‘Surly face’: A Tamil story in translation

‘Sudumoonji’, translated from Tamil by V. Ramakrishnan.

Published : Sep 15, 2022 13:17 IST

C.N. Annadurai.

C.N. Annadurai. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Ideologue, rationalist, a politician of historic stature, a gifted orator and writer, C.N. Annadurai was a fearless polemic who stood against all forms of social evil, as this story will show.

The accountant: “It’s going to strike six. Why has this scoundrel not started yet?”

The garland seller: “Hm, hurry, tie it up quickly! It’s almost six o’clock! The rudraksha-wearing cat will be here any minute!”

The priest: “He hasn’t missed a single day. An ardent devotee, you know… It’s not six yet. He’ll be here soon.”

Vedham: “Let’s check if the meter is fine tomorrow. It’s going to strike six soon. It’s time for the old monkey’s visit.”

Raami: “Oh, it’s six already? I see... That fool would’ve started for the temple by now.”

Scoundrel, rudraksha-wearing cat, devotee, old monkey, fool—these five holy utterances by five different people at around the same time were all directed at the same person. If we went around investigating if anyone else had words reserved for him, the count of his sacred names may reach a thousand.

His name is Aarumuga Mudhaliyaar.

Do you think Aarumuga Mudhaliyaar, the recipient of all these curses, would be a quiet person? He sat with his accounts book in his hand, but his mind was elsewhere.

Just as the accountant was grumbling under his breath, waiting for his boss to leave, Aarumuga Mudhaliyaar called him, “Yenda, couch potato!”

Then, Mudhaliyaar wondered aloud if that ‘loafer’ would have the garland ready by now at the same time when the garland seller was calling him a rudraksha-wearing cat.

He took a short, relaxing breath and continued: “I have to go. That money hoarder won’t let me in peace if I don’t.” This he said of the priest who was sycophantically calling him an ‘ardent devotee’ at that very moment.

Vedham called him an ‘old monkey’ when she unwillingly parted with the singer who was engrossed in a particularly pleasing song. Do you think Mudhaliyaar did not have a few words to mutter about her? Stuffing a few ten-rupee notes into his wallet, he said, “If I don’t give her some money today, I’ll have to face that Alli’s court.”

Just as Raami, his second wife, was anticipating the ‘fool to have started for the temple’, Mudhaliyaar wondered if that ‘surly-face’ would have his herbal extract ready at home or if she had gone to the cinema.

After this slew of benedictions from all directions at six in the evening, Mudhaliyaar asked the ‘couch potato’ to close the office and leave, bought the garland that was ready at the loafer’s shop, stepped into the temple where the ‘money hoarder’ waited for his arrival, finished his evening prayers, offered what had to be paid to ‘Alli’, suggested a remedy for the abdominal pain she complained of, drank the herbal extract that ‘surly-face’ had prepared for him at home, muttered a prayer (“Appane, Muruga!”) along with a stifled yawn, and fell into his bed.

Mudhaliyaar owned a rice store. If we were to add the slurs that were aimed at him by his customers and vice versa, we could even compile a dictionary.

“Which swindler sells such rice? As good as stones! Look how hard it is to boil this rice!” sound the complaints from kitchens.

Meanwhile, the money-minded Mudhaliyaar could be heard growling, “Can I even dream of getting back my money if I loan it to that bankrupt fellow?” Earning and dishing out such reproaches in equal measure, he had a routine: go to his shop at eight in the morning, leave by six in the evening, buy a garland for his evening prayer at the Bhuvaneshwari temple, collect the holy ash given by Vaitheeswara Iyer, the priest, spend a few peaceful hours at the house of Vedham, his mistress, and then go home to face the customary rage of Raami, his second wife.

Before she got married, Raami was not known for being hot-tempered. Even when her father scolded her in unsavoury language or when her mother called her “the one who was born to ruin the family’s name”, she stood weeping quietly. Not a word would come out of her in response. She would console herself thinking it was not right to speak against elders. The boy from the house opposite hers was the reason for all the censures she received at home. She had fallen in love with him; her parents had somehow figured it out and tried to stamp it out of her. Even on such occasions, Raami had never been irritable. It was only after her marriage that she became this hot-tempered girl.

