Translated by E. Annamalai and H. Schiffman
Boothalingam’s bristly beard brushed lightly against his bony chest and tickled him. He sat up and closed his eyes, resting his head on the back of the seat in front of him. The chill breeze from outside entered the bus, greeted him, and passed on. The moist caress of that refreshing breeze touched the tender skin behind his ear and excited him. He breathed in deeply as if it were some perfume.
How is it that the smell of one’s native soil can possess such power, transcending the barriers of life, death and birth, time and space?
At a distance, a cricket or maybe a frog (it was hard to tell) was making noise. Clouds had darkened the sky like curtains on a stage. Boothalingam was drinking in everything around him with all his senses. The mechanical games his mind had been playing for the past nineteen years had come to a standstill. Miles of green reality stretched before his eyes, replacing the green which he had painted in his imagination on tie dark backdrop of his mind.
Boothalingam Pillai had not yet taken the caste name Pillai* when he had parted from that reality before. He was still just plain Boothalingam. He probably could have become a Pillai by now by virtue of his age and his earlier escapades, had he remained in his village. But the chance to grant him this was not part of the fortune of this village! His unbecoming technique of decapitating his enemies was only the last of his frightening savagery, which culminated nineteen years before in a prison sentence. A girl was the cause of his downfall. She happened to be his wife, Muttammaa. She was a perfect doll-like creature, fit to be worshipped. Her drunkard father abandoned her at the feet of Boothalingam, at the sacrificial altar, as it were, instead of the sanctum sanctorum, where she really deserved to be.
Her life became an unbelievable agony. Suffice it to say that the victims of Nazi concentration camps did not have it worse. To add insult to injury, her husband began to doubt her chastity. It was a great blow to her modesty and patience. Unable to bear it, she summoned her courage and went to the young Congress Party member next door, and said, ”Brother, give me five rupees. I’m running away from home.”
He couldn’t believe his ears. But when he saw tears trickling down her cheeks, he melted; he gave her the five rupees .
“Where will you go?”
She blinked and said no thing.
”To your father?”
But he had his doubts. His eyes and ears had not been ignorant of her difficulties all along. He also knew that if things went on, she might do something desperate. Now he was afraid to let her go alone. He thought he had better see her to the railroad station at least. Though this would be frowned upon, he was level-headed enough to know that she could not be led back to her husband’s keeping.
They went to the station. The train arrived. He put her in the ladies’ compartment and was giving her her ticket when the vise-like grip of Boothalingam’s hand clamped on his shoulder. Within two minutes, the police arrived and arrested Boothalingam. But in those two minutes, that hand had extinguished two lives. In a wild fury, he had thought they were eloping . . .
Thus ended the drama of that innocent girl’s life. And that was that, even though Boothalingam learned the real truth several days later.
The jury which heard the case learned enough of the details of his early life to let him off with life imprisonment. He was sent to the Andaman Islands. After he got to prison, he began to think about things. Ordinarily a man has many aspects of his personality dormant within him. Given the proper opportunity and environment, these awake. Though he was contemplating things, no noticeable change in his ordinarily malevolent nature showed for the first two years.
Later on, as he compared his lot to that of his fellow prisoners,a sort of self-pity began to affect him. Every other prisoner could expect to be met on the outside by tears, sighs, or smiles. But his life promised only the perennial curse of his past violence. The only ones waiting outside were the vultures who would eat his corpse after death. These thoughts gradually obsessed his mind and colored his outlook.
In the midst of a pack of convicts, he learned about love. He came to know the quality of this feeling which he had previously scorned. In the slang of the prison, he was ”spoiled.”
For good conduct, his sentence was reduced. He decided that after his release he ought to live in his home town for at least a year. Home, the soil where one was born,grew up, and lived! How much attraction it has when a blue sea and wide horizons lie in between.
