Translated by V. Ramanan
Chellammal had just breathed her last. The pulse waned to a stop and she was reduced to ‘a body’, in front of her husband but about 600 km away from her other near and dear ones of the family, in the loneliness and desolation of the city.
Premanayagam was sweating profusely. He put down the small bag of rice bran that he was using to infuse heat into her in her dying moments. He was looking at her body with no visible emotions.
He bent down to close her half-open but vacuous eyes. He placed the lifeless hands across her chest, straightened out a leg that was bent in an angle and closed her half-open mouth. He did not find the touch any different, for the death had just occurred.
Premanayagam felt strangely relived, a relief that one gets when you put down the mill-stone around your neck. He was not gripped with emotions of grief at his wife’s death, but felt a loosening that his dear wife’s suffering had at last come to an end.
Premanayagam Pillai had developed equanimity. He was able to look at death with calmness. This is not say that he had become a yogi with a cultivated indifference to pain and pleasure. Life has been hard for Premanayagam. He had seen enough of penury, disease and death.
The ups and downs of life had never been even handed; the downs had always been steeper and deeper for no fault of his. He was not born into poverty. His father had enough of resources that when divided amongst his many offspring still left something to go around.
Premanayagam was the fourth child of his parents. As he showed promise in studies, his father put him through as much schooling as his meagre resources could permit when his siblings had to stop at just learning to ‘read the written word’.
In a way if Premanayagam could survive hunger in a place 500 miles from his native place, it was all because of the education, however meagre, his father could afford him. Premanayagam could also be married off to Chellammal at the opportune time.
After Premanayagam’s father had died and his estate divided, not much could be salvaged after the debts were paid off. Premanayagam with his wife, sought refuge in Madras to keep home fires burning.
Madras did not provide any solace to Premanayagam. Chellammal was a constant source of worry; stemming from the frailty of her health rather than any deficiency of character. Continued ill-health wrecked her body. Outside world provided its share of worries.
Premanayagam worked as a shop-assistant in a cloth-store. The owner of the cloth-store gave him just the remuneration as would keep their body and soul together. Chellammal’s continued illness meant that half of earnings went towards medicines and an ever increasing overhang of debt.
Distress pummeled him from within and without.
Premanayagam pillai had learnt to live with his condition. What were in the beginning raw wounds of agony sooner settled into scar tissue of acceptance of fate. He had become used to beseech ‘his owner’ for money as often as he was badly in need of. He had learnt to be obsequious and ever pliant to all his owner’s wishes so that he may not refuse his out of turn requests. Waiting upon his owner to grant his wish only to become disillusioned at the end as a daily routine, and then suddenly getting overwhelmed by his owners munificence meant that there was no such thing as a pay-day for Premanayagam pillai in his establishment.
Thus Premanayagam pillai had become adept in a jugglery of sorts, of trying to split his needs according to this staggered cash flow and ending up spending money on something more urgent: in a way that reminded of the snake trying to perform the impossible feat of swallowing itself by grabbing its own tail. These driblets of money could not run far into the vast desert sands of his pecuniary needs.
Chellammal had become a rag, with all vitality eroded by the ravages of hunger and illness, often laid low at sun down bereft of the little energy she could muster in the mornings. It is for this reason and for reasons of economy that he had taken a house in a far flung suburb of the city where there was a little movement of people and no electric power. Early morning he would set on his journey on foot to work after having a morsel and lunch packet in hand. He would return after sun down and when the people of better means had had their fill and are relaxing. Chellammal would have retired for the day and left the front door without the latch, so that he could go in and do his ablutions and then lit the fire in the kitchen. He had to do with whatever was then available in the house and many a time when ‘empty vessels’ was the euphemism for what was available, he would still not lose his poise but at least boil water and ‘feed’ his wife.
Somehow Pillai had spent 10 years in Madras thus. At times, when he would bring on enough courage to think of going back to his village, but the next moment, the absence of the necessary wherewithal would perish the very thought. Besides, there was also the fear that things there could be no better down there.
