Author: B. Jeyamohan
Author: B. Jeyamohan based out of Nagercoil near Kanyakumari, is one of the most prolific writers in India today. He writes in two languages, Tamil and Malayalam. His work, which includes both fiction and non- fiction, examines and reinterprets India’s rich literary and classical traditions, and his most significant work so far is a 26-part roman-fleuve called Venmurasu (The White Drum), a retelling of the Mahabharata. The story translated here, Devi, is a story that celebrates the feminine power in its different forms while following the triumphs and travails of an amateur theater group. It is set in a small village teeming with robust and highly opinionated characters, which makes the plot all the more animated.
Translator: Remitha Satheesh
Translator: Remitha Satheesh who lives in the US hails from Nagercoil and is a blogger, poet, and translator. Her works have appeared in The Raleigh Literary Review and the Anthology of NC Poets for Bards Against Hunger. Currently she is working on her book of poetry and also focusing on translations.
“Just one female character? That’s not going to work,” said ‘Petti’ Khader. “A play must have at least three female characters. That’s the norm. If people just go about staging plays any which way, it’s not going to work.”
“It’s just a play, right?” asked Ananthan.
“What if it’s just a play? Can a man sleep with his mother just because it is a play? Tell me.”
Lawrence was irate by now. “Just talk about the play and watch your mouth. This is the land of the Goddess Bhagavathy, don’t forget that!”
Petti Khader calmed down a bit. “Look here. I started acting in plays when I was 13. In this field for 40 years now. See the keys on this harmonium? All worn down with the touch of my fingers. This is an original British piece. Look – Rodney Reynolds Co. I don’t need to play it. I just place my hand on it and it pours out what’s in my heart. Spins like silk thread. Flows like honey. Just listen to it. Music is not something trivial.”
He put his arm over Lawrence’s shoulder and said amiably, “Son, you are my eldest son Allahpichai’s age. I know theater. The wise ones who went before us did not waste their words. A rule is a rule. If it’s a play, you need three women.”
“Why is that? That’s my question.”
“That’s what I have been telling you. We follow what the wise ones before us did.”
Ananthan was annoyed. “If you just want to follow what the wise ones did, why write something new now?”
“Ah… That’s my point too. Why write? Are you going to write something our Bodheswaran or Thirunayinarkurichi Madhavan Nair or Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair did not write? Now if you want pure Malayalam, there are dramas written by CV Raman Pillai and Kainikkara Kumara PIllai. You want Tamil? There’s Poet Lakshmana Pillai’s play. Then there are the ones by Sathavathani Sheikh Thambi Paavalar or Kottar Khader Moidheen. So many of them. And Thazhakkudy Azhakappa PIllai’s dramas are gems.”
“So that’s your plan. You want to stage a play that you know. Listen, this is a play we wrote. We’ve been running around like dogs for the funds to stage it.”
“No… it’s just that Sankardas Swami’s works are…”
“Then go bring some money from that Sankardas…”
Petti Khader sighed and shook his head. He had nothing to say to that.
Tablist ‘Chatti’ Chellappan took a final pull on his beedi and came in to ask, “What’s the problem? Two of the keys on his harmonium produce no sound at all. So all the raagas he plays slip off the road and slide down the drain…. If he starts for Mecca, he will end up in Medina. But that will do for our play…. You won’t find another harmonium player for 25 rupees.”
“No one listens when you tell them what’s good for them,” muttered Khader.
“Nadar, you tell me. Where will you get three actresses with our budget? So I wrote a play with one capable woman. He refuses to accept the story.”
“A hearth needs 3 stones. If there’s only one stone, the pot won’t stand on it,” said Petti Khader.
“We were talking about the characters. Not brass pots.”
“Ananthan Nair, if that boy speaks again, I am going home,” said Khader. You are a playwright with a future. That’s why I spoke with respect.”
“Lawrence, shut up. I’ll speak,” said Ananthan.
Chellappan chimed in, “There’s a point to what he says. He just doesn’t know how to say it. But a play needs a minimum of three female characters.”
“Like the Mupperum Deviyar, the three great goddesses.”
“You mean Lalitha, Padmini Ragini, right?” asked Lawrence.
“If this haraami is going to be in the play, I am not. I am leaving.”
“Yeah, leave. Just return the five rupees advance payment.”
“Will you shut up?” chided Ananthan. “Nadar, you tell me.”
“So how old is the lady in our play?”
“Her name is Mohana. Twenty years old. She is the heroine… the love interest of the hero Anandan… we have 4 songs.”
“The young girls who come to watch the play would like her. But most of those who come to watch are older women. They’d see her like their own daughter. They won’t accept everything she says. And they’d find fault with anything she does.”
“Oh!” said Ananthan.
“That’s how it is with plays. We need a character who is just like them blooming biddies.”
“So an old woman?”
“No, not an old woman. All old women think they are just middle aged. We need a character smack dab in the middle of middle aged.”
“But without a heroine…”
“We need a heroine too…. Plus, this middle-aged character. A sister-in-law or mother.
“Oh,” said Ananthan.
Lawrence explained, “He did write in a mother character. Easwariamma… Easwari… But where do we find an actress? So he changed her to an uncle.”
“Just change him back to Easwari,” said Chellappan. “But two won’t do. A young girl, an older woman, we have those. The ladies who watch the play will latch onto one of the two. But you need someone who is a foil to all of them. The evil one. The villainess. If you don’t have one of those, they will not sit through the play.”
“Son, our women here? They don’t see villainy in any of the men. They put up with drunkards and lazy layabouts all day long. Show them a villain with shaggy eyebrows, a big moustache and an ugly mole stuck on him and these wretched women will just giggle at him. But put before them a female villain, and they will curse the living daylights out of her and shed buckets full of tears. We need a villainess… else the play will be no good. That’s it.”
“Why don’t we rewrite our Vatti Rajappa as a woman?”
“Go for it. There’s no other way,” said Chellappan. “Vatti Rajammai. How about that? It’s all the same anyway.”
Ananthan heaved a sigh.
“Then we need three actresses,” said Chellappan. “We could cast a man in the role of one of those women. A man playing the villainess would be good.”
“The women want a female villain. But if she is an actual woman, they might sympathize with her a bit. You see, a softer voice and some grace come in then. All said and done, it’s a woman. So even when playing a female villain, she should act like a man. If that’s the case, a man playing a female villain will be the best choice.”
“Where do we go for a man who will dress up as a woman?”
“I know someone. Guy named Kumaresan. Has an atrocious laugh. Calls himself PSV Kumaresan after the actor PS Veerappa.”
“If a woman laughs like PSV... “
“It will be good. Isn’t she a villainess? Just thirty rupees and money for travel. He’ll come. I guarantee that.”
“Ok, then two actresses…” said Lawrence. “How much would that be?”
“Any way you see it, no less than 150 for a day’s acting.”
“What? 300? Nadar, our total collection is 250,” cried Ananthan.
“We’ll talk to them. They might lower it.”
“Do we need two?”
“If not, the play’s no good. If the audience starts walking out midway, then it all goes downhill from there… These theater audiences are like bats. A few people leave their seats - trust the rest to brush the dust off their asses and walk out.
Ananthan once again heaved a sigh.
“I’ll see about getting 50 rupees…. Nadar, if you come down to a 100, we can manage.”
“One thing,” said Petti Khader. “You need to change the name of the hero. Anand isn’t good enough. Make it Kumaresan.”
“You think I stole my mom’s earrings and pawned them so I could act as Kumaresan? I’ll chop you up and feed you to the dogs!” said Lawrence. “If I can have a stylish, trendy name, I’ll act. If not, Give me my money back.”
