‘Don’t run,’ Lakshmi shouted.
‘Ok, ok,’ Sridhar said. And he ran.
‘Don’t go near the saw mill,’ she shouted, a little louder.
‘I know, I know,’ he said. And he ran into the saw mill.
‘Don’t open the saw dust pit,’ she said softly, she knew he was too far to hear.
Sridhar had reached the saw dust pit. He stood there, catching his breath, his arms on his waist, his tongue licking his upper lip, nervously. His eyes darted this way and that. There was nobody around. Of course, his mother knew he was here – she had known for days he was coming here and that he was bringing food. She probably knew there was a dog and puppies too, but she hadn’t told anybody. He was sure of that, because if his grandfather had known there were dogs – a girl dog who had birthed pups behind his house, inside his saw mill – he’d have asked Babu to take them away. Who knows, they might have ended up in the river, in the only stretch with water in high summer, where the pups were dunked till there were no bubbles, the mother dog whimpering, later howling, and wandering by the river for days. Just as she did the last time she delivered her litter in the sawdust pit.
But this time, Sridhar was careful. He took only the rice that was kept aside for the maid. She smiled the first time he scraped out the rice, mixing it clumsily on a banana leaf with the watery buttermilk left out for her. Sridhar felt better seeing her smile. ‘Can I take some more,’ he asked. Her smile faded, but she nodded her head, yanking her pallu a little tighter and wrapping it around her waist. He scratched at the vessel, at the grains of rice with his dirty fingernails, he picked up the rice that fell around the pot, and he ran, spilling the watery food on the ground.
The dog ate hungrily. She was always hungry, he noticed when he sat on his haunches and watched her face. Her whiskers were the only thing luxurious and glossy. Her body was lean – her ribs stuck out – and her hips and legs were thin and bony. Her teats were thin too, and they hung long and low, and shook this way and that while she ate. The little food vanished in a few minutes. The dog looked at him – for a moment, into his eyes – and then jumped into the pit. She always used the chute when he wasn’t around, but when he came and opened the trapdoor, she blinked at the light, wagged her tail and jumped out elegantly.
She must have been, Sridhar had long decided, a beautiful dog. Why else would she keep having babies? His own mother, he knew from all that he overheard, did not have many children because she was not beautiful. ‘If only she was,’ his grandmother would say, and sigh and cool herself with the palmyra fan. Then she’d suddenly bang the fan onto the ground, as if she had remembered something important, and her lips would tremble and she would cry. It happened everyday, mostly when there was no power, Sridhar noticed, and his grandmother could not watch television.
‘Fate, fate,’ she would say some days. Those days, she’d slap her forehead several times and it would turn red, and the sindoor would smudge and she would look just like the Durga idol at the temple; all that was missing, he thought, was a garland of lemons.
‘Evil eye, evil eye, that Gomathi, you should have seen how she looked at all the bangles I had made for my only daughter!’ she would say another day. Then she’d bring her hands together, and knot her fingers, making every joint pop, all the while muttering curses, taking Gomathi’s name, her children’s name, wishing they’d all turn barren and flat-chested, forgetting that Gomathi’s daughters and daughters-in-law had borne many bonny children…
‘If only she knew how to keep a man interested,’ she’d say the days her mother sat in the hall, staring outside the bars of the window, into the narrow passageway that was the entrance to grandfather’s saw mill.
Lakshmi would pretend she hadn’t heard. Or maybe, Sridhar thought, she didn’t really hear it. She would continue combing his hair with her fingers, not pausing, not turning her face; never angry at her mother for calling her a woman so artless that her husband didn’t love her…
Sridhar had never seen his father. But he knew what he looked like: there was a photo of him inside his mother’s cupboard. It was a portrait, taken in a studio, and his mother and father had smiled for the camera. His father had a big moustache, he had curly hair, and his eyes were sharp and serious, even while his lips gently smiled. There was nothing in the photo that hinted he was an unkind man. But he did not look the monster he thought he must be. For he must have been a monster – why else did he never come to see him, his only son, not even once in ten long years? Why didn’t he come back for his mother? And she wasn’t plain, Sridhar knew that. Of course, some of the women were prettier – their skin glowed, their plaits moved this way and that when they walked, their sarees hugged their bosom and buttocks, and Babu – he was the one who would point this out to him – wouldn’t stop staring.
