Mother Earth – By Appadurai Muttulingam

Pic by Steve Johnson



Translated by Padma Narayanan


My father was a strict man. As a boy, I walked and talked quietly whenever he was around and quelled any desire to sing or whistle. I found it strange that here in America even the tea kettle whistled to call me.

Since landing here, I had progressed in the art of making tea. Here I was, making tea for my daughter. I had had a little tiff with her the previous day and I wanted to make it up to her. She came out of the bathroom and I looked the other way. She gave me a noisy, friendly punch on my back. It meant that the war was over and when I turned to look at her, she had left, leaving a trail of giggles.

The row was not about anything important. I had forgotten her boyfriend’s birthday. Was memorising the birthdays of his daughter’s boyfriends the foremost duty of a father? My daughter lived in New Jersey. I had travelled 500 miles the previous day to be with her and there she was, planning to visit her boyfriend in another part of the country that very day. In a manner that was both pleading and indignant, she had rolled her eyes, and asked me to escort her on her wild expedition. She said that she had given her word to be with him on his birthday and hadn’t I taught her to honour promises made?

She has a charming way of driving. There are no ornaments on her person except the odd curls of hair that fall on her forehead. She was so young but already held a senior position in a private firm. She calls all her colleagues by their first names and talks non-stop on her cell phone even when she’s driving fast.

Also read: “Water play” by Perumal Murugan

At my first job, my place was between the photocopier and the coffee machine, in the basement. The reception and office rooms were above me. All the accounting and export-related work was relegated to the basement. The room buzzed with the noises made by the crowd that swarmed around the coffee machine, the sounds that the copying machine produced from time to time, and the frequent beeps the computers made. A strange odour would breeze towards me from the copier at regular intervals.

The girl operating the computer next to me was a high-school dropout endowed with a snake-like body and eyes like Californian grapes. She either came in dancing or slouched moodily. Her moods swung from one extreme to another like a pendulum. The two sole aspects of her life were love and the pangs of separation. At one time she had four lovers, one for each day. On those rare occasions when she was completely without a date, she would implode into a poem of misery. At other times, she floated around, dispensing coffee .

Our boss had an extraordinary liking for that coffee and would trundle down a hundred times a day for it. There were three words that consumed his vocabulary, all of which concerned the human body below the waist. If he were ever asked to speak without those three words the poor man would be completely lost. When he asked for a cup of coffee, he used those words. When he lost a file, he used the same words. I wondered how he communicated with his family.

There are two kinds of fools, the average kind and the master kind. My boss belonged to the second category. Whenever he had something to say, he spoke at length, and in circles. At the end of his speech, you would find the subject about as clear as the water in a pond muddied by a buffalo. You might have seen files marked “urgent”, “ordinary” and “rush” in other offices but he was the first person to introduce two kinds of trash bins. One was marked “urgent” and the other “ordinary”. What kind of man labels trash as “urgent”?

Not a day passed without my ruing the day I had become his employee.

On the weekend, all the sorrows and indignities of the office disappeared as if by magic. Every Saturday, at ten in the morning, my daughter and I went to the laundry, carrying bags of soiled clothes, holding hands and chatting happily. I looked forward to those Saturday mornings and so did my daughter. During that ten-minute walk, she asked me a thousand questions. Whether she understood me or not, I always tried to answer her as best I could.

There were about thirty machines in that laundry. We washed our clothes in “Maytag 22”, a machine that was almost our personal deity. You dropped four cash tokens in the slot and watched in wonder as the giant machine, hissing slowly at first, would spin our clothes at unbelievable speeds. The machine rested after forty minutes. We would remove the wet clothes, load the driers, and let them run for twenty minutes. When we took our clothes out, they would be soft and warm, with a sweet scent that filled the room.

My daughter learnt to drop coins in the automatic vending machines and pick up a variety of sweets. Every time a candy dropped from the machine, she would stand on tiptoe to reach it, clapping with excitement each time. She never grew tired of our Saturday routine. It became our weekly ritual.

