Short Story

Just one word

Print edition : March 30, 2018

Bama Faustina Susairaj shot to fame 25 years ago when she left the convent and published her experiences in 'Karukku'. Considered a contemporary life-writing classic, it pushed Dalit writing into high relief when its English translation won a national prize in 2001. Bama has four novels and over 50 stories in print.

Malini Seshadri is a freelance writer, editor and translator. Her previous translations include Bama's "Vanmam" (Oxford University Press, 2008) and ten short stories by various authors for an anthology of Dalit writing.

Six whole months had passed since his transfer to the Chennai office. Maadasamy had left his family behind in Bombay and had not yet been able to go back for a visit. The workload in the Chennai office was heavy. For the past two months he had been observing the functioning of the office very closely. He paid particular attention to those who were in his charge and reported to him. He realised that there were a lot of things that needed changing but he did not want to be seen as someone who just breezed in and turned everything upside down. He decided to proceed slowly and patiently. To start with, he made it known, in no uncertain terms, that every employee had to clock in at the proper hour every morning and put in a full eight hours of work. He showed no hesitation in pulling up those who transgressed these rules. It was no wonder, then, that such a strict taskmaster should be feared by his subordinates.

Maadasamy arranged for the preparation of a time chart of hours worked by each employee. With everyone’s consent, he had the chart displayed in the reception area. Any waste of public money was anathema to him. In his view a government servant was there to serve the people, and all his talents and skills should be harnessed for the sole purpose of benefitting the people. He himself was a living example of this principle and a role model for his staff to follow. He was dead against bribery and corruption in any form. He hung a notice in the reception area that read: Bribes are neither given nor received here. Under his supervision, files began to move faster and were cleared punctually. There was more efficiency all round. Those who had not finished their day’s quota of work by the closing hour were required to stay back and complete their pending tasks. This rule was sufficient incentive for everyone to ensure that their work got done in time!

Sundari had been an employee at that very same office for the past twenty years. She bitterly resented Maadasamy’s sweeping reforms. “I’ve seen so many such officers come and go,” she would mutter. “I’m due to retire next year … why do I have to go through such torture at this stage? I didn’t anticipate such a thing even in my darkest nightmare. He doesn’t even give me the respect that is my due as a senior staff member.” Her resentful mutterings and murmurings came to the attention of Maadasamy. He sent for Sundari and did some plain speaking.

“Look, Madam, it’s true you are senior to me in years. I don’t deny that. But the fact is, I am your senior in the office. Nevertheless, I do give due respect for your age by addressing you as ‘Madam’. I hear that you have been demanding concessions on account of being a ‘senior staff’. If you cannot come at the proper hour in the morning and cannot complete your work properly, why don’t you opt for voluntary retirement? After all, the government offers a VRS. You have completed thirty years of service. You can go home happily with a full pension. What more can you expect as concession?”

When the news got around that the domineering Sundari herself had been brought down to earth, the other employees hastily embraced all the changes brought about by Maadasamy. Although he was a hard taskmaster during office hours, Maadasamy was otherwise affectionate and considerate towards all the staff.

One day Maadasamy wanted a particular file urgently. He picked up the telephone and requested Sundari to bring the file immediately to his room. Even before he disconnected the call, he overheard Sundari ordering a peon, “Ey, Kuppusamy, take this file to that … Maadasamy’s room.”

“That … Maadasamy,” she had said. She had put “that” before his name and had even emphasised it. Maadasamy saw red. He knew what Sundari had been trying to convey. He sent Kuppusamy to fetch Sundari to his office.

Sundari entered and said deferentially, “You sent for me, Sir?”

Maadasamy raised his voice and asked, “Sundari, what did I ask you to do when I called you on the phone?”

Sundari was taken aback. He had always addressed her as “Madam” but now he was addressing her by name. Why? What had happened? Even the habitually arrogant Sundari was unnerved. But she hid her feelings and maintained a humble demeanour. “Sir, you asked me to get you a file.”

“Did I ask you to merely take it out and send it to me, or did I ask you to bring it to my room?”

