Published in the
magazine AMIRTHAGANGAI in January 1986.
Editor: Chembian Selvan (Rajagopal)
Chenkai Aliyan in his book ‘History of Short stories’ says, “This story is one of the best of the year 1986.”
Translated by the author: Kathir Balasundaram
SITUATION: In the late 1970s, low-income people started going to the Middle-East in the effort to find higher paying jobs. They returned home wealthy, and spent an immense amount of money purchasing lands and building luxurious mansions. They spent lavishly to flaunt their new status. During this same time, TV was introduced to
This story portrays the attitude of these newly wealthy people of the
ANNTENAS GOING UP AND UP
The malicious gossip began from the shadow of the arjuna tree growing in the back-yard of Pillayar temple. From there, it spread all over the
“There is a rumour that Mohan is the guy who wrote the anonymous letter,” Visaladchi commented. “It was the reason why Kilikunchu Komathy’s arranged engagement fell apart.” Visaladchi was a lean, tall, middle-aged woman carrying a kadakam (a box made of palmyrah leaves) on her hip. She gazed at Kanagam, a woman of her age, but dark and short in contrast.
Kanagam looked up to the branches of the arjuna tree and spotted a parrot hole in one of the branches. Two green parrots rested nearby. In a feeble voice, she retorted, “Now people will say I am the one who made up the story that Mohan wrote that letter. Mohan’s father is a thug who just got out of prison. Visaladchi, please don’t trap me in this situation.” She broke off and pointed to Sivakamy, a fat woman of their age, dressed in a green sari. The newcomer was rushing towards the other two women.
“Kondavil doctor demanded a Dodson car!” Sivakamy said loudly, referring to the groom, a doctor. “That’s the reason for the breakdown of the engagement.”
Kanagam, who didn’t want to be involved with the scandal, again looked up at the arjuna branch. Unable to tolerate, the continuing cries of the nestlings—still showing red flesh instead of green feathers—the two parent arjuna parrots started flying towards a vegetable garden, making a long pitched ringing tone with their voices. The garden was owned by Murugiah, a sturdy tall man.
The parrots came to rest on Laxsmi’s sixty foot high antenna and looked to see if Murugiah was in the garden of long-beans. They had learned to be weary of his slingshot that he used to kill birds attempting to eat his beans.
Below them, in the house, Laxsmi, her daughter Kilikunchu Komathy, and her son Gopalan were sitting in the living room watching the movie, ‘Don’t Be Deceived Younger Brother.’ Neither Laxsmi nor Kilikunchu Komathy seemed overly concerned that the prearranged marriage had been broken off right after the proposed bridegroom had left their home. However, palmyrah palm younglings, garden crops, new parapet walls and old cadjan fences echoed with the gossip of the breaking of the engagement.
Contrary to the gossips, Kanagam’s conscience began whispering to her, “Can we expect the community to speak well of Luxsmi? After all, Visaladchi and others used to do the same thing when talking about those who had got so rich. But now Luxsmi’s husband and older two sons are making a fortune in
Kilikunchu Komathy, who wasn’t aware that the community around her was gossiping about her broken engagement, went to her room after the movie had ended and dressed in a red, silk skirt that exposed her fair thighs. A long, red ribbon encircled her head. Her coal black, long hair was free to fly in the wind. Costly, light red slippers adorned her feet. As usual, to enjoy the pleasant breeze that came off the
Young weeping willows along the border of the front yard were an additional attraction to the large, newly built house. The branches of the trees that fell from its crown were swaying to the tune of a gentle, evening breeze from the nearby sea. In the same manner, Kilikunchu Komathy’s mind had begun to wander.
Now that she had a moment to think, Kilikunchu began to go over in her mind the drama of that morning. She chuckled as she recalled. She had been seated in her bride’s dress while talking to her soon to be husband, Dr. Ravi. She had stared briefly at the marble floor when he asked in English, “Have you ever been to Nainativu, my town?”
Kilikunchu hadn’t understand, so she had looked up at the ceiling instead.
He had waited a moment and then asked, “Which writer do you like best?”
Instead of answering, she had looked at the table fan, blowing cool air at her side. She chuckled as she remembered. “He chatted with me so amusingly,” she said to herself. He had smiled so sweetly, but an hour after his departure, the marriage-broker had come back and said the doctor wanted a Dodson car as his dowry and didn’t want to proceed with the marriage proposal until this had been agreed to.
Kilikunchu didn’t think the car had been the main reason for calling off the engagement. Her hated enemy, Mohan, had stood at the gate of her family estate when Dr. Ravi had left. No doubt he was the source of slander that had changed the doctor’s mind. But Kilikunchu didn’t understand it. What could he say that would be so bad? She had no idea what she had done wrong. A thought crossed her mind.
Kilikunchu had written two letters to a boyfriend of hers. They were only letters! Even Mr. Vallipuram’s daughter, Vadivambal, had written about a dozen love letters to her boyfriend, but she had given up the boyfriend and married someone else. Now she has a baby boy. “I wrote only two letters to the boy, not more than that!” she said to herself.
