By rights, the lights should have dimmed as Hemakka spoke. Ilayaraja and his band should have been standing some distance away, playing softly “My Sweet Golden Moon.” Instead, she sat on the front thinnai of our house, without any of these props, cracking open groundnuts as she announced, “I’ve decided to marry Nathan.”
There’s a unique smell to raw groundnuts. They combine the scent of the earth and a rain that fell some days ago. But you should never eat raw groundnuts on their own. You should alternate with bites into a lump of palm jaggery. There was a special grace to the way Hemakka ate, one mouthful of peanuts, the next of jaggery. But I didn’t like what she said, not one bit.
“Go on, Akka, don’t tease,” I said.
Akka was wearing a tightly strung length of flowers in her hair, at that time. Touching the flowers, she said, cinema-style, “I love Nathan…”
“How can you make such a terrible choice, Akka? I can’t stand that man,” I responded.
She made a face at me. I sat quietly for a bit. She pinched my thigh and said, “Why should you like him? Isn’t it enough that I do?”
I kept quiet. I’d always called Nathan “Revolution Nathan.” He had always considered himself a hero. His father was a government officer who had berated his son for prattling on about revolutions and class struggles from the time that he was quite young. But after a while, his father had washed his hands of Nathan and left him to his own devices. Their house was right opposite ours, in the same courtyard.
Once Nathan was even arrested. It was at that moment that he became a hero in my eyes, too. The mothers in our area had praised him for leading an agitation to close a nearby toddy shop. In those days, Hemakka was quite contemptuous of Nathan. On the day I announced that I was going to join his group, she looked at me as if I were an enemy.
“Do you know anything about politics, di? It means stirring up everyone and confusing them, but staying out of it oneself… Why do you get mixed up in it unnecessarily?” she asked me.
But I thought just speaking to Nathan was like participating in a revolution. He gave me a couple of books about Che Guevara and told me to read them. I read them through without even sleeping that night and talked to him about them with great enthusiasm the next day.
Hemakka, passing by with her water pot, laughed at us and asked, “Are you talking revolutionary talk?”
I thought Nathan would be furious, but he wasn’t—not at all. He just laughed.
Not only that. He never got angry. I thought to myself it was because of the maturity he had gained from all his reading. I began to work hard in his group. Once my mother complained to Hemakka.
“Talk to her, Hema. I used to worry that she was always spending her money and time on books and things. Now she’s joined that fellow and she keeps talking about society this and revolution that.”
I was there at the time and it was a great consolation to me that Hemakka didn’t let me down. She just said, “Ayyo, aunt… What’s all this fuss? Don’t you know her? You’re worrying about her needlessly.”
I remember it well. The very next day Nathan’s elder sister, thrown out by her husband, returned to her parents’ home. Her whole face was swollen, her lips cut. It was my mother who took her to the staff nurse who cleaned her wounds each day and put medicine on them. We could hear her screaming from inside the clinic. Hemakka would lean against the wall and close her eyes at the time.
Nathan was not in town on the day his sister arrived. As soon as he returned, he wanted to report the incident to the police. But his father wouldn’t agree.
“This is all quite normal in a family, son,” he said.
That started it. Nathan launched into a loud tirade against violence toward women. His father was sharp with his words.
“That’s all very well. You should take up the cinema. This is my daughter’s life. You ask her. If she agrees, then make a complaint to the police.”
Nathan asked his sister. She wouldn’t even lift up her face and look at him. That Akka’s face used to be as beautiful as that of Goddess Sri Vidya. Until she was married and left home, Sekhar Annan, who lived in the first house in their row, used to play the song “Wondrous Melody” as she walked past to collect water. All of us in the courtyard guessed that she liked Sekhar Annan, as well. Yet when her father arranged a bridegroom for her from Virudhunagar, nobody said a word.
I asked Hemakka, “She likes Sekhar Annan, doesn’t she?”
We were sitting together on our rooftop terrace listening to the radio. It was evening time after an earlier rainfall. There were still puddles here and there. The street lights were reflected in them, along with the moving shadows of the neem tree branches. Watching the play of the shadows on the light, Hemakka laughed. The radio was playing the Ilayaraja song “My Jewel, My Pretty Koel.”
