By Poomani, translated from the Tamil by N Kalyan Raman
As a writer of subaltern fiction in Tamil, Poomani brings a profound understanding of human nature and a remarkable talent for inventing a suitable language for the material to the practice of his craft. Apart from illuminating and extending our perspectives on people and landscapes that we have never encountered before, his stories are, in every format and in each instance, aesthetic achievements in their own right. It is this unique quality that makes translating Poomani’s fiction challenging and rewarding at the same time. For me, this was as true of ‘Protector’, the short story presented here, as of Heat, my translation of his classic novel about a teenage boy who commits a murder and goes into hiding with his father in the forests and mountains around his village (published by Juggernaut Books, May 2019). NKR
Even the redoubtable Karimbhai had shut his eyes forever, the taluka office peon informed him.
For Aettiah, Head Constable, it hurt like a rifle butt ramming into his chest. Those kajal eyes and henna-red hands flickered like shadows in his mind. Feeling dizzy, he plonked himself down at the entrance to the police station.
Karimbhai had seemed quite cheerful when Aettiah visited him last week. Though laid up in bed, he spoke with assurance. He wasn’t conscious at all of having retired. He had the same confident air of a police inspector. He asked after all the constables, inquired about the activities of KDs, or known delinquents. the middle of their conversation, Karimbhai called out, ‘Fathuma!’ His wife came in, collected the urine jar from under his cot and went out.
He winked at Aettiah. ‘Did you see that? I am distilling liquor right here at home. Don’t file a case and lock me up.’
Illness had not dampened his sense of humour. He would joke and tease until the very end.
As she placed the empty jar under the cot, Fathuma didn’t forget to ask:
‘Annan, is everyone doing well at home?’
Anxiety was smeared like charcoal on her face.
‘They are fine, Amma. Where are the children?’
‘They’re at the beedi company. I tell them to stay home, but they don’t listen.’
How could they stay home watching this horrible sight? It’s cruel when daughters have to work and earn for the family.
Without Karimbhai knowing, Aettiah gave Fathuma some money before he took his leave.
In front of the police station, withered neem leaves lay on the surface where garbage had been cleared. To the east was the deserted taluka office. In front of it stood a flagpole, forlorn like an orphan, on a round cement platform. A heavy lock hung from the tall door of the court building to the west. The grime of many generations smeared on its walls was clearly visible.
Aettiah couldn’t think straight. He paced up and down between the veranda and the entrance. At a time like this, Aathiyappan too was missing. Had he been around, Aettiah could have talked to him and found some consolation. He had a strong urge to shut the police station, rush off to look at Bhai’s face and weep his heart out.
What a man. It was not going to be easy to forget him. They had known each other for many, many years, sharing countless stories between them that could never be retold.
A large contingent of policemen had turned up. Even the Sub-Inspector had arrived. And who was that coming down the road, pedalling furiously—Aathiyappan? Yes. Seeing him lifted Aettiah’s spirits.
After hearing the news, the constables sat around in the veranda, talking about Karimbhai’s legendary exploits. When they heard the Sub-Inspector’s voice from inside, they dispersed at once to attend to their duties.
As soon as Aathiyappan entered, Aettiah told him to hurry: ‘Aathi, go buy a nice garland and a bottle of rose water from the bazaar.’
‘What happened, Aettiah?’
‘Karimbhai is no more.’
‘How did he die, all of a sudden?’
‘We’ll talk later. Keep this for expenses. Run along now.’
Aathiyappan rode his bicycle to the bazaar.
After cajoling the Sub-Inspector for a day’s leave, Aettiah and Aathiyappan set out to have a final look at Karimbhai. Though they were walking at a brisk pace, Aettiah didn’t stop talking.
‘Adeyappa. Did you know that his flag flew really high once upon a time? With his policeman’s stride and confident air, he was a role model for other policemen. Wearing a khaki shirt, he looked in perfect shape, like a whittled cane. Look at any officer now: three months into the service, his belly sticks out like a pig’s.’
‘I’ve seen him too.’
‘His trouser creases stood sharp like a knife. You could see your face on his belt. A revolver would hang from it. With his left hand clutching the cross belt, his right would swing a cane. His eyes would take in the whole bazaar in one swift glance, like a bird about to swoop.’