My daughter had this tendency to let tears fill her eyes and flow over at the slightest provocation. No matter how inconsequential the problem, her compulsive tears would burst the dam even before she spoke. On one of our visits to the laundry, we found an old woman who had loaded “our” Maytag 22 with her clothes. She stopped her knitting every now and then to take a look at the machine while it devoutly continued its work. My daughter could not accept this intrusion.

“Appa, Appa, she took our machine,” she bawled as she shot the old lady a series of angry stares. Until that day, she had believed that Maytag 22 somehow belonged to us. She accepted the situation after I explained it to her, but could not bring herself to forgive the old lady.

Also read: ‘They fell silent’ & ‘They turned into water’: Two Tamil short stories by S. Ramakrishnan

Then there was the time we lost her sock. We had just finished doing the laundry and were at home watching my wife count out all the clothes. My wife had perfect 20-20 vision. “Now, why is one sock of this pair missing?” she asked. That did it. My daughter’s eyes began to flow, as if a switch had been turned on. It was a worthless issue, and yet my little girl was sobbing as if her life depended on it.

The following Saturday, a surprise was awaiting us in the laundry. My daughter’s single sock hung proudly from the notice board. Below it, someone had written, ‘Did anyone see my other half?’ My daughter was happier than I had ever seen her before.

During one of our routine Saturday expeditions to Maytag 22, we christened the machine “Bhooma Devi”, Mother Earth. That week, we had more washing than usual. After the machine had been loaded, we still had some clothes left over. I decided to take the leftovers home and bring them back the week after. But my daughter insisted that we do a second load. We had a very big argument that day. I explained that the waste water from the washing machine went down somewhere into the earth. The environment gets polluted by this water. While we have a somewhat valid reason when we have a full load, we must avoid polluting the surroundings by using the machine with half-loads.

“Bhooma Devi is a benevolent person,” I said, “she forgets all the harm done to her and gives generously of her bounty. This forgetfulness is her most notable quality. She does only good, caring for us like a mother. Shouldn’t we be good to such a kind mother?”

Another day, I had to lecture my four-year-old daughter about how important it was to honour our commitments. It happened during our forty-minute wait for the wash to be done. My little daughter was quite tense that day and had managed to elongate her face to a sullen look. That looked beautiful too. It was the birthday of the girl downstairs and my daughter had promised to attend the party. However, an unexpected thing happened and she wanted to do something else instead. A friend had promised to give us a pup that afternoon and my daughter didn’t want to miss playing with the pup. There, amidst the sounds of the washing machines and driers, I told her the story of a washerman.

long time ago there was a washerman called Nayanar who made it his duty to wash the clothes of devotees coming to the temple free of charge. He agreed to wash the single cloth of an old devotee who told him, “I have only this rag. You have to wash and dry it before the day ends.” Nayanar agreed to the request, washed the rag and set it out to dry. Just then, the sky darkened and it began to rain. It was almost evening and the old devotee stood shivering in the cold, asking for his piece of cloth. The contract was that the cloth would be washed and dried. It was his job to wash but was it not the sun’s work to dry it? But he had given his word. In the end there was amiracle, and God himself appeared to dry the lone rag . For a reason known only to her, my daughter loved that story. She nodded solemnly and when we got home, she attended the birthday party because promises must be kept.

There was inadequate heating in the building where I worked. To make things worse, my office was in the basement and the cold was unbearable. Work that had to be finished before a deadline kept piling up in front of me. I came from a lineage of people who never complained. The bits of work that others did not complete also came to me. By the time I got done with all that work it was late at night. In those early days when we were in the country as refugees, we did not have the money to buy the right type of winter clothing. Nor did we know how to protect ourselves against the cold. I spent my days shivering in the basement, gritting my teeth, trying to get through the day, careful to avoid the secretarial goddess at the height of her lovesickness. We suffered in silence back then. I thought of my wife who waited up for me at home. On all those occasions when I felt miserable thinking about the trials and humiliations we had to face to make a living in this country, my thoughts would drift to my daughter.

Quite unexpectedly, I got a job that actually matched my qualifications. I switched jobs and houses and our lives finally started heading in the right direction. The greatest tragedy of these fortuitous events was that the new house had a washing machine and drier. Our Saturdays with Maytag 22 disappeared. Those moments when I could have private conversations with my daughter became fewer and fewer. She grew up, moved out and started living in her own world. Those first nine months of my immigrant life became the most precious and unforgettable experience to me.

I chanted “Exit 241” over and over, aloud and in my head. If we took that exit, we would find excellent coffee and doughnuts. Our car was speeding away like Nalan’s chariot. Even before I could shout “Exit 241”, the car had sped past. I was disappointed. I had looked forward to those doughnuts and coffee for a long time. Turning back to weave our way to the last exit would be as difficult as having to find the beginning of a stringhopper thread. My daughter turned towards me and said, “Sorry, Appa,” and remembered to take the next exit. She ordered coffee, nudged me lovingly and smiled.

Our poets often spoke of the different ages of a child, when the child delighted in different ways of playing—the times when a child passed through the clapping games, the looking-at-the-moon games, playing with little stones called ammanai and so on. Even in America, children passed through the seasons of life. My daughter’s first craze was Barbie dolls and at one time she had three of them. That innocent age was a very happy time, a world in itself. She played for hours on end with those dolls.

She must have been about eleven when she went camping overnight for the first time. She had not been separated from us for even a day before that. When the day finally arrived, she hesitated. We had to console her and make her go. When she came back the following day, she hugged us as never before. She spent the next two days recounting her experiences of that one day. The pain of separation, the excitement of her being independent and the joy of reunion was unlike anything we as a family had experienced before.

Then came the “music madness” and the era of long conversations on the phone with her friends. She was a teenager. Bob Marley was famous. She collected his records. The house resounded with his high-pitched singing. Large-sized photographs of him with his long hair and bare torso decorated her room.

I had dozed off. The car was at a gas station. It was a self-service pump, and she paid for the gas with her credit card. The unknown young attendant said something to her and she laughed heartily until there were tears in her eyes. He returned the card saying, “Have a nice day”. She said, “You too,” and took her card back. At that moment I felt she had completely changed into an American girl.

Once, after she had grown up a little and some American culture had already seeped into her, I told her the story of Lord Krishna. I had some difficulty in describing the birth of Balarama. The problem came when I told her that Balarama was conceived by Vasuki and was magically transferred to Rohini’s womb. She thought for a while and said, “Oh, a surrogate mother.” She was slowly slipping out of my orbit. She had reached a stage when our mythology could only be conveyed to her in an American way.

Now my daughter was travelling 500 miles to keep a commitment and the car was nearing the city of Boston, where I had spent the first nine months of my immigrant life. It was there, shivering in the cold, that I had learnt the basics of working in America. It was there that my unforgettable, happy Saturday mornings had happened, when, holding my daughter’s tender fingers, I had gone on pilgrimages to the laundry. There I told her stories of Mother Earth, Nayanar and the heritage of our dear Yazhppanam from where he fled. Suddenly, there it was, the Laundromat. With the enthusiasm of a young boy I shouted, “Look there! Bhooma Devi!”

She didn’t even turn her head to look. She asked, “What is it, Appa? Bhooma Devi? What do you mean?”

I saw it briefly. It looked much as it had done before. The name board looked a little duller. Thirty washing machines and thirty driers would still be at work, diligently contributing to the demise of Mother Earth, so that man’s life could be easier.

“Appa, suddenly you’re quiet…” I was deep in thought and she asked me a second time, “What is it, Appa?” and I said, “Nothing.”

The car was speeding along the lane allocated for cars with more than one passenger. Like Nalan’s chariot, it was faster than the wind, breaking all the prescribed speed limits, flying past the buildings and leaving behind everything.

(Note: First published in Indian Writing; Republished in Frontline (10 Jul 2021))


About the Translator

Padma Narayanan (born 1935), the translator of this story, lives in New Delhi. Her translations of literary fiction from Tamil to English include La. Sa. Ramamritham’s “The Stone Laughs” and “Atonement” (2005) and “Apeetha” (2014), Indira Parthasarathy’s “Poison Roots” (2014) and two collections of short stories by Appadurai Muttalingam (2009 and 2017).