A House without Cats

Winner of the inaugural edition of The Mozhi Prize

A short story by Chandra

Translated from the Tamil original ‘Poonaigal illada veedu’ by Padmaja Anant

Chandra, author
Padmaja Anant, translator

Our entire street was festooned with strings of mango leaves. The scent of the leaves wafted through the air. Anna and I turned up the volume of the tape deck churning out music. The music could probably be heard well beyond the temple tank, at the Meenakshi Amman temple. The street was packed with people. My heart swelled with pride as I watched the crowd outside our house, dressed in my new clothes: white shirt with green stripes and blue trousers. Amma’s silk saree was the same colour as Akka’s, the colour of brinjal flowers. Akka wore flowers in her hair and her plait was interleaved with a string braid with red pompoms. A white Ambassador car waited in the street.

Like a maharaja, I descended the steps with a winner’s gait. My feet caught in the flare of my trousers and caused me to trip and fall. I glanced quickly at Prabhu and Sivakumar—they hadn’t sniggered. Holding my pants up, I got into the front passenger seat of the car. Either the pants need to get shorter or I need to get taller, I thought. Prabhu and Sivakumar asked to accompany us. I would have liked them to join us, but Anna, playing the villain, glared at them. He then marched to the car door and with great style attempted to open the door. The door wouldn’t yield to the yanking by his stick-thin arms. Prabhu leapt forward and opened the car door for Anna, like an attendant. Despite this Anna continued to glare at him. Prabhu, abashed, stood aside.

Once seated, I adopted all the mannerisms deserving of a passenger of the car. I combed my hair glancing at the mirror in the car. Using tears and tantrums I had gotten a full-sleeve shirt stitched: I now rolled up the sleeves, like Appa, then glanced at Anna’s half-sleeve shirt with contempt. As always, Selvi Akka had picked a fight with Shanti Akka, and instead of climbing into the car with Shanti Akka, carrying a tray laden with fruits, she prepared to walk to the temple with our aunts and the rest of the marriage procession. ‘Why don’t you get into the car with her? Do you have to fight today too?’ Amma asked. In a temper, Selvi Akka turned around and walked right back into the house. Selvi Akka, dressed in a half-saree today like Shanti Akka, was looking lovely. The musicians and the drummers stood in front of the car, ready to lead the marriage procession. They began to play Sevvanthi poo mudiccha chinnakka, Oh sister, with flowers in her hair

Suddenly the music stopped. Appa walked briskly to the car, his new white dhoti folded at the knee and tied at the waist. He asked everyone to step out of the car, and dragged Shanti Akka into the house. Music, car, drumbeats, joy—all vanished in an instant. I was consumed by embarrassment. The look Appa gave us was enough to make me follow him into the house, glancing neither at my friends nor at the crowd. Appa got Akka to sit in the wooden chair in the courtyard and thrust a book into her hands. Akka began to memorize, line by line, with her eyes closed, the functions of a submarine, unfazed by the momentous event, as if her study had only been interrupted by a walk to the kitchen to get a drink of water.

Before Appa could order us to get back to our studies, I settled down with my books on the southern side of the courtyard and Anna on the northern side. Selvi Akka paced about under the guava tree beyond the temple, going over her lessons. Amma, deeply saddened by the abrupt turn of events, sat in the kitchen crying in the company of her sisters. Appa, his hands clasped behind his back, fixed his gaze on us like our teacher would.

Selvi Akka was to blame for all this, I thought; she’s the one who lost her temper first. I hadn’t even seen the bridegroom yet! And the chance to ride in the car, to enjoy the marriage procession—gone. Angry, I got up to hit her, stretching out my hands to reach her.

‘Dei Senthil, wake up … why are you waving your arms around? How many times have I told you not to listen to ghost stories at night … you’re bound to have nightmares,’ someone said.

‘But … Amma told me a story about a marriage last night …’ I said, puzzled, rubbing my eyes.

‘This is all you do. Listen to stories at night, and wake up with dreams in your eyes … Okay, drink your coffee and leave for Periappa’s house. The food needs to be ready soon, doesn’t it?’ said Amma.

