Saturday, December 3, 2011

Another Dull Day

Note: This short story was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2012 (http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/commonwealth-short-story-2012/)



Life has been really dull this year.  Even the monsoon came at the right time.  All we have had are deaths and weddings and babies, they keep coming and going. 
The year before last, ‘Cut-throat’ Kuttan the stingy vegetable-stall guy…he chopped his wife and three of his four kids with a machete and finally, he hanged himself from a hook right above those bloody bodies.  Poor guy, he could not bear the shame after his eldest daughter ran away from home with some Romeo.  He had loved his kids so much and he had worked hard for his family but that daughter forgot all about that.  Then, last autumn, Rajan Swamy…he stabbed his wife and smashed her head in with a grinding stone.  I knew he would do something crazy.  He chased me once, on the Main Street of all places, and that too for no reason at all.  I had only looked at his wife.  Everyone used to look at her, especially all those guys who sit in the Club reading room waiting for lunch or recovering after a late-night binge.  What a sight she was…white jasmine flowers on her head…with her sari slipping from the shoulder all the time…and she had…what a belly!  There were so many policemen here, measuring every splatter of blood, talking to all, treating us villagers as if we were all killers. 
The temple priest had told us then that these are bad times.  A few weeks after that murder, a strange old woman had come to the Devi (goddess) temple.  She looked poor but she paid one thousand and one rupees for the day-long pooja (religious ritual).  She asked for the pooja to be done in the name of Devi and with Devi’s nakshatram (astrological star).  I too do it in the name of Devi, the five-rupee two-minute pooja of course, but that is because I do not know my birthday or nakshatram…no one knows, it seems.  Now, that is not the case with this old woman.  She had told the temple-priest that she is from across the river.  We made some inquiries, here and across the river and in the neighbouring villages too. No one has seen or heard of that old woman, before or after she came to the Devi temple.  The temple priest told me that she must have been the Devi herself.  Maniyan laughed when I told him what the priest had said.  He rarely laughs these days.  She must have been Devi...I am sure. 
Anyway, nothing happens out here these days.  It is the same with business, just the usual.  The tea-shop guy complains that business is dull.  But he dilutes the milk too much and only regulars like us go to him.  Thankappan, the rubber-trader in the shop next to ours – he is always grumbling about bad business.  He stands in front of the shop, scowls at the dark clouds, spits betel juice at every puddle.  He is trying to irritate the rain gods, I think.  Well, can’t blame him…rubber is like gold these days and a rainy day surely spoils his collection.  He has bought a new car, re-tiled his house and the new banker is always there in his shop with new plans and loans.  He and his money are a bit like me and my dreams, smiling when I have it and scowling when others get it.  I like to be in his shop when I am free, watching him and his calculations or helping his customers pile rubber sheets on to the weighing machine.  He allows me to place the weights on the balance – he knows that I do it well for him.  I do the balancing act while he does the punching on the old chunky calculator, checking and rechecking, before billing on small strips of paper.  At times, I pass a helpful comment to the customer about their rubber sheets – how or why the sheets could be better with the right amount of acid or a few more days of drying.  I have heard Thankappan say the same.  He reduces a kilo or two from the total weight to compensate for the badly-prepared sheets.  Once in a while, he slips me five or ten rupees for my help.  I don’t do it too often.  Those same customers come to our shop and I don’t want our business to suffer.  Who knows, people might hold a grudge, go elsewhere or even skip a haircut.  People do anything for money.
Today, like every other day, I opened the barber shop at seven.  I swept the floor; cleaned the scissors, razors and combs; wiped the mirrors; laid out the fresh sheets and towels I had brought from home after washing and ironing; and, dusted the seats inside and the bench outside for waiting customers.  I placed the board with the notice from the Barbers’ Union about barbers’ hardship and the need for solidarity.  Below that notice, there is a sheet with the Union approved charges (Any Hair Cut – 20 rupees, Face Shave – 10 rupees, Armpit Shave – ‘O’, some wise guy had cut out the ‘N’ and left only the ‘O’).  I peeked at the centre-folds of the old film magazines on the bench…those big breasts, fleshy thighs and tight clothes.  I was far from those pictures well before Maniyan and his father arrived at half past seven.  As usual, Maniyan’s father entered the shop, lit the lamp and started praying loud and long.  Maniyan and I waited outside the shop till the prayer was over. 
