MUD

Print edition : June 09, 2001
A Tamil story by La. Sa. Ramamirtham.

I sat down on the front porch, my head hitting against the sunken-in roof of a hut. He squatted on a grinding stone half-buried in the ground.

Do you feel this heat, 'nga?1 How can anything survive in it? It's only in this district of Chengalpattu that there's such heat, and a village like this one, all gone to ruin. Keep going down the road and all along the way, every once in a while, you'll see ten huts, fifteen huts, with only the low mud walls left standing. Melting in the rain. Crumbling in the sun.

Born in 1916, La. Sa. Raa, or Lalgudi Saptarishi Ramamirtham, is one of the pioneers of modern Tamil fiction. His short stories have been published in more than 15 collections. He has also written seven novels and three autobiographical works. He writes about a mystical inner world, often against the background of family relationships. His Chinthaanadi won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1989. Some of his works have been translated into English and many Indian languages.-S.THANTHONI

The earth in these parts won't hold any water. People here talk big, boasting about the "River of Milk" and the "Rapid River"2. But all I can see is sand. Sand ten months of the year everywhere I look, along those river beds. A little drizzle collects in the ponds and tanks and that's all there is for drinking and bathing and washing your hands and feet. For everything. For watering the crops.

Crops? Ha! Fine crops! The wind blowing through these tamarind trees burns like fire! It makes the head spin. This land is sulphurous, it grows nothing but sticks to burn corpses with. No shortage of that. Even if you harness an ox and plough the land deep enough to yank out its guts, you'll only hit rock and blunt your iron. In these parts there's a story they tell. Seems a well-digger by the name of Raja went on digging and digging, and not a sign of water. And yet he dug deeper and deeper. He never came back up at all! That's how scarce water is around here.

But there's no scarcity of miserable wretches with wayward minds. Tell them that tamarind fruit grows on a tamarind tree, and they won't believe it. But tell them, "Look, there's a devil hanging from that tamarind tree!" and they're ready to swallow it. A man won't dare wear a shirt on his body, they'll shoot him down with their eyes alone for dressing above his station. And anyone who can add up four letters and read them is hailed as a know-it-all... Five-headed Adiseshan himself, who knows all the Vedas!

A man can be educated or uneducated, but one thing must be admitted, 'nga. They've both somehow got to keep alive. Hunger is the same for everybody. As long as there's life in him, there is the stomach. Just one span, that's all it measures, but isn't it just to fill this belly that a man has anything at all to do with other men? He joins them, breaks with them, fights with them, makes peace! In the middle of it all the Goddess of the Pox, or a fit of vomiting and purging, or if nothing else old age, will snatch him up and sweep him off. And yet there's this desire to live! Can one describe it? Everything is contained in it, 'nga! Gods, spirits, even ghosts! If the crop withers for lack of water, he makes an effigy of a Kodumpaavi! "Cruel Villain!" he curses and wails, and drags it along the street. If it rains too much, he puts a new blouse-bit into a winnowing basket along with turmeric and a lighted lamp, and sets it afloat on the water. "May your anger subside!" he prays to the village guardian goddess.

...What I'm coming around to say is, this thing called faith. There's a lot to it. What there is inside the body is not life. It's faith. That's what "life" is.

It must be admitted that it was only out of such a faith, right at the beginning, that this village took shape. What else could have been in the hearts of those four-five people who settled here? Ever since I can remember, this village has been cut off from others. There's a market eight miles away, and that's where everything must be bought, from salt to camphor, every month. Even so, by the time I had reached an age to recall anything, those first four houses had taken root and sprouted forty. All out of sheer faith!

Around that time a man and a woman came to live in the village. I wouldn't say they were man and wife, there was no marriage thread on the woman's neck. A bundle on her back, a child on her hip - that's how she arrived. As for him, he came rolling along a wheel.

...See that hut? That was theirs. That hollow, over there, near the door, that's where a drumstick tree stood. She hung a saree from a branch as a cloth-cradle for the baby. Leaving the baby lying in it, she started to knead some mud. All by himself he raised the walls, thatched the roof with palm fronds. Then he set up the wheel in front of the house. Began to make pots.

I must say one thing, 'nga. In our village there aren't any good-looking people at all. There's no time for beauty and ornament. Nor are there any ways to beautify yourself. If in spite of it, you do manage to make yourself beautiful, nobody will notice, nobody has that kind of eye! And yet I've never seen anyone as ugly as he or his wife, or that child of theirs. When anybody says something bad about somebody else, it's usual to ask, "Oh, is that so? And what tall tree may you have jumped from?" Well, these three people really did look as though they'd jumped from the trees! D'you get my meaning, 'nga? There, you're laughing! So you do get it, don't you?

