Meals Plus Forty Rupees – By T. Janakiraman

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“Money Order? For me?!”

“Yes sir.. for you only!”

“Uthrapathy, you are old enough to be astigmatic.. Take a good look again.. Do you want my specs?” Muthu opened the rusty ‘Vinoliya Rose Soap’ box, and reached for the glasses sitting atop the betel leaves and nut.

“I am not needing any specs. I tell you it’s for you only. Now, sar, you put on those specs and take a look.. Who is M. Sambamurthy?”

“Sambamurthy, why, it’s our Akkanakkutty!”

“Akkanakkutty! Is he in Madras now?”

Muthu hurriedly put on the glasses and secured it with the twine, around his left ear.

“Yes! Weren’t you knowing that Akkanakkutty left for a job over a month ago?”

“I wasn’t aware of that. Where is he working?” Uthrapathy x-marked two places on the MO form for signature. He handed Muthu thirty nine rupees in currency notes and a rupee in changes.

“Why not take half a rupee and give me the rest, now that you have it broken..,” Muthu handed him half a rupee.

“Oh, no. Four annas is sufficient. It would be inconsiderate of me to take more than that,” Uthrapthy returned half his commission.

“This is from Akkanakkutty’s first salary, so I thought…”

“If it’s somebodyelse’s money, saar would give it away with both hands,” Muthu’s wife grumbled, as she descended the stairs.

“Only the poor knows the travails of its kind. You know, Mahalingaiyer’s son, the one who is a colonel in the military, sends him four hundred rupees a month. He would take the money from me and would just slink in. Ten paise to me for tea…not a chance! He wouldn’t even look at me straight! Anyway, what’s Akkanakkutty doing?”

“Who knows! I bemoaned our fate one day in front of MKR. I said, ‘Can you do anything for my boy, he is such a useless kid!’ He sent for me a month after that and said to me, ‘Look, do you want to send him to Madras? They are needing hired help at a rich man’s house…escorting kids to school, running errands, etc.. They’ll take good care of him. He can stay in their house..’ ” ‘Need you even ask me! I have been waiting for something like this to turn up.. I would send him there right now if I could.’ Four days later MKR’s clerk took Akkanakkutty to Madras. It has been a month and a half since..Now this money..”

“It’s god’s grace. First, before everything, you better get a good frame and a pouch for your specs. If you continue to keep it in that rusty betel box, how can it not be all scratched up and look like an old bottle bottom?” With that advice, Uthrapathy moved on.

His wife looked at Muthu. “Give me the money and come in. You don’t have to sit there and announce it to the whole world,” she hissed and closed the betel box with the money inside it and went back into the house. Muthu hurried after her. She closed the door and latched it after he was in. Muthu removed the towel from his shoulder, tied it around his waist, took the box from his wife, took the money out, put it under the picture of the deity and prostrated on the floor.

“Why are you just standing there? Join me!”

Another time, she would have ignored him. But now, her heart was all mellowed out. Without replying, she too knelt and bowed, as though it was her husband that had earned the money. She thought of the Muthu of a former time…Seven years ago he wasn’t aged like this. His hair used to be jet black and so long and thick that he had to wear it in a knot. His chest was strong and muscular and not weak and loose like it is now. His shoulders weren’t so narrow either; nor were his calves and thighs so weak.. His betel box was made of brass, and the lime tube was of silver. But now all he has left is the tin tube that he bought at the Brahmotsavam festival – even that is rusty now… With his youth gone and the strength gone too, they think he is much older than me. Why did he age so quickly – with hair all greyed and teeth crooked and yellow…’ But none of these bothered her at this moment. ‘Whatever his appea- rance, he is still clever..’ She found it amusing that it occurred to someone to pay her son FORTY rupees a month and feed him too. How many fools like that are there in this world! ‘Or, maybe, is Akkanakkutty really deserving of that? Our dear son, our only son, he always was indolent. Perhaps he has become smart since going into the real world…these people..they must be the type that wears rich, eats rich and sleeps on money.. How else can they feed him, clothe him, AND, on top of that, pay him forty rupees a month ! Perhaps they are prodigal, but still, they must have a good heart to be doing all these favors to him, who is, as long as I have been knowing him, physically and mentally weak…’ These thoughts frightened her somewhat.

