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Short Story

'Calendar Bawa' by Thoppil Mohamed Meeran: A Tamil short story in translation

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
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Thoppil Mohamed Meeran (1944–2019) wrote six novels and several short story collections from which these stories are taken. He won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 1997 for “Saivu Narkkali” and many other awards, including the Tamil Nadu Kalai Ilakkiya Perumantram Award and the Ilakkiya Chinthanai Award. He translated the biography of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer into Tamil. In his writings, Meeran bemoaned what man had made of man and what man had made of nature. It pained him that men, who are the noblest of creations, should inflict cruelty in the name of religion, caste and gender. He wrote about real people and also about those located in another reality. His writings have an enveloping compassion, an inclusive humanity and hope.

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Prabha Sridevan is a former judge of the Madras High Court (2000–10) and the former chairperson of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (2011–13). She writes in English and Tamil on issues of law and life and has translated selected works of Chudamani Raghavan, S. Ramakrishnan, Imayam and U. Ve Swaminatha Iyer.

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A co-publication with the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation, this collection of Meeran’s stories is about the assault of progress on trees, birds, green fields, snakes and boys playing cricket. The stories are also about the effect of economic forces on human relationships; for instance, a grandson tells his grandfather: “The problem is you have lived too long.”

Translated by Prabha Sridevan.

THE Yaanai Paarai, or the Elephant Rock, lay to the south of the city. You had to climb it to see the Nombu (holy fasting period of Ramadan) moon that marked the first day of Ramadan and the Perunaal moon when the last fast was ended. On a cloudless night, the crescent was a curved thread glued to the sky.

To make sure of the beginning of the Ramadan Nombu, people ran around shouting, “Have you seen the moon?”

We too stood on the rock to see the Perunaal crescent, the moon of Ramadan. We stood there, our eyes casting a net to catch the first sight of the moon, which appeared but for a brief moment. We went mad with anger if a shred of cloud crawled across the clear blue sky. We shouted curse words to our hearts’ content. We stood waiting stubbornly for the cloud to move so that we could start the Ramadan celebrations; for only then could we go round to our relatives’ houses, asking for perunaappadi, the Ramadan gifts, wearing new clothes, with attar-drenched tufts of cotton tucked behind our ears. As soon as we sighted the white apparition that appeared just for a few moments, we jumped off the Yaanai Paarai and raced down, yelling loudly.

“Has the moon been sighted?” An adult would accompany us to check if we children were lying about sighting the moon. He was none other than…Calendar Bawa.

He never uttered a lie. He was an honest man who stated what he saw without any exaggeration. If he said something, you did not need a witness to substantiate it.

“Oh certainly, I saw it,” he said.

“Did you see it?” the chief asked again, just to make sure.

“I saw it with my own eyes.” Every year, it was the same question and the same answer.

Immediately after the beat of the nagara drums, the loudspeaker of the pallivasal (mosque) blared out the Perunaal announcement. In our village, we did not refer to calendars.

Bawa was our calendar.

The village chief himself gave Bawa new clothes for the festival since Bawa had no wife or children. This was a dhoti-and-towel set. Apart from this, since Bawa swept and cleaned the pallivasal , a service he rendered voluntarily, he received two handfuls of food from everyone, like the chicken that pecks here and there.

A grey beard, a red round cap, a dhoti around his waist that reached his ankles, and a very loose shirt that came down to his knees (a gift from a man with a paunch, surely)—this was a description of Bawa.

Adrabu, Sultan, Hameedu and the rest of us climbed up the rock to sight the moon. As usual, Calendar Bawa came along as our witness. Akka, my elder sister, who had moved to Thiruvananthapuram after getting married, told umma (mother) that it would be Perunaal there tomorrow. Believing her, umma soaked rice in water to make snacks and delicacies, such as ottappam , paalaadai and kinnathappam .

Kaimani Sundaram’s gift was two roosters. They were tied to the wire fence, pecking at the grain on the floor. They would be in the kitchen pot tomorrow, and I could smell the dish already. Then there would be ghee rice and all the special snacks.

