The Riverbed of Butterflies

(Author: B. Jeyamohan Translation: Suchitra Ramachandran)

(Original Story: படுகை)

Singi used to say that the riverbed of butterflies could be found on the slopes of Pandrimalai, beyond the Pechipparai Dam and the lake. On lonely nights, I can still hear his low-pitched voice and his tone-deaf singing, interrupted by spits and ‘hrumph’s and liquor-reeking belches. His body was like leather; he credited its robust fitness even at the age of eighty to liquor. Those were nights when the only discernable sound was the rustling of palm leaves when they caressed one another. The shadows of leaves swayed on the moonlight streaming down on the threshing floor. On such nights, Singi  tucked his legs underneath his body and sat in that curious way that any mention of his name immediately brought to my mind. Rocking back and forth, he would start tapping a three-fingered beat on the hourglass-shaped udukku’s tough lizard-hide membrane, and begin to sing our town’s tales from seventy years ago. His voice kept going even after Venus rose in the eastern sky in the wee hours of the morning, a single silver spangle between the heads of the palm trees. We rested our backs on beds fashioned out of hay and listened to him, barely awake, flitting in and out of dreams, wandering around in strange trances with Singi’s voice trailing in the background. When we came back to our senses with a start, his voice would still be emerging from the darkness, a solid truth anchoring us in the real world. There would be a glimmer in his eyes. Just before dawn, his head would loll and his voice would break, but never has he actually finished a story. He simply slumped on the ground where he sat. He showed signs of life again only when the sun was high in the sky. Till then, he lay there, surrounded by flecks of spit. Muthamma would come in with a broom in her hand and raise her voice. “What a fine sight! The young masters from good caste getting together with this Paraiyan fellow and lying here like this, heads and feet everywhere! Master, young master…” she would wake us up. “Why do they have to come here, I ask? They could catch a cold, or something worse, and whose loss would that be? No more, I say, not my circus any more. Singi, Singi…look at the way this paraya fellow sleeps! Singi…” she would holler. Singi would lie there, spread-eagled on the bare floor. Next to him lay the udukku, echoing and evoking the sounds it made through the night in our heads. In the light of day, the memories of the night would be distant, almost a dream. During the daytime, Singi would not look like someone who had anything to do with the events of the night. His dark, emaciated body, dew-laden and dusty, would shudder softly with every breath. Rain or shine, it did not matter to him; he was like the sturdy palm tree that stood at the corner of the threshing floor.

Singi used to say that he was born when they were surveying the land to build the Pechipparai Dam – all his stories began with his own birth. Slowly, there would emerge a beat in the story, a length in his lyric, and it would turn into a song. The udukku would join in spontaneously. One of the tales that he never tired of telling was the history of Semban Durai.

Back then, if you travelled past Kulasekharam, it was dark enough to mask an elephant even at the height of the noonday sun. And beyond that, like Mooli Alangari’s tears, it rained thirty days a month. It was a forest where jackals feasted on the leftovers of tigers. You couldn’t see the ground for the lush undergrowth. You couldn’t see the sky for the dense canopy of leaves. And snaking through, like the dirty white thread worn across the body of an old Brahmin priest, was a one-horse track. It wound its way past Pechi’s bosom, past the Perunchani Hill, past the wilderness of Nedumangadu, and landed at the feet of the deity Anantapadmanabhan, in Thiruvananthapuram. That was Pechi’s empire. Save for the nails of wild creatures and the feet of the Kani tribes, nothing, not even the scent of the townspeople, could set foot in there. Pechi was the daughter of Brahma; she was the queen of the hills. She was headstrong and no one could subdue her; it was Semban Durai who finally brought her under his thumb. At first, he lured the Kani people by giving them gifts of palm-sugar and weed. He roamed the forests at his will and pleasure, fearing neither the draughty winds nor death itself. Under his heavy tread, the green of the forest withered brown and wasted away. When the forest animals took sight of him, they tucked their tails between their legs, lowered their snouts and scattered in panic. The birds in the sky beat their wings madly, flailing in agony.  If he raised a finger and made a gesture, “Stop!”, even a tiger would stiffen its tail, squirm its body, lower its face and stop in its tracks. Semban Durai was not a man. He was a black demon, a bhootham, who had formerly stood guard at Indrani’s palace in the kingdom of Indran, king of the gods. As a punishment for his misdeeds, he was cursed to take the form of a man. Bound by the power of word and sound, he descended to earth. The kumpiniyan – Company fellow – controlled the bhootham with more mantras. He made the bhootham lift unliftable loads, perform unspeakable deeds. With boons, with gifts; with mandates, with decrees; came Semban Durai, to subdue Pechi; came Semban Durai; to lord over Valli – so went Singi’s song.

