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Tema: Arundhati Roy ~ Arundati Roj  (Pročitano 22428 puta)
07. Sep 2005, 03:39:25
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The God of Small Things

Arundhati Roy

Chapter 1.
Chapter 2.
Chapter 3.
Chapter 4.
Chapter 5.
Chapter 6.
Chapter 7.
Chapter 8.
Chapter 9.
Chapter 10.
Chapter 11.
Chapter 12.
Chapter 13.
Chapter 14.
Chapter 15.
Chapter 16.
Chapter 17.
Chapter 18.
Chapter 19.
Chapter 20.
Chapter 21.
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Zodijak Gemini
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Poruke Odustao od brojanja
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Apple iPhone 6s
Arundhati Roy
God of Small Things

Chapter 1.
Paradise Pickles & Preserves

   May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
   The nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.
   But by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn moss green. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across flooded roads. Boats ply in the bazaars. And small fish appear in the puddles that fill the PWD potholes on the highways.
   It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenem. Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire. The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat. The walls, streaked with moss, had grown soft, and bulged a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives. In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against a glistening stone. Hopeful yellow bullfrogs cruised the scummy pond for mates. A drenched mongoose flashed across the leaf-strewn driveway.
   The house itself looked empty. The doors and windows were locked. The front verandah bare. Unfurnished. But the skyblue Plymouth with chrome tailfins was still parked outside, and inside, Baby Kochamma was still alive.
   She was Rahel’s baby grandaunt, her grandfather’s younger sister. Her name was really Navomi, Navomi Ipe, but everybody called her Baby. She became Baby Kochamma when she was old enough to be an aunt. Rahel hadn’t come to see her, though. Neither niece nor baby grandaunt labored under any illusions on that account. Rahel had come to see her brother, Estha. They were two-egg twins. “Dizygotic” doctors called them. Born from separate but simultaneously fertilized eggs. Estha—Esthappen was the older by eighteen minutes.
   They never did look much like each other, Estha and Rahel, and even when they were thin-armed children, flat-chested, wormridden and Elvis Presley-puffed, there was none of the usual “Who is who?” and “Which is which?” from oversmiling relatives or the Syrian Orthodox bishops who frequently visited the Ayemenem House for donations.
   The confusion lay in a deeper, more secret place.
   In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
   Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream.
   She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
   She remembers, for instance (though she hadn’t been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches—Estha’s sandwiches, that Estha ate—on the Madras Mail to Madras.
   And these are only the small things.

   Anyway, now she thinks of Estha and Rahel as Them, because, separately, the two of them are no longer what They were or ever thought They would be.
   Ever.
   Their lives have a size and a shape now. Estha has his and Rahel hers.
   Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Limits have appeared like a team of trolls on their separate horizons. Short creatures with long shadows, patrolling the Blurry End. Gentle half-moons have gathered under their eyes and they are as old as Ammu was when she died. Thirty-one.
   Not old.
   Not young.
   But a viable die-able age.

   They were nearly born on a bus, Estha and Rahel. The car in which Baba, their father, was taking Ammu, their mother, to hospital in Shillong to have them, broke down on the winding tea-estate road in Assam. They abandoned the car and flagged down a crowded State Transport bus. With the queer compassion of the very poor for the comparatively well off, or perhaps only because they saw how hugely pregnant Ammu was, seated passengers made room for the couple, and for the rest of the journey Estha and Rahel’s father had to hold their mother’s stomach (with them in it) to prevent it from wobbling. That was before they were divorced and Ammu came back to live in Kerala.
   According to Estha, if they’d been born on the bus, they’d have got free bus rides for the rest of their lives. It wasn’t clear where he’d got this information from, or how he knew these things, but for years the twins harbored a faint resentment against their parents for having diddled them out of a lifetime of free bus rides.
   They also believed that if they were killed on a zebra crossing, the Government would pay for their funerals. They had the definite impression that that was what zebra crossings were meant for. Free funerals. Of course, there were no zebra crossings to get killed on in Ayemenem, or, for that matter, even in Kottayam, which was the nearest town, but they’d seen some from the car window when they went to Cochin, which was a two-hour drive away.

   The Government never paid for Sophie Mol’s funeral because she wasn’t killed on a zebra crossing. She had hers in Ayemenem in the old church with the new paint. She was Estha and Rahel’s cousin, their uncle Chacko’s daughter. She was visiting from England. Estha and Rahel were seven years old when she died. Sophie Mol was almost nine. She had a special child-sized coffin.
   Satin lined.
   Brass handle shined.
   She lay in it in her yellow Crimplene bell-bottoms with her hair in a ribbon and her Made-in-England go-go bag that she loved. Her face was pale and as wrinkled as a dhobi’s thumb from being in water for too long. The congregation gathered around the coffin, and the yellow church swelled like a throat with the sound of sad singing. The priests with curly beards swung pots of frankincense on chains and never smiled at babies the way they did on usual Sundays.
   The long candles on the altar were bent. The short ones weren’t. An old lady masquerading as a distant relative (whom nobody recognized, but who often surfaced next to bodies at funerals-a funeral junkie? A latent necrophiliac?) put cologne on a wad of cotton wool and with a devout and gently challenging air, dabbed it on Sophie Mol’s forehead. Sophie Mol smelled of cologne and coffinwood.
   Margaret Kochamma, Sophie Mol’s English mother, wouldn’t let Chacko, Sophie Mol’s biological father, put his arm around her to comfort her.
   The family stood huddled together. Margaret Kochamma, Chacko, Baby Kochamma, and next to her, her sister-in-law, Mammachi–Estha and Rahel’s (and Sophie Mol’s) grandmother. Mammachi was almost blind and always wore dark glasses when she went out of the house. Her tears trickled down from behind them and trembled along her jaw like raindrops on the edge of a roof. She looked small and ill in her crisp off-white sari. Chacko was Mammachi’s only son. Her own grief grieved her. His devastated her.
   Though Ammu, Estha and Rahel were allowed to attend the funeral, they were made to stand separately, not with the rest of the family. Nobody would look at them.
   It was hot in the church, and the white edges of the arum lilies crisped and curled. A bee died in a coffin flower. Ammu’s hands shook and her hymnbook with it Her skin was cold. Estha stood close to her, barely awake, his aching eyes glittering like glass, his burning cheek against the bare skin of Ammu’s trembling, hymnbook-holding arm.
   Rahel, on the other hand, was wide awake, fiercely vigilant and brittle with exhaustion from her battle against Real Life.
   She noticed that Sophie Mol was awake for her funeral. She showed Rahel Two Things.
   Thing One was the newly painted high dome of the yellow church that Rahel hadn’t ever looked at from the inside. It was painted blue like the sky, with drifting clouds and tiny whizzing jet planes with white trails that crisscrossed in the clouds. It’s true (and must be said) that it would have been easier to notice these things lying in a coffin looking up than standing in the pews, hemmed in by sad hips and hymnbooks.
   Rahel thought of the someone who had taken the trouble to go up there with cans of paint, white for the clouds, blue for the sky, silver for the jets, and brushes, and thinner. She imagined him up there, someone like Velutha, barebodied and shining, sitting on a plank, swinging from the scaffolding in the high dome of the church, painting silver jets in a blue church sky.
   She thought of what would happen if the rope snapped. She imagined him dropping like a dark star out of the sky that he had made. Lying broken on the hot church floor, dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret
   By then Esthappen and Rahel had learned that the world had other ways of breaking men. They were already familiar with the smell. Sicksweet. Like old roses on a breeze.
   Thing Two that Sophie Mol showed Rahel was the bat baby.
   During the funeral service, Rahel watched a small black bat climb up Baby Kochamma’s expensive funeral san with gently clinging curled claws. When it reached the place between her sari and her blouse, her roll of sadness, her bare midriff, Baby Kochamma screamed and hit the air with her hymnbook. The singing stopped for a “Whatisit? Whathappened?” and for a Furrywhirring and a Sariflapping.
   The sad priests dusted out their curly beards with gold-ringed fingers as though hidden spiders had spun sudden cobwebs in them.
   The baby bat flew up into the sky and turned into a jet plane without a crisscrossed trail.
   Only Rahel noticed Sophie Mol’s secret cartwheel in her coffin.
   The sad singing started again and they sang the same sad verse twice. And once more the yellow church swelled like a throat with voices.

   When they lowered Sophie Mol’s coffin into the ground in the little cemetery behind the church, Rahel knew that she still wasn’t dead. She heard (on Sophie Mol’s behalf) the soft sounds of the red mud and the hard sounds of the orange laterite that spoiled the shining coffin polish. She heard the dull thudding through the polished coffin wood, through the satin coffin lining. The sad priests’ voices muffled by mud and wood.


We entrust into thy bands, most merciful Father,
The soul of this our child departed.
And we commit her body to the ground,
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.


   Inside the earth Sophie Mol screamed, and shredded satin with her teeth. But you can’t hear screams through earth and stone.
   Sophie Mol died because she couldn’t breathe.
   Her funeral killed her. Dus to dat to dat to i/us to i/us. On her tombstone it said


A Sunbeam Lent to Us Too Briefly

   Ammu explained later that Too Briefly meant For Too Short a While.

   After the funeral Ammu took the twins back to the Kottayam police station. They were familiar with the place. They had spent a good part of the previous day there. Anticipating the sharp, smoky stink of old urine that permeated the walls and furniture, they clamped their nostrils shut well before the smell began.
   Ammu asked for the Station House Officer, and when she was shown into his office she told him that there had been a terrible mistake and that she wanted to make a statement. She asked to see Velutha.
   Inspector Thomas Mathew’s mustaches bustled like the friendly Air India Maharajah’s, but his eyes were sly and greedy.
   “It’s a little too late for all this, don’t you think?” he said. He spoke the coarse Kottayam dialect of Malayalam. He stared at Ammu’s breasts as he spoke. He said the police knew all they needed to know and that the Kottayam Police didn’t take statements from veshyas or their illegitimate children. Ammu said she’d see about that. Inspector Thomas Mathew came around his desk and approached Ammu with his baton.
   “If I were you,” he said, “I’d go home quietly.” Then he tapped her breasts with his baton. Gently. Tap tap. As though he was choosing mangoes from a basket. Pointing out the ones that he wanted packed and delivered. Inspector Thomas Mathew seemed to know whom he could pick on and whom he couldn’t. Policemen have that instinct.
   Behind him a red and blue board said:

   Politeness.
   Obedience.
   Loyalty.
   Intelligence.
   Courtesy.
   Efficiency.

   When they left the police station Ammu was crying, so Estha and Rahel didn’t ask her what veshya meant. Or, for that matter, illegitimate. It was the first time they’d seen their mother cry. She wasn’t sobbing. Her face was set like stone, but the tears welled up in her eyes and ran down her rigid cheeks. It made the twins sick with feat Ammu’s tears made everything that had so far seemed unreal, real. They went back to Ayemenem by bus. The conductor, a narrow man in khaki, slid towards them on the bus rails. He balanced his bony hips against the back of a seat and clicked his ticket-puncher at Ammu. Where to? the click was meant to mean. Rahel could smell the sheaf of bus tickets and the sourness of the steel bus rails on the conductor’s hands.
   “He’s dead,” Ammu whispered to him. “I’ve killed him.”
   “Ayemenem,” Estha said quickly, before the conductor lost his temper.
   He took the money out of Ammu’s purse. The conductor gave him the tickets. Estha folded them carefully and put them in his pocket. Then he put his little arms around his rigid, weeping mother.

   Two weeks later, Estha was Returned. Ammu was made to send him back to their father, who had by then resigned his lonely tea estate job in Assam and moved to Calcutta to work for a company that made carbon black. He had remarried, stopped drinking (more or less) and suffered only occasional relapses.
   Estha and Rahel hadn’t seen each other since.

   And now, twenty-three years later, their father had re-Returned Estha. He had sent him back to Ayemenem with a suitcase and a letter. The suitcase was full of smart new clothes. Baby Kochamma showed Rahel the letter. It was written in a slanting, feminine, convent-school hand, but the signature underneath was their father’s. Or at least the name was. Rahel wouldn’t have recognized the signature. The letter said that he, their father, had retired from his carbon-black job and was emigrating to Australia, where he had got a job as Chief of Security at a ceramics factory, and that he couldn’t take Estha with him. He wished everybody in Ayemenem the very best and said that he would look in on Estha if he ever came back to India, which, he went on to say, was a bit unlikely.
   Baby Kochamma told Rahel that she could keep the letter if she wanted to. Rahel put it back into its envelope. The paper had grown soft, and folded like cloth.
   She had forgotten just how damp the monsoon air in Ayemenem could be. Swollen cupboards creaked. Locked windows burst open. Books got soft and wavy between their covers. Strange insects appeared like ideas in the evenings and burned themselves on Baby Kochamma’s dim forty-watt bulbs. In the daytime their crisp, incinerated corpses littered the floor and windowsills, and until Kochu Maria swept them away in her plastic dustpan, the air smelled of Something Burning.
   It hadn’t changed, the June Rain.
   Heaven opened and the water hammered down, reviving the reluctant old well, greenmossing the pigless pigsty carpet bombing still, tea-colored puddles the way memory bombs still, tea-colored minds. The grass looked wetgreen and pleased. Happy earthworms frolicked purple in the slush. Green nettles nodded. Trees bent.
   Further away, in the wind and rain, on the banks of the river, in the sudden thunderdarkness of the day, Estha was walking. He was wearing a crushed-strawberry-pink T-shirt, drenched darker now, and he knew that Rahel had come.

   Estha had always been a quiet child, so no one could pinpoint with any degree of accuracy exactly when (the year, if not the month or day) he had stopped talking. Stopped talking altogether, that is. The fact is that there wasn’t an “exactly when.” It had been a gradual winding down and closing shop. A barely noticeable quietening. As though he had simply run out of conversation and had nothing left to say. Yet Estha’s silence was never awkward. Never intrusive. Never noisy. It wasn’t an accusing, protesting silence as much as a sort of estivation, a dormancy, the psychological equivalent of what lungfish do to get themselves through the dry season, except that in Estha’s case the dry season looked as though it would last forever.
   Over time he had acquired the ability to blend into the background of wherever he was—into bookshelves, gardens, curtains, doorways, streets—to appear inanimate, almost invisible to the untrained eye. It usually took strangers a while to notice him even when they were in the same room with him. It took them even longer to notice that he never spoke. Some never noticed at all.
   Estha occupied very little space in the world.

   After Sophie Mol’s funeral, when Estha was Returned, their father sent him to a boys’ school in Calcutta. He was not an exceptional student, but neither was he backward, nor particularly bad at anything. An average student, or Satisfactory work were the usual comments that his teachers wrote in his Annual Progress Reports. Does not participate in Group Activities was another recurring complaint. Though what exactly they meant by `Group Activities’ they never said.
   Estha finished school with mediocre results, but refused to go to college. Instead, much to the initial embarrassment of his father and stepmother, he began to do the housework. As though in his own way he was trying to earn his keep. He did the sweeping, swabbing and all the laundry. He learned to cook and shop for vegetables. Vendors in the bazaar, sitting behind pyramids of oiled, shining vegetables, grew to recognize him and would attend to him amidst the clamoring of their other customers. They gave him rusted film cans in which to put the vegetables he picked. He never bargained. They never cheated him. When the vegetables had been weighed and paid for, they would transfer them to his red plastic shopping basket (onions at the bottom, brinjal and tomatoes on the top) and always a sprig of coriander and a fistful of green chilies for free. Estha carried them home in the crowded tram. A quiet bubble floating on a sea of noise.
   At mealtimes, when he wanted something, he got up and helped himself.
   Once the quietness arrived, it stayed and spread in Estha. It reached out of his head and enfolded him in its swampy arms. It rocked him to the rhythm of an ancient, fetal heartbeat. It sent its stealthy, suckered tentacles inching along the insides of his skull, hoovering the knolls and dells of his memory; dislodging old sentences, whisking them off the tip of his tongue. It stripped his thoughts of the words that described them and left them pared and naked. Unspeakable. Numb. And to an observer therefore, perhaps barely there. Slowly, over the years, Estha withdrew from the world. He grew accustomed to the uneasy octopus that lived inside him and squirted its inky tranquilizer on his past. Gradually the reason for his silence was hidden away, entombed somewhere deep in the soothing folds of the fact of it.
   When Khubchand, his beloved, blind, bald, incontinent seventeen-year-old mongrel, decided to stage a miserable, long drawn-out death, Estha nursed him through his final ordeal as though his own life somehow depended on it. In the last months of his life, Khubchand, who had the best of intentions but the most unreliable of bladders, would drag himself to the top-hinged dog-flap built into the bottom of the door that led out into the back garden, push his head through it and urinate unsteadily, bright yellowly, inside. Then, with bladder empty and conscience clear, he would look up at Estha with opaque green eyes that stood in his grizzled skull like scummy pools and weave his way back to his damp cushion, leaving wet footprints on the floor. As Khubchand lay dying on his cushion, Estha could see the bedroom window reflected in his smooth, purple balls. And the sky beyond. And once a bird that flew across. To Estha—steeped in the smell of old roses, blooded on memories of a broken man—the fact that something so fragile, so unbearably tender had survived, had been allowed to exist, was a miracle. A bird in flight reflected in an old dog’s balls. It made him smile out loud.
   After Khubchand died, Estha started his walking. He walked for hours on end. Initially he patrolled only the neighborhood, but gradually went farther and farther afield.
   People got used to seeing him on the road. A well-dressed man with a quiet walk. His face grew dark and outdoorsy. Rugged. Wrinkled by the sun. He began to look wiser than he really was. Like a fisherman in a city. With sea-secrets in him.
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  Now that he’d been re-Returned, Estha walked all over Ayemenem.
   Some days he walked along the banks of the river that smelled of shit and pesticides bought with World Bank loans. Most of the fish had died. The ones that survived suffered from fin-rot and had broken out in boils.
   Other days he walked down the road. Past the new, freshly baked, iced, Gulf-money houses built by nurses, masons, wire-benders and bank clerks, who worked hard and unhappily in faraway places. Past the resentful older houses tinged green with envy, cowering in their private driveways among their private rubber trees. Each a tottering fiefdom with an epic of its own.
   He walked past the village school that his great-grandfather built for Untouchable children.
   Past Sophie Mol’s yellow church. Past the Ayemenem Youth Kung Fu Club. Past the Tender Buds Nursery School (for Touchables), past the ration shop that sold rice, sugar and bananas that hung in yellow bunches from the roof. Cheap soft-porn magazines about fictitious South Indian sex-fiends were clipped with clothes pegs to ropes that hung from the ceiling. They spun lazily in the warm breeze, tempting honest ration-buyers with glimpses of ripe, naked women lying in pools of fake blood.
   Sometimes Estha walked past Lucky Press —old Comrade K. N. M. Pillai’s printing press, once the Ayemenem office of the Communist Party, where midnight study meetings were held, and pamphlets with rousing lyrics of Marxist Party songs were printed and distributed. The flag that fluttered on the roof had grown limp and old. The red had bled away.
   Comrade Pillai himself came out in the mornings in a graying Aertex vest, his balls silhouetted against his soft white mundu. He oiled himself with warm, peppered coconut oil, kneading his old, loose flesh that stretched willingly off his bones like chewing gum. He lived alone now. His wife, Kalyani, had died of ovarian cancer. His son, Lenin, had moved to Delhi, where he worked as a services contractor for foreign embassies.
   If Comrade Pillai was outside his house oiling himself when Estha walked past, he made it a point to greet him.
   `Estha Mon!” he would call out, in his high, piping voice, frayed and fibrous now, like sugarcane stripped of its bark. `Good morning! Your daily constitutional?”
   Estha would walk past, not rude, not polite. Just quiet
   Comrade Pillai would slap himself all over to get his circulation going. He couldn’t tell whether Estha recognized him after all those years or not. Not that he particularly cared. Though his part in the whole thing had by no means been a small one, Comrade Pillai didn’t hold himself in any way personally responsible for what had happened. He dismissed the whole business as the Inevitable Consequence of Necessary Politics. The old omelette-and-eggs thing. But then, Comrade K. N. M. Pillai was essentially a political man. A professional omeletteer. He walked through the world like a chameleon. Never revealing himself, never appearing not to. Emerging through chaos unscathed.

   He was the first person in Ayemenem to hear of Rahel’s return. The news didn’t perturb him as much as excite his curiosity. Estha was almost a complete stranger to Comrade Pillai. His expulsion from Ayemenem had been so sudden and unceremonious, and so very long ago. But Rahel Comrade Pillai knew well. He had watched her grow up. He wondered what had brought her back. After all these years.

   It had been quiet in Estha’s head until Rahel came. But with her she had brought the sound of passing trains, and the light and shade and light and shade that falls on you if you have a window seat. The world, locked out for years, suddenly flooded in, and now Estha couldn’t hear himself for the noise. Trains. Traffic. Music. The stock market. A dam had burst and savage waters swept everything up in a swirling. Comets, violins, parades, loneliness, clouds, beards, bigots, lists, flags, earthquakes, despair were all swept up in a scrambled swirling.
   And Estha, walking on the riverbank, couldn’t feel the wetness of the rain, or the sudden shudder of the cold puppy that had temporarily adopted him and squelched at his side. He walked past the old mangosteen tree and up to the edge of a laterite spur that jutted out into the river. He squatted on his haunches and rocked himself in the rain. The wet mud under his shoes made rude, sucking sounds. The cold puppy shivered—and watched.

   Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria, the vinegar-hearted, short-tempered, midget cook, were the only people left in the Ayemenem House when Estha was re-Returned. Mammachi, their grandmother, was dead. Chacko lived in Canada now, and ran an unsuccessful antiques business.
   As for Rahel…
   After Ammu died (after the last time she came back to Ayemenem, swollen with cortisone and a rattle in her chest that sounded like a faraway man shouting), Rahel drifted. From school to school. She spent her holidays in Ayemenem, largely ignored by Chacko and Mammachi (grown soft with sorrow, slumped in their bereavement like a pair of drunks in a toddy bar) and largely ignoring Baby Kochamma. In matters related to the raising of Rahel, Chacko and Mammachi tried, but couldn’t. They provided the care (food, clothes, fees), but withdrew the concern.
   The Loss of Sophie Mol stepped softly around the Ayemenem House like a quiet thing in socks. It hid in books and food. In Mammachi’s violin case. In the scabs of the sores on Chacko’s shins that he constantly worried. In his slack, womanish legs.
   It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer than the memory of the life that it purloined. Over the years, as the memory of Sophie Mol (the seeker of small wisdoms: Where do old birds go to die? Why don’t dead ones fall like stones from the sky? The harbinger of harsh reality: You’re both whole wogs and I’m a half one. The guru of gore: I’ve seen a man in an accident with his eyeball twinging on the end of a nerve, like a yo-yo) slowly faded, the Loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and alive. It was always there. Like a fruit in season. Every season. As permanent as a government job. It ushered Rahel through childhood (from school to school to school) into womanhood.
   Rahel was first blacklisted in Nazareth Convent at the age of eleven, when she was caught outside her Housemistress’s garden gate decorating a knob of fresh cow dung with small flowers. At Assembly the next morning she was made to look up depravity in the Oxford Dictionary and read aloud its meaning. “The quality or condition of being depraved or corrupt,” Rahel read, with a row of sternmouthed nuns seated behind her and a sea of sniggering schoolgirl faces in front. “Perverted quality; Moral perversion; The innate corruption of human nature due to original sin; Both the elect and the non-elect come into the world in a state of total d. and alienation from God, and can, of themselves do nothing but sin. J. H. Blunt.”
   Six months later she was expelled after repeated complaints from senior girls. She was accused (quite rightly) of hiding behind doors and deliberately colliding with her seniors. When she was questioned by the Principal about her behavior (cajoled, caned, starved), she eventually admitted that she had done it to find out whether breasts hurt. In that Christian institution, breasts were not acknowledged. They weren’t supposed to exist (and if they didn’t could they hurt?).
   That was the first of three expulsions. The second for smoking. The third for setting fire to her Housemistress’s false-hair bun, which, under duress, Rahel confessed to having stolen.
   In each of the schools she went to, the teachers noted that she:
   (a) Was an extremely polite child.
   (b) Had no friends.
   It appeared to be a civil, solitary form of corruption. Arid for this very reason, they all agreed (savoring their teacherly disapproval, touching it with their tongues, sucking it like a sweet) all the more serious.
   It was, they whispered to each other, as though she didn’t know how to be a girl.

