a chair outside. Ganapathi brought Aavudai there. A big brass pot sat beside filled to the brim with water. Kathiresan returned after a while to find Aavudai, having rolled up his father’s veshti above his knees, pouring water over the two legs over and over and over again. Kathiresan just kept refilling the pot. After the fifth refill, Aavudai dipped her hair in the water and pressed it onto her two children over and over again.

    Ganapathiyammal told Aavudai to stay with her, and said she need not go anywhere. Aavudai refused but asked for permission to stay in the godown instead.

    Three months passed during which Aavudai did not wash her hair. Every morning, she would pull her locks forward and greedily inhale the scent of her two children still knotted deep within it.

    Later, Aavudai suffered from typhoid. By the time she got better, almost all her hair had fallen. Her lush, waist length dark hair now fell limp, lifeless — the colour of blackened brass.

    Shaarvari is a queer writer and storyteller. She is one of those cliched creatives stuck in the corporate world. Her mind is abuzz with ideas all the time. Some of those times she actually puts them down on paper. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Alma Magazine and InFrame Magazine. This is her first published work of translation.

    Naran is an award-winning Tamil writer and poet with over four poetry collections, two short story collections and two novels to his name. His writings have a strong political voice that directly addresses the complexities of human relationships, while questioning the societal hypocrisies that define them. His work is inspired from his life and experiences, often directly responding to the injustices in society.

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