Babu told Sridhar all about women the day they fell down from the bicycle. They were going to the cinema – it was a hot summer day, and he had no school, and everybody was irritated because he was running from one end of the house to the other, the searing heat not bothering him as much as the scorching boredom.
Grandfather couldn’t sleep, and grandmother was weeping – it was a curse-Gomathi day – and mother, she was staring at the passageway as always. Right after his coffee, grandfather made Sridhar wear a shirt and comb his hair. Then he shouted until Babu heard him in the saw mill – he never went there anymore, his legs were bent with arthritis and his back with age – and he ordered him to take Sridhar to the cinema. He gave them money for the ticket, and a little extra for snacks. But they ended up spending everything on the bicycle – the front wheel was bent and the rexine seat was torn – and they went to Babu’s house to wash their scratches and drink something.
‘Coconut water?’ Babu’s father asked, flicking his towel and fashioning it into a turban. He quickly went up the tree and threw down a few nuts. Babu sliced off the top and they drank the water, and he told him why he lost his balance and fell.
‘You saw her?’ he asked.
‘Who?’ Sridhar asked, his voice echoing inside the coconut.
‘Valli, that seductress,’ Sridhar said, his voice suddenly husky, as if he had a cold.
‘No, who is she?’ Sridhar asked, curious now, because Babu was smiling in that odd way the cinema heroes did in item songs.
‘A beauty, that’s what she is. Actually “beauty” does not do her justice… she is voluptuous, she is a mango…’ and he laughed as if he had said something very funny.
Sridhar did not understand. He looked at him strangely.
‘Like Hansika?’ he asked.
‘Yes, but more yellow,’ Babu said. ‘And bigger,’ he patted his chest with both hands.
‘Like Thangam teacher?’ Sridhar asked.
‘Haha, yes, clever boy!’ Babu scratched Sridhar’s head affectionately. ‘When I was in school, we used to suck our breath when she walked…’
‘You went to school?’ Sridhar asked.
‘Yes, but only till fifth,’ Babu told him.
‘I’m in fifth now, will I also stop?’ Sridhar asked.
‘No, no, your grandfather has money, you can keep studying, you don’t need to climb coconut trees, do you?’
‘No, and I don’t need to drown rats and puppies either,’ Sridhar said.
Babu stopped scratching his head. He stared at Sridhar for a minute, a full minute, then he said it was getting late, and they had to go back home.
‘I don’t want to go home, Babu. Tell me about Hansika…’
And then Sridhar told him about Hansika, about Valli and Thangam teacher, about women. When Sridhar came back home, he felt fifteen.
‘How was the picture,’ grandfather asked him.
‘Super,’ he said, ‘very super.’
‘Who acted?’ grandmother asked, folding her betel leaf and popping it into her mouth.
‘Hansika,’ he smiled.
‘Really? I did not see posters of her anywhere!’ grandfather said.
‘Since when do you look at cinema posters?’ grandmother asked.
‘When I pee on walls, I look, ok?’ he snapped.
Grandmother laughed and grandfather laughed and Sridhar laughed so hard he got hiccups. His mother stared at the passage that led to the saw mill.
‘Don’t run,’ Lakshmi shouted.
‘Ok, ok,’ Sridhar said. And he ran.
‘Don’t go near the whirlpool,’ she shouted, a little louder.
‘I know, I know,’ he said. And he ran faster, all the way to the river.
It was a good year, the rains had not failed and in August, the dam was opened and the water came rushing into the river.
Sridhar went to bathe in it every evening after school. He came back brown and shiny, his face and hair smelling of the sun and water, his feet crusted with tiny golden flecks of sand.
Sridhar would be very hungry after his swim. He would eat his portion, and eye his mother’s. She would quietly hand him the fried appalam and vadai whenever it was made. She would give him an extra poori or two, and sometimes, all the raw banana chips from her plate.
He grew fast that year – as fast as a girl, his grandmother said – and they had to stitch him a new uniform set by November.
He sat straighter in Thangam teacher’s class, he watched her move. When he went back home, he ran to the saw mill and told Babu about her…
The dog was pregnant again in January.
She was fatter this time, because Babu was bringing her leftovers from his house.
‘Don’t tell your grandfather,’ he told him the first time he gave the animal chicken scraps.