   They weren’t far off the mark.
   Oddly, neglect seemed to have resulted in an accidental release of the spirit.
   Rahel grew up without a brief. Without anybody to arrange a marriage for her. Without anybody who would pay her a dowry and therefore without an obligatory husband looming on her horizon.
   So as long as she wasn’t noisy about it, she remained free to make her own enquiries: into breasts and how much they hurt. Into falsehair buns and how well they burned. Into life and how it ought to be lived.
   When she finished school, she won admission into a mediocre college of architecture in Delhi. It wasn’t the outcome of any serious interest in architecture. Nor even, in fact, of a superficial one. She just happened to take the entrance exam, and happened to get through. The staff were impressed by the size (enormous), rather than the skill, of her charcoal still-life sketches. The careless, reckless lines were mistaken for artistic confidence, though in truth, their creator was no artist.
   She spent eight years in college without finishing the five-year undergraduate course and taking her degree. The fees were low and it wasn’t hard to scratch out a living, staying in the hostel, eating in the subsidized student mess, rarely going to class, working instead as a draftsman in gloomy architectural firms that exploited cheap student labor to render their presentation drawings and to blame when things went wrong. The other students, particularly the boys, were intimidated by Rahel’s waywardness and almost fierce lack of ambition. They left her alone. She was never invited to their nice homes or noisy parties. Even her professors were a little wary of her—her bizarre, impractical building plans, presented on cheap brown paper, her indifference to their passionate critiques.
   She occasionally wrote to Chacko and Mammachi, but never returned to Ayemenem. Not when Mammachi died. Not when Chacko emigrated to Canada.
   It was while she was at the college of architecture that she met Larry McCaslin, who was in Delhi collecting material for his doctoral thesis on `Energy Efficiency in Vernacular Architecture.’ He first noticed Rahel in the school library and then again, a few days later in Khan Market. She was in jeans and a white T-shirt. Part of an old patchwork bedspread was buttoned around her neck and trailed behind her like a cape. Her wild hair was tied back to look straight, though it wasn’t. A tiny diamond gleamed in one nostril. She had absurdly beautiful collarbones and a nice athletic run.
   There goes a jazz tune, Larry McCaslin thought to himself, and followed her into a bookshop, where neither of them looked at books.
   Rahel drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge. With a Sitting Down sense. She returned with him to Boston.
   When Larry held his wife in his arms, her cheek against his heart, he was tall enough to see the top of her head, the dark tumble of her hair. When he put his finger near the corner of her mouth he could feel a tiny pulse. He loved its location. And that faint, uncertain jumping, just under her skin. He would touch it, listening with his eyes, like an expectant father feeling his unborn baby kick inside its mother’s womb.
   He held her as though she was a gift. Given to him in love. Something still and small. Unbearably precious.
   But when they made love he was offended by her eyes. They behaved as though they belonged to someone else. Someone watching. Looking out of the window at the sea. At a boat in the river. Or a passerby in the mist in a hat.
   He was exasperated because he didn’t know what that look meant. He put it somewhere between indifference and despair. He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity. Inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence, he became resilient and truly indifferent Nothing mattered much. Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered. It was never important enough. Because Worse Things had happened. In the country that she came from, poised forever between the terror of war and the horror of peace, Worse Things kept happening.
   So Small God laughed a hollow laugh, and skipped away cheerfully. Like a rich boy in shorts. He whistled, kicked stones. The source of his brittle elation was the relative smallness of his misfortune. He climbed into people’s eyes and became an exasperating expression.
   What Larry McCaslin saw in Rahel’s eyes was not despair at all, but a sort of enforced optimism. And a hollow where Estha’s words had been. He couldn’t be expected to understand that. That the emptiness in one twin was only a version of the quietness in the other. That the two things fitted together. Like stacked spoons. Like familiar lovers’ bodies. –
   After they were divorced, Rahel worked for a few months as a waitress in an Indian restaurant in New York. And then for several years as a night clerk in a bullet-proof cabin at a gas station outside Washington, where drunks occasionally vomited into the till, and pimps propositioned her with more lucrative job offers. Twice she saw men being shot through their car windows. And once a man who had been stabbed, ejected from a moving car with a knife in his back.
   Then Baby Kochamma wrote to say that Estha had been reReturned. Rahel gave up her job at the gas station and left America gladly. To return to Ayemenem. To Estha in the rain.

   In the old house on the hill, Baby Kochamma sat at the dining table rubbing the thick, frothy bitterness out of an elderly cucumber. She was wearing a limp checked seersucker nightgown with puffed sleeves and yellow turmeric stains. Under the table she swung her tiny, manicured feet, like a small child on a high chair. They were puffy with edema, like little foot-shaped air cushions. In the old days, whenever anybody visited Ayemenem, Baby Kochamma made it a point to call attention to their large feet. She would ask to try on their slippers and say, “Look how big for me they are”. Then she would walk around the house in them, lifting her sari a little so that everybody could marvel at her tiny feet.
   She worked on the cucumber with an air of barely concealed triumph. She was delighted that Estha had not spoken to Rahel. That he had looked at her and walked straight past. Into the rain. As he did with everyone else.
   She was eighty-three. Her eyes spread like butter behind her thick glasses.
   “I told you, didn’t I?” she said to Rahel. “What did you expect?’ Special treatment? He’s lost his mind, I’m telling you! He doesn’t recognize people anymore! What did you think?”

   Rahel said nothing.
   She could feel the rhythm of Estha’s rocking, and the wetness of rain on his skin. She could hear the raucous, scrambled world inside his head.
   Baby Kochamma looked up at Rahel uneasily. Already she regretted having written to her about Estha’s return. But then, what else could she have done? Had him on her hands for the rest of her life? Why should she? He wasn’t her responsibility.
   Or was he?
   The silence sat between grandniece and baby grandaunt like a third person. A stranger. Swollen. Noxious. Baby Kochamma reminded herself to lock her bedroom door at night. She tried to think of something to say.
   “How d’you like my bob?”
   With her cucumber hand she touched her new haircut. She left a riveting bitter blob of cucumber froth behind.
   Rahel could think of nothing to say. She watched Baby Kochamma peel her cucumber. Yellow slivers of cucumber skin flecked her bosom. Her hair, dyed jetbiack, was arranged across her scalp like unspooled thread. The dye had stained the skin on her forehead a pale gray, giving her a shadowy second hairline. Rahel noticed that she had started wearing makeup. Lipstick. Kohl. A sly touch of rouge. And because the house was locked and dark, and because she only believed in forty-watt bulbs, her lipstick mouth had shifted slightly off her real mouth.
   She had lost weight on her face and shoulders, which had turned her from being a round person into a conical person. But sitting at the dining table, with her enormous hips concealed, she managed to look almost fragile. The dim, dining-room light had rubbed, the wrinkles off her face, leaving it looking-in a strange, sunken way-younger. She was wearing a lot of jewelry. Rahel’s dead grandmother’s jewelry. All of it. Winking rings. Diamond earrings. Gold bangles and a beautifully crafted flat gold chain that she touched from time to time, reassuring herself that it was there and that it was hers. Like a young bride who couldn’t believe her good fortune.
   She’s living her life backwards, Rahel thought.
   It was a curiously apt observation. Baby Kochamma had lived her life backwards. As a young woman she had renounced the material world, and now, as an old one, she seemed to embrace it. She hugged it and it hugged her back.
   When she was eighteen, Baby Kochamma fell in love with a handsome young Irish monk, Father Mulligan, who was in Kerala for a year on deputation from his seminary in Madras. He was studying Hindu scriptures, in order to be able to denounce them intelligently.
   Every Thursday morning Father Mulligan came to Ayemenem to visit Baby Kochamma’s father, Reverend E. John Ipe, who was a priest of the Mar Thoma church. Reverend Ipe was well known in the Christian community as the man who had been blessed personally by the Patriarch of Antioch, the sovereign head of the Syrian Christian Church—an episode that had become a part of Ayemenem’s folklore.
   In 1876, when Baby Kochamma’s father was seven years old, his father had taken him to see the Patriarch, who was visiting the Syrian Christians of Kerala. They found themselves right in front of a group of people whom the Patriarch was addressing in the westernmost verandah of the Kalleny house, in Cochin. Seizing his opportunity, his father whispered in his young son’s ear and propelled the little fellow forward. The future Reverend, skidding on his heels, rigid with fear, applied his terrified lips to the ring on the Patriarch’s middle finger, leaving it wet with spit The Patriarch wiped his ring on his sleeve, and blessed the little boy. Long after he grew up and became a priest, Reverend Ipe continued to be known as Punnyan Kanj—Little Blessed One—and people came down the river in boats all the way from Alleppey and Ernakulam, with children to be blessed by him.
   Though there was a considerable age difference between Father Mulligan and Reverend Ipe, and though they belonged to different denominations of the Church (whose only common sentiment was their mutual disaffection), both men enjoyed each other’s company, and more often than not, Father Mulligan, would be invited to stay for lunch. Of the two men, only one recognized the sexual excitement that rose like a tide in the slender girl who hovered around the table long after lunch had been cleared away.
   At first Baby Kochamma tried to seduce Father Mulligan with weekly exhibitions of staged charity. Every Thursday morning, just when Father Mulligan was due to arrive, Baby Kochamma forcebathed a poor village child at the well with hard red soap that hurt its protruding ribs.
   “Morning, Father!” Baby Kochamma would call out when she saw him, with a smile on her lips that completely belied the viselike grip that she had on the thin child’s soapslippery arm.
   `Morning to you, Baby!” Father Mulligan would say, stopping and folding his umbrella.
   “There’s something I wanted to ask you, Father,” Baby Kochamma would say. “In First Corinthians, chapter ten, verse twenty-three, it says `All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient,’ Father, how can all things be lawful unto Him? I mean I can understand if some things are lawful unto Him, but—”
   Father Mulligan was more than merely flattered by the emotion he aroused in the attractive young girl who stood before him with a trembling, kissable mouth and blazing, coal-black eyes. For he was young too, and perhaps not wholly unaware that the solemn explanations with which he dispelled her bogus biblical doubts were completely at odds with the thrilling promise he held out in his effulgent emerald eyes.
   Every Thursday, undaunted by the merciless midday sun, they would stand there by the well. The young girl and the intrepid Jesuit, both quaking with unchristian passion. Using the Bible as a ruse to be with each other.
   Invariably, in the middle of their conversation, the unfortunate soapy child that was being force-bathed would manage to slip away, and Father Mulligan would snap back to his senses and say, `Oops! We’d better catch him before a cold does.”
   Then he would reopen his umbrella and walk away in chocolate robes and comfortable sandals, like a high-stepping camel with an appointment to keep. He had young Baby Kochamma’s aching heart on a leash, bumping behind him, lurching over leaves and small stones. Bruised and almost broken.
   A whole year of Thursdays went by. Eventually the time came for Father Mulligan to return to Madras. Since charity had not produced any tangible results, the distraught young Baby Kochamma invested all her hope in faith.
   Displaying a stubborn single-mindedness (which in a young girl in those days was considered as bad as a physical deformity– harelip perhaps, or a clubfoot), Baby Kochamma defied her father’s wishes and became a Roman Catholic. With special dispensation from the Vatican, she took her vows and entered a convent in Madras as a trainee novice. She hoped somehow that this would provide her with legitimate occasion to be with Father Mulligan. She pictured them together, in dark sepulchral rooms with heavy velvet drapes, discussing theology. That was all she wanted. All she ever dared to hope for. Just to be near him. Close enough to smell his beard. To see the coarse weave of his cassock. To love him just by looking at him.
   Very quickly she realized the futility of this endeavor. She found that the senior sisters monopolized the priests and bishops with biblical doubts more sophisticated than hers would ever be, and that it might be years before she got anywhere near Father Mulligan. She grew restless and unhappy in the convent. She developed a stubborn allergic rash on her scalp from the constant chafing of her wimple. She felt she spoke much better English than everybody else. This made her lonelier than ever.
   Within a year of her joining the convent, her father began to receive puzzling letters from her in the mail.


   My dearest Papa, I am well and happy in the service of Our Lady. But Koh-i-noor appears to be unhappy and homesick. My dearest Papa, Today Koh-i-noor vomited after lunch and is running a temperature. My dearest Papa, Convent food does not seem to suit Koh-i-noor though I like it well enough. My dearest Papa, Koh-i-noor is upset because her family seems to neither understand nor care about her wellbeing…


   Other than the fact that it was (at the time) the name of the world’s biggest diamond, Reverend E. John Ipe knew of no other Koh-i-noor. He wondered how a girl with a Muslim name had ended up in a Catholic convent.
   It was Baby Kochamma’s mother who eventually realized that Koh-i-noor was none other than Baby Kochamma herself. She remembered that long ago she had shown Baby Kochamma a copy of her father’s (Baby Kochamma’s grandfather’s) will, in which, describing his grandchildren, he had written: I have seven jewels, one of which is my Koh-i-noor. He went on to bequeath little bits of money and jewelry to each of them, never clarifying which one he considered his Koh-i-noor. Baby Kochamma’s mother realized that Baby Kochamma, for no reason that she could think of, had assumed that he had meant her—and all those years later at the convent, knowing that all her letters were read by the Mother Superior before they were posted, had resurrected Koh-i-noor to communicate her troubles to her family.
   Reverend Ipe went to Madras and withdrew his daughter from the convent. She was glad to leave, but insisted that she would not reconvert, and for the rest of her days remained a Roman Catholic. Reverend Ipe realized that his daughter had by now developed a “reputation” and was unlikely to find a husband. He decided that since she couldn’t have a husband there was no harm in her having an education. So he made arrangements for her to attend a course of study at the University of Rochester in America.
   Two years later, Baby Kochamma returned from Rochester with a diploma in Ornamental Gardening, but more in love with Father Mulligan than ever. There was no trace of the slim, attractive girl that she had been. In her years at Rochester, Baby Kochamma had grown extremely large. In fact, let it be said, obese. Even timid little Chellappen Tailor at Chungam Bridge insisted on charging bush-shirt rates for her sari blouses.
   To keep her from brooding, her father gave Baby Kochamma charge of the front garden of the Ayemenem House, where she raised a fierce, bitter garden that people came all the way from Kottayam to see.
   It was a circular, sloping patch of ground, with a steep gravel driveway – looping around it. Baby Kochamma turned it into a lush maze of dwarf hedges, rocks and gargoyles. The flower she loved the most was the anthurium. Anthurium andraeanum. She had a collection of them, the “Rubrum,” the “Honeymoon,” and a host of Japanese varieties. Their single succulent spathes ranged from shades of mottled black to blood red and glistening orange. Their prominent, stippled spadices always yellow. In the center of Baby Kochamma’s garden, surrounded by beds of cannae and phlox, a marble cherub peed an endless silver arc into a shallow pool in which a single blue lotus bloomed. At each corner of the pool lolled a pink plaster-of-Paris gnome with rosy cheeks and a peaked red cap.
   Baby Kochamma spent her afternoons in her garden. In sari and gum boots. She wielded an enormous pair of hedge shears in her bright-orange gardening gloves. Like a lion tamer she tamed twisting vines and nurtured bristling cacti. She limited bonsai plants and pampered rare orchids. She waged war on the weather. She tried to grow edelweiss and Chinese guava.
   Every night she creamed her feet with real cream and pushed back the cuticles on her toe-nails.
   Recently, after enduring more than half a century of relentless, pernickety attention, the ornamental garden had been abandoned. Left to its own devices, it had grown knotted and wild, like a circus whose animals had forgotten their tricks. The weed that people call Communist Patcha (because it flourished in Kerala like Communism) smothered the more exotic plants. Only the vines kept growing, like toe-nails on a corpse. They reached through the nostrils of the pink plaster gnomes and blossomed in their hollow heads, giving them an expression half surprised, half sneeze-coming.
   The reason for this sudden, unceremonious dumping was a new love. Baby Kochamma had installed a dish antenna on the roof of the Ayemenem house. She presided over the world in her drawing room on satellite TV. The impossible excitement that this engendered in Baby Kochamma wasn’t hard to understand. It wasn’t something that happened gradually. It happened overnight. Blondes, wars, famines, football, sex, music, coups d’etat—they all arrived on the same train. They unpacked together. They stayed at the same hotel. And in Ayemenem, where once the loudest sound had been a musical bus horn, now whole wars, famines, picturesque massacres and Bill Clinton could be summoned up like servants. And so, while her ornamental garden wilted and died, Baby Kochamma followed American NBA league games, one-day cricket and all the Grand Slam tennis tournaments, On weekdays she watched The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara, where brittle blondes with lipstick and hairstyles rigid with spray seduced androids and defended their sexual empires. Baby Kochamma loved their shiny clothes and the smart, bitchy repartee. During the day, disconnected snatches of it came back to her and made her chuckle.
   Kochu Maria, the cook, still wore the thick gold earrings that had disfigured her earlobes forever. She enjoyed the WWF Wrestling Mania shows, where Hulk Hogan and Mr. Perfect, whose necks were wider than their heads, wore spangled Lycra leggings and beat each other up brutally. Kochu Maria’s laugh had that slightly cruel ring to it that young children’s sometimes, have.
   All day they sat in the drawing room, Baby Kochamma on the long-armed planter’s chair or the chaise longue (depending on the condition of her feet), Kochu Maria next to her on the floor (channel surfing when she could), locked together in a noisy television silence. One’s hair snow white, the other’s dyed coal black. They entered all the contests, availed themselves of all the discounts that were advertised and had, on two occasions, won a T-shirt and a thermos flask that Baby Kochamma kept locked away in her cupboard.
   Baby Kochamma loved the Ayemenem house and cherished the furniture that she had inherited by outliving everybody else. Mammachi’s violin and violin stand, the Ooty cupboards, the plastic basket chairs, the Delhi beds, the dressing table from Vienna with cracked ivory knobs. The rosewood dining table that Velutha made.
   She was frightened by the BBC famines and television wars that she encountered while she channel surfed. Her old fears of the Revolution and the Marxist-Leninist menace had been rekindled by new television worries about the growing numbers of desperate and dispossessed people. She viewed ethnic cleansing, famine and genocide as direct threats to her furniture.
   She kept her doors and windows locked, unless she was using them. She used her windows for specific purposes. For a Breath of Fresh Air. To Pay for the Milk. To Let Out a Trapped Wasp (which Kochu Maria was made to chase around the house with a towel).
   She even locked her sad, paint-flaking fridge, where she kept her week’s supply of cream buns that Kochu Maria brought her from Bestbakery in Kottayam. And the two bottles of rice water that she drank instead of ordinary water. On the shelf below the baffle tray, she kept what was left of Mammachi’s willow-pattern dinner service.
   She put the dozen or so bottles of insulin that Rahel brought her in the cheese and butter compartment. She suspected that these days, even the innocent and the round-eyed could be crockery crooks, or cream-bun cravers, or thieving diabetics cruising Ayemenem for imported insulin.

   She didn’t even trust the twins. She deemed them Capable of Anything. Anything at all. They might even steal their present back she thought,—and realized with a pang how quickly she had reverted to thinking of them as though they were a single unit once again. After all those years. Determined not to let the past creep up on her, she altered her thought at once. She. She might steal her present back.
   She looked at Rahel standing at the dining table and noticed the same eerie stealth, the ability to keep very still and very quiet that Estha seemed to have mastered. Baby Kochamma was a little intimidated by Rahel’s quietness.
   “So!” she said, her voice shrill, faltering. `What are your plans? How long will you be staying? Have you decided?”
   Rahel tried to say something. It came our jaded. Like a piece of tin. She walked to the window and opened it. For a Breath of Fresh Air.

   “Shut it when you’ve finished with it,” Baby Kochamma said, and closed her face like a cupboard.

   You couldn’t see the river from the window anymore.
   You could, until Mammachi had had the back verandah closed in with Ayemenem’s first sliding-folding door. The oil portraits of Reverend E. John Ipe and Aleyooty Ammachi (Estha and Rahel’s great-grandparents) were taken down from the back verandah and put up in the front one.
   They hung there now, the Little Blessed One and his wife, on either side of the stuffed, mounted bison head.
   Reverend Ipe smiled his confident-ancestor smile out across the road instead of the river.
   Aleyooty Ammachi looked more hesitant. As though she would have liked to turn around but couldn’t. Perhaps it wasn’t as easy for her to abandon the river. With her eyes she looked in the direction that her husband looked. With her heart she looked away. Her heavy, dull gold kunukku earrings (tokens of the Little Blessed One’s Goodness) had stretched her earlobes and hung all the way down to her shoulders. Through the holes in her ears you could see the hot river and the dark trees that bent into it. And the fishermen in their boats. And the fish.
   Though you couldn’t see the river from the house anymore, like a seashell always has a sea-sense, the Ayemenem House still had a river-sense.
   A rushing, rolling, fishswimming sense.

   From the dining-room window where she stood, with the wind in her hair, Rahel could see the rain drum down on the rusted tin roof of what used to be their grandmother’s pickle factory
   Paradise Pickles & Preserves.
   It lay between the house and the river.
   They used to make pickles, squashes, jams, curry powders and canned pineapples. And banana jam (illegally) after the FPO (Food Products Organization) banned it because according to their specifications it was neither jam nor jelly. Too thin for jelly and too thick for jam. An ambiguous, unclassifiable consistency, they said.
   As per their books.
   Looking back now, to Rahel it seemed as though this difficulty that their family had with classification ran much deeper than the jam-jelly question.
   Perhaps Ammu, Estha and she were the worst transgressors. But it wasn’t just them. It was the others too. They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly.
   It was a time when uncles became fathers, mothers lovers, and cousins died and had funerals.
   It was a time when the unthinkable became thinkable and the impossible really happened.

   Even before Sophie Mol’s funeral, the police found Velutha.
   His arms had goosebumps where the handcuffs touched his skin. Cold handcuffs with a sourmetal smell. Like steel bus rails and the smell of the bus conductor’s hands from holding them.
   After it was all over, Baby Kochamma said, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” As though she had had nothing to do with the Sowing and the Reaping. She returned on her small feet to her cross-stitch embroidery. Her little toes never touched the floor. It was her idea that Estha be Returned.
   Margaret Kochamma’s grief and bitterness at her daughter’s death coiled inside her like an angry spring. She said nothing, but slapped Estha whenever she could in the days she was there before she returned to England.
   Rahel watched Ammu pack Estha’s little trunk.
   “Maybe they’re right,” Ammu’s whisper said. “Maybe a boy does need a Baba.” Rahel saw that her eyes were a redly dead.

   They consulted a Twin Expert in Hyderabad. She wrote back to say that it was not advisable to separate monozygotic twins, but that two-egg twins were no different from ordinary siblings and that while they would certainly suffer the natural distress that children from broken homes underwent, it would be nothing more than that.
   Nothing out of the ordinary.
   And so Estha was Returned in a train with his tin trunk and his beige and pointy shoes rolled into his khaki holdall. First class, overnight on the Madras Mail to Madras and then with a friend of their father’s from Madras to Calcutta.
   He had a tiffin carrier with tomato sandwiches. And an Eagle flask with an eagle. He had terrible pictures in his head.
   Rain. Rushing, inky water. And a smell. Sicksweet. Like old roses on a breeze.
   But worst of all, he carried inside him the memory of a young man with an old man’s mouth. The memory of a swollen face and a smashed, upside-down smile. Of a spreading pool of clear liquid with a bare bulb reflected in it. Of a bloodshot eye that had opened, wandered and then fixed its gaze on him. Estha. And what had Estha done? He had looked into that beloved face and said: Yes.
   Yes, it was him.
   The word Estha’s octopus couldn’t get at: Yes. Hoovering didn’t seem to help. It was lodged there, deep inside some fold or furrow, like a mango hair between molars. That couldn’t be worried loose.

   In a purely practical sense it would probably be correct to say that it all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem. Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house-the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture– must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.
   Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.
   Still, to say that it all began when Sophie Mol came to Ayemenem is only one way of looking at it.
   Equally, it could be argued that it actually began thousands of years ago. Long before the Marxists came. Before the British took Malabar, before the Dutch Ascendency before Vasco da Gama arrived, before the Zamorin’s conquest of Calicut. Before three purple-robed Syrian bishops murdered by the Portuguese were found floating in the sea, with coiled sea serpents riding on their chests and oysters knotted in their tangled beards. It could be argued that it began long before Christianity arrived in a boat and seeped into Kerala like tea from a teabag.
   That it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.
   And how much.
   However, for practical purposes, in a hopelessly practical world…
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Chapter 2.
Pappachi’s Moth

   …it was a skyblue day in December sixty-nine (the nineteen silent). It was the kind of time in the life of a family when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place and make it bubble to the surface and float for a while. In clear view. For everyone to see.
   A skyblue Plymouth, with the sun in its tailfins, sped past young rice fields and old rubber trees on its way to Cochin. Further east, in a small country with similar landscape (jungles, rivers, rice fields, Communists), enough bombs were being dropped to cover all of it in six inches of steel. Here however it was peacetime and the family in the Plymouth traveled without fear or foreboding.
   The Plymouth used to belong to Pappachi, Rahel and Estha’s grandfather. Now that he was dead, it belonged to Mammachi, their grandmother, and Rahel and Estha were on their way to Cochin to see The Sound of Music for the third time. They knew all the songs.
   After that they were all going to stay at Hotel Sea Queen with the oldfood smell. Bookings had been made. Early next morning they would go to Cochin Airport to pick up Chacko’s ex-wife-their English aunt, Margaret Kochamma-and their cousin, Sophie Mol, who were coming from London to spend Christmas at Ayemenem. Earlier that year, Margaret Kochamma’s second husband, Joe, had been killed in a car accident. When Chacko heard about the accident he invited them to Ayemenem. He said that he couldn’t bear to think of them spending a lonely, desolate Christmas in England. In a house full of memories.
   Ammu said that Chacko had never stopped loving Margaret Kochamma. Mammachi disagreed. She liked to believe that he had never loved her in the first place.
   Rahel and Estha had never met Sophie Mol. They’d heard a lot about her though, that last week. From Baby Kochamma, from Kochu Maria, and even Mammachi. None of them had met her either, but they all behaved as though they already knew her. It had been the What Will Sophie Mol Think week.
   That whole week Baby Kochamma eavesdropped relentlessly on the twins’ private conversations, and whenever she caught them speaking in Malayalam, she levied a small fine which was deducted at source. From their pocket money. She made them write lines– “impositions” she called them—I will always speak in English, I will always speak in English. A hundred times each. When they were done, she scored them out with her red pen to make sure that old lines were not recycled for new punishments.
   She had made them practice an English car song for the way back. They had to form the words properly, and be particularly careful about their pronunciation. Prer NUN sea ayshun.


