Short Story

Scorched hearts

Print edition : January 20, 2017

Illustration by V. Srinivasan

WAVES were flapping around. Sebastian was sitting on the rocks, body stinging with salt. Beads of sweat glittered on his forehead. It would take a while for the heat to abate. It was too late for the boats to be readied. Even the net was hanging down from the roof of the house, in the western corner. In the dark of the night it flapped around like the skeleton of a ghost, setting the mind aflutter.

Like a ghost, it too had lost its life. It seemed as if it would be of no use at all for anything. When the thermal plant began to take shape near the port area, Savariaandi had clearly said, “ Yesuvey, what is this? Won’t our livelihood be spoilt?”

“What are you saying, Annen?”

“All the fish will die, Seba.”

In the dark, Sebastian lifted his veshti, groped for his beedi in the pocket of his drawers and lit it. The beedi glittered in the night like a firefly.Within a few days they laid the foundation of the thermal plant. The bricks too piled up quickly. With masons and labourers buzzing around, the place came alive. Even though Muyal Theevu didn’t bustle with people, it was a place where fish, shrimps and crabs were found in plenty. If you cast the net, you didn’t know what you would catch. But whatever you netted would earn you profit.

Once Grace’s brother who had come from Cuddalore went with them on the boat. When the net was spread in a while, he was surprised. “Let’s go a little further in, Annen,” he told Savari.

“All that’s in your place, Machan. Don’t forget, this is Thoothukudi.”

That day they got good lobsters, sardines and fat “full-moon” crabs. That night Grace made hot rice and crab kuzhambu with fried lobster. They sat outside the hut, drinking arrack. As they kept drinking, the aroma of crab mixed with ginger and garlic and the fry tormented them. With great happiness they munched on sardine fry with the drinks. The old lady didn’t approve of all this. She screwed up her lined face and glared at them. The ends of her sari were draped across her chest anyhow, just for form’s sake.

Ei, di, Grace, are you making crab kuzhambu?”

“Yes, Athai, kuzhambu only. It’s not enough if you just fry, it won’t go down their throats. Annen’s also come, no? Have to make something tasty, no?”

“Yes, yes, make. Five-thousand-rupee sari, gold waist-chain, all that he has scooped up and brought specially for you, this great lord.”

This is what Grace didn’t like. If you told her, the old lady wouldn’t understand. If you said, “Just leave Grace. It’s her house. Let her cook what she wants,” the old lady would reply, spit falling from her mutton-stench mouth, “How can that be? I’m the elder.”

Grace whispered to her husband who came to pick up the mat to sleep outside, “Go and leave the old lady in your brother’s house. She just keeps on talking. I don’t know how long my patience will last.”

“Okay, okay, why all that now?”

“My brother didn’t scoop up anything and bring. But he came, no? When your brother comes, when we make seela and uzhi fish, teeth and all sprout in her toothless mouth. Will your brother give her kanji even for a couple of days? Will that merciless woman make kanji?”

Since all she said was true, Sebastian would just keep silent. Only that silence would ease the tension. But nowadays Grace didn’t let go. The old lady too never kept quiet. She couldn’t swallow her spit if she didn’t belittle Grace on some pretext or the other. “What is this, drying the fish like this. Not enough salt at all,” she would say, kicking the seasoned fish. “You’ve washed this plate or what, you bitch? You want me to die of diarrhoea or what, that’s why you are handing me the soiled plate of yesterday?” Earlier, there was always cash on hand, so he had the strength of mind to put up with such talk. But nowadays Sebastian only got angry. He shouted, “If you want, you eat. Otherwise, go to Yesudas’ house.” The old lady would be shocked and hurt. She would sob as if a skeleton was rattling.

“Yes, I’m a homeless wretch. I will go away. The sea is there, ’ pa, wide and vast. Either I go, or you shove me into it.” She would blow her nose, sniffing.

It was only after the ash-dyke was set into the sea that the catch had lessened. The ash-ridden effluence from the power plant mingled with the waters in the Thoothkudi seaside and the Mannar bay. It was through the ash-dyke that the effluence filtered out. Since lumps of ash hardened like rocks, no fish floated around. Last week they had held a meeting with big, educated folks. After the procession and all, his legs had swelled. Some fellow next to him had spoken about ash-dyke in detail. Sebastian thought that he hadn’t really seen the ash-dyke, but was talking about it from what he had heard. Because he talked of ash-dyke as if it was Alibaba’s “anda-ka-kasam” door. But Sebastian had seen it.

The first ash-dyke stretched from Muyal Theevu to the port. A protective wall of about 10 to 15 feet was built from the ground, and the ash-dyke looked like a monstrous beast on the surface of the sea, stretching to 10 square kilometres. Stumps of waste ash had hardened like rocks, firm as a concrete surface.

