As Ponniyin Selvan: I releases this week, we look at the other works of it’s writer – B. Jeyamohan!
He Who Will Not Bow
My name is Vanangaan – ‘He Who Will Not Bow’. Yes, that’s indeed my name. If you’d like my name in full, it’s K. Vanangaan Nadar. No, it really isn’t the name of my family deity, nor has anyone in my family been given this name before. The name is unheard of in my caste and community too. Neither have I met anyone with this name so far. Why, I haven’t met a single person who has even heard of this name before.
My father was the one who named me. From the day he christened me, till the day he died – for twenty-seven years – he was destined to keep talking about it. After completing my degree in engineering, I took up a job in Bhilai. All our names sound pretty much the same to the folks there, but the Tamilians and Malayalis in the city never failed to ask me about mine.
Four years have gone by since I retired and returned to Tamil Nadu. I live with my wife and daughter in a house that we built in a suburb of Tirunelveli. My daughter and son-in-law are miffed that I bring up my name ‘needlessly’. ‘Just say you’re K.V. Nadar,’ they tell me. That’s how they refer to me. But I don’t. Wherever I go, I use my full name. And if someone looks up at me with the mildest surprise, I let them in on the story behind my name.
My father’s name was Karuthaan. ‘Darkie’. Was Nadar attached to it, you ask? Perhaps you don’t know about the caste hierarchy of those days. Nadars themselves were of many different kinds. Only those who owned land and those who came from families of great repute used the suffix ‘Nadar’ with their names. They owned houses with inner courtyards,
capacious front yards, orchards, fields, haystacks and cattle sheds. They paid taxes to the king.
As for the rest, to be given a name was a luxury in itself. Since my father was born dark-skinned, he was called Karuthaan. His younger brother had prominent lips like the sundeli mouse, and so he was named Sundan. The younger sister was somewhat fair-skinned, therefore, she was Vellakutty. It was indeed like naming dogs. Not the ones that belonged to caste landowners. They were well named. I am talking about stray dogs.
My father’s father was Ezhaan, meaning seventh. Perhaps he was the seventh child. His mother had had nine children, of which only two survived – you’re right, like a dog litter. I have seen Grandfather’s younger sister, Kunji, when I was a child. She was a dark, shrunken old lady, but with a tough body. Though she looked frail and shrivelled, she lived to eighty. Till the day she died she laboured on, bearing baskets of cow dung atop her head, making furrows for the banana saplings, balancing palm spathes of water suspended from a pole across her shoulder for the vegetable patch. On one such day, while carrying a stalk of bananas to the market, she complained of an ache in her chest and lay down on the veranda of a palm jaggery shop. There, with eyes closed and the expression of one revelling in the gentle breeze, she died.
My grandfather worked at the Karainair’s house for yearly wages. Being a village chieftain, the Karainair and his family owned numerous fields and orchards throughout the town. The Karainair had employed two Kariyasthanairs to manage his estates; Kaippallis to harvest the coconuts and weave the coconut fronds; Asarichi women to pound the paddy; and Pulaiyars to cultivate the paddy. All other work fell to the Nadars. Each such worker-caste group had a leader of its own. Within his egg-sized dominion the leader was king, with unassailable authority to kill and bury too. As for the rest, they ranked lower than even the mud beneath his feet.
Every person on the estate was assigned a place in its descending chain of command. Spit wove its way through, adding definition to the rungs of hierarchy. If the overseer spat on the wage slave, the slave could not wipe the spit off until the overseer was out of sight. If the juice from chewed betel leaf found its way from the infuriated Kariyastha on to the overseer, he had to bear it with a submissive smile. The Kariyastha had to be ready to offer a spittoon to the Karainairs if they so much as pursed their lips with a mouthful of betel leaves. And should the royalty pay a visit to his home, the Karainair himself had to follow them obediently with a spittoon in hand.
