That was a local shuttle train which ran from Tiruchi to Mayavaram. Its life began every morning at 10:30 and ended at 3 in the afternoon. After sending out the trains to Madras, Mana- madurai and Erode, the deserted Tiruchi Junction was bare, desolate, and still like a garden after a storm. Banana skin, orange peel, balls of paper, leaves from which people had eaten and drowsy passengers-that was all you could see on the platform when the shuttle trains got ready to go. There was half an hour left for the train to start. The engine had not yet been attached nor had the guard put in his appearance. In every compartment could be seen, sleepy and sprawling, a passenger or two, unkempt and dirty. A family which had arrived from Bangalore by the Express train had left their luggage in a second-class compartment and, having asked some one to keep an eye on it, had gone somewhere. When an express train leaves, what a crowd there is to give a noisy send-off; when it arrives what a hearty, festive welcome it receives! But, this shuttle train; it was second rate. Among railway trains also, it is clear, there are rich and poor, high and low.
I was sitting alone in this train, in the last compartment but one. Beside me lay my son, sound asleep. Near his head on the bench lay the orange which had slipped out of his hand. I could not help smiling when I saw that orange. You see, it had a story to it. I was bringing my son home from his maternal uncle’s house in Bangalore where he had been taken by his aunt for a holiday. When we were waiting for our train at the Bangalore City station along with his uncle who had come to see us off, my son, seeing an orange seller, had pulled me by the hand and said: “Daddy, buy me an orange, please Daddy.” My brother-in-law had pretended not to have heard him and turned his head away in another direc- tion. Knowing his uncle’s nature well, I had quited my son with a stern look. He had taken the hint and subsided at once. But no sooner had the train started than he began demanding his orange again. After all, he was only six.
“Yes, my boy?”
“Uncle Pichu gets Rs. 900 a month, doesn’t he?” he said.
“Yes, and so?”
“When I asked for the orange at the station he looked away. He didn’t buy me the orange.”
“Perhaps he didn’t hear you. If he had heard he would have bought it for you.”
“I said it quite loud, Daddy, I did.”
“Then why do you suppose he didn’t buy it for you?” I retorted.
That quited him for the moment, but only for the moment.
“I asked him for a tricycle” he began again, “and he said he’d buy me one, but, he didn’t.”
“Well now,” I said mollifyingly, “why should uncle Pichu buy you a tricycle? I will buy one for you.”
“But, how can you, Daddy?”
“Your pay is only Rs. 100 a month.”
“And who” I asked sternly, “told you that?”
“Uncle Pichu said that.”
“Do you mean to tell me that Uncle Pichu came and told you, ‘Look here, your father gets only Rs. 100 a month’?”
“He didn’t tell me, Daddy, he told Aunty. You wrote a letter from Madras on Vinayaka Puja day, do you remember? He told Aunty then. They said you go to Madras too often. They said you couldn’t even afford to buy a piece of string for my waist.”
I thought this had gone far enough.
“That will do now,” I said, dismissing the subject. “Why don’t you sleep for some time?”
“Will you buy me a motor car?”
“Yes, I will.”
“Not a real one, Daddy, but, the toy one which you wind with a key.”
“Yes, yes, I know. I will buy you one.”
A moment’s silence.
“Daddy,” he said again, “I want an orange.”
“Go to sleep now,” I said gently. “As soon as we reach Tiruchi I shall get you one.”
“Look, where am I to get an orange now? The train is moving.”
“All right then,” he said, “tell me a story.”
“That is better,” he said, “I will tell you a good story. Now then. Once upon a time …..” I began. Halfway through the story the boy fell asleep.
“That’s a smart boy you have,” said the gentleman in the opposite seat suddenly. “Very shrewd study of human nature that was.”
“Yes,” I said, amused. “Look at the size of his head!”