Only when the second dyke was being built did all the fishermen come together. Protests and meetings filled the days. The catch dwindled. Sticky wastes of ash were let into the waters. Unable to breed, a number of fishes were either wiped out or lessened. The fisheries department found traces of copper, aluminium, lead, mercury and cyanide in the waters. Not only that, the sea water used to cool the boilers was let back into the sea. However, they recorded in pristine sheets of paper the temperature variations of the sea waters.

“What is the point in doing anything, Seba? Anyhow we don’t seem to ever get the lion shrimp here,” said Savari wearily. The lion shrimp was a gold mine, exported to foreign countries. The paucity of that crustacean considerably reduced the bulge of the purse.

Many ideas cropped up and vanished. The proposals to use imported coal to cut down the waste and even build concrete blocks sprouted, but they disappeared just as quickly.

The stock of not only fresh fish depleted at home, but also dried ones. Days of quarter- and half-empty stomachs went by; now they even got used to hunger. It was a torment to sleep on an empty stomach which seemed like a raging wind-blown sea. Drinking plain water induced acidic belches. The old lady didn’t have the strength to put up with such hunger. Grace made millet gruel at least for her. As she stirred the gruel, her own stomach growled. As she flicked the gruel from the ladle on to her hand and put it into her mouth to test if it was done, the single drop which made its way into her stomach made her quiver. She was tempted to drink up the whole thing. But Seba would shout at her. He didn’t want the old lady to go hungry. She smacked her tongue again. Her eyes blurred immediately. She angled the pot and furiously gulped down the water.

“Grace.”

Sebastian stood; his eyes too were blurred. He stretched out his hand. As if she was waiting for this, she nestled in his arms and wept copiously.

“Drink if you want, Grace. We’ll give the old lady something else.”

“No need!”

Moving away from him, she poured the gruel into the old lady’s plate. If she served on another plate, she would yell. On seeing the gruel, the old lady tutted.

“Don’t have even nethli dried fish to go with it?”

“No, Athai.”

“Who can eat this?” The old lady turned her face away.

“Eat, Athai. It’s not like before. We don’t get much fish these days. Bear with it, there’s some problem.”

“Yes, yes, bear it, it seems. Then go and give this to someone who can bear it.”

This time round the old lady pushed the plate away. The gruel splattered out and lay in puddles on the floor. The old lady spat “thoo”. Grace wept, beating her head.

“Don’t cry, you wretch.” The old lady shouted in anger. Then god knows what she thought, she came and pushed Grace. She hissed like a python.

“Can’t give anything tasty to eat. You must have eaten it all, you dog.”

Sebastian came in. “Don’t talk, you old thing. She hasn’t eaten a thing for three days.”

“Expect me to believe it? You think I’m mad?”

She threw the rolled-up mat on Grace; it scratched her face.

Ei, old thing! Go, go away. You are staying in my house and hitting me itself?” Grace shouted.

There was a heavy silence. Then Sebastian said, “Get ready tomorrow. I will leave you in Yesudas’ house early in the morning.”

The old lady started crying. The torture meted out by Yesudas’ wife all came to mind and made her quiver. The wretched hag. Even the handful of rice that she served she would fling, as if feeding a dog.

The old lady moaned, “Seba, Seba.”

“What?”

“I’m not coming to Yesu’s house. Sesuvey, she will trouble me no end, that wretch.”

“The way you are troubling Grace here! Enough of all this.”

However, even Sebastian had his doubts about what Yesudas would say. The minute they removed their slippers, Margaret would peep out. If she saw the old lady, she would immediately begin, “If you have any shame at all, leave immediately.”

When Grace came to sleep that night, Sebastian said, “I told the old lady that we will start in the morning.”

“That’s right. What income do we have? Let that wretch also keep her for a little while.”

“That’s what I’m thinking about. She won’t keep her. Yesudas will have no say.”

“Ah! So, I only always get caught, is it? I can’t look after her anymore. Either you keep me or her.”

Grace didn’t say anything beyond that. What was there to say? She had said clearly what she wanted to say.

He took the first bus in the morning to Virudunagar with the old lady. As expected, the moment Margaret saw the old lady she began, “Tell me, with what face have you come here to stay? Okay, the old thing doesn’t have any sense only, what about my brother-in-law?”

After that it was humiliating to even sit there.

His heart melted when the old lady followed him with her bundle of clothes. It would be catastrophic if he went home too. It wouldn’t be a catastrophe that would abate either, like before. Because there are no solutions in hard times.

He climbed into the bus to Thirunelveli along with the old lady. He bought her biscuits and coffee. The old lady wolfed it down hungrily. Because she had thrown away the gruel the night before, her hunger was evident in the way she slurped on the coffee.

They got down at Kovilpatti.

The old lady screwed her eyes and asked, “What, da? Have we arrived in our town?”

“No, we have to change the bus. Wait here.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll go and ask where the bus to Thoothukudi will arrive,” he said. Conveniently, as he moved away, a bus for Thoothukudi was just leaving the bus stand.

He hopped into it.

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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