ReJ-Oice in the Lo-Ord Or-Orhvays
And again I say rej-Oice,
RejOice,
RejOice,
And again I say rej-Oice.


   Estha’s full name was Esthappen Yako. Rahel’s was Rahel. For the Time Being they had no surname because Ammu was considering reverting to her maiden name, though she said that choosing between her husband’s name and her father’s name didn’t give a woman much of a choice.
   Estha was wearing his beige and pointy shoes and his Elvis puff. His Special Outing Puff. His favorite Elvis song was “Party.” “Some people like to rock, some people like to roll,” he would croon, when nobody was watching, strumming a badminton racquet, curling his lip like Elvis. “Bat moonin’ an’ a groonin’ gonna satisfy mah soul, less have apardy…”
   Estha had slanting, sleepy eyes and his new front teeth were still uneven on the ends. Rahel’s new teeth were waiting inside her gums, like words in a pen. It puzzled everybody that an eighteenminute age difference could cause such a discrepancy in fronttooth timing.
   Most of Rahel’s hair sat on top of her head like a fountain. It was held together by a Love-in-Tokyo—two beads on a rubber band, nothing to do with Love or Tokyo. In Kerala, Love-in-Tokyos have withstood the test of time, and even today if you were to ask for one at any respectable All Ladies’ Store, that’s what you’d get. Two beads on a rubber band.
   Rahel’s toy wristwatch had the time painted on it. Ten to two. One of her ambitions was to own a watch on which she could change the time whenever she wanted to (which according to her was what Time was meant for in the first place). Her yellow-rimmed red plastic sunglasses made the world look red. Ammu said that they were bad for her eyes and had advised her to wear them as seldom as possible.
   Her Airport Frock was in Ammu’s suitcase. It had special matching knickers.
   Chacko was driving. He was four years older than Ammu. Rahel and Estha couldn’t call him Chachen because when they did, he called them Chetan and Cheduthi. If they called him Ammaven, he called them Appoi and Ammai. If they called him Uncle, he called them Aunty—which was embarrassing in Public. So they called him Chacko.
   Chacko’s room was stacked from floor to ceiling with books. He had read them all and quoted long passages from them for no apparent reason. Or at least none that anyone else could fathom. For instance, that morning, as they drove out through the gate, shouting their good-byes to Mammachi in the verandah, Chacko suddenly said: “Gatsby turned out all right at the end. It is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”
   Everyone was so used to it that they didn’t bother to nudge each other or exchange glances. Chacko had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and was permitted excesses and eccentricities nobody else was.
   He claimed to be writing a Family Biography that the Family would have to pay him not to publish. Ammu said that there was only one person in the family who was a fit candidate for biographical blackmail and that was Chacko himself.
   Of course that was then. Before the Terror.
   In the Plymouth, Ammu was sitting in front, next to Chacko. She was twenty-seven that year, and in the pit of her stomach she carried the cold knowledge that, for her, life had been lived. She had had one chance. She made a mistake. She married the wrong man.
   Ammu finished her schooling the same year that her father retired from his job in Delhi and moved to Ayemenem. Pappachi insisted that a college education was an unnecessary expense for a girl, so Ammu had no choice but to leave Delhi and move with them. There was very little for a young girl to do in Ayemenem other than to wait for marriage proposals while she helped her mother with the housework. Since her father did not have enough money to raise a suitable dowry, no proposals came Ammu’s way. Two years went by. Her eighteenth birthday came and went. Unnoticed, or at least unremarked upon by her parents. Ammu grew desperate. All day she dreamed of escaping from Ayemenem and the clutches of her ill-tempered father and bitter, long-suffering mother. She hatched several wretched little plans. Eventually, one worked. Pappachi agreed to let her spend the summer with a distant aunt who lived in Calcutta.
   There, at someone else’s wedding reception, Ammu met her future husband.
   He was on vacation from his job in Assam, where he worked as an assistant manager of a tea estate. His family were once-wealthy zamindars who had migrated to Calcutta from East Bengal after Partition.
   He was a small man, but well built. Pleasant-looking. He wore old-fashioned spectacles that made him look earnest and completely belied his easygoing charm and juvenile but totally disarming sense of humor. He was twenty-five and had already been working on the tea estates for six years. He hadn’t been to college, which accounted for his schoolboy humor. He proposed to Ammu five days after they first met Ammu didn’t pretend to be in love with him. She just weighed the odds and accepted. She thought that anything, anyone at all, would be better than returning to Ayemenem. She wrote to her parents informing them of her decision. They didn’t reply.
   Ammu had an elaborate Calcutta wedding. Later, looking back on the day, Ammu realized that the slightly feverish glitter in her bridegroom’s eyes had not been love, or even excitement at the prospect of carnal bliss, but approximately eight large pegs of whiskey. Straight. Neat.
   Ammu’s father-in-law was Chairman of the Railway Board and had a Boxing Blue from Cambridge. He was the Secretary of the BABA—the Bengal Amateur Boxing Association. He gave the young couple a custom-painted, powder-pink Fiat as a present which after the wedding he drove off in himself, with all the jewelry and most of the other presents that they had been given. He died before the twins were born—on the operating table, while his gallbladder was being removed. His cremation was attended by all the boxers in Bengal. A congregation of mourners with lantern jaws and broken noses.
   When Ammu and her husband moved to Assam, Ammu, beautiful, young and cheeky, became the toast of the Planters’ Club. She wore backless blouses with her saris and carried a silver lam‚ purse on a chain. She smoked long cigarettes in a silver cigarette holder and learned to blow perfect smoke rings. Her husband turned out to be not just a heavy drinker but a full-blown alcoholic with all an alcoholic’s deviousness and tragic charm. There were things about him that Ammu never understood. Long after she left him, she never stopped wondering why he lied so outrageously when he didn’t need to. Particularly when he didn’t need to. In a conversation with friends he would talk about how much he loved smoked salmon when Ammu knew he hated it. Or he would come home from the club and tell Ammu that he saw Meet Me in St. Louis when they’d actually screened The Bronze Buckaroo. When she confronted him about these things, he never explained or apologized. He just giggled, exasperating Ammu to a degree she never thought herself capable of.
   Ammu was eight months pregnant when war broke out with China. It was October of 1962. Planters’ wives and children were evacuated from Assam. Ammu, too pregnant to travel, remained on the estate. In November, after a hair-raising, bumpy bus ride to Shillong, amidst rumors of Chinese occupation and India’s impending defeat, Estha and Rahel were born. By candlelight. In a hospital with the windows blacked out. They emerged without much fuss, within eighteen minutes of each other. Two little ones, instead of one big one. Twin seals, slick with their mother’s juices. Wrinkled with the effort of being born. Ammu checked them for deformities before she closed her eyes and slept. She counted four eyes, four ears, two mouths, two noses, twenty fingers and twenty perfect toe-nails.
   She didn’t notice the single Siamese soul. She was glad to have them. Their father, stretched out on a hard bench in the hospital corridor, was drunk.
   By the time the twins were two years old their father’s drinking, aggravated by the loneliness of tea estate life, had driven him into an alcoholic stupor. Whole days went by during which he just lay in bed and didn’t go to work. Eventually, his English manager, Mr. Hollick, summoned him to his bungalow for a “serious chat.”
   Ammu sat in the verandah of her home waiting anxiously for her husband to return. She was sure the only reason that Hollick wanted to see him was to sack him. She was surprised when he returned looking despondent but not devastated. Mr. Hollick had proposed something, he told Ammu, that he needed to discuss with her. He began a little diffidently, avoiding her gaze, but he gathered courage as he went along. Viewed practically, in the long run it was a proposition that would benefit both of them, he said. In fact all of them, if they considered the children’s education.
   Mr. Hollick had been frank with his young assistant. He informed him of the complaints he had received from the labor as well as from the other assistant managers.
   “I’m afraid I have no option,” he said, “but to ask for your resignation.”
   He allowed the silence to take its toll. He allowed the pitiful man sitting across the table to begin to shake. To weep. Then Hollick spoke again.
   “Well, actually there may be an option… perhaps we could work something out. Think positive, is what I always say. Count your blessings.” Hollick paused to order a pot of black coffee.
   “You’re a very lucky man, you know, wonderful family, beautiful children, such an attractive wife…” He lit a cigarette and allowed the match to burn until he couldn’t hold it anymore. “An extremely attractive wife…”
   The weeping stopped. Puzzled brown eyes looked into lurid, red-veined, green ones. Over coffee Mr. Hollick proposed that Baba go away for a while. For a holiday. To a clinic perhaps, for treatment. For as long as it took him to get better. And for the period of time that he was away, Mr. Hollick suggested that Ammu be sent to his bungalow to be “looked after.”
   Already there were a number of ragged, lightskinned children on the estate that Hollick had bequeathed on tea-pickers whom he fancied. This was his first incursion into management circles.
   Ammu watched her husband’s mouth move as it formed words. She said nothing. He grew uncomfortable and then infuriated by her silence. Suddenly he lunged at her, grabbed her hair, punched her and then passed out from the effort. Ammu took down the heaviest book she could find in the bookshelf—The Reader’s Digest World Atlas,—and hit him with it as hard as she could. On his head. His legs. His back and shoulders. When he regained consciousness, he was puzzled by his bruises. He apologized abjectly for the violence, but immediately began to badger her about helping with his transfer. This fell into a pattern. Drunken violence followed by postdrunken badgering. Ammu was repelled by the medicinal smell of stale alcohol that seeped through his skin, and the dry, caked vomit that encrusted his mouth like a pie every morning. When his bouts of violence began to include the children, and the war with Pakistan began, Ammu left her husband and returned, unwelcomed, to her parents in Ayemenem. To everything that she had fled from only a few years ago. Except that now she had two young children. And no more dreams.
   Pappachi would not believe her story—not because he thought well of her husband, but simply because he didn’t believe that an Englishman, any Englishman, would covet another man’s wife.
   Ammu loved her children (of course), but their wide-eyed vulnerability and their willingness to love people who didn’t really love them exasperated her and sometimes made her want to hurt them—just as an education, a protection.
   It was as though the window through which their father disappeared had been kept open for anyone to walk in and be welcomed.
   To Ammu, her twins seemed like a pair of small bewildered frogs engrossed in each other’s company, lolloping arm in arm down a highway full of hurtling traffic. Entirely oblivious of what trucks can do to frogs. Ammu watched over them fiercely. Her watchfulness stretched her, made her taut and tense. She was quick to reprimand her children, but even quicker to take offense on their behalf.
   For herself—she knew that there would be no more chances. There was only Ayemenem now. A front verandah and a back verandah. A hot river and a pickle factory.
   And in the background, the constant, high, whining mewl of local disapproval.
   Within the first few months of her return to her parents’ home, Ammu quickly learned to recognize and despise the ugly face of sympathy. Old female relations with incipient beards and several wobbling chins made overnight trips to Ayemenem to commiserate with her about her divorce. They squeezed her knee and gloated. She fought off the urge to slap them. Or twiddle their nipples. With a spanner. Like Chaplin in Modern Times.
   When she looked at herself in her wedding photographs, Ammu felt the woman that looked back at her was someone else. A foolish jeweled bride. Her silk sunset-colored sari shot with gold. Rings on every finger. White dots of sandalwood paste over her arched eyebrows. Looking at herself like this, Ammu’s soft mouth would twist into a small, bitter smile at the memory-not of the wedding itself so much as the fact that she had permitted herself to be so painstakingly decorated before being led to the gallows. It seemed so absurd. So futile.
   Like polishing firewood.
   She went to the village goldsmith and had her heavy wedding ring melted down and made into a thin bangle with snake heads that she put away for Rahel.
   Ammu knew that weddings were not something that could be avoided altogether. At least not practically speaking. But for the rest of her life she advocated small weddings in ordinary clothes. It made them less ghoulish, she thought
   Occasionally, when Ammu listened to songs that she loved on the radio, something stirred inside her. A liquid ache spread under her skin, and she walked out of the world like a witch, to a better, happier place. On days like this there was something restless and untamed about her. As though she had temporarily set aside the morality of motherhood and divorcehood. Even her walk changed from a safe mother-walk to another wilder sort of walk. She wore flowers in her hair and carried magic secrets in her eyes. She spoke to no one. She spent hours on the riverbank with her little plastic transistor shaped like a tangerine. She smoked cigarettes and had midnight swims.

   What was it that gave Ammu this Unsafe Edge? This air of unpredictability? It was what she had battling inside her. An unmixable mix. The infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber. It was this that grew inside her, and eventually led her to love by night the man her children loved by day. To use by night the boat that her children used by day. The boat that Estha sat on, and Rahel found.
   On the days that the radio played Ammu’s songs, everyone was a little wary of her. They sensed somehow that she lived in the penumbral shadows between two worlds, just beyond the grasp of their power. That a woman that they had already damned, now had little left to lose, and could therefore be dangerous. So on the days that the radio played Ammu’s songs, people avoided her, made little loops around her, because everybody agreed that it was best to just Let Her Be.
   On other days she had deep dimples when she smiled.
   She had a delicate, chiseled face, black eyebrows angled like a soaring seagull’s wings, a small straight nose and luminous, nutbrown skin. On that skyblue December day, her wild, curly hair had escaped in wisps in the car wind. Her shoulders in her sleeveless sari blouse shone as though they had been polished with a high-wax shoulder polish. Sometimes she was the most beautiful woman that Estha and Rahel had ever seen. And sometimes she wasn’t

   On the backseat of the Plymouth, between Estha and Rahel, sat Baby Kochamma. Ex-nun, and incumbent baby grandaunt. In the way that the unfortunate sometimes dislike the co-unfortunate, Baby Kochamma disliked the twins, for she considered them doomed, fatherless wail. Worse still, they were Half-Hindu Hybrids whom no self-respecting Syrian Christian would ever marry. She was keen for them to realize that they (like herself) lived on sufferance in the Ayemenem House, their maternal grandmother’s house, where they really had no right to be. Baby Kochamma resented Ammu, because she saw her quarreling with a fate that she, Baby Kochamma herself, felt she had graciously accepted. The fate of the wretched Man-less woman. The sad, Father Mulligan-less Baby Kochamma. She had managed to persuade herself over the years that her unconsummated love for Father Mulligan had been entirely due to her restraint and her determination to do the right thing.
   She subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents’ home. As for a divorced daughter-according to Baby Kochamma, she had no position anywhere at all. And as for a divorced daughter from a love marriage, well, words could not describe Baby Kochamma’s outrage. As for a divorced daughter from a intercommunity love marriage—Baby Kochamma chose to remain quiveringly silent on the subject.
   The twins were too young to understand all this, so Baby Kochamma grudged them their moments of high happiness when a dragonfly they’d caught lifted a small stone off their palms with its legs, or when they had permission to bathe the pigs, or they found an egg hot from a hen. But most of all, she grudged them the comfort they drew from each other. She expected from them some token unhappiness. At the very least.

   On the way back from the airport, Margaret Kochamma would sit in front with Chacko because she used to be his wife. Sophie Mol would sit between them. Ammu would move to the back.
   There would be two flasks of water. Boiled water for Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol, tap water for everybody else.
   The luggage would be in the boot.
   Rahel thought that boot was a lovely word. A much better word, at any rate, than sturdy. Sturdy was a terrible word. Like a dwarf’s name. Sturdy Kosby Oommen—a pleasant, middle-class, God-fearing dwarf with low knees and a side parting.
   On the Plymouth roof rack there was a four-sided, tin-lined, plywood billboard that said, on all four sides, in elaborate writing, Paradise Pickles & Preserves. Below the writing there were painted bottles of mixed-fruit jam and hot-lime pickle in edible oil, with labels that said, in elaborate writing, Paradise Pickles & Preserves.

   Next to the bottles there was a list of all the Paradise products and a kathakali dancer with his face green and skirts swirling. Along the bottom of the S-shaped swirl of his billowing skirt, it said, in an S-shaped swirl, Emperors of the Realm of Taste— which was Comrade K. N. M. Pillai’s unsolicited contribution. It was a literal translation of Ruchi lokatbinde Rayivu, which sounded a little less ludicrous than Emperors of the Realm of Taste. But since Comrade Pillai had already printed them, no one had the heart to ask him to redo the whole print order. So, unhappily, Emperors of the Realm of Taste became a permanent feature on the Paradise Pickle labels.
   Ammu said that the kathakali dancer was a Red Herring and had nothing to do with anything. Chacko said that it gave the products a Regional Flavor and would stand them in good stead—when they entered the Overseas Market.
   Ammu said that the billboard made them look ridiculous. Like a traveling circus. With tailfins.

   Mammachi had started making pickles commercially soon after Pappachi retired from Government service in Delhi and came to live in Ayemenem. The Kottayam Bible Society was having a fair and asked Mammachi to make some of her famous banana jam and tender mango pickle. It sold quickly, and Mammachi found that she had more orders than she could cope with. Thrilled with her success, she decided to persist with the pickles and jam, and soon found herself busy all year round. Pappachi, for his part, was having trouble coping with the ignominy of retirement. He was seventeen years older than Mammachi, and realized with a shock that he was an old man when his wife was still in her prime.
   Though Mammachi had conical corneas and was already practically blind, Pappachi would not help her with the pickle-making because he did not consider pickle-making a suitable job for a highranking ex-Government official. He had always been a jealous man, so he greatly resented the attention his wife was suddenly getting. He slouched about the compound in his immaculately tailored suits, weaving sullen circles around mounds of red chilies and freshly powdered yellow turmeric, watching Mammachi supervise the buying, the weighing, the salting and drying, of limes and tender mangoes. Every night he beat her with a brass flower vase. The beatings weren’t new. What was new was only the frequency with which they took place. One night Pappachi broke the bow of Mammachi’s violin and threw it in the river.
   Then Chacko came home for a summer vacation from Oxford. He had grown to be a big man, and was, in those days, strong from rowing for Balliol. A week after he arrived he found Pappachi beating Mammachi in the study. Chacko strode into the room, caught Pappachi’s vase-hand and twisted it around his back.
   “I never want this to happen again,” he told his father. “Ever.”
   For the rest of that day Pappachi sat in the verandah and stared stonily out at the ornamental garden, ignoring the plates of food that Kochu Maria brought him. Late at night he went into his study and brought out his favorite mahogany rocking chair. He put it down in the middle of the driveway and smashed it into little bits with a plumber’s monkey wrench. He left it there in the moonlight, a heap of varnished wicker and splintered wood. He never touched Mammachi again. But he never spoke to her either as long as he lived. When he needed anything he used Kochu Maria or Baby Kochamma as intermediaries.
   In the evenings, when he knew visitors were expected, he would sit on the verandah and sew buttons that weren’t missing onto his shirts, to create the impression that Mammachi neglected him. To some small degree he did succeed in further corroding Ayemenem’s view of working wives.
   He bought the skyblue Plymouth from an old Englishman in Munnar. He became a familiar sight in Ayemenem, coasting importantly down the narrow road in his wide car looking outwardly elegant but sweating freely inside his woolen suits. He wouldn’t allow Mammachi or anyone else in the family to use it, or even to sit in it. The Plymouth was Pappachi’s revenge.
   Pappachi had been an Imperial Entomologist at the Pusa Institute. After Independence, when the British left, his designation was changed from Imperial Entomologist to Joint Director, Entomology The year he retired, he had risen to a rank equivalent to Director.
   His life’s greatest setback was not having had the moth that be had discovered named after him.
   It fell into his drink one evening while he was sitting in the verandah of a rest house after a long day in the field. As he picked it out he noticed its unusually dense dorsal tufts. He took a closer look. With growing excitement he mounted it, measured it and the next morning placed it in the sun for a few hours for the alcohol to evaporate. Then he caught the first train back to Delhi. To taxonomic attention and, he hoped, fame. After six unbearable months of anxiety, to Pappachi’s intense disappointment he was told that his moth had finally been identified as a slightly unusual race of a well-known species that belonged to the tropical family Lymantriidae.
   The real blow came twelve years later, when, as a consequence of a radical taxonomic reshuffle, lepidopterists decided that Pappachi’s moth was in fact a separate species and genus hitherto unknown to science. By then, of course, Pappachi had retired and moved to Ayemenem. It was too late for him to assert his claim to the discovery. His moth was named after the Acting Director of the Department of Entomology, a junior officer whom Pappachi had always disliked.
   In the years to come, even though he had been ill-humored long before he discovered the moth, Pappachi’s Moth was held responsible for his black moods and sudden bouts of temper. Its pernicious ghost—gray, furry and with unusually dense dorsal tufts—haunted every house that he ever lived in. It tormented him and his children and his children’s children.
   Until the day he died, even in the stifling Ayemenem heat, every single day Pappachi wore a well-pressed three-piece suit and his gold pocket watch. On his dressing table, next to his cologne and silver hairbrush, he kept a picture—of himself as a young man, with his hair slicked down, taken in a photographer’s studio in Vienna, where he had done the six-month diploma course that had qualified him to apply for the post of Imperial Entomologist. It was during those few months they spent in Vienna that Mammachi took her first lessons on the violin. The lessons were abruptly discontinued when Mammachi’s teacher Launsky-Tieffenthal made the mistake of telling Pappachi that his wife was exceptionally talented and in his opinion, potentially concert class.
   Mammachi pasted, in the family photograph album, the clipping from the Indian Express that reported Pappachi’s death. It said:

   Noted entomologist Shri Benaan John Ipe, son of late Rev. E. John Ipe of Ayemenem (popularly known as Punnyan Kunju), suffered a massive heart attack and passed away at the Kottayam General Hospital last night. He developed chest pains around 1:05 AM, and was rushed to hospital. The end came at 2:45 A.M. Shri Ipe had been keeping indifferent health since last six months. He is survived by his wife Soshamma and two children.

   At Pappachi’s funeral, Mammachi cried and her contact lenses slid around in her eyes. Ammu told the twins that Mammachi was crying more because she was used to him than because she loved him. She was used to having him slouching around the pickle factory, and was used to being beaten from time to time. Ammu said that human beings were creatures of habit, and it was amazing the kind of things they could get used to. You only had to look around you, Ammu said, to see that beatings with brass vases were the least of them.
   After the funeral Mammachi asked Rahel to help her to locate and remove her contact lenses with the little orange pipette that came in its own case. Rahel asked Mammachi whether, after Mammachi died, she could inherit the pipette. Ammu took her out of the room and smacked her.
   “I never want to hear you discussing people’s deaths with them again,” she said.

   Estha said Rahel deserved it for being so insensitive.
   The photograph of Pappachi in Vienna, with his hair slicked down, was reframed and put up in the drawing room.
   He was a photogenic man, dapper and carefully groomed, with a little man’s largish head. He had an incipient second chin that would have been emphasized had he looked down or nodded. In the photograph he had taken care to hold his head high enough to hide his double chin, yet not so high as to appear haughty. His lightbrown eyes were polite yet maleficent, as though he was making an effort to be civil to the photographer while plotting to murder his wife. He had a little fleshy knob on the center of his upper lip that drooped down over his lower lip in a sort of effeminate pout—the kind that children who suck their thumbs develop. He had an elongated dimple on his chin, which only served to underline the threat of a lurking manic violence. A sort of contained cruelty. He wore khaki jodhpurs though he had never ridden a horse in his life. His riding boots reflected the photographer’s studio lights. An ivory-handled riding crop lay neatly across his lap.
   There was a watchful stillness to the photograph that lent an underlying chill to the warm room in which it hung.