There was no doubt of it. The boy’s head was bigger than normal size. He had a bright face and clear-cut features and a healthy, chubby body. His skin was as soft as a tender leaf. The velvety down on his cheeks was clearly visible in the dim light of the railway compartment. His curly hair fell in ringlets over his forehead. He was certainly a beautiful child.
He was going to see his mother the very next afternoon but yet, to me, at that moment, he somehow seemed so destitute. A child without its mother has a lacklustre look. This thought moved me to fondle my sleeping son gently. How could Uncle Pichu, I asked myself angrily, have had the heart to deceive an inno- cent child like this? Miser, Miser! From the day he went to work, Pichu had earned for himself this reputation. But, should he impress even a child as being a miser? Every time I looked at the child’s face, I felt deeply sorry. After all, when you come to think of it, it was a triffling matter, but, I could not bear it. I knew the tricks and guiles which Pichu practised. All his life he had one thing in mind and spoke another. I knew also his “success” in running a family, without being frank even to his wife. All these thoughts swarmed like bees in my head, making sleep impossible.
The first thing I did when the train reached Tiruchirappalli was to buy the orange.
“Daddy,” begged my son, “let me eat this orange after we go home. Mother will peel it and put the pulp, piece by piece on my palm.”
“All right, do that,” I said.
There was still half an hour for the train to start. Feeling thirsty, I went out and drank my fill of cool water and got my- self some ‘pan’ to chew.
When I got back to my compartment, a lady was just getting in, accompanied by a little girl. They settled themselves in the bench opposite.
“This is the train which goes to Mayavaram, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“When does it start?”
“In about 25 minutes.”
“How far are you going?” asked the lady.
“I am going to Kumbakonam.”
“He is fast asleep.”
“We are coming from Bangalore. He’s tired.”
“Will you also sleep?” said the lady to the little girl.
“No, auntie,I am not sleepy,” said the girl.
“I think you had better sleep for a while, child. We are going to be in the train all night. And then you have two more days of journey ahead.”
“No, auntie,” said the girl, “I shall sleep later.”
The lady was about forty, buxom, firm and rounded, like a mango. She wore a pair of heavy, old-fashined, diamond ear-rings and a diamond nose-screw. Round her neck lay seven or eight strands of gold chain. On her wrists glittered as many gold bangles. She was clad in an orange yellow silk saree. On her fore-head, startingly clear was the kumkum mark. She made a satisfying picture. Beside her was a leather suitcase and a new iron oven.
The girl was an alarmingly thin child of about eight, with arms and legs like sticks. Middling dark in complexion, oily, with small eyes which looked perpetually sleepy. On her wrist was a cheap, black, rubber bangle. She had aon a crisp new cotton and a new blouse with a pattern of red flowers. Round her neck was a chain of black glass beads. Her entire luggage con- sisted of another skirt and blouse twisted into a bundle which lay beside her.
I felt very curious. How were this gorgeous lady and this pathetic little girl related? But how was I to find out?
I bought a bunch of bananas from a passing vendor and gave one to the girl. She took it without a word.
“Come on, eat it,” I said.
“Eat it,” said the lady and the girl at once peeled the fruit and ate it.
“This girl is going to Calcutta,” volunteered the lady.
“To Calcutta?” I asked surprised.
“Yes. I understand she is being sent to stay with the family of some high placed gentleman there. She will spend the night at Mayavaram with some people who are also going to Calcutta. She will travel with them. Now I have to find their house and entrust this girl to them. She is a good girl, quiet and well-mannered.”
After this introduction, I became even more interested in that little girl and I began a conversation with her.
“What is your name?”
“Kamakshi; but they call me Kunju.”
“Fine!” I said laughing.
“What is fine?” asked the lady. “Are you amazed at this slip of a girl carrying two names?” she enquired smiling pleasantly.