“Hold on…” said Ananthan. “Khader Sahib, this is a modern play. Kumaresan is an old-fashioned name.”
“Okay, imagine the heroine is dying. She clutches her heart and wails. If she cries Ananddddd, she is going to bite her tongue. And then the villain. How will he holler his name? Anandddddd will make him sound like a cat that got its tail caught in the doorjamb. But check this out - ‘Ey Kumaresaaaaa!’” he screamed and pressed down on all the keys of his harmonium. “Now how does that sound?”
“Okay, if that’s the problem, we’ll call him Raja. Ey Rajaaaa!!!”
But Petti Khader did not play a background track on his harmonium. “He’s no Raja, is he?”
“Okay then, let's call him Kaja,” Lawrence.
“I want no part of a play with this wretched chap… I’m off. I have a thousand other plays.”
“Oh so now you are the MGR of Idalakkudy?”
“You shut up… Sahib, let’s talk about Raja…. Now your second son’s name is Sultan, right? Did you name him that because he looks like a Sultan?
“Yes,” replied Khader, laughing gleefully. “He’s a motor mechanic now, you know?”
“So Raja is just like that!”
Khader placed his hand on his harmonium; half closed his eyes, said “Raja!” and slowly pressed the keys. “Eyyyyy RRRRajaaaaa!! The harmonium rumbled. “Hmm, it’s not too bad!”
“Then let’s go look for actresses.”
“When?” asked Lawrence.
“Let’s go right away. Isn’t this the festival season? asked Chatti Chellappan. “Let’s head straight to Amaravilai Junction.”
“If you want a heroine, that’s where you go. Amaravilai, Vallavilai, all along the Neyyattinkarai - Parassalai route.”
“We need an actress who speaks Tamil. If we bring someone from Thirunelveli, the folks here will spit her out as a dark, shriveled up hag from the back of nowhere. They want a nice Malayali chick. But they don’t speak Tamil. Now a Malayali chick who speaks Tamil... you’ll find them in these border areas… I’ll show you the way…”
 Ananthan was tired. “How about a cup of tea, Nadar?”
“Tea would be good,” said Chellappan.
Lawrence grumbled, “We’ve had quite a few teas. Looks like that’s all we're doing.”
They entered a tea shop and seated themselves on the bench. “Vada and tea,” Chellappan placed the order.
“What he says is right, you know,” said Ananthan. “We started at Amaravila this morning and have been to 18 houses already. Nothing worked out. No one’s going to come for less than 200. 400 will go for just the heroine. Plus their busfare, allowance for those accompanying them, food, etc etc. then there’s the cost of the stage, sound system, lights, you need to pay the Sahib. I don’t think this will work without a total of a 1000 rupees/bucks.
“And we have a grand total of 450 rupees in hand,” said Lawrence.
“What’s wrong with this Amaravila Neelaveni? We offered up to 150 rupees. Talks big with that rat face of hers!” said Ananthan.
“Didn’t you say Poovankalai Gomathy is worth 150? You saw her, right? Hag! With two gunny sacks hanging down her chest. Her oldest daughter has just had a baby, and you wanted her to play the heroine Mohana… she said she wouldn’t agree for a paisa short of 200,” said Lawrence.
“Let it go.”
“Let what go? She said it’s a play by kids. That the audience will boo you off stage and maybe throw some dirt and rocks too… she was asking to be paid for that too. If you had any shame, you’d have pulled your tongue out and killed yourself right there.”
“I’m dying now. Is that good enough for you?” Ananthan felt a catch in his throat.
“Chellappan exclaimed, “I have an idea!”
“Spit it out,” said Lawrence.
“What about Neyyattinkarai Sridevi?”
“Will she agree for 150? Supposed to be a big star.”
“Not for a single paisa less than 250. But if we spread the word that she is in the play, we could rake in some money. We can make 200 just from our village. She is the heroine. We’ll get someone local for 50 bucks for the part of the old woman. We’ll get the job done for 300,” said Chellappan. “Even if the old woman botches it, people will sit there ogling at Sridevi.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Lawrence.
“But…” said Ananthan.
“No ifs and buts. We’ll get the job done if we leave now. We’ve picked a day of festivals… if she’s gone, then there’s no point in talking about it later.”
“Yeah, let’s go give it a try,” said Lawrence.
“But, don’t we need money?”
“Money will come. I’ll speak to Chellan Peruvattar. Give him a seat in the front row and he'll give you 50 bucks.”
“Listen, she’s my heroine. I’ll donate 50 bucks.”
“And where are you going to get that from?”
“I’ll do something…”
“You’re dead the day your mom finds her earrings missing from her box.”
“But I’ll be off at my uncle’s house by then.”
“Your dad will come looking for me… to kill me,”
“Okay, you guys decide. It’s your call,” said Chellappan.
“Nothing to discuss… we are going and handing over her advance payment,” said Lawrence.
“When they stepped out after paying for their teas, Chellappan said, “Let’s go in a horse buggy.”
“Nope, just close by. But walking doesn’t make us look good.”
“Okay,” said Lawrence.
“How much for the horse buggy?” whined Ananthan.
“I’ll pay. I’m not going to walk to meet my heroine,” said Lawrence.
“Okay, that’s on you then,” said Ananthan.
The buggy driver asked, “You here for a drama booking?”
“I know this chick. She’s 18. Hot! And the color of palm sugar.”
“Does she speak Tamil?”
“Tamil… she speaks. What is Tamil anyway? If you speak Malayalam with a guttural accent, it’s Tamil.”
“And if you speak Tamil with a nasal tone, it’s Malayalam… get lost, will ya?”
“The buggy pulled up in front of Sridevi’s house.
“This is Saraswathy’s house.”
“Saraswathy? Who’s that?”
“The theater star.”
“Didn’t we say Sridevi?”
“Ah, that’s her stage name. She’s Saraswathy at home… Gimme my money.”
Lawrence just sat in the buggy. Ananthan stepped down, pulled down his shirt and fixed his hair.
“She’s my old pal,” proclaimed Chellappan. and called out, “Sridevi! Sridevi!” The he took his shoes off and stepped into her house.
“Get down!” said Ananthan.
“Man, I don’t have any talcum powder with me,” said Lawrence. He was aghast.
“My face is dripping with oil… I don’t know what to do.”
“The house walls have just been whitewashed. Just rub your palms on that and brush it on your face.”
“Are you serious?” asked Lawrence. “You’re not pulling my leg, are you?”
“I’m serious. Do it.”
He ran his palms across the wall. They came back whitened. He rubbed it on his face. “How do I look?”
“Yes, for real. You look like you have powdered your face.”
“Tell her I am a BA graduate, okay?” said Lawrence.
“You? Didn’t you drop out after 8th grade?”
“Tell her, man! Just tell her.”
Sridevi and Chellappan stepped out from inside the house. Sridevi was all smiles. “Come in… come on in,” she welcomed them, and pointed to a woven wire chair.
“I… He…We both…” stammered Ananthan.
“Who is the playwright?”
“That’s me… I wrote the play and…” said Ananthan. His left leg twitched involuntarily, his voice wavering.
“I am the hero,” said Lawrence.
“I can see that. You have the personality of a hero,” she said. “Are you in college?”
“No, I finished eighth grade. Now I run a rubber store.”
They sat down.
“Tea?” offered Sridevi.
“We just had tea. But you go ahead if you want a cup,” said Chellappan.
“Muthamma,” she called.
An old lady peeked out. “Tea,” said Sridevi.
The old lady stared at them blankly and went inside. Sridevi followed her.
Ananthan was disappointed. Sridevi looked older than 35. Mature face. A little on the shorter side. Dusky. Slightly buck toothed with dark gums. Was this his heroine Mohana? He wanted to cry.
