A Companion

Print edition : March 27, 2020

Jalasamadhi & Other Stories, Ratna Books, 2019

A.Sethumadhavan (Sethu), the author of this story, is one of the most acclaimed and widely translated Indian writers of fiction. A winner of all major literary awards in India such as the Sahitya Akademi award and twice the recipient of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award, he was also the Chairman of the National Book Trust, New Delhi.(Photo Credit: Dinesh Sinha) Photo: Dinesh Sinha

Prema Jayakumar, the translator of this story, translates from Malayalam into English.She has retold the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other stories from the Puranas for Mango Books and Real Reads of the U.K.

Malayalam short story.

When Sankarankutty reached home after two months, his mother was full of complaints.

“Forgotten that some people exist, haven’t you?”

An outpour followed.

“It’s not all that far. Can’t you come at least once a week? You aren’t the only busy person in this world; others too have work. Lots of people come and go here. Why don’t you say something? I know you have nothing to say. You don’t care about your mother, now that she is old and weak.”

Half-listening and smiling to himself, he took a towel and walked to the pond. As he lay half-immersed in the cold water, the tension and weariness of the train journey in summer drained from him. He dived and stayed underwater for some time.

Emerging, he saw the light of a torch at the top of the steps leading down to the pond. A reedy voice came with it. “Amma asked me to look for you. Here’s a torch...snakes...”

Above the circle of light shone the boy’s round face.

“Leave it there,” he said.

He ducked underwater. By the time he came up for air, the boy had left. There was a light breeze and he shook himself as he wiped himself and walked back to the house.

He changed, combed his hair and went out to the passage where his mother was waiting. Behind her, the boy. Probably in his early teens.

“Who is this?”

“Kannan.” It was the boy who answered.

“Nice name.” He smiled. “Where are you from?”

“Come here. I’ll tell you everything.” His mother walked to the veranda in front of the house. He walked with her and sat on the parapet, leaning against the pillar, his legs outstretched. His mother stood near him, her eyes fixed on the distant darkness.

“It was Janmashtami. I had gone to the temple and stood before the sanctum, praying. My eyes filled with tears. After the aarathi, I went round the sanctum thrice. I thought I heard someone calling ‘Amma’ from behind me. When I turned to look, I saw Kannan smiling at me.” His mother’s eyes were half-closed as she spoke.

“And then?” He looked intently at her face.

“He called me Amma. He held my hand. I just looked at his face. I felt no need for any questions or answers after that. When I walked home, he walked with me. That was all.”

“What are you saying?” He was stunned. “You brought home a boy about whom you knew nothing!”

“But I found out everything later,” his mother laughed softly. “He belongs to a poor family. He was working night and day in a hotel, cutting firewood, drawing water and washing vessels. When he could bear it no longer, he ran away.”

Sankarankutty paced up and down, his hands behind his back. “And you believed everything he told you?”

“Why not?” His mother’s face held surprise. “I looked at his face and felt a strange closeness. When he looked at me as though he knew me, when he called me Amma, my heart missed a beat. I think a memory from some past life made me answer him. What else can a mother do when her son stands before her and calls out to her...”

“I wish you hadn’t done this,” he said. “Times are bad. Don’t you read the newspapers? These chaps come to work with sob stories. And then one morning, you find that everything in the house has vanished and the chap has vanished. They usually pick houses where elderly women stay alone. They will even kill for a little gold.”

“Speak softly,” his mother held her finger to her lips. “Kannan is standing there.”

“You have fallen for his tricks. And that name!”

“Forget his name. Look at his face carefully. And you’ll understand. After a couple of days, I felt that I had given birth to him too. It was as if it was for his coming that I had waited so long.”

What are you saying ...?

His mother was struggling through her memories and muttered, “Just think that one more came from my womb. Maybe just after you...”

“And then, to save your name, you put him in a basket and floated him down the river.”

