(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor: Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
Govindappa Nayakkar looked up at the torch while rubbing lime on a betel leaf. Many thoughts ran through his mind.
He got up and went to the back of the house. His throat felt a bit dry. It’s all because of this white tobacco. He thought.
After rinsing his mouth, he splashed the cold water from the clay pot on his face and limbs. He dried himself with his veshti and entered the kitchen through its side entrance. Alongside some tools, there were unfinished palm leaf fans on the raised platform abutting the kitchen. Kanappa Nayakkar could usually be found in this spot. However, right now he was away with Akkayya and Urkudumban to take the murderer to the village council.
As he stepped into the kitchen, he realized that the women inside were talking about the incident. He said his daughter’s name – Sitamma – as he entered.
The other women stood, shrunk their posture out of respect, and left the kitchen.
Sitamma offered him a curved cup of buttermilk. He drank it, wiped his mouth, and let out a small burp before leaving for the pond shore.
The pond was brimming due to the summer showers. It was cool due to the shade of the trees. Govindappa Nayakkar sat under the peepal tree while murmuring Ram, a holy figure. Each tree had been planted by their ancestors. Now each of them were massive.
The peepal tree had been planted by Mangathayaru Ammal’s son-in-law Kondaya.
The next tree, a fig tree, had been planted by Nunnakonda Srirangaya, ancestor of Nunnakonda Venkatappaya.
The next one, a dye fig tree, had been planted by Konetti Raghavayya.
The banyan tree had been planted by Maneri Senganna.
The punnarasi tree had been planted by Chakkai Bangarayya.
All the trees had been planted and cared for for generations.
When they had decided to settle in the area, they dug the pond as well. At the time it had only been a small dip in the ground surrounded by cacti. They had cleared and levelled the ground to make a grove. Govindappa Nayakkar recalled the tales Mangathayaru Ammal told him about those times.
When Mangathayaru and her family had reached the spot, they thought that this would be the place for them. The water in the dip was clear. There was an old neem tree near it whose shade they sat under. A little to the north was a tall snake’s nest made of dirt pocked with holes like eyes. They circled it three times and ululated while placing the palm leaf box at the nest’s base. After ululating three times, they threw a pinch of dirt onto their heads and into their mouths and rubbed the rest on their foreheads. Grandmother became possessed by a holy spirit. Periyappa caught her just in time before she fell to the ground.
Grandmother sobbed and sobbed. Everyone prostrated before her and asked her to tell them what had overcome her. Grandmother responded in a soft singing voice, “My children, do not be aggrieved at having to leave your homeland and settling down here. Everything belongs to Mother Earth. You’ve gone from one finger on her hand to another. Do not be afraid. I shall always be with you.”
“That’s all we want, Mother!” They replied.
Grandmother held her hand southward. “This undergrowth should be used for your future herds to graze.” She pointed to the east. “Destroy these cacti and use the land for your fields. And build a temple for me in this spot.”
They agreed and prostrated before her again.
Then Grandmother fainted against Periyappa again. With her head in his lap, she fell into a long, deep slumber.
When she woke up, they told her how the divine spirit had possessed her and the orders they had gotten through it.
Grandmother thought of Chennadevi and wept quietly. What a huge loss that had been.
During their exodus on foot, many children and elderly adults had died. But Chennadevi’s death had shaken them.
Though time heals all wounds, memories poking at them will cause them to bleed.
Chenna had found it difficult to walk when they were a few hours from Srirangam. She vomited and had diarrhea. They carried her and made her rest in the corner of a hostel. She developed a high fever that night.
For the past few days she had stopped talking with anyone, suffering in silence. She blamed herself for their plight and fell into a deep depression.
Grandmother was restless. She was upset by the nightmares she had been having.
“Mother, don’t be worried. We can’t stand seeing you like this.” Periyappa said, unable to control his grief.
We knew from her condition that Chenna would be leaving us soon. We were defenseless against the spirit of death hovering around us.
“Chenna, my dear, are you going to leave me?” Chennadevi’s mother wept.
Grandmother then told us we shouldn’t cry at death’s approach.
She had said the same thing when Guruvayya was dying. His wife had been crying a lot and so Grandmother said, “When the soul departs, the tears we have already shed floods the soul’s path and prevents it from leaving. It is better to cry after the soul has left the body.”
Chenna’s head was on Grandmother’s lap. Her feet were on Periyamma’s lap.
It was the auspicious time before dawn when the sun would begin rising with a northward tilt.
Before a human dies, their face becomes calm. This was seen on Chenna’s face. She opened her eyes and looked at everyone. They settled on me for a second longer. Grandmother loudly recited a prayer for Sriranganathar.
“Help me sit.” Chennadevi said. This was her last sentence. Grandmother made her sit on her lap and leaned Chenna against her body. We all looked at Chennadevi.
Her face brightened. Then her head tilted to the side as though she had fallen asleep.
Govindappa! How can I describe it? Death brings a pallor on everyone. But Chenna still looked beautiful.
We were stunned. We could not think, do anything, or even feel hunger. We didn’t know what to do.
People were headed in groups to the Srirangam temple for the festival.
We also got up and walked.
We washed ourselves in the Kaveri. We saw Lord Sriranganathar. Having fed the world, he was now sleeping peacefully.
A huge white parrot with a red beak kept calling the name Ranga.