On the previous day, I had gone to Krishna Theatre for the second showing. As a result, I couldn’t wake up early enough on the next morning. I could only get to Nadavarasu Ayya’s house fifteen minutes later than usual. By that time, Shorty Krishnan was well ahead of me. He had placed Ayya’s bicycle on its stand on the front veranda, and was wiping it down. As soon as he saw me, a victorious smile bloomed on his face.
I tightened my face and muttered under my breath, “Go away, da, you short pig.” Twisting my lips in a hostile manner, I climbed up to the veranda.
Shorty Krishnan gave the bicycle pedals a sharp twirl, rolled up the duster and pressed it hard against the bicycle’s back wheel. He let go of the pedal, gritted his teeth and pressed the cloth against the rim again and again. Gradually the wheel lost speed. The last rite to be performed by anyone who wiped down Ayya’s bicycle. A way of declaring that the bicycle-cleaning was finished.
We usually rang the doorbell once to let Ayya know that the bicycle was ready and waiting. Before the sound of the bell faded, Ayya would appear at the door, his books neatly tied together.
“Well comrades, shall we make a start?” he would say.
We all loved that voice, which sounded as if its owner had a perpetual cold. I was crazy about it, even more than the others were. On days he was late—this happened very seldom—it was enough to say to the class, imitating that hoarse voice, “Comrades, is this a class? Or is it a cattle-market? Can you not be silent?” When this was followed by the one curse word that he used when he started to get really angry. “Or are you cow dung boys?” the class fell silent at once.
As soon as we responded “Let’s go, Ayya” in chorus, he would climb down from the veranda. Either Shorty Krishnan or I would take the bundle of books from him and place them in the bicycle’s carrier. We tucked our own books carefully in the space between the carrier and the seat, making sure they wouldn’t fall off. We pushed the woven plastic basket containing his lunchbox through the right handlebar so that it hung evenly between the handlebars. Whoever didn’t take the books from Ayya removed the bicycle stand. Ayya lifted the edge of his veshti, flung his leg across the seat, sat down and held on to the handlebars. One of us would take hold of the seat with his right hand, and the handlebar with his left. The other would push from behind. This job usually fell to the boy who removed the stand. Our journey proceeded, with Ayya cautioning, “Slowly, slowly.” Except to keep his feet level with the pedals, Ayya made no motion.
As soon as the bicycle started to move, Ayya began to speak. The conversation was only about one of the poems in our textbook, or about the ingenuity of the poet. Only on exceptional occasions would he tell us the story of an English film he had seen at the Rainbow Theatre. The story that began as soon as we started from his house, would take two or three days to finish. On such days we quarreled between ourselves as to who was going to hold Ayya’s seat. Ayya actually enjoyed this, although he pretended not to notice what was going on.
Until a week ago, there was also Tall Stork David as well, competing with us. I was scared to fight with him. When we passed out of the eighth class, and moved into the ninth, David was already there, in the same class, for the third time round. He was paying special fees to do this. He had a full-grown reddish mustache, a challenge to the meager cat whiskers that I was sprouting. And a beard, as well. It occurred to me that in deference to his seniority of a couple of years—and in the interests of my own good health—it might be best not to cross swords with him.
So long as David was around, it was he who looked after all of Ayya’s needs at school. He went early to Ayya’s house and kept his bicycle ready. During the morning interval he went to Kaliappan’s shop to bring back the papers that had been put aside for him, such as Thennagam, Murasoli, Samaniidhi. During lunch breaks, he went to the same shop to buy him betel leaves, and Asoka-brand betel nuts. He carried his essay papers for him from the staffroom. At the end of the school day, he retrieved Ayya’s bicycle from its stand, and rolled it along until reaching the school gates. He did it all. So long as David was around, the only job left to me was to push the bike from behind. I have wept about it in the school toilets many times, many days. This, although Ayya had praised me as a finer student than David, had said that insofar as I could comprehend everything that he taught us, I was like pure camphor, and that I was one of the best-behaved boys in the class. Even so, I never had the good fortune to walk alongside Ayya holding his seat and handlebars.
But David didn’t return to the school after the recent half-yearly holidays. He was last seen on a Friday. For some reason, I began to think he would never come back. And I only thought this because of my profound wish that he wouldn’t turn up.
