Translated from the original Tamil by Nakul Vāc
It came and went like a flash of lightning. The ticket he had purchased was still in his hand. The Bus must have made it here.
As he opened his eyes, he could see that the town had vanished. Afar, one could see the sea, but only barely. Everything else had dried up. He could still identify that place, but he was the only one standing there.
Walking along, he came by that park in which he had loitered several years back. Only two small plants were visible now. There was no more park. Lots of buildings, some of them whole and others in a half-ruined state, stood fronted by name boards covered in dust. Broken down cars, rickshaws right in the middle of the road – it must have happened at peak-traffic hour.
Fallen Bicycles, lots of them, dust all over, a hero singing with raised hands stood immobile from a half-ripped cut-out in front of a movie theater
An envelope peeked out from the mouth of apost-box. Beneath it the piece of information that the next mail pick-up was at 5 o’clock.
Items that were on sale in the clothing stores drifted down in their streetward flight, differentiated by their varying colors.
The temple gopura and its environs loomed afar with added significance.
As he kept walking only his footsteps were audible. At the crossroad junction four or five buses stood helter-skelter giving the appearance of having broken down in the middle of making a swift left turn. The bus stops lay ruined.
Candy wrappers brushed against his feet as he continued walking down the road. Miscellaneous items from the roadside shops lay scattered. A few of them managed to remain stacked. Magazines fluttered in the breeze.
Breeze – it kept blowing – sea breeze – enough of it nearby.
He continued walking as if he were not obliged to make sense of any of it. If there were no one to share his reasonings – and it was glaringly obvious that there was no one – why should he be surprised? As he couldn’t run, he walked. Houses bereft of humans; town bereft of life. The temple, its tank and the conspicuous ditch gave him some sort of bearing and guided him. Despite the dangling electric wires a few streetlamps still glowed near the temple.
For a long time, he had wanted to see the Valluvar statue. He believed that if the temple were still standing then the statue would as well. From a betelnut shop that gave the appearance of being open for business, he plucked fruits from a reeking bunch left hanging there and ate them. Life continued without the aid of memory.
Only cockroaches were scuttering about. Ants were not to be seen.
As if he were a part of some memory he spit.
She was sitting by roadside at the crossroads junction mending her footwear. New clothes. She must have picked them up from the shop today.
As if it were foreordained, he went and stood opposite her. It was she who had asked.
“Who are you?”
“I need to go to Middle street. “
He hadn’t asked her how to get there. Continuing to test her footwear she said
“All streets are the same.”
On her face an indication of a smile, she looked resplendently fair and beautiful with a well-endowed body to go with it.
“Couldn’t you find slippers? You could have picked up a new one.”
“No – The apparel stores are open, but the footwear stores aren’t. It was a Friday, that day. They were locked. Have to break open.”
“How many days has it been?”
“As far as I know, two. You came on the bus that was bound for the tank, right- I saw. You were the only one on that bus. You stayed still for two days. “
“Only us, how could that be?”
“I don’t know about that – unknowingly I drank that coffee. There was a cockroach in it.”
As if he remembered something – he spat.
“Where are all of them now?”
” You mean what was left behind? Donno – Donno nothing. The rest are still here. The cycle, auto parts and the rest. Funny thing is it didn’t occur to me to be surprised. What’s your name?”
“Muthu – Muthukaruppan”
“Feels like a name from the South. Are you from Madurai?”
“Further South – What’s yours?”
“How do you manage to eat?”
“No problems on that front. I could even cook and eat. More than enough hotels all around. Lots of Roti shops as well.
“Loads of it. Look around, so many shops.”
“There is a famine in the south now. I could probably take rice with me”
Gayathri looked up at him. “Muthukaruppan” she uttered his name fully enunciating all its syllables. She looked briefly at the sky and asked
“For whom, Muthukaruppan?”
“For my kids.” he was about to say but stopped.
The woman calmed herself down and proceeded to finish her stitching.
Are not reaped.
If you need
Why don’t you just
“Where do you sleep?”
“Anywhere – For now, inside this bank – It’s pretty good.”
The two of them entered a tea shop, made tea and drank it. There were lots of biscuits.
“There are many grocery stores around – Good lentils. Just in that store opposite alone probably about hundred eggs.”
“I can cook. Kamatchi.”
“Not Kamatchi – Gayathri. Names are necessary if there are two of us.”
“Are you from this town? Are you educated? – Must be, right?”
It felt as if that town was melting in the heat. Muthukaruppan went inside that Hotel, measured out a mixture of grains in the storeroom and soaked them in water. By night he would be able to grind them. There were plenty of grinders lying around.