Gopalan’s voice disturbed Kilikunchu Komathy’s recollection. “Sister, director Balachandar’s movie, Sinthu Pairavi, is available at the Tellippali Accai Recording Centre. I’m going to buy a cassette. Want to watch the movie with me tonight?”
Gopalan was a year ten student. He spent money the way the tamarind fruit pods fell when someone stood on the branches at noon and caused the branches to shudder. Their mother was fond of saying, “If you have wealth, what is the use of education? You can purchase everything you wish.” Gopalan had embraced that philosophy wholeheartedly. For him, school was a Poosa Camp where extremists were detained.
Without waiting for a response, he got up and went to his new ash coloured 125CC Honda motor-bike. He dashed off along the K.K.S. road like lightening. His hair bobbed in the air.
On the way, he passed the entrance to
It was nightfall when Kilikunchu Komathy stepped into the house again. She saw her mother, Laxsmi, reading a letter written in her native tongue to her husband in
“My dear husband, we are in good health. Hope you too are. Kilikunchu’s arranged marriage has broken up. Reason, the doctor groom demanded a Dudson car as dowry. We have been to the groom’s home. Poo! A very small, old house with one bedroom. The walls had not been white-washed for ages. The roof was thatched with cadjan, coconut leaves. No TV. No sofa settee. No show-case. No dressing table. No fan. No electricity. With illegal connections, he has only two bulbs. The groom’s mother has visited our home thrice. She looked at the grinder and asked me, ‘Why is that machine making a curious noise?’ She’s a teacher. Poo! Send money to buy a Dodson car. Send soon. Your loving wife, Laxsmi.”
To help her write the address in English, she carried an envelope to her neighbour’s house, stood at the gate made of rusted tin-sheet, and called, “Thevy! Thevy! Open the gate and help me write this address.”
The nestlings’ wings looked green and their beaks red. They looked down from their hole in the arjuna tree, unruffled, at Visaladchi standing on the ground below.
Visaladchi, who fixedly stared at the reservoir by the arjuna tree, didn’t even notice the long-beaked white crane standing on one leg at the water’s edge, but she did see in her mind’s eye the driveway of Luxsmi’s house and the white Dodson car parked under the porch.
It amazed her that Luxsmi had bought a costly new Dodson car so easily, and the marriage broker was going to arrive the following day to finalize the terms of the arranged marriage to Kilikunchu. Visaladchi couldn’t digest the fact that Luxsmi, once a co-worker with her, a manual labourer like herself, had suddenly become so eminent in social status, rising above everyone else. Visaladchi couldn’t stomach that Luxsmi was going to become the mother-in-law of a doctor.
Visaladchi didn’t have the overt means to cut Luxsmi down from her lofty social status. But, she had a weapon, a cheap weapon—writing an anonymous letter to the doctor that said that Mohan has been Kilikunchu Komathy’s boyfriend and that both were still meeting each other in the grove of Palmyra younglings opposite her new house.
The small, red letter box fixed to a short wooden pole at the cross-lanes in front of Kanagam’s house swallowed Visaladchi’s nasty letter and kept quiet. She looked both ways and then hurried away.
Kanagam, watching Visaladchi in her brown sari through her window, understood Visaladchi’s intention. “Vasaladchi has no one to write letters to, so what is she doing? She harbours envy towards Luxsmi. She must have written an anonymous letter to destroy the engagement.” Kanagam, murmuring something, scuttled towards the letter box with a crowbar.
Two months after the engagement had broken down, the marriage broker, dressed in a white verti and shirt and with a yellow bag of cloth hanging on his shoulder, pressed the doorbell of Luxsmi’s house.
Kilikunchu Komathy, drying her hair with a dryer, was startled by the shrieking pitch of the front doorbell. She went grudging and opened the glittering, mahogany door.
After having removed his old faded Batta rubber slippers, the broker entered the house and walked very cautiously to avoid slipping on the glossy, white marble floor. Having sat on the gold coloured, velvet settee couch, he cracked a wry smile at Laxsmi sitting opposite of him. He glanced at the two dots on her forehead and muttered, “The woman has two violet pottus—the upper one to denote she is married, a rose flower on her hair bun, dressed in Kanchipuram silk sari, like a movie actress, and placing one leg over the other while sitting on the sofa like a Minister’s young wife.”
Luxsmi said, “Broker, I’m glad you have come again. Go on with your proposal.”
The broker put his hand into the yellow, cloth bag, pretending to be searching for something, and replied, “Madam, I’ve come with the profile of a new man that might be more suitable to marry your daughter. Compatibility’s fine. The couple will match like the angels Manmathan and Rathy. He is from the Town of
“What is he? Doctor or engineer?”
Grooming his hair, the broker answered, “Madam, you’ll be happy to know he’s a teetotaler and he doesn’t smoke. You know, Madam, every man nowadays smokes and drinks. Bad…bad. You must have done meritorious deeds in your previous life to get such a groom for your daughter.”
“Good. Who does he work for?