   When he died, Pappachi left trunks full of expensive suits and a chocolate box full of cuff-links that Chacko distributed among the taxi drivers in Kottayam. They were separated and made into rings and pendants for unmarried daughters’ dowries.
   When the twins asked what cuff-links were for—”To link cuffs together,” Ammu told them—they were thrilled by this morsel of logic in what had so far seemed an illogical language. Cuff + link = cuff-link. This, to them, rivaled the precision and logic of mathematics. Cuff-links gave them an inordinate (if exaggerated) satisfaction, and a real affection for the English language.
   Ammu said that Pappachi was an incurable British-CCP, which was short for chhi-chhi poach and in Hindi meant shit-wiper. Chacko said that the correct word for people like Pappachi was Anglophile. He made Rahel and Estha look up Anglophile in the Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopaedic Dictionary. It said: Person well disposed to the English. Then Estha and Rahel had to look up dispose.
   It said:
   (1) Place suitably in particular order.
   (2) Bring mind into certain state.
   (3) Do what one will with, get off one’s bands, stow away, demolish, finish, r~ settle, consume (food), kill, sell.
   Chacko said that in Pappachi’s case it meant (2) Bring mind into certain state. Which, Chacko said, meant that Pappachi’s mind had been brought into a state which made him like the English.
   Chacko told the twins that, though he hated to admit it, they were all Anglophiles. They were a family of Anglophiles. Pointed in the wrong direction, trapped outside their own history and unable to retrace their steps—because their footprints had been swept away. He explained to them that history was like an old house at night. With all the lamps lit. And ancestors whispering inside.
   “To understand history,” Chacko said, “we have to go inside and listen to what they’re saying. And look at the books and the pictures on the wall. And smell the smells.”
   Estha and Rahel had no doubt that the house Chacko meant was the house on the other side of the river, in the middle of the abandoned rubber estate where they had never been. Kari Saibu’s house. The Black Sahib. The Englishman who had “gone native.” Who spoke Malayalam and wore mundus. Ayemenem’s own Kurtz. Ayemenem his private Heart of Darkness. He had shot himself through the head ten years ago, when his young lover’s parents had taken the boy away from him and sent him to school. After the suicide, the property had become the subject of extensive litigation between Kari Saibu’s cook and his secretary. The house had lain empty for years. Very few people had seen it. But the twins could picture it
   The History House.
   With cool stone floors and dim walls and billowing ship-shaped shadows. Plump, translucent lizards lived behind old pictures, and waxy, crumbling ancestors with tough toe-nails and breath that smelled of yellow maps gossiped in sibilant, papery whispers.
   “But we can’t go in,” Chacko explained, “because we’ve been locked out. And when we look in through the windows, all we see are shadows. And when we try and listen, all we hear is a whispering. And we cannot understand the whispering, because our minds have been invaded by a war. A war that we have won and lost. The very worst sort of war. A war that captures dreams and re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.”
   “Marry our conquerors, is more like it,” Ammu said dryly, referring to Margaret Kochamma. Chacko ignored her. He made the twins look up Despise. It said: To look down upon; to view with contempt, to scorn or disdain.
   Chacko said that in the context of the war he was talking about—the War of Dreams—Despise meant all those things.
   “We’re Prisoners of War,” Chacko said. “Our dreams have been doctored. We belong nowhere. We sail unanchored on troubled seas. We may never be allowed ashore. Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys never happy enough. Our dreams never big enough. Our lives never important enough. To matter.”
   Then, to give Estha and Rahel a sense of Historical Perspective (though Perspective was something which, in the weeks to follow, Chacko himself would sorely lack), he told them about the Earth Woman. He made them imagine that the earth-four thousand six hundred million years old-was a forty-six-year-old woman-as old, say, as Aleyamma Teacher, who gave them Malayalam lessons. It had taken the whole of the Earth Woman’s life for the earth to become what it was. For the oceans to part. For the mountains to rise. The Earth Woman was eleven years old, Chacko said, when the first single-celled organisms appeared. The first animals, creatures like worms and jellyfish, appeared only when she was forty. She was over forty-five-just eight months ago-when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
   “The whole of human civilization as we know it,” Chacko told the twins, “began only two hours ago in the Earth Woman’s life. As long as it takes us to drive from Ayemenem to Cochin.”
   It was an awe-inspiring and humbling thought, Chacko said (Humbling was a nice word, Rahel thought. Humbling along without a care in the world), that the whole of contemporary history the World Wars, the War of Dreams, the Man on the Moon, science, literature, philosophy, the pursuit of knowledge-was no more than a blink of the Earth Woman’s eye.
   “And we, my dears, everything we are and ever will be are just a twinkle in her eye,” Chacko said grandly, lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling.
   When he was in this sort of mood, Chacko used his Reading Aloud voice. His room had a church-feeling. He didn’t care whether anyone was listening to him or not. And if they were, he didn’t care whether or not they had understood what he was saying. Ammu called them his Oxford Moods.
   Later, in the light of all that happened, twinkle seemed completely the wrong word to describe the expression in the Earth Woman’s eye. Twinkle was a word with crinkled, happy edges.
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   Though the Earth Woman made a lasting impression on the twins, it was the History House—so much closer at hand—that really fascinated them. They thought about it often. The house on the other side of the river.
   Looming in the Heart of Darkness.
   A house they couldn’t enter, full of whispers they couldn’t understand.
   They didn’t know then that soon they would go in. That they would cross the river and be where they weren’t supposed to be, with a man they weren’t supposed to love. That they would watch with dinner-plate eyes as history revealed itself to them in the back verandah.
   While other children of their age learned other things, Estha and Rahel learned how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws. They heard its sickening thud. They smelled its smell and never forgot it.
   History’s smell.
   Like old roses on a breeze.
   It would lurk forever in ordinary things. In coat hangers. Tomatoes. In the tar on roads. In certain colors. In the plates at a restaurant. In the absence of words. And the emptiness in eyes.
   They would grow up grappling with ways of living with what happened. They would try to tell themselves that in terms of geological time it was an insignificant event. Just a blink of the Earth Woman’s eye. That Worse Things had happened. That Worse Things kept happening. But they would find no comfort in the thought.

   Chacko said that going to see The Sound of Music was an extended exercise in Anglophilia.
   Ammu said, “Oh come on, the whole world goes to see The Sound of Music. It’s a World Hit.”
   “Nevertheless, my dear,” Chacko said in his Reading Aloud voice, `Never. The. Less.”
   Mammachi often said that Chacko was easily one of the cleverest men in India. “According to whom?” Ammu would say. “On what basis?” Mammachi loved to tell the story (Chacko’s story) of how one of the dons at Oxford had said that in his opinion, Chacko was brilliant, and made of prime ministerial material.
   To this, Ammu always said “Hal Ha! Ha!” like people in the comics. She said:
   (a)Going to Oxford didn’t necessarily make a person clever.
   (b)Cleverness didn’t necessarily make a good prime minister.
   (c)If a person couldn’t even run a pickle factory profitably, how was that person going to run a whole country?
   And, most important of all:
   (d)All Indian mothers are obsessed with their sons and are therefore poor judges of their abilities.
   Chacko said:
   (a)You don’t go to Oxford. You read at Oxford.
   And
   (b)After reading at Oxford you come down.
   “Down to earth, d’you mean?” Ammu would ask. “That you definitely do. Like your famous airplanes.”
   Ammu said that the sad but entirely predictable fate of Chacko’s airplanes was an impartial measure of his abilities.

   Once a month (except during the monsoons), a parcel would arrive for Chacko by VPP. It always contained a balsa aeromodeling kit. It usually took Chacko between eight and ten days to assemble the aircraft, with its tiny fuel tank and motorized propeller. When it was ready, he would rake Estha and Rahel to the rice fields in Nattakom to help him fly it. It never flew for more than a minute. Month after month, Chacko’s carefully constructed planes crashed in the slushgreen paddy fields into which Estha and Rahel would spurt, like trained retrievers, to salvage the remains.
   A tail, a tank, a wing.
   A wounded machine.
   Chacko’s room was cluttered with broken wooden planes. And every month, another kit would arrive. Chacko never blamed the crashes on the kit.

   It was only after Pappachi died that Chacko resigned his job as lecturer at the Madras Christian College, and came to Ayemenem with his Balliol Oar and his Pickle Baron dreams. He commuted his pension and provident fund to buy a Bharat bottle-sealing machine. His oar (with his team-mates’ names inscribed in gold) hung from iron hoops on the factory wall.
   Up to the time Chacko arrived, the factory had been a small but profitable enterprise. Mammachi just ran it like a large kitchen. Chacko had it registered as a partnership and informed Mammachi that she was the Sleeping Partner. He invested in equipment (can fling machines, cauldrons, cookers) and expanded the labor force. Almost immediately, the financial slide began, but was artificially buoyed by extravagant bank loans that Chacko raised by mortgaging the family’s rice fields around the Ayemenem House. Though Ammu did as much work in the factory as Chacko, whenever he was dealing with food inspectors or sanitary engineers, he always referred to it as my Factory, my pineapples, my pickles. Legally this was the case, because Ammu, as a daughter, had no claim to the property.
   Chacko told Rahel and Estha that Ammu had no Locusts Stand I. “Thanks to our wonderful male chauvinist society,” Ammu said. Chacko said, “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is also mine.’ He had a surprisingly high laugh for a man of his size and fatness. And when he laughed, he shook all over without appearing to move.
   Until Chacko arrived in Ayemenem, Mammachi’s factory had no name. Everybody just referred to her pickles and jams as Sosha’s Tender Mango, or Sosha’s Bananajam. Sosha was Mammachi’s first name. Soshamma.
   It was Chacko who christened the factory Paradise Pickles & Preserves and had labels designed and printed at Comrade K. N. M. Pillai’s press. At first he had wanted to call it Zeus Pickles & Preserves, but that idea was vetoed because everybody said that Zeus was too obscure and had no local relevance, whereas Paradise did. (Comrade Pillai’s suggestion—Parashuram Pickles—was vetoed for the opposite reason: too much local relevance.)
   It was Chacko’s idea to have a billboard painted and installed on the Plymouth’s roof rack.

   Now, on the way to Cochin, it rattled and made fallingoff noises. Near Vaikom they had to stop and buy some rope to secure it more firmly. That delayed them by another twenty minutes. Rahel began to worry about being late for The Sound of Music.
   Then, as they approached the outskirts of Cochin, the red and white arm of the railway level-crossing gate went down. Rahel knew that this had happened because she had been hoping that it wouldn’t.
   She hadn’t learned to control her Hopes yet. Estha said that was a Bad Sign.
   So now they were going to miss the beginning of the picture. When Julie Andrews starts off as a speck on the hill and gets bigger and bigger till she bursts onto the screen with her voice like cold water and her breath like peppermint.
   The red sign on the red and white arm said STOP in white.
   “POTS,” Rahel said.
   A yellow hoarding said BE INDIAN, BUY INDIAN in red.
   “NAIDNI YUB, NAIDNI EB,” Estha said.
   The twins were precocious with their reading. They had raced through Old Dog Tom, Janet and John and their Ronald Ridout Workbooks. At night Ammu read to them from Kipling’s Jungle Book.
   Now Chil the Kite brings home the night
   That Mang the Bat sets free—
   The down on their arms would stand on end, golden in the light of the bedside lamp. As she read, Ammu could make her voice gravelly, like Shere Khan’s. Or whining, like Tabaqui’s.
   “‘Ye choose and ye do not choose.’ What talk is this of choosing? By the bull that I killed, am I to stand nosing into your dog’s den till my fair dues? It is I, Shere Khan, who speak! ”
   “And it is I, Raksha, who answer! ” the twins would shout in high voices. Not together, but almost. “The man’s cub is mine, Lungri—mine to me! He shall not be killed. He shall live to run with the pack and to bunt with the pack; and in the end, look you, hunter of little naked cubs—frogeater—fish-killer—he shall bunt thee! ”
   Baby Kochamma, who had been put in charge of their formal education, had read them an abridged version of The Tempest by Charles and Mary Lamb. “Where the bee sucks, there suck I,” Estha and Rahel would go about saying, “In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”
   So when Baby Kochamma’s Australian missionary friend, Miss Mitten, gave Estha and Rahel a baby book—The Adventures of Susie Squirrel— as a present when she visited Ayemenem, they were deeply offended. First they read it forwards. Miss Mitten, who belonged to a sect of Born-Again Christians, said that she was a Little Disappointed in them when they read it aloud to her, backwards.
   “ehT sertanrvdA fo eisuS lerriuqS.
   enO gnirps gninrom eisuS lerriuqS ekow pu.”
   They showed Miss Mitten how it was possible to read both Malayalam and Madam I’m Adam backwards as well as forwards. She wasn’t amused and it turned out that she didn’t even know what Malayalam was. They told her it was the language everyone spoke in Kerala. She said she had been under the impression that it was called Keralese. Estha, who had by then taken an active dislike to Miss Mitten, told her that as far as he was concerned it was a Highly Stupid Impression.
   Miss Mitten complained to Baby Kochamma about Estha’s rudeness, and about their reading backwards. She told Baby Kochamma that she had seen Satan in their eyes. nataS ni rieht seye.
   They were made to write “In future we will not read backwards. In future we will not read backwards”. A hundred times. Forwards.
   A few months later Miss Mitten was killed by a milk van in Hobart, across the road from a cricket oval. To the twins there was hidden justice in the fact that the milk van had been reversing.

   More buses and cars had stopped on either side of the level crossing. An ambulance that said SACRED HEART HOSPITAL was full of a party of people on their way to a wedding. The bride was staring out of the back window, her face partially obscured by the flaking paint of the huge red cross.
   The buses all had girls’ names. Lucykutty, Mollykutty, Beena Mol. In Malayalam, Mol is Little Girl and Mon is Little Boy. Beena Mol was full of pilgrims who’d had their heads shaved at Tirupan. Rahel could see a row of bald heads at the bus window, above evenly spaced vomit streaks. She was more than a little curious about vomiting. She had never vomited. Not once. Estha had, and when he did, his skin grew hot and shiny, and his eyes helpless and beautiful, and Ammu loved him more than usual. Chacko said that Estha and Rahel were indecently healthy. And so was Sophie Mol. He said it was because they didn’t suffer from Inbreeding like most Syrian Christians. And Parsis.
   Mammachi said that what her grandchildren suffered from was far worse than Inbreeding. She meant having parents who were divorced. As though these were the only choices available to people:
   Inbreeding or Divorce.
   Rahel wasn’t sure what she suffered from, but occasionally she practiced sad faces, and sighing in the mirror.
   “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done, ” she would say to herself sadly. That was Rahel being Sydney Carton being Charles Darnay, as he stood on the steps, waiting to be guillotined, in the Classics Illustrated comic’s version of A Tale of Two Cities.
   She wondered what had caused the bald pilgrims to vomit so uniformly, and whether they had vomited together in a single, well orchestrated heave (to music perhaps, to the rhythm of a bus bhajan), or separately, one at a time.
   Initially, when the level crossing had just closed, the air was full of the impatient sound of idling engines. But when the man that manned the crossing came out of his booth, on his backwards-bending legs and signaled with his limp, flapping walk to the tea stall that they were in for a long wait, drivers switched off their engines and milled about, stretching their legs.
   With a desultory nod of his bored and sleepy head, the Level Crossing Divinity conjured up beggars with bandages, men with trays selling pieces of fresh coconut, parippu vadas on banana leaves. And cold drinks. Coca-Cola, Fanta, Rosemilk.
   A leper with soiled bandages begged at the car window.
   “That looks like Mercurochrome to me,” Ammu said, of his inordinately bright blood.
   “Congratulations,” Chacko said. “Spoken like a true bourgeoise.” Ammu smiled and they shook hands, as though she really was being awarded a Certificate of Merit for being an honest-to-goodness Genuine Bourgeoise. Moments like these the twins treasured, and threaded like precious beads, on a (somewhat scanty) necklace.
   Rahel and Estha squashed their noses against the Plymouth’s quarter-windows. Yearning marshmallows with cloudy children behind them. Ammu said “No” firmly, and with conviction.
   Chacko lit a Charminar. He inhaled deeply and then removed a little flake of tobacco that had stayed behind on his tongue.
   Inside the Plymouth, it wasn’t easy for Rahel to see Estha, because Baby Kochamma rose between them like a hill. Ammu had insisted that they sit separately to prevent them from fighting. When they fought, Estha called Rahel a Refugee Stick Insect Rahel called him Elvis the Pelvis and did a twisty; funny kind of dance that infuriated Estha. When they had serious physical fights, they were so evenly matched that the fights went on forever, and things that came in their way-table lamps, ashtrays and water jugs-were smashed or irreparably damaged.
   Baby Kochamma was holding on to the back of the front seat with her arms. When the car moved, her armfat swung like heavy washing in the wind. Now it hung down like a fleshy curtain, blocking Estha from Rahel.
   On Estha’s side of the road was a tea shack that sold tea and stale glucose biscuits in dim glass cases with flies. There was lemon soda in thick bottles with blue marble stoppers to keep the fizz in. And a red icebox that said rather sadly


Things Go Better with Coca-Cola

   Murlidharan, the level-crossing lunatic, perched cross-legged and perfectly balanced on the milestone. His balls and penis dangled down, pointing towards the sign which said


COCHIN
23 KM

   Murlidharan was naked except for the tall plastic bag that somebody had fitted onto his head like a transparent chef’s cap, through which the view of the landscape continued-dimmed, chef– shaped, but uninterrupted. He couldn’t remove his cap even if he had wanted to, because he had no arms. They had been blown off in Singapore in ‘42, within the first week of his running away from home to join the fighting ranks of the Indian National Army. After Independence he had himself registered as a Grade I Freedom Fighter and had been allotted a free first-class railway pass for life. This too he had lost (along with his mind), so he could no longer live on trains or in refreshment rooms in railway stations. Murlidharan had no home, no doors to lock, but he had his old keys tied carefully around his waist. In a shining bunch. His mind was full of cupboards, cluttered with secret pleasures.
   An alarm clock. A red car with a musical horn. A red mug for the bathroom. A wife with a diamond. A briefcase with important papers. A coming home from the office. An I’m sorry Colonel Sabhapathy, but I’m afraid I’ve said my say. And crisp banana chips for the children.
   He watched the trains come and go. He counted his keys.
   He watched governments rise and fall. He counted his keys.
   He watched cloudy children at car windows with yearning marshmallow noses.
   The homeless, the helpless, the sick, the small and lost, all filed past his window. Still he counted his keys.
   He was never sure which cupboard he might have to open, or when. He sat on the burning milestone with his matted hair and eyes like windows, and was glad to be able to look away sometimes. To have his keys to count and countercheck.
   Numbers would do.
   Numbness would be fine.
   Murlidharan moved his mouth when he counted, and made well-formed words.
   Onner.
   Runter.
   Moonner.
   Estha noticed that the hair on his head was curly gray, the hair in his windy, armless armpits was wispy black, and the hair in his crotch was black and springy. One man with three kinds of hair. Estha wondered how that could be. He tried to think of whom to ask.

   The Waiting filled Rahel until she was ready to burst. She looked at her watch. It was ten to two. She thought of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer kissing each other sideways so that their noses didn’t collide. She wondered whether people always kissed each other sideways. She tried to think of whom to ask.
   Then, from a distance, a hum approached the held-up traffic and covered it like a cloak. The drivers who’d been stretching their legs got back into their vehicles and slammed doors. The beggars and vendors disappeared. Within minutes there was no one on the road. Except Murlidharan. Perched with his bum on the burning milestone. Unperturbed and only mildly curious.
   There was hustle-bustle. And Police whistles.
   From behind the line of waiting, oncoming traffic, a column of men appeared, with red flags and banners and a hum that grew and grew.
   “Put up your windows,” Chacko said. “And stay calm. They’re not going to hurt us.”
   “Why not join them, comrade?” Ammu said to Chacko. “I’ll drive.”
   Chacko said nothing. A muscle tensed below the wad of fat on his jaw. He tossed away his cigarette and rolled up his window.

   Chacko was a self-proclaimed Marxist. He would call pretty women who worked in the factory to his room, and on the pretext of lecturing them on labor rights and trade union law, flirt with them outrageously. He would call them Comrade, and insist that they call him Comrade back (which made them giggle). Much to their embarrassment and Mammachi’s dismay, he forced them to sit at table with him and drink tea.
   Once he even took a group of them to attend Trade Union classes that were held in Alleppey. They went by bus and returned by boat. They came back happy, with glass bangles and flowers in their hair.
   Ammu said it was all hogwash. Just a case of a spoiled princeling playing Comrade. Comrade! An Oxford avatar of the old zamindar mentality—a landlord forcing his attentions on women who depended on him for their livelihood.
   As the marchers approached, Ammu put up her window. Estha his. Rahel hers. (Effortfully, because the black knob on the handle had fallen off.)
   Suddenly the skyblue Plymouth looked absurdly opulent on the narrow, pitted road. Like a wide lady squeezing down a narrow corridor Like Baby Kochamma in church, on her way to the bread and wine.
   “Look down!” Baby Kochamma said, as the front ranks of the procession approached the car. “Avoid eye contact. That’s what really provokes them”
   On the side of her neck, her pulse was. pounding. Within minutes, the road was swamped by thousands of marching people. Automobile islands in a river of people. The air was red with flags, which dipped and lifted as the marchers ducked under the level-crossing gate and swept across the railway tracks in a red wave.
   The sound of a thousand voices spread over the frozen traffic like a Noise Umbrella.
   Inquilab Zindabad!
   Thozhilali Ekta Zindabad!
   “Long Live the Revolution!” they shouted. “Workers of the World Unite!”

   Even Chacko had no really complete explanation for why the Communist Party was so much more successful in Kerala than it had been almost anywhere else in India, except perhaps in West Bengal.
   There were several competing theories. One was that it had to do with the large population of Christians in the state. Twenty percent of Kerala’s population were Syrian Christians, who believed that they were descendants of the one hundred Brahmins whom St. Thomas the Apostle converted to Christianity when he traveled East after the Resurrection. Structurally—this somewhat rudimentary argument went—Marxism was a simple substitute for Christianity Replace God with Marx, Satan with the bourgeoisie, Heaven with a classless society the Church with the Party, and the form and purpose of the journey remained similar. An obstacle race, with a prize at the end. Whereas the Hindu mind had to make more complex adjustments.
   The trouble with this theory was that in Kerala the Syrian Christians were, by and large, the wealthy, estate-owning (picklefactory-running), feudal lords, for whom communism represented a fate worse than death. They had always voted for the Congress Party.
   A second theory claimed that it had to do with the comparatively high level of literacy in the state. Perhaps. Except that the high literacy level was largely because of the Communist movement.
   The real secret was that communism crept into Kerala insidiously. As a reformist movement that never overtly questioned the traditional values of a caste-ridden, extremely traditional community. The Marxists worked from within the communal divides, never challenging them, never appearing not to. They offered a cocktail revolution. A heady mix of Eastern Marxism and orthodox Hinduism, spiked with a shot of democracy.
   Though Chacko was not a card-holding member of the Party, he had been converted early and had remained, through all its travails, a committed supporter.
   He was an undergraduate at Delhi University during the euphoria of 1957, when the Communists won the State Assembly elections and Nehru invited them to form a government. Chacko’s hero, Comrade E. M. S. Namboodiripad, the flamboyant Brahmin high priest of Marxism in Kerala, became Chief Minister of the first ever democratically elected Communist government in the world. Suddenly the Communists found themselves in the extraordinary– critics said absurd—position of having to govern a people and foment revolution simultaneously. Comrade E. M. S. Namboodiripad evolved his own theory about how he would do this. Chacko studied his treatise on “The Peaceful Transition to Communism” with an adolescent’s obsessive diligence and an ardent fan’s unquestioning approval. It set out in detail how Comrade E. M. S. Namtoodiripad’s government intended to enforce land reforms, neutralize the police, subvert the judiciary and “Restrain the Hand of the Reactionary anti-People Congress Government at the Center.”
   Unfortunately, before the year was out, the Peaceful part of the Peaceful Transition came to an end.
   Every morning at breakfast the Imperial Entomologist derided his argumentative Marxist son by reading out newspaper reports of the riots, strikes and incidents of police brutality that convulsed Kerala.
   “So, Karl Marx,” Pappachi would sneer when Chacko came to the table, “what shall we do with these bloody students flow? The stupid goons are agitating against our People’s Government Shall we annihilate them? Surely students aren’t People anymore?”
   Over the next two years the political discord, fueled by the Congress Party and the Church, slid into anarchy. By the time Chacko finished his BA and left for Oxford to do another one, Kerala was on the brink of civil war. Nehru dismissed the Communist government and announced fresh elections. The Congress Party returned to power.
   It was only in 1967—almost exactly ten years after they first came to power-that Comrade E. M. S. Namboodiripad’s party was re-elected. This time as part of a coalition between what had by now become two separate parties—the Communist Party of India, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The CPI and the CPI(M).
   Pappachi was dead by then. Chacko divorced. Paradise Pickles was seven years old.
   Kerala was reeling in the aftermath of famine and a failed monsoon. People were dying. Hunger had to be very high up on any government list of priorities.
   During his second term in office, Comrade E. M. S. went about implementing the Peaceful Transition more soberly. This earned him the wrath of the Chinese Communist Party. They denounced him for his “Parliamentary Cretinism” and accused him of “providing relief to the people and thereby blunting the People’s Consciousness and diverting them from the Revolution.”
   Peking switched its patronage to the newest, most militant faction of the CPI(M)—the Naxalites—who had staged an armed insurrection in Naxalbari, a village in Bengal. They organized peasants into fighting cadres, seized land, expelled the owners and established People’s Courts to try Class Enemies. The Naxalite movement spread across the country and struck terror in every bourgeois heart.
   In Kerala, they breathed a plume of excitement and fear into the already frightened air. Killings had begun in the north. That May there was a blurred photograph in the papers of a landlord in Palghat who had been tied to a lamp post and beheaded. His head lay on its side, some distance away from his body, in a dark puddle that could have been water, could have been blood. It was hard to tell in black and white. In the gray, predawn light.
   His surprised eyes were open.

