Short Story

‘The unique letter’ by D. Ravikumar: A Tamil short story in translation

Print edition : January 14, 2022

Well-known Dalit ideologue, activist, M.P. and author of this short story, D. Ravikumar writes short stories and poetry and edits three bimonthly journals.

V. Ramakrishnan, the translator of this story, is a literature enthusiast and a PhD scholar in English at the University of Madras. He dabbles in creative writing and translation in both English and Tamil.

The story ‘The Unique Letter‘ features in ‘In Defiance, Our Stories’ (Vitasta, 2021).

In memory of Chinnasami who turned himself to ashes in January 1965 for Tamizh thaai [Mother Tamil], we offer the translation of a story about language politics published in 1993.

The title of the original story is ‘ழ’, a character in the Tamil script read with a voiced retroflex approximant sound. Denoted as ‘zha’ in translation, it is close to the sound of the letter ‘r’ in the word ‘red’ in native English speech. Tamil is the only language that has an exclusive character in its written script for this sound. In fact, the word ‘Tamil’ should be pronounced as ‘Thamizh’, with the voiced retroflex approximant at the end.

“What’s happening there, pa?” Adheethan asked with eager eyes. I looked in the direction he was pointing.

A man lay spreadeagled. Two people stood on either side of him, pulling the ends of a rope tied around his neck. His face was contorted in pain, eyes bulging and mouth hanging open. Another man held his legs apart and inserted a needle into the man’s erect phallus. A few policemen stood around, with serious eyes like those of doctors around an operation table. The image resembled a painting in its lighting and clarity. The photographer who took the picture must have been an expert.

“That man is ill and the doctors are treating him,” I replied, turning Adheethan’s face away from the sickening picture. But his head involuntarily returned to it. My shirt was soaked with sweat despite the air-conditioning, the low drone of which seemed to instruct us to stay quiet. I felt the silence in the room spreading and settling heavily on me like molten wax. I thought I heard the moans and screams from the pictures on the wall, and shuddered.

Adheethan was seated on my lap. Ruffling his hair with my fingers, I tried to focus on the strange calm that his presence induced in me. Yet, the next moment, an anxiety about what was going to happen crept up my spine.

I observed it only when I entered this room: the investigation office was run completely by women. Their olive green uniforms made even those pretty women look menacing. With faces as hostile and severe as their starched uniforms, they walked around like machines in straight lines.

I couldn’t stop my eyes from grazing over the walls. Huge, colourful pictures had been set in a line on the plain walls—illustrations of methods of torture used in investigations.

It brought back memories of my childhood. There used to be a calendar in my teacher’s house with illustrations of the various punishments administered in Hell. There was one of women impaled on long poles being dragged towards a vat of boiling oil for the sin of adultery. That was the first time I had seen grown women naked. Those images never frightened me. In fact, they held a strange allure. But perhaps due to my anxiety, the pictures in this room kindled a fear of punishment.

I never imagined I would end up in an interrogation room. The more I thought about it, the angrier I felt with my wife.

I had explicitly asked her not to let anyone into the house. These people had come in saying they needed to note our electricity meter readings. That had landed us here now!

Chaos had broken out after the Elder Guru of the country died suddenly last week. Following an inquiry, authorities claimed that the death was caused by a peel of a vaazhai pazham [banana] that lay on the Guru’s path, and suspected that the people of the town of Paazh were behind this conspiracy. Since the unique “zha” sound was the common thread between the words Paazh and vaazhai pazham, they also came to the conclusion that the “Language War” movement had a part in the plot.

The Government made the announcement two days ago: the letter “zha” had been removed from the language and any further use of it by anyone would be deemed an act of sedition; as a replacement, the letter “sha” had been recommended.

Never did I imagine that it would be followed by such measures.

How could anyone have thought that forensics experts would raid every house to check if someone was still using the banned letter?

I looked at the picture hanging in the middle of the wall. It was one of Krishna preaching to Arjuna, with the following words written below: “You pay tribute to God through sacrifices. God loves you for it. It is by becoming one with him that you attain an elevated state.” Was it meant to prepare me for whatever awaited me?

The door connecting this room to the next opened noiselessly and a policeman emerged from the other side.

“Are you Kumar?”

“Yes, that’s me,” I stood up. He gestured for me to follow him, and walked past the door through which he had emerged. I took Adheethan’s arm and entered the other room. It felt like a different space. I couldn’t decide if it was a hall or a courtroom. Its style was an amalgam of modern architecture and the style of palaces I had seen only in old movies.

On a pedestal in the middle of the room, there sat a man dressed in a saffron-coloured uniform. One could tell from his bearing that he was a high-ranking official. Adheethan and I were guided into a cage-like witness box.

I heard something like a temple bell ring in the distance. The interrogation began as if on cue.

“Don’t you know of the Government’s order?” the official asked in a kind voice.

“I know, sir. It was announced on the TV,” I replied. My body’s trembling betrayed the fear I was trying so hard to conceal.

“Then how did this happen?” he asked, and pressed a button. On the opposite wall, an image appeared. The letter “zha” was scribbled all over in a familiar handwriting. The letter “i-” also appeared occasionally. It all suddenly made sense now. This was Adheethan’s work! That was a wall in our home! With the crayons that Arulappan had given as a birthday gift, Adheethan had scribbled all over the wall.

“How beautifully he writes the letter ‘i-’… Look how perfect his ‘zha’ is! His strokes have an artistic touch to them,” Arulappan had said when he bought the crayons.

“My son wrote this on our wall to practise the letters he learnt at school. And… also… he did it last month,” I stammered, pointing at Adheethan.

“You train your child to draw graffiti on walls?” The kindness in his voice had disappeared, and it was now replaced by suspicion.

“No, nothing like that…. He’s just a little boy. He did it by himself…. He didn’t mean anything by it, sir.”

“We checked at his school as well. His class teacher confirmed that he’s the only student who can write that letter so well. How do you explain that?”

“There’s no particular reason, sir. He’s just practised it so much that he does it well.” My voice broke pitifully.

“We have looked into your records. There are no remarks so far. Since this is your first offence, we are letting you go with a warning. You’ll have to make Sanskrit his second language. And whitewash your walls immediately and get a certificate from the Forensics after they inspect your house. Don’t let us catch you for such an offence again. You must know what the sentence is for sedition now, don’t you? So, you’d better be careful!”

Not knowing how to respond, I nodded.

The kind smile reappeared on his face now. “You can leave now, son!” He raised his arm as if blessing us.

The policeman who led me signalled with a nod, and I followed him with Adheethan. I was happy that they had let us go. I had not expected the interrogation to end so quickly. I wondered if Adheethan’s presence with me was the reason. I was, for some reason, convinced that they wouldn’t punish children.

We came out of the interrogation office. The city was as busy as it always was. I wanted to buy something for Adheethan.

“Do you want to eat something?”

“No.”

“Do you want to buy some toys—” I began to ask, but stopped abruptly. I didn’t know where it would land us if he asked for a toy gun.

“No, pa,” he said.

Thank God!

“Shall we go home, then?”

“Sure, pa.”

We walked to catch a tram.

Pa… Can I not study ‘a-’ for ‘amma’, ‘aa-’ for ‘aasiriyar’ anymore?” he asked.

“Let’s go home and talk. You must not ask about anything now. You’re a good boy, aren’t you? Listen to your Appa now,” I replied, warily looking around.

Luckily, we caught a tram soon after.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reproduced by permission of Vitasta

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