Old woman Komboothi was probably over seventy years old. Among all the people her age in the village, she was the only one who was still alive. Her hair was as white as sheared cotton; her shrunken body reminded one of the back of a carp, covered with scales. But her eyesight had not diminished the slightest bit.
Severe cold had made old woman Komboothi lie inside her thatched house, all curled up, like a hen. Since the roof did not have its centre thatch in place, rain water had seeped in and flooded most of the house, making it damp. The roof immediately above the spot where she lay was covered by palm fronds, and so it was dry. She was huddled on a tattered sack made of gunny; she had wrapped some old clothes into a bundle and was resting her head on that; yet, her body shivered, unable to bear the chill. Her insides as well as her heart were burning with hunger. The old woman had been in that supine state for the past couple of days; she had not had the will to get up.
‘Aththe! Komboothi Aththe! Look at my child! Look at my child!’ Chedappatti Peyakkal’s shouts reached old woman Komboothi – who was grinding millet at Ammapattiyal’s house – and churned her insides with fear. She stopped grinding abruptly, and came running, asking, ‘What is it, Peyakka? What happened to your child?’
‘Last Friday you took my child to roll on the ground as part of the rain-gruel ritual… Now his eyes are gone … my son’s eyes gone… What shall I do now?’ Clasping her son close to her body, Peyakkal wailed loudly.
It was then that old woman Komboothi looked at Peyakkal’s son’s face. The right eye had swollen up so much that one could not see the inside of the eye at all. A small amount of wet discharge had settled at the corner of the eye. The old woman was flustered.
‘What happened, Peyakka? What happened to his eye?’
‘He says that there’s a pricking pain in the eye; he didn’t sleep the whole of last night … I ask him why and he says that while he was rolling on the bare ground during the ritual, a stone hit his eye … and though it didn’t hurt him then, there’s a piercing pain now, he says… What will I do? Looks like my child will lose his eye, aththe!’
‘Just you wait … I will be back soon.’ That said, the old woman went inside the house calling out, ‘Ammavatti Thangachchi … Ammavatti Thangachchi!’
As soon as Ammapattiyal came there, she asked her, ‘Thangachchi! Just give me five rupees if you have it. You’ll be doing me a great favour… Even if Peyakka is not able to return it, I shall make up for it by grinding your millet for free.’
Watching Peyakka and her son as she came out, Ammapattiyal’s face twisted into a grimace. ‘Don’t you two have anything else to do?’ she said, as she went in. ‘Thangachchi! Ammavatti Thangachchi! How can you speak like that? It is the child’s eye.’
‘Eye or whatever, I don’t care … I don’t have any money. If you will quietly grind the millet, do so; if not, I’ll simply find somebody else to do it…’ Ammapattiyal’s words were like a slap on old woman Komboothi’s face. She abandoned her task of grinding the millet and dragged Peyakkal to her own house. Then, taking out some millet from a pot, she put it in a dog-eared bag and said, ‘Look, Peyakka, take this to Kandasami’s shop; take the money he gives you and go with the boy to consult Dr Manonmani in Peraiyur.’ Only after she had done that did the old woman feel at peace.
However, although the swelling came down, Peyakka’s son’s sight was not fully restored. Peyakka had wept and said to her that Dr Manonmani had told them that the boy could be fully cured only if he were taken to Madurai and a senior doctor was consulted. That had thrown the old woman completely off balance. She just curled up inside her house, and the heavy rains had added to her misery.
What if Peyakka’s son loses his sight? The very thought made her shudder. ‘Even those who are healthy find it difficult to find work; Kaliatha! Holy sisters! Save the boy! See that nothing happens to his eye … Peyakka is in a miserable state … she is already a widow, don’t punish her any more… Come Vaikasi, I will make a lamp of flour and light it in your temple; I’ll also offer miniature, metal eyes at your temple, oh, mother!’ The old woman, who was lying on a sack, was constantly at prayer.
Pethakkal’s voice calling out ‘Mathini! Mathini!’ roused old woman Komboothi, who was lying curled up inside her thatched house. She sat up and said in a feeble voice, ‘Come in, Pethakka, come.’
‘What is this, Mathini? This rain is so hard on us … have we ever seen anything like this … continuously for ten days…?’ Pethakka sat on the gunny bag, by the side of the old woman.
‘Move more into the sack; it is wet there,’ said the old woman, and continued, ‘How can you speak so, Pethakka? How much we prayed to that God of Rain, Varuna, to cast a benevolent glance upon us? How long and how hard we prayed…’
‘Some good the prayers did! To strike at the bellies of the poor and the meek… As if it is not enough that humans hit us, should gods also join them? If it rains for two days and the sun is allowed to come out for two days, then we can go out and find some work, have at least some kanji to drink… But if it rains like this… By the way, Mathini, did you make kanji or anything to drink?’
‘I never want for anything, Pethakka, thanks to you all…’
Not believing the old woman’s words, Pethakka ran her eyes over the hearth. There was no sign of the fire having sent up any smoke for at least three days.
Mathini is always like this. If it is for somebody else she will go out of her way, but she will never ask anything for herself… One should not be so obstinate – while such thoughts ran through her mind, Pethakka said, ‘Mathini, don’t the two of us go together to grind millet in houses? And you won’t even tell me if you need something? Wait … Your son-in-law was complaining of body ache and I made some hot gruel for him. Let me get some of it for you.’ Without waiting for the old woman’s response, Pethakka got up to go to her house.
