My Days by R. K. Narayan


  Suddenly, the audience woke up to the fact that the preacher was addressing them as “sinners” (“Pavigal” in Tamil) and that he was calling our gods names. He was suggesting that they fling all the stone gods into the moss-covered green tanks in our temples, repent their sins, and seek baptism. For God would forgive all sinners and the Son of God would take on the load of their sins. When the public realized what he was saying, pandemonium broke out. People shouted, commanded him to shut up, moved in on his followers—who fled to save their limbs and instruments. The audience now rained mud and stone on the preacher and smothered him under bundles of wet green grass. Actually, every evening a temporary grass market sprang upon this piece of ground for the benefit of jutka-drivers, and all through the evening hot exchanges went on over the price of each bundle, the grass-selling women shrieking at their customers and trying to match their ribaldry while transacting business. It was impolitic of the preacher to have chosen this spot, but he had his own reasons, apparently. Now people snatched up handfuls of grass and flung them on him, but his voice went on unceasingly through all the travail; lamps lit up by his assistants earlier were snatched away and smashed. The preacher, bedraggled and almost camouflaged with damp grass and water, went through his programme to the last minute as scheduled. Then he suddenly disappeared into the night. One would have thought that the man would never come again. But he did, exactly on the same day a week hence, at the next street corner.

  The preacher was a foolhardy zealot to have chosen this particular area, as this was one place where the second commandment was totally violated. If you drew a large circle with this spot as the centre, the circumference would enclose several temples where people thronged for worship every evening. Vellala Street itself, though a short stretch, had three temples on it—one for Ganesha, the elephant-faced god, next to it Krishna’s temple, and farther off one for Ponni Amman, the goddess who was the frontier guardian at a time when this part of Madras was just a village. Where Vellala Street ended, Ponni Amman Street began, with its own row of shops and houses closely packed. If you went up Ponni Amman Street, you reached Lawdor’s Gate (who was this Lawdor? What of the Gate? None in sight now), and it led on to Gangadeswarar Street, which again derived its name from the temple of Iswara (the Shiva who bears the River Ganga on his matted locks), a very large and ancient temple with a thirty-foot doorway, spacious corridors for circumambulation, and a tank for holy baths, public washing of clothes, and periodic drownings. (The tank still claims its quota of human life—one a year.) This temple of Iswara is really a focal point for weddings, funeral obsequies (at the tank), and spontaneous social gatherings, not to mention contact with God. The first nationalist agitation in Madras, in 1916, protesting against something named the Rowlatt Act, was organized here. A procession with patriotic songs and slogan-shouting started from the temple and went round the streets. I joined the procession entranced, and when we returned to the starting point, some enthusiast—the Pankaja Lodge, perhaps—provided refreshments for the tired crowd. When I went home after this patriotic endeavour, I was taken to task by my uncle, who was anti-political and did not want me to be misled. He condemned all rulers, governments, and administrative machinery as Satanic and saw no logic in seeking a change of rulers.

  Beyond the temple at the street corner, there was a little shrine of Ganesha, which was once again a favourite of the school-going public; placed in a position of vantage, this god received a considerable amount of worship, as well as offerings of coconut and coins in the tin money-box fixed to the doorpost. Facing this was the temple of Hanuman, the God of Energy. All these temples attracted the citizens of the area almost every evening. Recently I revisited Purasawalkam and spent a couple of hours viewing the old landmarks, and I found, though multi-storey buildings and new shop fronts and modern villas and the traffic stream have altered the general outlook, that the four or five temples I have mentioned are still solid and unchanged, oil lamps still burning, and the congregations the same as they were half a century or more ago, surviving the street-corner Iconoclast as well as the anti-iconoclasts who sought to demolish him with mud and bundles of grass.

  CHAPTER TWO

  This is not strictly coming in a sequence, for the following incident must have hapened before I was put to school. I have already mentioned the temple of Ponni Amman. Once a year on a certain date the image of the goddess was taken out of its sanctum at the other end of Vellala Street and carried in a procession to our end of the street, and placed on a decorated pedestal at the entrance to a fuel shop opposite our house. I never understood how the fuel shop came to be connected with this festivity, but there it was—a hoary tradition by which it looked as if the goddess’s annual vacation was spent at this spot, where all fuel business was suspended for ten days. The fuel merchant, of the name Kodandam, was a positive-minded character who would have fought out the issue if any change were suggested or if he were denied the privilege of playing host to the goddess. He was an expert in wielding and whirling a bamboo staff, so deftly that he could create a regular shield around himself and ward off any attack. He was a champion in this art, and brooked no performance of it by anyone else in his presence. He was a violent man who viewed it as a challenge to his own integrity, and beat up those who sought to display their proficiency. His shop, at the confluence of two roads, was the route for funeral processions passing westward; sometimes, when the body of an eminent personage was carried, pole-wielders marched in the procession as a special honour to the departed soul. It was an accepted convention that they should lower their staves and suspend their skill while passing the fuel shop. Otherwise there would be trouble. There were some unfortunate occasions when Kodandam blocked the funeral passage and beat up his challengers, and the pall-bearers fled, abandoning the corpse on its decorated bier in mid-street.