“You can’t marry everyone you fall for, you know… A woman’s destiny isn’t like that,” Hemakka laughed.
I was quiet. She went on.
“I was in love with a boy, when I was in the fifth class. Then, in the sixth, he was moved to a different section, and love fled. Then, when I was in the tenth, I had a small crush on the man in the cool drinks stall, a choyng. He used to ride his bicycle right behind the bus I took to school. Heaven knows where he is now. All this comes and goes. That’s all it is.” Whenever she hears the song “Wondrous Melody,” Purani Akka will feel a tiny twinge, a choyng. That’s all. What’s more, if there’s iddli batter waiting to be steamed at home, she won’t even feel that. The choyng will be no more than a doyng.
“Oh, go on, Akka, you and your choyngs and doyngs.”
“Oh yes, life is lived only through the brains of you lot with your revolution talk, di. Go on. Live from here,” she said, tapping her chest.
I was trying to catch a red ant that was racing along the wet floor of the terrace.
“Just look at your Revolution Nathan. He’ll talk about bringing revolution into everyone’s lives. Now his sister is lying there with her mouth cut to pieces. And he stays quiet, listening to his father’s advice. You’ll open your eyes by and by.”
“It’s not like that, Akka. Puraniakka must have told him not to do anything. That’s why…”
“So he just lets it go?”
Hemakka’s words traveled across the wall and wouldn’t let me sleep that night. The next day, I went to Nathan purposefully and told him that a friend of mine was being beaten very badly by her husband. Nathan sounded shocked, and immediately held forth about Periyar’s words for forty minutes and thirty-four seconds. Then he asked for her address. I said I would give him her details later when she phoned. He asked me four times that day whether she had phoned yet.
The fear that Hemakka’s suspicion would take hold in me as well began to grow inside me like a newborn baby animal. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask Nathan, “Why couldn’t you have done all this for Puraniakka?,” but I didn’t have the courage in the end, and swallowed my words.
Just then, two people, Kamatchi and Devaraj, joined our group from the next street. Nathan used to call them Comrade Kama and Comrade Deva. He’d put on a certain swagger, Captain Rajini-style, when he called out to Comrade Deva. As for Kama, she joined the group only to bunk off her tuition classes.
Soon after, we heard that the ration shopkeeper was hoarding supplies and selling them on the black market, and planned to hold a demonstration in front of the shop. It was decided that it would be Kama’s responsibility to make sure we had a good crowd there. I was to assist her in this. She, however, was not willing to ask for my help. She wanted to do it all herself and earn Nathan’s approbation.
Now, Kama’s one weakness was her love of T. Rajendar’s films. Whenever she spoke, she tended to insert a piece imitating Chandrasekhar telling the story of The Last Day’s Rose. The day before the demonstration, a film in which T. Rajendar was cast along with Mumtaz was released. Kama went to see the second showing of this film, called Veerasamy. The next day, she slept late. The demonstration was scheduled for 10 a.m. Because she hadn’t yet arrived, Nathan went to look for her at her house. Her mother launched into a tirade against him, saying that it was all because of him that Kama was getting into bad habits such as going to the late show. Nathan came away without saying anything. By this time, there were six of us in front of the ration shop. Out of the blue, he announced that there wouldn’t be a demonstration that day.
“Why not, Nathan? What if Kama isn’t here? We’ll go ahead.”
“I said no, and that means no.”
Nathan set his bicycle on its stand and mounted it.
I was truly irritated and asked, “So we are not a team at all without Kama, then?”
He just laughed and said, “Yes it’s all kama-soma isn’t it—total confusion!”
The very next day, Kama turned up at my house and started a terrible quarrel, shouting at me and asking, “What did you say to Nathan about me?”
Having just seen Veerasamy, she’d picked up a few more tips on rhetoric that came in handy. Hemakka was picking Nandyavattam flowers for her morning worship. Hearing the commotion, she came in and asked, “What’s going on?”