‘Ask Cheeni Anna to go. I can’t go there every day. Periappa glares at me,’ I said, to which she replied, ‘Anna is a grown-up now. He feels shy, dear, so you must go.’ 

‘Anna a grown-up? He’s in the eighth class while I’m in the sixth! I wear shorts. So does he. The day he starts wearing pants is when he would count as a grown-up!’

Amma began to implore, gently caressing my chin. Selvi Akka had already finished her bath and was in her uniform. The sight of her men’s style shirt angered me. If she dressed like a man, who would respect me as one! Particularly my classmate Indumati. Without a thought that she was engaging with a male, Indumati would climb on to my back and punch me every time a fight broke out. Just so I could fight with her, I had to eat a little extra each day. Of late, even that possibility had been ruled out. When she beat me up at play in the evening, I would head home, determined to get back at her after I had eaten my fill. But Amma would have wound up the kitchen because the family had eaten for the night. Since the day we had been collecting rice and pulses from Periappa, we couldn’t have a second helping of rice. One measure of rice a day; that was the arrangement, and Periappa stuck to it.

Amma sent me off every morning, with many pleas and much cajoling, to Periappa’s house in the next street. I carried the white and red woven plastic-wire basket that Shanti Akka had made in craft class. Tucked inside it was a yellow cloth bag. Periamma would have rice, pulses and vegetables ready for me to bring back. Earlier, they gave us money once a month instead of rice. But we would run out of money by the middle of the month and turn up at their door. Thereafter this new system was put in place.

Periamma would pour the rice into the cloth bag, pack the pulses in a paper bag, and keep the vegetables on top in the wire bag. ‘Take it home carefully, Senthil,’ she’d say. Everyday. And everyday Periappa would say ‘So your father won’t help at the shop, will he? His precious crown will slide off his head if he took up a job, won’t it? Two daughters old enough to be married, and the man is holding on to his gods hoping for better times. The farms have been sold, the house on north street has been sold. What else is he going to sell? What’s left to sell? Your aunt, his sister, asked for her share of the property and dragged everyone to court.’ Periappa would intone this with the same piety with which my father chanted the Kandashashti Kavacham every morning. ‘He’s a young boy, it doesn’t seem right, telling him all this every day,’ Periamma would say, to which Periappa would retort, ‘It’s your sister I should say this to. Keeps her husband wrapped in cotton wool, not letting him step out of the house to earn a living  …’ By the time he was done, I had leapt off the wide steps of their house and reached the back door of my house, taking the crooked path between the two.

Our house was referred to as the ‘temple house’. When the family had money, my grandfather had built a Siva temple in the house. The temple opened onto the north street and the house onto the east street. Situated thus between the two streets, the house was rectangular. At the centre of the house was a courtyard bounded by sloping roofs on all four sides. There were two rooms to the west of the courtyard and two to the east of it. In front of each room was a little space, like a verandah. Each room with its verandah seemed like a house by itself. To the south of the courtyard was a verandah, a bedroom, beyond it a small granary and the kitchen. The north side had an open yard and no rooms. About twenty feet away lay the Siva temple and the well. Even though Siva was the main deity, Nandi, Ganesha and Muruga surrounded him. Barring our family and an occasional passerby, hardly anyone visited our temple.

People said that the presence of a temple inside the house was the cause of all our misfortune. Of the deities in the temple, Nandi was the only one I liked. When Appa was away and Amma was busy in the kitchen, I would climb on to its back and pretend to ride it. When Appa was conducting puja, it seemed to me that Nandi was fixing me with a look, threatening to tell on me. ‘Shall I tell your father that you ride on my back?’ I would look away quickly. Appa would kill me if he found out.

Like eating and sleeping, reading Kandashashti Kavacham was a part of the day: this was the unwritten rule of the house. Since the day Anna had moved on to eighth class, he began to announce first thing in the morning, book in hand: ‘There’s so much to study!’ There were two more annual exams to go before I could be free of Thiruvachagam and Kandashashti Kavacham. Surprisingly, I got the highest marks in Tamil in my class. Appa made me memorize the Thirukkural so thoroughly, I knew it backwards.