Her mouth wouldn't hold her teeth - they stuck out, stained red as blood, because of tobacco-chewing. Each eye was a mere slit, as though it were saying, faintly, "I'm here!" Her hair was matted, and her nose was just two holes to breathe from. But compared to him, she was Rambai, herself, an apsara straight from Indra's heaven! He had a split lip that dangled all the way down to his navel... well, not really, but it was just as bad. Try to imagine it for yourself. Besides, he had a horrible long scar on his cheek.

Beasts...

Their nature, too, was like that. Violent - as though they'd been seized right out of the jungle! One day, as I walked that way I saw the two of them talking, back and forth, back and forth. He had slapped some mud on his wheel and was turning it around. Suddenly he took one giant leap, both legs lifting right off the ground as though he were flying! Such a leap... Do you know, he swung his arm and slapped her with the back of his hand, right across the mouth! I was stunned. Would such a blow be given to anybody in your house, or in mine? Was it a blow a man could stand? It was no ordinary hand-slap, it was more like slapping with a spade. The blood just tore out of her lip.

She had caught sight of me. It made her so angry that I had seen it, that she didn't even think about her man beating her like that. She scolded me very rudely, saying all sorts of things. She threw a stone. And I was just a boy then, 'nga!

Their love, too, must have been like that... I told you they had a child. You don't have to ask about its looks, do you? If you plant avarai beans, will thuvarai beans sprout up? But he was their son, born to them. That toddypalm nuthead was their life. Every day at the hour when lamps are lit that creature would play in the dirt outside. The sight of it made me want to spit till my throat ached! Nobody could bear to look at that little love-cub of theirs.

Being lively and sociable was just not in their nature. They looked as if they might bite. Between them and us there was nothing. Nothing that would make us stick together. Except for one thing, which seemed promising. So far, whenever we needed a pot or a pitcher we had had to trudge all the way to the market and carry it back eight miles. But this year we could buy our Pongal pots right here, in our own village. That was something to feel happy about, wasn't it? What with one thing and another, Pongal, too, had almost come. The month of Aippasi was gone, half of Karthikai was over. Once the cold of Maargazhi was got through, Thai, the month of new beginnings, would start with the festival of Pongal.

BUT before that, something happened. That child died, 'nga.

Does there have to be a reason for a little child to die? Great big men drop dead all of a sudden with their mouths hanging open! It could have been the cold attacking his chest. Or maybe that woman shoved the kanji meant for the mouth into his nose... I'm only saying it in a manner of speaking, 'nga.

Laying the child out on a cloth outside the door, the woman lay crumpled up next to it. He was standing beside her, arms hugging his chest. He wasn't crying, but his eyelids were swollen bright red, like a man's when he's been drinking toddy. Two-three people from the village went to their hut, out of pity. Great or small, death is a hard thing for anyone to suffer alone, isn't it?

"Oh, poor things! Such a thing to happen, in a place where you've come just to keep yourselves alive..." someone started to say. For something has to be said, isn't it?

You should have seen how that man snarled at him! "Enough! Who asked you to come? You and your village!"

What can anybody do with a fellow like that? As if somehow we were responsible for his child dying... I saw a cat, once, in our village, crouching beside its dead kitten. It didn't allow anyone to come close. The carcass lay stinking right there for three or four days.

At midday when the sun was right overhead, he lifted his spade to his shoulder and roughly snatched the corpse from her. Hugging the child with one arm, its limbs dangling loose, he walked right through the village. In full view!

What can anybody do with a fellow like that?

No sound of weeping came from their house then, or ever. Yet once in a while when she was stooping over her work, she would jerk upright all of a sudden, and stand staring in the direction in which he had walked, carrying the child and the spade. From where she stood could be seen the mound she had raised under a tamarind tree, out of the clay that they had shaped together.

Once, when four-five of us children were going towards the market, she came opposite us with a basketful of earth on her head. In her hand, too, she had a small lump of mud. Romping along without seeing where we were going, some of us boys dashed headlong into her. What a look she gave us, 'nga! You should have seen how, just once, that heart of hers showed itself. The pupils rolled darkly, they wobbled and swam within the whites of her eyes as she pushed down whatever it was that was boiling up from inside. The mud in her clenched fist fell sprinkling to the ground like fine powder.

But what a thing the stomach is! Here she is, thinking of her son and pining for him, and does her stomach care? Everything must go on, everybody must go on with whatever they have to do, isn't that so? Besides, Pongal has almost come. The same conch that was blown for death will now be blown in rejoicing as dawn breaks out like a silver sprout coming up from the earth, there on the horizon. How can we not be happy? "Pongal is coming, soon, soon," coos the conch.