   Comrade E. M. S. Namboodiripad (Running Dog, Soviet Stooge) expelled the Naxalites from his party and went on with the business of harnessing anger for parliamentary purposes.
   The March that surged around the skyblue Plymouth on that skyblue December day was a part of that process. It had been organized by the Travancore-Cochin Marxist Labour Union. Their comrades in Trivandrum would march to the Secretariat and present the Charter of People’s Demands to Comrade E. M. S. himself. The orchestra petitioning its conductor. Their demands were that paddy workers, who were made to work in the fields for eleven and a half hours a day-from seven in the morning to six-thirty in the evening-be permitted to take a one-hour lunch break. That women’s wages be increased from one rupee twenty-five paisa a day to three rupees, and men’s from two rupees fifty paisa to four rupees fifty paisa a day. They were also demanding that Untouchables no longer be addressed by their caste names. They demanded not to be addressed as Achoo Parayan, or Kelan Paravan, or Kuttan Pulayan, but just as Achoo, or Kelan or Kuttan.
   Cardamon Kings, Coffee Counts and Rubber Barons—old boarding-school buddies—came down from their lonely, far-flung estates and sipped chilled beer at the Sailing Club. They raised their glasses: A rose by any other name, they said, and sniggered to hide their rising panic.

   The marchers that day were party workers, students and the laborers themselves. Touchables and Untouchables. On their shoulders they carried a keg of ancient anger, lit with a recent fuse. There was an edge to this anger that was Naxalite, and new.
   Through the Plymouth window, Rahel could see that the loudest word they said was Zindabad. And that the veins stood out in their necks when they said it. And that the arms that held the flags and banners were knotted and hard.
   Inside the Plymouth it was still and hot.
   Baby Kochamma’s fear lay rolled up on the car floor like a damp, clammy cheroot. This was just the beginning of it. The fear that over the years would grow to consume her. That would make her lock her doors and windows. That would give her two hairlines and both her mouths. Hers too, was an ancient, age-old fear. The fear of being dispossessed.
   She tried to count the green beads on her rosary but couldn’t concentrate. An open hand slammed against the car window.
   A balled fist banged down on the burning skyblue bonnet. It sprang open. The Plymouth looked like an angular blue animal in a zoo asking to be fed.
   A bun.
   A banana.
   Another balled fist slammed down on it, and the bonnet closed. Chacko rolled down his window and called out to the man who had done it.
   “Thanks, keto!” he said. “Valarey thanks!”
   “Don’t be so ingratiating, Comrade,” Ammu said. “It was an accident. He didn’t really mean to help. How could he possibly know that in this old car there beats a truly Marxist heart?”
   “Ammu,” Chacko said, his voice steady and deliberately casual, “is it at all possible for you to prevent your washed-up cynicism from completely coloring everything?”
   Silence filled the car like a saturated sponge. “Washed-up” cut like a knife through a soft thing. The sun shone with a shuddering sigh. This was the trouble with families. Like invidious doctors, they knew just where it hurt.

   Just then Rahel saw Velutha. Vellya Paapen’s son, Velutha. Her most beloved friend Velutha. Velutha marching with a red flag. In a white shirt and mundu with angry veins in his neck. He never usually wore a shirt.
   Rahel rolled down her window in a flash. “Velutha! Velutha!” she called to him.
   He froze for a moment, and listened with his flag. What he had heard was a familiar voice in a most unfamiliar circumstance. Rahel, standing on the car seat, had grown out of the Plymouth window like the loose, flailing horn of a car-shaped herbivore. With a fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo and yellow-rimmed red plastic sunglasses.
   “Velutha! lvidaj&’ Velutha!” And she too had veins in her neck.
   He stepped sideways and disappeared deftly into the angriness around him.
   Inside the car Ammu whirled around, and her eyes were angry. She slapped at Rahel’s calves which were the only part of her left in the car to slap. Calves and brown feet in Bata sandals.
   “Behave yourself!” Ammu said.
   Baby Kochamma pulled Rahel down, and she landed on the seat with a surprised thump. She thought there’d been a misunderstanding.
   “It was Velutha!” she explained with a smile. “And he had a flag!” The flag had seemed to her a most impressive piece of equipment. The right thing for a friend to have.
   “You’re a stupid silly little girl!” Ammu said.
   Her sudden, fierce anger pinned Rahel against the car seat. Rahel was puzzled. Why was Ammu so angry? About what?
   “But it was him!” Rahel said.
   “Shut up!” Ammu said.
   Rahel saw that Ammu had a film of perspiration on her forehead and upper lip, and that her eyes had become hard, like marbles. Like Pappachi’s in the Vienna studio photograph. (How Pappachi’s Moth whispered in his children’s veins!)
   Baby Kochamma rolled up Rahel’s window.
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  Years later, on a crisp fall morning in upstate New York, on a Sunday train from Grand Central to Croton Harmon, it suddenly came back to Rahel. That expression on Ammu’s face. Like a rogue piece in a puzzle. Like a question mark that drifted through the pages of a book and never settled at the end of a sentence.
   That hard marble look in Ammu’s eyes. The glisten of perspiration on her upper lip. And the chill of that sudden, hurt silence.
   What had it all meant?
   The Sunday train was almost empty. Across the aisle from Rahel a woman with chapped cheeks and a mustache coughed up phlegm and wrapped it in twists of newspaper that she tore off the pile of Sunday papers on her lap. She arranged the little packages in neat rows on the empty seat in front of her as though she was setting up a phlegm stall. As she worked she chatted to herself in a pleasant, soothing voice.
   Memory was that woman on the train. Insane in the way she sifted through dark things in a closet and emerged with the most unlikely ones-a fleeting look, a feeling. The smell of smoke. A windscreen wiper. A mother’s marble eyes. Quite sane in the way she left huge tracts of darkness veiled. Unremembered.
   Her co-passenger’s madness comforted Rahel. It drew her closer into New York’s deranged womb. Away from the other, more terrible thing that haunted her.
   A sour metal smell, like steel bus rails, and the smell of the bus conductor’s bands from holding them. A young man with an old man’s mouth.

   Outside the train, the Hudson shimmered, and the trees were the redbrown colors of fall. It was just a little cold.
   “There’s a nipple in the air” Larry McCaslin said to Rahel, and laid his palm gently against the suggestion of protest from a chilly nipple through her cotton T-shirt. He wondered why she didn’t smile.
   She wondered why it was that when she thought of home it was always in the colors of the dark, oiled wood of boats, and the empty cores of the tongues of flame that flickered in brass lamps.

   It was Velutha.
   That much Rahel was sure of. She’d seen him. He’d seen her. She’d have known him anywhere, any time. And if he hadn’t been wearing a shirt, she would have recognized him from behind. She knew his back. She’d been carried on it. More times than she could count. It had a light-brown birthmark, shaped like a pointed dry leaf. He said it was a Lucky Leaf; that made the Monsoons come on time. A brown leaf on a black back. An autumn leaf at night.
   A lucky leaf that wasn’t lucky enough.

   Velutha wasn’t supposed to be a carpenter.
   He was called Velutha—which means White in Malayalam—because he was so black. His father, Vellya Paapen, was a Paravan. A toddy tapper. He had a glass eye. He had been shaping a block of granite with a hammer when a chip flew into his left eye and sliced right through it.
   As a young boy, Velutha would come with Vellya Paapen to the back entrance of the Ayemenem House to deliver the coconuts they had plucked from the trees in the compound. Pappachi would not allow Paravans into the house. Nobody would. They were not allowed to touch anything that Touchables touched. Caste Hindus and Caste Christians. Mammachi told Estha and Rahel that she could remember a time, in her girlhood, when Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan’s footprint. In Mammachi’s time, Paravans, like other Untouchables, were not allowed to walk on public roads, not allowed to cover their upper bodies, not allowed to carry umbrellas. They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke, to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed.
   When the British came to Malabar, a number of Paravans, Pelayas and Pulayas (among them Velutha’s grandfather, Kelan) converted to Christianity and joined the Anglican Church to escape the scourge of Untouchability. As added incentive they were given a little food and money. They were known as the Rice Christians. It didn’t take them long to realize that they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. They were made to have separate churches, with separate services, and separate priests. As a special favor they were even given their own separate Pariah Bishop. After Independence they found they were not entitled to any government benefits like job reservations or bank loans at low interest rates, because officially, on paper, they were Christians, and therefore casteless. It was a little like having to sweep away your footprints without a broom. Or worse, not being allowed to leave footprints at all.
   It was Mammachi, on vacation from Delhi and Imperial Entomology who first noticed little Velutha’s remarkable facility with his hands. Velutha was eleven then, about three years younger than Ammu. He was like a little magician. He could make intricate toys-tiny windmills, rattles, minute jewel boxes out of dried palm reeds; he could carve perfect boats out of tapioca stems and figurines on cashew nuts. He would bring them for Ammu, holding them out on his palm (as he had been taught) so she wouldn’t have to touch him to take them. Though he was younger than she was, he called her Ammukutty—Little Ammu. Mammachi persuaded Vellya Paapen to send him to the Untouchables’ School that her father-in-law Punnyan Kunju had founded.
   Velutha was fourteen when Johann Klein, a German carpenter from a carpenter’s guild in Bavaria, came to Kottayam and spent three years with the Christian Mission Society conducting a workshop with local carpenters. Every afternoon, after school, Velutha caught a bus to Kottayam where he worked with Klein till dusk. By the time he was sixteen, Velutha had finished high school and was an accomplished carpenter. He had his own set of carpentry tools and a distinctly German design sensibility. He built Mammachi a Bauhaus dining table with twelve dining chairs in rosewood and a traditional Bavarian chaise longue in lighter jackwood. For Baby Kochamma’s annual Nativity plays he made her a stack of wireframed angels’ wings that fitted onto children’s backs like knapsacks, cardboard clouds for the Angel Gabriel to appear between, and a manger for Christ to be born in. When her garden cherub’s silver arc dried up inexplicably, it was Dr. Velutha who fixed its bladder for her.
   Apart from his carpentry skills, Velutha had a way with machines. Mammachi (with impenetrable Touchable logic) often said that if only he hadn’t been a Paravan, he might have become an engineer. He mended radios, clocks, water pumps. He looked after the plumbing and all the electrical gadgets in the house.
   When Mammachi decided to enclose the back verandah, it was Velutha who designed and built the sliding-folding door that later became all the rage in Ayemenem.
   Velutha knew more about the machines in the factory than anyone else.
   When Chacko resigned his job in Madras and returned to Ayemenem with a Bharat bottle-sealing machine, it was Velutha who re-assembled it and set it up. It was Velutha who maintained the new canning machine and the automatic pineapple slicer. Velutha who oiled the water pump and the small diesel generator. Velutha who built the aluminum sheet-lined, easy-to-clean cutting surfaces, and the ground-level furnaces for boiling fruit.
   Velutha’s father, Vellya Paapen, however, was an Old-World Paravan. He had seen the Crawling Backwards Days and his gratitude to Mammachi and her family for all that they had done for him was as wide and deep as a river in spate. When he had his accident with the stone chip, Mammachi organized and paid for his glass eye. He hadn’t worked off his debt yet, and though he knew he wasn’t expected to, that he wouldn’t ever be able to, he felt that his eye was not his own. His gratitude widened his smile and bent his back.
   Vellya Paapen feared for his younger son. He couldn’t say what it was that frightened him. It was nothing that he had said. Or done. It was not what he said, but the way he said it. Not what he did, but the way he did it.
   Perhaps it was just a lack of hesitation. An unwarranted assurance. In the way he walked. The way he held his head. The quiet way he offered suggestions without being asked. Or the quiet way in which he disregarded suggestions without appearing to rebel.
   While these were qualities that were perfectly acceptable, perhaps even desirable, in Touchables, Vellya Paapen thought that in a Paravan they could (and would, and indeed, should) be construed as insolence.
   Vellya Paapen tried to caution Velutha. But since he couldn’t put his finger on what it was that bothered him, Velutha misunderstood his muddled concern. To him it appeared as though his father grudged him his brief training and his natural skills. Vellya Paapen’s good intentions quickly degenerated into nagging and bickering and a general air of unpleasantness between father and son. Much to his mother’s dismay, Velutha began to avoid going home. He worked late. He caught fish in the river and cooked it on an open fire. He slept outdoors, on the banks of the river.
   Then one day he disappeared. For four years nobody knew where he was. There was a rumor that he was working on a building site for the Department of Welfare and Housing in Trivandrum.

   And more recently, the inevitable rumor that he had become a Naxalite. That he had been to prison. Somebody said they had seen him in Quilon.
   There was no way of reaching him when his mother, Chella, died of tuberculosis. Then Kuttappen, his older brother, fell off a coconut tree and damaged his spine. He was paralyzed and unable to work. Velutha heard of the accident a whole year after it happened.
   It had been five months since he returned to Ayemenem. He never talked about where he had been, or what he had done.
   Mammachi rehired Velutha as the factory carpenter and put him in charge of general maintenance. It caused a great deal of resentment among the other Touchable factory workers because, according to them, Paravans were not meant to be carpenters. And certainly, prodigal Paravans were not meant to be rehired.
   To keep the others happy, and since she knew that nobody else would hire him as a carpenter, Mammachi paid Velutha less than she would a Touchable carpenter but more than she would a Paravan. Mammachi didn’t encourage him to enter the house (except when she needed something mended or installed). She thought that he ought to be grateful that he was allowed on the factory premises at all, and allowed to touch things that Touchables touched. She said that it was a big step for a Paravan.
   When he returned to Ayemenem after his years away from home, Velutha still had about him the same quickness. The sureness. And Vellya Paapen feared for him now more than ever; But this time he held his peace. He said nothing.
   At least not until the Terror took hold of him. Not until he saw, night after night, a little boat being rowed across the river. Not until he saw it return at dawn. Not until he saw what his Untouchable son had touched. More than touched.
   Entered.
   Loved.
   When the Terror took hold of him, Vellya Paapen went to Mammachi. He stared straight ahead with his mortgaged eye. He wept with his own one. One cheek glistened with tears. The other stayed dry. He shook his own head from side to side to side till Mammachi ordered him to stop. He trembled his own body like a man with malaria. Mammachi ordered him to stop it but he couldn’t, because you can’t order fear around. Not even a Paravan’s. Vellya Paapen told Mammachi what he had seen. He asked God’s forgiveness for having spawned a monster. He offered to kill his son with his own bare hands. To destroy what he had created.
   In the next room Baby Kochamma heard the noise and came to find out what it was all about She saw Grief and Trouble ahead, and secretly, in her heart of hearts, she rejoiced.
   She said (among other things), How could she stand the smell? Haven’t you noticed, they have a particular smell, these Paravans!
   And she shuddered theatrically, like a child being force-fed spinach. She preferred an Irish-Jesuit smell to a particular Paravan smell.
   By far. By far.

   Velutha, Vellya Paapen and Kuttappen lived in a little laterite hut, downriver from the Ayemenem house. A three-minute run through the coconut trees for Esthappen and Rahel. They had only just arrived in Ayemenem with Ammu and were too young to remember Velutha when he left. But in the months since he had returned, they had grown to be the best of friends. They were forbidden from visiting his house, but they did. They would sit with him for hours, on their haunches—hunched punctuation marks in a pool of wood shavings—and wonder how he always seemed to know what smooth shapes waited inside the wood for him. They loved the way wood, in Velutha’s hands, seemed to soften and become as pliable as Plasticine. He was teaching them to use a planer. His house (on a good day) smelled of fresh wood shavings and the sun. Of red fish curry cooked with black tamarind. The best fish curry, according to Estha, in the whole world.
   It was Velutha who made Rahel her luckiest-ever fishing rod and taught her and Estha to fish.
   And on that skyblue December day, it was him that she saw through her red sunglasses, marching with a red flag at the level crossing outside Cochin.
   Steelshrill police whistles pierced holes in the Noise Umbrella. Through the jagged umbrella holes Rahel could see pieces of red sky. And in. the red sky, hot red kites wheeled, looking for rats. In their hooded yellow eyes there was a road and redflags marching. And a white shirt over a black back with a birthmark.
   Marching.
   Terror, sweat, and talcum powder had blended into a mauve paste between Baby Kochamma’s rings of neckfat. Spit coagulated into little white gobs at the corners of her mouth. She imagined she saw a man in the procession who looked like the photograph in the newspapers of the Naxalite called Rajan, who was rumored to have moved south from Paighat. She imagined he had looked straight at her.
   A man with a red flag and a face like a knot opened Rahel’s door because it wasn’t locked. The doorway was full of men who’d stopped to stare.
   “Feeling hot, baby?’ the man like a knot asked Rahel kindly in Malayalam.
   Then, unkindly, “Ask your daddy to buy you an Air Condition!” and he hooted with delight at his own wit and timing. Rahel smiled back at him, pleased to have Chacko mistaken for her father. Like a normal family.
   “Don’t answer!” Baby Kochamma whispered hoarsely. “Look down! Just look down!”
   The man with the Rag turned his attention to her. She was looking down at the floor of the car. Like a coy, frightened bride who had been married off to a stranger.
   “Hello, sister,” the man said carefully in English. “What is your name please?”
   When Baby Kochamma didn’t answer, he looked back at his cohecklers.
   “She has no name.”
   “What about Modalali Mariakutty?” someone suggested with a giggle. Modalali in Malayalam means landlord.
   “A, B, C, D, X, Y, Z,” somebody else said, irrelevantly.
   More students crowded around. They all wore handkerchiefs or printed Bombay Dyeing hand towels on their heads to stave off the sun. They looked like extras who had wandered off the sets of the Malayalam version of Sinbad. The Last Voyage.
   The man like a knot gave Baby Kochamma his red flag as a present.
   “Here,” he said. “Hold it.”
   Baby Kochamrna held it, still not looking at him.
   “Wave it,” he ordered.
   She had to wave it. She had no choice. It smelled of new cloth and a shop. Crisp and dusty
   She tried to wave it as though she wasn’t waving it.
   “Now say “Inquilab Zindabad.”
   “Inquilab Zindabad,” Baby Kochamma whispered.
   “Good girl.”
   The crowd roared with laughter.
   A shrillwhistle blew.
   “Okay then,” the man said to Baby Kochamma in English, as though they had successfully concluded a business deal. “Bye-bye!”
   He slammed the skyblue door shut Baby Kochamma wobbled. The crowd around the car unclotted and went on with its march.
   Baby Kochamma rolled the red flag up and put it on the ledge behind the backseat. She put her rosary back into her blouse where she kept it with her melons. She busied herself with this and that, trying to salvage some dignity
   After the last few men walked past, Chacko said it was all right now to roll down the windows.
   “Are you sure it was him?’ Chacko asked Rahel.
   `Who?” Rahel said, suddenly cautious.
   “Are you sure it was Velutha?”
   “Hmmm…?” Rahel said, playing for time, trying to decipher Estha’s frantic thought signals.
   “I said, are you sure that the man you saw was Velutha?” Chacko said for the third time.
   “Mmm… nyes… m… m… almost,” Rahel said.
   “You’re almost sure?” Chacko said.
   “No… it was almost Vehitha,” Rahel said. “it almost looked like him…”
   “So you’re not sure then?”
   “Almost not.” Rahel slid a look at Estha for approval.
   “It must have been him,” Baby Kochamma said. “It’s Trivandrum that’s done this to him. They all go there and come back thinking they’re some great politicos.”
   Nobody seemed particularly impressed by her insight.
   “We should keep an eye on him,” Baby Kochamrna said. “If he starts this Union business in the factory… I’ve noticed some signs, some rudeness, some ingratitude. The other day I asked him to help me with the rocks for my scree bed and he—”
   “I saw Velutha at home before we left,” Estha said brightly. “So how could it be him?”
   “For his own sake,” Baby Kochamma said, darkly, “I hope it wasn’t. And next time, Esthappen, don’t interrupt.”
   She was annoyed that nobody asked her what a scree bed was.

   In the days that followed, Baby Kochamma focused all her fury at her public humiliation on Velutha. She sharpened it like a pencil. In her mind he grew to represent the march. And the man who had forced her to wave the Marxist Party flag. And the man who christened her Modalali Mariakutty. And all the men who had laughed at her.
   She began to hate him.
   From the way Ammu held her head, Rahel could tell that she was still angry. Rahel looked at her watch. Ten to two. Still no train. She put her chin on the windowsill. She could feel the gray gristle of the felt that cushioned the window glass pressing into her chinskin. She took off her sunglasses to get a better look at the dead frog squashed on the road. It was so dead and squashed so flat that it looked more like a frog-shaped stain on the road than a frog. Rahel wondered if Miss Mitten had been squashed into a Miss Mitten-shaped stain by the milk truck that killed her.
   With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black cat-shaped holes in the Universe.
   There were so many stains on the road.
   Squashed Miss Mitten-shaped stains in the Universe.
   Squashed frog-shaped stains in the Universe.
   Squashed crows that had tried to eat the squashed frog-shaped stains in the Universe.
   Squashed dogs that ate the squashed crow-shaped stains in the Universe.
   Feathers. Mangoes. Spit.
   All the way to Cochin.
   The sun shone through the Plymouth window directly down at Rahel. She closed her eyes and shone back at it. Even behind her eyelids the light was bright and hot. The sky was orange, and the coconut trees were sea anemones waving their tentacles, hoping to trap and eat an unsuspecting cloud. A transparent spotted snake with a forked tongue floated across the sky Then a transparent Roman soldier on a spotted horse. The strange thing about Roman soldiers in the comics, according to Rahel, was the amount of trouble they took over their armor and their helmets, and then, after all that, they left their legs bare. It didn’t make any sense at all. Weatherwise or otherwise.
   Ammu had told them the story of Julius Caesar and how he was stabbed by Brutus, his best friend, in the Senate. And how he fell to the floor with knives in his back and said, “Et tu, Brute? —then fall, Caesar.”
   “It just goes to show;” Ammu said, “that you can’t trust anybody. Mother, father, brother, husband, bestfriend. Nobody.”
   With children, she said (when they asked), it remained to be seen. She said it was entirely possible, for instance, that Estha could grow up to be a Male Chauvinist Pig.
   At night, Estha would stand on his bed with his sheet wrapped around him and say “‘Et tu, Brute?—Then fall, Caesar!’” and crash into bed without bending his knees, like a stabbed corpse. Kochu Maria, who slept on the floor on a mat, said that she would complain to Mammachi.
   “Tell your mother to take you to your father’s house,” she said. “There you can break as many beds as you like. These aren’t your beds. This isn’t your house.”
   Estha would rise from the dead, stand on his bed and say, “Et tu, Kochu Maria?—Then fall, Estha!” and die again.
   Kochu Maria was sure that Ettu was an obscenity in English and was waiting for a suitable opportunity to complain about Estha to Mammachi.
   The woman in the neighboring car had biscuit crumbs on her mouth. Her husband lit a bent after-biscuit cigarette. He exhaled two tusks of smoke through his nostrils and for a fleeting moment looked like a wild boar. Mrs. Boar asked Rahel her name in a Baby Voice.
   Rahel ignored her and blew an inadvertent spit bubble.
   Ammu hated them blowing spit bubbles. She said it reminded her of Baba. Their father. She said that he used to blow spit bubbles and shiver his leg. According to Ammu, only clerks behaved like that, not aristocrats.
   Aristocrats were people who didn’t blow spit bubbles or shiver their legs. Or gobble.
   Though Baba wasn’t a clerk, Ammu said he often behaved like one.
   When they were alone, Estha and Rahel sometimes pretended that they were clerks. They would blow spit bubbles and shiver their legs and gobble like turkeys. They remembered their father whom they had known between wars. He once gave them puffs from his cigarette and got annoyed because they had sucked it and wet the filter with spit.
   “It’s not a ruddy sweet!” he said, genuinely angry.
   They remembered his anger. And Ammu’s. They remembered being pushed around a room once, from Ammu to Baba to Ammu to Baba like billiard balls. Ammu pushing Estha away. Here, you keep one of them. I can’t look after them both. Later, when Estha asked Ammu about that, she hugged him and said he mustn’t imagine things.
   In the only photograph they had seen of him (which Ammu allowed them to look at once), he was wearing a white shirt and glasses. He looked like a handsome, studious cricketer. With one arm he held Estha on his shoulders. Estha was smiling, with his chin resting on his father’s head. Rahel was held against his body with his other arm. She looked grumpy and bad-tempered, with her babylegs dangling. Someone had painted rosy blobs onto their cheeks.
   Ammu said that he had only carried them for the photograph and even then had been so drunk that she was scared he’d drop them. Ammu said she’d been standing just outside the photograph, ready to catch them if he did. Still, except for their cheeks, Estha and Rahel thought it was a nice photograph
   “Will you stop that!” Ammu said, so loudly that Murlidharan, who had hopped off the milestone to stare into the Plymouth, backed off, his stumps jerking in alarm.
   “What?” Rahel said, but knew immediately what. Her spit bubble.
   “Sorry, Ammu,” Rahel said.
   “Sorry doesn’t make a dead man alive,” Estha said.
   “Oh come on!” Chacko said. “You can’t dictate what she does with her own spit!”
   “Mind your own business,” Ammu snapped.
   “It brings back Memories,” Estha, in his wisdom, explained to Chacko.
   Rahel put on her sunglasses. The World became angry-colored.
   “Take off those ridiculous glasses!” Ammu said.
   Rahel took off her ridiculous glasses.
   “It’s fascist, the way you deal with them,” Chacko said. “Even children have some rights, for God’s sake!”
   “Don’t use the name of the Lord in vain,” Baby Kochamma said.
   “I’m not,” Chacko said. “I’m using it for a very good reason.”
   “Stop posing as the children’s Great Savior!” Ammu said. “When it comes down to brass tacks, you don’t give a damn about them. Or me.”
   “Should I?” Chacko said. “Are they my responsibility?”
   He said that Ammu and Estha and Rahel were millstones around his neck.
   The backs of Rahel’s legs went wet and sweaty. Her skin slipped on the foamleather upholstery of the car seat. She and Estha knew about millstones. In Mutiny on the Bounty, when people died at sea, they were wrapped in white sheets and thrown overboard with millstones around their necks so that the corpses wouldn’t float. Estha wasn’t sure how they decided how many millstones to take with them before they set off on their voyage.
   Estha put his head in his lap.
   His puff was spoiled.