Often he would talk wistfully with Chellammal about going back home and how it would put an end of many of their problems, the same Chellammal who is now stretched out in front of him, when she would lie speechless with barely the breath moving in and out of her. Chellammal would tweak her lips into a smile in response, as the nostalgia of their native place helped a little to forget their sorrows.
When he was leaving for work that day, Chellammal was up on her feet moving towards the back of the house with charred rice bran and ash to clean her teeth with. She was talking of cooking for the night his favourite chutney and curry cooked with tamarind paste.. “You have just been able to get up and walk about a little, why do you take such pains” he had implored before he closed the door. For a moment he held the panels to position, before skilfully poking his fingers into the gap between the door and the frame to latch it from the inside.
He was thinking about how he could get ‘his owner’ amenable to her wishes to make a trip home, for one day, when he was giving her hot press to relieve pain in her chest , she had remarked ‘We should eat rice from our village this Pongal , we must make a visit at least this time. On our return we should bring with us a measure of gooseberry and lentil crepe’.
She could have very well asked for the leopard’s milk or asked him to learn brahma-vidhya.
But he had replied, “Why think about Pongal now, even the month of Purattasi is not over now”, glibly.
“So that you start petitioning your ‘owner’ at right earnest”, was her reply.
“You get your due for Deepavali from your owner, what about me” she had playfully pressed ahead.
“You can have the dress of your choice, what is the big deal. Just get up and about in the first place” he had parried.
Vexed as he was about how to get his owner lend him the money when the previous debts were still unpaid, he entered his shop and kept his lunch packet and the towel in their proper place.
“Premanayagam, why it did it take you so long?”, “Who do you think will keep the shop open for your arrival? , “How is your wife?” , “Go in and get a half piece of 703 and a bundle of vests from the corner” , the rasping voice of his owner shook him from his reverie.
It was nine ‘o clock in the night when he diffidently made his application to his owner for a saree for his wife and with this approval took three as samples.
Reaching his house, he placed his cloth bag near the ramp leading to the door, he slid his fingers behind the door skilfully and moved the latch bolted from inside. The street was quiet except for the howling of a dog sleepy and half-drunk after imbibing the darkness of the night; its wail undulating before thinning off.
Premanayagam pushed aside the door and went in. There was no light inside the house. ‘She would have gone to sleep, after all it was quite late’, he thought to himself. He felt for the matchbox kept on the recess on the wall and lit the lamp. The feeble lamp had the effect of rolling up darkness in coils around itself and cast exaggerated shadows on the wall.
Premanayagam walked up to the second section of house. Chellammal was lying on the floor with the head on left arm folded under her head. The right hand had fallen limp on the floor behind her. Premanayagam knew that she was not asleep. Premanayagam knelt down to hold the lamp in front of her face. Her eyes were partly closed; her breathing a slender thread moving in and out with the ever so faint heave of her chest.
He walked towards the end of the house glancing into the kitchen as he walked past it. Food had been prepared and kept in vessels lined against the wall; water was boiling in a firewood stove.
He washed his hands and legs with deliberation and care. He went into the kitchen and propped up the wick in the oil lamp before lighting it. He fetched a piece of dried ginger and a match box from the recess on the wall and came to where Chellammal was lying. He sat down near Chellammal. Her hands and feet were cold. He took a few drops of camphor oil in his palms, rubbed them vigorously and held them in front of her nose hoping that the vapour and its pungent smell would stimulate her. It was of no avail. He became a little nervous. He hurriedly applied camphor oil on her forehead and nose and gave her hot presses with a towel that was soaked in hot water and wrung dry. It had no effect on her. He burnt the piece of dry ginger and held it against her nose. As she was on her sides, it was not convenient. He turned her and laid her on her back. The acrid fumes of burnt ginger had its effect finally. Chellammal could be seen moving her head to avoid the fumes. She gave out a loud sneeze and asked for water.
Premanaygam held a tumbler of hot water to her lips. But her jaw had tightened; she had relapsed into her previous state.
