On the one hand, a feeling of dissatisfaction and the thought, “No time for anything!”—but on the other, the uneasy realisation—“What on earth have I achieved with the time I do have?” Squirming in bored idleness, sleeping, waking, watching “international” Tamil films, reading all the lies in the youth magazines, lulled by the illusion that all those one met often were friends, indulging in meaningless conversation and laughter, dreaming idle dreams while the pile of paper files in the office kept mounting up, listening to half-baked advice on the media…
Saturday and Sunday were two contiguous holidays. But that Saturday there was also some infernal festival. The loudspeaker was blasting trashy music. Even with every window and door shut there was no place that the noise did not penetrate. Even the Good Lord would have had to admit defeat and retreat! He felt an urge to fling things around and destroy them. The noise had begun in the morning at 6am. Disgusting sexy grunts, calls, orders… “Tamil Nadu might shrink with time, but your breasts—never!” “Come on, my Mariamma, you who can with your neem-tree-leaf-like hands pick and throw a snake into a hole, give me a lottery ticket with a prize of forty-seven lakhs thirty-six thousand and twenty-four rupees and sixty paise!”
TV could not be heard, even the telephone ring was inaudible—he felt like peeling off his dhoti and running out on the street. The wife and children had gone home to the village for the weekend. For her it meant respite from the kitchen grind, for the kids it was freedom from the stranglehold of books and studies.
There were two vessels with dough for dosais. In a large covered bowl there was tamarind sauce. There was a thickened coconut curry with chickpeas, black-eyed beans and dried raw mango. There were five or six eggs. There was half a loaf of long bread. In an aluminium canister there were some batter-fried savouries. There were a few bottles of curds.
Should he make two dosais, or should he toast four slices of bread, or should he make a cup of rice in the pressure cooker and some North Indian dal or a lemon rasam and some curried baby potatoes—none of those were particularly difficult to do.
But the house with no signs of life, bolted from inside, unnerved him; it felt like an airless cave. He locked the front door and walked out to the street. But before locking up, he went from room to room to see if someone was lurking around in the bathroom, toilet, bedroom or under the beds. He checked three times to see if the gas was turned off. What if there was sudden thunder or lightning? He pulled the plugs of the TV, music system and the blender off the wall-sockets. But the refrigerator had a lot of things in it that needed to be kept protected. In the desert of the city, it was a basic necessity. He would have to take the risk. He took the good leather sandals that were in the veranda and threw them inside the house. He pulled at the lock—three times—to check if it was secure. Why three times? Just a bit of stupid superstitious nonsense. He put three 100- rupee notes in his hidden pocket and a few 10-rupee notes in the back pocket of his trousers. In his shirt-pocket he had a few coins. In his wallet he had a total of 100 rupees. Then he had on him some visiting cards, a small book with telephone numbers, a handkerchief, a comb, a few slips of paper and a pen.
He had no particular destination in mind. There was no movie worth seeing. The morning show in the cinema nearby was Some Desire, Some Thirst! Obviously, it would be the same desire, the same thirst. And it would start only at 11.30. After the intermission there will only be a bit of the film left and then it will be over. Besides, he would have to wear a turban to go to see it. There would surely be known faces around!
When he reached the Gandhipuram bus station his wrist-watch said just 8.45. He watched the buses come and go in a desultory fashion. A bus to Anaikatti arrived. He got in and sat by a window. He had picked up a trashy weekly magazine. Once read, it could easily be flung out of the window.
It was the middle of December, the rains had come and gone. There was a slight chill in the air; the sun was not blazingly hot. The bus was running through a mountain pass, the trees on both sides were swaying lightly in the breeze, the bus passed by a roadside pond. Coconut groves, banana plantations, sugarcane fields, vegetable farms, cornfields…
Before reaching Swami Dayanand Saraswati’s ashram, the bus began its ascent. They had reached the foothills of the peak.
When they reached Anaikatti, the sunlight had a yellow tint. The two dosais he had eaten in the morning were almost completely digested. They were frying dal vadais in the Nair tea stall. Nair? If you speak Malayalam you are considered a Nair, if you speak Hindi, Gujarati, Marwari or Bengali you are considered a Seth, and if you wear a skullcap, a Muslim Sahib!
The bus he had come in was returning to Coimbatore. Across the bridge a bus that had come from somewhere in Kerala had also turned around for the return trip. The crowd that had been idly sitting and looking around suddenly lifted their gunnysacks, their palm leaf-wrapped bundles, jute bags, rattan baskets and so on and were trying to throw them into the bus through the windows.
Cloth bags, rexine bags, towels, handkerchiefs, books, lunchboxes; they were flinging whatever they had in their hands into the bus to ensure themselves of a seat. Little children were propelled in by pushing their bottoms in through the windows; people with stamina pushed and shoved to get in through the doors; a man reserved three seats by lying down across them…
He stood watching the fun for a while. The driver and conductor went off to have a cup of tea. After that they will have a smoke, chew some betel leaves and go for a piss. All this will take at least half an hour.
He came to the front of a bus and read the destination board with some difficulty. It said Mannarkad but originally it must have said Mannarkkadupuram, a part of it had been cut off. Who knows how far that is? What would the cost of a ticket be? But how did it matter how far it was, after all the earth is a sphere! Far is not really far, and near is not really near! Tomorrow was also a holiday. He could decide whether to go or not, even after the bus started. He stood in the shade of some trees. All around, the green trees and the thick undergrowth evidenced the fact that this was really a part of the forest that surrounded it.