Back in those days, there was no concept of daily wages. Twice a year, during the harvest season, wages were paid in the form of paddy. If it was dried well and stored in a pot, one could make it last for two or three months and dip into it to brew a hot kanji from time to time. One needed an extraordinary reserve of will to make the paddy last until the lean month of Aadi. On other days, kanji brewed in huge cauldrons at the master’s house and doled out alongside a cassava mash and sour-spinach broth was the staple. That too was served only once a day, for lunch. After the evening shift was done, whatever the workers managed to forage in the forests on their way home was roasted for dinner. Tubers were the common find. Sometimes, a few varieties of spinach. On especially lucky days, maybe a rabbit or a mongoose or a bandicoot.
It was a life that made it seem as if the stomach was all the body was made of. The stomach growled ceaselessly, like an evil spirit. I have heard my grandmother say that hunger is like a house on fire. Throw all you’ve got at it, in order to douse it. You needn’t stop to think if it’s good or bad. There really is nothing more cruel than hunger.
My grandfather had begun working as soon as he’d learnt to walk. He had no memory of a day where he hadn’t been to work.To be beaten,berated, overworked, to collapse in exhaustion, drop to sleep anywhere, to be awoken by blows even before the sun rose, and then to head to work again – that was the life he knew. The only education he received was a lesson in how to bow to different classes of people. He understood that society was nothing but a hierarchy of submission.
One day, in the midst of his work hours, Grandfather hid in the bushes to eat. The harvest had just been made, and so Grandmother had brewed some kanji the previous day. She had left the remaining gruel to ferment overnight and had now brought the whole potful with her. Such was Grandfather’s love for sour day-old rice, which we call pazhayadhu. While he was gulping down the gruel in haste, the Karainair’s grandson happened to walk by along with the Kariyasthanair. They were on their way to the Sastha temple. The grandson was no more than fifteen. As he walked by, he caught sight of Grandfather eating amidst the bushes.
As soon as he saw the boy, Grandfather clambered to his feet. With downcast eyes, he clasped his hands to his chest, bowed like a loop of rope and sank to his haunches. The pot of kanji lay next to him. Who knows what passed through the boy’s mind, but he picked up some mud with his toes and dropped it in the pot. ‘Drink,’ he commanded. When Grandfather hesitated, the overseer who appeared out of nowhere brought his long cane down on Grandfather’s back and lashed him over and over.
Like a man possessed, Grandfather grabbed the pot and gulped down the kanji in one go. Gripped by nausea, he curled up his convulsing body and clung to the ground. The boy kicked up some more mud, this time at Grandfather, and walked away, laughing. The others around joined in, echoing his laughter.
My father was working in the fields a few feet away, carrying bundles of paddy saplings. Seeing Grandfather’s curled and coiled body in the distance, his mind conjured up a vision of heaped cow dung. He could smell the putrid stench of the dung pile and even see maggots crawling all over it, or so he felt. The image kindled in him an unbearable hatred for his father and he longed for death to swallow the man at once. With that, Father turned away and walked home, his tears mingling with the damp beds of paddy beneath his feet.
‘I’m leaving,’ my father announced to his mother that night, within earshot of his father.
‘Ask him, where to,’ Grandfather ordered.
‘This isn’t my place any more. My food lies elsewhere,’ said Father.
‘Yes, as though there’s someone waiting to feed you. It’s your good
fortune that you get a steady serving of kanji here. Don’t starve to death on the streets . . . mind your business and just stay put,’ said Grandfather, not once looking at his son.
‘Why? So I can drink kanji that stray dogs kick mud into?’ needled Father.
‘How dare you! You sinner! You talk of the master this way? He who feeds us!’ Grandfather screamed. Enraged, he grabbed a broomstick that was close at hand and went at Father, beating him relentlessly. ‘You’re not my son, you ungrateful dog. You’re not my son at all,’ he declared breathlessly.
Continue reading Stories of the True here.