Epiphany (Kraurya)

Published : Nov 08, 2017 12:30 IST

ALAMELU, the only child of Professor Thiruchendur Shrinivasa Raghavacharya and his wife, Kalyanamma, died the day before yesterday.

It was a hot day, hot enough to sear the bone through the skin as Alamelu lay dying on the steaming gooey tar road to the Kodambakkam railway station. A chance knife flung at someone else had accidentally caught her in the back. Palanichaami, a seller of salt in a pushcart, sat leaning her against his bare chest. The crowd around them waited for the ambulance.

Every time Alamelu opened her eyes wide, all she could see was an endless expanse of blue; a blue that seemed to be waiting to enfold the dark heads encircling her. The bark of dogs mingled with the hoot of trains. She flared her nostrils. Was the fragrance from her garden on Habibullah Street beckoning her? She could not make out the comments floating around. Each person in the crowd had something to say. She felt Time thundering past with the sound of the trains. Suddenly, a whiff of rancid liquor came her way from the man who held her against his chest; she did not find it repulsive.

Though Alamelu was thirty-six, she was not blessed enough to enjoy her womanhood. Professor Thiruchendur Shrinivasa Raghavacharya was married at eighteen. True. And it was also true that he had approved of Kalyanamma as his wife because of her earnest conformity to the Vadagalai tradition of the Iyengars. 1 But the professor was forty by the time Alamelu was born. He had been looking forward to a son to carry on his lineage. And so, Alamelu, crippled with polio soon after birth, did not tug at his heartstrings; she was not attractive enough to do so.

Alamelu lived at Andal Mandiram on Habibullah Street. She had thought she would die there too. It was an old-fashioned house with a terrace on the roof. On either side of the gate were flowering shrubs. The house had a veranda with the roof resting on two pillars which led into a hall, spacious but gloomy despite the open windows; apartment blocks on either side saw to it that no light entered the house. To the left of the door that led to a water tank at the back was a full-length mirror. To the left of the mirror were two cane chairs, and in the corner, a table. Photographs of forefathers lined a wall. Whenever Alamelu returned home from her outings, she had the habit of leaving her bags on the table and going to the kitchen for a chat with her mother. The professor and his dutiful wife kept a watchful eye on everything that connected their daughter with the world outside—from the clothes she bought to the books she borrowed from the library.

Professor Thiruchendur Shrinivasa Raghavacharya and his wife spent their evenings on the cane chairs in the hall discussing Vishishtadvaita.² The professor, in a dhothi and a short-sleeved shirt, would open a musty tome while looking at his wife, first from the corner of his eyes and then fully in the face. He would smile, showing just the two teeth protruding beyond his firmly stretched lips. Even as Kalyanamma’s jowls came alive, her left hand reached for the tip of her nose.

“Just look at this, Kalyanu! In Thirukoviluru, the platform on which the Poigai Azhwar³ was sleeping was wide enough for only one person to sleep on. When the Boodhath Azhwar came there, Poigai Azhwar had to wake up so that both of them could sit on it. And, should the Pei Azhwar come there right then? All three had to stand on it as there was no place for them to sit. And even then, all three became enlightened enough to know there was a fourth in their midst.”

“What saintly people! What pre-eminence!” Kalyanamma exclaimed, rubbing the tip of her nose vigorously, stretching her lipless mouth and half-closing her eyes in appreciation before adding in amazement, “How meaningful is Boodhath Azhwar’s anbe thagaliyaa, aarvame nei … where he says, ‘ love is the lamp, desire the ghee, and the spirit that dissolves in bliss is the wick !’ He says, ‘This is the way the light of wisdom shines from his soul to Sriman Narayana, God Himself.’”

At such moments, if ever they caught sight of Alamelu, the professor would immediately pucker his eyebrows and say, “How many times should I tell you to wrap the pallu around your shoulders? No sense of respectability, no decorum!”

