Translated from Tamil *
I just couldn’t sleep that night, for no apparent reason. My mind was neither troubled, nor was it overflowing with happiness to keep me awake thus. I am just like everyone else. Yet my job is not like that of anyone else. I write fiction. That is to say, I spin yarns, and make a living out of the journalistic establishments that are prepared to accept them. My lies are accepted. Or in other words, they are recognized by the majority of the world as God, Dharma, et cetera, in various names and forms. This is what is called Creation, living in the land of the imagination et cetera. In fact liars like me are called other Brahmas, Second Creators. And I am the youngest in this lineage of duplicate Brahmas. When I think of all this, I feel some pride, certainly. Is the handiwork of Brahma false, too, like ours? Am I false? If such philosophic queries occur around twelve o’ clock at night, who won’t begin to doubt his digestive system? “Ada, chut ! I muttered impatiently, and sat up.
This house had been built in such a way that one could sit up in bed and switch on the electric lights just by reaching out an arm. I did so. The sudden light troubled my eyes. My wife was fast asleep in the adjacent bed. What was she dreaming about? A smile played hide and seek at the corner of her lips. She was perhaps exulting in her culinary skills which could drag a man into philosophical inquiry right in the middle of the night. Stirring in her sleep, she moaned slightly and turned over. She was three months pregnant. Why should I wake her and make her sit up with me just because I couldn’t sleep?
I put out the light immediately. I always feel a profound sense of peace, sitting in the dark. Isn’t it true that at such a time, you become one with the darkness, united with the night, invisible to others? You can then drive that wooden cart-your own mind- wherever you please. People usually describe imagination as a chariot that can reach the place you wish to go to, the very moment you choose. But in reality, it is a wooden cart that follows along the thoughts of generations of human beings, from the earliest times to the present day-a path so frequently trodden upon that it has been turned into a beaten track. There are only the grooves made by wheels constantly grinding into the dust, and between them, a raised ground, less frequently walked upon. Occasionally the wheels have stumbled off the rut and on to the raised ground, giving those inside the cart a sudden jolt, otherwise it is always a gentle path, without peril, the track of well bred bullocks.
Lost in the comfort of thoughts, it seemed that in the dark I had smeared rather too much lime on the betel leaf. My tongue felt the sharp sting. Normally I don’t bother about such things. If you choose to chew betel leaves in the dark, if you let go of the harness leaving your mind to roam at will, then you should not mind such minor disasters. With due respect, I tossed the tobacco, ready in the palm of my hand, into my mouth.
Chi! What a foul smell! Stinking like a putrefying corpse! Feeling nauseous, and wondering whether the tobacco I was chewing had been tainted, I went to the window, spat it out, and rinsed my mouth before returning to sit on the bed.
I couldn’t stand the stink. It was as if a body had rotted and the stench was somewhere near. I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t understand it. Was it coming from the window? But there wasn’t even the faintest breeze blowing. I felt my bed and walked again to the window. I hadn’t moved two paces before the stench completely disappeared. How extraordinary! I returned to the bed. There it was, again that foul smell. Was some dead creature lying under the bed? I switched on the light. Under the bed, there was only a cloud of dust that made me sneeze. I stood up and slapped myself free of dust.
My sneeze woke up my wife. “What is it, aren’t you asleep yet? What’s the time?” she asked, yawning.
It was exactly one minute after twelve.
And wonder of wonders! The stench had changed into a kind of scent. The smell of incense sticks-in fact low grade incense sticks, the kind lit by the side of corpses.
“Can you smell something here?” I asked her.
“No, nothing at all,’ she said. After sniffing a while, she said, “There’s a faint smell of incense. Someone must have lit them somewhere. I’m sleepy. Put out the lights and lie down.”
I switched off the light. Traces of the smell still lingered. Going to the window I peeped out. Only starlight
The shutters of the windows and the front door of the house trembled and banged softly. For just a second. Then silence. An earthquake, perhaps? In the starlight, a fruit-bat spread its wide leathery wings, flew towards the groves opposite, and disappeared beyond.