However badly she was scolded at home, Raami held on to the assurance provided by her beloved in a letter to her: “No matter what obstacles there are at your home, I’ll marry you. Let my uncle come from the city. I’ll ask him to talk to your parents and make them see sense. You can call me by any nasty name if I don’t make it happen.” That gave Raami hope and happiness. She had been sure that she would marry Ekambaram soon.

Ekambaram’s name did not undergo any change for the worse. But Raami became the second wife of Aarumuga Mudhaliyaar, who owned a rice store. Her wedding day was filled with gloom. This foul temper entered her life the moment she entered conjugal life. But why? Because Aarumuga Mudhaliyaar had revealed his elaborate scheme on the very first night after their wedding.

“Raami! Look here! Adada, you don’t have to be so demure with me! What am I, a youth like you? Why do you have to be so shy with me?” he began amorously.

Raami said nothing. Who in her place could have responded with anything?

Even when a customer comes to him saying, “Mudhaliyaar! This rice is no good. Give me something else,” he never gave in. He would wipe the rice clean to show how shiny it was or toss a few grains into his mouth or show the receipt of purchase of the rice in order to convince the customer to buy it anyway, and he would succeed. He was vastly experienced. For such a man who could easily tackle fierce and argumentative men, demure women who speak with their eyes posed no challenge. Even her sighs and cries sounded like the warm words of welcome that a host uses during a feast to make the guests comfortable. Kannamma, his first wife, was of the same kind. Even Vedham, with whom he has maintained a close relationship since he was twenty, used to be shy initially. However, it was Aarumuga Mudhaliyaar who won in the end. At any cost, it was not this skill that let Mudhaliyaar down. Keen to impress Raami with his craftiness, he blurted out his secret.

He began his story, saying, “That Ekambaram almost had you, didn’t he?”

Raami, who was facing away from him, turned towards him instinctively.

“Why, he even managed to convince your father with the help of his uncle from the city!”

Raami flushed angrily.

Mudhaliyaar went quiet for a few minutes and began humming a tune. Unlike how he sings his morning prayers, loudly, he muttered a romantic song under his breath in a half tune. After all, it was a song that Vedham had sung half-heartedly after he had pestered her to sing to him.

Raami waited with bated breath to know what else Mudhaliyaar had to say about Ekambaram. She had never unravelled the mystery of why Ekambaram, who had loved her dearly, who had even convinced her father about their wedding, who had taken her horoscope to the priest, had suddenly declared he didn’t want to marry her. And the man who knew the truth behind this mystery was sitting right beside her now, humming happily. It was a pleasant night for him; anything but for her.

Once he was done with his song, he grew restless as if he could not hold back his excitement and narrate the story of how he had won Raami’s hand. “Raami, why don’t you tell me a story?” he asked. She simply shrugged. “Alright, shall I tell you a story?” he asked. She stayed silent. He dived into the story anyway.

“Once there lived a gorgeous girl, just like you. You could see dimples on her cheek when she smiled,” he said and looked at her closely as if trying to spot the dimple. How would he find it when she was nowhere close to being happy? The only thing that occupied her mind now was how poetically Ekambaram had described her cheeks.

“And there was a boy who was bent upon marrying that girl. He took every step possible to realize his dream. He got his uncle from the city to talk sense to the girl’s father and arrange for their wedding. He succeeded too, for the girl’s father was eventually convinced. The horoscopes of both the boy and the girl were taken to the astrologer.”

Raami was familiar with the story until this point. What on earth happened after that? That was the part she wanted clarity on. Mudhaliyaar cleared his throat and continued.

“After the astrologer had studied their horoscopes, the boy suddenly announced that he wouldn’t marry the girl. Nothing that anybody had to say could convince him after that,” he said, and got up to fetch a glass of milk from on top of the table. To his surprise, he found a slice of banana in his glass of milk. He continued with a smile: “Once the boy had rejected the girl, Aarumugam, who had cherished a dream of attaining her for a long time, saw an opportunity… as if the fruit that he had wanted in his milk fell into it of its own accord… and he got a beautiful wife for himself!”