‘That’s the way to act, if you want people to fear you.’
‘When it spots its prey, a vulture hangs midair and rapidly flaps its wings. Like that, his cane would reel around in the air at a dizzying speed. The fellow who got caught was done for.’
‘That’s talent for you.’
‘Whenever a new film was released at the local cinema, he would go there casually. I’d go along with him. The moment the crowd saw him, it would push and jostle and automatically form a queue. He would look at them haughtily, as if to say, “You should have done this first” and walk away.’
‘And the show would run properly.’
‘He was a bit of a spendthrift, took a lot of bribes. Not even a beaten coin stayed in his hand, though. He had to feed every higher official who came on frequent visits. He would treat his colleagues lavishly to liquor, biriyani and parotta. But he never touched a drop himself. Everyone would be slavering to accompany him on a night raid.’
‘Well, a man who’s had a taste would want more, isn’t it?’
‘No matter how busy he was, he never skipped going to the mosque for the Friday afternoon prayer. If he couldn’t attend, he would wear a handkerchief on his head and move to a secluded spot in the office to say namaz.’
‘So he was devout too.’
‘He was an ace at solving crimes. Just from the modus operandi, he would know whose handiwork it must have been. And the goods would come back magically, as though they weren’t stolen at all. He would have a share in the loot, of course. Not really a share: he took what he wanted and left the rest. The owner would get back about half of what was lost. No case was filed.’
‘Well, the owner got at least half.’
‘In the end, he would pronounce a verdict.’
‘The person who was robbed must buy the robber a dhoti and towel set.’
‘A good verdict.’
‘He didn’t enjoy anything himself. During a raid, if he found a weapon he liked he would threaten the owner and somehow grab that item for himself. He had a craze for weapons.’
‘Did he collect them at home?’
‘He would gift them freely to others. It made him happy. Even I have two or three that I got from him. I’ll give you one.’
‘I’ll keep it to remember him by.’
‘Have you heard of that kuravan from Vadhuvarpatti? He had a unique style of burglary. Whether he made a hole in the wall or used a duplicate key to break in, he wouldn’t just make off with the loot. He would enter the kitchen and eat to his heart’s content.’
‘After all that hard work, why wouldn’t he feel hungry?’
‘Do you think he left it at that?’
‘What else, then?’
‘He would take a dump inside the stove or in the rice pot.’
‘What a filthy fellow!’
‘The moment Bhai saw this, he would name the culprit. “How did that fellow’s gang come to this area without my knowledge?” he would say. “Once I get hold of them, I’ll teach them a lesson.” Then he would send for me.’
‘Why would he call you?’
“‘Go straight to Kakkarampatti, nab that wily dwarf and bring him here. I heard he is camping inside the irrigation tank. If you go early, you can catch the whole gang. Take a couple of men with you,” he would say, and send me off with directions on how to get there.’
‘All right, then.’
‘His hunches would always be on target. The thieving dwarf would be nabbed. He would follow me without a word. Upon his arrival, he would get a couple of hard blows on the back. How dare you come to my area and break into homes, Bhai would ask him, gnashing his teeth.’
‘A couple of blows won’t do. He should be caned till his backside is swollen and blue.’
‘The fellow would pretend that he was innocent and give all sorts of alibis. Karimbhai would eventually calm down and the two would make peace. Then they would chat like old friends and head for the bazaar. There, the thief would be given a hearty meal.’
‘A feast, it sounds like.’
‘As the questioning got under way, information on every burglary in the area would come to light. Lots and lots of stolen goods would be recovered. The fellow would be looked after very well in the meantime. He would get anything he wanted. Until the inquiry got over, our men would hover around him like flies around a jackfruit.’
They had got down from the rock temple road onto the northern slope. There was a row of seven or eight butcher’s stalls in that corner. Work went on briskly. Goats and chickens were hanging headless in every stall. The sound of meat being chopped was heard intermittently. In one stall, a man was skinning a whole goat suspended upside down from a hook.
Aettiah stopped and stared at the stalls. Inside him, old memories were gradually moulting. He let out a long sigh and walked on.
‘I’m here, Aettiah.’