   A distant train rumble seeped upwards from the frog-stained road. The yam leaves on either side of the railway track began to nod in mass consent. Yesyesyes,yesyes.
   The bald pilgrims in Beena Mol began to sing another bhajan.
   “I tell you, these Hindus,” Baby Kochamma said piously. “They have no sense of privacy.”
   “They have horns and scaly skins,” Chacko said sarcastically. “And I’ve heard that their babies hatch from eggs.”
   Rahel had two bumps on her forehead that Estha said would grow into horns. At least one of them would because she was half Hindu. She hadn’t been quick enough to ask him about his horns. Because whatever She was, He was too.
   The train slammed past under a column of dense black smoke. There were thirty-two bogies, and the doorways were full of young men with helmetty haircuts who were on their way to the Edge of the World to see what happened to the people who fell off. Those of them who craned too far fell off the edge themselves. Into the flailing darkness, their haircuts turned inside out
   The train was gone so quickly that it was hard to imagine that everybody had waited so long for so little. The yam leaves continued to nod long after the train had gone, as though they agreed with it entirely and had no doubts at all.
   A gossamer blanket of coaldust floated down like a dirty blessing and gently smothered the traffic.
   Chacko started the Plymouth. Baby Kochamma tried to be jolly. She started a song.
   There’s a sad sort of c’anging
   From the clock in the ball
   And the bells in the steeple too.
   And up in the nurs
   Anabs-urd
   Litt-le Bird
   Is popping out to say—
   She looked at Estha and Rahel, waiting for them to say “Coo-coo.”
   They didn’t.
   A carbreeze blew. Green trees and telephone poles flew past the windows. Still birds slid by on moving wires, like unclaimed baggage at the airport.
   A pale daymoon hung hugely in the sky and went where they went. As big as the belly of a beer-drinking man.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 3.
Big Man the Laltain, Small Man the Mombatti

   Filth had laid siege to the Ayemenem House like a medieval army advancing on an enemy castle. It clotted every crevice and clung to the windowpanes.
   Midges whizzed in teapots. Dead insects lay in empty vases.
   The floor was sticky. White walls had turned an uneven gray. Brass hinges and door handles were dull and greasy to the touch. Infrequently used plug points were clogged with grime. Lightbulbs had a film of oil on them. The only things that shone were the giant cockroaches that scurried around like varnished gofers on a film set.
   Baby Kochamma had stopped noticing these things long ago. Kochu Maria, who noticed everything, had stopped caring.
   The chaise longue on which Baby Kochamma reclined had crushed peanut shells stuffed into the crevices of its rotting upholstery
   In an unconscious gesture of television-enforced democracy, mistress and servant both scrabbled unseeingly in the same bowl of nuts. Kochu Maria tossed nuts into her mouth. Baby Kochamma placed them decorously in hers.
   On The Best of Donahue the studio audience watched a clip from a film in which a black busker was singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow ” in a subway station. He sang sincerely, as though he really believed the words of the song. Baby Kochamma sang with him, her thin, quavering voice thickened with peanut paste. She smiled as the lyrics came back to her. Kochu Maria looked at her as though she had gone mad, and grabbed more than her fair share of nuts. The busker threw his head back when he hit the high notes (the where of “somewhere”), and the ridged, pink roof of his mouth filled the television screen. He was as ragged as a rock star, but his missing teeth and the unhealthy pallor of his skin spoke eloquently of a life of privation and despair. He had to stop singing each time a train arrived or left, which was often.
   Then the lights went up in the studio and Donahue presented the man himself, who, on a pre-arranged cue, started the song from exactly the point that he had had to stop (for a train), cleverly achieving a touching victory of Song over Subway.
   The next time the husker was interrupted mid-song was only when Phil Donahue put his arm around him and said “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
   Being interrupted by Phil Donahue was of course entirely different from being interrupted by a subway rumble. It was a pleasure. An honor.
   The studio audience clapped and looked compassionate.
   The busker glowed with Prime-Time Happiness, and for a few moments, deprivation took a backseat. It had been his dream to sing on the Donahue show, he said, not realizing that he had just been robbed of that too.
   There are big dreams and little ones.
   “Big Man the Laltain sahib, Small Man the Mombatti,” an old coolie, who met Estha’s school excursion party at the railway station (unfailingly, year after year) used to say of dreams.
   Big Man the Lantern. Small Man the Tallow-stick.
   Huge Man the Strobe Lights, he omitted to say. And Small Man the Subway Station.
   The Masters would haggle with him as he trudged behind them with the boys’ luggage, his bowed legs further bowed, cruel schoolboys imitating his gait. Balls-in-Brackets they used to call him.
   Smallest Man the Varicose Veins he clean forgot to mention, as he wobbled off with less than half the money he had asked for and less than a tenth of what he deserved.

   Outside, the rain had stopped. The gray sky curdled and the clouds resolved themselves into little lumps, like substandard mattress stuffing.
   Esthappen appeared at the kitchen door, wet (and wiser than he really was). Behind him the long grass sparkled. The puppy stood on the steps beside him. Raindrops slid across the curved bottom of the rusted gutter on the edge of the roof, like shining beads on an abacus.
   Baby Kochamma looked up from the television.
   “Here he comes,” she announced to Rahel, not bothering to lower her voice. “Now watch. He won’t say anything. He’ll walk straight to his room. Just watch—”
   The puppy seized the opportunity and tried to stage a combined entry. Kochu Maria hit the floor fiercely with her palms and said, “Hup! Hup! Poda Patti!”
   So the puppy, wisely, desisted. It appeared to be familiar with this routine.
   “Watch!’ Baby Kochamma said. She seemed excited. “He’ll walk straight to his room and wash his clothes. He’s very over-clean… he won’t say a word!”
   She had the air of a game warden pointing out an animal in the grass. Taking pride in her ability to predict its movements. Her superior knowledge of its habits and predilections.
   Estha’s hair was plastered down in clumps, like the inverted petals of a flower. Slivers of white scalp shone through, Rivulets of water ran down his face and neck.
   He walked to his room. A gloating halo appeared around Baby Kochamma’s head. “See?” she said.
   Kochu Maria used the opportunity to switch channels and watch a bit of Prime Bodies.
   Rahel followed Estha to his room. Ammu’s room. Once.

   The room had kept his secrets. It gave nothing away. Not in the disarray of rumpled sheets, nor the untidiness of a kicked-off shoe or a wet towel hung over the back of a chair. Or a half-read book. It was like a room in a hospital after the nurse had just been. The floor was clean, the walls white. The cupboard closed. Shoes arranged. The dustbin empty.
   The obsessive cleanliness of the room was the only positive sign of volition from Estha. The only faint suggestion that he had, perhaps, some Design for Life. Just the whisper of an unwillingness to subsist on scraps offered by others. On the wall by the window, an iron stood on an ironing board. A pile of folded, crumpled clothes waited to be ironed.
   Silence hung in the air like secret loss.
   The terrible ghosts of impossible-to-forget toys clustered on the blades of the ceiling fan. A catapult. A Qantas koala (from Miss Mitten) with loosened button eyes. An inflatable goose (that had been burst with a policeman’s cigarette). Two ballpoint pens with silent streetscapes and red London buses that floated up and down in them.
   Estha put on the tap and water drummed into a plastic bucket He undressed in the gleaming bathroom. He stepped out of his sodden jeans. Stiff. Dark blue. Difficult to get out of. He pulled his crushed-strawberry T-shirt over his head, smooth, slim, muscular arms crossed over his body. He didn’t hear his sister at the door.
   Rahel watched his stomach suck inwards and his rib cage rise as his wet T-shirt peeled away from his skin, leaving it wet and honeycolored. His face and neck and a V-shaped triangle at the base of his throat were darker than the rest of him. His arms too were doublecolored. Paler where his shirtsleeves ended. A dark-brown man in pale honey clothes. Chocolate with a twist of coffee. High cheekbones and hunted eyes. A fisherman in a white-tiled bathroom, with sea-secrets in his eyes.

   Had be seen her? Was be really mad? Did be know that she was there? They had never been shy of each other’s bodies, but they had never been old enough (together) to know what shyness was.
   Now they were. Old enough.
   Old.
   A viable die-able age.
   What a funny word old was on its own, Rahel thought, and said it to herself: Old.

   Rahel at the bathroom door. Slim-hipped. (“Tell her she’ll need a cesarean!” a drunk gynecologist had said to her husband while they waited for their change at the gas station.) A lizard on a map on her faded T-shirt. Long wild hair with a glint of deep henna red sent unruly fingers down into the small of her back. The diamond in her nostril flashed. Sometimes. And sometimes not. A thin, gold, serpent-headed bangle glowed like a circle of orange light around her wrist. Slim snakes whispering to each other, head to head. Her mother’s melted wedding ring. Down softened the sharp lines of her—thin, angular arms.
   At first glance she appeared to have grown into the skin of her mother. High cheekbones. Deep dimples when she smiled. But she was longer, harder, flatter, more angular than Ammu had been. Less lovely perhaps to those who like roundness and softness in women. Only her eyes were incontestably more beautiful. Large. Luminous. Drownable in, as Larry McCaslin had said and discovered to his cost.

   Rahel searched her brother’s nakedness for signs of herself. In the shape of his knees. The arch of his instep. The slope of his shoulders. The angle at which the rest of his arm met his elbow. The way his toe-nails tipped upwards at the ends. The sculpted hollows on either side of his taut, beautiful buns. Tight plums. Men’s bums never grow up. Like school satchels, they evoke in an instant memories of childhood. Two vaccination marks on his arm gleamed like coins. Hers were on her thigh.
   Girls always have them on their thighs, Ammu used to say.
   Rahel watched Estha with the curiosity of a mother watching her wet child. A sister a brother. A woman a man. A twin a twin.
   She flew these several kites at once.
   He was a naked stranger met in a chance encounter. He was the one that she had known before Life began. The one who had once led her (swimming) through their lovely mother’s cunt.
   Both things unbearable in their polarity. In their irreconcilable far-apartness.
   A raindrop glistened on the end of Estha’s earlobe. Thick, silver in the light, like a heavy bead of mercury. She reached out Touched it. Took it away.
   Estha didn’t look at her. He retreated into further stillness. As though his body had the power to snatch its senses inwards (knotted, egg-shaped), away from the surface of his skin, into some deeper more inaccessible recess.
   The silence gathered its skirts and slid, like Spider Woman, up the slippery bathroom wall.
   Estha put his wet clothes in a bucket and began to wash them with crumbling, bright blue soap.
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Underpromise; overdeliver.

Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 4.
Abhilash Talkies

   Abhilash Talkies advertised itself as the first cinema hall in Kerala with a 70mm CinemaScope screen. To drive home the point, its façade had been designed as a cement replica of a curved CinemaScope screen. On top (cement writing, neon lighting) it said Abhilash Talkies in English and Malayalam.
   The toilets were called HIS and HERS. HERS for Ammu, Rahel and Baby Kochamma. His for Estha alone, because Chacko had gone to see about the bookings at the Hotel Sea Queen.
   “Will you be okay?” Ammu said, worried.
   Estha nodded.
   Through the red Formica door that closed slowly on its own, Rahel followed Ammu and Baby Kochamma into HERS. She turned to wave across the slipperoily marble floor at Estha Alone (with a comb), in his beige and pointy shoes. Estha waited in the dirty marble lobby with the lonely, watching mirrors till the red door took his sister away. Then he turned and padded off to HIS.
   In HERS, Ammu suggested that Rahel balance in the air to piss. She said that Public Pots were Dirty. Like Money was. You never knew who’d touched it. Lepers. Butchers. Car Mechanics. (Pus. Blood. Grease.)
   Once when Kochu Maria took her to the butcher’s shop, Rahel noticed that the green five-rupee note that he gave them had a tiny blob of red meat on it. Kochu Maria wiped the blob away with her thumb. The juice left a red smear. She put the money into her bodice. Meat-smelling blood money.
   Rahel was too short to balance in the air above the pot, so Ammu and Baby Kochamma held her up, her legs hooked over their arms. Her feet pigeon-toed in Bata sandals. High in the air with her knickers down. For a moment nothing happened, and Rahel looked up at her mother and baby grandaunt with naughty (now what?) question marks in her eyes.
   “Come on,” Ammu said. “Sssss…”
   Sssss for the Sound of Soo-soo. Mmmmm for the Sound of Myooozick. Rahel giggled. Ammu giggled. Baby Kochamma giggled. When the trickle started they adjusted her aerial position. Rahel was unembarrassed. She finished and Ammu had the toilet paper.
   “Shall you or shall I?” Baby Kochamma said to Ammu.
   “Either way,” Ammu said. “Go ahead. You.”
   Rahel held her handbag. Baby Kochamma lifted her rumpled sari. Rahel studied her baby grandaunt’s enormous legs. (Years later during a history lesson being readout in school—The Emperor Babur—had a wheatish complexion and pillarlike thighs—this scene would flash before her; Baby Kochamma balanced like a big bird over a public pot. Blue veins like lumpy knitting running up her translucent shins. Fat knees dimpled. Hair on them. Poor little tiny feet to carry such a load!) Baby Kochamma waited for half of half a moment. Head thrust forward. Silly smile. Bosom swinging low. Melons in a blouse. Bottom up and out. When the gurgling, bubbling sound came, she listened with her eyes. A yellow brook burbled through a mountain pass.
   Rahel liked all this. Holding the handbag. Everyone pissing in front of everyone. Like friends. She knew nothing then, of how precious a feeling this was. Like friends. They would never be together like this again. Ammu, Baby Kochamma and she.
   When Baby Kochamma finished, Rahel looked at her watch. “So long you took, Baby Kochamma,” she said. “It’s ten to two.”

   Rub-a-dub-dub (Rahel thought), Three women in a tub, Tarry awhile said Slow…

   She thought of Slow being a person. Slow Kurien. Slow Kutty. Slow Mol. Slow Kochamma.
   Slow Kutty. Fast Verghese. And Kuriakore. Three brothers with dandruff.
   Ammu did hers in a whisper. Against the side of the pot so you couldn’t hear. Her father’s hardness had left her eyes and they were Ammu-eyes again. She had deep dimples in her smile and didn’t seem angry anymore. About Velutha or the spit bubble.
   That was a Good Sign.
   Estha Alone in HIS had to piss onto naphthalene balls and cigarette stubs in the urinal. To piss in the pot would be Defeat. To piss in the urinal, he was too short. He needed Height. He searched for Height, and in a corner of HIS, he found it. A dirty broom, a squash bottle half-full of a milky liquid (phenyl) with floaty black things in it A limp floorswab, and two rusty tin cans of nothing. They could have been Paradise Pickle products. Pineapple chunks in syrup. Or slices. Pineapple slices. His honor redeemed by his grandmother’s cans, Estha Alone organized the rusty cans of nothing in front of the urinal. He stood on them, one foot on each, and pissed carefully, with minimal wobble. Like a Man. The cigarette stubs, soggy then, were wet now, and swirly. Hard to light. When he finished, Estha moved the cans to the basin in front of the mirror. He washed his hands and wet his hair. Then, dwarfed by the size of Ammu’s comb that was too big for him, he reconstructed his puff carefully. Slicked back, then pushed forward and swiveled sideways at the very end. He returned the comb to his pocket, stepped off the tins and put them back with the bottle and swab and broom. He bowed to them all. The whole shooting match. The bottle, the broom, the cans, the limp floorswab.
   “Bow,” he said, and smiled, because when he was younger he had been under the impression that you had to say “Bow” when you bowed. That you had to say it to do it.
   “Bow, Estha,” they’d say. And he’d bow and say, “Bow,” and they’d look at each other and laugh, and he’d worry.
   Estha Alone of the uneven teeth.
   Outside, he waited for his mother, his sister and his baby grandaunt. When they came out, Ammu said “Okay, Esthappen?”
   Estha said, “Okay,” and shook his head carefully to preserve his puff.
   Okay? Okay. He put the comb back into her handbag. Ammu felt a sudden clutch of love for her reserved, dignified little son in his beige and pointy shoes, who had just completed his first adult assignment She ran loving fingers through his hair. She spoiled his puff.
   The Man with the steel Eveready Torch said that the picture had started, so to hurry. They had to rush up the red steps with the old red carpet Red staircase with red spit stains in the red corner. The Man with the Torch scrunched up his mundu and held it tucked under his balls, in his left hand. As he climbed, his calf muscles hardened under his climbing skin like hairy cannonballs. He held the torch in his right hand. He hurried with his mind.
   “It started long ago,” he said.
   So they’d missed the beginning. Missed the rippled velvet curtain going up, with lightbulbs in the clustered yellow tassels. Slowly up, and the music would have been “Baby Elephant Walk” from Hatan Or “Colonel Bogey’s March.”
   Ammu held Estha’s hand. Baby Kochamma, heaving up the steps, held Rahel’s. Baby Kochamma, weighed down by her melons, would not admit to herself that she was looking forward to the picture. She preferred to feel that she was only doing it for the children’s sake. In her mind she kept an organized, careful account of Things She’d Done For People, and Things People Hadn’t Done For Her.
   She liked the early nun-bits best, and hoped they hadn’t missed them. Ammu explained to Estha and Rahel that people always loved best what they Identified most with. Rahel supposed she Identified most with Christopher Plummer, who acted as Baron von Trapp. Chacko didn’t Identify with him at all and called him Baron von Clapp-Trapp.
   Rahel was like an excited mosquito on a leash. Flying. Weightless. Up two steps. Down two. Up one. She climbed five flights of red stairs for Baby Kochamma’s one.
   I’m Popeye the sailor man dum dum
   I live in a cara-van dum dum lop-en the door
   And fall-on the floor
   I’m Popeye the sailor man dum dum.
   Up two. Down two. Up one.Jump, jump.
   “Rahel,” Ammu said, “you haven’t Learned your Lesson yet. Have you?”
   Rahel had: Excitement Always Leads to Tears. Dum dum.

   They arrived at the Princess Circle lobby. They walked past the Refreshments Counter where the orangedrinks were waiting. And the lemondrinks were waiting. The orange too orange. The lemon too lemon. The chocolates too melty.
   The Torch Man opened the heavy Princess Circle door into the fan-whirring, peanut-crunching darkness. It smelled of breathing people and hairoil. And old carpets. A magical, Sound of Music smell that Rahel remembered and treasured. Smells, like music, hold memories. She breathed deep, and bottled it up for posterity.
   Estha had the tickets. Little Man. He lived in a caravan. Dum dum.
   The Torch Man shone his light on the pink tickets. Row J. Numbers 17, 18, 19, 20. Estha, Ammu, Rahel, Baby Kochamma. They squeezed past irritated people who moved their legs this way and that to make space. The seats of the chairs had to be pulled down. Baby Kochamma held Rahel’s seat down while she climbed on. She wasn’t heavy enough, so the chair folded her into itself like sandwich stuffing, and she watched from between her knees. Two knees and a fountain. Estha, with more dignity than that, sat on the edge of his chair.
   The shadows of the fans were on the sides of the screen where the picture wasn’t.
   Off with the torch. On with the World Hit
   The camera soared up in the skyblue (car-colored) Austrian sky with the clear, sad sound of church bells.
   Far below, on the ground, in the courtyard of the abbey, the cobblestones were shining. Nuns walked across it. Like slow cigars. Quiet nuns clustered quietly around their Reverend Mother, who never read their letters. They gathered like ants around a crumb of toast. Cigars around a queen Cigar. No hair on their knees. No melons in their blouses. And their breath like peppermint. They had complaints to make to their Reverend Mother. Sweetsinging complaints. About Julie Andrews, who was still up in the hills, singing. The hills are alive with the sound of music, and was, once again, late for Mass.
   She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee
   The nuns sneaked musically.
   Her dress has got a tear
   She waltzes on her way to Mass
   And whistles on the stair…
   People in the audience were turning around.
   “Shhh!” they said.
   Shh! Shh! Shh!
   And underneath her wimple
   She has curlers in her hair
   There was a voice from outside the picture. It was clear and true, cutting through the fan-whirring, peanut-crunching darkness.
   There was a nun in the audience. Heads twisted around like bottle caps. Black-haired backs of heads became faces with mouths and mustaches. Hissing mouths with teeth like sharks. Many of them. Like stickers on a card.
   “Shhhh!” they said together. It was Estha who was singing. A nun with a puff. An Elvis Pelvis Nun. He couldn’t help it.
   “Get him out of here!” The Audience said, when they found him.
   Shutup or Getout. Getout or Shutup.
   The Audience was a Big Man. Estha was a Little Man, with the tickets.
   “Estha for heaven’s sake, shut UP!!” Ammu’s fierce whisper said. So Estha shut UP. The mouths and mustaches turned away. But then, without warning, the song came back, and Estha couldn’t stop it.
   “Ammu, can I go and sing it outside?” Estha said (before Ammu smacked him). “I’ll come back after the song.”
   “But don’t ever expect me to bring you out again,” Ammu said. “You’re embarrassing all of us.”
   But Estha couldn’t help it. He got up to go. Past angry Ammu.
   Past Rahel concentrating through her knees. Past Baby Kochamma.
   Past the Audience that had to move its legs again. Thiswayandthat.
   The red sign over the door said EXIT in a red light. Estha EXITed.

   In the lobby, the orangedrinks were waiting. The lemondrinks were waiting. The melty chocolates were waiting. The electric blue foamleather car-sofas were waiting. The Coming Soon! posters were waiting.
   Estha Alone sat on the electric blue foamleather car-sofa, in the Abhilash Talkies Princess Circle lobby, and sang. In a nun’s voice, as clear as clean water.

   But how do you make her stay
   And listen to all you say?

   The man behind the Refreshments Counter, who’d been asleep on a row of stools, waiting for the interval, woke up. He saw, with gummy eyes, Estha Alone in his beige and pointy shoes. And his spoiled puff. The Man wiped his marble counter with a dirtcolored rag. And he waited. And waiting he wiped. And wiping he waited. And watched Estha sing.
   How do you keep a wave upon the sand?
   Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria?
   “Ay! Eda cherukka!” The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said, in a gravelly voice thick with sleep. “What the hell d’you think you’re doing?”
   How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
   Estha sang.
   “Ay!” the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said. “Look, this is my Resting Time. Soon I’ll have to wake up and work. So I can’t have you singing English songs here. Stop it.” His gold wristwatch was almost hidden by his curly forearm hair. His gold chain was almost hidden by his chest hair. His white Terylene shirt was unbuttoned to where the swell of his belly began. He looked like an unfriendly jeweled bear. Behind him there were mirrors for people to look at themselves in while they bought cold drinks and refreshments. To reorganize their puffs and settle their buns. The mirrors watched Estha.
   “I could file a Written Complaint against you,” the Man said to Estha. “How would you like that? A Written Complaint?”
   Estha stopped singing and got up to go back in.
   “Now that I’m up,” the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said, “now that you’ve woken me up from my Resting Time, now that you’ve disturbed me, at least come and have a drink. It’s the least you can do.”
   He had an unshaven, jowly face. His teeth, like yellow piano keys, watched little Elvis the Pelvis.
   “No thank you,” Elvis said politely. “My family will be expecting me. And I’ve finished my pocket money.”
   “Porketmunny?” The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said with his teeth still watching. `First English songs, and now Porketmunny! Where d’you live? On the moon?”
   Estha turned to go.