Professor Shrinivasa Raghavacharya had retired from the University of Madras after a long tenure as professor of philosophy. And now nothing gave him peace of mind except Vishishtadvaita. There was a time when he had been impressed by Schopenhauer’s theory of the individual will. But these days he felt like discarding every doctrine except Bhagavan Ramanuja’s philosophy of selfless service, karma yoga. He was the type who was thrilled even to recall the dharmic fervour with which his father and grandfather had conformed to ritual purity. It was not surprising, therefore, that he saw Alamelu as a stranger, an alien. As for her, she yearned at least for parental love. But she did not enjoy much independence at home. She was so contrary to the qualities her parents had yearned for, and would have approved of in their child, that she was not allowed to even open the window in her room.

When Alamelu was twenty, some loafers passing by her house had called out, “ Mudhuki !” to tease her. And she really looked like an old woman by the time she was thirty. Her face was pinched and wan. There were dark circles around her small eyes. The nose was long enough but flattened at the tip. Her scanty dark hair had not grown beyond her neck. Her right cheek sported a scar from being branded when she had the attack of polio. When she walked, she flung forward her emaciated right leg and then dragged the left leg in front of it.

No one on Habibullah Street, not even the professor and his wife, knew that once upon a time Alamelu had been caught in the throes of passion. It did not last very long and Alamelu often wondered if the man had died. This happened the one time she had visited her mother’s native town, Kanchipuram. It was during the excitement at her mother’s younger sister’s wedding. The house was right next to a temple. There were countless guests whom she had never met. It was a time when girls of her age could freely go about anywhere they pleased. What was his name? Wasn’t it Ramanujam? He held her hand as he helped her over the threshold of the temple, didn’t he? While the pretty girls looked at her with contempt and felt awkward to be anywhere near her, he would walk close to her, loving her with his eyes. Why, the day after the wedding, when some fifteen of them had gone to see Nenjil Oru Alayam , he had sat beside her in the cinema. His hand had spoken to every part of her body in the darkness. With the shyness typical of young girls, she had pretended to protest but had loved him in secret. For months on end, he had plagued her imagination after she returned from Kanchipuram. And now, who knew whether he was alive or dead? Alamelu ground away her life shopping for vegetables and groceries and helping out her mother.

And now, in her thirty-sixth year, Alamelu, neither beautiful nor attractive enough to enlist any sympathy, lay dying. The force with which she fell had tossed her plastic shopping basket a little beyond her. Her sari was all askew, revealing her spindly legs up to the knees. Palanichaami leaned her more comfortably against his chest and straightened her sari.

As soon as he heard about the stabbing, Palanichaami reached the spot. He had nothing on except a lungi around his waist. Perhaps he had been sleeping. Well-built, black as coal with a hairy chest. Alamelu could see discoloured spots in his bulging eyes. “He must be from the slums,” she thought, “and yet I find him soothing.” Eventually, her dull face brightened a little, as if his deep breathing had infused life into her.

“Water!” she gasped.

“Water. Please get her some water,” the man called out to the crowd around them.

“Not water. Get a soda,” suggested someone.

Alamelu felt a strange happiness: “This dark person is looking at me with the love I’ve longed for from my parents. And yet what a gulf there is between him and me! If only I had been dark and born as his daughter, how much he would’ve loved me. Or had he been fair and been my father, perhaps he would’ve spoken to me gently, looked at me with love.”

Alamelu tittered at the thought. To the slum dwellers standing around, it sounded like a moan. She had never seen the compassion she saw in the eyes of the man who held her.

For the last three years Alamelu had taken to walking this way twice a day to do her grocery shopping at Pondy Bazaar, morning and evening. She could have walked down Habibullah Street, turned at Masilamani Mudali Street and walked straight ahead to Pondy Bazaar. But she did not turn at Masilamani Mudali Street. Instead she walked on towards Kodambakkam railway station, passing by the huts along the railway track. Of course, it was a roundabout route, but she had a reason for taking it. She could never forget the adventure she had once had, insignificant though it was.