Actually, Boothalingam had always had a fond spot in his heart for his native soil . . . which was odd, considering his character: in so rude a man so tender an attribute, like a rose among thorns, or a diamond in the rough. Often from the bottom of his heart, he began to hear the call of his native soil, the only thing waiting for him on the outside.
He longed to return. No difference if one is rich or poor. This yearning is common to everyone. It is a lure, a love, a mental harassment known only to those who experience it. This call dominated his imagination during the nineteen years of that one long uninterrupted dream . . . Rows of palmyra trees tower high like giants with ladder-like legs . . .millet fields as tall as a man, gossiping with the breeze . . . the temple of Kali at the entrance to the village, her silver eyes gleaming at the trident before her in the dilapidated temple. Together with all her flowers and vermilion paint she would scare anyone away. Her power extended for miles around.
The Panchayat Board with its limited funds was like a pitiful low-grade civil servant. The town was thinly populated. There were three streets. Except for the main road, the two other streets went off in opposite directions like an argumentative old married couple.
A village of no importance. No pretension of modern glamour and rush.
A calmness prevailed, like an old man in his pipe dream.
In his boyhood, Boothalingam used to roam along the levee of the lake which encircled the village on three sides. The roar of the lake in the rainy season was stilled in the summer; he would pitch stones into it and wound its calm surface.
Thus the yearnings and sweet recollections recalled from the larder of his mind. The sentence, to him a penance, bid farewell to him. Now he was rushing to see his home town.
A cool breeze blew into the bus. It had begun to drizzle. The rain- drops glittered in the sweep of the headlights on the dark road. It rained noiselessly, like quiet weeping. Boothalingam looked out ahead through the windshield of the bus. The hazy mist of the drizzle set heavily on the darkness of the road.
”Undikoil!“ the conductor shouted in a voice which blotted out even the roar of the rattly bus.
”Undikoil?” The bus stopped suddenly. When he heard that name, his heart leapt to his mouth.
”Hey, mister. Get off! Didn’t you hear me say Undikoil?” the conductor barked at him.
”Yes, yes.” Tucking his package under his arm, and thumping his stick on the floor, he stumbled off the bus. The bus, depositing its passenger after his journey of nineteen years, started up and pulled away. Its red taillight faded into a mustard shade and finally disappeared in the darkness and rain.
Boothalingam stood with his stick on the ground. A feeling like a new life in a new body slowly suffused him. He looked around but couldn’t get his bearings. Everything was confused in the dark, like a shuffled deck of cards.
Leaning his chin on his staff, he turned to the left. At a distance he could see lights–a garland of lamps hanging in the darkness, a chain of fireballs.
“Is that my village? Is that Vellakuttai? It can’t be, it can’t be,” he objected. Doubts now assailed his hopes. Then a flash of light appeared on the road. He heard a bicycle coming.
“Sir, sir . . . sir!” he shouted and stopped the cyclist, who planted his feet on the earth without getting off the bicycle.
“Which is the way to Vellakuttai?”
”Just go straight,’ the cyclist pointed in the direction of where the light was coming from.
Boothalingam opened his mouth to ask something else, hut the cyclist had gone on. He was standing alone in the dark again. Then slowly, leaning on his staff, he began to walk towards the light.
His dreams were crushed to pieces. “Is that the same Vellakuttai?”
Vellakuttai, changed almost totally, without a trace of the past, lay before him. The calmness nourished at its bosom from time immemorial–where had it gone? Boothalingam stood bewildered.
The rumbling from the bazaar, the blare of car horns, the bustling crowd from the movie theater like a flood subsiding, the jingle of bicycle bells– his dreams and illusions were stripped away and torn to pieces.
Vellakuttai had been transformed.
Disappointment welled up in him and filled his eyes. At one time he knew every nook and corner of that village. Now he stood on his own soil like an undesirable alien, his eyes full of tears. Looking for a familiar face among the passersby soon tired him. All the faces were new, representatives of a new generation.