Even when we were children, the Valli river had dwindled to a blue ribbon. In the rainy season, very rarely, you could see it spanning both banks, soil-scented and swirling along. “You should have seen her then! The way she lay, the way she walked… ‘twas Semban Durai who tamed her and put her in place! He got the better of that cunning aruvani’s arrogance!” He pointed to the entrance of the Sivan temple and said that the floodwaters would rise all the way up there in those days. “What do you think you have seen, young master? Do you know how many women that daughter of a widow-whore has herself widowed? The bitch would rush out, sweeping everything in her wake – uprooting banana trees full of fruit clusters and coconut trees with flower-laden heads. See the way the troublemaking moodhi lies now, like a wounded rat-snake, but don’t believe her. She is full of poison. If Semban Durai had not arrived in time, this daughter of a blind whore would have swallowed alive the whole of these parts.” When Singi opened his mouth, Valli was always subjected to a volley of abuse. One rainy season, she had flung her hair open like a banshee and roared down here, and Singi’s father and mother and house and garden had all been washed away to the shores of Thengaipattnam. As Singi used to say, “She’s a blind mooli, a harbinger of misfortune, a blight on the clans.”

It was an evening when the skies were like wet glass. We had gone to see the big dam at Pechipparai. The fierce Valli was left unfettered there; she lay there like a good girl, coyly swirling blue, confined to the bounds of her concrete walls. A little water trickled down the sluice like a tear. The bran-coloured mud on the banks carried impressions of a thousand footprints. Radhakrishnan pointed to a distant hill and said, that’s where you can find Singi’s riverbed of butterflies. The hill that he was pointing to looked like it was made of blue smoke. Just above that, a cloud, softly lit, seemed to have frozen in place like a smooth sculpture of crystal.

There was a man-made garden on this side of the dam. A croton plant, gloriously red, looked like a child from the city who had lost her way and wandered into the forest. The few massive trees planted there had gone to sleep. There was the sound of swirling water, the ruckus of homecoming birds. At the western edge, under a teak tree, lay Semban Durai’s grave. For no apparent reason, they had painted his grave in a blinding shade of yellow. They could have painted it green, Durai’s favourite colour. Or even red. “Look here, little master, you will not believe me. We will never see such a man again, yes? Has the little master ever seen a man who was ruddy white, a semban? Ruddy hair, ruddy eyes, ruddy nose…from head to toe, that man was ruddy white. Don’t know what he ate, but if he opened his mouth in a grin, it looked just like a tiger’s. There was no need for him to say a word; it was enough for him to just look; and just like that, you would wet your pants. He was a bhootham, yes he was. A ruddy white bhootham!”

Semban Durai, the Ruddy-White Master who had conquered Pechi, now lay under a tree reeking of bird droppings, in a lush green thicket, all alone. It was not possible to read the name on the grave. The people who managed the site had recklessly whitewashed over it many times. If only he was able to walk, he would not even be in the area, I said. How could he bear to stay under the shade of croton plants? Why him, even Pechi would have run away from that place, said Radhakrishnan, pointing me to the small form in the place of worship dedicated to her. On a large square-shaped stone platform, there stood a gnarled, knobbled, mighty, old tree.  It was teeming with large, thick leaves. Its branches were low on all four sides and hung over them like a tent. Inside, it was half-dark. The ground was damp and slippery with rotting leaves. The bronze face of the goddess was nailed on to the tree. Under it, there was a dark sacrificial stone. The flowers from a week ago lay scattered there. There were flecks of vermilion smeared everywhere.

I felt like I could hear Singi’s voice in the air.