On the following Monday morning, I was up early, and went along to Ayya’s house. I had set off in the certainty that thereafter Ayya’s seat and handlebars would be in my grip, only to find Shorty Krishnan standing on Ayya’s veranda, grinning. I felt crushed. I was furious to see that the bicycle key was in his hand. It was customary to place the bicycle, once it was wiped down, on its stand at the threshold of the house, unlocked. Shorty Pig had gone against the custom. And stood there grinning, besides. Irritated beyond measure, I seized the bundle of books that had been held together by a tubular fastening, and threw it across the veranda. I reached out and grabbed Krishnan, twisted his right arm behind him, and tried to take the key he held in his hand. He had put the keyring through one of his fingers and clenched his hand into a tight fist. I tried to pry his fingers apart, one by one. I could not. I pressed hard against all the fingers together. Krishnan began to howl and weep, “Ayya, please help. This fellow is tormenting me.”
“Shorty, you pig, give me the key,” I said, squeezing his hand.
“Get out, dog, I won’t,” he said, resisting the pain.
“All these days, that tall stork of a fellow did as he pleased. Now you’ve taken over, have you? Give me the key, pig! From the first day the school re-opened, we came to school with Ayya. Now you think you can come along halfway through the year and pluck away the bicycle, do you?” I squeezed his hand even harder. He couldn’t bear the pain anymore and released his fingers. The key dropped to the floor. At that very moment, Ayya hurried out and separated us by force.
“Cow dung boys, what has occurred? What makes you rain blows upon each other?” With his two hands, he seized each of us by our shirts, and shook us. It was only a gentle shake, like shaking the water through a flower garland. All the same, we stood there with our eyes to the ground.
Ayya’s wife peeped out through the door.
“Are these children? They sound like a crowd of hooligans. And there you are, petting them instead of giving them a couple of clouts to the head.”
Ayya turned around and gazed at her.
“I’m having a chat with the lads. Just back off, will you?” he said.
Ayya’s wife muttered, “It’s all because you pay them so much attention. It’s gone to their heads, and they prance about as they please.” Still muttering, she disappeared.
“Now boys, give heed. What is the cause of your quarrel?”
We couldn’t answer his question, and stayed silent. I have no idea what Krishnan was thinking about, but I was thinking about the pure Tamil with which Ayya addressed us, and the colloquial language he reserved for his wife. It was the swiftness with which he changed his tone that astonished me.
“What is going on between you?” Ayya asked again.
“It’s this fellow, Ayya, who started the fight in order the snatch the bicycle key,” said Shorty Pig.
“And why did you attempt to snatch the key from him?”
I continued standing there, hanging my head, my mouth shut tight. I loved walking beside Ayya, listening to his stories. Did he not realize that I had been waiting for this for the last year? I felt like weeping at the very thought, but I bit my lip and controlled myself.
Hesitantly, Krishnan told the whole story: how he had arrived really early in order to dust the bicycle, how I couldn’t bear to see him with the bicycle and beat him up in order to snatch the keys, and how, when he refused to yield, I had accused him of pushing in halfway through the year. His whole body seemed to jump up and down like a released spring as he spoke. I wanted to laugh as this thought struck me, but I controlled myself. But Ayya had noticed the gleam of mischief in my eyes. He looked at me closely. I could see that he, too, was amused.
“Cow dung boys, is that all this was? Malavan, stand next to him. Dé, Narkumaran, come closer to him.” He was referring to us. He had Tamilized my name from the Sanskrit, to Narkumaran, and Krishnan’s to Malavan. He had changed his own name as well. Only our headmaster, Father Eugene Lawrence, still addressed him as Natarajan.
We moved closer, me feeling shy, and Short Pig feeling quite as irritated.
“Stand side by side, boys,” said Ayya.
Again we moved stiffly until we dashed against each other. I must have dashed against him with some force.
“Ouch—Ayya, he is dashing against me deliberately,” Krishnan called out.
“No, Ayya. I didn’t know what happened,” I said.
Ayya ignored both of us. We stood quietly, side-by-side. Krishnan was on my left. I could smell the sour scent of tamarind rice on his breath.
“Ade, Malavan, put your right arm around Narkumaran’s shoulder. And you, Narkumaran, put your left arm around Malavan’s shoulder.”
We did as we were told. Ayya stepped back and looked at us with pleasure, as if he were gazing at a poem he had written on the blackboard for us to learn by heart.
Ayya said in a resolute voice, “How beautiful it is to see you thus, as if you were the old poet Pirandaiyaar with the great king Kopperunj Cholan. How can you boys turn away from that great example and start fighting between yourselves? Hereafter, if you are quarreling with each other, please don’t talk to me or come to my house.”
We knew that if Ayya said anything to us, he would keep to his word. He was very strict in that.