One day when Alamelu was on her way to Pondy Bazaar, she had forgotten to turn at Masilamani Mudali Street and walked straight on towards Kodambakkam railway station. As she hurriedly dragged her weak legs, she saw a snake charmer drawing a large crowd at a corner of a busy crossroads. People came rushing from all sides to see what was happening. Though she had passed the crowd of spectators, Alamelu kept looking back at them. That was when a stranger had rubbed against her shoulder unexpectedly. He was a squint-eyed midget in a tattered pair of shorts, with a handkerchief over his shoulder. The sweat from his head streaked his cheeks. The hair on his chest glistened with it. On his lip, an ulcer was on the verge of bursting. As Alamelu turned towards him, the dwarf pretended to lose his balance, stared at her wide-eyed and said, “ Enna, Iyer kutty ?” As Alamelu clutched her purse tightly in her left hand, she felt he had giggled and winked at her. She frowned, of course. But the very next moment she felt that his “What, Iyer girl?” had a tenderness in it, an overflowing love. Though she was scared out of her wits and her legs quaked, his question brought colour to her pale cheeks. She walked away as briskly as she could. She who had never ever looked into a butcher’s shop, stared at the one to her left, draped with lamb carcasses. She felt many eyes on her as she shuffled away like a shy bride.

Thiruchendur Shrinivasa Raghavacharya was engrossed in delineating to Kalyanamma the four levels of stoic consciousness— yatamaana sanjye, vyatireka sanjye, ekendriya sanjye and vashikaara sanjye4 —as narrated by Bhagavan Ramanujacharya. His concentration was shattered when Alamelu stepped noisily into the house. Seeing the smile on her face, he growled, “What’s the smile for? What happened to you today that you should be smiling? You half-wit offspring of a widow!” As she crept into the house and out of his sight, he launched on the story of Andal; of how she decided to marry God Himself and, decking her hair with the flowers meant for His worship, stared at the mirror thinking, “Will God accept even a person like me?”

As she entered her room, Alamelu felt like opening the window. Wasn’t it inauspicious to look in the mirror at night? Softly she lifted the one lying on the window sill. “What, Iyer kutty?” he had said and what she saw reflected in the mirror was a bright-eyed fulsome face. The tip of the nose was not flattened. There was no scar on the right cheek. The tresses fell in gentle waves. The man who dashed against her shoulder that evening must have been Ramanujam, surely? “No, this man was different. There are people who can love me too. Actually, I’m quite good-looking!” As she stared at the mirror, Alamelu heard the front door being shut. “Did they have to stop their discussion on the Vedanta so soon?” she thought.

During dinner with her father that night, Alamelu was not very inclined to sit demurely in front of her plate, with her right leg folded and pressed against the floor and the left leg folded but upright and at right angles to the right one, with the left hand encircling it. The radiance on her face did not wane even though she was sitting in front of her father. Professor Shrinivasa Raghavacharya was peeved to notice the change in her demeanour and caught his wife’s eye with a poised look of contempt, not just once or twice.

After dinner it was usual for the professor to scan The Hindu for the second time while Kalyanamma pored over the Tamil magazine Kalki . Alamelu lay face downwards on her bed that seemed roomier than ever. She went over the scene again; the snake charmer, the crowd, the man who rubbed against her shoulder and winked at her, and the faces that stared at her from the butcher’s shop. As was her wont, she also remembered her days with Ramanujam. As she drifted off to sleep, she felt she was sleeping in his arms, as if his hand was pressing against the soft contours of her body.

From that day onwards Alamelu did not turn into Masilamani Mudali Street on her way to Pondy Bazaar. She walked along the slum towards Kodambakkam railway station. The more the hustle and bustle, the greater her excitement. One footpath was lined with huts; the other was crowded with people. No one seemed to mind if she dashed against them while limping along with her plastic shopping bag. Though she knew the place would be rife with street fights and petty thieving, Alamelu was not scared. In fact, she was thrilled by the accidental touch, the wide-eyed stare, and the shrill wolf whistles to catch her attention.