“’Twas Pechi’s blood

That rained down the hills

’Twas Pechi’s hair

That Semban Durai plucked away…”

The Kani folks leading the way, hunting hounds at his heels, and riding a red steed, Semban Durai went to see Valli, his prospective bride, whom he would conquer and tame. On seeing the virgin girl who rushed past him, curling and swirling, he laughed in amusement. “You like to run? Run on. Let’s see how long you run,” he said. “Semban Durai is not going to turn his back on this place without putting you in your place.” Valli, frightened by his threats, ran to Pechi and poured her heart out. An enraged Pechi confronted Semban Durai in the forest. Elephants hanging down her lobes, a python girdling her breasts; her feet on the hills and her head in the clouds, baring fearsome teeth and poisonous fangs; eyes spitting fire and a thunder-like laugh, she manifested before him, in all her glory. All living creatures stopped in their tracks: a sparrow in flight froze in the sky, a falling cascade hung halfway down the hill. The forests shivered; the skies echoed her thunderous voice. Pechi bared her lightning-teeth and demanded, “Have you come to shear my hair, son? Have you come to restrain my daughter, son?”   

Durai did not flinch. “Pechi, if you are a demon, I am a fiend. Do you think your little games will scare me? Get out of my way and stand aside, you moodhi!” he said. Pechi realized then that he was not an ordinary man, there was some mischief afoot. She made herself as small as she could, and took the form of a petite kurathi, a hill tribeswoman, decked in pearls and sandal paste; and with honey-sweet words and froth-like laughter, she stood coyly before him. She summoned up all her coquetries and smiled at him with meaning. She summoned up a hundred enchantments and argued with conviction. Pechi had the authority ordained by the creator Brahma himself. She had given her daughter, Valli, a boon. To restrain Valli is to restrain Pechi herself. The curse of Brahma would destroy the whole world. Pechi, the queen of the hills, is the goddess who protects the lands. She bestows on them medicines to cure their maladies; offers them fragrances to keep their fasts. She protects them. The wild creatures and the Kani people are her children. No stranger should walk around after having betrayed Pechi. It’s not right to harm her children; Pechi will not stand by and watch it. The anger of a mother will destroy whole clans. End civilizations. Don’t test me, run while you can, she said. Durai would not yield. “Do your best to stop me. I came to marry Valli, subdue her pride, restrain her. I will leave only when she is restrained. Do what you can!” he said.

Pechi was trembling with fury. Banging her fists on her chest, screaming with rage, she turned herself into a hurricane and whirled into the forest, dancing like a dervish in a paroxysm of frenzy. Her dance of fury sent deer flying into the air; the mighty jungle trees shuddered like reeds. She whistled down the mountains and entered the town, sacking it clean. Roofs and eaves took to the skies like kites. Cows and goats were flung into the air and died when they crashed to the ground. On the fourth day, there was a downpour of demoniac rain. Floodwaters barraged the town, melding homes with their gardens, fusing fields with their borders. On the fifth day, came Valli. Her hair flying in the wind like palm fronds, howling, beating her breasts, her red saree cascading like waves, she entered the town. She grabbed everything from the stacks of hay to the pots in the kitchen. At the dawn of the tenth day, the whole town was filled with red mud as if it had been swept clean and smeared with cow dung. No one knew where they had come from, but wherever you turned, there were birds. Crows and eagles and storks and sparrows flapped their wings over the muddy tracts. They quarreled and scraped raucously. All through the night, they sat on the roofs and cried, “Pechiyammo, Pechiyammo! Pechi, my mother! Pechi, my mother!” The townspeople were filled with fear. Was it Brahman’s fury? Indra’s curse? They shuddered. What god had they displeased? They appealed to the goddesses at Malaikkavil and Mudippurai and promised them tributes if they relieved their agony. To quench the fire in their bellies, they foraged for lily tubers and mudfish in the slush.

Pechi would not be appeased. There was no melting her heart of stone. Wearing a leaf-skirt, with a coir-box at her waist, with flaming eyes and bellowing breaths, she walked through the town. “Spare my children, Pechi!” wailed the goddess at Mudippurai, falling at her feet. Pechi grabbed her hair and flung her aside. The sword-and-trident wielding goddess from Malaikkavil came to battle with her; Pechi simply kicked her away. I will not spare you even if Brahma himself orders me to, she cackled. Grabbing a handful of poisonous seeds, she flung them all over the town. Where the poison landed, like a patch of forest land struck by lightning, the place blackened and wasted away. The stench of burning corpses followed at her footsteps. The goddesses at Malaikkavil and Mudippurai stayed in their temples and shed tears of sorrow. There was no one who could restrain Pechi. Indeed, the only one who saw her go about town was the shaman-priest Muthan. “Pechi has descended; now she will not rest till she levels this town,” he announced, running from street to street. Semban Durai had touched Pechi and defiled her; that was the reason for her anger, and that was why their town would be destroyed, he said. He said that to pacify Pechi and cool her down, it was necessary to sacrifice a billy goat and offer her worship on the banks of the Valli. “But where will we go for a goat now, O priest?” pleaded the townspeople. Muthan peered at them through his bloodshot eyes, “It’s enough that you dare to make such excuses to Muthan. Don’t take them to Pechi’s ears. She is a devil,” he warned. Everybody cursed Durai. They expected the priest Muthan who had accused Durai, to perform some black magic against him. That’s not as easy as you think, said Muthan. He told them that he had perceived with his magic that Durai was not a man, but a bhootham. However, the townspeople, faint with hunger, would not agree to an expensive sacrificial ritual.