Premanaygam repeated his now familiar routine of stimulating her with fumes from burnt dry-ginger. Chellammal’s eyes opened into a blank stare, as if she didn’t quite know where she was.
“When did you come?”, “Where is amma? “, she demanded. “Amma cooked for you and had been waiting for you ever since?”.
Premanayagam had become an expert in answering questions thrown at him this way. These questions did not beg correct answers, any answer befitting the question would do.
She suddenly held his hand and started,” Mother let us go back home, if that traitor comes back he will hold us here, Traitor, Traitor”, in a high pitch. Premanayagam dipped the towel in cold water and pressed against her forehead.
Chellammal was still not out of delirium. “Mother when did you come”, “Did he send you a telegram? “, she queried.
Chellammal’s mother passed away five years back. When delirium caught up with her, she would hallucinate her mother was alive and start conversing with her.
“I came just now, I got the telegram, how is your health now”, Premanayagam went along in pantomime.
“Give me water to drink”, “Amma, He is always like this, He will leave me like this and go to his shop, When do we go home, Don’t tie me down, I won’t ask for saree anymore. Let me crawl my way home. Don’t tie me down, oh leave me, let me go home , see my mother and come back. You may tie me up afterwards”, the fainting fit caught on with her once again.
Premanayagam thought of calling up a doctor. “How to leave her in this state and go, it is not a small distance”, he rebuffed the thought and continued with his dried-ginger treatment.
A faint hunch that his Chellammal would leave him forever ran through him. It did not torment him nor did it produce the indescribable pain as grief is wont to. It was a restrained emotion that you see in a physician and more than that there was a deep-seated calmness, the numbing effect of dejection when odds are insurmountable.
Chellammal murmured inaudibly and slid on her sides. Premanayagam got closer to her asking her what she wanted. Suddenly he could see that the deathly pallor had lifted and her face had regained colour, her breathing was not laboured and she had started to sleep.
She must have slept for ten minutes. When she woke up she was her lucid self, trying to gather her thoughts that had been in disarray.
“My head aches”, “My body is paining at every joint”, she complained..
“Don’t distress yourselves and go to sleep”, It will be alright in the morning”.
“Give me some water”, she sat up.
“Do not get up, you may fall” he admonished. He gave her a tumbler of hot water, supporting her back.
“Give me cold water, she retorted, my tongue is parched”.
He wanted to convince her that cold water was not good for her, but gave up mindful of the effort and the stress it involved. He gave her cold water and made her lie down.
After a few moments, she queried “When did you come”, “Did you eat ? “ .
“I ate alright. Don’t you bother and go to sleep”.
His reply fell on her ears; before it could register she was asleep.
Premanaygam took out the straw mat and laid it near the door. When he called out “Muruga!” and sat down in resignation, the lone rooster heralded the night tapering off into the wee hours of the morning. He could not bring himself to lie down and stretch himself. He sat huddled in corner with random thoughts of some past incidents that had no bearing on each other.
It was day break. The sounds of vegetable sellers on the roads could be heard, some with their hand-pushed carts and some without. He went in to take a close look at Chellammal. She was in her usual pose of having her forearm bent and supporting her head, her lips were in a pout and she was in deep sleep.
He thought it would do her good to drink something hot. He lit up the wood-fired stove and went to the back of the house for his daily chores. When returned, called out “Muruga” and applied vibhuthi on his forehead, Chellammal had woken up and was sitting on her bed and running her fingers through her hair.
“How are you now?”, “Looks like you had a good sleep”.
“I feel very weak and run down”, “I am hungry”, “Can I have something hot”, she said scratching her and puckering her brows.
“There is some hot ‘coffee’ of hot palm sugar on the stove”, “Clean your teeth and have it, I will get some hot water for you”..
“Keep the hot water outside the back door , I will clean my teeth and come”.
“You couldn’t even lift your head last night, now look at you, trying to walk about”.
“You have lost all sense of propriety” she chided him, gathering up her dishevelled clothes and walking unsteadily.
She was breathing hard and held on to the wall for support. Premanayagam rushed in to hold her shoulders.