‘Keep the garland out of the sun. It should stay fresh at least for a few hours.’
‘I’ll be careful, ayya.’
‘It was Karimbhai who taught me how to perform my duties in this job. He taught me everything I know—patiently, without ever pulling a sour face.’
‘Are others like that now?’
‘When I joined work here, he was a head constable. He treated all of us like children of the same family and carried us with him.’
‘Of course. We love doing our job when we are treated right. It’s unbearable when higher-ups keep barking at us all the time like dogs on a leash.’
‘He would take me along everywhere. In Kattaarankulam in the south, there was a notorious rowdy called Raman. We’d lost count of the number of murders and robberies he had committed. Yet, he was at large, giving the slip to everyone. There was pressure from the superiors to capture him.’
‘Was he a baby goat that you could catch and tie up?’
‘None of us could sleep properly. Bhai and I met in private and talked about the case. All right, we decided, we’ll try, come what may.’
‘Just the two of you?’
‘We set out with a party of eight men. It was a pitch-dark night. We walked all the way to Kattaarankulam. When we got there, we surrounded his house.’
‘He couldn’t escape.’
‘Everyone was reluctant to enter the house. Bhai didn’t pause to think. He walked straight to the door. I followed behind him. When we knocked, a woman opened the door.’
‘Was Raman at home?’
‘He had bolted already.’
‘He must have been tipped off.’
‘We were highly disappointed. We asked every woman in the house, but they all claimed to know nothing about him.’
‘Bhai got so angry he lost his head. He started beating up the women. They were crying and howling. We smashed every single item in the house and piled up the pieces. When it was all over and we came out, we saw three ruffians standing there, ready to fight us. Each one had a shiny machete in his hand.’
‘Who were they?’
‘One was Raman, of course. The other two were his sons. “We were listening to everything. If you were born to a single father, dare lay a hand on me, you sissies,” he challenged us to our faces.’
‘Did you keep still?’
‘Before we could gather our wits, he got into action. He started swinging the machete. We were in bad trouble.’
‘Didn’t one of you carry a gun? You only had to shoot them dead.’
‘Bhai had told us not to bring any. Our plan was to capture him alive.’
‘How foolhardy. Why would you go unarmed to face a killer?’
‘We tried running and dodging, even brandished our canes to foil him, but to no avail. Bhai was upset that the raid had ended in a mess.’
‘What if he had killed four of your party? It would have been a disgrace.’
‘Even that might have happened.’
‘It was your lucky day, then.’
‘As soon as Bhai said, “Let’s come back another day,” the men in our party disappeared. They ran for dear life.’
‘What about you, then?’
‘We stood fast. “Don’t come any closer,” we shouted, issuing fake threats while retreating at the same time. They were closing in. Just then, Bhai tripped on a stone and fell down.’
‘Raman caught hold of Bhai. Determined to save him somehow, I went closer, ignoring the risk to my life. “Don’t,” he shouted. I was on tenterhooks, expecting the worst. I took cover and watched from behind.’
‘They wouldn’t have spared him, surely?’
‘No one laid a hand on him, nor did they say anything. There was straw piled up on a threshing floor nearby. One of them set fire to it. As the fire caught and turned into a blaze, they dragged him over there, tossed him into it and took off.’
‘What a disaster.’
‘I couldn’t just stand by and watch. Let them toss me into the fire too, I told myself, and ran closer. I couldn’t make out where he was. His leg was sticking out on one side. I caught hold of it and pulled him out. With his whole body burnt and face charred, he lay there like an ear of corn roasted over a fire. I heard a feeble groan. Greatly relieved, I lifted him onto my shoulder and started walking. With his skin peeled away, he kept sliding down. As I lifted him back up again and again, he moaned, unable to bear the pain. I carried him, resting briefly now and then, all the way to the hospital. He wasn’t flustered. “Once I get back on my feet, see if I don’t bring him to this hospital and lay him down,” he spoke as if it was a vow of honour.’
‘It took a long time for his body to grow new skin and recover. I was worried about his eyes. Luckily, both eyes escaped without damage. With the old skin completely gone, his hands had turned white. His face wore a mix of black and white spots. There was a white streak on his lower eyelid. He came back to the station with henna on his hands and kajal in his eyes, but with the same gait and confident air. The entire station was awestruck.’
