Malayalam short story: Seedling

Print edition : October 11, 2019

Rekha Raj, who works with Amnesty International, is a Dalit feminist and human rights activist. Her essays have been published in Economic & Political Weekly, Mathrubhumi, Madhyamam and Pacchakkuthira.

M.R. Renukumar is a poet, painter and translator. He works in the State Audit Department in Kottayam. His most recent work is a biography of Ayyankali.

Abhirami Girija Sriram, who lives in Chennai, is an editor, translator and reviewer.

Njaru (2008) by Rekha Raj, translated by Abhirami Girija Sriram, from Don’t Want Caste: Malayalam Stories by Dalit Writers, edited by M.R. Renukumar, translated by Abhirami Girija Sriram and Ravi Shanker, Navayana, 2017.

Short story in Malayalam.

It was Thursday, the day of the market. Must go to the market today after making sure the women get down to work in the fields, thought Mathayi appachan. Must get the seeds of bittergourd and clusterbean from the market itself this time. Last time around, rats had made off with the ash-smeared, sun-dried vegetable seeds. Now that the children don’t let Anna go out to work, she can pay a little more attention to these things. Last Chingam, he had turned seventy-five. She would be about as old too. The way life has sped by, come to think of it! Back in those days, would Anna have climbed up from the fields even as late as seven in the evening? Good that it had occurred to them to educate the children. Wasn’t that how they’d come upon good clothes and food and all!

Would the womenfolk have arrived at the field? Anna’s friends and their children, all of them. Whenever he thought about the field, something blazed in Mathayi’s gut. A lifetime of standing guard over as many as fifty acres of various landlords. Back then, he had never felt this kind of heartache as he went about serving the landlords, their children and their lands, earning precious little. Anna would ask, “Other than your slogging day and night, has this service done us any good?”

“Of course it has! We get to eat clods and dust every day!” The younger daughter would snigger.

One thing Mathayi knew for sure. If not for this, he and his woman would have had to slave away under some landlord. The job of a guard has a little more status, doesn’t it? It helped him educate the children. And this standing in society had made it possible for him to convene the Ayyankaliyashman Forum over here. It was the saar who came there who had encouraged him to educate the children. Thanks to which, now he gets more from his son for a little toddy for himself and for songbooks for Anna. Why, Anna even wears clothes of mulmul these days!

Mulling thus, Mathayi reached the paddy field.

Ploughing had ended only the week before. With not a single worker to help out. Mathayi had gotten down to it himself, joined by a friend. Relentless ploughing for four days in knee-deep water. Even Anna, who was doling out rice gruel in the kitchen back home, could hear the trey-trow trey-trow of buffaloes lunging vigorously forward.

They were now preparing the field. Standing in knee-deep slush, women weeded out grass and twigs, evened out the land and prepared the field for sowing. Mathayi’s son had bought this land a couple of years after landing his first job. A long-cherished desire of Mathayi’s: a patch of land of one’s own, where you could grow whatever you wished. The landowners had demurred from making a sale deed at first. It was after much pleading and falling at their feet that one and a half acres of land was finally purchased.

The day the deed was signed, Mathayi wept all night, invoking his ancestors to give thanks: “My elders, if you can get me one corner of this cherished land on which I have poured all my sweat, I shall offer you whatever you want, year after year!” How much he had prayed.

While returning after lighting a lamp at the burial ground in the south, it was Velumban who told him that the field committee had decided to open the sluice gates. Then and there, he decided to sow the seed. Met all the old familiars, confirmed the wages of workers. Made all the arrangements. Must pack last year’s seed in sacks and sow it. Toddy and a rooster for the ancestors; half a sack of seed for the church; a kuruthi ritual at the Gandharvan temple. Only then could the sowing begin.

While sowing the seed in water, Mathayi trembled violently. Frissons crisscrossed his body like bolts of lightning. In the blink of an eye, he thought he saw his Chachen, Ammachi, Kunjappachan and Elayamma from across the shore. The one holding Elayamma’s hand, was it Rahel or was it Ponnamma? He couldn’t be sure. Hadn’t they been just ten and twelve when they’d been swept off in the floods? Mathayi himself had been all of three.

Still fresh in his mind were their green and blue petticoats that lay bobbing in the canal.