“I blurted out the truth about my schooling, didn’t I?” asked Lawrence, his voice unsteady.
“She’s too old for the role,” said Ananthan.
“She is my heroine,”
“Man, Mohana is…”
“This is Mohana. She’ll do.”
“Listen to me.”
By then Sridevi joined them. “No one’s home. I have two kids. Both studying in Thiruvananthapuram…”
A cough sounded in the next room. “Who is it? Lakshmi, who is it?”
“They’re here to book me for a drama… hold on,” she said.
“My father,” she told them. “Neyyattinkarai Jeyadevan. He’s pretty well known. A good singer. Bedridden now for the last 6 years.”
“Who’s Lakshmi?” asked Ananthan.
“My sister. She is no more. We were three sisters. Paravthy, Lakshmi, Saraswathy. We were trained in dancing, music… we used to perform folk dances… Parvathy is in Thiruvananthapuram now… Appa always mixes us up/,” said Sridevi. “So what’s the play about?”
“I wrote the script. But the heroine…”
Lawrence interrupted. “It’s a good play. Mohana is the heroine and you have to do that role…you must… please don’t say no.”
“Why not? That’s my job,” said Sridevi. How many women are there in the cast?”
“Three… One is a villain. We have a guy doing that role… if you agree to play the heroine, we will find someone for the other role,” said Lawrence.
Ananthan tried to interject. But his throat felt constricted. But Lawrence was in full swing, gushing with enthusiasm. “The heroine has a great role in this play. You can just act the hell out of it. Song and dance sequences. Jerkers.”
“What’s that? She raised an eyebrow.
“Hey man! What’s that?” Lawrence asked Ananthan.
“Tear jerking… heartrending scenes that make you cry,” he explained.
“Oh…” she responded. “What are you studying?”
“B. Com…” said Ananthan. He sounded like he his voice belonged to someone else.
“These kids have put it together. They don’t have a big budget…you have to be considerate with your rates,” said Chellappan.
“Money is not a problem. You must act in this play. That’s what matters,” declared Lawrence.
“You know my rates,” said Sridevi.
“I’ve told them it’s 300. But since they are my boys, a 50-rupee discount…”
“Please don’t say no,” pleaded Lawrence with folded hands.
“Okay…. Since you insist,” she said. “Who is the other actress?”
“We need to find her. Since we are giving you so much, we don’t have much left. So, we need to find someone local who’ll agree to do it for 50 rupees.”
“Will that work? Will she be able to do a good job?”
“Yes, that is a problem,” agreed Ananthan. “Someone who can actually act won’t agree to 50 rupees.”
“Here’s an idea… I’ll do both roles. Just give me 325 for both.”
“How is that going to work?” asked Ananthan.
“Even if you get another actress for 50 rupees, don’t you have to pay her travel expenses, allowance for those who accompany her, food and so on? That’s going to be 75 bucks. I’m going to be there anyway. I’ll just do that role too.”
“But…” said Ananthan.
“A good playwright can handle it. Just make sure both characters are not on stage at the same time. If at all it has to be done, make one of the characters stay off stage… this is no big deal.”
“But the voice? Two different people…”
“It’s only two people…” and she said in the voice of a middle-aged woman, “Hey Sridevi, what are you up to?” “Is that good? Didn’t I sound like a mom?” And then in the voice of a teenager, “I’m doing my homework mom!” Neither sounded like her.
Ananthan couldn’t believe both those voices came from the same person.
“Good enough?” asked Sridevi.
“That’s good. Good enough, good enough,” said Lawrence.
“So 325… agreed,” said Chellappan.
“Yes…” said Lawrence.
“We’ll...think about it…” Ananthan hesitated.
By then Lawrence was standing up, holding out Rs. 50 in fives. “Please accept this and give us your blessings.”
Sridevi took the money with both hands and touched them to her eyes.
In faltering tones Lawrence said, “You are my first heroine.”
Sridevi smiled and blessed him, “You will do well.”
“So we’ll take leave,” said Chellappan. “And you mark your calendar.”
The moment they were outside, Ananthan exclaimed in exasperation, “Her face is no good.”
Lawrence was pulling his shirt back and blowing out a huge breath in relief. “It’s good. What’s wrong with her?”
“You call that a face? She’s old. A half crone!”
“She is Mohana? Mohana is a college student.”
“Why? She looks like one too.”
“She won’t do. I won’t stand for it. Go get back the advance.”
“It’s going to be her. The play will happen only if it’s her.”
Ananthan was almost in tears. “No man, not her. You call that a face?”
“What? You think your Jayabharathi has a face of gold?”
“Do not talk about Jayabharathi.”
“Who is she to you? Your sister-in-law? Get lost!” said Lawrence. And I will say it. Jayabharathi looks like a pig!”
“You…” yelled Ananthan, rushing to hit Lawrence. Chellappan intervened and shoved the two apart.
“Come on. Hit me man. Hit me if you are a man!”
“Say one more word about Jayabharathi...”
“Listen kid, Jayabharathi is in Madras. Who cares if you guys start quarreling here…? Listen to me!”
He’s insulting Jayabharathi!”
“Look here! Let's make a deal. You won’t say a word about Jayabharathi. And you won’t say a word about Neyyattinkarai Sridevi.
“Okay,” agreed Ananthan.
Then come, let’s go in peace. Problem solved, right? said Chellappan. “Let’s have a cup of tea. They have excellent pazhampori here.”
 The moment the speakers came alive with Seergazhi booming, “Vinayagane!” people started gathering. They came along the narrow paths by the fields, walked up to the alleys and reached the temple yard. The temple was decked out with flowers, tender coconut fronds, and sago palm fronds.
The stage was empty. Ananthan rushed to the back of the stage. The dressing room was a lean-to and ‘Anappan’ Rajamani sat here on an iron chair.
“Get stools for everyone getting their make-up done… and I need a few tables too here.”
“Why do you need stools?” asked Rajamani. “Won’t these chairs do?”
“You need stools for make-up. And tables for the mirror and all the cosmetics,” said Ananthan. “Only if you sit on stools, the make-up man can go around you and put your make-up on.”
“Where do I go now for stools?”
“Get our boys to go ask in the houses around here. I need to take care of other things,” said Ananthan and rushed out.
Ananthan was all flustered and his mind could comprehend no words. He wandered around unaware of what he was doing. Suddenly his legs gave away and he sat down. Something within him immediately pushed him back on his feet, spring-like.
He ran towards Arunachalam’s house. He met Lawrence on the way. “Hey She’s here. She’s here,” he exclaimed.
“Sridevi is here!”
“That Nesappan Peruvattar stopped her on the way here and took her to his house. He’s arranged for tea and snacks at his place. She’ll be here after that.”
“Then you should have just gone with her. Why are you diddling around here?”
“My tummy feels weird.”
“Then go take a dump….”
“I already have, a few times…. I squat down and nothing happens.”
“Get lost you idiot. Why are you telling me this?” said Ananthan and ran forward. Then stopped short because he couldn’t recall where he was going.
Old man Madhevan waved him over. Once he got there, the senior spat out the betel leaf he was chewing on and said calmly, “We need Karukkurichy’s Nadaswaram, ok? They need to play it right during Deeparadhana. You tell the sound guys that.”
“Ok, I’ll tell them,” said Ananthan. Before Madhevan could say anything more, Ananthan entered the temple and out the other side. In the sanctum sanctorum, Krishna stood swathed in sandal paste. Only his eyes were black. The priest was pottering about inside.