Now the street was empty. The palmyra trees which had lined the village on all four sides no longer stood. Gone also was the last trace of the fierce goddess Kali. Everywhere he looked, spruce bungalows and brash multi-story buildings jumped up. But where was the Panchayat Board Office? A tall building with a flagpole in front leered at him. Everywhere there was an emptiness, as if some insatiable beast had devoured everything, leaving scarcely a remnant of the past.
It was, of course, all very attractive. Everything sparkled and glistened with newness. But to him it was all so strange.
Tall stone walls had been constructed around a large area near the old square which once he had cherished for its comforting darkness. Seven or eight men dressed in khaki, with belts and rifles, guarded it, standing at intervals. Above them was a sign with a skull and crossbones and the word “Danger.”
“Hey! Who’re you? Move along, damn you!” one of the guards shouted. ‘Who?’ Were they new to this village, and to him? Or was he the stranger now?
With the disaster of his shattered hopes, he stumbled on, tapping his staff with his trembling hand. “Couldn’t I just see the old Panchayat Board Office, and the old square, just once? Isn’t it possible? Isn’t it?”
Suddenly a sharp pain seized his chest. He fell into a fit of coughing and sat down under a street lamp. The coughing didn’t abate for at least five minutes. He moaned, kneading his chest. When he finally looked up, he saw the figure of a man like him sitting under the lamp post on the other side. Unmindful of Boothalingam’s appearance and his fit of coughing, he sat sunken in deep silence. Beside him was a small tin box.
In the depths of Boothalingam’s memory there was a faint stirring. Even though he was squatting, his figure was tall . . . the ring in his ear, dull and oil-stained . . . the shrunken eyes, intolerant of the light . . . the pages of Boothalingam’s memory began to turn. The bony frame, under- nourished–the ragged dhoti and torn shirt–all these stimulated his memory. Compassion unfolded in his heart, suffusing it as if to melt it,
“Are you Govindan, the barber?”
The quiet, hunched figure awoke from its half-sleep; its eyes peered at Boothalingam. “Who-o-o . . . a haircut? Yes, yes!” Govindan fumbled hardly to open his box.
“Govindan, hey Govindan! Look, look at me, it’s me, Boothalingam, the murderer Boothalingam!” He had never cared what the village thought of him, and so didn’t hesitate to introduce himself like this.
“Hey, Boothalingam? Welcome, when did you get here?”
“Just now, just now,” he replied, his throat choking with tears of happiness. Govindan didn’t seem to notice.
”Have you looked around? Our old village is dead and buried. ”
”Yeah, I noticed, all right. What’s the matter with everybody around here? “
“Guess there are uranium deposits hereabouts. They started digging around one day, the next day hundreds of people appeared from out of the blue … they tore down everything that was here before. Now everything is hustle and bustle, everything is all newly built up. That’s why you see me roaming the streets, not knowing where my next meal is coming from.”
Suddenly the flow of his speech was interrupted as he realized he was being too candid about the hardship of his life to an old acquaintance. His words faltered and tears came to his eyes.
“Hey, Govindan, how come you’re so bad off? You still know your trade, don’t you?”
”Trade!” Govindan interrupted with a shout. ”Nobody wants my services– they’re all crazy about going to fancy barbershops and having themselves soaped and creamed, and to have only an eighth of their hair cut off. Even the simple workers have abandoned me. It’s been seven months since I cut any- one’s hair!” Govindan said in a weary tone of voice,his head bent low, as he described how his life had been affected by the new times. He had become obsolete. He was used to giving shaves and cutting the hair so that only a tuft remained in front. He was too set in his ways to learn the crew cut and the fancy ”Bangalore” cut. He was sixty-five; nobody would even bother to teach him. He had the same obsession as Boothalingam for his old home town which now no longer gave him his bread and butter. He roamed about aimlessly but couldn’t bear to leave.He had no dependents to support, so he stayed on.
