Short Story

"Water play" by Perumal Murugan: A Tamil short story in translation

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Perumal Murugan, the author of this story, is a scholar and literary chronicler who writes in Tamil. He has six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry to his credit. Three of his novels have been translated into English: “Seasons of the Palm”, which was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize in 2005, “Current Show” and “One Part Woman”. He was a professor of Tamil at the Government Arts College in Namakkal, Tamil Nadu. One of the most widely translated and well-known Indian writers today, Perumal Murugan said: “It is my nature to feel concerned about those who are exceptions. They are afflicted with the misery of being unable to live according to rules.” The selected story was identified and translated 14 years before he became national news in 2014.

Hephzibah Israel, the translator of this story, became interested in translations after doing an MPhil course on translation theory and practice. A graduate from Miranda House, Delhi, she completed the MPhil from Delhi University and has a PhD in South Asian languages and cultures from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She has edited several educational books for Oxford University Press and worked at universities such as University of Delhi, Open University in the London Region, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, and the University of Edinburgh.

The short story “Water play” was first published in Tamil as “Neer Vilayattu” in Kalachavudu, January 1999, Nagercoil. It features in “Katha Prize Stories Volume 10” edited by Geeta Dharmarajan and Nandita Aggarwal (Katha, 2000) pp. 49-57.

This short story was first published in Tamil as “Neer Vilayattu” in Kalachavudu, January 1999, Nagercoil. It features in “Katha Prize Stories Volume 10” edited by Geeta Dharmarajan and Nandita Aggarwal (Katha, 2000) pp. 49-57.

AT first he was somewhat confused and hesitant when they invited him. “Me?” he whispered disbelievingly under his breath. But then desire and eagerness blossomed and his dull thoughts cleared to reveal the radiance within. The children urged him on. He was a guest there, though actually a close relative. He did not let the fact that they had seldom met stand in the way. In a short while, the children, three of them, between the ages of eight and twelve, a girl and two boys, had begun to roll and tumble on his lap to the extent that they were now willing to include him in their play. This was the main impetus behind their invitation.

He was aware of a mild sensation of excitement, an arrested thought that now surfaced and animated him. But it was not possible to rise and walk away at once. Tender thread-ends of hesitation still bound his legs. The floor against which his clammy feet rested grew wet with sweat. He looked about eagerly. His breath stopped; his voice refused to rise.

The children began to plead with him, their eyes squeezed shut, tapping his chin and pulling at his hands as a matter of right. As he moved to avoid them, the cot on which he sat, creaked loudly. He feared that a voice with a “Don’t trouble him, children!” reprimand would now be raised, stemming their assault, as they besieged him, begging and pleading that he join them. It would be better to leave with them before that happened, it seemed. Feigning disinterest, as if this was the biggest problem facing him, he said, “I don’t have a towel.” They jumped up eagerly, each running to different parts of the house, to return with a towel. He rose with a shy smile that spread across his face.

In the heart of the forest, redolent with scents of greenery, the well burst into sight suddenly, as if it were the earth’s mouth split wide open. It possessed neither a proper wall nor a uniform shape. Rough with holes, its walls had the appearance of flesh pockmarked by boils and wounds. The impressions left by frequent footsteps, seeming to serve as steps, were also visible. The pipe attached to the motor stood still and half-submerged in the water. Sunrays shining through gaps in the palm fronds pierced the surface of the water to reveal the muddy depths of the well. It was certainly the kind of well that enticed one’s legs to jump in.

The children were fighting amongst themselves, arguing over who would jump in first. Being first to take the plunge was the most important. It was necessary to splatter the water once and effect the sound of waves set in motion. First the frozen silence of the well had to be broken and only then would the fury of enthusiasm take hold of each of them. It was initiating this process that seemed such a problem. There was fear that the well waited to accept as sacrifice the one who jumped in first. The dispute between the now unclothed children prolonged. While their attention was engaged thus, he jumped into the well with the suddenness and force of a ripe coconut falling off a palm tree. They too jumped in at once from each corner of the well.

The well that had remained frozen until then began to speak in many voices. There was the sound of water breaking into waves that hit against the walls of the well in rapid succession. The children had fixed spots from which they were wont to climb up the walls by clinging to its stones. They jumped in and out continuously as if their only aim was to disturb the water.

He experienced the well very differently. He swam, paddling the water gently, as though holding a newborn infant against his chest. The uneven form of the well gave him great happiness. The water’s coolness was balm to the body in the heat of a sunny hour. He relished dipping his head into the water, then floating on his back.