‘No, no,’ Sridhar said and licked his lips. ‘What does it taste like?’
‘What? The dog?’ Babu laughed.
‘The chicken, I’ve never even eaten an egg,’ he told him.
‘I know, your family won’t touch animal flesh… No wonder your father had problems with them!’ Babu said.
‘What problems?’ Sridhar asked.
‘Oh something I heard, could be rubbish, lies, who knows,’ Sridhar muttered, looking away.
‘Babu, tell me, what was my father’s problem?’
‘Your grandfather will skin me,’ Babu shuddered. ‘I’m a fool to open my mouth.’
‘Please Babu, tell me… Nobody speaks about him. Amma cries, her parents sigh or scream… should I not know about my father?’
‘Ok, but promise on your mother you won’t repeat it?’
‘Promise!’ Sridhar said, and closed his eyes, invoking his mother’s image, and opened them, when all that swam before his eyes was the wedding portrait.
‘Your father played the mridangam,’ Babu said.
‘Ok, so?’ Sridhar asked.
‘He was a different caste,’ Babu said.
‘Oh,’ Sridhar said. ‘So?’
‘So your grandfather hated him. But your mother ran away right after school – they were classmates – she married him. She got pregnant, your grandmother begged her to come back home and have the baby, and afterwards, your grandfather never let him visit… Everybody thinks he abandoned her… but…’
‘Oh!’ Sridhar said, his mouth forming an ‘O’, his eyebrows meeting in the middle, his eyes widening in confusion, images flashing in front of them, of his grandmother calling his mother plain, artless, cursed…
‘Where is he now?’ Sridhar tugged at Babu’s shorts.
‘Where he always was – fourth stop on the Trichy road. You know that big chariot festival your grandfather never takes you to? That village. He plays in the temple for functions, but I’ve heard he often goes to the city and plays for weddings…’
‘But, Babu,’ he began.
‘Look, I said too much, ok? And who knows what really happened? Never believe what anybody tells you… people will speak, they even say Valli ran away with the headman’s daughter, but who knows the truth? He might have abducted her… Would my Valli go willingly?’
‘No, no,’ Sridhar said, and touched Babu’s wrist.
‘Go home,’ Babu said. ‘It is getting dark.’
Sridhar turned to go. Then he walked back to Babu.
‘Do you think my father loved me?’ he whispered.
‘You’re a fine boy, what’s not to love? Now, my father, he had problems with me. He taught me to climb palm trees; I was no good. He taught me to brew toddy; my batches weren’t half as strong as his. He got me a job at the headman’s house, and I refused to go when they made me eat their son’s leftovers. And now? I work as a coolie for your grandfather…’
‘You’re not a coolie, you’re Babu,’ Sridhar said.
‘Babu is not my name, Sridhar. My parents named me Billa…’
‘Billa?’ Sridhar laughed.
‘Yes, and like you, your grandfather also laughed, he refused to call me Billa… he said I was no Rajini, and here I am, Babu…’ he shrugged.
‘But at least your father loves you, Billa,’ Sridhar said.
Babu laughed. He was still laughing when Sridhar reached the house, and found his mother slumped on the living room floor, his grandfather fanning her with the palmyra hand-fan, his grandmother wiping her brow with her pallu, and his mother sweating, her blouse and saree wet and stuck to her body, even though the electric fan whirred and whirred from its hook on the ceiling.
‘Why did you have to become a widow, why does everything happen to you so quickly, why does your life have to end so soon?’ his grandmother sang her laments, and pressed her saree over her mother’s face and rubbed at her hair parting.
‘Get up slowly, go have a bath, the curse has left us, the Shani,’ his grandfather said, fanning irritably, the handle bending in his hands.
‘Amma,’ Sridhar called. She looked up at him.
‘I want to see him, please, come with me…’ he said.
His mother bit her trembling lip, she bunched her pallu with her fingers, stuffed it into her mouth and cried.
‘I’m going,’ he said.
‘Over my dead body,’ his grandfather shouted.
‘They will spit on you, don’t go that side,’ his grandmother keened.
‘Amma, you come with me, or at least let me go… He is my father, I want to see him…’ Sridhar begged, sitting down next to her, his hands tightening around her shoulders, shaking her, pleading with her.
‘Don’t run,’ she whispered between sobs.
‘Ok, ok,’ Sridhar said. And he ran out of the door.