“Lead me to the ‘back of the house’ slowly”, “Let me clean my teeth and come”, she pleaded.
Premanayagam did not reason with her, he led her to the back of the house and made her sit.
When she staggered back into the house, all strength had left her. She could not wait to close her eyes as she hit the bed. He brought her the palm sugar potion that he called coffee.
“It is lukewarm, drink it before it becomes cold”, he said.
Chellammal could not summon any strength to offer a reply, she merely waved at him. When she opened her eyes and sat up, the ‘coffee’ was cold.
‘’It is not hot, place it over the cinders, would you?” she asked.
“Keep it down, there is more on the stove, let me bring it for you”, he went into the kitchen and brought back some more.
Holding the hot ‘coffee’ to her chest and taking comfort in its warmth, she asked ‘What did you eat?”.
“I had a few balls of cold rice”, Finish off your coffee, I am leaving to see a medic.
“There is no need for any doctor, my tongue wants something sour, there was some left over dosa batter , what did you do with it”..
“Something sour! Won’t you lie down and rest, the state you were in last night….” he stood up.
“Why don’t you finish off the left over coffee”, she tried to distract him.
Premanayagam was already on his way out to find a medical man. All he could find was one siddha medic whose doleful looks betrayed his moribund practice. When they entered the house Chellammal was not in her bed.
They could hear a hiss coming from the Kitchen, of dosa sizzling in hot oil. He laid a mat on the floor for the medic to sit and went in reproaching her impertinence.
Chellammal, puffing and perspiring, was engaged in the activities of the kitchen far beyond what her condition should allow. Her unsteady hands had spilled the batter on the floor; one dosa removed from the stone was askew on a plate.
She was sitting riveted in front of the stove, holding a spoon of oil and a spatula in her hands. She looked at him and smiled.
“Get up, do not smile at me, the doctor has come to see you”, he tried to lift her up.
“Let me remove this one dosa from the stone”, she pleaded.
Premanayagam was firm, “You get up now”.
He removed the Dosa from the stone with a spatula. She said she would, pulling her dress to place. She sat down on the mat near the doctor.
The doctor held her write and felt her pulse and said “You are very weak and you should not stress yourself”, “Stop coffee, drink milk and porridge”. “I cannot start any medicines for you till you gain some strength”. You take milk morning and at night, porridge for lunch. You require complete bed rest. “
“If she faints again, mix this churan in honey and apply it on her tongue. Apply this oil on the bridge of her nose and her temple”, he told Premanayagam. He collected his fee of Re.1 and left.
“Nice doctor you had brought, asks me to drink milk and porridge. Am I run down with fever? Does it take a doctor to tell that I am weak” “Is fainting all that unusual”, she ridiculed Premanayagam.
At this time, Premanayagam heard somebody calling for him from the front of the house. He looked out it was Munusamy. “Come in, he said,” Did the ‘owner’ send for me”, “She almost died yesterday”, “Tell him, I hope to come to work tomorrow, if all goes well” . “Will do me a favour” , “Tell the milkman Naidu from the cow shed opposite that I want him here ”
“Don’t put the blame on me and stay away from work, go to work”, Chellammal called after him.
“Oh, how I forgot this, Yesterday I had brought you some sarees for you, make your choice, I will send the others back”, he said and opened the cloth bundle that contained the sarees.
“I like this green one, what is the price”, she replied.
“It is not for you to bother, you take your pick”, he tied the other two sarees in a bundle and placed them aside.
“Don’t spend beyond your means then stand with eyes popping out”, she told him tersely.
He requested Naidu for cow’s milk to be delivered for three days and asked Munusamy to request for Rs.15/- on his behalf and take back the two sarees kept in the bundle.
Chellammal’s condition took a turn for the worse. His attempts to feed her the porridge laced with milk were in vain. The porridge turned cold and stuck to the bottom of the vessel like glue. His attempts to make it palatable with hot water did not work. Nausea induced by extreme exhaustion made her vomit it out. Her bouts of vomiting continued till there was no strength left in her. By mid-morning, she started having fainting fits like the previous night. Premanayagam massaged and rubbed her hands and feet in a bid to resuscitate her.