The scattered rays of the sun sought him out as he swam. The well was a great store of wonders, he understood this little by little and a deep affection for it budded within him. He desired to touch and embrace every part of it. He journeyed for long, eyes fixed on the sides of the well where dust particles floating on the water had collected. The well seemed to have created small niches at each corner that provided places of rest. There were step like structures where one could stand for a short while. The well was full of graciousness. At the corners there was the chill of agreeable dew. Eager to know the depths of the well, he began to move towards its floor. In those few seconds, at the centre of the well, he suddenly felt as though he’d journeyed a long distance and caught a glimpse of his innermost being.

The well continued—over space and time. And all at once he felt breathless. Growing immediately aware of where he was, he pressed his hands together to come up for breath. There were so many mysteries that the well contained. Would it unravel all and offer them to him, who came to it occasionally, in just a few minutes? He reprimanded himself for the foolishness of putting himself out in vain. Sitting on the stone slabs near the steps, he relaxed, gazing with new wonder at the frogs that either clung to the walls as the water lapped against them or jumped into the water from above. It seemed as if he had become, for a short while, a mere spectator.

The children, however, were not a bit tired. They continued to climb the sides of the well without bothering about its sagging walls and took turns to jump in. There seemed little difference between the frogs and them. The well was like an old man, smiling gently, indulgently, at their childish enthusiasm. As the little girl leaned forward to jump, she looked, with the ends of her plait undone, ribbon flying in the breeze, and the glitter of the bright sun on her, like a little goddess descending into the loving arms of the well. The boys were too quick in their act of climbing and jumping to be distinguished from each other.

The well accepted their wordless cries with pride. Having been without companionship for so long, its thoughts filled with the crippling loneliness of solitude, seemed now to revel themselves in their presence.

The enchanting breeze that embraced his body spread a chill. Beads of water ran down his body to merge with the water in the well. His body was now dry and had begun to tremble. The chill that he had not felt as long as he was in the water plucked at him the minute he was out of it. In truth, this was the well’s ruse. A way of enticing a person to enter again. Anyone who had entered it once was beguiled into going in again and again.

He lunged into the ripples. The warm water caressed his skin and embraced him. He circled the well without even realising he had done so. Though the strokes made by his legs were not visible, the eddies left by them were. He wanted to circle the well once more. But before he could, the little girl turned to ask:

Chithappa... how many times can you go round the well without stopping to rest?”

He was unable to come up with a number. He tried to gauge the dimensions of the well. Its cornerless spread made it difficult. He smiled to hide the fact that he had no answer.

But she would not leave him alone.

“Can you complete 10 rounds?”

One of the boys replied: “Chithappa can hardly complete two.”

Though he understood that the boy was teasing only to get a rise out of him, he could not help responding to the challenge. It was decided that starting from the steps, touching each corner and returning to the steps again would make one round.

He had circled the well once and was halfway through the next when his breath weakened. He began to gulp in air through his mouth. He found his hands were tiring and his legs refusing to cooperate. However much he tried he could not go on. The well had defeated him once again.

He stood at one end, his body bent with exhaustion, breathing hard. The noise that the children made as they crowed over him blocked out the fear that the well would be overjoyed at his defeat. His embarrassment was increased by his bashfulness. He wanted to climb out of the well. No one could outface the monstrous well. One was forced to accept defeat before its mammoth proportions. Even to confront and be defeated by it asked for daring. He drew a deep breath, filled with pride and swam towards the steps. His hands groped for a powerful hold, something with the control and strength of cables. On reaching the steps, he dipped himself in the water, tilting his head to slick back his hair and taking advantage of its wetness to comb it down. Then he said,

“I’m going out. You can play for a while longer if you like.”

This direction must have come as a shock to the children. The sound of waves lapping against the sides could be heard for a few seconds. Sorrow shadowed the girl’s face. The boys looked woebegone. They could not accept that the delights of the well had to be given up so soon. If he were to climb out of the well, they would have to do so too. They did not have permission to remain in the well without an adult. The well contained innumerable dangers. Old poisonous snakes that reared their heads and emerged at evil moments lurked in the recesses of the upper portions of the well. There were hidden currents that trapped and sucked in underwater swimmers. An adult might manage to escape such a siege of dangers, but could a child? Besides, the well, surrounded by tall palms that stood guard over it, had acquired a quality that was inhospitable to human beings. Voices echoed in all directions. A terrifying silence was lodged permanently in the darkness of the water. It wouldn’t do for him to leave the well when he was the shield that protected them against these dangers. The little girl entreated.

“No, Chithappa... for some more time, Chithappa.”

But now her entreaty did not move him at all. He was firm in his decision to leave the well at once. He took a step forward disdaining her pleas with a smile.

The little girl who had been standing at the eastern end of the well, now jumped in and gliding across the water gripped his legs tightly. “Don’t go, Chithappa,” she implored, shaking her wet, flattened plait. He had not expected this. Her hands had twisted themselves around his legs and clung to them, snake-like.

“Let go, child... let go,” he said.