“You needn’t talk too much.” His mother was angry now. “How long have I been begging you both to arrange a companion for me, telling you that I cannot stay alone? Neither of you did anything. And when I find someone, you come up with advice and arguments...”

He realised that there was no point in arguing with his mother. He took a book and sat in the easy chair in the hall.

He turned and looked when he heard a small sound. It was the boy, all smiles.

“It’s me, Kannan.”

He looked intently at Kannan. It was an ordinary face. But the eyes were dark and sparkling, the eyebrows thick and heavy and his smile spread brightly over his face.

“And where is Kannan’s home?” He asked. “Is it in Ambadi?”

Kannan scratched his head and laughed. “Not really. I just told Amma that.”

He named a place far north. His father was alive, as was his own mother. His father was bedridden. His mother worked in neighbouring homes. He had two younger sisters. Their meagre earnings were never sufficient for his father’s treatment and to feed the five of them. He had decided to run away somewhere when he had dreamed about a bright figure with a face that knew everything, that forgave everything.

“When I looked in the direction that the figure pointed to, I saw this house and heard Amma call. I understood that I was connected to this place, to this family, to Amma and to you. I must have been born in this house in my last birth. You must have been my elder brother. Even before I came here, I knew this compound, this tank, the grove of the snakes and the big jack tree.”

He looked at the boy’s face while he went on. “So this is the story with which you impressed my mother...”

“I didn’t say anything to Amma. I didn’t have to. Amma recognised me even before I spoke to her.”

“How?”

“It all comes from our past lives,” Kannan laughed again. “It is difficult to explain. Don’t you yourself feel closer to me than to a stranger you had just met?”

“Not at all.”

“You are just saying that.” Kannan laughed soundlessly.

“You are a scamp, aren’t you?”

The boy scratched his head in reply.

“Look...you can try all these tricks on my mother, not on me. I’m not trying to throw you out because my mother seems to have taken a liking to you. But I’ll be keeping an eye on you…. If you behave yourself, you can stay here comfortably. Any sign of mischief, and...”

“I know that, sir.”

“All right. Now go away. I’d like to finish this.”

“Okay, sir.” The boy went down the steps turned around and scratched his head. “I wanted to ask you—May I call you ettan...”

“I’ll murder you. How am I your elder brother?”

“Okay, I just asked,” the boy flashed an embarrassed smile at him and walked into the house.

When Sankarankutty sat down for his supper, his mother looked at him questioningly. “Did you talk to Kannan?”

He nodded. “I don’t know, there is something funny about that boy. Anyway, we’ll know more in time.”

“There is nothing more to know.” His mother’s voice was firm. “I already understand everything. When people who are already connected meet, they don’t need questions and answers to understand each other.”

He hesitated for a moment and then peered at his mother’s face with a mischievous smile. “Anyway, he claims that you gave birth to him as well.”

“Really? Did he actually say that? Krishna...” His mother stood for a moment with folded hands and said, “The boy said exactly what I had thought.”

“So when we partition the family property, you can give him a share too.”

His mother poured the spoonful of gruel back into the bowl and sat still, thinking. Following her thoughts clearly, he said, “Forget it! Deviedathi and ettan will come marching with all the army’s guns.”

He did not think that his mother had heard this. He heard her mutter to herself, “Come to think about it, that’s not such a bad idea. I have always wanted to do something about the daily expenses of the temple. I can always give the share I had planned for that to our Kannan...”

He was incensed. “How old do you think you are, mother? Not old enough to go senile, at any rate. Don’t do insane things and make people talk.”

He could tell that his mother was not at all pleased. She did not finish her gruel, got up and went into the kitchen.

Cigarette in hand, Sankarankutty was walking in the front yard after supper. There was a crescent moon in the sky. Fireflies danced in the soft breeze among the jasmine creepers. As he walked thinking random thoughts, he heard someone cough. It was Kannan with his usual wide smile, teeth gleaming in the moonlight.

“You can’t walk so peacefully in the town, can you, sir?”