When he had finished speaking, he looked at Boothalingam. ”I see you need a shave and a haircut. Let me do it, please,I want to do it. Don’t go to the barbershops. Can I do it now?” he said, hurriedly wiping his eyes with the end of his soiled dhoti. That voice and the pitiful hope in it touched Boothalingam. He raised his head and looked with indignation upon the evidences of the new times which had wiped out the simple livelihood of Govindan. The flat new buildings with their colored lights and the people rushing around blindly, all seemed a big farce to him. In the midst of this, Govindan sat weeping like a child, helpless against the tide of the times, the last reminder of a past era, like the last breath of a dying man.
Boothalingam turned suddenly and said, ”Sure, old man, buck up, it’s all right, you can cut my hair. But not now. We can do it in the morning. Where can I wash up afterwards at this hour?”
Govindan stopped crying. He felt gratitude and pleasure for the first time in months. The struggle between his inability to express these feelings, and the desire to express them, brought a glow to his face.
Next morning, Boothalingam awoke early in the chaultry** and felt like going around to see the village. The previous night, two other guests in the chaultry had talked on until they fell asleep. Their conversation was still ringing in his ears.
”Manure is turned into a harvest; the crop becomes compost. A birth results from a death, all that are born die. New ones become accustomed and grow old and die. All these things are rotations in nature’s cycle of mutation . . . How many of its antecedents lie buried under the old Vellakuttai? What was buried here in antiquity has been rejuvenated . . . This is another rotation in the cycle of mutation. Because these ancient deposits are now found in Vellakuttai, its name will be a new watchword on every tongue.” The people talking seemed to be well-read; at least they were interested in discussing such intricate problems. As Boothalingam thought this over in the cool sagacity of the morning breeze, the idea seemed justifiable. There is only one reality–Vellakuttai. It is man who changes it according to time and his capacity. Land, like the spirit, is eternal.
To go one step heyond that, there is actually no one here now who knows the old Boothalingam, the murderer. The village would know only a new Boothalingam, kind and sympathetic.
With these thoughts circulating randomly in his brain, Boothalingam went to a shop, bought tooth powder for one anna, and brushed his teeth at the public tap. On the other side of the street he saw a man with a gold-bordered shoulder cloth walking along, limping slightly. Could that possibly be Sivantha Gounder?
Boothalingam stared at him. It was Sivantha Gounder, all right. He had completely changed. He hesitated to call his name. His thick tuft of hair had been cropped short; his bushy moustache reduced to a manageable size. Was that the same old obstinate man? There was no doubt that it was. He, too, had accepted modern times. Change was worth more to him than his old tenacious ways. Boothalingam stood rooted to the spot for a long while, his mind in a turmoil. Then he turned and walked into the nearest barbershop.
With his face shining and his head reduced to half its former bulk, he came back out. Govindan was waiting for him down the street. With his tin box under his arm, his back hunched, he was searching pitifully up and down for this courageous man, who would have him cut his hair.
Boothalingam hesitated at the steps. ”What will I say to him?” Govindan saw him. His face fell; humiliation and disappointment tore at his insides. He couldn’t stand it; his box slipped out of his arms. Bitter obstinacy hardened his face. Forgetting his fallen box, he walked quickly away, towards the west. The fury with which he had abandoned his life was evident in his steps.
Boothalingam was dumbfounded, as if he had been slapped in the face. After a long moment, it occurred to him to stop Govindan before something happened. Ignoring the fallen tools, the thin-ground knife, the rusted scissors, and the battered cup which had rolled into a corner, Boothalingam ran after Govindan to catch him.
At that very moment, the morning appeared in the east, and the flame of its inexorable glow split the half-dead darkness to pieces.
*In South India, caste names are generally not used by younger men / **A public hostel for pilgrims.
The above translation first published in Mahfil, Vol. 4, No. 3/4, TAMIL ISSUE (Spring and Summer, 1968), pp. 100-106. Published by: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University.