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Chidambaram had only planned to hack off the man’s right arm. He was aiming for the shoulder, but instead the sickle had sliced through the upper arm, its sharp tip entering the ribs. The severed arm had dropped near his feet. He kicked it away, grabbed the sickle and fled. As he ran, he heard the man’s scream rise and fade like the final cry of a goat in a butcher’s yard.

Luckily the street lights had been off the whole time. As he sprinted down the darkened main road, lit only by candles flickering in the shops on the market street, he turned back to see if anyone was following him.

He could sense a couple of men running towards him silently. Behind them, a bus had turned the corner.In the beam of its headlights, he saw the figures giving him chase. He darted away from the light to the edge of the road. He wiped the sickle in the dirt and rubbed it clean. Dabbing the sweat from his forehead, he shoved the weapon into the sheath hanging at his waist. From a cloth bundle tucked into his waist, he took out a handmade bomb and held it ready, waiting for the bus to pass.

The shadows were drawing near. He stopped, took aim carefully and tossed the bomb. It exploded with a bang, filling the area with smoke. He began to run again with even more vigour.

No one would follow him now. As he approached a corner of the main road of the town, he dropped his speed, turned into the street that led to the cattle fairground and vanished into the dark.

His feet stumbled on heaps of garbage. He slowed down to a walk. After wrapping the two remaining bombs again in the cloth bundle, he tied it to his waist. He stopped to pee under a tree. He was no longer panting.

The bomb, which he had rigged with his own hands, had not failed him. It had exploded with the force of a jumbo firecracker. Had his aim been on target, his pursuers couldn’t have returned home.

The lights were back on again. He walked through the unlit areas along the town’s edge. He could hear the rumble of trucks in the match factories moving contraband loads of matchboxes in the dark.

There was the usual clatter and noise from the ginning factory.Visitors to the weekly market passed down the road, talking among themselves. Lights twinkled in the neighbouring villages as if stars had sprung up from the ground. He arrived at the foothill at the edge of the town, where their street lay.

He didn’t want to go home, but he had to see Ayya. His father would scold him: ‘What a stupid thing you’ve done, just like a little boy!’

What could he do? The matter had gone too far. They should have made Vadakkuraan walk around with an arm missing, but it had ended this way instead. No man could have survived that deep stab in the ribs. No one could feel sorry for him now. Chidambaram reached the public tank. Tamarind trees had spread a seamless darkness over the bank. There was no sign of anyone. He squatted low, listening with an alert ear, scanning his surroundings. Avoiding the usual paths, he found a secluded spot and climbed down to the tank. He removed the sickle from his waist and rinsed it clean, washed the sweat from his neck as well as his hands and legs, and wiped himself dry. The stench of blood was gone now.

As he climbed back on to the bank with a heavy heart and headed towards his street, a jumble of thoughts raced through his mind.He would find Mama first and tell him about the incident. Mama would in turn inform Ayya.

On the hilltop, light from the temple lamp illuminated the surroundings. Men moved about in the shadows lining both sides of the street. He stopped to watch them. Suddenly the beam of a flashlight trained on him. He signalled back by waving his towel. A few minutes later, a figure appeared carrying a spear-staff.


 

‘Who is it?’
‘One of ours.’
‘What do you mean, ours . . .? Ah, it’s the big shot.
Come, come.’
His uncle looked happy. He put an arm around Chidambaram’s shoulder and led him away. A few more men stood under a neem tree. Chidambaram recognized each man.
‘Why are they here, Mama?’
‘We were all waiting for you – after what you’ve done.’
‘What have I done?’
‘Oh, you did nothing, eh? Then why are you sneaking around like this in the dark?’
‘I had just gone out to shit.’
The men sniggered softly. Pretending to pat him on the back, Mama felt around Chidambaram’s waist too. He found the sheath with the sickle inside.
‘Why do you need this to shit?’
‘Just for safety. Don’t put your hand on that side. I have other goods too.’
‘Your father was right. You do have a heart of stone, boy.’
‘Where is Ayya?’
‘Not here.’
‘Where has he gone without you? Why are you
standing here?’
‘We heard that some men from Vadakkur village were coming this way. We have to see what it’s about, don’t we?’
‘Who will dare to come here?’
‘Yes, our boy has finished off the enemy. Who’ll dare now?’
‘Is he dead?’
‘You don’t know?’
‘Who told you?’
‘We know the whole story.’

‘Does Ayya know?’
‘Of course. You are his son, after all.’ Chidambaram was silent. Mama tousled his hair.
‘We are just a useless bunch. We should’ve wiped out Vadakkuraan’s entire family by now. Never happened. Instead, we drank arrack every day and loitered about. You’re not even fifteen yet, but you’ve made us look like wimps. Now your father won’t even look people in the eye; he slinks away with his head down.’