“You did ask me to bring it to you, Sir, but I was busy with something else at the time, so I asked Kuppusamy to take it to you. Hasn’t he brought it yet? The fellow is always so slow with everything. Just wait a minute, Sir, I’ll go and bring it myself.”

Sundari turned around and was hurrying out when Maadasamy stopped her.

“No need for that,” he said, “Look, the file has already reached me. But what is the word you used when you asked Kuppusamy to bring me the file? You told him ‘take the file to that Maadasamy’. Wasn’t it what you said? Why ‘ that Maadasamy’? What does the ‘that’ convey? Answer my question and then you may leave.”

Sundari spluttered, “But Sir … Sir … I didn’t say anything like that. I only told Kuppusamy, ‘Take this file quickly to Maadasamy Sir’s room.’ That’s all I said. I didn’t say anything rude or improper at all.”

“Listen, Sundari, I’m not saying that you said something improper. I only want to know what you meant by the ‘that’ before my name. Can you tell me? Quickly! Come on….” Sundari’s thoughts were swirling in her head. What a big bother this has become! How did this fellow hear me all the way from here? Has he got the ears of a snake? Or did that rascal Kuppusamy tell tales? Her train of thought was broken by Maadasamy, who said sternly, “You’re wasting your time and mine. Hurry up. Tell me what you meant and then go back to your seat.”

“Sir, believe me … I didn’t say it. That fellow Kuppusamy made up all these false stories about me, Sir. Would I ever say anything disparaging about my superior officer?”

“You did say it, Sundari. I didn’t hear it from anyone else, I heard it myself. When I spoke to you over the telephone, before I disconnected I heard you talking to Kuppusamy … and I heard your words clearly. This is my first and last warning. Now go back to your seat.” Sundari’s protests died in her throat. She left the room silently, her mind heaving in agitation. “Che! What a fate! Having to bow my head before this fellow of all people,” said Sundari to herself. Then she pulled herself up with a start. “I’d better be careful … maybe the fellow can even read my thoughts, who knows… then he will haul me up and confront me again. The fellow seems to know everything … and he’s absolutely merciless too. Hmm … I must swallow the bitter pill with a pinch of sugar … what else can I do…”

That evening, when Maadasamy sat in his office room, the incident involving Sundari played over and over in his mind. His thoughts went back to an incident many years ago when he was still a small boy….

Kuppachipatti village … Maadasamy was a student in Class Four. It was the day of the annual school inspection. The previous day the teacher had reminded all the students to come to school in clean clothes the next day. The education officer duly arrived. He entered the classroom where Maadasamy sat with his classmates. He asked all the children to take out their Tamil readers and read a paragraph aloud in turn. When it came to Maadasamy’s turn, even before he could begin, the teacher hurriedly interrupted, “Sir … Sir, that boy can’t read.”

“Why not?” asked the officer.

“He is an S.C. boy, Sir.”

Maadasamy longed to stand up and read aloud like the others. He wanted to burst out and shout, I know how to read! But he was afraid. Then the officer said to the teacher, “Don’t ever talk like this outside. You could get into trouble. Try to teach these fellows also some reading. It’s not like the old days … times are changing.”

The students said “thank you” politely, and the officer moved on to the next classroom.

That evening, when Maadasamy went home, his mother asked, “What happened? Did the inspector come? This morning you were so excited about it that you ran off to school without even drinking your kanji. That Mekalakudi Ravikumar’s son … he left for school long after you … but you couldn’t wait to fill your stomach before rushing off.”

“They can afford to come to school later, ma. But boys like me … we have to go much earlier and sweep and clean the school, don’t we? Otherwise the teachers will give us a caning, won’t they?”

“Are you saying those other boys don’t help with the sweeping and cleaning?” Maadasamy’s father asked.

“No, pa, they don’t. Our teacher always makes us do all the cleaning … only the boys who live on our street. The boys who live on those other streets … they don’t have to do any of that work.”

“How can that be?’ asked his mother wonderingly. “After all, you all study in the same school. So all of you should share the work, isn’t it…?”

Maadasamy’s father changed the topic and asked, “So … did the inspector come to your classroom? Did he ask you a question? Did you answer well?”