“No, not that,” I said. I was reminded of my own sister Kamakshi. She is also of the same complexion as this girl. She was married into a very good family. Her husband was a man of generous impulses which soon got them into trouble. He stood surety for someone for Rs 20000. That gentleman died suddenly almost ruining my brother-in-law’s family. They suffered so much, they suffred in so many ways and for so long. It was only about four or five years ago that my brother-in-law secured a proper job and they may be said to have got out of the wood and my sister has at last found some relief and happiness.
“I have another younger sister,” I continued. “Her name is Kunju. We had great difficulty in trying to get her married well. At last my father decided to give her in marriage to his brother-in- law. My aunt was living but they were childless and she herself was anxious that her husband should remarry and have a son. But from the day my sister married him, she was treated worse than a dog. Ten years after her marriage she gave birth to a son. It is only after the birth of this boy that she is being treated like a human being and is able to walk with her head erect.”
“What else did you expect? Your father should have known better than to give his daughter in marriage as second wife to a man who had one living.”
“What is one to do about it?” I said. “These things happen, It is all fate, I suppose. I was reminded of it when I heard this child’s two names. It seemed strange that she should carry the names of both my unfortunate sisters.”
I was not able to gauge the effect of all this on the little girl. She sat there absorbing it all, looking as sleepy-eyed as before, her face expressionless.
“Are your parents alive?” I asked her.
“What is your father?”
“He is a teacher in an elementary school.”
“Have you any brothers and sisters?”
“Yes, I’ve got four elder sisters and two elder brothers. There is a younger sister and a younger brother.”
“Are your elder sisters married?”
“Three of them are married. My second sister was widowed four years ago. She stays with us.”
“What are your elder brothers doing?”
“One of them is working in a hotel. The other is studying in the second form.”
“Have you gone to school yourself?”
“No. Only my brother goes to school. Father is not able to pay school fees for us all.”
“Is that why you are going to work?”
“Yes,” she said and added, “At home we are not able to have even one meal a day.”
“What work can you do?”
“I can was vessels, I can make tea and coffee, I can grind flour for idli and dosai. I also know a little cooking. I can take care of children. I can draw designs with rice flour. I can mop and scrub. I can also wash sarees and other clothes.”
“Can you really wash a saree? Can you really even lift one?”
“Oh yes, I can wash clothes well.”
“Where on earth did you learn all this?”
“In Judge Ramanatha Iyer’s house.”
“Oh, so you’ve got experience of domestic service, have you? How long were in the Judge’s house?”
“For three years.”
“Three years! Really! How old are you?”
“I was nine this August.”
“So, you have been working since you were seven? Well, raelly! And what were you paid in the judge’s house?”
“I got no pay as such. But they gave me food and also a new set of clothes every Dipavali.”
“Is that what you’re wearing?”
“Are you telling me that for drudging for them day after day and doing all the hard, dirty work, they could find only this cheap cotton at 6 annas a yard to give you? I must say they seem to have taken some trouble to pick the cheapest kind of cloth.”
“Why didn’t you ask them to buy something better for you?”
“You say you were staying in a Judge’s house and boarding there. You don’t look it, I must say. You look famished. How weak and thin you are!”
The well-dressed lady interrupted our conversation here.
“Don’t you know,” she said mockingly, “that rich people are a tribe apart? They live on plain rice and pepper water, no dhal, no frying, but look how it suits them! How wealthy and well-fed they appear! It is a special constitution they must have. We, of course, are different. Cheap, simple food won’t do for us. We become weak and lean. Funny, isn’t it?”
It amused me to hear this richly-dressed lady bracketing herself with us. It must have been mere politeness on her part; for she recovered herself at once and said: “I am talking too much. Tell me, what do you do?”
“Don’t worry,” I said gently. “I live a hand-to-mouth existence myself. I am a clerk in the Taluq office.”
We were nearing Tanjore. I rose.
“I shall leave my towel here on my seat,” I told the lady, and my boy and I will go and have our meal and come back. Will you kindly see that no one takes our seats?”
