MT Vasudevan Nair
Oppol, his elder sister, was crying.
Appu did not like to see Oppol cry. She was crying with her head pressed against the windowsill, in the northern room. She cried and cried, all the time! Perhaps Valiamma had scolded her. Valiamma used to scold Appu as well. But he never cried, he would just feel angry. If he were as big as Oppol, he would have shown Valiamma! Grown-up as she was, Oppol listened silently when she was scolded. Her face would darken with sorrow. Her eyes would fill with tears. When he saw this happen, Appu would usually leave the place quietly.
Appu could not bear to be near Oppol when she cried. She would hug him while she wept. He loved it when she put her arms around him and hugged him close. But while she murmured ‘little one’ and rained kisses on his head and forehead, hot tears would drip on Appu’s body. Then he would feel like crying too.
He never paid much attention when Valiamma scolded him. She scolded him a great deal. Right from the morning, she would start: "The fellow gets up only at noon. Do you know, boy, no sooner was your head glimpsed outside your mother’s womb than the foundation of the house crumbled!"
If a little water spilt on the ground while he sat near the grinding stone on the verandah cleaning his teeth, Valiamma would begin: "Good-for-nothing fellow! I break my bones, sweeping and mopping the floor."
If there were even a speck of dirt in the courtyard, if he flung a stone into the well or drummed a bit on the copper water pot, Valiamma would scold him unceasingly. Now that he had started going to school, he had a little respite. At least she couldn’t abuse him in the daytime.
Why couldn’t Oppol give Valiamma a couple of blows? But Oppol was even more frightened of Valiamma than Appu was.
When she heard Valiamma scold him, Oppol would sometimes say,
"You’ll kill him with your cursing!"
"Phoo…!" Valiamma would retort. And she would not stop with that. "Swallow him up then, if he’s so sweet."
"When it’s your own…" If Oppol went towards the child, Valiamma would come charging angrily at her like Karambi, the cow, tossing her horns.
"Listen, girl, if some stranger… don’t make me say things now."
At this point, Appu would always go quietly down into the courtyard. He would wander around the compound with Chakkan. Sometimes he would try to catch the red-tailed dragonfly that hid between the ash gourd creepers. He had never been able to lay his hands on it. What a sly little fellow he was, that dragonfly, fluttering around, his tail flashing red. Appu would not go back into the house for a long time. He would think from time to time about Oppol, who must be sobbing wildly, her face pressed against the windowsill in the northern room.
Chanting prayers at dusk was a difficult task. Appu usually sat in the corridor to chant them. He had to repeat ‘Namah Shivaaya’ innumerable times. Then the birth stars in Malayalam, ‘Ashwathi, Bharani’ and so on. He never made a mistake with them. After the twelve months in Malayalam, he needed Oppol’s help. She had to recite the names of the months in English and the numbers, one, two, three to him.
Oppol knew English. She could read everything printed in English on the calendar with the picture of the infant god, Unni Krishnan, that hung on the front verandah. Oppol had studied up to the eighth.
After he had recited everything, he would go and sit near Oppol, silently. Oppol’s fingers would wander through his hair. It was around that time that they would hear music from their neighbour’s house. The house next door was very big. Appu had not been there. He had only seen it from his side of the fence. There were a number of people there.
It was only recently that they had begun to hear music from there. They had bought a box that sang songs and talked. How could a box sing and speak? Chakkan said someone must have crept inside it. Chakkan didn’t know a thing! He didn’t go to school after all. But he was the only one Karambi, the cow, never tried to butt. Not because he was special in any way, but because of the stick he carried to chase the cattle.
They said the songs were all from films. Appu had never seen a film. Yashoda and Mani, who were in his class, had seen some. He had seen a bag with pictures from the films on it.
When she heard the songs, a madness would possess Oppol. She would no longer answer any questions. Why did she suddenly turn so sulky? Sometimes Oppol would remain absolutely silent and not say a word. She was terrible, Oppol!
Still, he loved Oppol. It was she who gave him a bath before he went to school in the morning. He didn’t like his body being scrubbed with the rough surface of a dried ridge gourd. It tickled him when the finely twisted edge of a towel was inserted in his ears. It was Oppol who always served him kanji, rice gruel. When he had drunk his kanji and washed his hands, she would wipe the water off his chest with a wet towel and help him put on the shirt and the shorts with the suspenders that she had washed and folded the previous day. Once she had combed his hair and wiped the oil stains off his face for the last time, he could set off for school.