The elders blessed, with all their heart. On the third day, the seeds sprouted. At night, the dead kept whispering all around the bed. Anna kept swearing and shooing someone in her sleep. In the field prepared by women, Mathayi and Suku threw seeds with both hands. The seeds gleamed and glittered in the corner of the field, like a lamp, a crescent, a cross. Must finish before all the others. In any case, the landlords are furious. Wasn’t it at one blow that he had stopped standing guard over their fields? It seems they had threatened the women: “You dare go to that pulaya’s land, no work for any one of you hereafter!” Who would come to work in these one-or-two fields after such an ultimatum? Still, Mathayi was not one to let go so easily. “Let’s see that too then!”

Now the foray of pigeons on the field. Mathayi and his grandchildren sat along the ridge all day, ready to chase the marauding birds. When the birds came, they’d strike tappo! tappo! tappo! at the ridge with the thick end of a green coconut frond. The pigeons would then flee! flee! flee! for their lives.

And so the seedling was ready. Anna was down with a fever. The enmity of the landlords around grew worse. They harassed Mathayi for any reason, for no reason. They flooded his fields, then blocked the channels, and kept giving him trouble. In the end, Mathayi’s friends too crossed over to their side. Mathayi bent down, picked up a fistful of earth from the field and held it close to his heart: “Oh my mother, please be with me. I haven’t broken any rules. What flows here is my blood. Hold me together please!”

The seedlings in Mathayi’s field were now knee-high. He hadn’t found anyone to help him out yet; rather, they had been stopped from doing so. Who could he turn to? Facing the burial ground in the south, Mathayi beat his breast. Distressed, the soul of the elders wandered restively. “O god, my son’s money! My field!” Mathayi writhed in agony. The seedling was beyond ripe. His son hadn’t come home in a while either.

“Anney, get up Anney, we have to plant the seedling quickly. Else they’ll open the sluice gates. My money, my dream, my earth! Chacha, Ammachi, please be with us here in our home! Lamp of the burial ground, show me the way!” Weeping, Mathayi turned towards the south.

Anna, who had been lying down, unwell, dragged herself over to the kitchen yard, picked up the rooster in her hand and declared, facing west: “I promise to offer this one at the Arthunkal church this year... please don’t distress my man so!”

The next morning, Anna got down to working in the field after years. Mathayi shored up the ridges. Kochupilla joined Anna in the field. Late into the night, work remained unfinished. Anna collapsed in the field, exhausted. “Anney, get up Anney. Shouldn’t we finish the work?” Mathayi was jolted, shattered. There goes the crop. There crumbles his dream.

That night, Mathayi could not sleep. Tomorrow they would open the sluice gates. The seedlings would all be washed away. Stroking his chest, he paced restively up and down the yard. Inside, Anna was chanting a fervent litany of Hail Marys and promising an offering in the month of Chingam to propitiate Muthan the deity.

Mathayi turned livid. “My son bought this land after he made a little money. All said and done, this is the land I sweated over and slogged to shape. Testing me, are you, oh elders? Nothing for any one of you, hear!” Even at that time of the night, the lamp at the burial ground hadn’t died out.

Mathayi lay down, but couldn’t get a wink of sleep. “Why not take one last look at the field? Tomorrow, everything will go to seed.”

Without letting even Anna know, Mathayi walked down to the field. The mottled wood owl, the one they called bird of death, hooted thrice. A flock of birds flew overhead. It was almost dawn.

“Eh! What are these hushed whispers? As if there are many people talking at once?” Mathayi hastened over the ridges of other fields to reach his own. He peered into the darkness. Yes, it was from Mathayi’s field that the voices could be heard.

“Dear lord, the field is full of people! So many of them! Enough to fill a festival. Iyo, most of them are women. One or two men are shoring up the ridges. O god, some of the women are nearing term. When they bend, their swollen bellies brush against the slush. What are these women, who may birth anytime, doing in a field? And so many children too!”

Mathayi couldn’t stand the suspense. “Whose children are these? Quite a few grannies too. Ah, they’re all planting seedlings. Once they finish planting their rows, they drag themselves across to the burial ground in the south!” As Mathayi stood watching the women crept and crawled, the children frolicked, the men hawked and spat, and they all vanished into the burial ground. Every single seedling had been planted.

Trembling, Mathayi turned around and ran all the way home. He called out to Anna, then sank to the ground.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy Navayana

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