After every customer, I have to sweep the floor, clean the chair and air the sheet outside.  There is space for two seats in the shop and when I am inside cleaning, Maniyan or his father stands outside.  Maniyan’s father chats with Thankappan or the waiting customers.  Maniyan does not join in any of those discussions on politics or social problems.  I listen only when it is local gossip.
  Around nine, I run home to help Maniyan’s mother carry stuff to the market. I have a hurried breakfast then.  I like to eat alone, standing in the kitchen with Maniyan’s mother, the fresh smell of her powder, boiling milk, first cooking and wood-smoke in the air.  She gives me more to eat when the others are not there…even half a glass of milk and not just black tea.  Today, after breakfast, I de-husked a dozen coconuts before we set off to the market.  She had some vegetable to sell…bitter-gourd, spinach and green chilly for half a dozen people. I carried the basket with a few stems of tapioca, those de-husked coconuts and couple of jackfruit.  These days, coconut and jackfruit fetch a good price, and I have heard in the market that the price is nearly the same in the city.  After leaving Maniyan’s mother at the market, I returned to my tasks at the shop. 
Saturday mornings are usually quite busy.  Today, the first customers were the old butcher and his two assistants. The butcher asked us,
‘Hai…I have not opened shop today…aren’t you all going for the wedding?’ He was referring to Councilor Ibrahim’s daughter’s wedding in the Town-hall.  The old man continued, ‘There are five buses from here to town, and everyone’s going…’ 
Maniyan’s father had been invited too and if it had been Tuesday, our off-day, I could have gone on that trip.
The old man chatted while his two assistants got their hair cut.  A few times, he leaned towards me and whispered,
‘Mutton biriyani, chicken fry…there will be mutton biriyani and chicken fry…Hai…mutton biriyani, chicken fry…’ 
He kept on chanting that over and over like a prayer.  I don’t think he heard me sigh and swallow saliva.  I do not like him.  He likes to tease me a bit too much.   When it was his turn, he gave Maniyan’s father precise instructions about how he wanted the hair cut, at the sides and the back, with his sideburns and even the hair on his ears.  I felt like telling the old man that he had more hair on his ears than on his head.  After his haircut, the old butcher requested for an armpit shave.  Maniyan’s father pointed at the board and shook his head.  The old butcher pleaded,
‘Hai, after all these years, where can I go for my armpit? Come on…’
‘Maniyan…’ his father sharply ordered and allotted the job to his son. The old man removed his shirt and stood in from of Maniyan, raising each arm in turn.
‘In the city, women get it shaved down there, you know…’ one of the assistants said.
‘Ah! Do you want everything shaved off, too?’ Maniyan’s father asked with a smile reaching for a razor.
‘As it is, his wife has problems…’ the other assistant joined in the tease.
‘Leave the butchering to us…’ the old butcher guffawed, inspecting both armpits closely and patting Maniyan on the shoulder after the job was done.
‘Excuse me…’ a woman enquired from outside the shop, standing on the road a little away from the entrance.  It was Molly Teacher, the school-teacher, and her little son.  
The men became silent and the old butcher quickly put on his shirt.  He paid for the three and as I was entering the shop to clean, he winked at me and the rascal silently mouthed his chant,
‘Mutton biriyani, chicken fry...’ 
The three left after greeting the teacher with a respectful nod.  I cursed silently at that retreating back.
‘Teacher, leave him here…you go to the market and come back after fifteen minutes.’ Maniyan’s father told Molly Teacher.  The lady pushed the reluctant child towards the shop, promised a sweet and told him to behave well. 
‘Summer cut…it is so hot this rainy season…he gets a cold when it grows long…must be the sweat…’ she told Maniyan’s father before leaving for the market. 
He placed an extra cushion on the chair, lifted the kid to that seat and chatted to the kid affectionately while cutting his hair.  He used to talk like that to Maniyan.
Before Maniyan started working in his father’s shop, I did the armpits and an occasional face.  I was never allowed to do the haircutting.  At that time, Maniyan was in the Polytechnic studying to be a lift technician.  After he had got good marks in the school-leaving exams, Maniyan’s father had approached the AVR family for financial help and they had assured him assistance for his son’s Polytechnic course. They are the biggest landowners and businessmen on this side of the river.  We had assumed that they might later provide funds for a Gulf visa, too. 
Long back, Maniyan’s father had thought of going to the Gulf.  But then, his daughter fell ill.  She was a bit loose in the head but she and I were good friends.  Maniyan loved to tease us saying that we are twins.  She had big black round eyes like mine, the same protruding forehead, fleshy hanging lower lip, squat body and broad flat nose, too.  Maniyan’s father spent his life’s savings on that dying kid and he had to depend on the AVR family for his last dream, to give Maniyan a life unlike his.