He thought these ordinary words would suffice. But she did not release him. She was bent low, as if prostrating herself before a deity, determined not to let go until her wish was granted. He was nonplussed. Still hesitant, he bent carefully to try and prise her fingers free. But they tightened further.

‘Don’t you let go of Chithappa,” came a voice from somewhere. Even then he merely smiled cautiously at what seemed the stubbornness of childish play.

In an unguarded moment, the girl’s hands pressed to push him into the water. He fell headlong into the water—splash—like a loose stone dropping off the well’s wall with sudden force. The water whipped at his stomach sharply. Fear sent cold shivers down his body. With much effort he managed to swim towards the step. This too seemed like a defeat before the well. Wanting to deny it, he spoke calmly as he went up the steps.

“Why did you do that, child?”

But now the topmost step was no longer one to him—on the stone jutting out of the wall stood the bigger of the two boys. Waving his outspread arms, the boy yelled out, “I’m not going to let you go.” As he lifted a leg intending to scale the wall, the boy bent to grab him by the neck. Both fell into the well as one. Dragging the boy into the water, he pressed his legs and gave a powerful shove; free again, he swam with great speed towards the steps. The boy would be able to turn around and follow him only after touching bottom. He pushed aside the girl, who had been waiting, aiming at clasping him around the next, and bounded up the steps.

“Ei!”

A loud and enthusiastic scream came out of nowhere as the other boy pounced on him. This was completely unexpected. He fell into the water again.

His eyes squeezed shut to avoid the light that pierced through the water. With difficulty, he tried to peer through the spray. His sight filled with scenes he could not comprehend and he panicked. There was no escape apart from scaling the walls of the well and running to his freedom. But above the steps was another boy. A kind of order had suddenly developed amongst them: one to battle with him in the water; one to prevent him from ascending the steps by seizing his legs; and another to swoop down upon him from a height. They had conquered each of those places by turns. They encircled him like a thick chain which he could not break.

How long was this play going to continue? What kind of a game was this? This play was a trick of the well. He was not here as a guest at someone’s home. It was the well that had impelled him to come. No one had invited him for a swim. It was the well that had given form to its messengers and sent them to fetch him. He did not know their faces. The origin of illusion and deceit, the well was a death trap. He began to hear the sound of approaching death. He had got trapped, a prey in the gluttonous mouth of the well. How mistaken he had been thinking them children. They were really three devils sent by the well’s witchery.

The first plunged, aiming at his neck. The second seized hold of his legs. And the third caught and grappled with him in the water to pull him into its depths. Their laughter was an invitation though it sucked his life out. The little devils were now ravenous with hunger. By what means could he make his escape?

The gaps in the walls of the well now transformed into dark caves where death lurked. The water felt like acid that burnt his skin. Did he possess the strength to swim and prevail over these innumerable dangers? Tadpoles clung to the sides of the well, their eyes protruding, their mouths wide open, ready to drag him down any minute. They would pounce when the devils were tired.

Fear spread to every part of his body and entrenched itself. He could not think of a way out. Though the compulsion to get out and run was foremost, he was thrown off balance each time. His stomach was swollen with the water he had gulped in. His body trembled and sweated. Having fallen awkwardly on the stones, the cuts and abrasions on his skin began to burn, but he paid them no attention. All his concentration focussed on escape. It seemed as if their intent was to gradually crush and swallow him. As he struggled with death, eyes wide open, he was filled with animal rage. He beat at the devils as they came to hand. He thrust his legs against the floor of the well. But their violence increased correspondingly.

This infernal pit must have other escape routes. He jumped towards a corner. But he was unable to stand. His legs trembled. Sweat, more than water from the pool, dripped from his body. They, thinking that his move to the corner signalled victory, whooped with joy.

His probing eyes caught sight of the motor pump. Even as his eyes fell on it, his hands lunged towards it. Holding on to the pipe, he began to slip-climb to the top. He realised that this could serve as the only possible way out. Struggling hard against the slippery surface of the pipe, he continued to climb. But though he swayed to and fro, he could not progress at any great speed. The fiercest moment of the game held them in its grip. These last moments would decide victory or defeat. As he continued to climb, a howling figure, with a confused tangle of limbs descended the pipe with great speed and dashed against him. His hold broke and he hit the water once again.

This was it. The game was over. It was as if all else had been ordained. He began to babble incoherently. His hands continued to thrash the water without interest. He could no longer recognise the direction he should move towards. He no longer understood where to find a hold. Many things escaped his grasp. His trembling legs climbed on to something. Was it one of the walls of the well? His hands seemed to cling to the edges of some jutting stones. He felt he had climbed a little higher. But the belief ripened only to fade away. The well raised a voice that echoed:

“Snake, Snake!”

His hands lost their grip. Mouth wide open, arms and legs spreadeagled, he fell into the water backwards, like a frog.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy of Navayana

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