“A Way of Life”

a short story by Poomani,
translated from the Tamil by Padma Narayanan

They decided to do just that.

The three rolled on the ground by the shadow of the tree beside the brook. The pole they used to bring down fruits hung idly on the tree, trying on its own to tug at the branches.

Crushing the flowers that fell to the ground, Periyavan asked, ‘So, no kanji today? Who was there at my house?’

Chinnavan swallowed some saliva to moisten his throat.

‘Your mother was rocking the baby. She said that there was not even the sour water in which cooked rice had been soaked … And in my house there was no one.’

‘Did you get to drink something?’

‘Are you joking? Annan had finished off whatever there was.’

‘Who? The one who is studying?’

‘Oh, yes; isn’t he back home, down here?’

The goats that smelt the dry air scattered and began to bleat. They wouldn’t stop munching at the withered ilandai plants and kompatti saplings. As far as the eye could see, there lay the parched expanse, with just a few green trees on the roadside.

‘You have your slippers on; run, come back with the goats. Then we shall go somewhere.’

‘Why come back here? The goats should get something to eat, no? Let’s go to the chillan fields.’

‘Good idea! If we keep tugging at a few branches for the animals as we go, we might get as far as the well by the electric pump, where the coconut trees are.’

As they set out, the sunlight from the west made everything hazy and it appeared as if the goats were swimming.

‘Ele! How long it is since we gave the animals a wash! It looks like sores will soon appear on them.’

‘Listen to him talking! It’s so much trouble just finding water for them to drink! And he speaks of giving them a bath!’

‘There, on that southern field – see the millet stalks standing unattended? If we let them in there, they may get to take a few bites.’

‘Asking for trouble, that’s what it is! He has a couple of cows and finds it difficult to find enough straw to feed them; if he finds out that the goats have been there, he will squeeze the innards out of you.’

‘Don’t know what we are going to do in our house today! The little one will create a racket for milk.’

‘Look there! See how the chickpeas have all dried up without rain.’

One of them nicked the palm tree with a stone and was gratified to have its sap moisten his throat.

Chinnavan’s stomach rumbled. A few figures appeared in the distance like curved lines.

‘Hey, shall I go to the guava orchard just north of this road?’

‘Of all the places, you want to try your hand there? He is a miser. If he sees you, he’ll come charging at you like a stinging wasp.’

‘I wish we had our dog with us to do some hunting for us. Who knows where it’s lying, tongue lolling out of its mouth?’

‘It will be in some water cistern near an electric pump.’

‘Why don’t we catch a few squirrels?’

‘You have the sickle? Let us find a couple of palms to climb.’ ‘Okay. Sharpen the sickle.’

On the banks of the brook, squirrels were to be found on palm trees, and looking at their shadows, the boys ended up choosing five trees. Periyavan climbed on three trees and chopped off the branches on which the squirrels were. With one good chop, they came down dead. Chinnavan went up a smaller tree, caught hold of a branch together with a squirrel on it and choked it to death. Another one escaped during the commotion.

Chinnavan collected himself and said, ‘We have four now.’

The goats burst into a dense thicket of trees and scrounged around, looking for something to eat.

‘We need a matchstick.’

‘In the middle of the fields, who do we go to, to ask for one?’

‘Then do you suggest that we roam around hauling them? Let’s just roast them.’

‘Okay, go find some cotton pods that have dropped to the ground. I’ll find two sharp stones; we can rub them together and light a fire.’

In a short while, a fire smouldered under the wall by the bank. They roasted their catch on the fire and removed the intestines.

‘Drop a few big stones into the fire while it is still hot.’

‘And look at you! You’re plucking out the intestines along with so much flesh! Give it to me.’

Chinnavan took a piece of the flesh and held it over the fire until it turned very black, tore a portion off it and put it into his mouth.

‘Go on, look for the goats, le!’

‘Where will they go in this heat?’

‘If the dog was here, it might eat the insides.’

They removed the skin and flesh of the four squirrels and, tearing off bits of the meat, put them on the hot stones to have the fluid sucked up. Then, making three portions of it, they began to eat.

By the time they had wiped the dust off their hands and stood up, the goats had almost gone up to the well near the coconut trees.

‘That’s it … we’ll be finished today.’

They ran with their insides bursting.

The goats had stamped on the chilli plants and were gathered around the paalaattam plants that had sprouted all over the area surrounding the well.

Even as they tried to gather the goats and drive them away, the farmer who was tilling the southern fields had preceded them, wielding a lash.

‘You casteless sons of whores; come here! Some cheek! You did not even see where your goats were going? Now wait and see how I tie all three of you to the coconut trees and skin you alive.’ He ran into the fields and cracked his whip on Chinnavan.

The boy took to his heels with a shriek. The farmer could not go after the boy any longer. Converting what remained of his wrath into obscene language, he showered abuses at the boys. Even after they had arrived behind the thorny bushes, Chinnavan’s sobs wouldn’t cease. Around his trunk was a red weal that looked like a thick rope.

‘Did the whip land on you very hard?’ Chinnavan did not reply; he sniffed up the snot streaming out of his nose.

‘I wanted to give him a good thrashing with this pole; he comes after us as though all his harvest is gone. Leave him be. I’ll come with my pole tip all sharpened one day and cut off all the tender coconut sprouts!’

‘If it had been our village what would have happened if he had dared to lay a finger on one of our boys! His insides would have been wrenched out of his body. It’s not just today; he has often crossed his limits. Who knows when he’ll be given a good hiding?’