Oppol would sit with him when he had dinner at night. He liked it best when she fed him. But she would not feed him if Valiamma was around. Because Valiamma had said once: "Imagine, putting the food into his mouth! As if he’s a baby!"
Oppol seldom answered back. If she ever did, Valiamma would grow more furious. Then there would be a quarrel. After they’d said many things to each other, Oppol would cry. Sometimes Valiamma would cry too.
He didn’t care if Valiamma cried. He had felt sorry for her when she cried only once. She hadn’t quarrelled with Oppol that time.
He had never forgotten the event or the man who had made Valiamma cry.
Appu was playing in the courtyard with a ball that Chakkan had made him out of palm leaves. Someone called out at the gate:
He saw a man standing there, his hand on the fence. He wore a long-sleeved shirt and had a bag tucked under his arm. Valiamma came down to the courtyard and walked up to the fence. She spoke to him.
"It’s your mother who tells you, isn’t it? Why can’t you come in, Kumara, having come this far?"
Appu thought Valiamma was right to say this. Who was this arrogant fellow? Did he have to call Valiamma to the fence to talk to her? Couldn’t he have come into the house?
He said: "It’s almost six years now since I went away saying I’d never set foot here again, remember? It’s not going to happen, Amma."
Why didn’t Valiamma scold him, shout at him?
But Valiamma, who usually sprang angrily on everyone, was pleading again with that arrogant fellow: "She came out of my belly, didn’t she? How can I kill her?"
Appu did not follow what he said in reply.
"At least until I die and am cremated in the southern field…" she said.
"After that there won’t be even this."
Valiamma lowered her voice and said something more.
He was shouting again: "You should have preached this philosophy to your daughter earlier."
In the midst of all this, the man looked at Appu. It wasn’t a pleasant look at all. Appu had not felt so frightened even when the gosayi, the wandering beggar who wrung the necks of little children and stuffed them in his bundle, had stared at him. Was this man going to wring his neck?
He went up slowly to the front verandah. Oppol had gone in. She was standing at the kitchen door, gazing into the banana grove. Appu clung to the end of her mundu and asked,
"Who’s that at the gate, Oppol?"
Oppol didn’t seem to have heard.
"Oppol, who’s at the gate?"
Oppol began to say something, then stopped.
"Who is it, Oppol?"
"Will he wring my neck?":
"He – doesn’t he wring children’s necks?"
He thought Oppol was finding it hard to breathe.
"That is … your Ammaman, your uncle."
This was something new! If the man was his uncle, was this the way to behave? Imagine standing at the gate and calling out to Valiamma! And then staring at Appu as if to frighten him... "What a terrible Ammaman!"
Was Oppol joking?
"Why doesn’t Ammaman come in?"
Oppol didn’t answer.
He was about to ask again, "Why doesn’t he come in?" when he saw Oppol dab at her eyes.
She was mad, this Oppol…
Valiamma came in just then. Appu was aghast to see her. Valiamma was sobbing. In between her sobs, she kept mumbling something. Appu felt very sad. However much she scolded him, she was his Valiamma after all, wasn’t she?
He came out quite confidently and glanced at the gate.
Ammaman had gone.
It was good to have an uncle. But no uncle had the right to frighten him like this. Or stand at the gate, call out to Valiamma and say all sorts of things to make her cry.
Janu, who lived in the house on the western side, had an uncle. He was somewhere faraway. You had to cross the seven seas to get to his place. There were lots of silk dresses there and fancy umbrellas. He had brought Janu both these when he came. The umbrella was very pretty. It was not heavy at all. She used it only when she went to the temple with her mother. She had put the dress away in her box because it did not fit her.
She had an uncle at home but he had never given her anything. She liked the uncle who had crossed the seven seas much more. She said he would come the following year too.
Appu felt sad that his own uncle was such a troublesome fellow. Oppol said he would never come home. Were fancy umbrellas available in the place where he lived? Even if they were, he wouldn’t bring one. The look he had given Appu! He had even made Valiamma cry. Maybe he hadn’t come into the house because he was angry. With whom was he angry?
Appu decided to ask him when he came next. But he did not come.
Where was Ammaman? Oppol would not say. Janu did not know of such a person. She found it difficult even to believe that Appu had an uncle. Chakkan knew vaguely of him. "He has a house and land near the river."
