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. 


Runner-up of the inaugural edition of The Mozhi Prize

A short story by B. Jeyamohan

Translated from the Tamil original ‘Verum Mull’ by Amruth Varshan

B. Jeyamohan, author
Amruth Varshan, translator

In Samaria, men who don’t drink in the summer are branded lazy. The only way to survive the maddening heat and sultry dust is to swill pitchers of chilled, stomach-churning yayin. Eyes watering from the dried peppers of Abyssinia, the pungent yayin assaults the tongue with a sourness to match. The body eventually starts cooling down. Thoughts fleeing the heat finally settle down, drenched. Only then can you find the energy to work. Or think. 

This small town in Samaria is called Ein Sheva — Seven Springs. A town that rose and grew around seven springs that flow by each other. The Arabs who discovered these springs named the place ‘Tabgha’ in their tongue. The town lies along the famed Camel Ridge. It was around these springs that, centuries afore, groups of camel traders put their loads down for a respite from their arid trek. Travelling to Turkey, they carried precious cargo of cinnamon and papyrus from China, or peacock feathers and sandalwood from India. The springs, bordered by rocks, ran deep enough to drown a man twice over. Coloured crimson, they looked  like lone, bloodshot eyes. Descending the outcrops, the traders would sate their own thirst before tending to their camels.

In truth, the place had emerged for the sole purpose of yayin trade. Jewish merchants from far-off Judaea started travelling here to sell Arab and Chinese traders yayin. Over time, the surrounding lands built up into a village. A village of taverns. It had inns that housed rough benches thrown together by tacking on slabs of wood over stones and were roofed low with palm leaves. Behind these inns lived the innkeepers and their families. Many women, on occasion, frequented these innkeeper dwellings. And like the sour, foaming yayin, they too, were for sale.

But even today, there exists no one in these parts capable of making the yayin. It needs quality flour — ground barley is blended with water and left to ferment for over a year. Undertaken by people whose entire lives are dedicated to yayin, it’s distilled in villages far away. Its making is a tradition, handed down for generations. The people who brew it, their attire, breath, words and thoughts are as caustic as the yayin itself. Even their villages lie buried in the deepest retreats of the dust-swept desert, very much like vats.

The excavated yayin, smelling of sand, is transported in wooden barrels. Mule carts laden with the fresh blend beget a royal reception. Nomad poets would trail the procession, singing of the drink’s strength, plucking away at the strings of a kinnor. Women and children would dance. As the carts make their way into the village, they are welcomed to deafening trumpets rearing skyward.

The tarry residue at the bottom of yayin barrels doubles as medicine for laden camels driven with little rest. Its effect on the camels is almost magical. With drooping eyelids and necks turned to jelly, they collapse onto the sand. When they awaken, they do so refreshed, and feeling youthful. They can recognise the scent of yayin. The patriarch camel would signal its desire for the muck with a loud ‘prrrrr’. Timid female camels would sniff and stomp on the sand with heavy hooves, their manes shuddering.

It is indeed remarkable that such springs could exist in such desolate wastelands. Lands where the skies and the earth are little more than red dust. A hydrologist from the lands of India, east of the snow-tipped peaks, had once proclaimed that beneath the sand ran a hidden river. Seen from atop the wind-weathered sandstones some distance away, sezeban trees — an indigenous species, growing above the river — would give the appearance of a large green towel draped over the desert.

The sezeban is a short, thorny species of shrub. They nurture green leaves devoid of moisture and have branches sticking out in opposing directions. Leaves bud into green mounds with the coming of spring. With autumn, they turn into bare trunks. Sticks barren of foliage. And as autumn comes, so do the Abyssinians who call these trees, filfilee. They are never around to witness green on these trees — a fact betrayed by their name for it. ‘Barren thorn’. An interpreter had once said that that was how the word ‘filfilee’ translated to the local tongue.  In Abyssinian, it’s a scathing insult, reserved for braggarts with no actual substance. In spring, this thorny shrub is anything but barren, sporting lush, green smiles. But its leaves are ridden with prickly thorns. The natives think the tree cunning. The green foliage is seductive and attracts unwary donkeys. Even the slightest lapse in judgement would leave the poor beast’s mouth mutilated. A traveller with his garb entangled in its nettles, would find it near impossible to extricate himself from its clutches without the aid of another.

Personally, I’m a summer kind of man. I’m rather partial to the sultry season in Samaria. To me, the winters there are quite uninteresting. The cold feels like filthy, wet wool wrapped around my body. Fall wind in Samaria heaves at the desert constantly, making it impossible to have a drink of yayin free of sand. The entire town would be deserted on such days. Merchants would be extremely reluctant to open the barrels that held the drink. A few barrels uncasked in want of the odd coin would go to waste, its insides reeking of fungi. But in spring, the tides turn and people flock to the marketplace. Poets at the kinnor, young merchants, and women of the night populate the benches far as the eye can see, all of them, soaked. Drunken babble and meaningless laughter sink into the sour sand. This is when the yayin is most expensive, leaving nomads like me with a dearth of drink.

The throng thins out in the summer when the earth and skies tire. The occasional traveller on camelback and the sigh of wind lost in the dunes are the only sounds echoing off the barren landscape. Looking upon the expanding skies, the open directions and the desert drinking in the sun, is wonderful to a wayfarer. There is no better view. The insignificance of it all sinks in, an inexplicable feeling that nothing holds any gravity. A feeling that fills the hearts of nomads like me with serenity. As a voice inside whispers repeated comforts, the lilting tunes of a kinnor are all my heart desires. Life would then be complete.

His white beard fluttering in the wind, dirt pooled around his closed eyes, old Thomas lay outside the tavern, kinnor on his lap. As his head drooped in stupor, his hand slid and fell upon the instrument, its twelve strings seeming to moan the words, ‘Aamaamallavo’. For a brief instant, my soul rippled as water in a well. The moan that fell on my ears — they were words of my native tongue. A language that I hadn’t heard since my childhood, lying forgotten, a shadow in the bottom of my heart. A language I hadn’t spoken a word of in thirty-two years. A language that held meaning only in my dreams. I called for another mug of the acrid yayin.