The school governors had ruled that the teachers should not come to school with a double-bordered upper cloth slung over their shoulder. Ayya declared it was his right to wear whatever he pleased. He would only teach at the school on that condition. If the institution didn’t like it, they should say so in writing. That was the proper thing to do. Anyway, he would only dress in the way he chose. All the same, since he was an obedient worker, he would not wear an upper cloth from then onward.
The respect all of us had for Ayya was severely shaken. We were deeply distressed, as we felt that Ayya had disappointed us. But he appeared before us the next day resplendent, as if he had just descended from the ancient text Puranaanuuru. He was wearing a new veshti around his waist, with a half-inch double border.
It was on that occasion that we realized how obstinate Ayya could be. I felt queasy as soon as he announced, “I won’t talk to you.” To comfort myself, I threw my arm around Krishnan’s shoulder. He must have felt the same. He put up his left hand, and pulled my left arm more tightly, and held his hand there, affectionately. A smile of satisfaction spread over Ayya’s face.
When the smile faded, Ayya himself suggested a solution. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I would dust the bicycle and walk alongside Ayya, steadying the bicycle by holding on to the back of his seat and the handlebars. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it would be Krishnan’s turn. But Krishnan wasn’t happy about this.
“Why should he get three days, while I only get two?” he complained.
Ayya made an amendment: he could also have his turn on all Saturdays when we had class. It was clear from Krishnan’s expression that he was still not happy. Ayya added that he could have all days I was absent from school. At last Fatty gave a little smile.
“Very well, it’s getting late. Shall we make a start?”
At Ayya’s words I released the bicycle stand. Ayya swung his leg over the seat. We began to move. Before we had even passed the wall surrounding Ayya’s house, I had made a few decisions. First, I wouldn’t take leave on any of that year’s remaining schooldays. I also vowed to the Siddhi Vinayakar, deity of the street, that if he could bestow enough good sense upon Father Eugene Lawrence not to schedule any Saturday lessons, I would offer him a garland of dharbha grass, besides lighting a lamp with four annas’ worth of camphor.
There were only two days left for the Pongal harvest festival. At the very thought of the five-day holiday that followed Bhogi, my heart rejoiced. On Bhogi day, if I caught the Wellington Bus in the morning, I would be at Athai’s house by ten, ten-thirty. And then, if I took a bus from her house in the afternoon, I could make it home by late evening. Having decided this, I got Amma’s permission, as well as the money I would need. On Tuesday evening after school, I went home and sorted out everything I would need for my trip and ran to Ayya’s house to say good-bye. I was hoping desperately he hadn’t gone out. Normally, Ayya didn’t go out in the evenings. He did his reading or his writing then. The commentaries he wrote on the ancient texts that were very well received. On some days, he went to the library or to the Rainbow Theatre. He always took the bus on those occasions, never his bicycle.
As I neared Ayya’s house, I could hear his wife shouting. You could have heard her voice in all eight surrounding towns. I wondered for a moment whether I should open the gate and go in. But the curses and obscene names I had never heard before, which streamed forth with each of Ayya’s wife’s screams, stopped me in my tracks and caused me to lurk against their outside wall. The compound wall was a foot taller than me. I would only be able to see over it if I stood on the tips of my toes or found a brick or piece of wood and stood on that. I got up on the very tips of my toes.
“You may call yourself a teacher and prance about in white and whatever, but your low-caste brain will never change, will it?”
Her words seem to smacked me on my skull, forcing me to resist, and shrink back against the wall.
I had heard women on our street before. But even in the midst of the most heated quarrel, I had never heard this kind of language. I had never heard women using the bad words that men employed. But Ayya’s wife’s mouth spewed the nastiest abuse. Ayya was still inside the house. Ayya was certainly the target of his wife’s attacks. That much I understood. But I couldn’t understand why Ayya didn’t respond.
I stood on my tiptoes once again and peeped in, my chin scraping against the compound wall. I could make out a white shirt just behind the window facing the veranda. I squinted to get a closer look. I thought I could see his eyes cast down, as if he were reading a book. His wife could not be seen. Only her angry screaming could still be heard intermittently. My chin began to burn from rubbing against the wall.
“Who is this clinging to the wall like a lizard?”
The outrage in the voice struck my back like a blow. The moment that Ayya face lifted and his eyes looked out through the window coincided exactly with the moment I fell. Sprawled out on my back, I looked up and realized it was Ayya’s father-in-law who had caught me.
“So you’ve been peeping in from the outside, have you?” he asked stretching out his hand. I held on to it, and stood up. A black car was stopped some distance from me. Wondering whose it could be, I said, “I came to see Ayya, sir.”