“You have not eaten?” asked the lady and then turning to the girl, “what did you have to eat this morning?”
“At the Judge’s house?”
“Wonderful! What good people they are!” exclaimed the lady. “They give a child who had drudged for them for three years cold rice when she is going away. Naturally, they could not take the trouble to cook a hot meal for her, how could they? They left her with me at quarter past nine this morning. Wasn’t there time enough in the morning then to cook a fresh meal for her? Such kindness of heart! But, of course, they couldn’t break the cold rice tradition in the family even this once. Does anyone else take cold rice in that house?”
“Oh! Aren’t you hungry now?”
“Have some food.”
“All right, auntie.”
“Will you bring her,” said the lady, turning to me, “a packet of sambar and rice and another of curds and rice?”
“Why, I shall take her with me.”
“Yes, that would be even better,” she agreed. “Here is the money.”
“Don’t bother. I shall pay for the meal.”
“But why should you? After all, she is with me.”
I didn’t want to argue with her and so I took the money she offered me. I woke the boy up and we three hurried through the crowd to the station restaurant.
“Daddy,” asked my son, “who is this girl?”
“She is going to Mayavaram and then to Calcutta. She is coming to eat with us here.”
As I watched the two children eat they seemed so alone that a tenderness filled my heart. They were both separated from their mothers but between them what a difference! One was going to sit in his loving mother’s lap in less than two hours. The other was going farther and farther away from her mother.
Suddenly my boy bit on a hot chili and drew his breath sharply his eyes stinging.
“Take a drink of water,” I said.
The girl rose at once and going to the counter grabbed a handful of sugar which she brought to the boy.
A little later she said to him: “Wait. The curds and rice are not mixed properly. I shall mix it nicely for you.” And wash- ing her own hands, she mixed the rice carefully for him. The boy watched her and smiled at me, pleased.
“Why the smile?” I asked.
“She is mixing the rice for me, Daddy,” he said unable to explain it better.
Later it was she who washed his hand for him and wiped his mouth.
She then said to him, “Now, take a glass of water.”
“No, I don’t want it.”
“If you don’t drink water after a meal,” she explained “the food will not be digested properly. Come, drink it.”
“Contrary to his usual manner, the boy did as he was told and without a word, drank the water. The girl took him by the hand with a familiarity of long aquaintance and led him back to the compartment carefully. The boy also happily trotted beside her, not minding her being a stranger.
“Do you know the people in Calcutta at whose house you’re going to work?” I asked her.
“No, uncle, I only know that the gentleman has got a big job. His pay is Rs. 3000 a month. I have to look after their baby. That will be my work.”
One child, I thought, is going from somewhere to look after some other child. A mother was sending her child all that way to a strange place to work for a living, and the child had started hopefully, rolling = up an extra skirt and blouse. What courage!
“A very smart girl this, you know,” I said to the lady. “She has an affectionate disposition. If she were not going to Cal- cutta, I would have taken her along with me. Just look at her. She did not even say she was hungry, till we asked her. Well, only the Lord should take care of this child.”
My son picked up the orange which had fallen down.
“Shall I peel it for you?” asked the lady.
“No, aunty, I’m going to ask my mother to peel it for me when I go home.”
“I am also a mother,” she said smiling.
The boy smiled and kept quiet. After a moment he turned to Kunju. “How old are you?” he asked her.
“Ten?” said the boy counting off his fingers. “Then you must be in the fifth class.”
“No,” she said.
“Is it a rule that at ten you must be in the fifth class?” I asked him.
“Yes, Daddy. I am six years old. I am in the first class. 6-7-8- 9-10. She must be in the fifth class.”
“She doesn’t go to school,” I said.
“You don’t go to school?” he asked her surprised. “Do you read at home?”
“She is going to Calcutta,” I said. “That’s why she doesn’t go to school.”
“What is she going to Calcutta for?”
“To work in a house.”
“No! …… Are you really going to work?”