When half my tankard was gone, scatty Isaac limped to the mouth of the bar, dragging his swollen leg behind him. The rags he wore weren’t unlike the tatters that fluttered around the trees of the desert, snagged there by the wind. He carried with him at all times, an enormous bundle, accumulating clothes he found over time. He never parted with it, the hefty cargo always on his back. Hence the swollen leg. Even as he slept, the heap would rest over him.

Rebecca hurried outside, screaming, ‘Get lost, dirtbag! I don’t have the patience for your filth so early in the morning.’ Isaac did not so much as flinch. Not even when she threatened to strike him with her wooden pan. It was impossible to remove him until he got what he desired. His eyes were like yellowing pebbles mildly wet from morning dew.

Summer made Rebecca as prickly as its heat. She shot various insults at Isaac, hoping to shoo him away. Carrying a heavy pitcher of water inside, her mother advised, ‘Give that fool something and send him on his way. He’s going to frighten away the customers. Disgust them, more likely.’

‘Sure,’ Rebecca scoffed. ‘What customers? Would you please shut up? The only drinker we’ve had all morning is this easterner. He’ll sit here all day, drinking not more than a measly copper’s worth.’

Turning to me, ‘You, nomad. Finish your mug and leave now. The stench of your clothes is bad for business,’ she accused.

Giving her a silver coin, I asked her to give Thomas and Isaac a mug each. She stared at me in disbelief.

‘Yes, it’s real. Solid silver. Keep my tab open until that runs out.’

Curtly plucking the coin from my hand, she scuttled back inside. She would turn the coin over several times, inspecting it. They consider me a sorcerer here. To them, all easterners are conjurors. Flying carpets, canes that turn into snakes, tongues of flame and such tricks are expected of us. When an easterner confesses that he can’t actually fly, he invites strange looks. Or so a Chinese trader once told me, chuckling, his narrow eyes narrowing further.

My words lured Thomas inside. He was a patron of the bar now. A buyer. With an air of dignity, he placed his kinnor on a wooden pedestal and joined me on the bench. He rubbed his palms in glee and grinned at me. His black teeth flashed for a moment amidst a beard that looked like dried blades of grass. Isaac seemed unaware of what had transpired.

Rebecca gave Isaac the first mug. Taking the tankard from her with both his hands, he meekly sat down on the mud platform by the entrance. As if sipping scalding hot soup, he puckered his lips and began slurping in small gulps. From inside, ‘Did you earn this with all your tricks?’ asked Rebecca.

‘No. Fortune telling.’

‘Whose fortune did you tell?’

‘A Roman general’s.’

‘Ah. That’s what I thought. Who else would be here, in this summer, rich enough to possess silver?’

‘What did you tell him?’ asked Thomas.

‘Dark times lie ahead. Your slaves will rise in revolt. Clouds of dust will swarm your horses. Slay a few more chickens in the name of your Gods,’ I burst into laughter. ‘That’s what I advise any official.’

As the drink was brought to Thomas, he ignored it with an air of condescension befitting a lord. With an intense expression, he turned to me and said, ‘I hear that the heat will drop quite a few bodies in the towns south. Diseased Abyssinians, from their travels the last time around, have left behind some strange sicknesses.’ Even as he spoke, he carelessly lifted his mug up to his nose, sniffed at the drink, and shook his head, satisfied. ‘Boils crop up all over the body. No one survives for more than four days. Entire clans are being wiped out. All it takes is one infected member.’

Pointing at Isaac’s rag bundle, ‘Samaria is one huge trash can. Not unlike this bag,’ I said. ‘It lies in the path of many important trade routes. Diseases from all corners of the world converge here. People of all races leave behind their seed. Thoughts from around the globe condense here.’

Throwing his head back in raucous laughter, Thomas took a long, deep draught. ‘True… Nomads from countries all over meet here.’

Standing at the inner entrance, it was Rebecca’s turn to laugh. ‘I had a feeling this would backfire on you,’ she guffawed. ‘The very moment you bought him a drink.’

I looked up from my mug and at Isaac. He was still slurping on his tankard, turned towards the desert, staring off into the distance. His unmoving eyes gave him the appearance of someone deep in thought. Or someone devoid of any.

‘Now look here you eastern wanderer. I’m not a stranger in these parts as you are. This is where I was born. My ancestors have been bards for twenty generations. I have each of their names on the tip of my tongue,’ said Thomas gruffly, leaning heavily on his fisted hand on the wood.

‘But your clan is dead. What of it now?’ asked Rebecca.

‘Yes. Yes, they are dead. They succumbed to an alien sickness. Probably from his eastern countries,’ Thomas spat at me. Taking a hard swig, he emptied his mug with a shudder, clearing his throat with a guttural noise. ‘The mind of a bard from an extinct clan is scarcely more than a dustbin.’

‘Why don’t you look for other employment?’ asked Rebecca.

‘I’m a bard.’

‘So? Shouldn’t a bard work?’

‘No. Because he is a bard.’

Shaking the tankard to extract the final drop onto his tongue and extending it toward Rebecca, ‘It wouldn’t be the worst thing for you to give me some more,’ he said.


‘I’ll tell you the story of this wanderer if you do.’

‘Whose story? His? Let me guess. He came here with traders from his land and when health failed him, they left him here.’

‘You’d think. But no. I saw him as he entered Samaria with three others.’


‘You weren’t yet born. Back then, your mother was the fairest in all of Samaria. And the most expensive. Ah, some thirty years ago. Maybe longer,’ said Thomas. ‘It was a time when the most gallant of heroes was this fool, Isaac.’

‘Is this true?’

‘Aye. He used to be taller then. Stone Pillar, we used to call him. He was famed for being able to break sandstones with his bare hands. A heavy sword always hung by his belt and a whip fashioned from fishtails hung over his shoulder. His arms and shoulders, tattooed with cobras, made women all over swoon. He was a centurion in the royal army. When he walked into taverns in the evening, women and singers would surround him, celebrating his very presence.’

‘Poor thing,’ said Rebecca, glancing at Isaac.

‘I have a whole ballad that sings of Isaac and his glory. But that is for another time. This story is of this nomad.’

‘If it would shut you up, I’ll buy you another tankard,’ I negotiated.

‘I’ll give you a mug to speak,’ Rebecca countered my offer. ‘Why did he come here?’

‘Refill,’ said Thomas.

‘Argh! You…’ started Rebecca, but got up and fetched the yayin anyway. Winking at me, ‘Go on,’ she urged Thomas.

‘Thirty years ago, a powerful rumour swirled around these parts, much like sand. At the root of it all was a comet.’

‘Yes. I’ve heard my mother speak of it. She said it appeared like a giant red tadpole across the heavens.’

‘When I first saw it, I thought it was a red flag, a shirt tied to a pole by poor souls afar, unable to walk, stranded, alone in the sand. Its tail was quite long and sometimes looked like the forked tail of a swallow. At other times it appeared to be a fish’s fin. It remained there for four months. It first rose over the southwest. Over time, it gradually moved to the northeast and eventually disappeared from view.’

‘Oh. That sounds breathtaking. Can I hope to see anything like it in my lifetime?’

‘Astronomers say it’s unlikely. They had never seen anything quite like it,’ Thomas took another swig.

I stared at him intently. It has been thirty years and the Samarians still did not tire of talking about the comet. Wherever a singer told tales of it, it earned him barley porridge at the very least. The constant stories, regaled repeatedly over time, made the comet legend.

‘But some texts speak of the comet. As did seven great seers,’ Thomas continued. ‘It was a warning. A gauntlet. Like a lit arrow fired into the sky before a war. A sign that we begin now, and that there will be no going back,’ his eyes shone as he spoke.

Tucking her skirt between her legs, Rebecca sat across the narrating Thomas.

She is rather beautiful, I thought to myself. Her cheeks flushed red, excited by the tale, her eyelashes fluttering.

‘Though we have been slaves, looked down on for centuries, we Samarians are a chosen people. We discovered the true God in these stark sands. It is to us alone that God has spoken. It was our lack of unity that led to our enslavement. Today, we are shackled to the yokes of Rome. They flog us mercilessly as we lay helpless, our legs broken. Drinking our own blood to quench our thirst, we roam the desert in the unforgiving heat.’

Rebecca nodded, rapt.

‘While we pray, our dispersed clans live in parts of Egypt, Abyssinia and Rome as slaves, manacled and worked tirelessly. Flogged, starved and raped, they die hopeless and meaningless deaths. But we prayed. Eyes closed and our palms folded over our chests — as is the eastern way — our hearts thumping against their cages, we prayed. Tears fell like drops of molten lead. Our words simmered as though they came from the mouths of raging kilns. As a father watches the scowl on the face of his sleeping child, our Lord stood bent over, watching as we prayed.’ Caressing his long, white beard, Thomas smiled. ‘The comet was an answer to all that.’

‘Oh!’ Rebecca exclaimed, clutching at her heart. ‘Lord, I pray all the time too. Did you know?’

‘There isn’t one Samarian you can show me who doesn’t pray,’ Thomas told her. ‘That is why the comet was sent to us. We had been blowing on wet tinder for so many years. The firewood finally reddened and sparked; the first tongue of flame. The fire will blaze on now, a towering inferno, reaching for the heavens.’

Emptying the rest of his mug with a single swig, ‘Somewhere, the blade has been drawn,’ he said.

‘Rebecca, I’d like a refill,’ I asked.

‘Following the comet, thirty years ago, hordes of people flocked here from the east,’ Thomas went on. ‘Astronomers and learned men. It is said that the comet was visible far into their lands. Legend has it that tens of thousands of scholars set out for these lands. But only a few actually made it, crossing Arabia and Egypt. Those few were still enough to fill this small town with new eastern faces. Yellow faces, much like half-cooked pancakes. Or overcooked. Like this face here,’ he pointed at me.

I took a sip from the drink that Rebecca had brought. Sucking in the final drop, Isaac set his mug down. Placing his bundle over his lap and resting his hands on it, he sat there, staring into the distant desert.

‘I had been rather eager to catch a glimpse of the eastern aliens. It was a harsh winter. The northern winds blew in, cold as icy daggers. And just as sharp. No one ventured outside after sundown. I had a dream that night. I was walking through the desert, in the parts where my clan was buried, when my legs tripped over another pair. The legs of little John. And what’s more, he was alive! I fervently dug him out of the sand. ‘My mother is here. Close by,’ he told me. His mother Maria. I dug her up too. I dug all of them out of the sand like a man possessed. And just as well, I woke up, startled, in a cold sweat.

‘You know it yourself. Dreams of resurrection foreshadow death… I have no family to speak of. No kin. Was this omen meant specifically for me? Shivering, I made for the taverns, looking for a mug of yayin. As the night had long since begun, none of them were open. As I stood around, not knowing what to do, I caught sight of dancing lights in the distance. By their bobbing, I could tell that they were lights mounted on camels. I started in their direction.’

‘Is that where you saw him?’ Rebecca gestured at me.

‘Yes. Their group was rather large. Twenty camels in all. Thirteen laden with cargo. By the time I reached them, they had unloaded it on the sand and were erecting tents in the desert. I approached them playing my kinnor, lest they mistook me for a bandit. After all, eastern daggers always find their mark. Unsheathing a long, thin sword from his scabbard, their guard pointed it at me and asked me who I was. The metal glinted like a shimmering snake. I told him I was a kinless bard. After careful examination, they offered me their sour eastern wine, bread and dry fruits.’

Thomas ploughed on. ‘On a large carpet sprawled on the sand, I saw four men seated. It was a flying carpet. Of that, I had no doubt. The mysterious runes engraved on it made their purpose very clear to me. A shiny, blue carpet. The four men on it looked regal enough to be emperors. You wouldn’t believe it but all four of them were easterners. Each of them was of a different complexion. Of the four, this one here had the darkest skin.’

