‘They fell silent’ & ‘They turned into water’: Two Tamil short stories by S. Ramakrishnan in translation

Print edition : March 26, 2021

S. Ramakrishnan, the author of these stories “Siru Osai” and “Neeraaga maariyavargal”, is an influentially important writer of modern Tamil literature, with nine novels and several short stories, plays, articles, books for children and books on world cinema, world literature, Indian history and art to his credit. He received the Sahitya Akademi award in 2018 for his Tamil novel “Sanjaaram”.

Malini Seshadr i , the translator of both short stories, is a freelance writer, editor and translator based in Chennai. She has, among other things, translated the Tamil writer Bama’s novel “Vanmam”, co-authored a series of value education books for schools titled “Living in Harmony”, written a work of fiction for children, and co-edited a textbook for an undergraduate programme.

The stories “Siru Osai” and “Neeraaga maariyavargal” feature in “Karnalin Naarkaali” by S. Ramakrishnan (Desanthiri Pathippagam, 2020)

They fell silent

Amrithavarshini was the first to notice it. When she was cooking, a large spoon slipped off the stand and fell to the floor. There was no sound. How could such a large spoon fall on the floor and not produce any sound at all? How could it fall as noiselessly as a feather? Puzzled, she picked up another spoon and dropped it deliberately on the floor. Silence. Now totally baffled, she took out the heavy spoon that anchored the tiffin carrier. She lifted it and let it fall from a height. It landed as silently as a drop of water.

Like a curious child, she picked up spoons of different kinds and tried dropping them one at a time. She even went out on the balcony and tossed a spoon onto the street below to check for a noise on impact. Nothing. No sound out of any of the spoon falls.

In utter confusion by now, she half-hesitantly telephoned her friend Vasantha and told her about her discovery. Vasantha was dismissive and uninterested. So what, she asked. But Varshini persistently asked her to try, and so Vasantha picked up a spoon in her kitchen and dropped it. No sound, she reported.

By that evening, Varshini, had checked with her mother, friends in different parts of the town and quite a few others. It turned out that this phenomenon was not confined to her home or even her town. In all the houses, in all the towns and cities, spoons fell noiselessly to the floor. What had happened to all the spoons? Children lose their voices when a viral fever is raging. Did something similar happen to spoons? Or were spoons under a curse of some kind?

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The clatter of a spoon falling to the floor is meant to capture one’s immediate attention, like a child’s cry. Why did the spoons lose their voices, what could be the reason? She could not accept it as something normal. When her husband returned home from his office that evening, she shared her concern with him. She also told her children about it.

Their uniform response was: “So what if they don’t make a noise? They’re only spoons. What does it matter?”

True. They are only spoons. So why am I so perturbed? Silent, soundless spoons.... as if they were just drawings on paper. Am I the only one who thinks this way?

There is something unique about one’s relationship with spoons, quite distinct from all other kinds of ladles. After sipping honey from a spoon, for instance, she loved to keep licking the empty spoon. Oh, I wish I could just chew up and swallow this spoon, she would think. Once, on his return from a trip to Pondicherry, her husband had brought back chocolates shaped like spoons. When they were stirred into a cup of milk, they melted to make chocolate milk. “Hey, look, we’re drinking spoons,” the children called out gleefully as they gulped the chocolate milk.

To Varshini, any spoon was like a small hungry girl holding out her hand pleadingly. Does the teaspoon in the salt jar recognise the taste of salt? In the adult world of rice ladles, sambar ladles, dosai ladles... all those ladles with their long handles... spoons are just tiny innocent girls.

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That night she grieved for the spoons. Late in the night she even got up and tried dropping a spoon again, just to be sure. Again no sound.

She realised that the small things of the world were beginning to lose their individuality, their voice. When the world is indifferent to so many human voices being throttled, is it likely to care about the silence of spoons?

Poor Varshini, what can she do about this? Except to go to the temple tomorrow and send up a special prayer for spoons.

 

They turned into water

Once upon a time there were four kullars, little people, who could instantly change form and turn into water. Their purpose was to seek out flowers that had no scent and to impart a sweet aroma to them by the touch of a finger. The distress of a scentless flower is indescribable. A flower like this is like a bird flying in the dark of night; the world knows it not. The kullars wanted every single flower in the world to be scented.

They wandered through forests and up mountain slopes in search of scentless flowers. Tiny ones, obscure ones, the kinds no one had noticed. With the touch of their magic fingers, they brought a sweet aroma into the lives of the flowers. The flowers danced in joy.

When the four were hungry, they would make their way into villages. These little beings, who possessed the magic of imparting scent with a touch, knew nothing about fending for themselves for survival. So they would beg for food. Wherever they went they were mocked, teased, humiliated. People laughed at them and insulted them for being short-statured. How cruel it is to mock someone for their physical form! No creature other than humans displays such bigotry.

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Whenever they grew sad all four of them would change instantly into water. They would shed their individual identities and become one. That closeness, that calm coolness, was like a salve to their distress. Once the sadness was gone, they would transform into their old selves again. In this manner they lived their lives, roaming far and wide, for many years.

Then, when they happened to travel towards the north, they came upon a land ravaged and scarred, a wasteland. What had happened here? Whole villages burnt down to ashes, dead bodies lying around. Even the kinds of flowers that usually wafted their sweet aroma around had turned scentless. Some of the surviving people had limbs missing. “What happened?” asked the kullars. “War,” they whispered in a trembling whisper. “War.”

The four of them were deeply distressed as they made their way through the war-torn wasteland. They met a snail. “My shell is small; yet the war has damaged even this. So here I am with my broken home. War is so cruel....”

“Oh, you poor thing!” exclaimed one of the kullars. Further on, they came across an old man who had lost a leg. “Where are you heading to?” he asked them. “All the fields around here have been burnt and destroyed; corpses are floating on the river; there is nothing stirring in any of the villages. Go back to where you came from. Humans destroy their own race to crown themselves rulers. War needs no reason, no cause....”

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They asked sorrowfully, “What can we do now?”

The old man spoke: “It is from happiness that sweet scents are born. War has stolen happiness from the world. When joy returns to the world, then you may return too.”

The four kullars turned instantly into water. They merged and flowed into a pond nearby. They have never taken their old forms since that day. As water, they still wait...

Stories selected by Mini Krishnan

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