‘Really a rebirth for him.’
‘From that day on, he was known as kajal-eyed Aettu.’
‘The name suits him all right.’
‘Even after an incident like that, he didn’t stay quiet. He proved himself by doing exactly as he had vowed to do in that hospital. He waited for the right time to nab those three thugs, broke their limbs and dumped them in the same hospital, didn’t he?’
‘It takes a special kind of resolve.’
‘He didn’t rest till they were convicted and sentenced to jail.’
‘So, the fellows were finished.’
‘Then Bhai was promoted as Sub-Inspector, and eventually became Inspector. As he rose up the ladder, he cut down on his antics. I, too, had gone up a notch to become Head Constable.’
‘Couldn’t be reckless forever, right?’
‘Still, trouble never left him alone.’
‘Was it fresh trouble?’
They halted near the western edge of the main road under a tamarind tree to ease the ache in their legs. There was a rail track a short distance away, cutting across the road. On both sides of the track, cactus bushes had formed a bank. After crossing the railway gate, they had to enter the first street on the north side to reach Bhai’s house.
Aettiah pointed to a plot on the opposite side.
‘There used to be a hotel in that plot over there. They closed it down a while ago. Starting from early in the evening, it stayed open all night. All the lorry drivers would stop here. Liquor flowed. The lorries would be parked haphazardly, in any available space. At night, people would occupy half the road, sitting around and having fun.’
‘Was there no one to pull them up?’
‘The hotel owner was a rowdy. I knew him from the time he burnt firewood for charcoal and sold it for a living. After running a tea stall, he became the owner of a hotel and then an important party official. He was a wild man. He would wear his towel around his waist one day and his dhoti slung across his shoulder on the next. He had all the local KDs in his pocket. There was no limit to his atrocities.’
‘He should have been tamed right in the beginning.’
‘Others would slink away, not wanting to cross him. But Bhai didn’t like what went on in the hotel. He tried to get his point across politely. But it fell on deaf ears. One night he went there with a raid party, broke all the furniture, hauled away a couple of drunken customers and put them in jail.’
‘And so the trouble began.’
‘Yes. From that day on, both were at loggerheads. They all but clashed face-to-face. Come, let’s get there quickly. Maybe he is lying there alone. We’ll go and help.’
‘If we get there early, we can get on with the work that needs to be done. We have to get him safely to the graveyard, don’t we?’
‘The hotel owner had a henchman known as Kundan, a thug. Stealing goats and chickens and supplying them to the hotel was his occupation.’
‘Is there such an occupation?’
‘Because of that association, he had no respect for policemen. But he was careful with Bhai. He would merely give our Bhai a funny look and move on. Bhai, too, gave him a lot of rope. He was waiting for the right time to strike.’
‘So, it wasn’t yet time to drive a wedge up Kundan’s backside.’
‘One night, he and I were coming down the oil press lane. Suddenly, the henchman was standing before us.’
‘Why did he show up?’
‘“Who are you trying to play games with? I’ll gouge out your kajal eyes and fry them for dinner,” he said and gave Bhai a hard slap on his cheek. Then he ran away.’
‘Was he so daring?’
‘Bhai was taken aback. He stood still for a while. I was myself paralysed. I watched him, feeling ashamed that I hadn’t had my wits about me. He didn’t say anything. I was the only one who knew.’
‘Not the sort of thing you’d tell anyone.’
‘He hatched a secret plan and swung into action. He filed a variety of cases against him. The fellow roamed around, eluding capture. Bhai obtained an arrest warrant from the court. The man’s story was over just a few days later.’
‘We got information that he was staying on the bank of a stream on the outskirts. Both of us took the office vehicle, parked it some distance away and walked to the stream. The water was deep. The spot where it originated was overrun by a dense growth of wild plants and bushes. He had tunnelled through the bushes and built a beautiful hut. He was resting comfortably inside. He couldn’t escape through the back. He had to come out the way we went in.’
‘So he was nicely trapped.’