‘Him?’ Rebecca got up, astonished. ‘He was one of those emperors?’

‘Yes. You couldn’t possibly imagine what he was like back then. Like a golden scarab. He was the youngest among them. A beard black as the night and sharp as a horn. Teeth like white pebbles, large round eyes. He was able to converse with me all in Samarian.’

‘What did he talk about?’

‘He asked me what stories were told here about the comet. I told him vaguely that people were afraid. I figured, why disclose our secrets to a foreigner? Angered, he threatened to turn me into a lunatic if I didn’t speak the truth. Right then, the oldest of the four admonished him and beckoned me closer. His long beard fell on his chest like wisps of clouds. He asked me if any miracle had occurred here. Trying my hand at flattery, I told him that one indeed had happened. They had come to our home. That a bard’s hunger has been sated. But no. He wasn’t swayed. He asked me if anything extraordinary had happened recently. Lowering his voice, he asked me if there had been any royal births.

‘Up until then, I had never even thought of it that way,’ Thomas confessed. ‘I had a moment of clarity. All became clear to me. I told the old man that there had in fact been a birth. But I couldn’t reveal anything further. A lion cub had been born. They bid me to leave. I disobeyed. A little distance away, I reclined on a rock, keeping an eye on their group. But the eastern wine was too potent. You would know all too well. I dozed off. In the morning there was not a single indication of tents and camels having been there the previous night. Every trace had been erased by the wind. A golden muslin cloth discarded by the springs was the only evidence for all I just claimed. Naturally, no one believed me. It wasn’t worth even a mug of Yayin.’

‘Didn’t he leave with them?’ Rebecca asked Thomas, blinking in surprise.

 ‘No. But it was another eight years before I saw him again. His clothes torn, dirt plastered all over his body and his hair a spectacular mess, he sat drinking at a tavern in the Joppa Harbour. But I could recognise his eyes. Those mysterious, foreign eyes. I went up to him to make certain that it indeed was him. He had no memory of me.’

‘Didn’t you go back?’ Rebecca interjected.

‘Do you really believe the yarn he’s spinning? He would swear on his life that I am Caesar in guise if that would get him another round of booze.’

‘A bard never lies,’ retorted a solemn Thomas. Turning to Rebecca, ‘Rebecca, honey, your beauty is beyond words. Your thighs and the undying spring between them are the stuff of dreams. Would you be a darling and fetch me another mug?’

Raising her hand as if to hit him, ‘I will split your skull,’ said a smiling Rebecca. Nonetheless, she brought him half a mug of yayin. Turning to me, ‘But this, I believe of him. I’ve seen you here around seven, maybe eight times. I have a strong feeling that you’re not a simple nomad,’ she accused.

‘What other kind of nomad is there?’

‘The kind that always has a good yarn to spin,’ she giggled.

‘Or tales of treasure,’ Thomas chipped in, sipping from his mug.

‘Fine. I’ll spin a yarn for you. Do you know where I hail from?’

‘Pray tell.’

‘You can’t possibly imagine. Far east of here, beyond the snow-capped mountains, there lies a country. The trees from whence the seeds of human wisdom spread through the world grow there.’

‘Indus. I know. I’ve been with a merchant from there for a week.’

‘Yes. It’s a river. Larger rivers run down south. Giant fields, cities of epic scale. The houses in some of the cities are roofed with bronze. In others, even with silver. Some temples have roofs of solid gold.’

Rebecca’s jaw dropped in amazement.

‘Even larger nations and cities lie to the south. At the tip of one of these southern lands, two oceans converge. Here, the waves crash like thundering horses. One of the oceans is a light turquoise while the other is a darker shade of green. The rulers of this land have a lineage so ancient that its beginning has passed out of living memory. They are chiefs of a fishermen clan. Their ocean is where pearls are found.’

Rebecca stood up. ‘Yes, I’ve seen them. They gleam like the eyes of fish. Eastern merchants bring them here for sale.’

‘Yes. The fishermen clan accrued their wealth only after they started diving for pearls. They learnt to build wooden galleys and to trade by sea. They built a fortified city that they called ‘Alaivaai’ – Wave-Mouth. Their chief became a king. They became the unconquerable Pandiyars, and the name has lived on.’

‘Are you from the House of Pandiyar?’ asked Rebecca.

‘If it pleases you, so be it. After all, all you want is a good tale. Let’s say I am of the royal family. My name is Chezhian.’




‘Fine. Cheziyah.’

‘Why come here? Across these mountains and deserts?’

Smiling, I replied, ‘Ask your bard friend there. He will cook up stories that will keep him supplied with yayin for years to come.’

‘Come on. Tell me,’ she insisted.

‘Okay. Presume I came here as a merchant. Having lost all my money on a beauty like your mother, I was stranded here, unable to return home. That makes for a fine story, right?’

‘Stop fooling around and answer my question. Did you see the prince cub of Judaea?’


‘Oh,’ Rebecca deflated. ‘Did the others with you see him?’


Rebecca inhaled sharply. ‘Did they not take you with them?’

‘They did.’

‘Then how come you didn’t see him?’

‘How do I explain this to you? Those with me went up to him and kneeled in front of him.’


‘I did not see him.’

‘Why not?’

‘I did not kneel.’

‘That means you’re divine too,’ Thomas butted in. ‘My lord, bless me with sweet wine.’

‘I don’t follow,’ said Rebecca.

‘That’s a story for a different time. It would get Thomas another mug some other time,’ I winked at her.

‘You make your living with these petty mysteries, don’t you? All you easterners,’ Rebecca sighed. ‘There once came a magician who performed tricks with rope. A fairly simple trick. Yet it has helped his family thrive for a thousand years.’

‘Right you are.’

‘There is no talk of the lord these days, huh?’ Rebecca asked Thomas. ‘Back then, people talked about nothing else for a while, my mother tells me.’

‘Yes. Word reached the ears of King Herod. Terrified, he ordered the execution of all the infants born that year.’

‘I’ve heard of this. Mother says my brother was killed too.’