Chellammal started fearing that her end was near, her face contorted, limbs twisted and knotted without control.
“I do not feel quite alright, maybe you should call up another doctor” she said.
“You are extremely run down, but you never took complete rest as was told to you, don’t you start worrying now, everything will be alright “ , he replied without conviction.
His mind was already made up to call for a doctor, after waiting for a while to receive the milk that would be delivered.
“Should I write to the Kunnathur aunt” , he said.
“For what purpose, Would she come all by herself this far ?” she shot it down. “Get me some hot Palm sugar coffee; at least the vomit will subside”.
“You keep sucking to this dried mango seed, till I prepare the coffee”, he said.
As he went into the kitchen and set the water to boil, milk had arrived. He made her the coffee, boiled the milk and kept it aside in a vessel. He left the house to look for a doctor.
“Come back fast, I feel out of sorts”, she spoke after him with no strength even to keep her eyes open.
The door creaked shut after him.
He tried to bring home a practitioner of English medicine, an L.M.P, albeit with a meagre practice. The L.M.P was not at his house. He waited for his return. Hours passed by; worry compounded by premonition made the wait unbearable. He made a note for the doctor with his address and a plea for his immediate visit.
It was late in the evening when he reached home. What he saw upon entering shocked and froze him for a moment. Chellammal had passed out some time back. She was lying in the front court, amongst the vomit of palm sugar coffee.
He lit the lamp and washed the vomit off her face and body with hot water. He carried her to bed. He mixed the churan given by the doctor in honey and rubbed it on her tongue. He rubbed some oil on her feet and hands. Chellammal remained unconscious; her breathe moving in and out of her in a delicate rhythm. Premanayagam took more of the oil and tried to rub some life into her.
There was a call from the front of the house. The doctor with his medicine box and impoverished looks entered house.
“You came at the right time”, welcomed Premanayagam.
The doctor felt her pulse and tried to open her mouth. Her jaws held tight and did not open.
“Bring a matchbox”, “I have to give her an injection”.
Premanayagam, in his fluster, forgot the matchbox in the nearby recess on the wall and ran into the kitchen. By the time he returned, the doctor had already taken the matchbox and lit the spirit lamp to clean his needle in the flame. He asked Premanayagam to hold her left hand high and inserted the needle. They had not lifted their gaze off her for a few seconds as Chellammal gave off an inaudible moan.
The doctor started packing his things in his medicine box. He asked for some shikakai powder. Premanayagam ran in and brought him some soap. The doctor washed his hands with it.
“Looks like she is sleeping; don’t wake her up. Give her some milk when she wakes up, Hospital is the right place when the condition is so bad”, he said as he was leaving.
“How is she?” Premanayagam asked as he led the doctor to the door.
“I can’t say anything firm at this stage”.
“Call on me tomorrow morning and tell me how she is and pay four annas to the rickshaw”, the doctor got into the rickshaw.
Premanayagam stood for a while looking at the doctor on his way. Chellammal was sleeping. He quietly sat next to her. He did not touch her for the fear of waking her up.
A fly flew down and rested on her chest. It was not there for too long. It flew again in circles and sat down on her palm and then again as if unable to make up its mind about where to sit, landed on her lips.
That was enough to wake her up from her slumber. She spat out the fly and rubbed her lips with the back of her hand.
She was look at him for some time before she burst out, “Where did you go leaving me here like this?”
“Why couldn’t you be lying in bed till I return? “ he touched her cheek fondly.
“I am going to die soon”, “Don’t waste money on me” she said closing her eyes.
“You are just weak and exhausted, may I press your legs?” he said caringly rubbing her legs.
“My body aches all over, something cold runs through my body, Why don’t sit beside me holding my hands” she implored and clutching his hand in hers and closing her eyes.
“I want to see mother “, she moaned without opening her eyes.
“What’s the big deal, I can telegraph her and get her here tomorrow”, he replied, a little perturbed; wondering if delirium had caught up with her once again.