That very street stabbed Alamelu in the back in her thirty-sixth year. It was around eleven in the morning. There was a huge crowd in front of the butcher’s. A bare-bodied thug was gripping a boy by his hair and bashing him in the face. The boy was barely sixteen or eighteen. Blood oozed from his mouth. His shirt was in shreds. Two women with baskets filled with cow dung sat nearby, chewing betel leaves while watching the fight. One of them, nose studs flashing from either side of her nose, gnashed her teeth every other moment. Her shoulders shook softly every time the hefty man hit the stripling. The other woman was in her own world with her legs stretched out, scratching her armpits. Taking in the scene, Alamelu shambled as fast as she could without a backward glance, keeping to the edge of the crowd. She may have gone the distance of some ten arms’-length when the boy shouted, “You son of a widow! Wait till I get back at you!” and slipped from the man’s grasp as he ran towards Alamelu. The hoodlum chased him and someone from the crowd tried to stop the ruffian. In a flash, the boy stood in front of Alamelu and, holding her by her shoulders as a shield, started abusing his persecutor with all the foul words he could think of. Alamelu’s face brightened to feel someone holding her close, but she trembled to see blood dribbling from his mouth. Two men held the goonda in a tight grip. He ranted in fury and, unexpectedly, drew out a knife. Its blade, flashing in the blazing sun, caught Alamelu in the back even as the boy ducked. He let go of her and ran. She moaned, aware that something had hit her. The rowdy who had thrown the knife ran after the boy. Even as her eyes blurred and she slumped, struggling to breathe, Alamelu saw the two of them disappear behind the huts.

The crowd that had stood watching the fight now gathered around Alamelu. Someone asked someone else to call the police. Palanichaami came running from somewhere, shouting, “ Ayyo !” The woman with the two nose studs picked up the knife that had struck Alamelu and fallen to the ground. She hid it in the cow dung in her basket. The other woman picked up Alamelu’s purse, and within the twinkling of an eye, both of them vanished.

When a boy came running with a bottle of soda, Palanichaami held it to Alamelu’s mouth. She took a sip as her eyes rolled and her head drooped to one side. “Why is the water grating my throat like sand?” she wondered.

“Wonder if she’ll survive till the ambulance turns up,” said someone.

Seeing her blood spreading against Palanichaami’s chest, the crowd quietened down. Alamelu leaned against Palanichaami with all her strength. She found it hard to breathe. She opened her mouth.

“Move back. Let some fresh air in,” said Palanichaami. Alamelu closed her eyes. She could hear Palanichaami’s heartbeat. The muscles of his arms pressed against her armpits. Every time she opened her eyes, she could see the compassion in his bulging eyes. His sour breath and the sweat from his forehead dripping on her head seemed to bring the essence of life to her. She felt she was rocking in his arms, damp with sweat.

The police van arrived. Three constables climbed out. Alamelu heard Palanichaami talking. Though she could not understand what he said, she could make out from his voice that it had something to do with fellow feeling. Even as two of the constables helped Palanichaami to his feet and examined the gash on her back, Alamelu groaned softly, hiccuped and closed her eyes forever.

“So, where have you hidden the knife?”

With that question to Palanichaami, the constables started the investigations.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

Originally titled Kraurya (1979), this story has been taken from the collection of short stories by S. Diwakar titled Ithihaasa (first edition, 1981; second edition, 2007). It was awarded the first prize in the Prajavani Deepavali Short Story Competition in 1979.


1. Vadagalai Iyengars are a sub-sect of the Sri Vaishnara Iyengar community of Brahmins. They are the followers of Ramanuja and Vedanta Desika, the Vaishnavic Acharya who founded the Vadagalai tradition.

2. It is a school of Vedanta philosophy propounded by Ramanujacharya, which brings together both the “Monistic” and “Dualistic” schools of philosophy.

3. Poigai Azhwar is one of the twelve Azhwar saints of the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. He is one of the three principal Azhwars, the other two being Bhoodhath Azhwar and Pei Azhwar. According to legend, the three Azhwars were in a dark enclosure during a storm when they experienced the presence of a fourth among them and realised he was Lord Vishnu.

4. For Ramanujacharya, jnana yoga is the path of renunciation leading to introspection. It has the following four stages (sanjye) of maturity: Yatamaana which means renouncing all worldly activities to focus the mind upon itself; Vayatireka which means developing indifference to pleasure and pain; Ekendriya which is practising single-minded meditation undisturbed by feelings such as love, fear, joy, pain, and anger; and Vashikaara which is to establish the mind exclusively on the atman.

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