‘Thousands of babies were massacred. Soldiers went door-to-door, sword in hand, cutting down all the toddlers they could find. Nursing infants were ripped from their mothers’ teats and mercilessly murdered. Their eyes ran with tears as their breasts did with milk. I’ve made no less than seventy elegies of the incident.’

‘My god!’ Rebecca exclaimed.

‘They would bundle the clothes stained with blood of the massacred children and collect their payment from the master of coin. With their bloody swords and new money, they would come for drink. And women. Tossing us coins, they would command us to sing. All of what I sang was for them. Hearing my songs in a drunken stupor, they would start bawling, inconsolable.’

‘What is to come from speaking of such matters now?’ Rebecca’s mother called from inside.

‘They are poems. And what is poetry but history.’

‘Do not sing,’ she warned.

‘You just might score another mug for not singing,’ I jested.

‘Shut it, nomad filth. I’m a bard from a tribe with a history of a thousand years. Do you think we’re equals?’ Thomas roared.

‘The tribe isn’t here now.’

‘They are like grasshoppers. Lying in wait, buried in the desert sand. All they need is one night of rain. They will rise again. When our lord rides, a sword in one hand and fire in another, atop a red mount, the skies will part. And rain will pour forth from the rift heavens. Rain not of water, but of blood, red as his steed. Bathed in that rain, the dead will rise, and my kinnor will ring ceaselessly.’

‘Good yayin is like a forest fire. It catches on but gradually,’ said I.

‘Wandering scum!’ Thomas spat. ‘Run from here, out of my sight. My saviour is coming.’

‘Perhaps he was slain at the sword of Herod’s rule thirty years ago.’

Thomas froze in shock. He glared at me, unblinking. His head trembled. A sudden sound rent the air. Like a woollen quilt ripping. Thomas had started sobbing. Tears fell heavy on his beard. Brushing them away with his hand and clutching the fabric on his chest, he shuddered violently.

‘There we go. Rebecca, drag him and dump him outside,’ her mother ordered.

I walked outside. Isaac was still on the platform, unmoved. I went into a cluster of filfilee bushes to relieve myself. This was the problem with yayin. As I squatted, I heard a sound on the other side. Merchants? But they did not come here during the summer.

I stood up. A small crowd was moving down the street. All of them were swathed in long, dusty robes. A man was riding a donkey, surrounded by seven more engaged in song.

Rebecca and Thomas stepped out of the tavern to investigate the commotion. ‘He’s a carpenter’s son,’ Thomas proclaimed loudly. ‘He calls himself a preacher. He speaks like a learned man.’

I looked at him intently. I couldn’t quite gather why my heart was pumping so fast. His long hair flowed over his shoulders, his beard, like a black honeycomb. His robe was in tatters. His lower body seemed one with the beast he rode, appearing to be a part of him.

He taught the fishermen to fish, the carpenter’s son,

Yes! The carpenter’s son, the carpenter’s son.

And the fisher folk under the sun, made him a cross,

Yes! A cross. A cross, a great wooden cross!

Thomas sang raucously and danced, waving his arms wildly. Rebecca stood watching with glee.

I looked at the eyes of the rider. My fingers were trembling. He rode past me, as the group walked around him. I could see his legs draped over the donkey. Cracked heels, coated with dirt. All at once, I felt a burning desire to leap and dash towards him. I moved forward without realising it. But the sezeban was all around me, a prickly prison. A couple of thorns buried into my hand as another caught on the fabric on my torso.

Crossing the fence, the crowd kept moving. Irritated, I whisked my hand back. A tiny streak of blood ran from a gash, my palm on fire.

There was a strange, sudden squeal. Surprised, I stepped back. Behind me, Isaac came rushing blindly and leapt into the filfilee, burrowing through. Taken aback by the assault of thorns, he froze for a moment, shrieked and jumped out onto the dirt. Getting himself up, arms stretched out, he ran down the street, still screeching. His clothes had been ripped away and he was bare-naked, red, bloody streaks across his body where the thorns had torn at his skin.

I craned my neck to see a sprinting Isaac, covered in blood, like a newborn rushing from the womb. His bundle lay abandoned at the mouth of Rebecca’s pub.


About the Author:

B. Jeyamohan (b. 1962), based in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, is a pre-eminent writer in modern Tamil literature. His most significant work yet is a twenty-six part roman-fleuve called Venmurasu (The White Drum), a reimagination of the Mahabharata. Spanning more than twenty-five thousand pages, it is amongst the longest literary works in the world. Apart from other landmark novels such as Vishnupuram (1997) and Kotravai (2005), his body of work includes more than three hundred short stories, many volumes of literary criticism, biographies, travelogues, introductory texts to Indian and Western literature as well as essays on heritage and philosophy. He has received many honours, including the Akilan Memorial Prize for his first novel, and the Katha Samman, the Sanskriti Samman and the Iyal Award (Canada) in later years. He can be found at https://www.jeyamohan.in/.

About the Translator:

Amruth Varshan is a writer and game designer from Tamil Nadu, India. He has a background in engineering but his true passion lies in the meeting of literature, language, and art. Deeply fond of both English and Tamil, he’s always trying to find new ways to express his love for words.

Cotton Fever

Third place winner in the inaugural edition of The Mozhi Prize

A short story by Senthil Jaganathan

Translated from the Tamil original ‘Mazhaikann’ by Anjana Shekar

Senthil Jaganathan, author
Anjana Shekar, translator

When we reached Kumbakonam bus station that morning, time was half past six. It was made possible only because we had woken up as early as 4 am. Amma got down from the bus and told us that her legs had gone numb. She took each step carefully, as if walking on water. From a tea shop at the bus station, Appa got us coffee to drink and tea for himself. As soon as she took a sip of coffee from the cup, Amma’s left hand automatically reached behind her saree to scratch her lower back. This happened every time she drank something hot. She would begin sweating and when she did, the itching would take over. Although we were used to it by now, the looks we got from the tea shop made me feel awkward. By the time we finished our drink a bus to Tirunageswaram town was ready to leave from the bay on the other side. We boarded the bus and arrived at Muthupillai Mandapam. 

