Short story

Faraway land…

Print edition : January 06, 2017

Illustration by K.G. Rangarajan

TRAFFIC was hotting up on GST Salai. The army was erecting poles with flags for a forthcoming parade in Mohite Maidan.

He was walking slowly from Mathias Nagar on the pathway adjoining the Military Signal building on the other side of the road. He had looked up Thotharam in his newly opened pawn shop on Butt Road. Mindful of the dragging steps of his old Anglo-Indian companion, he too walked slowly. Since his pant always slipped off his waist and trailed the ground, he had rolled it up above his ankles. Only the straps of his well-worn hawai chappals were new. His boyish face revealed a squint. His arms, roasted to a pink in the sun, had the typical Anglo-Indian tattoos.

Arguing with the old Anglo-Indian lady, he quickly crossed the road, leaving her behind. Lighting a beedi, Mahmud Kaka, who ran a tea-stall adjoining the post-office wall, watched her.

She stood helplessly on the other side. She couldn’t see properly. She would never be able to cross a busy street on her own. She had called him only to escort her to the post office. They both were neighbours.

“Hey, Mac, you’ve left me and gone, have you? I will kill you. Mac, come and take me across.” She, who was shouting at him, slipped into slangy English and called to account his dubious genealogy. In return he too shouted at her in much the same way. Mahmud Kaka was delighted with the swear words that were bandied about in the Anglo-Indian patois.

“What Maccu Dorai, you’ve left missy and come. Go and bring her, poor thing,” said the refreshment-stall owner.

“Hey, Mac Morgan…” A scooter sped by. Pleased and honoured that the scooterist had asked after him, a much-cooled-down Mac Morgan crossed the road again and went to the old lady. She, who had begun walking holding his hand and shouting at him, shrugged him away, put some distance between them and crossed the road. Yelling all the while, she reached the tea-stall, and ordered, “Put some tea, man. Two. One with less sugar.” She handed over coins from her dirty Rexene purse even before she could have her tea.

Mahmud Kaka pulled Mac Morgan near him and said, “A man came asking for old things. Gave him your address. He will come in the afternoon. You will be home only, no?”

Missy wanted to know what it was about.

Mac Morgan replied, “I believe a man asked after Reuben Uncle’s stuff.”

All Mahmud Kaka could make out from the quick exchange in slangy English were words such as ‘London’ and ‘Australia’. Then they went into the post office.

The old lady took out a paper from an envelope which had come from her daughter in London.

“Only ten pounds?” Mac Morgan asked mockingly, and then continued with concern, “Nowadays Marie doesn’t look after you properly….” They were given to quick compassion after bouts of anger. They would invariably aim deadly missiles at each other, casting slurs on their births.

The old lady turned around and walked up when she heard, “Good morning, Christina….” An aged, dark-complexioned Anglo-Indian couple was sitting on the wooden bench. The lady had elephantiasis in one leg. She would have been better off in a sari than in a frock.

“Good morning, Joan…,” said the old lady.

“What, so early in the morning,” said Mac Morgan. The post-office clock began to strike ten.

“For the pension. Didn’t get it last week since I had gone out of town,” said Joan.

Mac Morgan went near the man and asked him what had happened to his helping him to go to Australia. The man said that he had told his brother and would let Mac know when an opportune moment came by. At that time two Anglo-Indian girls, bewitchingly proportioned and clad, strolled in and asked for airmail envelopes. Joan called out to them, “Hello.” The two girls feigned a smile and went away.

When Mac Morgan eyed the girls, he looked as if he was gazing at the telephone booth because of his squint.

Christina hissed, “Mac, do your job.”

Through the window Mac Morgan stretched out the postal order which the old lady’s daughter had sent from London.

“Where’s the witness?” asked the clerk.

Mac Morgan turned his gaze into the office and looked for the postman who came to Mathias Nagar and shouted, “Perumal… Perumal.”

“Don’t shout like this. Learn to speak softly,” whispered the old lady.

“Go to hell,” he said and walked towards the postmen who were sorting out letters on either side.

When the postman had put his signature on the “shilling paper”, they collected the money in Indian currency and came out.

Mac Morgan asked her angrily, “You are a useless thing. You never give Perumal money for coffee. Shouldn’t you have given him something?”

“They don’t give tips in London,” said the old lady.

“Talk about this country.”

“I said only in London.”

“You haven’t even seen London.”

“So what, da? My daughter is there.”

“Your life itself runs on handouts here.”

“Mac, God will punish you.”

Then they walked a little silently. As they reached the compound wall of the post office, Mac Morgan bent down and asked in a low voice, “Aren’t you going to your daughter?”

“Yes. I’m going only. Everyone’s belly in Mathias Nagar will burn when I go. Let the time come.”

