(English Translation of the original Tamil novel ‘Oru Manithanin Kathai’)
(Chapter – I)
Tyagu closed his eyes.
His throat was parched. His tongue felt like cardboard. A woodpecker was pecking away inside his brain. Birds fluttered within his ears.
How long was he to suffer?
He looked around without lifting his head. Making certain that he was not being watched, he bravely extended his right hand and unclenched his fingers. Feeling them tremble, he quickly withdrew his hand and held it firm between his thigh and the chair.
He could easily nip upstairs, gulp down a mouthful of whisky and rush back, without being detected.
Just a mouthful… a small gulp. It would be a boon to his parched throat.
Even if he could have just a little drop, his throat would feel better. This suffering would end. The woodpecker would stop pecking. Just a mouthful.
Struggling to get up, Tyagu felt himself being pushed down. There lay his father’s lifeless body. What damned torture! Tyagu cursed himself. What sort of man was he, that he could not hold himself together even for a few hours?
He held on to the chair with both hands.
No, not now.
His stepmother was expected any moment with the children. Then the cremation would have to be performed. And the return home for the ritual bath. Only then would he be free of Ganga and the others – free to have a drink.
Making a Herculean effort to overcome the temptation to have a drink, Tyagu looked around.
Swaminathan’s body lay stretched, lying north-south in the middle of the living room. His toes were tied together and two large blocks of melting ice lay on either side of the body. Coarse gunny sacking was laid all around to absorb the water. To avoid the stench of death, eau-de-cologne had been sprinkled generously and its scent mingled with the perfume of the rose and jasmine gar¬lands.
A cynical smile curved Tyagu’s tightly closed lips as his mind dwelt on Ganga, his wife. Ganga, who normally disliked serving even a cup of coffee to her father-in-law when he was alive, was now bending over backwards to perform the customary rituals, observe the right traditions, even wear an appropriately mournful look, now that he was dead.
Smile? Now? Does the heart have no feelings? Could a son smile while his father’s body lay stretched out?
But then, he did feel like smiling.
Tyagu’s eyes shifted focus from his father to the door.
Priests, green bamboo, palm leaves, other miscellany. And there, earnestly supervising the work stood Seshan, Ganga’s father. Anger seared Tyagu when he saw his tall, pot-bellied fa¬ther-in-law display such a keen interest in the proceedings.
Was he not the cause of all this? Was he not the one who had instigated Ganga? Was it not because of him that his father, who had been going about his business at home till yesterday, lay there lifeless today? Why then this pretence of grief?
Exaggerating events out of proportion, Seshan had provoked his father, who had a heart problem, to lose his temper and shout. And now, all this sham!
Tyagu’s fingers, though tightly held between his thighs and the chair, started to tremble and he had to press harder to stop them.
Suddenly his throat ached; he breathed with difficulty. He swallowed the saliva in his mouth. No. It was no use. He was afraid that the deafening sound in his ears was audible to every¬one.
Just a peg… a small one.
When he felt he could stand it no longer, Tyagu got up. Climb¬ing the stairs two at a time, he dashed through his bedroom into the bathroom and bolted the door.
The effort had tired him and he breathed heavily.
He stood near the toilet, and with the violent trembling of his hands impeded his efforts to lift the lid off the water cistern. When at last he had it open, he put his hand inside, and there beside the float, lay the flat bottle. He took it out.
Hastily he unscrewed the cap, sniffed appreciatively, and took a gulp.
Mm… What a delicacy! What bliss!
Just as milk about to boil over subsides when sprinkled with a few drops of water, so his palpitations and the deafening noise in his ear disappeared, as if by magic. The woodpecker pecking at his brain flew away.
Peace, which had eluded him the last few hours, enveloped him with both arms.
He was not allowed to enjoy this for long. There was a tap on the door.
‘Who is it?’ he asked.
Kannan, his son.
‘Visu Uncle is here. Amma wants you to come down immediately.’
He gulped down another large mouthful, screwed back the cap, gently replaced the bottle and noiselessly lowered the lid of the cistern.
His face flushed with pleasure when he realised how clever he had been in choosing the cistern as a hiding place. He had been fooling Ganga so easily all these years.
Ganga did not like the western-style water closet.
‘Like sitting on a stool! Yuck! That’s not for me!’ she had declared.
She used the Indian-style closet downstairs and hardly ever entered his bathroom.
Realising that her husband was becoming too fond of drinking, she had been searching all the rooms regularly. This hiding place had escaped her.
Before leaving the bathroom, he lit a cigarette, took a few puffs and threw it away, just to mask the smell of drink. He stood in front of the dressing table, trying to decide what would be best—the perfume, the after-shave lotion or eucalyptus oil. The first two would be blasphemous, considering that his father was lying dead. He rubbed a few drops of eucalyptus oil around his neck and on his forehead.
Visu Uncle was one of the few relatives he had in Madras. Ganga was standing beside him. Eyes brimming with tears, her face mournful, she clutched the end of her sari.
‘He was always talking of how grandly he would like to cele¬brate his sixtieth birthday. My heart cannot bear to see him like this. It is as though he had planned to die in his son’s house. It is hard for me to believe he is gone. How will I face my mother-in-law? The grief is too much!’
Tyagu turned his face away. Her tone and demeanour struck a false note.
Visu Uncle left after ten minutes.
Making sure there was no one around, Ganga asked in a harsh voice, ‘What is this smell?’
‘I have a headache, I applied some eucalyptus oil.’
Fearing that the smell of drink would give him away if he continued to talk, he slunk away and sat in the verandah. A few friends and relatives called on him and left. Everything was ready for the arrival of his stepmother.
‘Eat just a little, Appa, before anyone else calls,’ Ganga whispered to Seshan, who was just behind him.
What about me, sitting here like a stone? What does she have to lose by asking me if I’d care to eat something too? When she can care so much for her father, why is there no concern for me, her husband? Pig! Conceited pig! The arrogance of a rich woman!
Tyagu looked angrily at his watch. It was 2 pm. There had been a message to say that his stepmother had left at 10 am. Six hours for the journey. She would not arrive before 4 pm.
Why not go upstairs for another drink? Having had his first drink for the day, Tyagu felt an uncontrollable desire for more. He got up.
‘I have a severe headache. I am going upstairs. Call me when Chithi comes,’ he told Ganga, and without waiting for her reply, walked away.
Resolving to have just one more drink, he bolted the bathroom door.
His mind dwelt on the contempt Ganga displayed towards him.
Over the second gulp, his mind raced back to his mother.
As he sipped, a kaleidoscope of events flashed across his mind. He remembered the scene when his father had thrown scalding rasam on his mother’s face; he remembered his father pinching him hard on his thighs; he recalled with sadness his mother’s death; and finally the unseemly haste with which his father had shamelessly remarried. His sadness constricted his throat. The level in the bottle dropped steadily and soon it was only a quarter full.
Tyagu showed no signs of emerging from the bathroom despite Kannan’s continued knocking. Ganga came up, knocked and called out agitatedly in a peremptory tone, ‘What on earth are you doing in the bathroom? Chithi is here. Come out.’
Who is she to push me around? Am I a puppy to go to her when she whistles? He seethed with uncontrollable rage.