“OK, I am going for a dip in the Kaveri. Give me some of that money, so I can get some vegetables on the way back,” Muthu coaxed her in a tone that said,’How about something other than the usual fare.’ She gave him four annas. He tweaked her cheeks in a show of flirt- ation and went out. Such things are common between them when there is some money around.

Even his gait was different now – there was a slight bounce in every step. ‘No one told him (it) to send money. It seemed enough that it went to work. But now it has even sent FORTY RUPEES! How I used to curse him, “You will never be useful, NEVER!” How could I have been so cruel to my own son? Why did I become so insensitive? But now he has shamed me by sending money! Akkanakkutty, I shall never curse you or scold you again. I shan’t even so much as raise my voice against you…’ Muthu was wallowing in his own shame.

That sons usually take after there grandparents rather than their mother and father has proven true in Akkanakkutty’s case. He has taken after Muthu’s uncle. If he had been like Muthu, he would have had the strength to nonchalantly lift huge and heavy stock pots and the talent to cook perfectly for thousands at a time. Had he been like his mother, he would have atleast looked handsome. ‘Meenakshi is of course handsome. Who could guess that she is Chief Cook Muthu’s wife? She has an affluent aura about her and looks more like a rich landowner’s wife sans jewelry… As soon as I get back, before I even change, I shall hold her in a tight embrace. She might encourage me or she might be just indif- ferent…Why couldn’t her son have been like her.. His nose is always runny – he constantly sniveles; he is knock-kneed; walks on his toes affecting a jump with every step; crooked teeth, spittly speech; even at fifteen, his speech is affected by a heavy lisp.. He was terrible at studies, didn’t make it past elementary school.’ After he had been idling at home for five years, Muthu found him work at a provisions store. He didn’t last there long. Took him to a cycle shop, where he worked for four days and fell ill. ‘I can’t deal with the work. It’s too hard on me. I won’t go.’ Muthu tried hard to find him a job where he would fit in, but it was not to be. He would take him to a prospective employer, who would take one look at the boy and send them away promising to let Muthu know when something turned up…He got him a job with a firewood seller but, of course, that was doomed to fail… Akkanakkutty ended up sitting in the front porch frittering time away in gossip and idleness. ‘But what is there that god cannot do? He is the eye for the blind and the guide for the weak and dimwitted. Oh, dear god, you have helped us at least this much and shown us the way!’

The wonder of it all was undiminished for a while, until the money was delayed by a few days on the third month. It was worrisome. Two months hence, it was late by a week. That was annoying. Just as Muthu was starting to console himself thinking, ‘maybe he is busy or something,’ the money order arrived, to his relief. “I am not really dependent on this money, sar. As I’m getting old, my eyesight is failing and my hands are shaking and I get easily confused. I cannot measure out the ingredients well and I am not able cook as well as I used to. Had I been in a good shape would they have hired that chap, Anandam, to cook at the Elavur Jameen? I have cooked for so many weddings and celebrations there. This constant worry about my boy has destroyed my coordination and strength! Now he is somebody, but I’m still confused. What can I do… Otherwise I wouldn’t be eating off his hand.. It’s all my fate..” Muthu explained, as he was signing the money order form, to his houseowner who had been looking at him quizzically.

It was then that the assistant to the lawyer’s clerk came with the news that the clerk, Annavaiyer, had wanted to see Muthu that evening, if possible. ‘An assistant to the assistant of a lawyer, what an unusual arrangement,’ Muthu wondered, ‘but what’s more Annavaiyer has several assistants at his beck and call!’ Annavaiyer started out as just another cook under Muthu. But suddenly, one day, he became an assistant to the lawyer Jagathu. In just three years he even pushed aside Jagathu and began to contest cases as though he were a _vakil_ himself! He handles all sorts of cases – inheritances, disputes… He mediates so many disputes before they even come to court! A lot of them take place in his front porch with him reclining against a pillow with his legs stretched out… what self-assuredness and what arrogance!