‘“Elei, little pubic hair, come up to me now and we’ll see,” Bhai said as he walked up to the man. Kundan wasn’t afraid either. He got up instantly and came at Bhai with a knife in his hand. Clutching it with his hand, Bhai kicked Fatso’s legs off the ground so that he fell down on his back. Bhai drew a revolver from his trouser pocket and pointed it at the man’s chest.’
‘He had brought a revolver with him, eh?’
‘I didn’t know myself that he had brought one.’
‘He must have gone there with his mind made up.’
‘A single shot. The fellow died on the spot.’
‘It was the end of him, then.’
‘Bhai’s hand was cleaved in two and his thumb was hanging loose. He gave me his handkerchief and asked me to tie it tight. The rowdy was brought to the station in our vehicle and laid on the veranda.’
‘What happened to the case?’
‘They suspended Bhai, harassed him through an inquiry by the Sub-Collector. I told them frankly what had happened. The doctor was very helpful. The inquiry concluded that with no other option to save himself, Bhai had shot the man in self-defence.’
‘It’s true, isn’t it?’
‘The whole affair took a year to come to a conclusion. His family faced unspeakable hardships during that period. His wife is a patient woman. She is the type who could endure any amount of suffering and still carry on. Their two girls were forced to drop out of school because it was not safe for them. All the people who had hovered around him kept away, fearing trouble. I would look him up every now and then. In spite of so many difficulties, the man never wilted. He overcame all his troubles and returned to the police station again, majestic as a lion. It left everyone speechless.’
‘The hotel owner must have been angry.’
‘He was a jackass. What could he do? For him, if one kundan was killed, he could find another. He also tried everything he could to get even with Bhai, but nothing worked. Within two years, he had died of a heart attack. After he was gone, the hotel too was shut down.’
‘Is it enough if one of them dies? There are so many left who are bigger and more evil than him.’
They had turned into the street on the north side. As they neared Karimbhai’s house, Aettiah felt his heart grow heavy. Bhai could have lived a few more years. The girls could have been married off by then. Either way, Bhai would’ve had to pass his days confined to the bed.
‘Aathi, if they say that only a male can light the funeral pyre, take off your shirt and start doing the rites. I’ll take care of the rest.’
‘I’ll tonsure my head and do it happily. I would be lucky to get the chance.’
Aettiah patted him on the back and hugged him.
‘The man was born and raised elsewhere and spent his working life here. Now he has become a rotten jackfruit.’
‘Doesn’t he have any relatives?’
‘That’s another story. His wife was a Hindu before marriage. She came from a wealthy family. It was the same with him. Both of them are from the same village, near Coutralam. After they met and talked casually for some time, their relationship got serious. Enamoured of the man’s looks, the girl never recovered. She was adamant that she would marry no one but him; even threatened suicide. He, too, was in the same situation. There were many obstacles in their way. They eloped quietly and got married. She felt that staying together as they were would invite trouble. So she converted to Islam and adopted a new name. There has been no contact with the families on both sides. No visits, no communication. And this woman who had left everything behind for her heart’s desire ended up leading a miserable life, day in and day out. Even after her husband had retired, she was not fated to be happy. She has no jewellery, house or land; only a life of deprivation. All said, a woman shouldn’t have to go through so much hardship.’
Before Aathiyappan was done swallowing his surprise, they had arrived at Karim-bhai’s house. There were around ten people sitting in front of the house and talking in whispers.
As soon as the two entered, the women wailed even louder. Bhai lay on the cot, with not a care in the world. ‘I’ve stopped distilling liquor, man,’ his white lips seemed to be laughing.
The two girls sat near the head of the bed like two black babul plants grazed bare by goats. Fathuma banged her head against the cot and
Aathiyappan sprinkled the rose water over Bhai’s whole body. Heaving with sobs,
Aettiah laid the garland on his friend. When he bent down to look at the dead man’s face, he felt a sudden pang of revulsion. The maggots throbbed and wriggled
when the rose water touched the corners of Bhai’s eyes.
Aettiah broke into gooseflesh, feeling as though the maggots were eating into his flesh and crawling all over his body. Stricken by an inexplicable fear, he wiped his eyes and hurried out along with Aathiyappan.
This story was published in the Jul-Sep 2019 issue.