Both the stench and the scent had disappeared without a trace. I came back and lay down.
Next day, when I woke up at last from my pre dawn sleep, it was already late morning. I picked up the newspaper that had been flung through the window, and came out to sit on a cane chair in the front veranda. After creaking its objection, the chair bore my weight.
My life’s partner came out, stood beside me and started complaining, “First of all of you stay awake all night and then sleep late into the morning, and now if you come and sit here like this, what is to happen to the coffee?”
I had an unshakable belief in Democracy and World Peace, and I was worried that both were being jeopardized by “The Advance of the Allied Forces, undeterred by any Resistance.”
“All thanks to your elaborate cooking,” I said, in a feeble counter attack, rising to my feet.
“You have nothing better to do, what else can you think of except to find fault with me? Well, it’s no worse than the stories you write!” With this parting shot, she went towards the kitchen.
Bound by household rules, I went and cleaned my teeth, and then, holding the tumbler of scalding coffee with a towel, scanned the columns of the newspaper.
Just then a beggar woman, and a young one at that, came along, singing an unknown song. She stopped at our doorstep, calling out, “Amma, thaayë.”
I glanced up sharply, then deciding that it was impossible to battle with beggars, put up my newspaper and built a fence around myself.
My wife came out to the front corridor, scolding the woman. “Aren’t you able bodied? Why can’t you earn a living by working in a few houses?”
“If I am given work, wouldn’t I do it? My belly burns, thaayë. So far, I haven’t got even a handful of rice from this street. Give me a piece of cloth to cover myself, amma.” She started employing a beggar’s usual arsenal.
“I’ll give you work, but will you stay on? I’ll give you food to fill your belly, clothes to cover yourself, what do you say?”
“Will that not be enough, amma? These days who is ready to give even that?” Saying so, she stood there, smiling at my wife.
“Shall I let her stay on and try her out for a couple of days? You know how easily I tire these days,” My wife asked me.
“Chi, are you crazy? You want to engage a donkey of a beggar, who comes from heaven knows where? Can’t you find anyone else in this entire world?”
The beggar woman, who was standing outside, chuckled. There was a fatal charm in that laughter. My wife kept gazing at her, without once turning her eyes away. It seemed as if her entire will had become one with that nameless creature.
“Can’t you tell a person from her face? You come in, amma,” countermanding my orders, my wife took her inside.
And the deceitful beggar followed her, rejoicing within. What! I rubbed my eyes and stared at her feet. They walked in the air, a minuscule distance-the height of a kunrimani seed-above the ground. I felt a shiver go through me. Was it an illusion? When I looked again, the beggar woman glanced at me with a smile. Ayyo, was that a smile! As if a spear of ice had struck through my bones to the marrow, it nearly killed me with terror.
I called by wife to my side. I told her that it wasn’t good to have this woman in our home. But she, for her part, insisted most obstinately that she must have this stranger for her servant. Is there no end to the odd desires of early pregnancy? My heart beat fast in certain anticipation of disaster.
I peeped at her feet again. They touched the ground like everyone else. What was this strange illusion?
Tenali Raman proved that it was impossible to turn a black dog into a white one. My wife, on the other hand, established that we can turn even beggars into the same kind of human beings we ourselves are. It was clear that once the beggar woman had bathed, washed her hair and put on clean, though old, clothes, she was fit to sit next to anyone and talk to them as an equal. It seemed that this woman was adept at amusing conversation. I heard frequent chuckles and giggles. I was surprised at the way she waited on my wife, hand and foot. My own fears of a while ago seemed to mock at me.
It was dusk, the darkening hour. My wife and that maid were sitting together, laughing, telling stories. I had turned the lights on in the front room and was observing her under the pretext of reading a book. Between the hall where I sat, and the room where they were, there was a central area. I had hung a mirror there. Their reflections were clearly visible in it.