After lunch, Muthu proceeded towards Annavaiyer’s accompanied by his Vinoliya Rose Soap box. How could he not but go? It was Annavaiyer that helped Muthu find Akkanakkutty some of those jobs. ‘Of course he can’t be held responsible for the boy not lasting in those jobs.’ As usual, Annavaiyer was resting in the front porch. “Come Muthu, please sit down,” he said with his mouth full of tobacco juice.

“Vaitha said you were wanting to see me.”

“Yes.” Annavaiyer got up and spat out the tobacco. “I’m going to to Madras tonight and I don’t want to go alone. I have been ill for a week..just starting to feel better. There is an urgent case that I need to attend to at the highcourt tomorrow. I am on a diet, so I cannot eat out. If you could come with me and cook me a simple meal..”

“Of course.”

“Bless you.. you’ll live long. We will be back in four days. You go get ready. Hope you haven’t any other commitments..”

“Not in this off-season.”

“Very good. So it wouldn’t be a problem even if we overstayed a day or two..”

“Wouldn’t matter even if a month.. When you need me how can I refuse?”

“Good. Here’s twenty rupees. Give it to Meenakshi..in case expenses come up when you’re away. If you come here at sevenish, we can finish supper and go.”

“What’s this.. I’ll be here on time,” Muthu refused the money in a gesture of formality.

“Why do you refuse? Just take it. Of course everyone knows that you are a rich man.” The sarcasm persuaded a mildly-reluctant Muthu to take the money. He put it in his betel box and said, “I was thinking about going to Madras myself, and fortunately, it has worked out this way.”

“What!”

“Yes, Akkanakkutty… he is there now. I can see him when we go there.”

“Oh, yes. I remember you telling me two months ago… he is at someone’s house, helping.. I completely forgot. I have so many things on my mind…”

It was only on the fourth day in the city that Muthu had some time to himself. He had had to accompany Annavaiyer everywhere besides cooking for him. Annavaiyer hadn’t been very confident about his health. It was a saturday when Annavaiyer said, even before breakfast, “Muthu, after I go to court, why don’t you go see Akkanakkutty and come back before dark. We may be leaving tonight. If possible bring him here so I can see him too.” Muthu was excited. He had to control himself and get Annavaiyer ready. He took some of the sweetened rice and got on the bus to Mambalam.

Finding the house was not difficult. It was not a house, but a mansion, no, not even that, it was a small palace. It was in the middle of a mango grove. Just past the front gate was a very large nagalingam tree. Here and there were mango trees. The compound was quite cool and shaded. A little way ahead was a car park – yet another sign of affluence. On either side of the nagalingam_ tree were cement benches. There were some boys sitting on them chatting. Muthu called out, “Hey!” but none of them took notice of him. They were too busy talking, and one of the pulled out a five rupee bill as a wager on something. Muthu was taken aback to see so much money with an adolescent. ‘Are these the boys that Akkanakkutty escorts to school..’ he felt both proud and concerned at the same time. He called out again. And again.

“Who is it?”

“Isn’t this where Sambamurthy, the boy from Kumbakonam, staying?”

“I don’t know.”

“Isn’t this Kuppusamy Iyer’s bungalow?”

“Who is Kuppusamy Iyer?”

“Hey, don’t you know, he is our Mohan’s grandpa. Yes, this is the house.”

“Aren’t you all from this house?”

“No. We just came to see our friend Mohan. He is inside having lunch.”

Muthu sauntered towards the front of the house. There was no one in sight. He went in. The living room was semidark. There was a huge picture of a Maharaja and Rani on the wall and a few other signs of wealth. Still no one around. He walked on until he found an old man sitting in a stool.

“Who is it?”

“Hello, I am here looking for a lad by the name, Sambamurthy.”

“Lad, which lad?”

“He works here – he is from Kumbakonam.”

“Ah, him. Isn’t he the old man’s help?”

“I don’t know. All I know is that he is employed here.”

“From Kumbakonam?”

“Yes.”

“OK, you go that way to the cottage. He’ll be there. He just came back with the old man.”

“Who lives here?” Muthu asked pointing at the entrance of the house that he was in. “The old man’s two sons..The old man himself lives over there. That’s where the lad is too.. Who might you be?” “I am the lad’s father.” “Oh, he’s over there.”