  Such a man was the host of the goddess. He held his staff in hand and stood guard in front of the idol throughout the festival, and also gave a display of his skill from time to time. During this season our street corner was transformed. Flower-sellers, sweet-sellers, and toy-makers creating dolls out of pith and cardboard spread out their wares on the ground and lit up little oil lamps around them. I used to sit on the sill of a side window and watch this festival—tomtoms and pipes and trumpets creating a din night and day. Goats and hens were sacrificed at a mud altar in front of the image, late at night. And when Grandmother noticed a goat tethered to any lamp-post nearby, she closed all the wooden shutters, although I was dying to watch a proper sacrifice, in spite of my revulsion at the thought of it. But for this gory reminder, the festival was enjoyable and lively, and the image decked in a million flowers looked beautiful.

  Turning back from my window, one evening, I noticed the fuel-shop man moving among the plants in our garden. I trembled at the sight of him, for I knew one of his activities was to bring under control the turbulent boys of our street. His services were in constant demand; he would go up and chastise the trouble-maker in his own territory and let go his hold only when the delinquent howled for mercy. When I saw him prowling in our garden, I had no doubt that he had come for me. Although I had done nothing to expect punishment, I felt he might attack me for the pleasure of it. He carried a basket in hand and had obtained my grandmother’s permission to take flowers for his goddess in residence. Normally Granny would not let anyone touch the flowers in her garden, but Kodandam stood in a special category. (I learnt about this only later.) At the first sight of him I was filled with dread and at once fled upstairs noiselessly. From over the parapet I peeped out in the hope that he would have gone, but he was still there, prowling around, looking for me, perhaps. I quietly slipped into my uncle’s study, hid myself behind some clothes heaped on a stand. I was satisfied that even if he came upstairs, he would not be able to locate me—although the smell of clothes waiting to be sent to the dhobi was suffocating. How right I was in selecting this concealment was proved an hour or two later when people began to search for me. As night
fell, I was determined not to budge—it was terrifying, but I had to choose between the terror of darkness and the terror of walking into the arms of Kodandam. I was sure that Kodandam would wait for me indefinitely. Hours ago I had lost sight of my grandmother. I supposed she must be in the kitchen. But with Kodandam there, I had no courage to call her or go in search of her. My only means of escape seemed to be up the staircase. So I sat there still and silent even when my grandmother came up and stopped within an inch of me, calling my name aloud, and then my uncle, and then the three tenants who occupied the rear portions of our house, and their sons, all of whom kept shouting my name, without looking behind the clothes on the stand. I answered their call, but under my breath, “I am here. Send away that man.” I watched them hold a brief conference.

  “I went out and verified, but no one saw him at the fuel shop.”

  “These are bad days—anything may happen, especially in a festival, child-lifters get busy.”

  “Sometimes they carry them off for human sacrifice.” At which my grandmother wailed aloud. I sat stonily listening to this talk, but lacked the courage to come out of my hiding. They would chastise me for not revealing myself earlier. I was now as afraid of them as I had been of Kodandam. They went down, and a little later came up again in search of me, and then again and again. And every time they brushed past me, I was on the verge of shouting back, “Yes, here I am; why don’t you all go away? I’ll come down when Kodandam is gone,” but I choked the words back.

  Presently I heard a lot of commotion downstairs, various voices calling, mentioning my name, a babble over the drums and pipes from the goddess’s camp. All sound in our house presently ceased. It became pitch dark. I was afraid to remain in that darkness any longer. I got up, softly went down the steps, and stood in front of my grandmother without a word as she sat in a corner of the house grief-stricken. She did not see me, a dim lamp was burning. I drew her attention to myself by declaring, “I am hungry.” T9 her questioning, I gave no answer. I persisted in saying, “1 was only upstairs.” My uncle and the tenants and their sons returned late at night. “We have reported to the police. They have warned all the railway stations by telegram, to watch for a boy with curly hair and only one pearl ear-ring.”

  “Why only one?” someone asked unable to contain his curiosity.

  “I always had only one,” I answered breezily.

  “Nonsense,” cried my grandmother, “I had both his ears pierced and fitted with such a fine pair of pearls set in gold! They were my father’s when he was the dewan at Arcot. And this boy does not even remember it!” she said, looking at me accusingly. All of them turned to look at me, a delinquent who not only lost himself but also a great-grandfather’s pearl; and they said in one voice, “You must remove this too, as any thief may wrench it off with his ear.”

  “And this chap will not notice it either!” someone added.

  Though I am not certain, it was perhaps after the Kodandam incident that they put me to school, suddenly realizing that I was developing into an introvert dreamer with no knowledge of the outside world; they must have been mystified by my conduct, as I suppressed all my references to Kodandam the fuel-seller. I could have made a clean breast of it, but I had many misgivings. Perhaps it might recoil on my head. If they went and spoke to Kodandam about it, he might get ideas and turn his attention on me, or perhaps he had been stealing flowers and my betrayal might send my grandmother flying at him and that might bring further reactions in its wake. In childhood, fears and secrecies and furtive acts happen to be the natural state of life, adopted instinctively for survival in a world dominated by adults. As a result I believe a child is capable of practising greater cunning than a grown-up. When they failed to get the truth out of me, I was warned, “Your name is now written down in every police station—take care!” I took care by turning in whenever I glimpsed the red turban of a policeman at the junction of Vellala Street and the High Road.