The boy sat staring at her for some time. He could not believe it.
“Can you ride a bicycle?” he asked her at last.
The girl laughed at this question. That was the first time she had laughed since we met.
“How would I know cycling?” she said.
“Then how can you go to work?”
“I will walk.”
He stared at her again, puzzled. His father went to his work riding on a bicycle. So this girl also, as if she was going to work, must go on a bicycle. He could not believe there could be any other way. Soon he stopped wondering however and the two children sat quietly looking out of the window.
“How do you explain this girl’s blind faith?” I asked the lady. “What does she know of those people in Calcutta?”
“They are relations of the judge, I understand,” said the lady, “and the man is employed in some firm there. He gets an income of three thousand rupees a month. I think they will treat her well. But however well they treat her and however good be the food and clothes they give her, she will still be made to think she is a servant. When all is said and done, can the girl think of them as her own parents? But she has an affectionate disposi- tion as I told you and will manage to be reasonably happy any- where. But still, it will not be like staying with her own parents, will it?”
I felt sick with anxiety about this girl. I felt as if it was I who was going to a strange place where I knew nobody. A fear and an emptiness gripped me.
“God will take care of this orphan, I suppose. Else, how could her parents send her out into the world like this? They couldn’t pin their faith on mere men.”
“Yes, who else but God can take care of her? We go round and round and finally come to God, don’t we? But who is responsible, we must also ask, for a family coming to these straits? Who seeks the cure for such evils in society? If her father was paid enough by his school, would this child have to go so far for a living?”
“But then who will take care after the children of judges?”
“That is also true.”
“Every home has its problems,” I said. “Perhaps the man who pays her father to teach in his school is a poor man himself.”
I couldn’t understand it at all.
That little girl moved us all to pity. The other passengers too, who had listened to our conversation, felt strongly disturbed. The gentleman- he seemed a Maharashtrian Brahmin- who was sitting at the end of the seat bit his lip and looked out of the window.
The train arrived at Kumbakonam.
As I took leave of the lady and the child I gave the girl a rupee. The lady stopped me saying: “Why do you have to give her anything?”
“Why shouldn’t I? After all, it is not your own child. Somehow I feel in some small way responsible for this girl. I can’t do more than this, but this much I want to.”
The woman, with a sigh, acknowledged my argument.
“Take it then,” she said to the girl, and to me, “God will bless you for this.”
“Daddy, I want to give this to her,” said my son, stretching out his hand with the orange in it.
“Give it. Why ask me?”
“No, let him take home. He was so looking forward to having his mother peel it for him.”
“Ask her to take it, Daddy.”
“Take it, my dear.”
The girl took the orange.
“You have got a good son,” said the lady. “Come here and give me a kiss.”
As my son ran back to me, I caught him in an embrace, and turning my face away so that I would not betray myself I walked away carrying him. Couln’t my son walk? He could, but somehow an overpowering desire came over me to hold him in my arms. I carried him and fondled him as I walked. My heart overflowed with joy. I was holding in my arms Love itself, the all-embracing love which leads to supreme bliss.
The above English translation originally appeared in “The Plough and the Stars: Stories from Tamilnad”. Editors: K. Swaminathan, Periaswami Thooran, and M.R. Perumal Mudaliar. Asia Publishing House, New York, 1963.
About the author:
T. Janakiraman (also known as Thi Jaa, 28 February 1921 – 18 November 1982) is considered one of the major figures of 20th century Tamil fiction He worked as a civil servant. His writing included accounts of his travels in Japan and the Crimea. The writing style of Thi Jaa is simple and narrative. His best-known novels are Mogamul, Sembaruthi, and Amma Vandhaal. All these novels have feminine feelings embedded in their subject. Though the story is spun around delicate feelings, the author’s narration is flawless and spontaneous. His short stories such as Langdadevi (a lame horse) and Mulmudi (Crown of Thorns) also follow the same style of writing.