Chakkan said he had seen him. Ammaman had been laying tiles on the roof of his new house when Chakkan went that way.
"Why doesn’t Ammaman come here?"
"He quarrelled and went away, didn’t he?"
Chakkan didn’t know why there had been a quarrel.
Appu could not make out what it was all about. He had so many doubts to clear. But whom could he ask?
It was Oppol who usually cleared his doubts, when they went to bed at night. By the time he had dinner, she would have spread his mattress in the northern room. She used to spread a red saree with big white flowers on it on the mattress. That’s why he liked to lie down on it, because it was Oppol’s saree.
Oppol had another saree too, folded and put away in her box. He had never seen her wear it. When the box was opened, there was a wonderful smell. The fragrance of screwpine flowers. How good it would be if Oppol walked around wearing the saree that spread the fragrance of screwpine.
Although Appu always lay down as soon as he finished his dinner, he never went to sleep until Oppol came. Oppol would join him only after she had swept the kitchen and washed up. He would lie down with his arms around Oppol and ask her to clear his doubts, one by one. Most of the time what he wanted to know was whether what Janu had told him that day was a lie.
What lies she sometimes told! She said there was a snake that had eaten nine children in the serpent shrine south of her house. Wasn’t that a shameless lie? How could seven children fit into a snake’s stomach?
Once Janu said she had seen God.
Appu did not believe her. Appu had not seen Him. Nor had Chakkan. Not even Oppol had seen God.
Janu had seen Him at night. God had a thicker moustache and beard than the priest who came do the puja for Lord Subramanya. To find out if she was telling a lie, Appu asked:
"And what did he have on his head?"
"On God’s head!"
Janu thought hard, then said: "Hair."
"Phoo!" shouted Appu, "It’s a crown that God has on His head."
Janu hadn’t seen it. She was ashamed.
Although she told lies, Appu liked her. He had had someone to play with when she was around. Now she had gone too. Janu’s father had taken her away. They had gone to a place full of forests and mountains. But if you crossed the seven seas, it was the place her uncle lived in that you would reach. When her father took her, they went by train. It was said that the train bored a hole in the mountain’s stomach and rushed through it.
Janu came to Appu’s house the day before she left. Her mother came with her.
When she said, "We’re going to get into the train tomorrow and go away," he felt quite jealous. How many things she would see! There might be fine rubber balls and bicycles in the place where she was going.
Appu would have liked to go somewhere. But how could he do so unless someone came to take him?
After the thalappoli festival, when the girls walked in procession carrying platters that held lighted wicks and auspicious objects, these platters were emptied under a pala tree on a hill nearby. Appu had never gone beyond this hill. The lands beyond the seven seas… the train that bored a hole in the big mountain’s stomach… what fun it must be for children who lived in places filled with fancy umbrellas and silk dresses!
Janu’s mother said goodbye to Oppol. They had gone to school together. Janu’s mother had a lot of sarees. She had gone to many places with Janu’s father. Do you want to hear something funny? Janu’s mother spoke of her husband as ‘Ammu’s father’.
Oppol’s eyes filled with tears when Janu’s mother left. Maybe Oppol too wanted to travel by the train that rushed through the mountain, boring a hole in it.
Oppol never went anywhere. Not even to the temple tank to bathe. She had a bath by the well in the house. When there was a festival in the Bhagavathi temple, and all the girls walked in a procession holding platters with lighted wicks in them, Valiamma went to it. Appu went as well. But Oppol didn’t go.
"Won’t Oppol come, Valiamma?"
Valiamma pounced on him. "Shut up, you rascal!"
He had started going to school last Edavam. In two months he would have examinations. If he passed he would go to the second class.
Janu said she would go to school when she arrived in her father’s place. Maybe there were schools there. Appu wondered, would there be a Kelu Master there? May there not be. Then she wouldn’t be beaten.
He had a friend who was in his class. Kuttisankaran. His house was on the other side of the fields. They went to school and came back together. Kelu Master sometimes called Kuttisankaran "Kuttichathan", little demon. Appu liked to hear Master say that. But the blows Kelu Master gave were unbearable.
Kuttisankaran once gave Appu a lime as a gift.
He had brought it from his house. He said there had been a lot of limes in his house the day before. The younger of his older sisters had got married.
"Why limes, for a wedding?"