She arrived holding two eggs in her hands. The heat hadn’t let up a bit. For the first time wonder sparkled in his eyes.
“I thought you wouldn’t eat all this.”
“Ok – these are the last leftovers from the fridge. We have to look for another shop. Here are some Gelusil tablets – do you take them?”
Muthukaruppan remained silent. it felt as if he had lost his hunger.
He went outside and sat by a used bookstore by the roadside. For a little while he could hear the sounds of liquids being mixed, after which Gayathri came outside.
He thought that she would continue to live on raw eggs.
“Done?” he asked disdainfully.
She nodded her head and sat beside him.
“Too much heat.”
“Well, its already May.”
“We just don’t know the date.”
“I arrived by the bus on the 20th.”
“That’s fine – I meant we don’t know today’s date.”
A bit later he said
” The New moon will eventually show up. We can find out then.”
Randomly, he picked up an old book – Devaram. As he flipped through the pages, he felt an urge to read it out loud. He asked her
“Can you read Tamil?”
“Only by reading out the individual letters separately.”
“Which language do you speak at home then?”
“Don’t speak at home – with anybody. I converse only with Roach.”
“Who’s that — your Grandpa?”
“Roach is my cat.”
“Oh! I don’t have a cat, only a dog.”
“Dog is it, unlike cats dogs are unwise.”
“But along with this town my cat disappeared as well. When I woke up, I was on the street. God know for how many days – When I started to make sense of it, you wouldn’t believe, I was actually happy. But I lost my cat. Lost my books too. “
Muthu looked up intently and confirmed that what he saw wasn’t a sparrow but just a leaf. She kept on talking.
“I don’t like company. Can’t tolerate your company either. No difference to me.”
She flung the book that she held in her hands.
Afternoon was changing into evening. But the sunlight didn’t have its usual feel and felt inappropriate for an evening. The two of them were walking along the seashore road.
“We can go by a car.” he said as he raised and folded his Dhoti.
“So, you know how to drive a car.”
“Even a bicycle is problematic for me.”
“I do know though. We should go in the morning. Bicycle is better. There are a lot of cars blocking the road. We can ride the cycle on the sidewalks. “
‘To the Connemara library.”
“Need to a read a few books — have to search for them.”
“You won’t understand. They are not Devaram.”
“That’s true. But that book still gives me a sense of peace.”
“Even now? Wow!” she said disdainfully raising her hands up to her neck. Apart from eggs he could smell a mixed odour comprised of several things emanating from her side.
The Sea remained unchanged, roaring metronomically. For a while their conversation stalled.
Cockroaches crawled over the sands. They were sitting there completely unaware of the time. Not bothering to brush off the cockroach crawling over her hand she kept staring blankly. It was getting dark.
“There are probably around thirty lakhs of such creatures here now. They were here before as well.”
“When are you going to the library tomorrow?”
“After dawn. Do you wanna come?”
“No – I will just hang around by the sea. Shall I wait here by this Church. Or should I go in and wait by the tank?”
“You are the one who asked?”
“I asked if you wanted to come with me. I didn’t mention anything about coming back here. There are a lot of Roti shops near the Connemara. “
“Eggs as well.”
He kept staring at the invisible expanse of sea for a long time and suddenly asked
“Why don’t you go now?”
“To the library?”
“Could go. It must be open. In any case why should I fear the night anymore. But not sure if they would have lights there. Have to read – otherwise it will be pointless.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. It would be good if one of us goes.”
“Yes. I thought so as well. Good and bad, Civilization, Culture and Spirituality all of these need to be thought about. Have to figure out the equator’s coordinates relative to ours and then wend our ways to our hometowns based on that. You and I can’t be in the same place.”
“If you like this place, just tell me – I will leave immediately.”
“I am fine with that. My cockroaches are good enough for me.”
“You are filthy.”
“You are uncouth.”
They walk in opposite directions and disappear like small insects.
With nary a sound that town alone stands and survives.
About the Author
Maa. Aranganathan was born in Thiupathisaram, a corruption of Thiruvenparisaram (Tamil Nadu, India) , the native place of Vaishanvite minstrel Nammazhwar’s mother. Aranaganathan had a deep knowledge of ancient Tamil literature, Saiva Siddantha, western literature, cinema and modern Tamil literature. He read widely on literature and film and had published four short story collections, two novels and three essay collections. He created the character Muthukaruppan – who symbolises multiple dilemmas of contemporary Tamil society.