They were loading the top of the bus with an enormous number of heavy packages. Baskets of vegetables, bunches of bananas, sacks of coconuts, captive chicken in coops, barrels of curds, tyres, cycles, bunches of curry leaves…
It was clear that after the bridge the climb upwards would start. Below the bridge, on this side, was Tamil Nadu. Above the bridge, on the other side, it was Kerala. Kerala, “God’s own country”. Should one judge the country by God, or should one judge God by the country?
A jeep came across the bridge and turned around. A man got off the jeep and shouted “Attapadi, Attapadi!” Five or six people rushed off the bus and ran towards the jeep. Among them was a man with a monkey squatting on his shoulder.
He slipped into one of the vacant seats on the bus. The people around did not look like Malayalis, they did not look like Tamils either, but like a mix of the two. The conductor, who looked like the actor Prem Nazir, with his trimmed thin moustaches and his well-groomed, wavy head of hair, moved towards him. If he weren’t wearing his uniform one could even mistake him for an army officer. The driver, as if cursing the fate that had pushed him into this job, got in and slammed the bus door shut. Whether his anger was directed at his wife or his creditors, the door was what he unleashed it on; it was irrevocably damaged.
The bell on the string in the bus tinkled. Like a plane running on the road, like the chariot of the great king Nala, like the medicine hill that Hanuman lifted and carried, the bus sped along fiercely in top gear.
The bus had entered the forest. On both sides, there were plants, creepers, trees, bushes, and grass that were all totally nameless to him. How many types of trees, plants, creepers, grass can a city-dwelling man identify? As many as the items that he can recognise on a restaurant menu or as many as the cinema actors and actresses that he would be able to name? Probably not. What would he gain by naming them anyway? A rise in salary or an increase in his dearness allowance?
Because it had rained recently, on the barks of the trees, in the grassy stretches, in the bushes, on the paths, even in the sound of the wind, moisture was evident. Even the sun would have to get permission to penetrate, so dense was the foliage. To quote a line from the lyrics of a famous song, “If the fly goes in, its wings will break!”
Sleep overwhelmed him. He felt he would have been much better off sitting again by a window. Large families of male and female monkeys were sitting along the roadside. Both standing and sitting passengers were shaken as the bus negotiated the hairpin bends.
Half the bus got off at Attapadi. Half the goods on the bus were also unloaded. This was the hill country of Kerala. There seemed to be Tamils everywhere—the coolies, the little wayside shopkeepers, in the bakeries, in the supermarkets, all the workers seemed to be Tamilian. Worry lines due to poverty and humiliation were evident on those faces. Just as all South Indians are called “Madrasis” in the north, and all UPites and Biharis (including politicians like Lalu Prasad Yadav) are referred to as “Bhayyas” in Mumbai, all over Kerala, Tamilians are hailed as “Annachi” or “Pandi”. There was no way out; one had to accept the mocking epithet with a grin—even in “God’s own country”.
He managed to get a seat by the window. Looking out, he saw the dense forest. Three months of no movement on the road, he thought, would mean that there would be no road at all; the forest would cover it and erase it. No sign of it would be visible any more.
The driver and conductor did not get off at Attapadi. Their tea stop was probably elsewhere. Nice, strong, stinging hot tea.
The driver was probably suffering from haemorrhoids and many other ailments. If anyone took time to get on or get off he scorched them with choice words of abuse. He also greeted vehicles coming towards him and vehicles trying to overtake him with picturesque curses. There was a kind of disgusted rage in his driving. Taking the bends, the passengers were invariably jostled. An impatient anger was evident whenever he accelerated or took a turn. No one seemed to have the courage to say anything to him. All they seemed to want was to get home with their limbs intact and no bruises. Besides, they would probably have to travel again tomorrow on the same route.
It would be good to get down at the next stop and get oneself a cup of tea. But the same thought should occur to the driver. Not a leaf can stir without his will!
A steep climb. The screeching of the tyres tore through the quiet of the air. Then there seemed to be a stretch that was flat and straight. A bee came into the bus and buzzed around and then went out. Which of the girls’ hair had the natural fragrance that it was seeking? On the sides there were now palms that were not coconut or areca nut palms but palms all the same with long fronds. Were they some native forest palms or were they the kind of palms cultivated for use in decorating wedding venues? The forest lay all around emitting a cool humming sound.
At a distance something lay across the road. It looked like the strong twisted rope used to haul the main deity’s chariot in Suchindram temple. It could be the long branch of a forest tree that had broken and fallen off.
As the bus moved closer, one could see that the dead branch was actually moving. Then a head and a tail could be seen. There were white decorative lines and dots on its body. Did it think that the noise and vibrations of the bus’s movement were that of some forest animal, or did it think it was a small whirlwind approaching? But the snake seemed to evidence no kind of fear or sense of urgency. The cantankerous driver would surely run over it and kill it, his heart agonised.
The bus decelerated and stopped as gently as one lowers a child from one’s shoulder. All the passengers took in the scene of the snake moving in its leisurely manner to cross the road. The snake was probably pregnant or it could have had a very full stomach having eaten a very large prey. For it, any time was good for a walk in the forest!
“Go, girl, go fast!” said the driver, his hand on the gear-shift, his voice oozing tenderness.
Nanji Nadan is the pseudonym of Tamil writer G. Subramaniam. He has received several awards, including from the Sahitya Akademi.
This story was published in the April-June 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly.