Translated by Padma Narayanan
Ayya had great expectations of us. As soon as his children were born, he had their horoscopes cast by a famous astrologer of our village. We were seven siblings. Horoscopes were written for each of us in separate notebooks. Ayya bundled up all of them and locked them away in a wooden chest. We could neither peer at nor pore over them.
We were all born at home. And, as if by prior agreement, we were all born during the night. A midwife took care of all Amma’s deliveries. Sometime during the evening Amma would speak of the beginnings of piercing pains in her abdomen. Ayya would immediately go into action; there were three duties he had to fulfill. Only one house in our village boasted a timepiece that could be set in motion by winding it up. Ayya would borrow that clock so that the exact time of birth of his children could be recorded. A steel folding spring bed lay in the cattle shed. Ayya would bring it inside the house, set it up, spread a cotton mattress on it and make Amma lie down on it. The mattress, when spread out on the lax springs, would sag in the middle. Amma could lower herself into that hollow on her own, but to get out of it two people had to hold on to her and haul her out. That bed was an heirloom from Ayya’s family. He was born on it. So he believed the bed brought luck to all of his children. That we survived childbirth was not because we were smart or because Amma was clever. It could not be attributed even to the midwife’s skill. It was all due to that smart bed.
Ayya’s third mission was to send word to the midwife. No birth went amiss so long as that midwife was in charge. For every male child she delivered she was paid fifty paise and if it was a girl she got less than that. The delivery took place in a room created by screening off an area with a bamboo mat. As the lamp that lit the room used neem-oil, a particular, medicinal smell pervaded the room. So long as the midwife was inside the room, Ayya waited outside. Around midnight or sometime after, when the baby arrived, its cries would be heard clearly. Ayya would then look at the clock and note down the exact time in a notebook wetting the pencil tip with his tongue. The astrologer would cast the horoscope according to that precise moment.
I came to know of all these procedures later on through hearsay. I was very young then. I did not even know to bite directly into a banana to eat it. I would only nibble at it from one side. The childbirth that I was witness to was my sister’s. She was the seventh child, the last. No baby was born in that house after her. This was a matter of astonishment to the people of our village. An average family had ten or twelve children. Many surmised that when a girl finally arrived after a succession of boys, the couple had decided they had had enough. But neither Ayya nor Amma was motivated by any such consideration. It was revealed later on that an astrologer was responsible for their decision.
In those days, it was the custom to roll out a lemon from the delivery room. The midwife in charge always had a lemon at hand. As soon as the baby arrived she would roll it out of the room. The exact moment that the fruit exited the room would be registered and used to cast the horoscope. Ayya did not have much faith in this fruit-rolling practice. He would wait for the baby’s first cries. He contended that the wail was enough to give him the time of birth. Amma’s vote was for the fruit. The accident that followed my birth made Ayya change his stand.
Amma complained of some activity in her belly at about four in the affternoon and went to lie down inside the room. Ayya waited outside with his copybook, pencil and tongue. Our dog Veeman lay by Ayya’s side, his chin on the floor and his eyes turned upwards. The midwife was standing by Amma’s side. Amma was shouting deliriously and writhing in pain. But the baby would not budge. The midwife had tried all the tricks that she knew. Darkness was departing from the skies. All of a sudden, a little pink foot peeped out. It would take a few more seconds for the other foot to emerge. Birds raised a hue and cry with their demands for the day to break. The midwife took the risk of dragging me out by my foot and there I was! Usually when babies are born they come out head first, in a swimming position. I was on my back looking up at the sky. Apparently, I had the desire to be different and innovative even then! My face was covered with membrane. I’d decided not to breathe and so the midwife had to turn me upside down and give me a good shake: she patted my back, but nothing seemed to work. Only when a hot needle pricked me on my forehead and chest did I let out my first cries. Ayya, unaware of all these goings-on inside the room, heard me cry and promptly noted down that time as the time of my birth.
Until I was about twelve years old, I proudly showed off the streaks on my forehead and chest to my classmates at school. Then, gradually, the marks faded. The astrologer wrote down my horoscope according to the time Ayya had given him. He was certain that since I had come out with my face turned up, looking skywards, my birth was unique and I would attain a sky-high fame. For a while, the people in my house believed this and I went up in their esteem. But very soon it was discovered that my horoscope was faulty. Since the midwife had been foolish enough to waste her time in reviving me instead of paying attention to the correct time of my arrival, it became difficult to have my horoscope done correctly. And I led a colorless life, absolutely clueless as to what I would become when I grew up.
Later when my younger brother and sister were born, the fruit method was revived. The midwife was handed a lemon and instructed to roll it out of the room. Some mishaps could occur with this method. The midwife could forget to roll the lemon, or she might roll it a bit too fast so that it rolled off, beyond sight. Yet no such accidents occurred and all horoscopes were duly registered in good order. Ayya piled the horoscopes one on top of another and locked them securely inside a chest.
The horoscope that was talked about most, and in glowing terms, was that of my eldest brother Periannan. The astrologer predicted that Annan would become a great judge. This gave my parents immense joy. I heard them speak highly of Annan’s horoscope to neighbors and relatives. As far as they were concerned, Annan had already assumed the lofty pedestal of a judge. Annan, meanwhile, was repeating the eighth grade for a second time.
Many people thought that my Amma’s and Ayya’s horoscopes were a perfect match. But I was the only one who knew the truth. One night, I had spread out a mat on the veranda outside, intending to sleep there. Amma rarely let me sleep there. But sometimes I could wheedle her into allowing me to do so. The mornings after, I would find a blood-soaked leech clinging to my skin. It was difficult to identify whose blood it was, the leech’s or mine. Anyway, on that particular night, I lay there pretending to be asleep as I listened to Ayya talking to a relative who was visiting from some far-off place. It was then that I realized that the credit for getting Ayya married to Amma actually went to a lizard. Ayya had faced a dilemma, wondering whether he should choose Amma as his second wife or not. Climbing atop a wall of a temple, he had vowed that he would come down from his perch only if the gods gave him their blessing. As morning turned into afternoon and afternoon into evening, he waited and waited, until at last a lizard screeched. Ayya took that as the divine signal and, jumping off the wall, agreed to marry Amma. If that lizard had not given that cry of hunger, Amma would not have married. We would not have been born and Ayya would not have had the good fortune to acquire a pile of horoscopes and safeguard them in that chest.
I once asked Ayya how horoscopes were cast before the advent of clocks. We had to bide our time before approaching him with such questions. But there were occasions when he would begin to sing, keeping time by slapping his thigh. Those were the moments when we could hope for answers to our doubts, for it meant that he was in a happy mood. His answer was this: if babies were born during the day, the exact time could be calculated by measuring one’s shadow with one’s feet. He had once seen an “approver” calculating the correct time by measuring his own shadow. If it was night, there were people in the village who could tell the correct time by looking at the position of the stars. Astrologers would go by the time these people had recorded.
There was also another method to calculate the time of the day. Day or night, as soon as the baby arrived, they would carve a line into the trunk of a banana plant Every family had banana plants in those days. One or two days later, the astrologer would come and measure the growth of the plant during this time, work out the time of birth and cast the horoscope.
The borrowed timepiece disappeared the day after Amma’s delivery. Ayya folded the steel bed and returned it to the cowshed. Amma got up and gradually returned to her chores. Soon, a new hammock was found hanging from the roof. It was not uncommon to see two hammocks at the same time. The children came in rapid succession, with just a year or a year-and-a-half gap between them. The stench of a lamp burning neem-oil would envelop the entire house. The thirty-first day was purification day. After that, preparations for the next baby began in right earnest.
No astrologer who passed through our village left without paying our house a visit. Ayya would bring out the bundle of horoscopes from its box and hand it over to him. The astrologer then scrutinized the horoscopes and made predictions that satisfied all those eager to know their future. When all the horoscopes had been looked over, Amma would turn her gaze towards Ayya. Ayya would then speak.
“Look at the eldest boy’s horoscope carefully. Will he become a judge?”
His anxiety was obvious. This was the cue for the astrologer to go back to the horoscope and begin to write down some figures and calculations on the back cover of the notebook.
“Ha!” he would exclaim. “This aspect escaped my notice; I have never seen another horoscope with Mercury in such an exalted position. Mercury is the lord of education. Your son is sure to become a judge.”
That day the astrologer would be treated in grand style to a special feast.
Many such astrologers passed though our house. All were glib with their words and none of them ever contradicted what earlier ones had said. I think there must have been some sort conspiracy among them. Once, when I woke up at midnight, I saw something which gave me the shivers. A young astrologer with a large kumkum dot on his forehead and matted hair all spread out was sitting in front of a lamp, poring over the horoscopes. Ayya’s bald and receding forehead shone like an upturned cockroach. Amma was chewing betel nut with her front teeth. Her head drooped like a withered flower. Her fingers had curled up on her cheek. Though they were sitting very near me, they seemed to be somewhere far off, immersed in their own thoughts.
“Demons get their strength at night, so children born at night have more demonic qualities than those born during the day. Lord Krishna was endowed with such qualities and that was what helped him slay the demon Kamsan. Not that it is any serious drawback. But seven children have been born in your house, one after another, during those dark hours. This demonic aspect is very dense about your house.”
He pronounced these words in a soft voice, partly in a prose style, partly as poetry, while lifting his hand, spreading his fingers as if he was setting a bird free.
Ayya and Amma were thunderstruck by this oracle.
Ayya asked in a quivering tone, “Is there anything we can do to counteract this effect?’”
“Certainly we could perform some rituals later on. But another baby should not be born at night here. The house will not be able to withstand that,” he said in an authoritative voice.
“So, what should we do now?”
He replied, “It would be best if you could send away a couple of your children and arrange for them to go to school elsewhere.”
That was how my second brother went to Mami’s house and went to a different school. There was talk of putting me into a boarding school. The day before I was to leave home, I went into the kitchen and saw my mother sitting in front of the lamp all by her herself and crying. When I asked her why she was crying, she silently wiped her face with the end of her sari. Tears flowed from her eyes even as she kept wiping them away. But no sound came from her. That was the last time we were all together as one family in that house.
The demons that the astrologer had predicted did not emerge from inside the house—they came from outside. They had heavy leather army boots on their feet. Houses, streets, playgrounds went silent. The earth and sky were transformed. Veeman ran away from home and never came back. My parents were not alive to see my Annan become anything. Twice he was caught by the police and had to go to court for riding his bicycle without lights at night. The prediction that he would do well in life and become a judge was proven wrong and he climbed the steps of the court only as a culprit.
I write this at night from Toronto.
“Nights are not for human beings. The dark hours belong to demons, they are harmful to us.” Ayya and Amma have repeated this so often.
But how do I determine when night begins and when it ends? It is midnight for me now where I am. It is still early in the evening in California, while in England night is at its fag end. In Ceylon, it is already tomorrow.
The bundle of horoscopes that Ayya had so carefully guarded comes to my mind. Our horoscopes were cast according to the time registered by the borrowed timepiece. The rightful owners of those horoscopes had never laid their hands on them. It now occurs to me that I should have tried to take a look at them at least once. All of us siblings were born at night from the womb of the same mother, delivered by the same midwife, on the same steel bed. When we scrambled off in different directions, we lost touch with everything and have no clue whatsoever about what happened to the horoscopes that Ayya had treasured. Today we live in different countries, under varied circumstances harboring our own individual sorrows. Some of those lemons gathered speed and ran beyond the boundaries set for them. Some stopped right on target. Some did not go any further than that door.
Original Tamil story : எங்கள் வீட்டு நீதிவான் © Appadurai Muttulingam. Published with permission.
First appeared in Words Without Borders / April 2015