Lotus flowers for the pushpanjali worship lay heaped in the front pavilion. The aroma of jaggery payasam rose from the temple kitchen. Achuthan Marar and Chandran Marar sat with their potbellies and chendas. Two men from the music ensemble sat dozing by the wall.
He ran thoughtfully to Arunachalam’s house. Arunachalam was standing by the haystack pulling out hay. As he pulled, his buffalo also pulled out hay and chewed on it.
“What’s up?” asked Arunachalam.
“I kept all the props for the play in the north room here. When we need it for the stage, I’ll send Karunakaran… send them with him.”
“All that’s fine. If a single object goes missing, you pay me.”
Lawrence came over to him. “Things are looking good. Padippurai Narayanan Thampi gave 50 bucks. Now we’re good. We might even have something left over.”
“What did he want?”
“He wants to have Sridevi over for tea at his house tomorrow.”
“She’ll die drinking tea.”
“Look here. Did I say anything about Jayabharathi? Then why are you dissing Sridevi?”
“Is it Jeyabharathi who is here doing the play?’ asked Ananthan.
“Oh, the great play! You know what? I don’t like it much. I want a fight scene.”
“Isn’t there a fight?”
That’s just a small fistfight. I need a good fight with some hard-core kicking and punching action.
“For the lousy acting that you do, the locals will give you some hard-core action.”
‘Kottodi’ Appu came running up now. He had flung down to the ground the bicycle he had ridden on and came running up. “Anantha, we are screwed. The motherfucker’s run off with our balls.”
“Chuvarumutty Kumaresan. PSV Kumaresan. He’s gone.”
“What do you mean? He was here for the rehearsals. And he took 20 bucks from me.”
“Said he can’t clamp on a pair of coconut shell boobs and play the role of a woman. He told Unda Narayanan over at the shop and left for Nagercoil,” said Kottodi Appu.
“That son of a bitch! Then why the heck did he take the money?”
“That’s a loan for his expenses. Said he’ll return it.”
Ananthan sat down like he’d been hit. His legs trembled and the muscles along his stomach tensed. He was sweating in exhaustion.
“What do we do now?”
“Should we go back to the role of Rowdy Rajappan?” asked Lawrence.
“And who’ll do it? It’s a major role.”
“What are we going to do?”
Ananthan felt broken all of a sudden. “I’ll kill myself. I’ll just go kill myself,” he wailed aloud.
“Hey, hey, people are watching,” warned Lawrence.
“What are you wailing for? That son of a bitch made a run for it. So what? Just put up the play and show them what the rest of us can do,” said Kondotti Appu.
That’s when Petti Khader came up. Harmonium on his right shoulder and dhoti worn uncharacteristically to the right, he came walking slantwise. “So tell me, what pitch should I go for?”
“Pitch…” began Lawrence and then controlled himself.
“Just base will do,” said Kondotti.
“Just base? What do you mean?”
“Sahib, we are eating fire here...”
“Because we didn’t get our teas. Oh.. get lost.”
“If this harami is with you, you will get no shit done,” said Petti Khader.
“You go get all your stuff ready. We’ll be there soon,” said Ananthan to Khader.
“I’ll go drink a nice cup of tea and be ready. The play is at 9, right?” said Khader.
Annathan gave him two rupees. He took it and walked away.
Dusk was falling. The crowds were gathering for the worship with lights at the temple. Most were middle aged women.
Kaithamukku Narayani Ammachi called out, “Anantha, when is your play?”
“At nine,” replied Ananthan.
“I’ll come watch it, ok?” said Ammachi. “Are you acting?”
“They said it’s your play.”
“I am the one who wrote it.”
“What? You don’t stage your play? You just write it? Is that how it works?”
“No Ammachi, it’s a play that will be performed on the stage.”
“Then why are you writing?”
“It’s all my fault! I wrote it. I won’t do it again,” conceded Ananthan with folded hands.
“Hmmm, some writing you did. Go write well and pass your exams,” she said. The old women with her said something and they all laughed.
“What the heck are you going to do at 9?” Lawrence asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll die. I’ll die.”
Mic set Mohan came running. “Anna! Old Man Madhavan is asking for Karakurichi. We don’t have him in stock.”
“Then what do you have?” Lawrence asked. “Just play some nadaswaram music.
How will he know the difference? What does he know of Karakurichi?”
“Anna, I don’t have any nadaswaram music.”
“Don’t you bring nadaswaram tapes with you when you come to the temple?”
“Anna, I did pack them. Sheikh Chinna Moulana Sahib. But I forgot to bring them.”
“What do we do now? asked Lawrence. Here we are worrying about losing our minds and he is worrying about finding lids to cover his pots!”
Ananthan asked, “Do you have Kunnakudi?”
“Yea… a solo…”
“Thavil by Valayapatti, right?”
“Thavil is that dum dum dum beat?”
“You and your… go, play it. If the old man asks, tell him it’s Karaikurichi.”
He saw a crowd in the distance - an open umbrella held aloft in the midst of it.
“Who’s that opening an umbrella when the sun is down?”
As they came closer, he saw that it was Nesappan Peruvattar. He held the umbrella for Sridevi. His teeth shone bright even at a distance.
“Damn! Who needs a flashlight when the guy’s flashing his teeth around.”
Chatti Chellappan came walking behind Sridevi. A bag with tablas hung from his shoulder.
He came up to Ananthan and said, “We’ve had tea. If we do a run through the dialogues, we’ll be ready for the stage.”
“Don’t you need a rehearsal?”
“Just a read will do,” said Sridevi.
“That will do. That will do. Just reading will do,” agreed Nesappan Peruvattar.
“Read what?” Lawrence asked him.
Peruvattar turned around and glared at him.
“There’s a building back here where you can read. Place belongs to the temple.”
“There’s room in my house. We could have done it there.”
“We can do it at your place next year. Your wife would have had the baby by then,” Lawrence said.
Nesappan Peruvattar glared at him. Then turned around without a word.
When they reached the Devaswom building behind the temple, they could hear Kunnakkudi’s violin and the beats of the thavil. And with it the temple bells. The deeparadhana was going on. Sridevi removed her sandals, closed her eyes and folded her hands in prayer.
Nesappan Peruvattar lowered his umbrella and prayed too.
Bill Collector Mani, Panchayat Peon Ganesan, Njanappan, Devasahayam, Betel Shop Kumaresan, Pump Gunamani, Easwaran Nair, Shanmugham, Muruganadi the oil merchant, and Subbaiah Chettiyar were in the Devaswom building. They all held their respective scripts in their hands.
Sridevi removed her sandals and went in. Everyone stood up on seeing her.
“What kind of a place is this?” Nesappan Peruvattar was disgusted. “It’s full of dust.”
“Dust is good for the play,” said Lawrence. “So we hauled some in and spread it around.”
Nesappan Peruvattar glared at him again. Both looked daggers at the other.
“Shall we take a look at the dialogues? There’s no time. I need to get started on my make-up at 8.30.”
“Akka,” called Ananthan in a broken voice. “We cannot stage the play today… That PSV Kumaresan double-crossed us. He ran away with the advance we paid him.”
“He was doing a major role. No one else can do it…” he said tearfully. “I am going to kill myself… kill myself.”
“Hush! What kind of talk is that? Kill yourself? For this? Give me the script,” She grabbed it and sat on the steel chair.
She took a quick glance through it.
“I’ll just do that role too. Problem solved.”
“What? Three roles?”
“It’s just that all three characters cannot be on stage at the same time. We’ll fix the scenes accordingly. Just minor changes will do. We can fix the rest with the dialogues.”
“That can be fixed. That can be fixed. Why not?” said Nesappan Peruvattar.
“Like you fixed the carpenter’s wife?” Lawrence needled him.