“No, he works for K.K.S. Cement Factory. He’s a foreman. Foreman means he’ll be an engineer in the very near future.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Laxsmi exclaimed. “Don’t you know our status in our society? Look at our house! Our wealth! Our car! Do you want me to be the mother-in-law of an ordinary foreman? Poo! Mr. Broker, have you no brain in your head? Is it stuffed with silly notions?”
Upset, the broker again pushed his hand into his bag and looked at Kilikunchu Komathy who stood before him with a silver tray. A glass of ready-made drink was on the serving tray, just taken out of the fridge.
He took it and gasped in surprise. “It’s so cold…as cold as ice,” he remarked. The broker caught a glimpse of Kilikunchu out of the corner of his eye and murmured, “She wears a skirt far above the knees to make herself more beautiful. Her hair, blowing in the air from the ceiling fan, reminds me of the divine beauties Urvasi and Rambhai. Her beauty is magnified by her gold toned skin and long, dark hair. Oh! What a stunning beauty! That’s why people have given her the nickname Kilikunchu, the young parrot.”
Luxsmi’s coughing interrupted the broker’s deep thoughts.
“Mr. Broker, the doctor you brought last time broke the engagement and marriage proposal when he demanded a Dodson car, didn’t he? A white car is parked under the porch. Didn’t you see it? Please see if you can fix the marriage arrangement, to Konadavil groom Dr. Ravi. I’ll add an additional two thousand as well.” Luxsmi gazed at the marriage broker, sitting upright on the seat.
The sound of a passing helicopter, that had left the Palay Army Camp a few miles away, scared the four parrots sitting on the Luxsmi’s antenna. They flew off, screeching in terror, a high pitched sound that got everyone’s attention. On reaching the arjuna tree behind the Pillayar temple, they lighted in their tree hole and looked down at Visaladchi rushing towards Luxsmi’s house.
At the same time, the broker was in a quandary on how to explain the real reason for the breakdown of the arranged marriage. He peered through the window at the barn and said, “Madam, I doubt you have forgotten what Dr. Ravi said to your brother, Mr. Kumar, on his last visit to his potential bride.”
“I remember well, Mr. Broker. He said he liked my daughter very much. Before he left, he was talking freely and cheerfully to her.”
The broker placed his bag on his lap and gazed at the expensive showcase full of items. He thought deeply about how to continue the story. Suddenly, looking into Luxsmi’s eyes, he said, “Madam, the doctor was concerned about something else.”
Luxsmi frowned deeply as a chill settled on her. She just knew someone had slandered her daughter to the doctor regarding Kilikunchu’s love affair.
The broker continued, “Some people are overly curious perhaps. I don’t really know what to think about the doctor. I’ve been a marriage broker for three decades, and yet I’ve never heard such a curious comment come from any of the other grooms. If I repeat what he said, you’ll think the doctor has some mental health disorder and you’ll say he ought to be sent to a mental hospital.”
Luxsmi struggled to understand. She blinked in bafflement.
The broker said, “Madam, the doctor obtained all he needed to know from Kilikunchu herself---in the same way he finds a patient’s medical history.”
Dr. Ravi hadn’t really told the broker that he wanted a Dodson car. It was the broker who had made up the excuse so he didn’t have to relay the real reason why the doctor wanted to end the arrangement. He didn’t think that Luxsmi would understand the doctor’s philosophy.
Still, not understanding, Luxsmi just continued to stare at the broker.
“Madam, do you remember his inquiries into your daughter’s education and her family’s education?”
“Yes, I do. I do, Mr. Broker. He wanted to know all about our educational qualifications! Mr. Broker, isn’t Dr. Ravi interested in anything apart from education? Education! Education! Silly education!” Luxsmi retorted and looked through the window at the barn where a Red Sindhi cow was leisurely eating straw. She knew that the Red Sindhi cow breeds gave more milk than other breeds and were widely kept for milk production across
When the irritated woman looked again at the broker, he was searching for something in his yellow bag. She asked him, “Please tell me what the doctor said.”
“He said something about…genetics, hereditary, DNA molecules.”
“What?” she exclaimed.
The broker cleared his throat. “He told me that if you plant bitter gourd seeds, you won’t harvest bottle gourds. It is an old Tamil proverb. I think I know what he meant.” The broker looked at Madam Luxsmi, but it was clear that she didn’t understand the doctor’s reasoning. She thought he was just beating about the bush in an effort to increase the dowry. Finally, the broker put it in plain words.
“He wants to marry someone that is more than just beautiful—someone intelligent. He said that since no one in your family has passed even the year ten --- Ordinary Level --- examination, and that your daughter sat the O.L. examination three times and failed to pass more than two subjects that he wanted to break off the arrangement. He is looking for better breeding, Madam.”
“Mr. Broker, you’re talking rubbish!”
The broker got up from the gold coloured settee, thrust the cement factory foreman’s photograph into the yellow bag hanging on his left shoulder, gazed at the woman for a bit, and retorted, “Mrs. Luxsmi Suppiah, he doesn’t want to marry a dud and he doesn’t want to father duds either.”
Madam Luxsmi Suppiah was wondering what Dr. Ravi, the groom, had meant.