He drank the milk and sat by her side with a victorious smile.

But she knew this part of the story as well. What she wanted to know was why Ekambaram had rejected her out of the blue. She did not know how she could frame that question. Then she mustered her courage and said, “What a story!” in a weak voice.

“Don’t you like it? Why don’t you tell a better story, then?” he asked playfully.

It was this irritating playfulness that had earned for him the name ‘old monkey’ from Vedham. Raami said nothing.

“Raami, shall I tell you the truth? It was I who made things happen the way they did. Ekambaram was willing to marry you until the very end. But once I set eyes on something, I won’t let it reach anyone else’s hands. Go and ask about me at the market…

“‘Oh, if Aarumuga Mudhali has offered to buy it, we can’t compete with him’ they say and flee. It requires some courage. Even after your father had been brainwashed by the ‘uncle’ from the city, do you think I lost hope? Do you think I’m someone who gives up so easily?

“I hatched a plan. I went straight to the priest with five fresh ten-rupee notes in hand and bowed before him. ‘What do you want, Mudhaliyaar?’ he asked. I told him I needed his help in marrying you.

“‘How unfortunate! Ekambaram’s uncle brought the girl’s horoscope to me only yesterday!’ he said.

“‘I came to you knowing very well what has happened so far, saami. But you can help me get what I want,’ I said.

“‘Shall I tell them their horoscopes don’t match?’ he asked after a moment of thought.

“‘Yes, but what if they consult a different astrologer after that?’

“‘Yes, that occurred to me as well,’ he said, and plunged into deep thought.

“‘Why don’t you tamper with the horoscope a bit so that any astrologer who sees it would deem the match unfit? Like… change the girl’s star sign to Moolam... Doesn’t astrology say that a girl of Moolam would make her mother-in-law bedridden? That should do. Convey the dangers of such an alliance to the uncle after making the necessary changes in the horoscope!’ I said.

“Thanks to the priest, your star sign was changed. The uncle went straight to Ekambaram and begged him to forget you, saying, ‘That ill-fated girl’s star sign is Moolam, which means your mother will not live three full months if you marry her.’

“Ekambaram’s mother did not take long to take offence and ask him, ‘Oh, has it been your plan all along to marry her and get rid of me?’

“All hell broke loose. He could not utter another word after his mother had put her foot down in this matter. Ekambaram consulted other astrologers as well, but to no avail. After all, what else would they say when the girl’s star sign stands as Moolam? How would they know that your actual star sign was a different one? Brahma might have created you under the auspices of the star Poosam, but your husband is smart enough to change even the alignment of stars!” he said proudly.

That was the moment the fire of rage was set in her, and it only grew with every passing minute.

After that night, she sent word for Ekambaram through her maid when Aarumuga Mudhaliyaar was visiting his mistress, Vedham. She revealed to him her husband’s hand in stopping their conjugal alliance. But that was not enough to quench her rage.

“Rascal! Such a base act! He robbed me of my wealth, and I fell prey to his trick,” Ekambaram seethed.

“Please don’t cry, my dear. It was our destiny to live like this!” Raami consoled him.

Did it stop at mere consolation? She dried his tears with the hem of her saree.

“How could I lose you!” he cried and pulled her into an embrace.

She broke into helpless tears and it was his turn to dry her tears and pacify her. He kissed her trembling lips, and they stumbled into the deep waters of love. After that, they never became victims of dejection. Every day, when Mudhaliyaar went to the Bhuvaneshwari temple for his customary evening prayers, they met and spent a few intimate hours together. Mudhaliyaar, who thought himself smart, would proceed to Vedham after his prayers and return home late in the evening. And his arrival would promptly bring out the surly face in Raami.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Courtesy Bloombury India, from their forthcoming collection titled Help me with this tricky case translated by V. Ramakrishnan  (a co-publication with the Tamil Nadu Textbook & Educational Services Corporation).

The Tamil original ,“Sudumoonji” ,was published in the weekly Dravida Nadu in 1946.

Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta

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