“If you came to visit him, why are you standing here, peeping in? Why not go in?”
“No sir, there seems to be some kind of quarrel going on. That’s why…”
“What quarrel?” he demanded immediately, then he shook off my hand and strode inside. The iron gate, thrust aside in his fury, made a great screeching noise as it hit against the wall. I stood there, covering my ears. That iron voice echoed in my ears, sobbing, before dying away. The thundering voice of Ayya’s father-in-law as he pushed open their door and went in could be heard from across the wall.
I thought about Ayya the next day as I traveled by bus, until I reached Athai’s house. The more I thought, the more I felt angry and sad. Ayya’s hometown was somewhere near Thanjavur. In that case, he belonged to the ancient kingdom of the Cholas. But in my mind, I had imagined him as the Scourge of Talaialangaanam, the victorious Pandyan Neducheliyan. The way he had taught us the lyrics from Puranaanuuru, during our poetry lessons, encouraged me to imagine him like this. The Chera and Chola kings, together with five other chieftains, formed a coalition and stood ready to battle against the sixteen-year-old Pandyan king, considering him too young to withstand them. The young Pandyan makes a vow that he proclaims aloud: if he were not successful in forcing his enemies to turn tail and flee the battlefield, may his people condemn him for betraying his scepter of righteousness; may the poets never again sing his praises, may they abandon his court forever. When Ayya explained the poem, the class was so quiet you could hear dust fall.
Yes, Ayya had indeed transformed into that sixteen-year-old Pandyan. His face was swollen, so that the flesh on his face was tightly stretched. His eyes were threaded with red. When he ground his teeth and addressed us in his ringing voice as “the haughty princes of vain words,” all fifty-two of us in the class wondered whether we were at school or at the battlefield in Talaialangaanam holding our swords and spears with trembling hands. My hair stood on end at the thought of Ayya’s valor. I beckoned to David who sat in the third row and showed him the hair on my arms, which stood upright like pinheads. A smile stretched across his face. Why didn’t such a heroic man like Ayya answer back to a mere woman? Perhaps he had spoken up after I left? I was very confused. I must have fallen sleep, still in a state of confusion. I woke up only as the conductor’s voice asked, “Anyone getting off at Wellington?” I climbed down. I forgot about Ayya as the breeze, laden with the fragrance of sweet oil, struck me.
When the holidays were over, on our first day back, I ran to Ayya’s house as usual, hoping that Krishnan wasn’t there, hadn’t arrived there ahead of me. The iron gates to Ayya’s house were closed. Inside, Ayya’s bicycle was not in its usual place, but on the veranda, on a stand by the window. Had Ayya taken the day off? I opened the gate and walked in. The front door was closed. In some confusion, I climbed up to the large veranda and knocked at the door. Ayya’s wife’s voice answered from within.
“Who is it?”
I swallowed hard. “Is Ayya at home?”
The door opened. Ayya’s wife came and stood in the doorway. “Oh, it’s you, is it? He went off to school very early.”
Not quite believing her, I asked, “But isn’t that Ayya’s bicycle still standing there?”
“Yes, of course it’s standing here. You speak as if it’s standing on your head. Why, do you think your Ayya can’t go to school without his bicycle? Hereafter, it’s only there for its own sake.”
At first I couldn’t make out what she meant, but as soon as I understood, my mind was in turmoil. Was Ayya going to walk to school—take the “Nataraja service”—from now on? No more bicycle? No more stories?
As these thoughts swirled through my mind Ayya’s wife said to me, ‘”Since you are here anyway, you better take him his lunch-box.”
She went back inside. I looked at the bicycle. It was locked up. Not only that, but there was a heavy chain wrapped around the horizontal bar tying it to the bars of the windows and was then secured with a lock. It looked as if the vanquisher of the forces at Talaialangaanam, the great warrior Pandyan Nedunj Cheliyan, had been chained and imprisoned. I touched the handlebars. The bicycle turned its head toward me.
Before I could think any further, Ayya’s wife reappeared and handed me the woven plastic basket containing the lunch-box, saying, “Here, give him this.”
I took the lunchbox from her, climbed down the steps, and began to walk. The distance that had seemed so short when we rolled the bicycle along with Ayya seated on it seemed to stretch forever as I walked alone.
I only reached the school a good ten minutes after the bell had rung. I placed Ayya’s lunch in its usual place in the staff room and then went to my class. The English teacher, Steven Sir, greeted me jovially.
“Has the intoxication of the Pongal you ate not left you yet, Sir Poet?”