As we entered the premises of Sacred Heart Hospital, we encountered different kinds of patients. Those with half their fingers melting away, those with their skin peeling off in white patches, those who were wiping away the blood and pus from their knees with cotton, those with sunken noses, gradually losing the shape of their face, those who had swollen patches across their bodies, those whose skin looked red, as if covered with scratches. In every direction we turned, there were only lepers. The moment Amma took in the scene, she gathered the free end of her saree into a ball with trembling fingers and stuffed it into her mouth. 

Appa left us to enquire with a nurse at the reception. 

‘Sokkayee! look where you’ve abandoned me… I never did no one no harm… Vadakamalayane! Oh, what’ll happen to ma three babies?’ She cried to herself in soft tones, tears streaming down her eyes. 

‘Don’t cry amma,’ I told her gently. The sight of those patients, the odour of medicines, and the still-wet floors that reeked of phenyl churned my insides and increased my anxiety. Across from us sat a man whose right hand was wrapped in cloth; he was missing three fingers. Next to him sat a woman, fanning his bandaged hand with a sheet of cardboard. Amma threw furtive glances at them. 

Just then Appa returned from the reception desk. 

‘Wretched fellow has brought me to this state, damn him!’ her tears turned into anger the moment she saw him.  

A few token numbers went by, and soon it was our turn to see the doctor. In his white coat and glasses, he seemed like an ageing Mother Mary. After listening to everything that Appa had to tell, he responded in subdued tones. 

‘How did you get by like this for a year? Could you not have come in earlier?’ he asked while writing down something on a paper. Behind him there was a picture of Christ standing amidst a herd of sheep, cradling a black lamb in his arms. Amma’s eyes, brimming with tears, remained focussed on this picture. 

‘We will run a blood test now and begin treatment based on the results. I am going to write down some tablets for you to take and you can come back next week. There’s a specialist coming in from abroad. Don’t worry… we can cure this.’ As soon as the doctor said this, I saw hope glisten in Amma’s perpetually teary eyes. 

When the nurse extracted blood from a vein on her hand, Amma ground her teeth and shut her eyes. For someone who had never paid heed to any kind of sickness for more than two days, Amma now feared the thought of even the slightest prick on her skin. 

The doctor’s confidence and the way he closed his eyes in the end to pray for Amma gave us hope. As soon as she got into the bus, she rested her head on Appa’s shoulders and fell asleep. 


About a year and a half ago, around the end of a harvest, Appa, who was having his dinner, told Amma: ‘This time, let’s not plough. Let’s go for cotton fully. I’ve asked the Thinnandiyur cotton merchant to keep aside some seeds.’ He paused waiting for her reply. Amma spoke while serving buttermilk from a pot resting in the  uri ropes that hung from the ceiling. ‘There’s paddy seeds, isn’ it? Even when the earth was parched and cracked didn’ we bend and toil to bring water, save pourin’ it by the handfuls? Now there’s plenty of water, isn’ it?’ she spoke softly, taking care not to wake my brother. 

‘And ter what use was that? Ter have sown and laboured day an’ night? We’ve got ter think about our boy’s college admission. We’re goin’ ter have ter pay back the remaining debts. And before my time’s up, I want ter build a house… I’m sayin’ we grow cotton now so we can see some money. Tomorrow I ain’ the one who’s goin’ ter enjoy ‘em all.’ his voice rose, angry and uncontrolled. Amma remained quiet only because she feared that Appa might leave without finishing his dinner. My brother who was half asleep woke up with a start and scratched his head. She comforted him back to sleep. 

This time, Amma was not for sowing cotton. Two months ago, when she swooned under the Ayyanar temple palm tree, Mayavaram Narayanan doctor had said that she had high blood pressure. Since then she tried not to spend long hours under the sun or strain herself with too much work. But she was able to keep this up for only a week. As the time for harvesting drew closer, Amma took it upon herself to oversee all the work. On the last day of the harvest, while they were winnowing the paddy grains, she hyperventilated and fainted once again. This time they made her lie down under the banyan, resting her head on one of its roots. 

On the one hand, cotton demanded twice the work. One’s throat would dry up and tongue fall out just to keep off the Panampalli cattle from grazing the lands. On the other hand, it was only because of the cotton we had sown earlier that we were able  to buy a wet grinder for the house and reclaim the two sovereign gold earrings that were pawned off at the Sirkazhi Cooperative Society over three years ago. Now the Ayyanar pond was brimming with water and the well-maintained diesel engine too gave us no worry. We could be sure of a good supply of water. We could reap in abundance. 

Amma’s thoughts raced from buying a television set for the house so the children wouldn’t have to go from house to house to watch TV, to escaping from the smoky kitchen by purchasing a gas stove. Only the state of her health stopped her short of saying yes.

But Appa had already made up his mind. With a fifty thousand rupees investment, if one were to dedicate just four months to the cotton, the returns would be three times as much. And so he bought cotton seeds from the cotton merchant in Thirunandriyur. The next day was in ascension. He consulted the calendar and found that it would be best to sow them the following day. It was Amma who soaked the seeds herself in cow dung milk that same night. She kept her indifference only until a decision was still to be made. The minute something entered the house, it became hers. With the seeds soaking in the dung mixture, Appa shovelled and cut furrows across the field the very next day. Since it was recently cultivated, he didn’t have to level it once again. For Amma it was a bit of relief that the levelling expenses were spared. 

We drilled in the end sticks on either end of the furrows and ran taut strings across them. Across these lines, we dug holes at three-feet intervals. Amma and I sowed the seeds along with my younger brothers. On the fourth day, the saplings showed their heads and she looked at them with maternal joy, like someone inspecting a newborn ward at a hospital. We replaced the seeds that didn’t germinate with those that we had nursed at home. Generally, people tended to mark these spots with a stick wrapped in paper but Amma always knew, without a doubt, which row and which hole had the bad seed. She had a way of knowing the earth’s every movement. Once my grandfather beckoned me and said, ‘Your ma, she’s got them earth lines memorised.’ I have borne witness to the true meaning of those words many times. 