Muthu came out into the yard. ‘Ah, what a huge house! So many trees! But there isn’t anyone around. They must all be inside..’ It was very quiet and Muthu crossed over to the cottage.

“Sar…”

“Who is it?”

“It’s me,” Muthu walked in just as he was saying this. There was a huge desk with big notebooks on top of it. In front of the desk was sitting an elderly man in a chair. He was wearing dark glasses. He seemed to be staring at a drawing on a piece of blue colored paper on the desk. There was a boy standing beside him scratching the old man’s scalp. The man with dark glasses was also dark skinned. As Muthu entered, the man raised his head and looked in Muthu’s direction.

“Appa!” It was Akkanakkutty’s voice! His face was barely visible in the shadow of the desk lamp. “Appa, when dhidh you come?” Akkanakkutty sniveled and grinned, all at the same time.

“Who is it, Sambu?”

“My father, Mama,” Akkanakkutty continued the scratching. “When dhidh you arrive, appa?” He grinned again. “Namaskaram,” greeted Muthu.

“Namaskaram. So, you are Sambu’s father. Please come!”

“I’m here.”

“Please sit down.”

Muthu took a chair. His eyes were by now adapted to the dark interior. He exchanged pleasantries with “dark glasses.” He stared at the old man’s face. His lower lip was swollen and it hung down as though detached from the mouth. There were scabs on his cheeks and on the curves of his ears. Muthu looked at the old man’s hands resting on the top of the desk. His hands looked curled. Except for his thumbs, his fingers were all curled. One look, and you could tell that his fingers couldn’t be stretched out at all.

“When dhidh you arrive, appa, huh?” Akkanakkutty was still grinning and scratching.

“Just now.”

“But there’s no thrain now.”

“The train was late by five hours. I am staying with some people I know. Finished lunch and left right away for here,” Muthu lied without really meaning to. At this point “dark glasses” scratched one of his cheeks. Instead of using his fingers, he used the back of his hand. Muthu was startled to see this. There were nails missing from some of his fingers.

Muthu found it difficult to sit still. It seemed as if his whole body was starting to itch. If he put his feet down on the floor where the old man must have stood, his soles might begin to itch. Muthu felt like he was sitting on a bed of nails. The old man was talking to him but Muthu wasn’t paying attention. He was making up replies as the feeling of discomfort consumed him.

“Enough of that, Sambu,” said the old man and Akkanakkutty stopped scratching. “He is a very nice boy. His presence is a big support to me. Please bear with me a little… Sambu, here..”

Akkanakkutty came and stood next to the old man who pulled himself up. He put an arm around Akkanakkutty’s shoulder and walked with a limp, almost dragging his bandaged feet. They went through an open door at a corner. Akkanakkutty came out and closed the door behind him.

How much had Muthu wanted to say to his son’s employer! ‘Who could be as generous as you! It’s your money that’s seeing us through each month… I never thought my son would amount to anything. But you have made him somebody. God himself must have opened his eyes through you…’

But now he didn’t open his mouth – he couldn’t. There was not even the trace of such thoughts in his mind any more. There was only fear, irritaion, anger. ‘Bastard! You will go to hell!’ he wanted to shout from the pit of his stomach. Akkanakkutty, waiting outside the door for the old man to come out smiled at his father and sniveled. Muthu’s heart was aching. He looked past Akkanakkutty at the door. He was getting scared as though a snake was about to slither in through that door. ‘Come here!’ he signalled his son in half-disgust. Akkanakkutty didn’t comprehend. He pointed at the still-closed door. The old man came out wearing brown boots. Akkanakkutty handed him a towel to wipe his hands with. He lent him his shoulders and helped him back to the desk. The old man sat down and Muthu said, “My missus, she is very ill.. She has been bed-ridden the past fifteen days.. She has been yearning to see her son..She is very sick with high fever…”

“Tch, tch..You could have dropped us a line..”