Peruvattar glared at him.
“Akka, will we be able to do that? asked Ananthan, tears running down his cheeks.
“Where do you think the play actually take place? In the heart of the spectator, that’s where. If you just stand and scream in terror, he will see a ghost before you do…. you just need to tweak his imagination. I’ll see to that… Sit down. I’ll tell you what to do.”
“Will that work, Akka?” he asked.
“We’ll make it work. We’ll need the make-up man’s help. I should be able to change into the villain’s costume in a minute,” Sridevi said. “Who’s doing the make-up?”
“Vadivu Agencies. Set, props, make-up, lights. They are handling everything. 200 Rupees for the whole deal,” Lawrence said. “I’m the one who paid them.”
“That means Achu Annan is doing the make-up… Please bring him.”
“I’ll get him,” said Mani, running out.
“Petti Khader peeped in with his harmonium. “You’d better tell me now. Or it will be a problem later. This thing has a limit with very high notes,” he said. “Doesn’t quite reach there.”
“First check if your harmonium has all its keys,” Chellappan said.
“You can insult me. But insult my harmonium and…,” yelled Khader. “Do you know what this is? A Rodney Reynolds original!”
Sridevi spoke up. “Yes! Isn’t that a British harmonium? Bhai Anna, how are you?”
“Sister, is it you? When did you get here? I didn’t see you.”
“Did you have tea?”
“You go smoke a beedi… I’ll be back soon.”
“On a very high scale, the C note may not quite make it. Thats’ what I meant.”
“We’ll adjust with the C, Anna…. There’s nothing you cannot do,” Sridevi said.
“Of course! I’ll take care of it. The C is all in our hands,” Khader said. “Chatti, ask sister about my harmonium…. The ‘G’ can spin tales… hrrmph… ignoramus…” Then he turned to Ananthan, “Kid, my harmonium needs a mic just for itself. If you want to hear the tales the G note spins, I need a mic…”
“Yes, I’ve told them,” Ananthan said.
“Ok, then I’ll be back soon,” said Khader, making his way out.
“Why spin tales of pancham? asked the musically illiterate Nesappan Peruvattar, misunderstanding the word for the ‘G’ note, panchamam, to mean a famine - pancham. No one replied. He went on, clueless about the difference between a musical note and poverty. “Why talk about a pancham here? My lands and orchards are at your disposal.”
The make-up man Achuthan Nair came. His cheeks were so sunken they looked like they had been scooped out. His adam’s apple was huge.
“Saraswathy, are you doing well, child?”
“Come anna…. A small issue. They must have told you. I need to change costumes in a second…”
“We have a way to do that,” said Achuthan Nair. “We have a large cloak for the villain. The cloak that Queen Esther wears in Chavittu Nadakam… A bright red. You just throw it down over your head and it’s a whole new look. In just a second. And we can use two wigs for your hair. One gray hair and the other curly. You’ll be a whole other person.”
“That will be good. The rest I’ll manage with my voice modulation.”
“I have a rubber mole. That can go on the villain’s cheek,” said Achuthan Nair. “Then here’s another idea.”
“Tell me, anna.”
I have a clip. A steel clip. If you insert it in your mouth, your lips and jaws will look different. It will be like it’s a whole other person. All it takes is a second to put it in.”
“Good… this is good… what else do we need?” Sridevi said.
“You will change the way you talk, the way you walk… not even God will know it’s you,” Achuthan Nair said.
“I’ll come over, Anna, once I’m done with the dialogues,” Sridevi said.
As soon as Achuthan Nair left, Mani asked, “Shall we start?”
Ananthan sat all flustered. He was afraid he would wet his pants.
“We’ll learn as we go… just change the lines where I ask you to,” Sridevi said.
They took turns reading the dialogues. Sridevi read out the lines of the three characters in her voice. She suggested changes and Ananthan complied. After they were done with the changes, they went through the dialogues one more time.
Ananthan had no idea how it would look. There were more than ten scenes where two of the characters were together on stage. And in two scenes, all three of them.
After they were done reading, Sridevi said, “I’ll read it one more time. It’s come out well. There won’t be any problem.”
“Eashwara!” exclaimed Ananthan.
Lawrence called out to Jesus Christ.
Rajamani came up saying, “The stage people are here… the curtain’s down.”
“I’m off now, Akka,” Ananthan took his leave.
“You go on. By God’s grace, everything will go well,” she said.
Ananthan walked to the stage. On the way Old Man Madhavan said, “Karakkurichi was divine…. How brilliantly he plays! What music!... Just silk… isn’t it?
Madhavan went on, “Tell them to play it again in the morning.”
“Yes,” he agreed and went up to the stage. A sweet kind of exhaustion swept over him. He was not terrified anymore.
The stage was taking shape. Benches borrowed from the school were arranged in neat rows and bound together, and gunny sacks were laid on top to make a platform. The stage rose above it and opened in front. On the four corners, sturdy bamboo poles had been sunk into the ground, with tall step ladders tied along their lengths.
Vadivudayan Chettiar, the owner of Vadivu Agencies, was fastening ropes on the backdrops. His two assistants Sastha and Thanappan, sitting atop two bamboo poles, caught the ropes thrown up to them, threaded them through the poles and let them hang on the other side.
Vadivudayan signalled to them and pulled at the ropes hanging down. The side screens and backdrops unfurled and rose up. All at once, the entire stage came into being. Ananthan could feel goosebumps all over him and he teared up.
Vadivudayan pulled all the ropes tight, looped them over and added a second knot. A ruffled curtain was fastened on the stagefront. The men pulled its main rope through a pulley and out on the other side. Vadivudayan tugged at the rope a couple of times. Each time the curtain rose up and came down, Ananthan's heart skipped a beat.
He went to the green room. Rajamani had procured a few dining tables from somewhere. Achuthan Nair had laid out the cosmetics on them. There were only two mirrors.
“Ask everyone who needs make-up to come over,” said Achuthan Nair.
“I need some,” said Rajamani.
“You are playing a postman. Why do you need makeup?” Ananthan asked.
“I want a moustache. If I don’t get one, I will take back these tables and stools.”
“Give him a moustache, uncle,” Ananthan said.
“When he stepped out, Lawrence came running. He was all flustered. “Hey Anantha!” he cried.
“Where were you?” Ananthan asked.
“My stomach is cramping up. But all that comes out is air.”
“Those are sighs…. all the sighs you never let out are coming out that way.”
“I am scared. I have forgotten all my lines...she is doing all three roles….”
“So, what's it to you?”
“I saw her as my heroine. Now she is playing the villain. I could at least let that go. But she plays the mother too…. I don’t understand,” Lawrence said.
“She will change her voice on stage.”
“But it is still her, right? I am going to make a run for it.”
“Run… but know this. Wherever you go, I’ll find you and chop you up.”
Mani came up and asked, “Anna make-up? I need make-up, right?”
“Yes, you do. Why are people so crazy about make-up? Go, go… get it done,” Ananthan said. “If we announce that the audience can also get make-up done, I guess they will come swarming.”
“What is Sridevi doing?” Lawrence asked.
“Taking a nap.”
“Did she eat?”
“Everyone’s eaten. She went for a nap soon after.”
Lawrence whispered, “Why is she taking a nap?”
After the night worship at 9, they will close the temple doors. We will start at 10. So we have an hour.”
Suddenly a high-pitched song erupted from the stage. “If we raise our prayers to Allah… Bliss will come our way! If we meditate on that Mighty One…. All prosperity will come our way!!!!” The harmonium accompanied the voice like the blasting airhorn of a bus going down a slope.
“What is that?” asked a startled Mani.