Amma did not feel the strain of the seventh day watering because Appa was around. On the fifteenth day when it was time for the next watering, he had to leave town to attend a relative’s wedding and we too were away in school. Amma scouted for someone to buy diesel for the engine, started it on her own and made sure every sapling had its supply of water. With the same vigour, she took up fertilising the two-acre field herself, with just one other person to help. This, she accomplished in just half a day. In the subsequent days, it was time to begin weeding the field. Amma called for a few field hands. From bringing them tea and vadai to weeding the missed-out patches herself, she took care of it all. The physical stress of it made her often exclaim, ‘Ah! Could just grab my rib bones and throw ‘em away!’ But the sight of healthy plants swaying in the breeze would make her forget all her pain the very next day. ‘These cotton plants… lookin’ like sucklin’ children. Even forget my pain sometimes,’ she’d say. Even if saliva gathered in her throat, she’d only dampen the roots with her spit.

Every morning one has to walk into the fields around the same time as the grazing cattle. If not, they’d just raze through our hard work. The cattle herders would let loose the bovines and doze off under the banyan trees or play the strategic aadu puli aatam board game – the ones with pieces for lambs and tigers – at the pillared temple halls or wander off to gather palm dates. Unbeknownst to the herder, the cattle would turn towards the fields. And when that happens, one has to howl and clamour loudly and run in all directions to chase them away, unmindful of the thorns that pierce and tear the sole of the feet.

In addition to the cattle, worms and insects are cotton’s worst foe. Leaf-coloured worms and pale-red insects can destroy cotton. They can’t be controlled even when insecticide is sprayed with the help of sprinklers. What makes matters even worse is when there are trees surrounding the fields. Our field was bordered by Indian mulberry, fence firewood and portia trees and as a result many insects began infesting the cotton. Our biggest blow came when the cotton’s agony somehow transferred onto Amma. While tending to some of the infected plants, she felt a slight prick on her left palm. On an impulse, she massaged it off. 

On the first day, under the impression that it was just an insect bite, she applied brine. When the swelling did not reduce, she resorted to home remedies like crushed turmeric and slaked lime in coconut oil. When that too didn’t work, she had to take an injection at the terrace doctor’s clinic in our town. Only then did the swelling reduce. But as time went by, the itch that originated at the bitten spot intensified. A kind of a persistent, unsatisfiable itch like the one felt in the stomach of a pregnant woman, a feeling like that of a thousand prickly worms crawling at once across the body. Amma would scratch herself so hard that her nails would bear bloody stains. Those same nails then caused the itch to spread. In time, her body became covered with hardened and flaky skin like that of a ringworm infection. Some said it was shingles, some said it was ringworm. Everyone who saw her turned into doctors. 

When home remedies gave her no relief, some suggested that country medicines would work better when it came to treating skin diseases. And so we went to a country doctor in Sirkazhi. We were asked to avoid all allergy-causing food items like brinjals, dried fish, milk coffee, tea and fish. The country doctor prescribed an oil to be applied all over her body and tablets to be taken before and after meals too. His prescription, however, led to no improvement. Instead, the frequent bustling in the summer heat only made her suffer more. All this turned into anger directed at Appa. 

‘Are you not takin’ me to a good hospital because it’d cost you more? Is that why you’re making me roam here and there and tormentin’ me like this?’ With that question, Appa gave up on country medicine. 

In three months’ time, the pods were bursting out and the cotton was ready to be picked. In spite of her health, Amma went into the fields. ‘Don’t miss out on any of the open pods my dears. God’ll bless you for it,’ she’d say, seated at the boundary, to those picking the cotton for us. 

When there’s field work being done, Amma would never be able to sit in one place for more than half an hour. She wouldn’t be able to resist getting down and picking through a few pods herself. These she would collect in the pocket made by tucking in the folded ends of her saree at her waist. At the end of a cotton harvest, there’d be four months’ supply of kindling for the kitchen. But now that didn’t matter because Amma detested going anywhere near the stove. 

The moment the heat from the stove reached her skin, she would begin to sweat and itch. By the time she could finish cooking, Amma would writhe as though burning. During the early days, we did not know to think otherwise, but slowly we began to regret asking her for coffee or tea. What upset her the most was when people asked about the scabs on her hands and neck and legs, in places that weren’t covered by her saree. 

Neighbours and relatives seemed repelled by Amma’s condition. Once, when our aunt’s mother-in-law passed away, Amma wanted to join the lamenting circle formed by a group of closely related women, including our aunt. And when she did, they started leaving one after the other, repulsed by the thought of coming into contact with her. Amma would often recall that incident and grieve. Since then, she began avoiding any kind of gatherings. If there was no way out but to visit, her torment would begin with the bus journey itself. The sweat and the heat would aggravate her itching. Sometimes, she would grab anything that was close at hand to relieve the itch. We could hear the raspy sound of nails on skin even in the middle of the night. Amma, sleepless, would be scratching herself using the hand fan, and doze off only around dawn. 

That day too, she woke up tired, with puffy eyes. Realising how late she was, she rushed to cook. Appa sat down to eat at 11 am. Having mixed kuzhambu with rice, all it took was one mouthful for him to realise that it had no flavour, no salt, no spice. He kicked the kuzhambu bowl and spat out, ‘Disgusting. Can’t even bear ter taste this. Thuu…’ As if someone had yanked the hair from the crown of her head, Amma who was seated on the doorstep blew up in rage. She picked up the kuzhambu bowl that came rolling towards her, aimed at the wall and flung it with great force. Whatever remained in the bowl splattered all across the walls and the floor. ‘With sores on every inch of my body I’ve not been unable to sit or stand. Showin’ me your arrogance, are you? That am not pleasin’ your taste buds, you son of a bitch! You don’t even bring me a cup of water if I fall sick. And you’re kicking my own kuzhambu at me?’ she burst out, hurling the rice pot towards the street. The ruckus brought our neighbours outside. Although he must have felt like kicking her, the sight of Amma’s sudden fury sent a tremor through his body. Never had he seen such anger in her. 