‘My son will be a technician…not a bloody barber like me.’ He would shout happily after his customary peg or two at night, his light eyes sparkling with delight, at times even hugging his son.  They look quite similar with the same light eyes and handsome sharp features.  He must have been trying to see himself in his son.  Maniyan’s mother would smile at her husband’s happiness, but never laugh with him, actually scared to think about her son’s future. 
‘Too much dreaming will spoil dreams,’ she says, ‘and too much laughter will bring sorrow.’
Maniyan’s father has a long relationship with the AVR family.  His maternal grandfather was their barber and that was during the time of the industrious A.V. Ramanathan.  Maniyan’s grandmother worked as a maid in that house till she got pregnant.  They got a plot of land from AVR as a gift for services rendered. That is where we live now.
Later, Maniyan’s father was their barber too, and I went with him as ‘cleaning assistant’ on those monthly haircut days.  We worked silently and non-stop from eight till noon, attending to all the males in that household – the family members first and then the servants and the other dependents.  We were served lunch, at the back, where we worked.  I have never been inside that huge house.  Maniyan told me a secret long back.  He told me that he had sneaked in couple of times and it was not as fantastic as it looks from outside.  I don’t believe his secret, he must be teasing, but I have not told anyone. 
Even now, they have a few elephants, a dozen buses plying in our village and neighbouring routes, two or three movie theatres in town and most of the children and grandchildren are abroad.  They come in all kinds of cars during the harvest festival.  I have heard Maniyan’s father talk about the festival celebrations in that house during his childhood days.  For 14 days, feasts were served for the family and all the others, with more than hundred eating at every meal. 
Only once did I hear him say quite bitterly that he was never allowed to play with the kids of that house, even though he looked like them, with light-eyes and sharp features.  In that drunken rage, I heard him say,
‘Bastards then…bastards now…’
Then, his bitter rage lasted just for a while.  Before dinner was served, he apologized to his wife and son.  Maniyan and his father were real close and I used to envy Maniyan, I think.  Maybe not envy…it is tough to envy without experience…
In my case, I can vaguely remember a tired thin mother but little else.  In my dreams, I am two or three years old when my mother and I land here, homeless and starving, and in that dream, my mother is a good woman and she dies young.  In the movies I watch every Tuesday afternoon at Sree Murugan Theatre, the dreams are always colourful, delightful and look so good.  I suppose I want my dreams to sound or look a little real.  I have not asked anyone, not even Manian, about my parents.  What is the point in asking about people who were never there?  I am happy here with Maniyan’s parents.  I call them ‘Maniyan’s father’ and ‘Maniyan’s mother’.  When I was a kid, Maniyan used to take me to school but I was never good with studies.  He tried to teach me.  He gave up saying that my big black round eyes can see everything other than textbooks.  I just wanted to stay at home and help Maniyan’s parents on their land or at the barber shop and that’s all I have ever wanted to do.
These days, when I pray at the temple, I ask Devi if it is my envy which changed everything. 
Eighteen months back, Maniyan discontinued his studies at the Polytechnic and started working in his father’s shop.  The AVR family discontinued funds for his studies quite suddenly.   Maniyan’s father also stopped going to the AVR house, as their barber or for any other reason. Since then, life at home has been quite bad.  Maniyan’s father still drinks the same amount but he is always so angry with Maniyan. 
Six weeks back, on that hot night before the rains, I saw him walking around the house late at night, with a razor in his hand.  I hid my head under the sheet but through a hole I saw him stand near his son’s sleeping form, and I think I heard him mutter harshly,
‘Like father…like son…’
I do not know what he meant.  I was really scared.  I thought about all those murders that had happened in our village.  I stayed awake all night.  Early next morning, I raced to the river for a quick bath and then prayed for long at the temple.  On my way back, I saw Maniyan’s father lying beneath the big comforting banyan tree near the temple, an arm hiding his face from the rising sun and I think he was crying.  These days, his prayer in the shop lasts much longer.  I too pray a lot for him at the Devi temple.  But, with each sunset, the prayers seem to lose strength. 
Today, after Molly Teacher’s kid and a few others, there was a lull till about eleven.  At half past ten, I went to the tea-shop and got two glasses of tea for Maniyan and his father.  They had just finished their tea when Senan, one of the drivers in the AVR household, rushed in.  He asked for an ‘urgent’ haircut and face shave.
‘I am going to the airport this afternoon…Rohinikutty is coming from US…’ he said, nearly bursting with self-importance. 
This Rohini used to live in our village for a few years.  Her parents live abroad.  If she was not so aloof, she would have been every guy’s heart-throb.  I have seen her a few times and she behaved like a real snob.  Once, I told Maniyan,