I went and sat in my place. But my mind couldn’t settle down until Ayya’s arrival for fourth lesson-period later that morning. Nor did I take in any of his grammar lesson. As soon as the lunch bell rang and he packed up his books. ready to leave the class, I went up to him and told him I had brought his lunch.
“Did you go to my house?” Ayya wanted to know.
I nodded. Shorty Krishnan came and stood next to us.
“This fellow came a bit late this morning, Ayya,” Krishnan said.
Ayya continued on his way and we accompanied him. When we arrived downstairs and reached the wide veranda, he walked away, saying, “Well, go and see to your lunch.” But instead of going toward the staff room, he continued on toward the main gate. Both of us noticed this.
“Ayya won’t come to school on his bicycle anymore from now on, it seems, da.” Krishnan informed me. “We walked the entire way here.”
Although I was annoyed that this short pig had gone to Ayya’s house ahead of me, I didn’t show it.
“But why, da?” I asked him. “The bicycle seems all right to me. Was there a flat tire or something?”
“Oh yes, it’s in good shape, all right. But for some reason, he’s not to take the bicycle out anymore. Ayya told me himself.”
From that day on, our relationship with Ayya was limited to the border of the school grounds alone. Ayya walked to school on his own, he left on his own. The schedule he’d maintained during his cycling days—arriving at the school ten seconds before the school bell rang and leaving just ten seconds after school finished for the day—was suddenly altered. He arrived long before anyone else did and stuck around well after we all had left. He stayed working in the library and left only when dusk began to fall.
That year, just before the annual holidays, Ayya went on leave. After we passed our yearly exams and entered the tenth standard, I saw him at school on only one other occasion. I ran up to him affectionately and stood next to him. He put his hand on my shoulder lovingly and said, “How are you? Study well.” His fingers pressed into my shoulder as he said this. It was if he wanted to tell me something with that squeeze. Before I could work out what it might be, he sent me off with a pat on my back and entered the headmaster’s office.
That was the last time I saw Ayya. Our school was under the supervision of the Catholic Diocese. People said that Natavarasu Ayya had asked for, and obtained, a transfer to another school belonging to the same Diocese and under the same supervision, some thirty-five kilometers away. Shorty Krishna and I went to his house, to find out if this were indeed true. We saw a sign hanging there. It said in Tamil: “House for Rent” and, in English underneath, “For Rent.” The word for “house” had been spelled incorrectly.
“Ayya wouldn’t like to see this,” I said.
“He wouldn’t like to see what a mistake they made where they wrote in Tamil.”
Had the circumstances been different, we would have laughed. But we didn’t. Krishna walked up to the placard, took out his pen and drew a vertical line between the “o” and the “L.” I read aloud. I didn’t feel like laughing, even then.
On one school holiday, I went to see the evening show at the nearby Krishna Theatre. I was sitting in the penultimate row. A short while after it started, I realized it was going to be a rotten film. Feeling restless, I looked around me. There were scarcely ten people, including me, sitting in the first-class seats. After about half an hour, I decided to leave. As soon as I stumbled out into the darkness, I felt a hand on my back. I turned around. David, the Stork.
“I made you out as soon as you came in, da. I was in the seat right behind you. I was waiting to talk to you at the interval. Why did you get up and walk out? Didn’t you like the picture?”
With a smile, I admitted I hadn’t. After the usual exchanges of “How are you?” and “I’m fine,” it seemed as if there was nothing more to say. We both stood there quiet for a while.
It felt as if we stood on the opposite banks of the same memory. Between us flowed the river of past times. Vivid images floated past us. The school. The roads we took to get there. Natavarasu Ayya. Bits of the many stories he told us. His Raleigh bicycle. Vivid, all of them. Lost in all of it, I told him about the events of that last day I’d seen him at his house. David listened; saying nothing more than “mhmm” from time to time. I told him that after that the argument, Ayya always walked to school.
“What would he do, other than walk to school? Anyone with a tiny bit of human feeling and warmth in his bones would do just that if they heard the words of that virago of a woman. She locked up the vehicle, saying, ‘My father bought this bicycle. How dare you touch it! How dare a lower-caste bastard demand a bicycle!’ That’s why he decided to walk.”
I was still astonished. Why had Ayya put up with such treatment? Why hadn’t he given the woman a blow or two? Was Ayya a real man? Or was he just a coward? He earned a good salary and often helped the boys without means, never giving a thought to the expense. Why couldn’t he have bought himself his own bicycle?
“True. It would have been no struggle for him to buy himself a bicycle. But then what would he do? He would have to learn how to ride it!”
© Sukumaran. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Lakshmi Holmstrom. All rights reserved.