“I didn’t think it was anything serious. But the fever hasn’t let up. Her sister came from the village after I wrote to her. My wife has been asking…And so I thought I would come and get our son with your permission..,” Muthu was weaving a tale. The old man looked up at him. But with his dark glasses it was hard to tell what he was thinking. Even that face, covered as it was with thickened, scaly skin betrayed no emotion. Muthu was starting to panic, ‘maybe he doesn’t believe me..’ The old man continued to stare at him. Muthu carried on, “I am getting a lift in an acquaintance’s car..This way I can save the train-fare..” The old man’s hardened lips opened in a smile. ‘Smiling makes anyone look handsome,’ Muthu thought. “Please forgive me for this trouble ,” said Muthu. “No problem.” The old man pushed a button. “Sambu, you want to go with your father?”

“Amma is sick, Akkanakkutty. She has been asking for you day and night.”

“OK Sambu, start packing your clothes,” he turned to Muthu, “He has been a big help. Please bring him back soon.”

“Of course. If his mother gets well, he will have no reason to stay there.”

Akkanakkuty started to get ready. A servant brought Muthu snacks and coffee. ‘This is what that button must be for.’

“Please help yourself.”

“I just had lunch.”

“Please, at least for formality’s sake…”

Muthu couldn’t refuse – it wouldn’t be polite. ‘Balambikesa Vaidhyesa’ Muthu muttered the slokam and drank the coffee in one gulp. Akkanakkutty came out with a handbag. Now in the brightness it was easy to see that his appearance had changed; his hair was well-combed ; his shirt and dhoti were impeccably white; his face was slightly chubby; even his forearms that stuck out of his sleeves were well-complected – signs of how well he had been looked after.

“Please forgive me,” Muthu got up and bowed before the old man, with his hands folded.

“Please don’t mention it.”

At Muthu’s command Akkanakkutty prostrated before the old man, and they took leave. “Have a safe trip. Drop me a line about your mother’s health after you get there. Also let me know when you’re coming back.”

“I will, mama”

They walked out. Muthu hadn’t expected it to be so easy. As though he was escaping from a lion’s den, Muthu half ran, half walked, without looking back. He walked past the yard and into the street. “Please slow down, appa,” Akkanakkutty sprinted on his toes, trying to catch up. Only after they got on a bus did Muthu open his mouth. “Hey stupid, you didn’t tell me that the mama had something like this.”

“Something like what?”

“Don’t you know? You scratched his head with so much care! You may be a nitwit but couldn’t you at least see!”

“It’s not infectious.”

“Not infectious! Who told you?”

“Their mami, mama and Mohan – they all told me.”

“In that case why didn’t they go scratch his head?”

“Because they are all busy! Mohan is going tho school. Mama is an engineer and the mami is busy knithing. They are noth having any thime for this. And you say they shouldh dho ith!”

“They have all deceived you, you idiot!”

“Nothing of that sort. Look, it even says in this…,” Akkanakkutty opened his handbag and pulled out some cinema song books. He pulled out a newspaper clipping from one of them. It showed a picture of a white woman holding a man’s arm in a gentle caress. The man’s arms and nose and face were deformed like the old man’s. .. “Do you know who this is? She is a queen from abroad. She was in Madras last month – with her king. She didn’t go tho the pictures or anything. She went tho a village where there are thirty, forty people like mama. They are under treatment. She went there tho talk tho them and touch them..See the picture? If it’s contagious would she have touched them. Don’t talk nonsense!”

“Me, talk nonsense?” Muthu started to take a good look at the picture. “Dhon’th just look at the picture! Readh whath ith says undherneath thath,” Akkanakkutty ran a finger on the lines.

“Balambikesa Vaidhyesa…” thus muttering Muthu opened his Vinoliya Rose Soap box, got his glasses out and started to read.


 

About the author:

T. Janakiraman (also known as Thi Jaa/Thi.Janakiraman, 28 Feb 1921–18 Nov 1982)  is considered one of the major figures of 20th century Tamil fiction. T. Janakiraman belonged to the worthy tradition of the giants of Tamil fiction, Puthumaippitthan, Ku.Pa. Rajagopalan and Pichamurthy. He, along with Laa.Sa. Ramamirutham and, to some extent, Jayakanthan, constitute the backbone of modern Indian tamil fiction to which the likes of Sundara Ramasamy, Ki. Rajanarayanan, Indira Parthasarathy, Ku. Alagirisamy and Nanjil Nadan have added flesh, blood and skin.