“Hmm, do not waste your money on a telegram, a letter would do. Wonder she would make it here at all, Go to your work at the shop tomorrow at least”, she continued.
“Don’t worry about such matters”, he released his hand from her clasp and touched her forehead with affection.
“It is paining, I am also thirsty, get me some hot water”, she asked.
“Hot water will make you throw up once again”, he held her hands and kept looking at her face. Chellammal’s face was ashen; the lips had acquired a bluish tinge. She kept running her tongue over her lips to keep off dryness.
“My heart is throbbing”, she started complaining once again.
“It is all because of your weakness”, he tried to assuage her.
“Give me some milk, I will try to sleep”.
Premanayagam hurried to do her bidding. The milk had curdled. “Not a good augury”, he thought.
There was a half-dry slice of lemon on the shelf. He squeezed it into a glass of water, added some sugar and twirled it around to render it lukewarm.
He sat down next to her and called her name.
“The milk had curdled, take this juice and go to sleep”, he said.
She nodded in agreement.
He slowly lowered the glass to her lips. She motioned him to stop after a sip at it.
“Why has the lamp…” her voice trailed, her body shook and her chest heaved. She limbs twisted and straightened.
When Premanayagam lowered the glass again, the juice ran down her cheeks and chin.
He kept the glass down and touched her chest.
He could feel only the body, for the life had left it.
The lamp threw the gigantic shadow of his hand ploughing into her chest as though pulling her heart out.
In a final try, he massaged her body with medicine oil and applied hot press with rice husk in a cloth bag, till drops of his perspiration fell on her eyelids.
There was no sign of life.
He bent down to close her half-open but vacuous eyes. He placed the lifeless hands across her chest and straightened out a leg that was bent in an angle.
He became conscious of the vague sounds of the water boiling on the kitchen stove.
He went to the kitchen and brought it down to the usual lukewarm temperature that Chellammal always preferred.
He fetched her body to the bath wondering if she was ever this heavy.
Her head was falling off without control. Placing her body in a sitting position and propping it against his legs, he bathed her without the auspicious turmeric. It could not be located for the final ablutions. He towelled her and laid her on her bed. He draped her body with the green saree she had chosen for Deepavali. He applied vibhuthi and sindoor on her forehead and lit the lamp that would burn the through night and till her final farewell. Remembering the incense that was purchased for a Saraswathi Pooja long back, he brought and sprayed them on the dying embers brought from the kitchen.
After finishing all immediate rites in all solemnity, he stood there staring at her.
After a while it was stifling; he came out of the house to the street. Cold winds of the early hours felt like mild strokes of a wire brush. Dawn was breaking through the clouds.
The distant stars were undecided about whether to fade into the dawn or cling to remaining darkness.
“Aiya!” he heard Munusamy calling him.
“The owner gave me these”. Munusamy had brought money from ‘the owner’; “How is amma?” he asked.
“Amma is no more”; “You keep this money, send this telegram I will write out now”; “inform the owner, and on your return bring with you the barber”, he said without a hint of sorrow.
Munusamy was taken aback a little by the lack of anguish. He hurried to send the telegram.
Premanayagam came in and sat down. He sprayed some more incense on the charcoal embers and kept waving at the body to prevent the fly from settling down on the face.
The professional wailing women were in high pitch: their duplicitous cries could be masked a only a little by the sounds of the conch shells.
Our thanks are due to the translator.
About the Author:
Pudhumaippithan (also spelt as Pudumaipithan / Pudumaipittan) was the pseudonym of C. Viruthachalam (25 April 1906 – 5 May 1948). His active writing period was less than 15 years (1934–46) in which he wrote nearly 100 short stories, an equal number of essays on a variety of subjects, 15 poems, a few plays and scores of book reviews. He was the first Tamil writer to successfully use a dialect of Tamil other than that of Chennai or Tanjore. Most of his characters spoke the Tirunelveli dialect. His stories were set either in Madras or in Tirunelveli, the two places where he spent considerable portions of his life. His writing style had a mixture of colloquial and classical words.