Don't the Pongal pots have to be made?

You people who work with white paper, you turn it into - what? It's still just white paper! How you look down on those who work with their hands! "What's there in that work? What the eye sees, the hand does - that's all!" you say, making light of it. But take this work with mud. Do you know how much trouble goes into it? How the limbs ache with pain when you haul the earth and knead it and stamp on it to make it as smooth as it needs to be! You think it's easy to make an earthen pot? How many are broken on the wheel! The under-part must be slapped once with a plank, to seal it. Then it's got to be turned upside down and beaten into shape thrice. After they are set out to dry in the sun, do you know how many pots crack? And how many burst in the kiln! For all the work that goes into it, the price it sells for is not enough, 'nga. Mud, that's all it is, they say. If that is so, then everything is mud. I'm mud, you're mud. Everything is only mud.

At sunrise in Maargazhi, in the teeth-chattering cold, comes a sound: "Lottu! Lottu". Each loud tap on the pots reaches right to the ears of the people still lying in bed, and says, "Almost! Almost! It's almost Pongal!"

Of all our festivals, 'nga, it is this Pongal, this Festival of Boiling Rice that is really loved, even by the poor. The others are all rich men's feasts. In every poor man's house on Pongal day, they'll make pongal only in a new earthen pot. Even in the headman's house, where rice is cooked daily in a bronze vessel. We're all poor people, sir - all of us.

In the heart of the house we dig a hearth, boil the rice till it foams up all white, and when it is cooked we heap it on a leaf. We make a pit in the middle of it and pour in some milk. Then we hold it out to the sun and call out, "Pongal-O! Pongal!"

When Thai is born, a way is born.

That's what they say. A way out of your troubles. But never mind if a way is born or not born, what is born is the month of Thai. Faith is born then, 'nga. Faith that there will be some good way out. In this one faith alone the people of the village are united.

If tomorrow is Pongal, people will buy a pot only this evening. And there are those who will buy one only on Pongal morning. Life begins anew, 'nga!

That Pongal no one went to the Maargazhi market to buy pots. No pot from the market for us. We had our own pot, from our own place! Do you know how happy that made us feel? I am not an educated man, 'nga. But our village, our country, our nation they're all one and the same thing, 'nga!

For the women of the village, setting out to buy a new pot is something of a festival all by itself. Even if they had to walk only a few yards, the women gathered in fours and fives, with string bags dangling from their waists, chewing with relish on twigs of tobacco tucked between their jaws, chattering and laughing as they walked along to the potter's house. I stood watching the fun from a little way off.

A fence of coir rope had been tied all around the threshold on all four sides. The pots were a fine sight, piled one on top of the other and arranged in rows. There were enough pots not just for this year's Pongal, but for another three Pongals, he had made that many of them. So many kinds, too - cookpots for boiling rice, pots to hold water, bowls for things you eat with rice, tall pots and small pots and every kind of pot.

The pair was waiting for the visitors with smiles on their faces. That they could smile! Wasn't that something to marvel at?

The bargaining didn't start at once. The woman said, "Let the whole town come. We want to see the whole town collect here, with our own eyes."

In a little while a crowd of children and young people and elders was at the potter's door, jostling and pushing and making a buzzing noise.

"Are all of you here?" shouted the woman.

A hundred voices said the word, all at the same time: "YES!"

Think what it must have been like.

Still smiling, the woman gave a kick to the row of pots piled up in front of her. Just one kick. That pot slumped against the next one, and both of them fell against the next one, and then the next one, and the next. Have you seen rows and rows of pots breaking? Have you ever listened to it? So many pots!

We couldn't think of what to say or do. As the pots smashed to pieces, something shattered in the pit of everybody's belly. "You and your village!" hissed the woman, like a snake. Swiftly she bent down, picked up a handful of earth, and blew it into the wind. My child is gone, we're going, too. You be happy, all of you!" And both of them walked away. Vanished out of sight. We stood right there, as if turned to stone, the whole lot of us.

Not a single pot was left, 'nga. The place took on the look of a cremation ground, then and there.

After that, the village didn't shape up well, 'nga. One thing or another kept happening. Even the usual rains didn't turn up, and all the crops died. The purging sickness carried off everybody it wanted. Those who remained slunk away, one by one. A terror had taken hold of everybody.

On Pongal Day, if rice is not boiled in a new pot, what then, 'nga? You tell me yourself, 'nga: If faith is gone, then what is left?

1. 'nga is an abbreviation of the second person plural "neenga" (you) used to convey respect or courtesy. In colloquial Tamil, it often does duty for "please" and "thank you" or other conversational niceties used in the English language.

2. River of Milk is Paalaar, and Rapid River is Vegavathi.

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