(translated by V. Surya)
In the backyard stood a robust and lush curry leaf tree. Nobody looking from the street would guess that there could be such a tree back there.
The house had been given a coat of Snowcem cement paint. Mami kept a watchful eye on every inch of it, the way a mother does on her pubescent daughter. To discourage anyone from sticking posters on its outer wall, she had had it covered with a stucco of sharp granite chips, painted over with Snowcem. Despite Mami's vigilant patrolling, activists of every political party had scrawled their symbols on it during the elections. Even the independent candidates had drawn his bicycle on it. With tar. It made Mami extremely angry. She did not cast her vote in that election.
Mami sat rubbing gingelly oil into her scalp, and chanting the 'Haigiri Nandini' prayer. Mama sat in his easy chair in the front hall, reading the paper. It was a matter of great satisfaction to him that he finally had plenty of time to read the paper, now that he had finally retired.
A sporadic thudding sounded on the back gate. After the third thud, Mami stopped saying her verses. 'Coming!' she roared. She went and fetched the key form the almirah room. The thudding continued. Going towards the back gate she roared again, 'Coming! This time Mami's voice must have been heard beyond the gate. There was silence.
From the latrine near the gate came a sound of flowing water.
'Ei, di, why so late today?' Mami was saying as she unlocked the door.
A man wearing a headcloth was standing outside.
'Oh, it's you.'
'I thought it was the latrine woman.'
Mami's son opened the latrine door and came out, bucket in hand. He stopped for a second and looked at the back gate. Seeing it was a turbaned man who stood there, he went to the well. There he filled a bucket, went back into the latrine and shut the door.
'Thought I'll come and pick the leaves, amma.'
'Not now. We'll see about it later.'
'But it is two months since the leaves were picked, amma.'
'Tree's all full of leaves, just see, 'ma!'
'You never pay what's agreed on. Go. Not now.'
'What, amma, you're saying such a thing! What do I want, amma, with your money?'
'That's what you say now.'
'How's ayya's health, amma?'
'Quite good. Come later.'
'And how is thambi, 'ma?'
'We're all fine, thanks to your blessings, I'm sure. Now you just get along.'
'Ei, 'ma, what's this? If a lady like you talks like that, how will we poor people stay alive?'
'Look here! Don't make trouble so early in the morning. I've got a lot of work left to do.'
'In two minutes I will pluck and go, 'ma.'
'Even last time you didn't pay what was agreed on.'
'Yamma! This time that won't happen, amma!'
This interchange traversed the yard, went past the well and the kitchen, and must have been heard in the hall. Mama came and stood, newspaper in hand, as though to convey that he didn't really have the time to stay and talk to the man.
'Ayyire! Talk to the lady, ayyire! So angry she is!'
Mama held his tongue. Years had gone by since he had first taught himself not to overstep the boundary that had been drawn up for him, and to preserve within it as much of his manhood as he could manage.
'What's there to talk to ayyar about? I'm telling you, that's quite enough.'
'I'll give you the money you ask, amma.'
'Yammayammaa! How will people like us live?'
'The tree isn't weeping and wailing that its leaves haven't been plucked. You get along now.'
'What, 'ma, if you refuse like this, what's to be done, 'ma?'
'Not one paisa less.'
But ayyar had already gone back when she said 'What's there to talk to ayyar about?' and had seated himself in his easy chair.
'Why're you calling ayya?' she said. 'When I've said it, I've said it. By rights, I should be demanding seven and a quarter rupees. Last time you paid me a whole quarter less and went away.'
Peering past her into the house, he shouted, 'Saami! Have you got change for five rupees, saami?'
Mami turned and looked back. There was Mama rising from his chair and approaching…it was only when he came towards the kitchen doorway that he encountered her stare. He came to a halt and stood there, clutching the door frame.
Turning back to the man she said, 'Go and get it changed in the shop.'
When he left, she muttered to herself, 'First he'll say he doesn't have the exact change. Then he'll say, "I'll just pluck first, and then I'll pay you the rest." After he has plucked he'll say, "Next time I'll give you the change, 'ma!" And that will be the last of him…Shouldn't this brahmanan have enough sense to see through it?' She went into the bathroom and used soap-nut powder to scrub the back-door key to scrub the back-door free of grease.
Pretending he had not heard her, Mama moved away from the kitchen doorway in the direction of his easy chair.
'Yamma!' The turbaned character reappeared. At the sight of a five-rupee and a single one-rupee in his palm, Mami started shouting.