  Nowadays, I had no peace of mind. Presently I lost the tranquil companionship of my monkey too. Rama was developing into a mischievous creature. By steady effort and trials, he had learnt to undo the waist-band and chain with which he was kept confined to his cabin.

  On the first day he discovered his freedom, he took a leap up the roof of our house and leered at me from that height. I begged him to come down, but he did not care. He jumped on from roof to roof, wandered to his heart’s content, and appeared on our tiles again late in the evening. He would not return to his cabin or allow anyone to approach him. At the slightest move on our side he would hop back and put himself just out of reach. If you tempted him with nuts and food, he would only eye them pensively but keep his distance. My uncle did his best to capture him, and gave up. “Leave him alone,” he said. “He is probably happier living on the roof-tiles. No harm can come to him.” The problem was not one of the monkey’s own safety, but of the safety of others in the neighbourhood. He was not content to enjoy his freedom within the boundaries of our house but began to explore the city. He travelled up and down the street, all at a great height over roof-tops, and let himself in through any open window in any building. He picked up whatever he saw in a room and ran out when chased. Ultimately, he would return to our own house in the evening, wherever he might have spent the day, and occasionally gave us a chance to know what he had been up to. Once he brought home a black fountain pen, with its neck bitten off on the way, his mouth ink-stained. Another day he produced a shaving brush. He invaded the kitchen of a wedding party, filled his belly and the pouches at his cheeks with items spread for a feast, and needed no food for days to come. He ransacked methodically every fruit tree in the neighbourhood; people began to crowd at our door with complaints. We became unpopular. My grandmother declared, “We can’t help it. It’s no longer ours.” The public did not accept her statement, and thought that in some mysterious way we were getting various gains through the monkey. At which Grandmother lost her temper and said, “Why do you bother us? You may do what you like with that monkey, we don’t care.” But they were helpless, the monkey was agile and elusive and could not be captured. My uncle, on a Saturday, when he had no college, spent the whole day cajoling Rama to come back. When everything else failed, he placed some food in a dish on an open terrace and sat for hours under the cover of a large blanket. When Rama edged cautiously near the food, my uncle shot out his hand, but Rama jumped back and did not appear again for a whole week—which time he seemed to have camped in the vicinity of a girls’ school, snatching off whatever he noticed in a child’s hand.

  He had become notorious. The whole town was after him. I secretly prayed to all the gods I knew to protect him from his would-be captors. On someone’s advice my uncle secured half a bottle of toddy from the tavern nearby, soaked some nuts in it, and left it in a mud pan on the parapet wall. Surprisingly enough, it worked. Rama at his next visit was stirred by curiosity. He approached the mud pan, picked up the toddy-soaked nuts and stuffed them into his mouth, and then stooped down and licked off the toddy remaining in the pan. After this treat, when he tried to move back to the roof-top, he found his legs wobbling; his gait became unsteady and he collapsed, unable to proceed farther. My uncle, who had spent the whole day organizing this trap, picked up the monkey and put him back in chains in his cabin. A few days passed thus and I resumed my dialogue with him from the sand pile. He had tasted the freedom of the roof and was evidently longing for it again. Like the magician Houdini he had become an expert snapper of bonds. He had slipped through his waist-band and was gone one morning. I never saw him again. I did not know whether he had been destroyed by his enemies or gone in search of new pastures or got assimilated in a herd supposed to be camping in a mango garden nearby.

  Soon I had to adjust myself to the company of a mere peacock, who lacked the repose of a monkey (according to my notions), but was restless, always searching for insects and always wanting to be on the move, strutting along with his long tail (growing longer and heavier each day). He came up
and sat faithfully at my side when I watched the street and tried to scare away our visitors. Soon he began to explore the outer space beyond Number One, Vellala Street. He would hop from our wall with an enormous flapping of his wings to the branch of a rain-tree in front of our door, and from there descend in a lump wherever he liked. He enjoyed his excursions and came back in the evenings by himself, or when one called out, “Myla!” he would answer back with his long shrill cry from somewhere. We left him alone, as the neighbouring houses got used to his presence, schoolchildren admired him and fed him with nuts, and he got along with everyone except when they tried to pluck a feather from his tail. After I became a school-goer, I looked for him here and there while returning home and brought him back with me. He had begun to enlarge the area of his operations, and once he perched himself on the compound wall of our school—but when I noticed him there, with boys shouting around him, I let him be, never identifying myself with him, not being certain how our teachers would view it. Sometimes he would wander off in the other direction up to the toddy tavern, where happy drunkards gave him spiced nuts, which they generally munched while sitting around imbibing their drinks. Myla was always led back home by someone or other known to us. But one day two rickshaw pullers brought his carcass home and threw it in our garden.

 
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