Sankarankutty made no reply.

“I sleep late most nights.” Kannan continued, “You can’t sleep early in this heat. One starts dreaming. I had a dream last night. Actually it was early in the morning. We were all there. We were draining the pond on the western side. You and I were holding the two sides of the dipper. It was very difficult to drain the water from that pond. When we saw the bottom, you and I started digging right in the middle with a crowbar. After five-six feet, there was a ringing sound and we saw two huge copper pots full of gold coins. It was the treasure mentioned in the palm-leaf manuscript in the prayer room.”

“Stop it,” Sankarankutty interrupted him. “You are sure there were two pots?”

“Yes.”

“So, one is for me and the other for you, right?”

“Well, the two of us dug out the treasure together, didn’t we, sir?”

He looked fixedly at the boy’s face for a moment, and saw the same clear smile in the light of the dim bulb and the waning moon.

“Look my son, Kannan or Mahavishnu, or whoever you are,” he patted him on the back, “you are a deep one. But just keep these stories to yourself. If I hear that you have taken these stories to my mother, I’ll throw you out.”

“You’ve got me wrong, sir. I would never worry Amma with such things,” he said with a quiet smile.

“All right, go and sleep. It’s very late.”

“Okay,” the boy nodded. He turned around after a couple of steps. “But...they do say that the dreams you have at dawn turn out to be true. If we drain that pond...”

“Get lost,” he shouted. “If you stay here any longer, I’ll...”

When they were having breakfast in the morning, his mother said, “It is a big relief to have Kannan here. I find it difficult to stay in the kitchen in this heat. And Kannan knows quite a bit of cooking. He’s so helpful, always by my side. Whatever the job, he does it without being told. That’s because he cares for me, of course. Once one feels that someone is one’s own, one can’t help doing things for them. He hates seeing me work.”

“I’ll try and come every weekend from now on.”

“There’s no need for that.” His mother’s voice was heavy. “It doesn’t matter now if you don’t come every weekend. I have company now.”

That blow struck hard. He got up without a word and rinsed his hands. When he went into the corridor, he saw Kannan searching for something in the dim light of one of the side rooms. He watched for a while, soundlessly.

When the boy caught sight of him, he came out of the room with a sheepish expression on his face.

“What are you searching for?” Sankarankutty’s voice was stern.

“Do you know where they are, sir? I’m searching for those old papers which deal with the title to the eight-acre property near the temple. The family had fought a case with the royal family.”

“What are you talking about? Who told you about all this?”

“No one told me.” Kannan had a secretive smile on his face. “I know.”

Sankarankutty was stunned for a moment. He asked his mother who came by: “Did you hear what he said?”

“Yes, I did.” His mother’s face was serene.

“What are these papers he is talking about?”

“I don’t know. I heard some talk about this case when I was very young. I’ve heard Valiamama talk about it. I don’t know anything else.”

“Then how does he know all this?”

“I haven’t told him anything.” His mother was smiling. “Perhaps he knows of the old matters connected with this house.”

Sankarankutty was drenched in sweat when he fell into the easy chair. Kannan stood near him. His face still held the same clear smile.

“Are you feeling all right, sir?”

He looked intently at the boy’s face. He felt that the face of the boy who stood in front of him had floated down from some strange world.

Sights which he had never seen, melting, rippling, blurring and clearing in the curtains of the mist and the sheets of water.

“None of you knows the difficulty of living alone.” He could hear his mother’s unsteady voice nearby. “I always had only one prayer. Someone near me, someone I could look to for support, a companion, someone to call my own. My prayers were heard and he came. He came from somewhere. He slid down the threads that link births to call me mother.”

He looked at Kannan with tired eyes. That same clear smile. The smile of someone who knew everything. The smile which belonged in a face that had crossed time.

“Shall I fan you, sir?”

“Call me ettan.” He spoke as though to the air, “or, I’ll call you that.”

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy of Ratna Books

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