“Petti Sahib is belting it out at Z minor,” Lawrence quipped.
“What he said about a crack in one of the keys is true,” said Mani.
 When Ananthan entered the greenroom, Sridevi was seated on a stool. She wore a fitted churidar and dupatta and had her hair in two braids. Achuthan Nair was putting on her makeup.
“How do I look?” asked someone.
Took me a moment to realize it was Mani. “Is that a wig?”
“Of course! I am the astrologer. Remember?”
“Oh yeah!” Ananthan felt like he himself had forgotten the play.
Ganesan, Njanappan, Dvasahayam, Kumaresan, Gunamani, Easwaran Nair, Shanmugham, Muruganadi, and Subbaiah - all of them had makeup on. Njanappan had his moustache stuck on all wrong. He was considering letting him know that when Lawrence walked in.
“Got to tell you something.”
“I’ve fitted in another fight.”
“For god’s sake! He’s the pastor! How can you have a fight with him?”
“Our pastor fights.”
“We’ve done a rehearsal,” said Lawrence. He gasped when he saw Sridevi. “Doesn’t she look like Jayabharathi?”
“Leave Jayabharathi out of this.”
“Just kidding you.”
“You go check if everything looks good on the stage.”
When he left, Ananthan went up to Jnanappan. “Did he tell you you had a fight scene?”
“Seems he is going to rip off your wig during the fight. He’s got some of his pals ready to boo you when he does that.”
“What??? But why?”
“You have a meaty role. You’ll get all the applause. He can’t stand that. That’s why.”
“He knows you’re good.”
“I’ll take care of him. That worthless bastard!”
“Let’s get the play done. We’ll take care of it tomorrow.”
Relieved, Ananthan went up to the stage and leafed through the copy of the script.
The chendamelam ensemble was playing at the temple. It ascended to a rousing finale and then went quiet. Then temple bells, and then the Deeparadhanai, when the deity is worshipped by waving a lighted lamp at the altar.
Ananja Perumal’s son came running, “Can we play film songs now?”
“Go ahead!” said Ananthan. “Start with a Gemini song. You start with MGR’s or Sivaji's, there's going to be a fight here.”
Soon, ‘Iyarkai Ennum Ilayakanni’ came on. Ananthan flipped through the script again. With a sudden jolt of terror he realized that the three distinct characters he had visualized were going to be played by one person. He broke out in a sweat and for a moment lost all sense of his surroundings.
Narayanan Potti came in through the back entrance with the prasadam. “I thought you’d come there and here you are! And frantic by the look of it. So I brought this prasadam out to you here. Go on, put it on your forehead. Everything will turn out fine.”
“Thirumeni, there’s a big problem…” said Ananthan.
“Did you run out of money? We can take care of that.”
“It’s not that. Today one person is going to play three roles.”
“Why is that?”
Ananthan explained. And the priest guffawed, displaying his betel stained mouth. “So that’s it… ok, so when you say a woman, what do you think of them? They can play a thousand roles….. it’s not like they need to be taught.”
“It’s just that… the three roles…,”
“Is there a face that Parasakthi does not have? Brahma, Vishnu, Shivan - all are Her faces. She is all three Devis. The 330 million devas and gandharvas --- it’s all Her! So relax!”
When the priest left, Ananthan’s anxiety grew into abject terror. Having finished applying make-up, Achuthan Nair came out. “Son, can I have two rupees?”
“You’re paid by contract. You need to get it from Vadivudayan Chetti.”
“Yeah but that’s different. This is… just to get me something strong to drink. I’m done with the make-up.
Ananthan handed over two rupees.
“My work is done. Now with that drink, I’ll get all nice and toasty.”
“What’s Sridevi doing?”
“Taking a nap… that’s her routine,” and in a lower tone, “She always brings along a peg of brandy. Tipsy after that shot.”
“That’s medicinal!” Achuthan Nair sounded exasperated. “Back in the days in Kerala, they would offer toddy to the goddesses in the sacred groves. Now it's rum and brandy. Brandy is high-class. Aromatic!”
“Mama, will it be ok? Three roles?”
“We drink river water. We also use it to take a bath and clean our butts… Ganga has a million faces… don’t you worry!”
Ananthan read the script once again. Mani came up, “It’s time… five minutes!”
. “Shall we start?” and Ananthan moved the curtain and peered out. As soon as they spotted his head, there were cries of, “Hey bugger!” and “Little bugger!” from the crowd.
“That’s quite a crowd,” said Ananthan.
“I’ll ask Petti to sing something,” said Mani and headed over to Petti Sahib who sat to the right of the stage. When he returned, Sahib was with him. “Let me pick something by Sheikh Thambi Pavalar. Will be a strong opening at a high pitch!”
“Okay,” said Ananthan.
Petti Khader tapped the mic. When Mic Set Mohanan turned it on, it howled. He fixed it. Petti pressed the keys on his harmonium. Chellappan played on the tabla with both hands striking up a peppy beat.
“The mic is howling,” worried Ananthan.
“That’s the sound of his harmonium. Both sound the same,” said Mani.
Petti Sahib started singing as loud as he could…. “Chiramaarudayan…”
Mani asked, “Is Sahib singing about his god?”
“No, It’s about our god.”
“What language is that?” he whispered in a hushed whisper.
Sahib continued…. “Arulai Perukki….”
The moment he finished, Chellappan struck up a solo on his tabla. A fine fast beat.
Exhilarated, Mani exclaimed, “Sounds like a herd of buffaloes gone berserk!”
When he finished, there was profound silence. “Go! Go make the opening announcement. Let’s start.” He had on a wig and a heavily made up face with pink tinted powder, thickly drawn brows, and lipstick. He wore a red shirt and white pants.
Ananthan went up to the closed curtain and tapped the mic. “Respected ladies and gentlemen!”
Beyond the curtain came boos and howls. “Hey bugger! Booo Boooo!”
“Respected ladies and gentlemen, my warm greetings to you all. Thiruvarambu Amudham Theaters presents its social reformation musical ‘Red Fire’! The curtain rises now!”
The crowd was screaming outside. Sahib struck up a note on his harmonium. Ananthan drew strength from those screams. “This is a social reformation play that points out the festering injustices in our society. Where is justice for the poor? How do you build a society that is caring and ethical? For answers, for enlightenment, watch Red Fire!
The cymbal clanged loudly as if a metal cauldron fell to the floor. Ananthan was further emboldened. “This play is a battle sword! This play is a warning to the greedy! A comfort to the kind-hearted! Thiruvarambu Arts Club seeks your support!” The cymbal clanged again. “Red Fire! Red Fire! Red Fire!”
It sounded like a whole kitchen had come crashing down.
Lawrence whispered to him, “I am scared.”
“The first scene is yours. Go on!
Lawrence stumbled on to the stage, seated himself on a chair and opened a newspaper - upside down.
As Mani called out, “Dei, Dei, you are holding it upside down,” Ananthan blew the whistle for the curtain raiser. He turned to Mani and asked in an irate tone, “What now?”
“He’s holding the newspaper upside down.”
Ananthan slammed his palm on his head. By then Sridevi walked up from the other side with a pot of water balanced on her hip.
The crowd whispered and tittered over Lawrence reading the newspaper upside down.
“Upside down paper… boo!”
Sridevi placed the pot down, walked up to him and snatched the paper from his hands and handed it back to him right side up. “Is this how you read the newspaper? What happened to you?
“I... nothing,” Lawrence stammered.
“Ok, so you didn’t get the job you studied for… so what? Will falling into despair help?
“Who’s going to give me a job?”
“You see everything upside down. Just like you read the newspaper… don’t you know people keep getting jobs everyday?”