My wife told her, ‘You’ve roamed about everywhere, haven’t you? Tell me a story,”
“Yes, it’s true I’ve been to all sorts of places like Kasi and Haridwar. I was told a story once, in Kasi. Shall I tell it to you?”
“Yes, tell me. Tell me the story.”
“They say it was five hundred years ago. The Raja of Kasi had an only daughter. It was said that you could not find another to match her beauty. The Raja also wanted her to be learned in all fields. The guru chosen for her was a great sorcerer, he knew everything there was to know about magic, devices, strategies. And he had an eye on the princess. She, however, wanted to marry the prime minister’s son.
“Somehow he found out about this. Who found out? That guru.”
This was a miracle! Was I listening to the story she was telling my wife, or was I reading its account in the book I held in my hands? The book was an English one, called Historical Documents. The story of the King of Varanasi’s daughter was staring at me, in print. The last line of the page that was open in front of me was an English translation of the words, “He found out about this.” My head began to spin. I broke into a sweat. Was I going mad? I kept my eyes fixed on the open page. The print began to dim.
Suddenly, devilish laughter! With the sharpness of an explosion, it seized my entire mind. I looked up with shock. My gaze fell on the mirror. Reflected there, I could see a loathsome figure, its teeth bared, laughing in frenzied intoxication. I had seen many repulsive figures-those that appeared in my own dreams, and those imagined by the sculptor’s chisel. But I had never seen anything as horrifying as this. The horror was apparent only in the teeth and the eyes. In the rest of her features there was a wonderful serenity, mesmerizing the onlooker. In the eyes, a blood thirstiness. In the teeth, a greed to tear at the flesh and gorge upon it. Behind this faint image, tongues of flame from the fire of the kitchen hearth. I gazed at it, lost to everything. In a minute the image disappeared. The next minute it was the beggar woman’s face reflected there.
“I simply forgot to ask your name.” My wife’s question reached my ears.
“Why not call me Kaanchanai? Like the Kaanchanai in the story. It doesn’t matter what you call me. It’s just a name, after all.”
My heart would not consent to leave my wife alone with her. Heaven knew what might happen. Once the mind is overtaken by fear, can there be a limit to the trembling within?
I went inside. They were merrily chatting.
When I entered, having summoned a forced smile, I was greeted with barbed words. “What business do you have amongst us womenfolk?”
The woman who called herself Kaanchanai was bent low, chopping something. A smile brimming with mischief played at the corner of her mouth. Unable to say anything further, I became the sentry once more, standing guard behind my book fence. My wife, after all, was pregnant. Could I frighten her? How, else could I protect her?
We ate and then went to bed. The two of us slept upstairs. The woman called Kaanchanai slept in the front room.
I was merely lying on the bed. Did not close my eyelids.
How could I? Heaven knows how long I lay like that. My heart was beating fast, wondering whether last night’s smell would return.
Somewhere a clock began its process of striking the midnight hour.
The echo of the eleventh stroke had not yet died away. Somewhere a door creaked. Suddenly, sharp nails fell upon my hand, scratched across and slid away.
Shaking all over, I sat up. Thank goodness, I did not babble.
It was my wife’s hand that had fallen thus.
Was it really hers?
I got up, bent over and observed her closely. She was fast asleep and breathing steadily.
I was eager to go down and investigate, but afraid!
I went. I climbed down softly, my footsteps making no noise.
It felt as if a whole yuga passed by.
Quietly I peeped into the front room. The outside door was closed.
Moonlight streaming in through the open window nearby, pointed to the empty mat and pillow.
My legs wouldn’t hold up. They trembled violently.
Without turning around, walking backwards, I reached the stairs. Had she gone upstairs perhaps?
I hurried upstairs. It was quiet there. As peaceful as before.
My mind would not clear. I stood by the window and watched the moonlight.
There was no human movement to be seen. Only a dog howled somewhere, raising a lament which faded away.