'Ei, 'ma, why are you yelling? Take this. I'll just get out the change from inside my "t'ouser".'
'Now look here, I don't want a word more of this story. Count out seven rupees and put it down right here. if it's even one paisa short, I won't touch it.'
Screening himself with his veshti*, he reached inside his drawers, extracted an eight-anna bit, and placed it with the rupee notes. His eyes still fixed on Mama's face, he reached inside once again and added one more coin.
Mami bent over and took a look. Noting that the coin just put down was a four-anna bit, she said, 'But it's four annas short.'
'No money left except for tea, 'ma.'
'Take the leaves, sell them, then have your tea.'
He put his hand into his trousers, took out two ten paisas and a five paisa, and added them to what he had already put down. Stooping to collect the money, Mami cautioned, 'Now look here, you stand here and pluck. No climbing and breaking off branches.'
Knotting up the money at her waist, she stood leaning against the well. He unwound his veshti and spread it on the dusty, stony ground. The veshti was grimy and threadbare. Washing would have torn it.
He started to pick the curry leaves from the lower branches. It was not even as tall as two men standing one on top of the other. He gathered three quarters of the leaves as he stood on the ground. To pick the leaves from the branch tips, he leaned gently towards the strong, central part, standing on one foot, so that too much weight did not fall on it. A few leaves fell over the wall into the neighbour's yard.
'Çan't you watch what you're doing? The next-door people will come and pick a fight with us, saying we are dropping rubbish into their yard. Pluck without scattering leaves,' she told him, as she helped herself to a handful of leaves from the heap on the ground.
Having removed his headcloth to wipe off his sweat, he now retied it around his head. Gathering up the four corners of the spread-out veshti, he tied it into a bundle and departed with it. The tree stood bald, with bare branches.
When Mami had locked the back gate and turned around, the door of the latrine lay open. Wet footsteps made a track from the well into the house.
Muttering, 'At least twenty rupees he'll earn today,' she went into the bathroom.
Having performed her poojai with her hair wrapped in a towel, she announced lunch.
'The curry leaf chutney is good, di,' said Mama.
'And why not? What could go wrong with it, with that curry leaf…That fellow really got a bargain. At least twenty rupees he will earn today.'
'Amma, give me some vegetable from the sambar.'
She dropped some pieces of drumstick on her son's plate.
'A so-big bunch of curry leaves fell into the next-door people's yard, you know!' She spread her hands out wide to show him.
'Couldn't you have told him to pluck carefully, di? As if she isn't already helping herself, we ourselves must give her even more, is it?'
'Day before yesterday she actually climbed the wall just to pluck leaves, you know! As soon as she saw me, she said, "Hee hee! I'm just tying a clothesline, Mami!" As though no one knows what a fine clothesline she is tying!'
Coming to the street to throw the chewed-up drumstick stalks, she took a look at the next house. Their small child was playing on his tricycle. No one else was around.
'Have you had food?'
'What food was cooked today?'
'Onion sambar. Potato curry. Chutney.'
'Pudina, or curry leaf?'
'How was it?’
'Had a good smell.'
'Did it have a good hot smell, or a good mild smell?'
Hearing someone talking, the child's mother came out.
'Hee hee! Have you had food?'
'That's what I was asking the child. Where did you buy the pudina? Because when Mama went to the market this morning, he came back saying there wasn't any?' She stared sharply at the neighbour's face to look for any change in expression.
'It was bought yesterday, Mami.'
'Oh, is that so? Well...! I've a load of work on top of my head...I'll see you later, 'ma.'
Mama was lying back in his easy chair, eyes closed. Mami went up to him.
'Pudina, she says! Pudina! She's even taught the child to tell lies.'
She went inside.
Easy chair and newspaper. Since the morning he had lain there, accepting it as his destiny. Now it looked like he had decided to remain thus the whole day. When Mami moved away, he opened his eyes drowsily once, settled himself a little more comfortably, and shut them again.
Vimaladhitha Maamallan is a well-known Tamil short story writer. V. Surya is a free-lance translator/editor
"A Place to Live" - Contemporery Tamil Short Fiction - Originally published by East-West Books (Madras) P Ltd 1999
This Edition Published by Penguin Books India 2004
The copyright for individual pieces vests with the authors or their estates. This Edition Published by Penguin Books India 2004
The copyright for individual pieces vests with the authors or their estates.