Short Story

Darkness

Print edition : December 09, 2016

A broken chimney it was. Even so, it was perfect for that lamp.

It was a chimney only in name; it blocked all the light from the lamp.

Though it poured out only very little of the light, it spluttered out fumes in plenty from its upper mouth.

That lamp, along with the broken chimney, was on the western wall. Forgetting when it came into being, the “black trail” resided in the western wall. The lamp was placed on the rusty nail four and a half feet off the ground.

Our Chinnapappa could reach only up to four and a half feet. There wasn’t anyone younger than Chinnapappa in our house. So there it was on the wall, the lamp, to spread light on the floor, within the reach of everyone’s hands, to be used as and when needed.

Earlier, ever so many chimneys had been used on that lamp. One by one, all of them broke. Each time they broke, you heard a crackling sound. They would shatter to pieces.

Only Chinnapappa and Mariappan used to be afraid when they broke. Whoever broke it would get blows and the one who broke it the previous time would be heaped with abuse. The pain from previous slaps would come to mind. Mariappan had earned a lot of prizes and good wishes from Ayya for breaking the chimney.

Who hadn’t broken a chimney at home? Amma… Ayya… Periapappa, everyone had broken one.

There was no end to it; in the end it was Amma who took a decision. “ Dei… you lot… hereafter let this lamp burn without a chimney. It’s become a regular nuisance. If it burns, let it, or let it die out… all right,” she said. From the day she said that, the lamp was without a chimney.

As she said, the lamp would die out within a few minutes of being lit. The lamp was scared of the wind. Poor thing, once the wind blew, it would limp along, shivering!

Chinnapappa was very fond of the house lamp. She loved it when it burned in the night.

If it looked like the wind would blow, Chinnapappa would try to shield the lamp, her little hands cupped. She would worry about it getting snuffed out in the wind.

As if the wind didn’t know how to fool one! It would fool her stealthily. The wind, of course, knew all the directions. Beyond the thatch-screen, beyond the verandah, beyond the reach of Chinnapappa’s hands, the wind would slowly climb the wall and put out the lamp with a “gup” sound. The rascally wind!

Once Chinnapappa had sobbed heart-rendingly. Mariappan couldn’t bear it. His eyes too glistened. Even Amma must have been troubled by her tears. But, for the sake of Chinnapappa, how could she wash her hands of the vow of “never buying a chimney”?

If they bought a chimney just once for Chinnapappa’s sake, wouldn’t the lamp burn steadily, without flickering? Mariappan tried to persuade his mother, but to no avail. “ Dei… Mariappa, what do you know of the situation at home? You are still like a playful child. Without the rains, there’s no way even to fill our stomachs. What da? As if you can’t live without a chimney?”

It looked as if one had to befriend darkness from that day onwards. But Chinnapappa was scared of the dark. In the night, if she woke up suddenly, she would howl loudly. But nowadays the house was always dark. Even during the day it was dark.

As days went by one became used to the dark. Only Chinnapappa knew well enough how dark it would turn and when. But she was afraid of the dark. Even so, by and by, she learnt to peer through the darkness.

It was Chinnapappa who became smart at manoeuvring through the dark, even more so than Amma. Mariappan would often trip and fall, bang against the front step. Whenever he fell, Chinnapappa would click her tongue. She would hold her brother and rub the spot where he had hurt himself. If the foot was bruised, she would blow on it.

Amma too made kanji sitting in the dark. The burning fire would then light up the whole house brightly. Every nook would be seen clearly.

The lamp on the western wall… Above it the black trail, which looked as if it was holding up the entire roof, seemed magnified.

When the stove was lit in the night, the black trail would clamber up the wall, like Saduka Bhootham, the guardian-ghost in the Tamil lesson in Class Eight. It would laugh at Chinnapappa. It would shake its head when everyone drank kanji. You couldn’t see it at all in the dark of the night. Suddenly in the dead of the night Ayya would appear like a fire-spitting demon, his beedi-end glowing. He always had a matchbox. Even if he didn’t have a beedi, he would always have a matchbox.