Appa joined us for the morning meal, and left home with us as if leaving for work. Then he would settle down under the lone pongam tree in the Sonaiya temple and act as mediator for the problems that the citizens of Anuppanadi brought to him. There were few in that crowd who were of his age. The majority consisted of older people, who were done with a life of hard work and found time hanging heavy on their hands. At night he would chat at the steps of the temple tank with younger people, who were done with work for the day. Twice a week, he would furiously debate matters till eleven at night, having discussed them with the lawyer to no avail during the day. He tired himself out just talking. Bidi, cigarette, cards—no such bad habits. Lots of talking. Lots of tea. And no free tea for him. The kind of family I come from, I’ll never take favours, he’d say, buying tea for everyone and never once receiving a cup in return. Periamma would secretly give Amma some money, unknown to Periappa; the little left after household expenses made its way from Amma to Appa.

The nights Appa returned late, we lay in the courtyard in a row, on mats. On those nights, Amma told us stories from her life, disguised as someone else’s life-stories. I listened leaning on her stomach, twirling the hooks in her blouse, feeling the warmth of her skin. The twirling became such a habit that it took several years and much teasing before I gave it up. Listening to Amma’s stories, I would lapse into my own, equally compelling dreams. Even though all of us listened—Selvi Akka, Shanti Akka, Cheeni Anna and I—it seemed to me that Amma was addressing me alone.

‘Are you listening, Senthil?’ she’d ask as if aware of my wandering thoughts, drawing me back to the story which she then continued. Of all the stories in the world, I thought Amma’s life-story most interesting and moving. She was done telling us about herself; now her stories took on various hues. Even in stories about kings and queens, the queen would be happy to begin with but then be tossed about on life’s ceaseless tides. Or a princess who was forced to eke out a living taking on housework would turn into an angel, rescued from her fate.  In all of Amma’s stories there would be some sorrow and some joy. Even though the stories were different from each other, I saw that they were all about her: she was the protagonist in all those stories.

Despite our poverty, Amma was like a friend to us, a playmate. Any food that we four bought was divided into five parts, with a share for her. I would gobble up mine first. She kept hers for the last. For me. ‘Eat it up, Amma. He’s waiting to snatch your share,’ Anna would say, restraining my eager hand.

‘He’s a little boy, of course he’s tempted. Let him have it. In any case, what will I gain by eating this,’ she would say, giving me half her share. As I grew more aware, I put off eating my share till the last. Robbers and police, hide and seek, dice play, Amma would play these games with us like she was one of us.

Even though there was no money on hand, the many objects in the house made us somehow aware that we had once been well off: wooden cupboards set in the wall, a spacious kitchen, large wooden pillars around the courtyard, the granary (now empty), and many others. The crumbling, termite-infested furniture, far from making us feel poor, imbued us with a sense of pride. Playing under the pongam tree with our playmates, we politely declined the snacks they brought. Unknown to us a sense of our former affluence stopped us from accepting these. But I couldn’t resist the food Indumati offered me, especially after she’d taken a bite from it.

Of all the ancient objects in the house, my favourite was a bronze lamp shaped like a swan. The central part, the oil holder, was round like a top. The lower part, shaped like a lamp, screwed into the middle part from below. The decorative swan on the upper part screwed into the middle part from above. All three parts could be separated and cleaned. Oil would be filled in the middle part and would drip into the lamp keeping the wick burning. Above the swan was a bronze chain, about half a foot long, for hanging the lamp. The lamp hung on one of the walls of the courtyard. Apparently the lamp could hold more than a litre of oil, and would be kept burning night and day in the month of Kartigai. But we had never seen it filled all the way. A little oil would be poured in the lower half of the lamp to light it. It was the dearest desire of Selvi Akka and Shanti Akka to light the lamp with the holder filled to the brim.