‘Quiet! As if you have no other work to do. Keep what you made for those young ones in your house; as if I cannot do without hot gruel,’ the old woman tried to stop Pethakka.
Not heeding the old woman’s words, Pethakka hurried to her house, diluted some of the thick gruel in a lead pot, and together with a piece of roasted dry fish, brought it and placed it by the side of the old woman. Drinking two glasses of the gruel that Pethakka had brought her, the old woman felt a sort of weariness. ‘Pethakkal! Let me lie down a bit,’ she said, and with the cloth bundle under her head, stretched out. The hot gruel had put new strength into her.
‘You remember, Pethakka, what that Ammapattiyal woman said the other day? Words spoken without any compassion…’ said the old woman.
That the old woman had still not reconciled herself to the cruel words that Ammapattiyal had said to Peyakkal and her, while they were grinding millet at Ammapattiyal’s house the other day, was fresh in Pethakkal’s mind, and so she said, ‘The have-nots have only the other poor to help them. Don’t the rich always see us as curry leaves that have to be cast out after use?’
‘What you say is very right; I have been foolish to dance to the tunes of that wretched woman… How I made those young ones roll on the ground, covering all that distance and made their bodies sore…’ The old woman’s tears appeared to be a kind of atonement for the harm she had caused.
Old woman Komboothi would be at the forefront of every good and bad thing that happened in Pappiahpuram. Even during the previous year, while the people of the village had been debating about whether to have the Vaikasi temple festival or not, it was she who had gone ahead and spoken to the headman. ‘As it is, we suffer because of drought. All kinds of illnesses are rampant; how can we forsake our duty of offering pongal to our deity at this time of hardship?’ she had argued, and made sure the festival was held. It was not that she was interested in only ensuring that the ceremonies were observed; anytime anybody was in trouble, she would be the first to offer comfort and consolation.
It was this kind disposition of the old woman that had made it possible for her – even though she did not have even a tiny piece of land to call her own – to gather all the children of the village and make them roll on the ground, from the Kaliatha to the Kannimaramman temple, so that, even though the month of Aadi was gone, they would have rains to fill their ponds by at least the month of Aavani.
‘What is this, akka, Lord Varuna is putting us through such severe tests? The rains that should have come in Aadi are still not here, it is the end of Aavani… With the hope that the rains would come, we invested whatever we had in the fields and are now at a loss as to what we should do,’ said Ammapattiyal to the old woman, who had just finished grinding the millet and stepped out on to the street.
‘What to do? Looks like even the gods are against us… If we are in distress due to some human act, we can take our grievances to some others. But if it is god who is putting us through hardships… Lord Varuna should take pity on us and turn his merciful glance upon us…’
‘That’s why I think, akka … in the olden days, if the rains failed us, didn’t we perform the ritual of gruel for rain and have the children go rolling on the ground, starting from the Kaliatha temple up to the Kannimaramman temple…? Why should we not do it this year, akka?’ What Ammapattiyal said made sense to old woman Komboothi.
She brought together all the children of the village. A few rich houses made pots of gruel and were generous enough to offer them to the children doing the penance. Old woman Komboothi collected the gruel, put it in one big pot, added water to it and fed all the children. She then made them all lie on the ground in front of Kaliatha temple and told them, ‘Pray to the mother that at least by the end of Aavani, the skies open up; roll your bodies on the ground with devotion in your hearts.’ As if taking mercy on the poor children of a hundred houses who had participated in the penance ritual, the rains had arrived; it was as if the clouds were tearful and the tears kept pouring unceasingly for ten days. Only the thought of Peyakka’s son continued to trouble old woman Komboothi, and keep her in a state of anxiety.
Now, hearing Pethakkal speak, old woman Komboothi felt pangs of guilt. Did I do something wrong? Have I sacrificed Peyakkal’s son just so that a few rich landlords can benefit?
Her thoughts ran wild and made her uneasy. She lay on the gunny bag and stared up at the centre of the roof, where the thatching had not yet been fixed.
‘I got lost in our conversation and quite forgot what I came here to tell you. Mathini, did you hear the news? That day Ammapattiyal refused to give you five rupees. Now, she has had to spend fifty,’ said Pethakkal.
Pethakkal’s words made the old woman try to pull herself together and get up, unnerved. She asked, ‘What are you saying? What expense did Ammapattiyal have to bear that she had to spend fifty rupees?’
‘The annan of that house had gone somewhere and had not returned by night. So Ammapattiyal asked her son to tether the cow. That poor young boy brought the animal over and tethered it. But the cow got flustered, pushed the boy down to the ground and kicked him on his shoulder. The boy has just about survived, like he has been given a new birth. They took the boy to Kallupatti hospital last night itself; Ammapattiyal has just come back by the 8.30 bus.’
Old woman Komboothi was completely taken aback. ‘Oh my god! Poor Ammapattiyal! If the mother does some wrong, how can the child be held responsible? You stay here, Pethakka. I’ll go and see how Ammapattiyal is…’
Old woman Komboothi, who had been lying for days, feeble, unable to get up … from where did she find the strength now to get up and go out?
Pethakkal, who used to grind millet with the old woman, kept sitting there astonished, unable to comprehend the mystery that was old woman Komboothi.
Note: This story first appeared in Along with the Sun: Stories from Tamil Nadu’s Black Soil Region, edited by Ki. Rajanarayanan and translated from the Tamil by Padma Narayanan. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2021. Copyright for the original Tamil text © Ki. Rajanarayanan, 1984. Reproduced here with permission.