“No, pa. He didn’t ask any questions. He asked us to take out our Tamil text books and read aloud.”

“And did you read well?”

Maadasamy’s elder sister Sigappi interrupted in a teasing tone of voice. “Oh, yes, our hero here would have read the Tamil all right. But if he’d been asked to read English … then he’d have been in trouble … right, da?”

“No, Akka, the teacher didn’t allow me to read out even the Tamil. When my turn came, the teacher told the inspector that I didn’t know how to read. She told him, “He is an S.C. boy … he cannot read.” What does ‘S.C.’ mean, pa?”

“Your teacher said that? Okay, let her say what she wants to. This is how things are in society, but … even in the classroom? Let it go, da. Don’t bother about it. Just concentrate on studying well.”

“All right, pa. But just tell me what ‘S.C.’ means.”

“Why do you want to know all these things, da? It’s a term they use for people who live on our street. When you are older you will understand.”

“Then what do they call the people who live on Ravi’s street, pa? Is there a name for them too?”

“I don’t know, da. That’s no concern of ours. What a lot of questions the fellow asks! Go and eat something.”

That was long, long ago. But it was still happening today. When Sundari said “ that Maadasamy” in that tone of voice, she meant ‘“that SC Maadasamy’. The more he brooded over it, the angrier he became.

Appa, that evening you assured me that I would understand the meaning of SC when I grew up. Yes, pa, I understand it, all right. I understand it only too well. After all, it wasn’t just once or twice that it was shoved in my face … not just in one or two places or on one or two occasions. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the disparaging terms “this Maadasamy” and “that Maadasamy”.

Meanwhile, the very thought of Maadasamy was making Sundari’s blood boil. She complained bitterly about the incident to the others in the office.

“After all I only said his name … ‘that Maadasamy’ … that’s all I said. For that he pulls me up and even threatens me … and this in spite of my being older than him…. These fellows have no IQ but they get in on RQ and give us hell.”

“Madam, what are IQ and RQ? Please tell us,” asked Revathi.

“What? You don’t even know that?” Sundari retorted scornfully. “IQ is intelligence quotient. RQ is reservation quota. This is how they get in, and then they unnecessarily growl at us. That fellow doesn’t like me. You know why? Because I belong to FC.”

Revathi said, “No, Madam, you’re wrong. Our Sir was appointed on merit. You shouldn’t assume that just because someone is from S.C. he must be stupid. In fact it’s only after he took over that this office is actually working like an office should. He isn’t treating you differently from anyone else. No one enjoys being treated strictly by a superior officer. But if we do our jobs properly, what reason would he have to be upset with us?”

Sundari remained adamant. “You may say whatever you want, Revathi. The fact remains that however high the sparrow tries to fly, it is still only a sparrow. It can never turn into an eagle. You claim that he treats everyone equally … but last week how did he behave with that Maarithai? Did he show any anger? No. But when it comes to me … I only said his name, that’s all…. And that was enough to make him furious. Yet that Maarithai loses a whole file and … didn’t we all think he was going to tear her to pieces over her mistake? But what did he say? ‘Oh, come on! It’s okay. Don’t worry, be calm and search for the file. You’ll find it. Be careful in future.’ He was actually comforting her! So it’s different rules for different people, isn’t it? The mother-in-law breaks a pot … and it’s only a mud pot after all. But the daughter-in-law breaks a pot … and suddenly it turns out the pot was made of gold, and she has ruined it!” Sundari finished her tirade on an indignant note.

“What are you saying, Madam … that’s like comparing apples and oranges. You know Maarithai has joined only recently. She doesn’t have much experience yet. That could be the reason why Sir didn’t scold her.”

“That’s not it.”

“Then what?”

“She is also S.C. like him. That’s the reason.”

No one said anything further. No one had noticed that Maadasamy was next door, and that he had heard the entire conversation. From that day onwards, he decided to play the part assigned to him … and start behaving the way Sundari had accused him of behaving.

It gave him a vengeful pleasure.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

This story was originally published as “Andha…” in Thavitu Kuruvi (Coimbatore: Vidiyal Pathippagam, 2015).