On days when nobody was around, Anna and I would rummage through the house looking for something that the house had not yet yielded to us, to play with. One such day, under the wooden steps leading from the granary, covered with dust and cobwebs, we found an old cradle, a few rusted objects and a wooden plank that was set in the floor. We removed the plank and found a square hole underneath. Our joy knew no bounds. We had discovered a secret underground room that no one else knew about! We did a little dance, leaping with glee. Suppose that dark hole of a room was too deep to come out of were we to jump in? Before we could think this over, we heard Appa’s footsteps. We quickly covered the room and rearranged everything as we had found it. That night whispers passed between Anna and me till late. Another day, I climbed down into the room by the light of the torch Anna held. The room was not as deep as I was tall. I found an iron trunk and inside it a brass vessel, a conch-shaped milk-feeder for a child and a clay figure of an unidentifiable god. That was all. Disappointed, I emerged from the hole with the brass vessel alone. Something rattled inside it. There was an old talisman and some coins, and something knotted in a piece of cloth. When the knot was opened, a silver coin and a gold coin with an image of Saraswati twinkled at us.

We ran to Amma to hand it over. Amma was overjoyed, as if all her past wealth had been restored. Hopeful, we turned the whole house upside down in search of hidden wealth, in vain. But it became an excuse for Amma to revive her tales of past glory. Our grandfather had chests full of silver coins, she said. Once a month, on full moon night, the coins would be spread out to catch the rays of the moon in the belief that that would prevent them from tarnishing. Amma contented herself with telling us these tales. Believing their wealth was enough to see them through life, Appa and others had not been educated. And now they were forced to deal with the courts having been cheated of their wealth. At least his children should occupy respectable posts such as bank officer, collector or doctor, Appa wished. Dictator-like, he stayed at home, and made sure we studied and also had our share of play, holding back his obsessive desire to see us always with a book in our hands. He didn’t let my sisters go anywhere near the kitchen. He even fetched the water from the well for our daily needs. Putting together the paltry rent we received, the little money we made from leasing out our fields, and Amma’s efforts to lend that money on a weekly basis in return for unhulled paddy, we had just enough to feed ourselves through the year.

Shanti Akka was in the first year of her MSc course. She also tutored some children simultaneously. Selvi Akka was in the third year of her BA, and Cheeni Anna was studying BSc. Appa spoke much less now, and his appetite for tea had shrunk. But he was full of hope because the family’s past glory had been redeemed by the educational prowess of his children. Since we couldn’t afford to buy the books my sisters needed for their study, he would look for them in the central library in Madurai or in the university. They would photocopy the pages relevant for their study.

‘Without money and without a job, the man has managed to educate all his children,’ people said admiringly of Appa. ‘When there’s not enough for kanji, what’s the pressing need to educate the children,’ Periappa growled.

 I was now a trouser-wearing eleventh class student. I no longer went to Periappa’s house carrying a bag. But whenever there was an event at the college, Akka would go to Periamma’s house to borrow a floral-print saree from her daughter, Sumati Akka. ‘Give her a nice sari, di,’ Periamma would tell Sumati Akka, who would pretend not to hear and hand out the least appealing saree she had. But Shanti Akka would be happy even with that since it was a chance to wear something other than the three sarees she owned. Her face would light up. And the fact that Shanti Akka looked beautiful in whatever she wore annoyed Sumati Akka even more.

Expenses on education had been spiraling, defying all attempts to control them. But happiness was within Appa’s grasp. In a couple of years everyone would be earning well: the promise of it was thrilling! And then, when the children were about to finish their studies, all the care he had taken to avoid a misstep was forgotten and a momentous change was made.

Whenever Amma suggested that we move out of this house and into the house on the south street that we had let out on rent all these years, Appa had expressed horror at the idea: ‘Have someone else live in the house of my ancestors? Not while I’m alive.’ But he now made the decision and part of our temple house with the courtyard was let out. Two kitchens were set up and two families moved in. We got four hundred rupees from each tenant, making a total of eight hundred.

It greatly improved the financial situation of the household. But we lost our courtyard. And our childhood, our play, Amma’s stories, all vanished. We now lived on the southern side of the courtyard. Selvi Akka and Shanti Akka stayed inside the rooms all day, studying. Anna sat in the verandah, studying. We were like islands, each lost in our studies in different parts of the house. Appa scolded me, as usual, worried that I wasn’t studying enough and wouldn’t do well in life.