Singi’s narration was emotional: it was right at that moment that Durai rode in. Mounted on his red horse, with a hat, boots and a fine coat on, and a double-barreled gun in one hand; with the chendai drummer announcing his arrival, the town’s dogs at his feet, and  a couple of Kani men for guard, he entered town. Upon beholding the grand entry of this stranger, the women and children ran away and hid in their houses. When the chendai drummer announced that all the townspeople should gather around, only a few brave men came forward. The drummer said that they needed wage labour to work in the Pechipparai hills. The workers would be given two annas a day and their stomachs full of cooked seeraga samba rice, three times a day. The townspeople hesitated. No way he was going to give them so much food and money, he’s just pulling our legs, they said. Immediately, Durai increased the wage to three annas. The head of the Pulayans clarified the amount a few times and made sure that he was hearing right. Then, “The people from our caste will come, master,” he said, falling at the chendai drummer’s feet. The golden words of three annas and three full meals a day spread like wildfire from town to town. Some elderly Paraiyans were astonished. Is this really happening in Pechi’s empire, they wondered. This signals the end of times; the town will be destroyed, cautioned the upper-caste Nairs. The youngsters spat on the ground, “Tell Pechi to go fuck herself.”  There were waves of hungry masses ready to leave. The priest Muthan went into a trance and pronounced oracles at street corners. “Do you want to see all of Pechi’s power? Should she reveal her whole self to you? Is it not enough, what we have just seen?” he leaped around in a frenzy. Till the first lot left the town, there was confusion all around. “Rather than stay here and stink, it’s better to go there and die. Durai has promised to provide our gruel. As if Pechi allows us to stay here, that moodhi,” said Kandan Pulayan, and left with a group. And from the next day, the whole town started migrating to the hills. Hordes of people and their cattle herds travelled up the Valli river, foraging, eating, shitting, hooting and shrieking, stopping their journey only by night. The sound of their hooves echoed through the muddy towns they passed by. The riverine waterhens, displaced and restless, entered the town and raised their voices plaintively, foreshadowing bad omens. There was panic and deathly silence all through the town. When Muthan saw even the most faithful of the townspeople leave, he couldn’t bear it any longer and jumped in front of them, blocking their way. A teenager called Gnanamani threw him into the river. Later, he kept saying that he thought the man was capable of swimming and surfacing.  However, the priest Muthan was never seen again. A strange excitement had taken root somewhere in their midst and spread through the horde, overtaking them. A group went around, singing merrily at the top of their voices. They danced madly to drumbeats. When the skies turned pink, when they had lit fires beneath the trees to cook their dinners, men and women danced in circles. All eighteen clans forgot all notions of kinship and coupled with each other. Bawdy songs floated through the silent night, piercing the ears of the townspeople who lay in bed, unable to sleep.

Singi said that in the riverbed of butterflies, there are no trees. It is a marshy slope, never completely dry. There, the sun has just light, no heat. The land there becomes moist when touched by the wind. It’s lush, full of green. “You cannot see a green like that anywhere else, young master! When the sun rises up high in the sky, what a scent it kicks up! The fragrance of the green turns your head. And what flowers! The shrubs are full of flowers…sometimes you can’t see the leaves for the petals…red and yellow and blue…what shall I say? Is there any colour that you can’t find there? Is there any flower that you can’t find there? That is Pechi’s womb! And who is she? She is our mother!” he used to say. His eyes would widen. He would stumble over his words. The udukku would be rattling hard. Suddenly, he would lower his head, take a deep breath and start singing.