Allah! Let tomorrow be Eid Perunaal. I vow that I will offer one rupee out of the Eid gifts I received.

They were kneading rice flour in Sultan’s house to make oratti , the flatbreads for the feast. Hameedu’s vappa (father) had brought a goat and tied it to the fence.

All of us were at the Elephant Rock with Calendar Bawa. The clear blue sky was cloudless, as though washed clean. The hair on Calendar Bawa’s beard, just below the lips, stained by smoking beedis, looked brown.

He breathed smoke through his nostrils, plunging us children into a state of wonder. When we stuffed his shirt pocket with a bundle of Kumari Makkal beedis and Eli-mark matchsticks, Bawa, who was shivering in the cold month of Markazhi, was happy beyond words. The evening breeze that blew from the Arabian Sea was damp. When the sun drowned in the sea, our eyes rose towards the sky.

“Why this beedi roll, my child?”

“Isn’t it cold?”

“Yes, very cold.”

“Bawa, my umma has soaked the rice.” Bawa did not pay attention to Adrabu.

“My umma has kneaded the flour,” said Sultan.

Bawa’s calendar eyes were fixed on the sloping blue sky unspotted by clouds.

“Bawa, have you seen the moon?” one of the boys asked.

The sound of the prayer was flowing from the loudspeaker placed specially for Perunaal on top of the minar. Bawa lit a beedi and broke his fast.

“See there, a cloud. Please look…don’t you see a thread?”

Bawa was silent. He did not shift his eyes from the sky. It did not look as if there was a cloud. He thought to himself that there was no chance that Perunaal would be tomorrow.

“We all saw it, Bawa. Didn’t you?”

Bawa wondered what to say.

Maybe my vision is fading with age? All the boys say they saw the crescent. They are all good boys. Nowadays, my eyes keep watering; it may be a sign of failing vision. Should I say I saw the crescent without sighting it? When all these children are saying that they saw the moon, should I deny it? What should I tell the headman?

Bawa was utterly confused.

He had never spoken a lie.

If the townspeople got to know that his eyes were failing, they would remove him from the wall, roll him up and fling him away. He was respected only because he was The Calendar. That wisp of cloud may have hidden the crescent, as the boys had said. Maybe the cloud had come and hidden the crescent just when he was wiping his watering eyes.

Doubts crowded his mind. When the young goats saw the sharp knives, they knew that they would throb, writhe and lose their lives tomorrow, and they bleated loudly. This set off tremors on the western side of town, at the foot of the Elephant Rock.

Standing on the rock, one could see the celebrations in the town and, also, the children’s merriment.

This celebration…

These eruptions of joy…

The whole town will be crestfallen and sad if I say I did not sight the moon. The children bursting crackers and running helter-skelter with joy will flop down like tender spinach stalks.

The soaked rice and kneaded rice flour prepared by these very poor people…

It would be an act of extreme cruelty to extend the trembling fear felt by those young goats, which were already shivering at the prospect of death at the sight of those shiny sharp knives. To show them compassion on this holiest of days…to shorten their terror and agony by a day…

“Has the moon been sighted?” Adrabu shouted. Sultan and Hameedu echoed him.

Calendar Bawa walked behind them, his hands clasped behind him. The village chief waited at the pallivasal .

“Did you sight the moon?”

Do I say, “Yes, I did. I saw it with my own two eyes?”

Or do I say, “I did not.”

In that moment of hesitation, suddenly his eyes watered.

“What do you say, Bawa?”

“My eyesight is not good.”

He was now an old calendar and was rolled up and thrown away.

The village head ordered that the nagara beat begin and the thakbir (God is the greatest) be recited on the loudspeaker, announcing the Perunaal.

It was the new calendar… according to the children.

Allahu Akbar

Allahu Akbar

Allahu Akbar

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

Reproduced courtesy of Ratna Books, 2022.

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