“You know why I had the paper upside down?”
“I was thinking about you. And the whole world turned around on its head.” Ananthan was stunned. Lawrence said that most naturally. With sincere love. With a poignant smile in his eyes and on his lips.
“You don't have to read the newspaper upside down to prove that.”
“Mmm? You need to stand on your head.”
“If that’s what you want, I'll do it. Shall I? In your front yard?”
“Just come over, my dad will string you up by your legs.”
“I am coming over one day.”
“Come. But not like this. You must come like a prince.”
They spoke, smiling at each other. With every move she conveyed the thrill and coyness of a young girl in love. She teased him. She giggled, covering her mouth and when he reached out for her, she pulled away flustered. It seemed like Lawrence had truly fallen in love with her at that moment.
She scooped up some water from her pot, sprinkled it on him and walked away. He moved away with a laugh. Then wiped the water off his face and followed her with his eyesHe rolled up the newspaper and walked about the stage, immersed in happy thoughts.
Petti Sahib played the notes of an old Tamil romantic number.
Ananthan scanned the crowd. Everyone looked engrossed. The play, had begun. In every sense. With a slight detour from his own script. But holding its own.
Sridevi entered off stage. Her hair, with a single streak of grey was up in a bun. Clad in a white sari, she walked with the slow gait of the elderly.
“Dei, didn’t I ask you to go to the store? What are you doing here?” she asked. She sounded old.
“...dreaming you were reading the newspaper. I know.”
“Then why do you ask?”
“Listen. She is not meant for you. You are poles apart. Your dad worked hard to put you through school…. now he is no more, and this family depends on you,” said Easwariamma.
“I cannot go kill myself for that.”
“I am not asking you to die. I’m telling you to live… quit daydreaming. Find a good job and make a life worth living - like a man.”
“And that’s exactly what I want to do. Like a man not a beast. Not for me a dog’s life or the life of a dirty pig.”
Ananthan watched Lawrence’s face awestruck. There was nothing fake about his anger or the trembling of his body.
“The right to decide one’s own life. That's what freedom is! Family, duty… bullshit and hogwash! Pile everything on him…. and crush him down. Isn’t that what has been happening here for centuries? The one who does not question this status quo is an honorable man. If you accept everything and live a dutiful life like a loyal dog wagging its tail, you are a good person,” fumed Lawrence.
“Only the good live good lives,” said Easwariamma.
“Okay! I am not a good man. I am a scoundrel, a lunatic. But a human being! Just a human being! Enough?”
“Why are you screaming? Do you think you have no duty towards this family?”
“What duty? Duty my foot! See that buffalo you have been raising? You feed it and it gives you milk. I am just another buffalo. And you are asking me why I don't produce milk. I will… I will turn my blood into milk for you. Will you be satisfied then?”
Easwariamma calmed down. “No, my son. Listen to me. People have freedom. That freedom exists in their minds. But outside, in society, we have to get along with each other. I am your mother. I sold the last piece of gold I owned so that you can have an education. I toiled day and night for you and worked my fingers to a bone. Does any mother put her own freedom first and leave her child to starve? Tell me… where is the freedom here?”
“There’s no freedom anywhere. No life is free,” said Lawrence in a broken voice. “If you perform your duty, your rights will find their way to you. That is true freedom,” said Easwariamma
“I’ve heard this philosophy more than enough times,” said Lawrence. “Just knock me dead with the Bhagavad Gita.”
“Just remember this… whatever you keep hearing most often is finally the truth. Just because you keep hearing it again and again, it might start to annoy you. And just because you cannot deny that truth, you might end up getting irritated by it. But isn't something repeated because everyone knows it to be true? The truth looms before you like a mountain. You cannot close your eyes and make it go away.”
“Just leave me alone… I am in no mood to listen to your speech!”
“Kanna, listen to me…. you are just a dreamer. That's just your age. You live in a cocoon. But how long will you stay inside? Don’t you want to come out, spread your wings and soar away?
“This society just chucks us, cocoons and all into boiling water and kills us.... then weaves our souls into fine silk for the upper classes to adorn themselves.”
“I don’t want to say anything more to you. You do know the truth in your heart,” said Easwariamma.
“I’m leaving… I don’t have time to sit here and listen to you.”
“Now, now, don’t get mad. Let me make you a dosa.”
“You and your dosa…. I don’t want any.”
“Ok, you just sit here. I’ll bring it out to you.”
“Didn’t I just say I don’t want it?”
“Fine, then sit here and eat dreaming of her,” said Easwariamma with a smile.
“Go away!” said Lawrence. But he had a smile on his face.
“Aren’t you the apple of my eye? Just sit here. Amma will come now.”
She went inside. Just then Mohana’s voice came from the other side. “Done daydreaming?”
“Podi,” said Lawrence.
“So, what was the dream about?
“A she devil”
“An enchanting devil?”
Lawrence laughed. “Yes. She’s sucking my blood.”
“Your blood tastes like honey,” she said and smacked her lips.
The young lovers laughed.
Soon Sridevi walked on to the stage with a plate of dosa. “Who was that?”
“That was her.”
“Why is she coming here? Can’t she take another route to fetch water?”
“Isn’t she allowed to walk on the public street?” asked Lawrence.
“There are public streets all over town,” said Sridevi and walked in.
When Lawrence started eating the dosa, a voice came off stage. “Anybody home?”
That was ‘Vatti’ Rajammai’s voice. “Who’s home?”
“What do you want?” asked Lawrence.
Sridevi now had on a red cloak, a frizzy wig, and a mole on her face. She limped in. Her face looked palsied and stuck in a permanent smirk.
“Dei, where’s your mother?”
“She’s busy with chores inside.”
“Chores or not, the interest has to be paid in time. Else she may not have hands or legs to do her chores.”
“Your interest? We’ll pay up.”
“Did you think I was asking for the principal? That’s a whole other story… we won’t touch it. It’s the goose that lays golden eggs…”
From inside Easwariamma asked, “Who is it?”
“Our Vatti Rajammai…. come ask her what she wants.”
“I’m taking a bath.”
Vatti Rajamma said, “Let her take her time. It’s you I want to talk to… When do you plan to get yourself a job? And when will you return my money?”
“I’ll get a job soon.”
“What job? Planning to be a Naxalite?”
“I’ll probably have to do that.”
“Yeah… you’ll probably end up there,” laughed Vatti Rajammai.
“Only Naxalites can end your game”
“Listen kid, my name is Vatti Rajammai. What do you think Vatti means? The interest on money. Why do you pay it? Tell me. If my money is in your hands, you pay me an interest. Okay, why do you agree it’s my money? Because if you don’t the government will brand you a thief and throw you in prison. So who guards the interest? The Government!”
“We’ll topple the government!”
“Who guards the government? The army. Why does the army protect the government? Because it has faith in the government. Where does that faith come from? It’s the faith of this society. A faith that has existed for centuries… for millennia…”
Vatti Rajammai placed her hand on his shoulder. “You are a kid… you don’t know. I am Vatti Rajammai now. My father Chindan Nair was the tax collector in old Travancore. His father was a commander in the army… back then they ruled by the sword… now we rule by money. Your Naxalism cannot crush our rights.”
“Are you saying we can never defeat you? Are you God?”
“Yes, I am God. Only a God can defeat another…” said Vatti Rajamma. If you sacrifice a rooster to this god, you have to sacrifice a goat to the other one. Ha ha ha…!” She shook his shoulders and said, “I’ll take my leave now. The interest should be paid up by evening… or else… “
She turned around and called out, “Easwariamma!”
“There’s no need. I’m leaving… come see me with the interest.”