Semban Durai first planned to imprison Valli at the northern bend of the Koratti hill. It is a place where Valli bashfully bends and gives way as she passes downhill. Ants started to feast on Pechi’s body. They bored through her right breast, and her left breast gorged up. In pain, Pechi turned over and rubbed herself to relieve her agony – just a rub – and the ants and their homes were flattened to dust. Valli, freed of her restraint, cackled and leaped downhill. Where there had been a mountain, there was a pass now. Durai did not lose heart. When he had rice in hand, were ants going to be scarce to find? He tried building again, a short distance away. Pechi’s army of elephants came teeming in the sky above their heads. With their ivory tusks flashing silver, they attacked. Water rained down, bridging land and sky. Valli ran with all the energy of the charging elephants. Like a mighty snake, she wound her body around the various malais, slithering and twitching around the hills. Iluppamalai crumbled down. Kadambamalai had deep cracks in it. Ten days later, when the sky brightened, the footprints had been washed away and the forests were pristine once again. Clusters of green leaves cried, Pechi! Pechi! Valli lay like a satiated python with its belly engorged, curled and languid on the hills.

Durai could also not take it any longer. He fell at Pechi’s feet. “Forgive me Pechi,” he cried, weeping. In the middle of the thickest, darkest jungle, he built a flame pit and subjected himself to a regimen of rigorous, torturous penances. He sacrificed goats and billies. Along with all his brothers – ghosts and goblins and devils and demons- he offered sacrifices to Pechi. Pechi would not yield. He pleaded, he wept.  When nothing else worked, he drew the sword at his waist and pressed the blade to his neck. He bellowed, “Here, take the head of a bhootham. I say this with Brahma himself as witness. Here, take my head and be satisfied.” When he raised the sword, Pechi relented. She took form in the sacrificial fire, she danced manically. She came as the wind and crowed with glee, causing all eight directions to shake and tremble in fear. “My offering, give me my offering!” she demanded. “I want a human sacrifice, and I want it now!” she bayed, dancing in fury. “How many men? Just say how many,” said Durai. “A thousand and one,” said Pechi. “That’s all? I’ll give it,” said Durai, unperturbed. “Where? Where?” demanded Pechi, hopping around impatiently. “On the slopes of Panrimalai, there are a thousand houses. Take them, Pechi. Not a thousand, you moodhi. Five thousand. Take it and be satisfied,” said Durai. She cackled; the forest quaked and trembled. “Promise me, promise me that you will be grateful for the blood you drink!” Durai urged. Pechi danced in fury. She whipped her hair out and slapped it on the ground, in solemn promise.

The next day, even before dawn, Pechi had had her fill. A thousand huts had settled in her belly. For ten days after that, she continued her frenzied dance, and spent all her fury. On the tenth day, as she had promised, she came in front of Durai. Durai sequestered her spirit in an iron nail, and nailed it to the broad trunk of a vengai tree. He ordained a yearly sacrifice and a monthly worship on the full-moon day every month for the goddess Pechi. He made her an offering of turmeric and a sacrifice of a mature black goat and started his work. Valli’s dark days had begun. After Pechi had been subdued, there was no one for her. Semban Durai grabbed her long hair and curled it around his fist, and finally tamed her arrogance.

Bathed in soft sunlight, the riverbed of butterflies on the slopes of Pandrimalai brought back the memories of Singi like an old, familiar ache. There were lush thickets of green as far as the eye could see. Flowers, masses of colours that filled the eyes made it yearn for something. A slight breeze was enough to set up curves on the carpet of flowers. Butterflies everywhere, like flowers in flight. They were unbelievably huge. “Never catch those blasted butterflies, young master,” Singi would say. “Each one of them is the eye of a dead man. Twitching, twitching, they eternally twitch and wander around here, poor souls.” Eyes, flying here, flying there, their eyelashes fluttering urgently. Their gazes everywhere, all around. I caught hold of Radhakrishnan’s hand. “Let’s go,” I said. The butterflies from the riverbed had taken over the slopes and the valley as well. They withered into the water and swirled with it. They fell into the drinking water and twitched in agony. They sat on the large implements that had bored holes through Pechi’s body, on the rails that sucked her lifeblood and took it to far-off cities, and they trembled. Like bits of coloured paper, they were all over the mud. They were stuck to the dark, wet roofs. Their bodies kept hitting the windshields of the buses; they kept slumping down. From within the dewy green of the forest, the butterflies kept coming with no end in sight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.