"Stupid, don’t you know?" asked Kuttisankaran with an air of having witnessed many weddings. Kuttisankaran described a wedding. A lot of people would come to the house. Rose water would be sprinkled from a bottle on all those who were seated in the pandal. Rose water smelt very good. Later, sandalwood paste and limes were given to everyone.
Appu did not believe any of this. But if he said openly that they were lies, Kuttisankaran would ask:
"Have you seen a wedding?"
He would have to admit that he hadn’t.
Appu said, to comfort Kuttisankaran, "When there’s a wedding in my house for my Oppol, I too will give you a lime."
But Kuttisankaran said:
"And do you have an oppol, an elder sister?"
It made Appu furious to hear that. He wanted to call him ‘Kuttichathan’ four times in succession and give him a whack on his cheek. But Kuttisankaran was bigger than him, so he didn’t.
"Then whose elder sister is my Oppol?"
"You fool, your Oppol is your mother, didn’t you know?"
He laughed, thinking how foolish Kuttisankaran was. No wonder Kelu Master said he had no brains.
"Go on, you don’t know a thing," said Appu.
"And what do you know? My mother told me."
"And what does your mother know?"
It ended in a quarrel. Kuttisankaran asked him to give back the lime. Appu threw the lime at him and made a face.
He thought about it while coming back from school. How could Oppol be his mother? He didn’t have a mother or a father. He had only Oppol and Valiamma. And Valiamma didn’t count. Boy, don’t do that; boy, don’t do this… from the moment your head was glimpsed…
Oppol was all he wanted. What should he do with that Kuttichathan, that little demon, who said his good Oppol was his mother?
He didn’t want a mother.
He knew how unpleasant it was to have a mother. Valiamma was Oppol’s mother, wasn’t she? And did she give Oppol any peace?
The last few days, Oppol had been crying day and night. Valiamma had not been scolding her, but she kept crying all the time.
She was mad, this Oppol!
Oppol was not angry with Appu. She told him many things when they lay down at night, hugging each other. Not stories. It was stories that Appu liked to listen to. Oppol knew a lot of stories. The story of the Prince who had found a ruby. It was after he had heard this story that Appu learnt the secret of how to hide a ruby if he found one. It had to be wrapped in cowdung. Then its radiance wouldn’t be visible. Then there was the story of the Princess who was turned to stone. When he heard of how a child was cut up and its blood poured over the stone to make it come alive, he felt like crying.
Nowadays, Oppol did not tell him stories. She would lie quiet. After a while, she would ask, "Are you asleep, little one?"
"You must study well, little one."
"And be a good boy."
"When you grow up, won’t you take good care of Oppol?"
What a meaningless question. But he grunted all the same, to say yes.
"Oppol has no one but you, little one."
Oppol had been ill the last two or three days. She would not speak to him at all while she gave him a bath or mixed his rice and vegetables together or combed his hair. She would keep looking at his face. And then sit down as if she was dazed.
She was mad, this Oppol…
One day, when Oppol and Valiamma were lying down on the floor in the middle room, he heard Valiamma say: "Don’t worry so much about him."
Oppol didn’t say anything.
"What happened, happened. If you think of all that now, you’ll lose your balance. If this goes through, we’ll be fine."
Oppol said nothing to that either.
"Sankaran Nair will manage it. He’s very reliable."
"What do you mean, Amma?"
"You now," Valiamma’s tone changed a little. "Don’t plan all kinds of things. If something goes wrong now, you’ll have to spend your whole life like this."
"Isn’t this treachery?" said Oppol.
"This thing that you’re doing."
"You don’t have to worry about that."
"But I’ll have to pay for it."
"Sankaran Nair knows all that. A fellow who lives in Wyanaad won’t have any idea that…"
"Appu-shippu indeed! Malu, it’s I who am telling you. When I think we can put an and to this troublesome situation…"
Oppol had stopped speaking. He could hear only her sobs.
Valiamma repeated: "Sankaran Nair said he’d take care of everything."
Who was this Sankaran Nair? If he was such a great fellow, Appu wanted to see him. And then one day he heard, Sankaran Nair was coming.
Sankaran Nair seemed a nice person. While he sat on the platform in front, talking to Valiamma, Appu admired the elegance of the circle of grey hair that stood round as a pappadam around his head.
He had so many things to tell Valiamma.
MT Vasudevan Nair, one of the best-loved writers in Malayalam, won the Jnanpith Award in 1995