‘The goats did not bite into any of the crops. Look how that sinner has mixed cow dung in the water tank. After they ate some stray shoots, they didn’t even have a sip of water.’

‘I know what we should do some day. Attach a knife to the pole and poke him. What does it matter if that sends one to prison? What does he lose if the goats drink a little water that flows through the irrigation canals to the fields? Just drive the goats to the well by the road.’

In the well by the side of the othakkadai – the shop on the road – the kamalai was pumping out water.

They threw stones at the garden lizards under the wild kurandi plants and then began to walk in a leisurely manner.

Periyavan asked Chinnavan, ‘Your brother has been here for quite a few days now, abandoning his studies, why?’

‘My folks sent him for higher studies, selling off two or three goats. The boys there raised a din about not getting proper rice and food. The authorities closed down everything and drove the boys away.’

‘How can one sit tight without anything to eat, with hunger gnawing at the stomach? Your ayya was angry, yes?’

‘What can be done about that? That lord will sulk if he has to eat porridge. My amma goes to work, and that’s how some kanji with millet gets cooked and is made available to us.’

‘I heard Pichayya who lived in the house next to yours has gone somewhere … with his family and all.’

‘Yes, he has moved to the hills. What else can one do if there is nothing to eat in the house; he could find no work here either.’

‘When the wells and fields are all dry without any water, what work will there be?’

‘God, is there at least some rain coming down? It rains where they don’t want rain. This is how it plays out time and again.’

‘A few more days and we’ll all have to leave.’

The foam bubbles, created in the water by the bullocks as they went laboriously round the kamalai, moving the pots up and down as they drew water, floated in the air. The old man who was driving the animals to work the kamalai looked into the well ever so often. Just to get some water to spring up, he had had to goad the animals really hard for quite a while, tugging at their tails.

‘Ele! See that the goats do not slip; it will be a disaster if they break a bone or get injured. When there is nobody around, the dhobhi comes to wash the clothes at the well. Perhaps he couldn’t find any other place to do it. Look there, the water is so dirty that it cannot even be carried anywhere close to the mouth.’

The goats drank water to their hearts’ content. Some shook their backs and soothed the hot skin, licking at them with their tongues.

The old man made sure that the goats did not upset the water pot placed close to the kamalai.

The three boys washed their faces and set out, feeling fresh.

‘Shall we go near the othakkadai and sit there for some time?’

‘On the road?’

‘So what? Where else is there a tree? Come, let’s go.’

Chinnavan did not feel like doing that.

‘I’m thirsty. This water was so salty; I couldn’t even taste it.’

‘We were also thirsty; but since there was nothing else, we drank a few handfuls of this water.’

‘Find fault with your mother if you want to, but never say a word about water, le!’

‘I’ll go somewhere and drink some water.’

‘Near that vagai tree is a well with an electric pump. Go on, drink from there. We’ll keep walking towards the othakkadai.’

By the time Chinnavan hurried back after having drunk water, the goats had gathered under the neem tree and were biting at the branches. Periyavan, quickly using his pole, brought down some neem shoots closer to the animals. He was happy to see the goats sit down comfortably to munch on them.

‘What, le? Did you drink water?’

‘Yes, I did. The owner of the well has broken down the steps that let you go in.’

‘Then?’

‘I climbed down the pipe and had my fill.’

Periyavan, who had been looking up, bent to look down. Just then, a car that had been coming at brute speed from the north scared the goats so much that they scurried in different directions. Chinnavan, shouting abuses, ran behind the car and threw a stone at it. Periyavan continued to pull down the branches.

Meanwhile, the third boy gathered the scattered goats.

‘We should hurl a huge rock at that pipe,’ he said, as he aimed a stone at the transformer that could be seen standing tall on the southern slope.

The goats found peace munching at the shoots.

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.

Poomani is the pen name of P. Manickavasagam. He was born in 1947, in Andipatti, a village near Kovilpatti. A distinguished writer, he has published six novels, six short-story collections and a collection of essays. His earlier notable works are Piragu (After), Vekkai (Heat), Varappukal (Field Bunds), and Vaikkal (Irrigation Canal). He has had many of his works translated into several languages. He was awarded the Ilakkiya Chinthanai award for his novel Piragu (After). His novel Vekkai was translated by N. Kalyan Raman as Heat (2019). His novel Agnaadi (Relief/Wonder/Fatigue/Resignation) won both the Gitanjali Literary Prize in 2012 and the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2014. In 1996, he won the Tamil Nadu State Film Award Special Prize for the film Karuvelam Pookkal (Flowers of the Black Babul), which he both wrote the screenplay for and directed.

Padma Narayanan (b. 1935) is a short-story writer and translator of Tamil literary fiction into English. Her translated works include Imayam’s Video Mariamman and Other Stories (2021); the anthology Along with the Sun (2020); Aadhavan’s I, Ramaseshan (2008); La. Sa. Ramamritham’s Apeetha (2014), The Stone Laughs and Atonement (2005); Indira Parthasarathy’s Poison Roots (2014), and two collections of short stories by Appadurai Muttulingam (2009 and 2017). Padma’s translation of Sharmila Seyyid’s Panicker’s Granddaughter is awaiting publication. Her work has appeared in  Agni, Words Without Borders, a Bloomsbury Academic anthology, and elsewhere. Her translation of Dilip Kumar’s ‘A Clerk’s Story’, published in  Caravan in 2012, inspired a movie adaptation,  Nasir (2020). She has also translated several books from English into Tamil, and has written and spoken on the subject of translation. She lives in New Delhi.

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