Neither of my parents was at home. They both had gone to work. Kama began to howl, crying and saying Hemakka was rebuking her for nothing.
“Look, Akka. This girl challenged Nathan yesterday, asking how come there can’t be a team without Kama? Everyone knows how hard I’ve worked for the group in spite of all my mother’s scolding.”
“Oh yes, yes,” Hemakka said.
I sat down on the floor, knees raised, and turned my face away. She left, still weeping. Turning round at the front door, she exclaimed, “I shall never speak to you again, ever.”
I didn’t say anything to that, either. Hemakka watched all this with great enjoyment and laughed, dropping all the flowers she had gathered.
“Hey, dandanakka danukkudakka” she said, as if playing on a drum.
For some reason, my eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t tease, Akka,” I said, in a low voice.
“Listen, di, you idiot. You’ll gain nothing by getting cross with this girl. As for the Revolution King who set it all up, your army chief, if you could only consider the mischief he has caused… You shouldn’t put your trust entirely in everybody and everything. The world isn’t like a blue sky that has just been washed and hung out to dry.”
She gathered my face to her in a tight embrace.
That must have been the moment when I was most fond of Hemakka. It struck me then that touch is a beautiful thing. Sometime later, when I said this to Hemakka, she pinched my cheek and said, “Oh yes, oh yes, it’s all beautiful, isn’t it—touch, love and all that? Lust is fine too. But will the world agree? Your favorite verse might be from the love section of Thirukkural, it might be from Tamil song lyrics, or from some songs from the cinema. But it’s not true or right in real life, di. Try telling someone that you really liked being embraced by Hemakka. They’ll definitely take you for a lesbian. Never say out loud everything you are thinking. And don’t trust anyone, not even me.”
“Do you know yourself what an agony aunt you’ve become, Hemakka, handing out advice left and right? I can’t stand it. Even that Nathan’s lectures were better than this.”
She actually enjoyed being told this.
“I gather you aren’t in the group anymore,” she said.
“Hey, what happened?”
I didn’t say anything to that. But she added, “He shows off a bit, di, that Revolution Man. But he’s a good fellow at heart. He’s one among the ten or so men who don’t look at women only from the neck down.”
“Go on, Akka, you always take the opposite position I do. Leave it. I’m not in the group anymore. That’s it!”
It was barely three months after all this when Hemakka let her bomb drop as she was cracking open groundnut pods. By this time, I had stopped speaking to Nathan even casually. I was standing in Shanmugam Annachi’s shop one day, waiting for him to finish overhauling my bicycle. Nathan came up to me and asked, “So what terrible wrong did I do? It’s that Hema who goes about making trouble for me. I always thought of you as my little sister…”
“You always want a group around you, fawning on you and calling you Appa, Anna. I don’t want to have any part in that.”
He struck my handlebar angrily.
I was furious, and demanded, “Are you threatening me?”
His expression changed. After that he walked away without saying anything more.
As he oiled my vehicle, Shanmugam Annachi said to me, “Let it go, Little One. He’ll change once he gets married and is sent out in search of a quarter kilo of okra.” He gave the tires a spin.
Now it seemed that everything was indeed changing. I said to Hemakka, “Don’t just make a joke of it, Akka, I’m going doyng inside.”
“Listen, I’m telling you the truth. I promise you in the name of the goddess. Yesterday I picked him out a brand-labeled shirt. I couldn’t keep it from you any longer, so I told you.”
“What sort of shirt’s that? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“It means made by a well-known company, having their brand name.”
“Very well. But why so suddenly?”
“I told you not to trust me, remember?”
She gave a faint small smile. I gazed at the empty groundnut shells. My heart felt strangely heavy. She got to her feet, went inside, and brought out the shirt. I had never seen such a garment in our small town. I imagined Nathan wearing it and walking down our street. Hemakka walked by his side, laughing and chatting. They’d have to go walk past Shanmugam Annachi’s shop in order to leave our street behind.
© Dhaymayanthi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Lakshmi Holmström. All rights reserved.