   “Wait a minute!” the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said sharply. “Just a minute!” he said again, more gently, “I thought I asked you a question.’
   His yellow teeth were magnets. They saw, they smiled, they sang, they smelled, they moved. They mesmerized.
   “I asked you where you lived,” he said, spinning his nasty web. “Ayemenem,” Estha said. “I live in Ayemenem. My grandmother owns Paradise Pickles & Preserves. She’s the Sleeping Partner.”
   “Is she, now?” the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said. “And who does she sleep with?”
   He laughed a nasty laugh that Estha couldn’t understand. “Never mind. You wouldn’t understand.”
   “Come and have a drink,” he said. “A Free Cold Drink. Come. Come here and tell me all about your grandmother.”
   Estha went. Drawn by yellow teeth. –
   “Here. Behind the counter,” the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “It has to be a secret because drinks are not allowed before the interval. It’s a Theater Offense. Cognizable,” he added after a pause.
   Estha went behind the Refreshments Counter for his Free Cold Drink. He saw the three high stools arranged in a row for the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man to sleep on. The wood shiny from his sitting.
   “Now if you’ll kindly hold this for me,” the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said, handing Estha his penis through his soft white muslin dhoti, “I’ll get you your drink. Orange? Lemon?”
   Estha held it because he had to.
   “Orange? Lemon?” the Man said. “Lemonorange?”
   “Lemon, please,” Estha said politely.
   He got a cold bottle and a straw. So he held a bottle in one hand and a penis in the other. Hard, hot, veiny. Not a moonbeam.
   The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s hand closed over Estha’s. His thumbnail was long like a woman’s. He moved Estha’s hand up and down. First slowly. Then fastly.
   The lemondrink was cold and sweet. The penis hot and hard.
   The piano keys were watching.

   “So your grandmother runs a factory?” the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said. “What kind of factory?”
   “Many products,” Estha said, not looking, with the straw in his mouth. “Squashes, pickles, jams, curry powders. Pineapple slices.”
   “Good,” the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said, “Excellent” His hand closed tighter over Estha’s. Tight and sweaty. And faster still.

   Fast foster flies: –
   Never let it rest
   Until the fast is faster;
   And the faster’s fest.

   Through the soggy paper straw (almost flattened with spit and fear), the liquid lemon sweetness rose. Blowing through the straw (while his other hand moved), Estha blew bubbles into the bottle. Stickysweet lemon bubbles of the drink he couldn’t drink. In his head he listed his grandmother’s produce.

   PICKLES
   SQUASHES
   JAMS

   Mango
   Orange
   Banana

   Green pepper
   Grape
   Mixed fruit

   Bitter gourd
   Pineapple
   Grapefruit marmalade

   Garlic
   Mango


   Salted lime


   Then the gristly-bristly face contorted, and Estha’s hand was wet and hot and sticky. It had egg white on it. White egg white. Quarterboiled.
   The lemondrink was cold and sweet. The penis was soft and shriveled like an empty leather change purse. With his dirtcolored rag, the man wiped Estha’s other hand.

   “Now finish your drink,” he said, and affectionately squished a cheek of Estha’s bottom. Tight plums in drainpipes. And beige and pointy shoes. “You mustn’t waste it,” he said. “Think of all the poor people who have nothing to eat or drink. You’re a lucky rich boy, with porketmunny and a grandmother’s factory to inherit. You should Thank God that you have no worries. Now finish your drink.”
   And so, behind the Refreshments Counter, in the Abhilash Talkies Princess Circle lobby, in the hail with Kerala’s first 70mm CinemaScope screen, Esthappen Yako finished his free bottle of fizzed, lemon-flavored fear. His lemon too lemon, too cold. Too sweet. The fizz came up his nose. He would be given another bottle soon (free, fizzed fear). But he didn’t know that yet. He held his sticky Other Hand away from his body.
   It wasn’t supposed to touch anything.
   When Estha finished his drink, the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said, “Finished? Goodboy.”
   He took the empty bottle and the flattened straw, and sent Estha back into The Sound of Music.
   Back inside the hairoil darkness, Estha held his Other Hand carefully (upwards, as though he was holding an imagined orange). He slid past the Audience (their legs moving thiswayandthat), past Baby Kochamma, past Rahel (still tilted back), past Ammu (still annoyed). Estha sat down, still holding his sticky orange.
   And there was Baron von Clapp-Trapp—Christopher Plummer. Arrogant. Hardhearted. With a mouth like a slit. And a steel shrill police whistle. A captain with seven children. Clean children, like a packet of peppermints. He pretended not to love them, but he did. He loved them. He loved her (Julie Andrews), she loved him, they loved the children, the children loved them. They all loved each other. They were clean, white children, and their beds were soft with Ei. Der. Downs.
   The house they lived in had a lake and gardens, a wide staircase, white doors and windows, and curtains with flowers.
   The clean white children, even the big ones, were scared of the thunder. To comfort them, Julie Andrews put them all into her clean bed, and sang them a clean song about a few of her favorite things. These were a few of her favorite things:
   (1) Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes.
   (2) Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings.
   (3) Bright copper kettles.
   (4) Doorbells and sleigbbells and.rcbnizzel with noodles.
   (5) Etc.

   And then, in the minds of certain two-egg twin members of the audience in Abhilash Talkies, some questions arose that needed answers:

   (a)Did Baron von Clapp– Trapp shiver his leg?
   He did not.
   (b)Did Baron von Clapp-Trapp blow spit bubbles? Did be?
   He did most certainly not.
   (c)Did he gobble?
   He did not.

   Oh Baron von Trapp, Baron von Trapp, could you love the little fellow with the orange in the smelly auditorium?
   He’s just held the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s soo-soo in his hand, but could you love him still?
   And his twin sister? Tilting upwards with her fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo? Could you love her too?
   Baron von Trapp had some questions of his own.

   (a)Are they clean white children? No. (But Sophie Mol is.)
   (b)Do they blow spit bubbles? Yes. (But Sophie Mol doesn’t.)
   (c)Do they shiver their legs? Like clerks? Yes. (But Sophie Mol doesn’t.)
   (d)Have they, either or both, ever held strangers’ soo-soos?
   N… Nyes. (But Sophie Mol hasn’t.)

   “Then I’m sorry,” Baron von Clapp-Trapp said. “It’s out of the question. I cannot love them. I cannot be their Baba. Oh no.”
   Baron von Clapp-Trapp couldn’t
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   Estha put his head in his lap.
   “What’s the matter?” Ammu said. “If you’re sulking again, I’m taking you straight home. Sit up please. And watch. That’s what you’ve been brought here for.”
   Finish the drink.
   Watch the picture.
   Think of all thepoorpeople—
   Lucky rich boy with porketmunny. No worries.
   Estha sat up and watched. His stomach heaved. He had a greenwavy, thick-watery, lumpy, seaweedy, floaty bottomless-bottomful feeling.
   “Ammu?” he said.
   “Now WHAT?” The WHAT snapped, barked, spat out. “Feeling vomity,” Estha said.
   “Just feeling or d’you want to?” Ammu’s voice was worried. “Don’t know.”
   “Shall we go and try?” Ammu said. “It’ll make you feel better.”
   “Okay,” Estha said.
   Okay? Okay.”Where’re you going?” Baby Kochamma wanted to know. `Estha’s going to try and vomit,” Ammu said. “Where’re you going?” Rahel asked.
   “Feeling vomity,” Estha said. “Can I come and watch?” “No,” Ammu said.
   Past the Audience again (legs thiswayandthat). Last time to sing. This time to try and vomit Exit through the EXIT. Outside in the marble lobby, the Orangedrink Lemondrink man was eating a sweet His cheek was bulging with a moving sweet He made soft, sucking sounds like water draining from a basin. There was a green Parry’s wrapper on the counter. Sweets were free for this man. He had a row of free sweets in dim bottles. He wiped the marble counter with his dirtcolored rag that he held in his hairy watch hand. When he saw the luminous woman with polished shoulders and the little boy, a shadow slipped across his face. Then he smiled his portable piano smile.
   “Out again so soon?” he said.
   Estha was already retching. Ammu moonwalked him to the Princess Circle bathroom. HERS.
   He was held up, wedged between the notclean basin and Ammu’s body. Legs dangling. The basin had steel taps, and rust stains. And a brownwebbed mesh of hairline cracks, like the road map of some great, intricate city.
   Estha convulsed, but nothing came. Just thoughts. And they floated out and floated back in. Ammu couldn’t see them. They hovered like storm clouds over the Basin City But the basin men and basin women went about their usual basin business. Basin cars, and basin buses still whizzed around. Basin Life went on.
   “No?” Ammu said. “No,” Estha said. No? No. “Then wash your face,” Ammu said. “Water always helps. Wash your face and let’s go and have a fizzy lemondrink.”
   Estha washed his face and hands and face and hands. His eyelashes were wet and bunched together. –
   The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man folded the green sweet wrapper and fixed the fold with his painted thumbnail. He stunned a fly with a rolled magazine. Delicately, he flicked it over the edge of the counter onto the floor. It lay on its back and waved its feeble legs. –
   “Sweet boy this,” he said to Ammu. “Sings nicely.”
   “He’s my son,” Ammu said. –
   “Really?” the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said, and looked at Ammu with his teeth. “Really? You don’t look old enough—”
   “He’s not feeling well,” Ammu said. “I thought a cold drink would make him feel better.”

   “Of course,” the Man said. `Of course of course. Orangelemon? Lemonorange?” Dreadful, dreaded question.
   “No. Thank you.” Estha looked at Ammu. Greenwavy, seaweedy, bottomless-bottomful.
   “What about you?” The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man asked Ammu. “Coca-ColaFanta? Icecream Rosemilk?”
   “No. Not for me. Thank you,” Ammu said. Deep dimpled, luminous woman.
   “Here,” the Man said, with a fistful of sweets, like a generous Air Hostess. “These are for your little Mon.”
   “No thank you,” Estha said, looking at Ammu.
   “Take them, Estha,” Ammu said. “Don’t be rude.’
   Estha took them.
   “Say thank you,” Ammu said.
   “Thank you,” Estha said. (For the sweets, for the white egg white.) “No mention,” the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man said in English.
   “So!” he said. “Mon says you’re from Ayemenem?”
   “Yes,” Ammu said.
   “I come there often,” the Orangedrink Lemondrink man said. “My wife’s people are Ayemenem people. I know where your factory is. Paradise Pickles, isn’t it? He told me. Your Mon.”
   He knew where to find Estha. That was what he was trying to say. It was a warning.

   Ammu saw her son’s bright feverbutton eyes.
   “We must go,” she said. “Mustn’t risk a fever. Their cousin is coming tomorrow.” She explained to Uncle. And then, added casually, “From London.”
   “From London?” A new respect gleamed in Uncle’s eyes. For a family with London connections.
   “Estha, you stay here with Uncle. I’ll get Baby Kochamma and Rahel,” Ammu said.
   “Come,” Uncle said. “Come and sit with me on a high stool.”
   “No, Ammu! No, Ammu, no! I want to come with you!” Ammu, surprised at the unusually shrill insistence from her usually quiet son, apologized to the Orangedrink Lemondrink Uncle.
   “He’s not usually like this. Come on then, Esthappen.”

   The back-inside smell. Fan shadows. Backs of heads. Necks. Collars. Hair. Buns. Plaits. Ponytails.
   A fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo. A little girl and an ex-nun. Baron von Trapp’s seven peppermint children had had their peppermint baths, and were standing in a peppermint line with their hair slicked down, singing in obedient peppermint voices to the woman the Baron nearly married. The blonde Baroness who shone like a diamond. –

   –The hills are alive with the sound of music-

   “We have to go,” Ammu said to Baby Kochamma and Rahel. “But Ammu!” Rahel said. “The Main Things haven’t even happened yet. He hasn’t even kissed her! He hasn’t even torn down the Hitler flag yet! They haven’t even been betrayed by Rolf the Postman!” –
   “Estha’s sick,” Ammu said. `Come on!”
   “The Nazi soldiers haven’t even come!”-
   “Come on,” Ammu said. “Get up!”
   “They haven’t even done `High on a hill lived a lonely goatherd’!”
   “Estha has to be well for Sophie Mol, doesn’t he?” Baby Kochamma said.
   “He doesn’t,” Rahel said, but mostly to herself.
   “What did you say?” Baby Kochamma said, getting the general drift, but not what was actually said.
   “Nothing,” Rahel said. –
   “I heard you,” Baby Kochamma said.

   Outside, Uncle was reorganizing his dim bottles. Wiping with his dirtcolored rag the ring-shaped water stains they had left on his marble Refreshments Counter. Preparing for the Interval. He was a Clean Orangedrink Lemondrink Uncle. He had an air hostess’s heart trapped in a bear’s body.
   “Going then?” he said.
   “Yes,” Ammu said. `Where can we get a taxi?”
   “Out the gate, up the road, on your left,” he said, looking at Rahel. “You never told me you had a little Mol too.” And holding out another sweet “Here, Mol—for you.”
   “Take mine!” Estha said quickly, not wanting Rahel to go near the man. –
   But Rahel had already started towards him. As she approached him, he smiled at her and something about that portable piano smile, something about the steady gaze in which he held her, made her shrink from him. It was the most hideous thing she had ever seen. She spun around to look at Estha.
   She backed away from the hairy man.
   Estha pressed his Parry’s sweets into her hand and she felt his fever-hot fingers whose tips were as cold as death.
   “Bye, Mol” Uncle said to Estha. “I’ll see you in Ayemenem sometime.”
   So, the redsteps once again. This time Rahel lagging. Slow. No I don’t want to go. A ton of bricks on a leash.
   “Sweet chap, that Orangedrink Lemondrink fellow,” Ammu said. – “Chhi!” Baby Kochamma said. –
   “He doesn’t look it, but he was surprisingly sweet with Estha,” Ammu said.
   “So why don’t you marry him then?” Rahel said petulantly.
   Time stopped on the red staircase. Estha stopped. Baby Kochamma stopped.
   “Rahel,” Ammu said.
   Rahel froze. She was desperately sorry for what she had said. She didn’t know where those words had come from. She didn’t know that she’d had them in her. But they were out now, and wouldn’t go back in. They hung about that red staircase like clerks in a government office. Some stood, some sat and shivered their legs.
   “Rahel,” Ammu said, “do you realize what you have just done?”
   Frightened eyes and a fountain looked back at Ammu.
   “It’s all right. Don’t be scared,” Ammu said. “Just answer me. Do you?”
   “What?” Rahel said in the smallest voice she had.
   “Realize what you’ve just done?” Ammu said.
   Frightened eyes and a fountain looked back at Ammu.
   “D’you know what happens when you hurt people?” Ammu said. “When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

   A cold moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts landed lightly on Rahel’s heart. Where its icy legs touched her, she got goosebumps. Six goosebumps on her careless heart
   A little less her Ammu loved her.
   And so, out the gate, up the road, and to the left. The taxi stand. A hurt mother, an ex-nun, a hot child and a cold one. Six goosebumps and a moth.
   The taxi smelled of sleep. Old clothes rolled up. Damp towels. Armpits. It was, after all, the taxi driver’s home. He lived in it. It was the only place he had to store his smells. The seats had been killed. Ripped. A swathe of dirty yellow sponge spilled out and shivered on the backseat like an immense jaundiced liver. The driver had the ferrety alertness of a small rodent. He had a hooked Roman nose and a Little Richard mustache. He was so small that he watched the road through the steering wheel. To passing traffic it looked like a taxi with passengers but no driver. He drove fast, pugnaciously, darting into empty spaces, nudging other cars out of their lanes. Accelerating at zebra crossings. Jumping lights.
   “Why not use a cushion or a pillow or something?” Baby Kochamma suggested in her friendly voice. “You’ll be able to see better.”
   “Why not mind your own business, sister?” the driver suggested in his unfriendly one.
   Driving past the inky sea, Estha put his head out of the window. He could taste the hot, salt breeze on his mouth. He could feel it lift his hair. He knew that if Ammu found out about what he had done with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, she’d love him less as well. Very much less. He felt the shaming churning heaving turning sickness in his stomach. He longed for the river. Because water always helps.
   The sticky neon night rushed past the taxi window. It was hot inside the taxi, and quiet Baby Kochamma looked flushed and excited. She loved not being the cause of ill-feeling. Every time a pye-dog strayed onto the road, the driver made a sincere effort to kill it.
   The moth on Rahel’s heart spread its velvet wings, and the chill crept into her bones.
   In the Hotel Sea Queen car park, the skyblue Plymouth gossiped with other, smaller cars. HJ’I:p H.thp Hsnooh-snah. A big lady at a small ladies’ party. Tailfins aflutter.

   “Room numbers 313 and 327,” the man at the reception desk said. “Non-airconditioned. Twin beds. Lift is closed for repair.”
   The bellboy who took them up wasn’t a boy and hadn’t a bell, He had dim eyes and two buttons missing on his frayed maroon coat. His grayed undershirt showed. He had to wear his silly bellhop’s cap tilted sideways, its tight plastic strap sunk into his sagging dewlap. It seemed unnecessarily cruel to make an old man wear a cap sideways like that and arbitrarily re-order the way in which age chose to hang from his chin.
   There were more red steps to climb. The same red carpet from the cinema hall was following them around. Magic flying carpet.
   Chacko was in his room. Caught feasting. Roast chicken, chips, sweet corn and chicken soup, two parathas and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. Sauce in a sauceboat. Chacko often said that his ambition was to die of overeating. Mammachi said it was a sure sign of suppressed unhappiness. Chacko said it was no such thing. He said it was Sheer Greed.
   Chacko was puzzled to see everybody back so early, but pretended otherwise. He kept eating.
   The original plan had been that Estha would sleep with Chacko, and Rahel with Ammu and Baby Kochamma. But now that Estha wasn’t well and Love had been re-apportioned (Ammu loved her a little less), Rahel would have to sleep with Chacko, and Estha with Ammu and Baby Kochamma.
   Ammu took Rahel’s pajamas and toothbrush out of the suitcase and put them on the bed.
   “Here,” Ammu said.
   Two clicks to close the suitcase.
   Click. And click.
   “Ammu,” Rahel said, “shall I miss dinner as my punishment?”
   She was keen to exchange punishments. No dinner, in exchange for Ammu loving her the same as before.
   “As you please,” Ammu said. “But I advise you to eat. If you want to grow, that is. Maybe you could share some of Chacko’s chicken.”
   “Maybe and maybe not,” Chacko said.
   “But what about my punishment?” Rahel said. “You haven’t given me my punishment!”
   “Some things come with their own punishments,” Baby Kochamma said. As though she was explaining a sum that Rahel couldn’t understand.
   Some things come with their own punishments. Like bedrooms with built-in cupboards. They would all learn more about punishments soon. That they came in different sizes. That some were so big they were like cupboards with built-in bedrooms. You could spend your whole life in them, wandering through dark shelving.
   Baby Kochamma’s goodnight kiss left a little spit on Rahel’s cheek. She wiped it off with her shoulder.
   “Goodnight Godbless,” Ammu said. But she said it with her back. She was already gone.
   “Goodnight,” Estha said, too sick to love his sister.
   Rahel Alone watched them walk down the hotel corridor like silent but substantial ghosts. Two big, one small, in beige and pointy hoes. The red carpet took away their feet sounds.
   Rahel stood in the hotel room doorway, full of sadness.
   She had in her the sadness of Sophie Mol coming. The sadness of Ammu’s loving her a little less. And the sadness of whatever the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man had done to Estha in Abhilash Talkies.
   A stinging wind blew across her dry, aching eyes.
   Chacko put a leg of chicken and some finger chips onto a quarter plate for Rahel. “No thank you,” Rahel said, hoping that if she could somehow effect her own punishment, Ammu would rescind hers.
   “What about some ice cream with chocolate sauce?” Chacko said.
   “No thank you,” Rahel said.
   “Fine,” Chacko said. “But you don’t know what you’re missing.”
   He finished all the chicken and then all the ice cream.
   Rahel changed into her pajamas.
   “Please don’t tell me what it is you’re being punished for,” Chacko said. “I can’t bear to hear about it.” He was mopping the last of the chocolate sauce from the sauceboat with a piece of paratha. His disgusting, after-sweet sweet. “What was it? Scratching your mosquito bites till they bled? Not saying `Thank you’ to the taxi driver?”
   “Something much worse than that,” Rahel said, loyal to Ammu.
   “Don’t tell me,” Chacko said. “I don’t want to know.”
   He rang for room service and a tired bearer came to take away the plates and bones. He tried to catch the dinner smells, but they escaped and climbed into the limp brown hotel curtains.
   A dinnerless niece and her dinnerfull uncle brushed their teeth together in the Hotel Sea Queen bathroom. She, a forlorn, stubby convict in striped pajamas and a Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo. He, in his cotton vest and underpants. His vest, taut and stretched over his round stomach like a second skin, went slack over the depression of his belly button.
   When Rahel held her frothing toothbrush still and moved her teeth instead, he didn’t say mustn’t.
   He wasn’t a Fascist.
   They took it in turns to spit. Rahel carefully examined her white Binaca froth as it dribbled down the side of the basin, to see what she could see.
   What colors and strange creatures had been ejected from the spaces between her teeth?
   None tonight. Nothing unusual. Just Binaca bubbles.

   Chacko put off the Big Light
   In bed, Rahel took off her Love-in-Tokyo and put it by her sunglasses. Her fountain slumped a little, but stayed standing.
   Chacko lay in bed in the pool of light from his bedside lamp. A fat man on a dark stage. He reached over to his shirt lying crumpled at the foot of his bed. He took his wallet out of the pocket, and looked at the photograph of Sophie Mol that Margaret Kochamma had sent him two years ago.
   Rahel watched him and her cold moth spread its wings again. Slow out. Slow in. A predator’s lazy blink.
   The sheets were coarse, but clean.
   Chacko closed his wallet and put out the light. Into the night he lit a Charminar and wondered what his daughter looked like now. Nine years old. Last seen when she was red and wrinkled. Barely human. Three weeks later, Margaret his wife, his only love, had cried and told him about Joe.
   Margaret told Chacko that she couldn’t live with him anymore. She told him that she needed her own space. As though Chacko had been using her shelves for his clothes. Which, knowing him, he probably had.
   She asked him for a divorce.
   Those last few tortured nights before he left her, Chacko would slip out of bed with a torch and look at his sleeping child. To learn her. Imprint her on his memory. To ensure that when he thought of her, the child that he invoked would be accurate. He memorized the brown down on her soft skull. The shape of her puckered, constantly moving mouth. The spaces between her toes. The suggestion of a mole. And then, without meaning to, he found himself searching his baby for signs of Joe. The baby clutched his index finger while he conducted his insane, broken, envious, torchlit study. Her belly button protruded from her satiated satin stomach like a domed monument on a hill. Chacko laid his ear against it and listened with wonder at the rumblings from within. Messages being sent from here to there. New organs getting used to each other. A new government setting up its systems. Organizing the division of labor, deciding who would do what.
   She smelled of milk and urine. Chacko marveled at how someone so small and undefined, so vague in her resemblances, could so completely command the attention, the love, the sanity of a grown man.
   When he left, he felt that something had been torn out of him. Something big.
   But Joe was dead now. Killed in a car crash. Dead as a doorknob. A Joe-shaped Hole in the Universe.
   In Chacko’s photograph, Sophie Mol was seven years old. White and blue. Rose-lipped, and Syrian Christian nowhere. Though Mammachi, peering at the photograph, insisted she had Pappachi’s nose.
   “Chacko?” Rahel said, from her darkened bed. “Can I ask you a question?”
   “Ask me two,” Chacko said.
   “Chacko, do you love Sophie Mol Most in the World?”
   “She’s my daughter,” Chacko said.
   Rahel considered this.
   “Chacko? Is it Necessary that people HAVE to love their own children Most in the World?”
   “There are no rules,” Chacko said. “But people usually do.”
   “Chacko, for example,” Rahel said, “just for example, is it possible that Ammu can love Sophie Mol more than me and Estha? Or for you to love me more than Sophie Mol for example?”
   “Anything’s possible in Human Nature,” Chacko said in his Reading Aloud voice. Talking to the darkness now, suddenly insensitive to his little fountain-haired niece. “Love. Madness. Hope. Infinite joy.”
   Of the four things that were Possible in Human Nature, Rahel thought that Infinnate joy sounded the saddest. Perhaps because of the way Chacko said it.
   Infinnate Joy. With a church sound to it. Like a sad fish with fins all over.
   A cold moth lifted a cold leg.
   The cigarette smoke curled into the night. And the fat man and the little girl lay awake in silence.

