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Short Story

‘The lotus pond’: A Tamil story in translation

Published : Jan 12, 2023 10:15 IST

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‘The lotus pond’: A Tamil story in translation

Translated from Tamil by V. Bharathi Harishankar.

Personalized wedding festivities in villages and small towns are contrasted with the mechanical courtesies and artifices of glitzy city celebrations.

We entered the wedding hall, even as Periamma wondered aloud why so many young women were crowding the entrance. The women wore colour-coordinated clothes, smiled a little, greeted guests, and sprinkled rose water. As we walked in, tasting a little sugar candy, a toddler in a blue sharara tripped and fell. Periamma hitched up her dress saying, “Now it will not trip her up.” The toddler’s mother said thanks but pulled down the skirt. Periamma was crestfallen. When she first came to Chennai, she would react to everything but now she has got used to things to such an extent that she did not even worry about the ever-increasing rates of Aavin milk. This sudden reaction is a rarity now. 

Ignoring this, as I was searching for a place to sit, an acquaintance guided us to the front row. Even though he looked familiar, his name eluded me. As I was searching for words to utter some pleasantries, he moved away to greet other guests. Perhaps, I was overenthusiastic in my attempt to recall his name.

Photographers were literally sprawled on the floor to capture the child in the blue skirt. With a smug look full of pride, the mother adjusted the dupatta rolled into a ball by the child and at the same time ensured that she was in the frame. There were several delicacies on display and the boy in pyjama kurta was busy eyeing the joker-face cake. The stage was decorated in an elegant but understated fashion with lotus buds. No flashy zari work. I curtailed an old-fashioned thought that crept in.

“The unblossomed buds hung

with the thoughts of

blossoming in the pond

tomorrow.”

In its place, came a nonsense verse.

“The fully blossomed lotuses

took a selfie—the buds.”

I put a stop to these rambling thoughts and looked at Periamma. She sat tight-lipped in an effort to stop all questions and looked at the crowd absentmindedly. After ten minutes or so, I asked her “Shall we go on the stage to greet the couple?”

“The TV monitors are showing them very clearly. Do we need to go up?” she demurred, but got up to avoid my stern look.

I was reminded of the wedding of my paternal cousin from Nombakulam village that had taken place last month. Four wooden benches were arranged together and covered with a jamakkaalam. Strings of marigold hung here and there were the only decoration. The wafting smell of beef curry beckoned even the nagaswaram players. They tilted towards the smell even as they were imploring Lord Muruga. After distribution, the leftover kadambam flowers were spread out on a large plate.

Even as the rattha poriyal, a delicacy made out of goat’s blood fried and seasoned with spices, was being cooked, some kids tasted it. To avoid anyone detecting their act, they dunked their hands into the bowl of sandalwood paste. All this subterfuge was only to ensure that they got another share of the delicacy. Rural weddings emanate distinct smells—Vicco turmeric and Ponds powder from the ladies, the smell of liquor which cannot be contained by the small towel with which the men cover their mouths. Such distinct smells are missing in city wedding halls.

“Don’t stamp on the lotus bud,” Periamma alerted me, tapping me on the shoulder.

For the people from the black soil region, the lotus is a rare occurrence and so is water.

Someone came and took us ahead of the waiting queue. As I handed over the bouquet, Periamma was looking for kumkumam and atchadai to bless the couple.

“Others are waiting. Let’s go.” I felt bad, even as I rushed her.

“Haven’t even seen the faces of the bride and groom properly” muttered Periamma.

The dining hall, with its heavy crowd, looked like a misshapen bean bag. The gentleman who took us to greet the newlyweds, helped us now as well. Sensing my hesitation, he said, “Don’t worry. I have asked some of our boys to hold a few seats.”

On seeing him, a few women—may be servers or helpers—got up hurriedly. As soon as we entered, a young woman held out a plate containing napkins, Periamma and I looked at each other. Our thoughts echoed: “A plate containing napkins could have been placed on a stool. What’s the need for a young woman?”

As we neared the dining tables, unable to hold her thoughts, Periamma blurted out, “What a spectacle! Did you see?”

It was an uncomfortable sight. Four well-dressed men occupied the designated seats. As they waited, one round of service was completed and a fresh set of disposable table covers was laid out. At that moment, I also noticed that the man who accompanied us wore a “safari suit”—an apparel which makes the wearer look and feel like a gentleman. On seeing him, the four men stood up but he motioned them to hold till the serving was completed. Their faces showed no emotion.

“No problem. Let them finish eating,” Periamma said.

“They are holding the seats for us,” I whispered.

I was not sure that she understood the concept but the smile on her face had vanished.

When the new leaf plates were placed, the young men made way for us and responded with a curt nod to my thanks. They had been trained well and did not reveal the fatigue or boredom and kept their forced smile intact. They shifted and moved on to hold seats for others. We started eating. Periamma ate very little (for formality) and even her pasted polite smile had vanished. Even after we finished eating, we noticed that the youngsters were still holding seats. One of them walked before us and hastily, I smiled and said “sorry.” It appeared as if he hadn’t noticed. Periamma refused to take the napkin from the young woman and wiped her wet hands on her sari pallu. Without exchanging a word, we took leave amidst the din and left the hall.

At the entrance, we waited for the driver to pick us up. Periamma drew my attention to the cramped space under the staircase. One of the youngsters who had held our seats opened a parcel hurriedly. The hunger in his eyes didn’t match his sophisticated dress. The smell of the chutney merged with the musty smell and made me nauseous.

Periamma and I didn’t utter a word even after we got into the car. We went past the entrance and sped over a little bridge. Periamma opened her sari folds and took out the lotus bud. I thought she had liked it and brought it along.

“He keeps waiting before the serving rows and eats out of a parcel. Why do I need this meaningless thing?”

She threw it out. Like an unpleasant dream, the Cooum River received the lotus bud.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

Reproduced courtesy of Vitasta.

Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 27, 2023.)

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