Fiction

Two different estimates

Print edition : September 30, 2016

NAMMALVAR NAIDU died yesterday in his seventieth year. A ripe old age. A grand life, lived to the fullest. Owned over three hundred acres. He saw grandsons and granddaughters and closed his eyes, satisfied. His last journey too was seen off with great fanfare. His passing away was not merely a disappearance of a physical self, leaving behind fame in its wake. It seemed as if an era, an entire world had died along with him.

Shanmugam hadn’t been aware that Naidu had passed away yesterday. That fact grieved him more than Naidu’s death. He’d got the news only this morning and had come running from his town. He went straight to the burial ground, prayed in front of Naidu’s ashes and came to the town to see me.

He asked the reason for his sudden death. “Can’t see a blessed soul like him these days,” he lamented. He was sad that he hadn’t been fortunate enough to see his face before the cremation.

It was at that moment that I asked him, “Shanmugam, are you maintaining those four acres carefully? Is it giving good yield?”

“By the blessings of ayya, in these ten years there’s always been good yields. Last year I bought two more acres.” As he said this, I saw tears welling in his eyes.

“Really?” I asked, my eyes welling up too.

After that, praising Naidu in his own way, Shanmugam left for his village.

Exactly ten years ago, around the same time on a morning like this, I first saw Shanmugam.

That day Naidu and I were chatting, sitting on his pial. His nine-year-old grandson and eight-year-old granddaughter were playing in the shade of the neem tree in the courtyard. In the cowshed on the right-hand side, ten or fifteen cows and five-six buffaloes were munching on fodder. No one else was at home. Everyone had gone to the fields.

I casually mentioned to Naidu that I would be going to Tirunelveli in four or five days. Just as he was telling me to get a good bedsheet from Tirunelveli, we heard a voice: “ Ayya, my respects to you.” We turned around and saw Shanmugam standing in the courtyard.

“Come, ’pa, Shanmugam! Come, sit here,” Naidu said, pointing to the other pial.

But he didn’t sit down. He stood respectfully in the courtyard.

I asked Naidu, “Where is he from?”

“Mandi Thoppu,” said Naidu.

It was a village six miles away from our place.

Shanmugam started speaking about what he came for. “ Ayya! I have come to see you about the promissory note.”

“What about it? Only the month before last you cleared your interest dues. What now?”

Ayya! I don’t think I can redeem the note even if it takes ten more years. I’m trying my best. Income and expenditure remain the same. I spend as much as I earn. Can’t save even a paisa. In two more years, I don’t think I can even pay the interest dues. My family is also getting bigger. Last month I had a child…,” he said embarrassedly.

Naidu smiled a little and asked, “What child? Boy or girl?”

“Boy child, ayya.”

“Okay, okay. How many children do you have?”

“By the grace of god, I have five. Four boys and one girl.”

“Okay, if you can’t redeem the note, what are you going to do?”

“I have come to talk about that only. Take my land,” he said succinctly.

“You are a smart fellow, ‘da. Very smart. Who else could think up such a thing?” Naidu turned towards me and told me about Shanmugam’s loan.

Three years before he had borrowed five hundred rupees from Naidu for his sister’s wedding and for his own family expenses. No one had been willing to lend so much money against his four acres in his village. So he had travelled six miles, given a note to Naidu and borrowed the money. He had unfailingly paid the interest every year. Now, since he had no means to pay off the interest, he’d come to ask if Naidu would take his land.

I don’t know if his land would have fetched five hundred rupees. I hoped he wouldn’t take advantage of Naidu’s goodness and cheat him. I couldn’t covey this to Naidu tactfully. Perhaps the land wasn’t yielding enough, which was why he couldn’t pay off the debt. So I asked, “How’s the land?”

Nammalvar Naidu intervened, “How else will the land be? He has only four acres. With his heart and soul he would have tilled, ploughed, and fertilised the land. Will a poor man’s land ever be barren?”

“If you give away the land to me, how will you look after your children?” asked Naidu.

Then Shanmugam explained his calculation. “ Ayya! If I toil in the four acres, I can feed the family only for six months. For the remaining six months, only by taking on work for daily wages, I am supporting my family. If I give away my land to you, I can go for work throughout the year. It’s all the same to me, having the land or not.”

“So you’re saying if you give away your land to me, there’s no loss for you.”

“Yes, no loss. And at the same time my debt also will be cleared.”

Naidu laughed once again after listening to Shanmugam’s calculations. I too couldn’t help but admire his intelligence and honesty.

Naidu bent his head and thought for a while. As if he had remembered something, he looked at the cowshed from one end to the other.

“Shanmugam! Untie that grass bundle there and put it in front of the white cow at the end of the shed. Since it has nothing to eat, it is craning its neck, trying to take the grass from the next cow.”

Shanmugam did as he was told, and placed the grass in front of the cow. “There’s lot of grass in front of it. It is simply stretching its neck to the other side.”

Then Naidu’s grandson came and sat beside us. We were all silent for a while.

Ayya, what do you say? It’s getting late for me,” said Shanmugam, reminding him about his matter.

Laughingly, Naidu asked Shanmugam, “Shanmugam! Do you know to read and write?”

This irrelevant question surprised me.

“Where have I studied, ayya? Even in the note, I have only put my thumb impression.”

“That’s why I asked. You can’t even sign. But I can. If a fellow like you who can’t even sign can make such a calculation, then what about me who can sign—what all calculations I can make. Have you thought of that? If you keep the land or give it to me, it’s all the same to you. No loss at all to you. I agree. But, if I take the land, it should be profitable for me, no? Your land—that too four acres six miles away in the next village. If I get this, how prosperous and well fed will I get? How many palaces will I be able to build?”

“What, ayya? How can you say this?”

“How else can I say it? By your calculation, if you give your land, there’s no loss for you. By my calculation, if I take the land, there’s no gain for me. What do you think of my calculation?” he asked like a small child.

“What can I say? If you don’t take my land, I can’t clear my debt. I thought of selling it within my village to give you the money. But when they know that I’m desperate to sell, they are not offering even fifty rupees per acre. They want it for an atrociously low price!”

At that moment, Naidu’s granddaughter too came to the pial.

Without saying anything, Naidu went into the house and came back in five minutes with Shanmugam’s promissory note. “Shanmugam! Come here,” he said. As soon as Shanmugam came near, Naidu tore the note into two and put it in his hand.

Shanmugam’s hands trembled. Lifting his hands above his head, he struggled for words, “ Ayya…”

Naidu looked at his granddaughter and said, “Rukmini, go and get some buttermilk for Shanmugam. Didn’t you see, he fed our cow and all? Go, bring it quickly.”

Without looking at Shanmugam, he turned towards me and said, “ Thambi, don’t forget what I said. It should be a good bedsheet. Check properly.” He changed the topic.

At that moment Rukmini came in, struggling with a big brass pot, and gave it to Shanmugam. When he took it, he found that it wasn’t buttermilk, but milk.

By mistake, the child had dipped into the milk pot.

Thambi, what do you think of my granddaughter?” Naidu laughed.

I was overwhelmed.

“It looks as if your granddaughter too has learnt your calculations.” When I said this, I remember distinctly that Naidu had pulled the child into his lap and cuddled her.

Did Naidu know that Shanmugam had bought two more acres of land? I never asked Shanmugam about this; I don’t know why.

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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