The rooms on the west had been let out to a couple with a young child. The child’s cries would echo through the night in the courtyard. During the day, the courtyard buzzed with activity. The rooms on the east were let out to a company that made appalam. In the evenings, women in faded sarees and girls old enough to wear sarees but who were still in half-sarees, would stir sad thoughts in me: they brought to mind memories of Selvi Akka and Shanti Akka. Like us, the appalam women had forgotten how to laugh. Or maybe they had lost their own courtyards. The courtyard held our collective sigh; I began to avoid it.

When the roof around the courtyard was wet with the rain of the Aippasi month, Indumati, the one who would always fight with me, was married to her uncle. She and I were the same age. After she was married it dawned on me that I was now a young man. Even though I hadn’t yet found my very own love, I had at least felt my heart quicken. In spite of poverty a new joy set down roots in my life.

In the dry months we played cricket in the dry temple tank. During the rains we would sit on the steps of the same tank, exchanging stories. One rainy season, a grey cat moved into our house. It belonged to our neighbour, the priest Samuel. Every evening he held a prayer meeting at home. At one such meeting, the grey cat scratched the legs of one of the parishioners, a fat man praying devoutly for forgiveness, so badly that he bled. The priest was livid and hit the cat with the cross in his hand, and shooed it out. The cat vented its annoyance in shrill tones, and thereafter began to walk the parapet wall of our house. It escaped the tribulations of the prayer meeting only to be tortured by Appa’s Kandashashti Kavacham. The constant traffic in the courtyard was unsettling; it struggled to search out a silent corner to find relief.

Because of the old stuff lying around the house, it became home to insects, geckos, snakes, centipedes and rats. The appalam company people would find a snake almost every day and would beat it to death. A snake was once found under the mat I slept on; thereafter it seemed that the whole house was slithering snake-like under our feet.

The house had lost its sanctity because it had been let out to strangers, and the gods weren’t pleased about it. That’s why, Appa reasoned, the house was crawling with snakes. He sent out all the tenants. He threw out all the objects that had lain unused. When the house was being cleaned, two of the snakes escaped Appa’s attempts to catch them and slipped into the temple. We regained our courtyard, but not the joys it had held. Amma stopped telling us stories. We no longer slept in the courtyard in a row on mats. My sisters, having completed their studies in college, were now in the inner rooms all the time, studying for exams for a government post. I was now in the first year of college, but in my heart I was still a young boy craving for affection.

At home, everyone treated me like the young man I now was. Appa no longer raised his hand against me. I missed being able to lay my head in Amma’s lap and feel her gentle touch. Everyone had moved on. I tried to hold fast to Amma even as I sensed her slipping away. When she cooked I would help her, yearning to gain her affections. Hoping to catch her eye, I pretended to slip and fall; I would revel in her concern as she anxiously said, ‘Watch your step, dei Senthil.’ Clearly, she loved me the most, I would assure myself. I thought I couldn’t live a day without her. Cheeni Anna would scold me, ‘Why do you give Amma a scare every day?’ The depth of Anna’s affection for her rivalled mine but was never expressed.

Our childhood and its memories gradually evaporated from Amma’s memory. The burden of conducting her daughters’ marriage lay on her like a mountain. A marriage proposal turned up for Shanti Akka. The groom held a good job and was reasonably well off. Because Akka was educated, the family had agreed to ten sovereigns of jewellery. We didn’t have a gram of gold to our name. None of us believed the marriage would come through. Shanti Akka sat in a corner weeping.

There wasn’t a decent saree to wear, where was the question of jewellery? This time, Amma left for Periappa’s house and returned with a ten-sovereign necklace for Shanti Akka and some jewellery for Selvi Akka as well. Selvi Akka and I whispered to each other that we should build a temple to Periappa; Cheeni Anna was silent, as if he knew something that none of the others did. Amma shared her secrets with him, not me. ‘The jewellery belongs to us,’ she said. I stared at her, unable to comprehend. ‘At the time that we forfeited our fortune in the court case, Periappa’s jewellery shop also suffered losses. When Periamma’s jewellery wasn’t enough to bail them out, she asked me for mine, promising to return it when business flourished again. Since we were going to lose everything, I thought I might as well try and save the jewellery. So I gave it to her and didn’t show it as part of our wealth. Later, when Periappa offered to return it, I refused. The food he gave us daily was a form of interest for that principal.’ Tears swam in my eyes but I was furious with Amma. I had had to show up every day at their door like a beggar, head bent in shame. And even when I won at games against Periappa’s son, I had to pretend to lose, otherwise he would threaten me with ‘Let’s see when you come home tomorrow. I’ll make sure you don’t get your rice.’ I lay crying on the terrace, all alone, feeling Amma had wronged me. ‘Dei, you are making a big deal of this,’ everyone said, trying to console me. Except for Amma, no one felt my pain. She held my hands, pleading.

