Five Brahmin ladies took a sunrise dip in the Tamaraparani river and returned to the bank. Four of them—Meenu, Ammaalu, Anandavalli, Thiruvi—were middle-aged. Meenu’s daughter-in-law alone was a twelve-year-old girl. All five were wrapped in wet saris; a damp blouse hung from the daughter-in-law’s shoulder. The older ladies performed their morning japa . Filling their gleaming brass pots, copper chembus and pooja pots with river water as sweet as sugarcane juice, and dabbing turmeric on the cheeks and dots of kumkumam on the foreheads of their glowing Brahmin faces, they made their way towards the city. And what city was that? The one to which Nammazhvar sang: Mada kodi mathil thenkulanthai . It was about two miles to the north of the river, and the thoroughfare was common to all. A few “untouchables” who crossed their path obligingly stepped aside on their own. But if they didn’t oblige even after fervent pleas, the ladies themselves ran into the fields on either side. And they would also abuse them: “Curse you! Hope you drop dead.” The scene of these five family goddesses returning home early morning reflected both the good and the bad of the orthodox Indian way of life! That aside, let us now hear a bit of their conversation.
Thiruvi: What di , Meenu! Didn’t you say you learnt the song “Krishnan thuthu” from Ekamma Patti from Arumangalam? Why don’t you recite it—let us at least earn some merit while we walk home.
Meenu: Why not? I don’t know it all that well, but what I know I will tell you.
Ananda Valli: “Krishnan thuthu?” What song is that?
Thiruvi: You dumb thing! You haven’t even heard of it? In the Mahabharata, didn’t Krishna on behalf of Dharmaputra go as an emissary to Duryodhana? The song about that!
A. Valli: I see. O.K., Meenu, let us hear it.
Meenu: Shall I start? “ Kannan Perunthuthu Kelaai Ni Karigaiye —Kanna’s grand mission! O listen to it, my darling girl!”
“ Di , Ammaalu! Hadn’t your husband gone to Allikulam? He’s back already?”
Ammaalu: He came back last night. After the temple was shut. There wasn’t even rice left over at home. Woke up next-door Seshi, borrowed a pot of rice. By the time I got to sleep, it was after ten.
A. Valli: I see. O that’s why Ammaalu has come so early in the morning to bathe in the river!
Ammaalu hung her head down in embarrassment while the other four heaved with laughter. The little girl blinked, not understanding a word.
Thiruvi: This Ananda Valli, forever making fun. Nothing else she knows. Continue with the song, Meenu.
Meenu: Where did I stop? “Kanna’s grand mission! O listen to it, my darling girl!”
“Ananda Valli, then why are you coming so early to the river bank even when your husband is not in town? Even when he had gone to Kulasekharapattinam? What about that then?”
Ammaalu: Yes, yes, ask her, ask her. You are the right one who can match her teasing.
Meenu: Enough, enough, ’ma! Here I am taking up for you and you are calling me a tease! That’s what they say: in these times no use doing good for others!
“Kanna’s grand mission! O listen to it, my darling girl!”
Daughter-in-law whispered to Thiruvi: What is this “O my darling girl”? Who is saying this to whom?
Thiruvi: Come on, Meenu, answer your daughter-in-law!
Meenu: What is she asking?
Thiruvi: O my darling girl! She is asking who is calling whom that?
Meenu: Let her think that I am only telling her.
Thiruvi: O.K., tell. Now look here, all of you, if anyone interrupts once again I will really get angry. Shouldn’t the song finish by the time we reach home? Begin, Meenu.
Meenu: If I keep on reciting, as if I can’t finish by the time we reach home.
Thiruvi: If you tell more only can it finish, no? If you keep on saying the same thing, how can you finish?
Meenu: O.K., I will tell you further. “Kanna’s grand mission! O listen to it, my darling girl!”
Thiruvi: Ade, ade ! Please move a couple of paces. A thousand blessings on you! You are a good man, no? Look, there is fresh shit everywhere. And my chappals are also worn out. So please move a little, ’ pa !
Passerby: Go, Paapaathi, you go to the side. Where do you want me to go and fall?
Thiruvi: Ada , curse be on you! May you die of plague! As if you can’t go four paces away. See, I’ve got a thorn in my foot. Meenu, please take out this thorn.
Passerby: Why, Paapaathi, that disease won’t befall you, is it?
Meenu: It is bleeding, so don’t worry. Anyway, as soon as you go home, just close that wound with a dab of lime paste. Is it hurting?
Thiruvi: No, it’s not. Don’t know whose face I got up to today. Bleeding on a Friday and all.
A. Valli: You said no one should talk! But you can, is it?
Thiruvi: Yes, yes, if you were pierced, you will know! Such a fat, long thorn it was too!
A Valli: Let that be. Meenu, why don’t you recite the remaining part?
Meenu: Where did I stop? Ah, yes, “Kanna’s grand mission! O listen to it, my darling girl!”
Thiruvi: I think he’s an outsider. If he was from our town, he wouldn’t have behaved like this.
Ammaalu: He moved away, no?
A Valli: Yes, she shouted, and so did he!
Thiruvi: Yes, yes, I shouted. As if Meenu praised him or what.
Meenu: It’s all in the way you say it. There is a sea of difference in saying a cow-like Brahmin and an animal-like Brahmin. Listen now, I’m going to tell the song:
“Kanna’s grand mission! O listen to it, my darling girl!”
What, di , Andhuvalli, do you know who Kannan is?
A. Valli: I may not know as much as you, but don’t mock too much. As if I don’t know Kannan and all.
Meenu: O.K., come on, tell, let us see. Is he your servant Mookan’s younger brother or what?
Thiruvi: Or is it the mirasdar ’s farmhand Kannan?
A. Valli: Yes, yes, to you all, I’m a dull-head only. I don’t know how to speak like you all. So you are saying what you want!
Meenu: Why all this? Just tell us who Kannan is.
A Valli: So what, let me be foolish. Now that you people have gone on and on, I will definitely not tell…
Ammaalu: Kekkelo blah-blah, maakolam blah-blah! You really don’t know, that’s why you are saying all this.
A Valli: O.K., let it be. Tell the song, Meenu. I can see our street.
Meenu: “Kanna’s grand mission! O listen to it, my darling girl!” O, we’ve reached home. I will tell it another day.
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.