Ayya always lay down smoking a beedi. When the lit beedi moved from hand to mouth, this way and that, you wondered if the eyes of the bogeyman-thief looked like this.

Ayya often lit the beedi in the night and whenever he struck the match, “sarr”, the whole house would fill up with light. Even in that momentary flash, the wall and the black trail would appear monstrous. This trail had been there ever since they were children. How many years at the time of Pongal in the month of Thai they had whitewashed the place; yet it never disappeared. In the house of Mariappan’s friend, Munusamy of Nine B, the black trail faced the east on the eastern wall.

Whenever the Tamil teacher asked a question about the guardian-ghost, it was the black trail that came to Mariappan’s mind.

At the times when the teachers didn’t ask questions or take any lessons, Mariappan lost himself in the thoughts of bathing in the lake and frolicking in the pond. When he suddenly thought of his house, it was the black trail that appeared first. Only then would Amma, Chinnapappa and others come to mind.

The black trail didn’t come to Chinnapappa’s mind often enough. All she thought of was the chimney that was needed for the lamp. The broken chimney that now fitted well was patched up with the last page of Mariappan’s maths notebook; the red line in the middle revealed that it was from a maths notebook.

It was Chinnapappa who had picked up the broken chimney from the undergrowth of the plant that fenced the lake.

She put it carefully in her little full-skirt, carried it and showed it joyfully only to Mariappan.

Mari too was ecstatic when he saw Pappa’s broken chimney. Immediately he hit upon an idea. He tore out a leaf from his maths book, cut it to fit the crack that ran along the chimney and stuck it with cooked millet paste. The chimney got set.

Now it looked nice when the lamp was lit. The light was a bit dim in the place where the maths page was stuck. Half the head of the “man”, which he had drawn with the numbers one to nine a long while ago, could be seen on the page.

That night Amma didn’t put anything on the stove. In the pot was some rice-water and grains of rice. Amma said she would give kanji only when Ayya came. Chinnapappa was very hungry. She slowly inched across from where she was leaning against the wall and buried her face in her mother’s lap. Years ago Mariappan used to sleep like that on his mother’s lap.

Ayya arrived. He said that they had to catch the train that night itself. Ayya and Amma spoke between themselves—that they would get daily-wage jobs and also rice three times a day if they went to Thanjavur.

Should they stay back here, they wouldn’t even have anyone to give them the last drops of water in the mouth. In the lamp’s light Ayya was counting, one by one, the notes that he had got for the travel after pawning Chinnapappa’s anklets. They had to leave without the neighbour being aware of it. Chinnapappa couldn’t sleep. Mariappan gathered his books and notebooks together, stuffed them inside a cloth bag and readied himself.

After the bustle of the town died down, Amma got ready, bags, bundles and all.

Carrying Chinnapappa on his shoulder, Ayya walked briskly without looking back. But as Amma walked, she kept turning and looking at the house again and again. Periapappa walked silently behind Ayya. Mariappan walked carrying the small sack full of vessels and his book-bag.

Only when he sat down in the train did Ayya find the courage to let out a sigh. He put away the odds and ends of the luggage under the seat. The train started in a little while. Chinnapappa slept off, putting her head on Amma’s lap.

Mariappan too was sleepy. The breeze on train journeys was always comforting. He woke up when the train started again from one of the stations on the way.

Everyone seemed to be asleep when he got up. The train’s light appeared before his eyes. He was troubled that they had left behind Chinnapappa’s chimney-lamp burning at home. He looked at Chinnapappa’s face and clicked his tongue, as she always did. He couldn’t forget the black trail that stood on the western wall. The dark trail too stalked him stubbornly, leaping and hopping over everything.

This story is taken from The Tamil Short Story: Through the Times, Through the Tides (Ed. Dilip Kumar; translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy), an anthology, in translation, of 88 short stories written between 1913 and 2000.

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