“Huhmm… who cares about you? When really your time comes, you will be gone forever, once for all.”

The old lady stamped her foot on the ground and started crying loudly. When she calmed down somewhat she had come to GST Salai. When he saw them, Mahmud Kaka asked, “Did you get money from abroad, missy?” The old lady murmured. After she crossed the Military Hospital, she half-heartedly gave Mac Morgan a ten-rupee note. He lifted it against the sun to check if it had tears or holes and then stuffed it into his shirt pocket.

She didn’t need an escort anymore, so she started dragging herself towards Mathias Nagar. Mac went to Reuben Uncle’s house.

Whenever there was a quarrel, people gossiped about Mac Morgan’s lineage and about his mother who was living somewhere else. He hadn’t studied much and didn’t possess any skills. He would often be a packer or a watchman in some small company and then become unhappy and quit it. He would get food and clothes from the church, sponsored by missions abroad. He would inform Christina and others of the dates when they distributed food and clothes. That was how he had become close to the old lady.

Whenever anyone—Anglo-Indians or others—left the country, they would sell their furniture, fans, utensils and stuff cheaply. It was Mac Morgan’s job to find customers for them. He would take a commission from both parties. And they would promise to call him over once they settled in Australia or Canada. He always believed them.

Christina’s husband used to be a crane operator in the port. He had drunk himself to death. What was left the old lady frittered away at the races. It was a good thing that Marie was a girl. Her matter was settled quite easily. She, who was writing accounts in a clock shop, flew away to London with a smuggler named Syed, a British national.

The old lady couldn’t stop talking about her daughter going away to England to the few remaining Anglo-Indians in St. Thomas Mount area. She would visit their houses without being called and didn’t care either if she wasn’t welcome.

“What, Marie sent you money, did she?” asked a friend teasingly.

“Got ten pounds. That scoundrel Mac made such a fuss to come. He will learn only if he is left in the lurch. Don’t know when my daughter will come and take me. If I go, he will die. Leave that aside, what happened to your going to Australia?” asked the old lady eagerly.

Her friend replied, “Arrangements are being made, Christina. Mr Biggs went only now. He only is going to arrange everything.”

“I see,” said Christina.

After passing the entire day on frugal rasam-rice, she visited another house. There, in honour of some guests from Singapore, there was music, dance, liquor and great food. Not even a single dog there respected her. She looked intently and then left saying, “Nothing, simply only,” without even anyone having asked her anything.

At the same time, Mac Morgan, after finishing the business in Reuben’s house, pocketed the commission from both sides and walked towards a hut in the foothills of Kurangu Kunram.

His visits to the hut in Kurangu Kunram and the old lady’s preparations of meat every day emptied both their purses in only ten days.

Christina waited for yet another post from London. She had fought bitterly with Mac Morgan the previous day. So she didn’t breathe a word about the post that came that morning.

Christina came to GST Salai muttering to herself, “I will go by myself. As if there is no one else other than him. If I call out ‘Ayya, Appa’, I’m sure plenty will come running to help me.” This time Marie had sent twenty pounds. This time she would get rum from the Military Canteen. Go to Azharkhana to get beef. And call the Joneses over. And give the postman Perumal five rupees for coffee. And hereafter she wouldn’t have anything to do with that cheap fellow Mac.

While she was thus imagining, she had inched along to the centre like a tortoise. Mahmud Kaka, busy with the morning business in his tea-stall, didn’t notice her.

Christina broke into a sweat. Her bowels heaved as if she was coming down on a giant wheel. As if she was trapped between two archers of ancient times, flinging arrows at each other. All sorts of vehicles flew past, towards the airport and vice versa towards the city. Every moment was touch and go. A few cursed loudly in Tamil.

Fear rose within her that she wouldn’t be able to cross the road on her own at this peak hour. There was no let-up in the traffic. Also she had forgotten to take her tablet for high blood pressure. Her head spun as if Mac Morgan was spinning a top on it.

Lorries, cars, buses grazed her and whizzed by—any minute a vehicle would run over her. She remembered what she had once said when Mac Morgan had given her a beer. “Mac… what I wish for is to die in the land where Marie is. Near her, in the soil where she is, I must go.” For one of her age, she drank too much.

As she struggled, a hand held her tight. She looked to see who it was. It was Mac Morgan. He had hastily limped across.

“What, why didn’t you call me?” he asked and shouted at her. But now she didn’t shout at him in return. She walked under his care silently. When they neared Mahmud Kaka’s shop, Mac said, “Two teas, one strong with lots of sugar.”

“Mac, your pant is torn, frayed completely,” she said.

He replied, “No princess is sending me cloth from England.”

“I will give you the money, buy it. Twenty pounds have come,” said the old lady.

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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