Amma was in the habit of bathing twice a day. She especially liked taking long showers, using at least five bucketfuls of cool water. This routine stopped ever since her body became riddled with sores. Even if she did, she would hurriedly pour warm water over her body. Water tended to soften the skin around her sores and when she towelled her body down, she felt pin pricks on those unhealed scabs. So, Amma avoided bathing for days. 

By then we had lost all hope in country medicine and Appa took her to a skin specialist in Mayiladuthurai. Every day she’d be seen carrying a handful of tablets, syringes, and ointments. Within a short period of time, the sores turned into scabs that peeled in flakes. Pus began oozing out from them, and the scabs remained unhealed. Our worried enquiries were dismissed by the doctor who said that was the only way to heal fully. With the summer heat rising, Amma’s body was a sight of festering sores. If there was a power cut at night, she would howl in pain. We’d be jolted awake, only to watch her toss and scream. My brothers would hold me tight in fear. Startled by Amma’s wailing and moaning, my youngest brother would begin crying. Slowly her sounds would die down and we too would doze off, only to be woken by her piercing sobs. ‘Sokkayee! This is torment, Oh! Don’t you feel no pity for this sight of me? Or have you lost your eyes?’ Facing the entrance, she’d shriek with fury, slapping her face. The sight would just wrench our gut in horror. 

Well into the morning, after we had woken up, we’d find Amma asleep. Since Appa took care of sending us to school, she was able to take a break from the kitchen. During those days, Amma would lie covered in Appa’s white veshti because she could not bear the pain of any other fabric coming into contact with the scabs that had turned sticky and gooey. The stench of rotting skin filled the house. In time, Appa made us eat near the stove in the backyard. We then began sleeping in the backyard too. At one point, if we happened to enter the house, Amma began to throw anything she could grab at us, screaming, ‘Get out! Get out!’


When the conductor blew his whistle at Solasakkaranallur, I jolted awake. The windswept tears had left dry streaks down my face.

As soon as she returned home, Amma sat in silence in front of our family deity’s picture. Her silence unsettled our balance. It worried us even more when she refused to talk the whole day.  A growing anxiety for the test results took root in Amma’s heart from the very next day. Her unending tears caused her face to swell up. ‘Whose curse, which woman’s anguish… it circles around my feet. Never sought out anyone’s hand in help. Do I have to watch my own hands melting away? What’ll happen to my family… They’d be abandoned,’ she cried, pounding on her chest. She found some relief in Appa’s words. ‘It’s a hospital for leprosy, yes. What makes you think that you’ve got it? We’ve been everywhere for treatment. Many pointed us ter that hospital. Let’s trust in god and continue here. It’ll all be okay.’

I was in the backyard, alone, when my second brother came to me. He always slept next to Amma and was fed by her. Ever since she fell sick, he was gripped by a longing. ‘Big brother, when will Amma get better?’ he asked me. ‘Soon,’ I told him but even when I did, I was reminded of all the faces and the hands that I had seen at the hospital. Every time I imagined Amma’s fate turning out to be like that, I shook my head. 

Appa vowed to walk to Palani as a family, if Amma healed completely. Every morning, my brothers and I prayed to our family deity and then to the town’s elephant god, Pillaiyar. 

After a long time, Amma gathered all of us together and passed around rice balls that she had mixed with kuzhambu. For almost three months, she had avoided cooking and it was Appa who had served us food. There was a reason why. An old lady, who had come to visit us three months ago said to our neighbour, ‘She’s been grindin’ batter with those hands. She’s been cookin’ and feedin’ ‘em with those hands. If the young ones were to get her disease, what’ll she do? Shouldn’ a woman of the house think of all this?’  When that comment reached her, Amma bawled, pounding her chest. A while later, wiping away her tears she said, ‘Ma hands won’t harm ma own children. I’ve done no one no bad. Nothin’ would happen to ma children, Magamayi… Nothin’ should befall them.’

The next day being a Tuesday, Amma and Appa went to Vaideeswaran temple. Standing outside the temple’s main deity, Thaiyal Nayagi’s sanctum sanctorum, she asked Appa, ‘Shall we finish our prayers here and go directly to the hospital?’

‘Why, we’ve got five more days! We can go then,’ he said. But Amma didn’t want to give up. ‘I don’ care about results. Lemme go now. I’ll tell the doctor lady myself. I’ll ask to stay. I’ll water the plants, I’ll sweep the floors…I’ll eat what I can get. Can I not stay there?’ she pleaded. Appa, who hadn’t shed a tear until then, couldn’t bear it any longer. He covered his face and cried. Amma didn’t bring it up again. 

Next week, we went back to the Sacred Heart Hospital. A few doctors had come from abroad. They gave Appa an English name for the skin disease caused by an insect bite. The treatment commenced. They said that she shouldn’t, at any cost, go back to wearing the poonam and polyester sarees that she had worn until then. Three days later, Appa bought four new sarees for her. 

A nurse who walked in to give her an injection asked her with curiosity, ‘What kind are these sarees?’ It was Appa who answered, ‘These are pure cotton, miss.’ Amma’s fingers kept caressing the soft fabric, smooth and delicate like a newborn baby’s hair. Lost in thought, she buried her face in them and wept.


About the Author:

Senthil Jaganathan was born on August 20, 1987 in Panampalli village in Tamil Nadu’s Mayiladuthurai district. At present he resides in Chennai and is working in the cinema industry. He has worked on a few scripts and has also written dialogues for a few films. His first story was published in the year 2018 in Ananda Vikatan magazine. He has since been published in many Tamil magazines. 

About the Translator:

Anjana Shekar is an independent writer from Chennai. A year ago she transitioned from journalism to explore other forms of writing and to begin her arts practise. She is now working on short stories and scripts. She also nurtures interest in mixed-media art work. This is her first work of translation. Her writings have appeared in The News Minute and The Hindu.