   A few rooms away, while his baby grandaunt snored, Estha awoke.
   Ammu was asleep and looked beautiful in the barred-blue streetlight that came in through the barred-blue window. She smiled a sleepsmile that dreamed of dolphins and a deep barred blue. It was a smile that gave no indication that the person who belonged to it was a bomb waiting to go off.
   Estha Alone walked wearily to the bathroom. He vomited a clear, bitter, lemony, sparkling, fizzy liquid. The acrid after taste of a Little Man’s first encounter with Fear. Dum dum.
   He felt a little better. He put on his shoes and walked out of his room, laces trailing, down the corridor, and stood quietly outside Rahel’s door.
   Rahel stood on a chair and unlatched the door for him. Chacko didn’t bother to wonder how she could possibly have known that Estha was at the door. He was used to their sometimes strangeness.
   He lay like a beached whale on the narrow hotel bed and wondered idly if it had indeed been Velutha that Rahel saw. He didn’t think it likely. Velutha had too much going for him. He was a Paravan with a future. He wondered whether Velutha had become a card-holding member of the Marxist Party. And whether he had been seeing Comrade K. N. M. Pillai lately.
   Earlier in the year, Comrade Pillai’s political ambitions had been given an unexpected boost. Two local Party members, Comrade J. Kattukaran and Comrade Guhan Menon had been expelled from the Party as suspected Naxalites. One of them—Comrade Guhan Menon—was tipped to be the Party’s candidate for the Kottayam by-elections to the Legislative Assembly due next March. His expulsion from the Parry created a vacuum that a number of hopefuls were jockeying to fill. Among them Comrade K. N. M. Pillai.
   Comrade Pillai had begun to watch the goings-on at Paradise Pickles with the keenness of a substitute at a soccer match. To bring in a new labor union, however small, in what he hoped would be his future constituency; would be an excellent beginning for a journey to the Legislative Assembly.
   Until then, at Paradise Pickles, Comrade! Comrade! (as Ammu put it) had been no more than a harmless game played outside working hours. But if the stakes were raised, and the conductor’s baton wrested from Chacko’s hands, everybody (except Chacko) knew that the factory already steeped in debt, would be in trouble.
   Since things were not going well financially, the labor was paid less than the minimum rates specified by the Trade Union. Of course it was Chacko himself who pointed this out to them and promised that as soon as things picked up, their wages would be revised. He believed that they trusted him and knew that he had their best interests at heart.
   But there was someone who thought otherwise. In the evenings, after the factory shift was over, Comrade K. N. M. Pillai waylaid the workers of Paradise Pickles and shepherded them into his printing press. In his reedy, piping voice he urged them on to revolution. In his speeches he managed a clever mix of pertinent local issues and grand Maoist rhetoric, which sounded even grander in Malayalam.
   “People of the World,” he would chirrup, “be courageous, dare to fight, defy difficulties and advance wave upon wave. Then the whole world will belong to the People. Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed. You must demand what is rightfully yours. Yearly bonus. Provident fund. Accident insurance.”
   Since these speeches were in part rehearsal for when, as the local Member of the Legislative Assembly, Comrade Pillai would address thronging millions, there was something odd about their pitch and cadence. His voice was full of green rice fields and red banners that arced across blue skies instead of a small hot room and the smell of printer’s ink.
   Comrade K. N. M. Pillai never came out openly against Chacko. Whenever he referred to him in his speeches he was careful to strip him of any human attributes and present him as an abstract functionary in some larger scheme. A theoretical construct. A pawn in the monstrous bourgeois plot to subvert the revolution. He never referred to him by name, but always as “the Management” As though Chacko was many people. Apart from it being tactically the right thing to do, this disjunction between the man and his job helped Comrade Pillai to keep his conscience clear about his own private business dealings with Chacko. His contract for printing the Paradise Pickles labels gave him an income that he badly needed. He told himself that Chacko-the-client and Chacko-the-Management were two different people. Quite separate of course from Chacko-the-Comrade.
   The only snag in Comrade K. N. M. Pillai’s plans was Velutha. Of all the workers at Paradise Pickles, he was the only card-holding member of the Party, and that gave Comrade Pillai an ally he would rather have done without. He knew that all the other Touchable workers in the factory resented Velutha for ancient reasons of their own. Comrade Pillai stepped carefully around this wrinkle, waiting for a suitable opportunity to iron it out.
   He stayed in constant touch with the workers. He made it his business to know exactly what went on at the factory. He ridiculed them for accepting the wages they did, when their own government, the People’s Government, was in power.
   When Punnachen, the accountant who read Mammachi the papers every morning, brought news that there had been talk among the workers of demanding a raise, Mammachi was furious. “Tell them to read the papers. There’s a famine on. There are no jobs. People are starving to death. They should be grateful they have any work at all.”
   Whenever anything serious happened in the factory it was always to Mammachi and not Chacko that the news was brought. Perhaps this was because Mammachi fitted properly into the conventional scheme of things. She was the Modalali. She played her part. Her responses, however harsh, were straightforward and predictable. Chacko on the other hand, though he was the Man of the House, though he said “My pickles, my jam, my curry powders,” was so busy trying on different costumes that he blurred the battle lines.
   Mammachi tried to caution Chacko. He heard her out, but didn’t really listen to what she was saying. So despite the early rumblings of discontent on the premises of Paradise Pickles, Chacko, in rehearsal for the Revolution, continued to play Comrade! Comrade!

   That night, on his narrow hotel bed, he thought sleepily about pre-empting Comrade Pillai by organizing his workers into a sort of private labor union. He would hold elections for them. Make them vote. They could take turns at being elected representatives. He smiled at the idea of holding round-table negotiations with Comrade Sumathi, or, better still, Comrade Lucykutty; who had much the nicer hair.
   His thoughts returned to Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol. Fierce bands of love tightened around his chest until he could barely breathe. He lay awake and counted the hours before they could leave for the airport.
   On the next bed, his niece and nephew slept with their arms around each other. A hot twin and a cold one. He and She. We and Us. Somehow, not wholly unaware of the hint of doom and all that waited in the wings for them.
   They dreamed of their river.
   Of the coconut trees that bent into it and watched, with coconut eyes, the boats slide by. Upstream in the mornings. Downstream in the evenings. And the dull, sullen sound of the boatmen’s bamboo poles as they thudded against the dark, oiled boatwood.
   It was warm, the water. Graygreen. Like rippled silk.
   With fish in it.
   With the sky and trees in it.
   And at night, the broken yellow moon in it.

   When they grew tired of waiting, the dinner smells climbed off the curtains and drifted through the Sea Queen windows to dance the night away on the dinner-smelling sea.
   The time was ten to two.
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Chapter 5.
God’s Own Country

   Years later, when Rahel returned to the river, it greeted her with a ghastly skull’s smile, with holes where teeth had been, and a limp hand raised from a hospital bed.
   Both things had happened.
   It had shrunk. And she had grown.
   Downriver, a saltwater barrage had been built, in exchange for votes from the influential paddy-farmer lobby. The barrage regulated the inflow of salt water from the backwaters that opened into the Arabian Sea. So now they had two harvests a year instead of one. More rice—for the price of a river.
   Despite the fact that it was June, and raining, the river was no more than a swollen drain now. A thin ribbon of thick water that lapped wearily at the mud banks on either side, sequined with the occasional silver slant of a dead fish. It was choked with a succulent weed, whose furred brown roots waved like thin tentacles underwater. Bronze-winged lily-trotters walked across it. Splay-footed, cautious.
   Once it had had the power to evoke fear. To change lives. But now its teeth were drawn, its spirit spent. It was just a slow, sludging green ribbon lawn that ferried fetid garbage to the sea. Bright plastic bags blew across its viscous, weedy surface like subtropical flying-flowers.
   The stone steps that had once led bathers right down to the water, and Fisher People to the fish, were entirely exposed and led from nowhere to nowhere, like an absurd corbelled monument that commemorated nothing. Ferns pushed through the cracks.
   On the other side of the river, the steep mud banks changed abruptly into low mud walls of shanty hutments. Children hung their bottoms over the edge and defecated directly onto the squelchy, sucking mud of the exposed riverbed. The smaller ones left their dribbling mustard streaks to find their own way down. Eventually, by evening, the river would rouse itself to accept the day’s offerings and sludge off to the sea, leaving wavy lines of thick white scum in its wake. Upstream, clean mothers washed clothes and pots in unadulterated factory effluents. People bathed. Severed torsos soaping themselves, arranged like dark busts on a thin, rocking, ribbon lawn.
   On warm days the smell of shit lifted off the river and hovered over Ayemenem like a hat.
   Further inland, and still across, a five-star hotel chain had bought the Heart of Darkness.
   The History House (where map-breath’d ancestors with tough toe-nails once whispered) could no longer be approached from the river. It had turned its back on Ayemenem. The hotel guests were ferried across the backwaters, straight from Cochin. They arrived by speedboat, opening up a V of foam on the water, leaving behind a rainbow film of gasoline.
   The view from the hotel was beautiful, but here too the water was thick and toxic. No Swimming signs had been put up in stylish calligraphy. They had built a tall wall to screen off the slum and prevent it from encroaching on Kari Saipu’s estate. There wasn’t much they could do about the smell.

   But they had a swimming pool for swimming. And fresh tandoori pomfret and crepe suzette on their menu.
   The trees were still green, the sky still blue, which counted for something. So they went ahead and plugged their smelly paradise—God’s Own Country they called it in their brochures—because they knew, those clever Hotel People, that smelliness, like other peoples’ poverty was merely a matter of getting used to. A question of discipline. Of Rigor and Air-conditioning. Nothing more.

   Kari Saipu’s house had been renovated and painted. It had become the centerpiece of an elaborate complex, crisscrossed with artificial canals and connecting bridges. Small boats bobbed in the water. The old colonial bungalow with its deep verandah and Doric columns, was surrounded by smaller, older, wooden houses-ancestral homes-that the hotel chain had bought from old families and transplanted in the Heart of Darkness. Toy Histories for rich tourists to play in. Like the sheaves of rice in Joseph’s dream, like a press of eager natives petitioning an English magistrate, the old houses had been arranged around the History House in attitudes of deference. “Heritage,” the hotel was called.
   The Hotel People liked to tell their guests that the oldest of the wooden houses, with its airtight, paneled storeroom which could hold enough rice to feed an army for a year, had been the ancestral home of Comrade E. M. S. Namboodiripad, “Kerala’s Mao Tsetung,” they explained to the uninitiated. The furniture and knickknacks that came with the house were on display. A reed umbrella, a wicker couch. A wooden dowry box. They were labeled with edifying placards that said Traditional Kerala Umbrella and Traditional Bridal Dowry –box.
   So there it was then, History and Literature enlisted by commerce. Kurtz and Karl Marx joining palms to greet rich guests as they stepped off the boat.
   Comrade Namboodiripad’s house functioned as the hotel’s dining room, where semi-suntanned tourists in bathing suits sipped tender coconut water (served in the shell), and old Communists, who now worked as fawning bearers in colorful ethnic clothes, stooped slightly behind their trays of drinks.
   In the evenings (for that Regional Flavor) the tourists were treated to truncated kathakali performances (`Small attention spans,” the Hotel People explained to the dancers). So ancient stories were collapsed and amputated. Six-hour classics were slashed to twenty-minute cameos.
   The performances were staged by the swimming pool. While the drummers drummed and the dancers danced, hotel guests frolicked with their children in the water. While Kunti revealed her secret to Karna on the riverbank, courting couples rubbed suntan oil on each other. While fathers played sublimated sexual games with their nubile teenaged daughters, Poothana suckled young Krishna at her poisoned breast. Bhima disemboweled Dushasana and bathed Draupadi’s hair in his blood.
   The back verandah of the History House (where a posse of Touchable policemen converged, where an inflatable goose was burst) had been enclosed and converted into the airy hotel kitchen. Nothing worse than kebabs and caramel custard happened there now. The Terror was past. Overcome by the smell of food. Silenced by the humming of cooks. The cheerful chop-chop-chopping of ginger and garlic. The disemboweling of lesser mammals-pigs, goats. The dicing of meat. The scaling of fish.
   Something lay buried in the ground. Under grass. Under twenty-three years of June rain.
   A small forgotten thing.
   Nothing that the world would miss.
   A child’s plastic wristwatch with the time painted on it
   Ten to two, it said.

   A band of children followed Rahel on her walk.
   “Hello hippie,” they said, twenty-five years too late. “Whatisyourname?”

   Then someone threw a small stone at her, and her childhood fled, flailing its thin arms.

   On her way back, looping around the Ayemenem House, Rahel emerged onto the main road. Here too, houses had mushroomed, and it was only the fact that they nestled under trees, and that the narrow paths that branched off the main road and led to them were not motorable, that gave Ayemenem the semblance of rural quietness. In truth, its population had swelled to the size of a little town. Behind the fragile façade of greenery lived a press of people who could gather at a moment’s notice. To beat to death a careless bus driver. To smash the windscreen of a car that dared to venture out on the day of an Opposition bandh. To steal Baby Kochamma’s imported insulin and her cream buns that came all the way from Bestbakery in Kottayam.
   Outside Lucky Press, Comrade K. N. M. Pillai was standing at his boundary wall talking to a man on the other side. Comrade Pillai’s arms were crossed over his chest, and he clasped his own armpits possessively, as though someone had asked to borrow them and he had just refused. The man across the wall shuffled through a bunch of photographs in a plastic sachet, with an air of contrived interest. The photographs were mostly pictures of Comrade K. N. M. Pillai’s son, Lenin, who lived and worked in Delhi—he took care of the painting, plumbing, and any electrical work for the Dutch and German embassies. In order to allay any fears his clients might have about his political leanings, he had altered his name slightly. Levin he called himself now. P. Levin.
   Rahel tried to walk past unnoticed. It was absurd of her to have imagined that she could.
   “Ay-yo, Rahel Mol!” Comrade K. N. M. Pillai said, recognizing her instantly, “Orkunnilky? Comrade Uncle?”
   “Oower,” Rahel said.
   Did she remember him? She did indeed.
   Neither question nor answer was meant as anything more than a polite preamble to conversation. Both she and he knew that there are things that can be forgotten. And things that cannot—that sit on dusty shelves like stuffed birds with baleful, sideways-staring eyes. –
   “So!” Comrade Pillai said. “I think so you are in Amayrica flow?”
   “No,” Rahel said. “I’m here.”
   “Yes yes.” He sounded a little impatient. “But otherwise in Amayrica, I suppose?” Comrade Pillai uncrossed his arms. His nipples peeped at Rahel over the top of the boundary wall like a sad St. Bernard’s eyes.
   “Recognized?” Comrade Pillai asked the man with the photographs, indicating Rahel with his chin.
   The man hadn’t
   “The old Paradise Pickle Kochamma’s daughter’s daughter,” Comrade Pillai said.
   The man looked puzzled. He was clearly a stranger. And not a pickle-eater. Comrade Pillai tried a different tack.
   “Punnyan Kunju?” he asked. The Patriarch of Antioch appeared briefly in the sky and waved his withered hand.
   Things began to fall into place for the man with the photographs. He nodded enthusiastically.
   “Punnyan Kunju’s son? Benaan John Ipe? Who used to be in Delhi?” Comrade Pillai said.
   “Oower, oower, oower,” the man said.
   “His daughter’s daughter is this. In Amayrica now.”
   The nodder nodded as Rahel’s ancestral lineage fell into place for him.
   “Oower, oower, oower. In Amayrica now, isn’t it.” It wasn’t a question. It was sheer admiration.
   He remembered vaguely a whiff of scandal. He had forgotten the details, but remembered that it had involved sex and death. It had been in the papers. After a brief silence and another series of small nods, the man handed Comrade Pillai the sachet of photographs.
   “Okay then, comrade, I’ll be off.”
   He had a bus to catch.

   “So!” Comrade Pillai’s smile broadened as he turned all his attention like a searchlight on Rahel. His gums were startlingly pink, the reward for a lifetime’s uncompromising vegetarianism. He was the kind of man whom it was hard to imagine had once been a boy. Or a baby. He looked as though he had been born middle aged. With a receding hairline.
   “Mol’s husband?” he wanted to know.
   “Hasn’t come.”
   “Any photos?”
   “No.”
   “Name?”
   “Larry. Lawrence.”
   “Oower. Lawrence.” Comrade Pillai nodded as though he agreed with it. As though given a choice, it was the very one he would have picked.
   “Any issues?”
   “No,” Rahel said.
   “Still in planning stages, I suppose? Or expecting?’
   “No.”
   “One is must. Boy, girl. Anyone,” Comrade Pillai said. “Two is of course your choice.”
   “We’re divorced.” Rahel hoped to shock him into silence. “Die-vorced?” His voice rose to such a high register that it cracked on the question mark. He even pronounced the word as though it were a form of death.
   “That is most unfortunate,” he said, when he had recovered. For some reason resorting to uncharacteristic, bookish language. “Most unfortunate.”
   It occurred to Comrade Pillai that this generation was perhaps paying for its forefathers’ bourgeois decadence.
   One was mad. The other die-vorced. Probably barren.
   Perhaps this was the real revolution. The Christian bourgeoisie had begun to self-destruct.
   Comrade Pillai lowered his voice as though there were people listening, though there was no one about.
   “And Mon?” he whispered confidentially. “How is he?”
   “Fine,” Rahel said. “He’s fine.”
   Fine. Flat and bony-colored. He washes his clothes with crumbling soap.
   “Aiyyo paavam,” Comrade Pillai whispered, and his nipples drooped in mock dismay. “Poor fellow.”
   Rahel wondered what he gained by questioning her so closely and then completely disregarding her answers. Clearly he didn’t expect the truth from her, but why didn’t he at least bother to pretend otherwise?
   “Lenin is in Delhi now,” Comrade Pillai came out with it finally, unable to hide his pride. “Working with foreign embassies. See!”
   He handed Rahel the cellophane sachet. They were mostly photographs of Lenin and his family. His wife, his child, his new Bajaj scooter. There was one of Lenin shaking hands with a very well-dressed, very pink man.
   “German First Secretary,” Comrade Pillai said.
   They looked cheerful in the photographs, Lenin and his wife. As though they had a new refrigerator in their drawing room, and a down payment on a DDA flat.

   Rahel remembered the incident that made Lenin swim into focus as a Real Person for her and Estha, when they stopped regarding him as just another pleat in his mother’s sari. She and Estha were five, Lenin perhaps three or four years old. They met in the clinic of Dr. Verghese Verghese (Kottayam’s leading Pediatrician and Feeler-up of Mothers). Rahel was with Ammu and Estha (who had insisted that he go along). Lenin was with his mother, Kalyani. Both Rahel and Lenin had the same complaint—Foreign Objects Lodged Up Their Noses. It seemed an extraordinary coincidence now, but somehow hadn’t then. It was curious how politics lurked even in what children chose to stuff up their noses. She, the granddaughter of an Imperial Entomologist, he the son of a grassroots Marxist Party worker. So, she a glass bead, and he a green gram.
   The waiting room was full.
   From behind the doctor’s curtain, sinister voices murmured, interrupted by howls from savaged children. There was the clink of glass on metal, and the whisper and bubble of boiling water. A boy played with the wooden Doctor is IN-Doctor is OUT sign on the wall, sliding the brass panel up and down. A feverish baby hiccupped on its mother’s breast. The slow ceiling fan sliced the thick, frightened air into an unending spiral that spun slowly to the floor like the peeled skin of an endless potato.
   No one read the magazines.
   From below the scanty curtain that was stretched across the doorway that led directly onto the street came the relentless slipslap of disembodied feet in slippers. The noisy, carefree world of Those with Nothing Up Their Noses.
   Ammu and Kalyani exchanged children. Noses were pushed up, heads bent back, and turned towards the light to see if one mother could see what the other had missed. When that didn’t work, Lenin, dressed like a taxi-yellow shirt, black stretchlon shorts—regained his mother’s nylon lap (and his packet of Chiclets). He sat on sari flowers and from that unassailable position of strength surveyed the scene impassively. He inserted his left forefinger deep into his unoccupied nostril and breathed noisily through his mouth. He had a neat side parting. His hair was slicked down with Ayurvedic oil. The Chiclets were his to hold before the doctor saw him, and to consume after. All was well with the world. Perhaps he was a little too young to know that Atmosphere in Waiting Room, plus Screams from Behind Curtain, ought logically to add up to a Healthy Fear of Dr. V. V.
   A rat with bristly shoulders made several busy journeys between the doctor’s room and the bottom of the cupboard in the waiting room.
   A nurse appeared and disappeared through the tattered curtained doctor’s door. She wielded strange weapons. A tiny vial. A rectangle of glass with blood smeared on it A test tube of sparkling, back-lit urine. A stainless-steel tray of boiled needles. The hairs on her legs were pressed like coiled wires against her translucent white stockings. The box heels of her scuffed white sandals were worn away on the insides, and caused her feet to slope in, towards each other. Shiny black hairpins, like straightened snakes, clamped her starched nurse’s cap to her oily head.
   She appeared to have rat-filters on her glasses. She didn’t seem to notice the bristly-shouldered rat even when it scuttled right past her feet. She called out names in a deep voice, like a man’s: A. Ninan… S.Kusumolatha… B. V. Roshini… N. Ambady. She ignored the alarmed, spiraling air.
   Estha’s eyes were frightened saucers. He was mesmerized by the Doctor is IN–Doctor is OUT sign.
   A tide of panic rose in Rahel. “Ammu, once again let’s try.” Ammu held the back of Rahel’s head with one hand. With her thumb in her handkerchief she blocked the beadless nostril. All eyes in the waiting room were on Rahel. It was to be the performance of her life. Estha’s expression prepared to blow its nose. Furrows gathered on his forehead and he took a deep breath.
   Rahel summoned all her strength. Please God, please make it come out. From the soles of her feet, from the bottom of her heart, she blew into her mother’s handkerchief.
   And in a rush of snot and relief, it emerged. A little mauve bead in a glistening bed of slime. As proud as a pearl in an oyster. Children gathered around to admire it. The boy who was playing with the sign was scornful.
   “I could easily do that!” he announced.
   “Try it and see what a slap you’ll get,” his mother said. “Miss Rahel!” the nurse shouted and looked around. “It’s Out!” Ammu said to the nurse. “It’s come out.” She held up her crumpled handkerchief.
   The nurse had no idea what she meant.
   “It’s all right. We’re leaving,” Ammu said. “The bead’s out.”
   “Next,” the nurse said, and closed her eyes behind her rat-filters. (“It takes all kinds,” she told herself.) “S. V. S. Kurup!”
   The scornful boy set up a howl as his mother pushed him into the doctor’s room.
   Rahel and Estha left the clinic triumphantly. Little Lenin remained behind to have his nostril probed by Dr. Verghese Verghese’s cold steel implements, and his mother probed by other, softer ones.
   That was Lenin then.
   Now he had a house and a Bajaj scooter. A wife and an issue.

   Rahel handed Comrade Pillai back the sachet of photographs and tried to leave. “One mint,” Comrade Pillai said. He was like a flasher in a hedge. Enticing people with his nipples and then forcing pictures of his son on them. He flipped through the pack of photographs (a pictorial guide to Lenin’s Life-in-a-Minute) to the last one.
   “Orkunnundo?”
   It was an old black-and-white picture. One that Chacko took with the Rolleiflex camera that Margaret Kochamma had brought him as a Christmas present. All four of them were in it. Lenin, Estha, Sophie Mol and herself, standing in the front verandah of the Ayemenem House. Behind them Baby Kochamma’s Christmas trimmings hung in loops from the ceiling. A cardboard star was tied to a bulb. Lenin, Rahel and Estha looked like frightened animals that had been caught in the headlights of a car. Knees pressed together, smiles frozen on their faces, arms pinned to their sides, chests swiveled to face the photographer. As though standing sideways was a sin.
   Only Sophie Mol, with First World panache, had prepared for herself, for her biological father’s photo, a face. She had turned her eyelids inside out so that her eyes looked like pink-veined flesh petals (gray in a black-and-white photograph). She wore a set of protruding false teeth cut from the yellow rind of a sweetlime. Her tongue pushed through the trap of teeth and had Mammachi’s silver thimble fitted on the end of it. (She had hijacked it the day she arrived, and vowed to spend her holidays drinking only from a thimble.) She held out a lit candle in each hand. One leg of her denim bell-bottoms was rolled up to expose a white, bony knee on which a face had been drawn. Minutes before that picture was taken, she had finished explaining patiently to Estha and Rahel (arguing away any evidence to the contrary, photographs, memories) how there was a pretty good chance that they were bastards, and what bastard really meant. This had entailed an involved, though somewhat inaccurate description of sex. “See what they do is…”
   That was only days before she died.
   Sophie Mol.
   Thimble-drinker.
   Coffin-cartwheeler.
   She arrived on the Bombay-Cochin flight. Hatted, bellbottomed and Loved from the Beginning.
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