From the opposite corner of the sky a giant bat flew towards our house.
As I stood watching, my fear began to ebb. I became calm, assuring myself that it was an illusion.
I was eager to see once more.
I went downstairs.
I didn’t have the courage to go in.
But there! Kaanchanai was indeed sitting on her mat. She smiled at me. A poisonous smile. My heart froze. Pretending to be calm, I went up the stairs, muttering, “What is it, can’t you sleep?”
Was there a smell of frankincense then? I seem to remember it being there.
When I woke up, it was very late.
My wife woke me up saying, “What’s happening to you, as time goes on, you seem to be sleeping the days away. The coffee is getting cold.”
At daytime, when darkness or fear do not have a place to hide, everything certainly looks different. But deep within the mind, fear had taken root. How was I to get rid of this danger?
Can you seek comfort by sharing with someone else the mental torment you experience because of your wife’s adultery? This situation was like that. Suppose someone like me, someone who boasted that he was doing a literary service to society at large, and who fooled himself into believing it, were to go about saying, “Saar, a pei, a she-devil, has come to live in our house. I am terrified that she might harm my wife. Can you advise me how to get rid of this peril?” People would surely wonder whether I was making fun of them, or whether I had gone mad. To whom could I explain it all and ask for help? How long could I stand guard?
How was this all going to end? What disaster was there in store? I was in a quandary, neither able to speak about it nor to swallow it all quietly. Heaven knew what magic potion this new servant had given my wife. They spent their time together without the slightest burden on their hearts.
That day, morning and night seem to chase each other. And I had never known time to pass by so quickly.
At night, as we were about to go to bed, my wife announced, “Kaanchanai is going to sleep upstairs, in the room next to ours.” I felt as if a lighted fire had been placed in my lap.
What plot was afoot?
I will not sleep at all. I will spend all night sitting up, I decided.
“What is it, aren’t you going to lie down?” asked my wife.
“I’m not sleepy” I answered. Terror, like a sharp spear, pierced me.
“As you wish,” she said, lying down on her side. And that was it. She was fast asleep. Was it an ordinary sleep?
I too wearied of sitting up so long, lay down, thinking I’ll rest my body.
It began to strike twelve.
What is this smell!
My wife, lying next to me, screamed in an inhuman voice. Among those meaningless sounds which gushed out in the guise of words, I could make out the single name, “Kaanchanai.”
I switched on the light immediately and shook her, again and again, to awaken her.
She came to herself and sat up, shuddering. Rubbing her eyes, she said, “I felt as it something bit my throat and sucked my blood.”
I peered at her throat closely.
At the hollow of her throat, there was a tiny spot of blood, like a pinhead. Her entire body was shaking.
“Don’t be afraid, I lied deliberately.”You must have thought of something strange as you feel asleep.”
Her body was trembling. She slid back on the bed in a faint.
At that very moment there was the sound of a temple gong.
Some strange song in a cacophonous voice.
A voice, calling out with authority, “Kaanchanai! Kaanchanai!
A wild scream which seemed to shake my entire house. All the doors banged repeatedly.
Then a silence. The deep silence of the cremation ground.
I got up and peeped towards the entrance of the house.
A man stood in the middle of the street. What a countenance!
“Come here,” he signaled. Like a puppet on a string, I climbed down the stairs and went out.
As I passed the room where Kaanchanai slept, I could not help looking inside. As expected, she wasn’t there.
I went into the street.
He said, “Rub this on amma’s forehead. Kaanchanai won’t trouble you hereafter. Go and do it immediately. Don’t wake her up”.
The vibhuti felt hot.
I brought it inside and rubbed it on my wife’s forehead. Was it ordinary vibhuti? I couldn’t be sure. I certainly remembered he did not hold a bell in his hand.
Three days passed.
As she gave my coffee in the morning, my wife said, “These men are all like that,” What could I say?
* Acknoweldgement : The translator’s name is not readily available , unfortunately.
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.