Within a few months of Shanti Akka’s wedding Selvi Akka too was married. The house on the south street that had been leased out was sold to meet wedding expenses. Appa was not the Appa of my earlier dreams of Akka’s interrupted wedding. He plunged into wedding related work with enthusiasm. He advised my sisters to take up jobs and not stay at home.

Cheeni Anna got a job as a professor in Sivaganga. That left Amma, Appa and me; the house grew quieter. The grey cat, now pregnant, gave up walking about on the parapet and found a quiet spot in the granary to give birth. She bore five kittens. Amma left a bowl of milk there. She watched in delight as the grey cat carried the newborns from one place to another, their coats gently but firmly held between her teeth.

The grey cat seemed to have entirely forsaken the priest’s house and now lived with her kittens in our courtyard. The cat’s presence brought us together; Amma and I became friends again. Amma talked about the cat and kittens all day. When two of the kittens were carried away by dogs, the incensed grey cat hounded out the mice flourishing in the house.

Karuppi, Sivappi and Ponni was what Amma and I named the kittens, after the colour of their coats, black, white and gold. After the kittens arrived, we began to refer to the grey cat as Big Cat. ‘Dei, look at this Karuppi’s arrogance, she hasn’t touched the food I left her’ or ‘Karuppi and Sivappi had a fight today …’ Amma would report as soon as I returned from college. And I would respond, ‘Is that what she did? Looks like I’ll have to scold her.’ The day Ponni disappeared Amma went to bed without food. Amma’s heart overflowed with love again, for the cats this time, not her children. As if she was keeping an eye on a pair of naughty children, she would follow them around the house. Like Amma’s children, Karuppi and Sivappi would snooze in her lap.

Karuppi would only drink milk, not bothering with any other food. Sivappi would eat anything that was given to her. When Amma moved to Shanti Akka’s house for her delivery, Karuppi disappeared. I didn’t give Amma the news. When she returned she blamed me for Karuppi’s disappearance: I must not have fed her milk, that’s why she ran away. Everyone that she heaped affection on, left her; that was her misfortune, she said regretfully.

Since Anna was struggling alone in Sivaganga, Amma decided to move there to keep house for him. She first thought of taking Sivappi with her but realised that Big Cat would then be left alone. Sivappi stayed back. Appa lived with me now, to give me company. We cooked, we ate, we ran the house. Sivappi wandered around looking for Amma, mewling like an infant. Anna and Amma wrote to me asking us to join them at the end of the semester, and asked after Sivappi. Unable to tell her that Sivappi had died after being hit by a vehicle, I told her that Sivappi too had disappeared. In the letters she wrote thereafter she did not mention Big Cat either.

Big Cat had tired of hunting mice and was found dead in the granary one day. I didn’t tell Amma about the burial or the odour of the dead cat that hung over me then. Even after we locked up the courtyard house and moved to Sivaganga, Amma didn’t ask me about Big Cat. She didn’t want any more bad news concerning cats. Once, when Appa accidentally said, ‘You know, Big Cat died …’ she pretended not to have heard him. The courtyard where Shanti Akka, Selvi Akka, Cheeni Anna and I had slept now lay vacant, with no cats to keep it company either: how was I to tell Amma that?

About the author:

Chandra (b. 1977) is a poet, short story writer and film director. She has won several prizes for her contribution to Tamil literature, such as Sundara Ramaswamy Viruthu and Kalachuvadu Viruthu. She has also worked as a journalist.

About the translator:

Padmaja Anant is a publishing professional and enjoys reading. She is interested in translating works from Tamil and Hindi into English, across a variety of genres.