‘That girl thinks she is some princess…so haughty…she can’t even smile…’
‘Why should she smile at people she doesn’t know?’ Maniyan defended that snob. I think they studied together in school. ‘If she smiles, you will say that she is a flirt…and you and the other guys will look at her the way you look at Rajan Swamy’s wife.  Don’t pass judgement on people you do not know…’
I still think a flirt is any day better than a snob.  But then, I did not argue with Maniyan.  I didn’t like this Rohini at all…even though she is so beautiful, the best in the AVR family, the best this village has seen.
Maniyan’s father started with Senan’s haircut.  Maniyan and I stood outside the shop.
‘From here, she went to US, you know…my Sarasamma aunty went with her as maid, you know…’ Senan continued, ‘my aunt came in an earlier flight yesterday…Rohinikutty stopped over in London and stayed with her brother…’
 The three of us did not have to ask him any questions.  Even if we had told him to shut up, he would have continued. 
‘Sarasamma aunty told me last night that she went as a maid…but only after she got there did she realize that she had to be a mid-wife or a nurse…’ Senan sniggered at his aunt’s fate with disgust and amusement in equal measure, ‘do you know that Rohinikutty was pregnant when she went to US?  If my aunt had known before leaving, she would not have gone, you know…Tchah!  My aunt will never stand by such things, you know, even if they gave her lots of money, you know…but then, for Rohinikutty’s sake, she stayed there for so long without even saying a word outside, you know…’
Maniyan’s father gave the finishing touches to the haircut. Then, he applied lather to Senan’s face, picked up the razor, paused for a while, looking at his hand. It was trembling. He asked Senan,
‘Is Rohinikutty coming with the child?’
‘Tchah! What child? Her parents wanted her to abort but she refused. But, after delivery, they convinced her to give it away.’
‘Gave it away? Where? There?’ Maniyan’s father asked.  He kept on looking at the razor, unable to control his trembling hand.  
‘Who cares…somewhere…come on…I haven’t got whole day, you know…she is coming with her husband…they got her married over there, you know…all very hush-hush…with such money, such looks, which man will worry about her past…I wouldn’t care, you know… shave fast…I want to be there on time…I wonder if she will remember me…will she bring something for me…at least a bottle of whiskey…or perfume…not the usual Gulf-wallah perfume, you know…’ Senan continued, leaning back against the head-rest, closing his eyes, chattering on and on.
‘Maniyan…’ his father's voice was hoarse when he ordered his son to take over the shaving.  I watched Maniyan and his father stare at each other, two sets of light eyes, one set brimming with tears, the other with rage.  Maniyan shook his head, refusing the razor.  He sat on the bench with his back towards the shop, still holding back his tears.  Maniyan’s father extended the razor towards me and stepped outside the shop.  I think he was also trying to hold back his tears.  I do not know why they get so emotional about abandoned kids.
I went inside with the razor, feeling happy to be entrusted with a shaving job after such a long time. 
Around two, I saw the old butcher return after the wedding trip. He saw me, scowled and shook his clenched fist at me,
‘It is all because of you, your envy…they served only mutton biriyani…no chicken fry…such stingy idiots…and I got only bones, no meat…all because of your drooling… your envy…’
I felt like laughing at him.  But I did not. Too much laughter will bring sadness.  It was a good day and I did not want to spoil it.
Around late evening, when we were closing shop, we saw Rohini going past us in her car with that Senan putting on such airs, as if he was driving royalty.  Rohini is still a snob.  She did not look at us.
The rest of the day was like any other day. Nothing happens out here.

4 comments :

  1. Ha ha!! Wonderful mashe.. I never felt the length of the story untill I finished reading and scrolled up..! Such a lively illustration, that everything came in front of the eyes..

    The farther I read, restless i got wondering where he was getting at.. then I read the heading, "Another Dull day.." and wondered if you were emphasizing it.. but by the end everything went exceptionally active and alive..!!

    Still laughing at the irony of that last line..!

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  2. Thanks a lot for reading this, KP mashe :)))

    And really glad that you didn't find the length a problem...wrote this a month back...but kept it back because of the length of the story.

    Of course, I am very very pleased with your "Wonderful"...:)))))))

    Take care & best wishes

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  3. he he..! being in blogger world we ought to use such words like wonderful..! excellent.. lovely and so on.. :D

    Reading this story was like waiting a slow paced movie until Mohanlal arrives half way through and then see the thrill and momentum speed up!! :)

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  4. Aha, Kutty Mashe, so you are a Mohanlal fan...:))))) Very good...excellent...

    btw, did you say "wonderful" only because it is blog-world...:(((

    :))))))) Just joking...

    ReplyDelete