Lawrence stood fuming at her words. He threw down the newspaper in a rage. Sridevi entered as Easwariamma. She had her hair wrapped up in a towel after her bath.
“Who was that? Vatti Rajammai?”
“No, the god who lords it over this land!”
“Yes, god. And every god demands sacrifice.”
“I’ll make her a sacrifice…. a blood sacrifice!”
“Dei, what are you saying?”
“You heard me.”
Lawrence stormed off stage and Easwariamma stood staring after him.
Petty Khader sang.
“Will Dharma win? Can it exist rootless?
When will the tears of the poor stop flowing? Aaaaa!” The tabla joined him.
Ananthan blew his whistle and closed his eyes. The curtain came down. There was applause and the sound of whistles outside. Ananthan was trembling.
 Ananthan stood at the foot of the stage, swamped by a sea of faces from the village.
Asari Nanukkuttan, “Child, you little bugger, you are an artist, you know?”
Chevathaperumal said, “I was in tears… the plight of the mother losing her son
“You know that dialogue? God claims everything good as a sacrifice…. Who are the Naxalites throwing away their lives? Smart kids with good education,” said Kumara Nadar.
Kaithamukku Narayani Ammachi said, “That young girl and the woman who plays the boy’s mother have done a good job. But that wretched hag Rajammai…. curse be upon her! Isn’t there a god to burn her alive?”
‘Kundani’ Kalikutty Patti, the local gossip came up to him. “Just keep those two women in your next play. Don’t bring in that witch with her ugly face…”
Madhavan Patta said, “It was really good...all three women acted really well.”
“And our Lawrence! What a fantastic job! He dove right in and came up with pearls!”
“He is a good actor, you see!”
“The play was very touching.”
“Isn’t it a pity when well-educated young men cannot find a job?”
“They say they are Naxalites. But they speak for justice.”
“The government doesn’t like those who speak of justice.”
Everyone wanted to shake his hands. They patted his shoulders. They gestured to ward off the evil eye.
“I want to give that Vatti Rajammai a piece of my mind!! She was raising hell!!”
“Thanks to that pretty Mohana, the play went well…”
“Okay, go on now… isn’t the play over?” asked Grandpa.
One by one, people made their way out and the yard emptied. The temple yard strewn with peanut wrappers and leaves felt desolate. The glow of the tube lights shivered over it.
Potti came up to Ananthan. “Dei, all three women did a good job. What brilliant acting! By the way, I saw only one of them. When did the other two come?
“Later,” said Ananthan.
“Here, I brought you some lamp soot prasadam. Put it on your forehead. Else you’ll get the evil eye,” said Potti. “Your father was here to watch the play.”
“How could he not? But he couldn’t let anyone see him. Pride! So he stood covering his head as if he were going to a whorehouse. I told him his boy had won. He left without a word. But his face really lit up.”
“For the next ten days he is going to hear us celebrating the play with praise. Only then will he cool down… Crazy fellow!” said Potti. “Okay, I’m leaving. The dew is starting to fall.”
Ananthan stood watching him go, feeling empty.
“Can we take down the sets?” asked Vadivudaiyan.
“Yeah, go ahead.”
Vadivudaiyan and his crew untied all the ropes. He exclaimed, “Jai Maruti!” Together they let go of the ropes and all at once, the backdrops and screens sank into a huge pile of clothes on the floor.
Ananthan felt like something cold slapped across his body. His legs shook. The stage disappeared. He just stood staring. Then let out a sigh.
Vadivudaiyan and his crew briskly folded up all the curtains.
When walking to the Devaswom building, Ananthan realized he was no longer exhausted. He felt stronger by the moment. The seed of the play has formed in his mind eight months ago. From the shock he felt reading the news about the murder of Easwara Warrier’s son Rajan.
It stayed in him as a deep restlessness. It grew in him. He transformed into both Rajan and Easwara Warrier. He had conversations with himself. He argued with himself. Then he wrote it down as a story. It sounded fake. He ripped it apart and sobbed. He banged his head and wandered like a lunatic for 15 days. Then he wrote it down as a play.
When it finally shaped up as a play, he gave it to Lawrence to read. Lawrence wept uncontrollably after reading it. They decided to stage it. Set about collecting funds for it, people to play the parts and trained them. Dread, helplessness, turmoil. And when the curtain finally rose on the play, exhilaration. And then the intoxication of praise and accolades. I… I did it, his ego reared. At some moment in time, all those emotions cut loose from him and he fell back to earth. The play already seemed distant - something someone staged somewhere.
The celebrations were underway in the Devaswom building. Rajamani had sourced bottles of local liquor. Most people were clueless, going around aimlessly like goldfish in a bowl.
Chatti Chellappan walked up to Ananthan. “Young Master, you are an artist. You come with us. You write the script, I’ll read them. Motherfuckers!! No one else should stage a play in this town.”
Ananthan just smiled.
Mani swore he believed that there were three actresses.
“Everyone believed so. That’s the success of the play,” said Rajamani.
“I’ll tell you something, kid! Ten minutes into a play you know if it’s a hit or miss. A good play just keeps ascending. The main characters become so involved in it that they transform into the characters they are playing. Seeing them, the others too will follow suit. Once that happens, the play is not something we stage. It has a life of its own.
“But still… imagine one person doing three roles…” said Njanappan.
“That’s art. Beyond the grasp of mere mortals,” said Chellappan. “Anantha, son, you are an artist. Here, let me get you a drink. Just gulp it down. The Goddess of Arts loves moonshine.”
“No, I’m good.”
“My father will whack me. ”
“Tell that motherfucker to get lost. Look here. When you can look your father in his eyes and cuss him… that’s when you are a true artist.”
“No, I don’t want it…”
“Fine... where are you off to?”
All the actors were already drunk. In a corner Petti Khader was stretched out with his head on his harmonium.
“Sahib, did you see Lawrence?”
“No, I didn’t. Probably getting drunk over there?”
“He doesn’t drink.”
“This can make you drunk… this success is intoxicating,” said Petti Khader. “I just close my eyes, shout “Ya Allah!” and lie down….so how was my song? Smashing, huh? When you sing at that highest note, you feel yourself shivering… I felt a chill run down my spine…”
“It was really good, Sahib... I’ll be right back.”
Lawrence sat outside all by himself.
“Lei, what are you doing here?”
“Nothing,” he said, standing up. “Did I act well?”
“Act? You did not act. You lived as Rajan. The dead Rajan’s soul must have wept.”
“I don’t know how I acted,” he said and took Ananthan's hand in his own. “I felt weird… That lady was just everywhere around us. Heroine here, the mother there, the villainess there. I couldn’t make out whether she was coming or going.”
“Yes, I forgot… I really thought there were three people. It was after the play ended that I remembered that all three were one and it just shook me up.”
“Imagine how I felt! It all seems like a huge dream. There’s a mother in the woman you love and a beloved in a mother. She can be an evil villainess too. All together…. I just can’t wrap my head around it.”
“You have to…. I have come out of it…” Ananthan was suddenly struck by an idea,.“ Lei, come along. Let me tell you something.”
“Let's go see Sridevi.”
“No, I can’t face her.”
“Come on. Just see her as Sridevi once again. Everything will be fine.”
Ananthan pulled him along. The Devaswom building had a hall and a small room. The door to the small room was closed.
“Akka, Sridevi Akka!”
“Sridevi opened the door. “What is it? I need to sleep.”
“Talk to him…. or else he’ll die.”
“What happened, son?”
With a sudden sob Lawrence fell at Sridevi’s feet.
“Ayyo... what is this?” asked Sridevi. She helped him up and hugged him close. She caressed his head and said, “What is this, son? No, no... come on, wipe your eyes!”