Chidambaram took hold of his uncle’s hand. The other men watched them in the dark.
‘Have the police turned up yet?’
‘How can they come so fast? They’ll wait till the wretched corpse is taken away. Let
them come if they want to. We are ready.’
‘If the police find out about me, they are sure to come.’
‘How could they know who it was in that crowd?’ ‘Yes, it was a really big crowd.’
‘He was cornered in a good spot.’
‘I tried to trap him in two or three other places; nothing worked. He sat leaning back in a chair at the barbershop. I went in as if to comb my hair and checked it out. The place wasn’t suitable. I could only strike him on the neck. The poor owner could lose his business. After the strike, it would be hard to get away. The police station is nearby. Someone or the other would be standing at the entrance.’
‘Doing it there would have been a mistake.’
‘I then found him in a food stall. He stepped outside after eating and lingered there, belching. But he was folding betel leaves with both hands in front of him. I had decided on cutting his arm. If I struck his leg, he would lie around at home, unable to move around, right?
‘So you got him at the temple junction, finally?’
‘I thought it was a convenient spot. To escape, I could run south and disappear into the cattle fairground. He bought something in the sweets stall and stood where I could strike him easily. But he stepped back just as I raised the sickle. It went into the ribs. I had a hard time pulling it out.’
‘You should have left it there and run away. Never strike at close range in a crowded place. There’s no telling what might happen.’
‘I first thought I’d throw a bomb and take off. But if the bomb didn’t explode, it’d be a mess. My plan was only to chop off his right arm and make him a cripple. So I grabbed the sickle and ran, ready for anything.’
‘You tossed a bomb too?’

‘I was running in panic, and these men were after me. They were asking for trouble. I guessed they were policemen because their footsteps weren’t heavy or loud. I thought they’d give up at some point, but they didn’t. It was then that I threw the bomb, thinking I had to finish them off too. They were out to catch me, right? The bomb went off like a clap of thunder. Had it struck them, they would’ve died. I didn’t know what happened. I ran circling the town, washed up in the public tank and came here.’

‘They survived the bomb. Tomorrow we’ll find out who they were. Why didn’t you say a word to me?’
‘Why should I drag everyone into trouble, Mama? Maybe I should’ve told you. Whenever I stood behind you, sizing up your arm, I did think of telling you. Even so, I decided against it.’
‘Oh, you did that, did you?’
‘Just to get an idea. You are exactly as tall as that man.’
‘Your father was watching while it happened. When it was over, he came running to us, saying our cub has killed a rabbit. I didn’t understand what he meant. Then he told us the whole story.’
‘All the lights went out as if it had been planned beforehand. I was walking fast, with the sickle hidden inside my dhoti, and suddenly it was dark. The sweets stall owner lit a candle and fixed it on the counter.
Vadakkuraan put his hand out to collect the snack. One strike and that was it . . . where’s Ayya?’
‘He said he was sending your mother away and he’s asked to meet you.’
‘Where is Aaththa going?’
‘East. To your Chiththi’s village.’
‘My sister?’
‘Your mother is taking her along.’
‘Our house?’
‘We’ve moved the kitchen items and provisions to
the headman’s house; yours is now locked.’ ‘The dog?’
‘It’ll go with your father. I thought of keeping it, but it won’t stay.’
‘It won’t stay with him either. I’ll be off then.’
‘Stay here tonight.I’ll take care of you.You haven’t eaten anything; how can you roam around hungry in the dark? Your aththai will shout at me. From the moment she heard what happened, she has been crying and asking for you.’
‘I’ve had something to eat. Don’t need anything now. Tell Aththai for me. I’ll start right away.’
Meanwhile, Mama sent someone to bring Aththai.

Aththai’s voice was worn out from crying. She begged him to eat. He just wanted water. She brought some from a neighbour’s house. He drank the water and started out. Mama and a few others walked with him up to the public tank and saw him off. They were carrying weapons. He recognized them in the dark: Ayyanar and Karupayya, along with Kaarmegam, who was holding a staff in his lone hand.

‘Do you want me to come along?’
‘No need, Mama. We need men in the street too.’ Leaning his staff on the shoulder, Kaarmegam folded his dhoti up to the knee with his one arm. ‘We are here. We’ll take care of everything.’ ‘Let Mama stay back, though.’
Mama didn’t refuse.
‘You know the abandoned well beyond the north stream? That’s where you’ll find your father.’
‘I’ll get there. You go back.’

North of the public tank, he could make out the cart track from the ruts on the ground, but he chose not to take that route. He took the shortcut instead, through the shrubs and dead foliage. Before reaching the stream, he had twice stepped on thorns and pulled them out. A cluster of palm trees stood on the far bank. Ayya must be waiting there. He searched among the trees. He couldn’t find him. Then he heard a dog whining beyond the palm trees and walked towards that direction.

A man was sitting on the stepping stone beside the abandoned well. He coughed gently and cleared his throat. When Chidambaram moved closer, the dog groaned and leapt up. Ayya stroked its back to quieten it. As soon as Chidambaram sat on the stone directly opposite him, Ayya removed the towel, wrapped around the dog’s neck.

Chidambaram felt suddenly too shy to speak. He rubbed the dog’s neck without looking up at his father. The dog climbed on to the stone and licked his face. Its wagging tail lashed his back.

 

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