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Chapter 6.
Cochin Kangaroos

   Cochin Airport, Rahel’s new knickers were polka-dotted and still crisp. The rehearsals had been rehearsed. It was the Day of the Play. The culmination of the What Will Sophie Mol Think? week.

   In the morning at the Hotel Sea Queen, Ammu—who had dreamed at night of dolphins and a deep blue—helped Rahel to put on her frothy Airport Frock. It was one of those baffling aberrations in Ammu’s taste, a cloud of stiff yellow lace with tiny silver sequins and a bow on each shoulder. The frilled skirt was underpinned with buckram to make it flare. Rahel worried that it didn’t really go with her sunglasses.
   Ammu held out the crisp matching knickers for her. Rahel, with her hands on Ammu’s shoulders, climbed into her new knickers (left leg, right leg) and gave Ammu a kiss on each dimple (left cheek, right cheek). The elastic snapped softly against her stomach.
   “Thank you, Ammu,” Rahel said.
   “Thank you?” Ammu said.
   “For my new frock and knickers,” Rahel said.
   Ammu smiled.
   “You’re welcome, my sweetheart,” she said, but sadly.
   You’re welcome, my sweetheart.
   The moth on Rahel’s heart lifted a downy leg. Then put it back. Its little leg was cold. A little less her mother loved her.
   The Sea Queen room smelled of eggs and filter coffee. On the way to the car, Estha carried the Eagle vacuum flask with the tap water. Rahel carried the Eagle vacuum flask with the boiled water. Eagle vacuum flasks had Vacuum Eagles on them, with their wings spread, and a globe in their talons. Vacuum Eagles, the twins believed, watched the world all day and flew around their flasks all night. As silently as owls they flew, with the moon on their wings.
   Estha was wearing a long-sleeved red shirt with a pointed collar and black drainpipe trousers. His puff looked crisp and surprised. Like well-whipped egg white.
   Estha—with some basis, it must be admitted—said that Rahel looked stupid in her Airport Frock. Rahel slapped him, and he slapped her back.
   They weren’t speaking to each other at the airport

   Chacko, who usually wore a mundu, was wearing a funny tight suit and a shining smile. Ammu straightened his tie, which was odd and sideways. It had had its breakfast and was satisfied.
   Ammu said, “What’s happened suddenly to our Man of the Masses?”
   But she said it with her dimples, because Chacko was so burst. So very happy.
   Chacko didn’t slap her.
   So she didn’t slap him back.
   From the Sea Queen florist Chacko had bought two red roses, which he held carefully.
   Fatly.
   Fondly.

   The airport shop, run by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation, was crammed with Air India Maharajahs (small medium large), sandalwood elephants (small medium large) and papier-mâchâ masks of kathakali dancers (small medium large). The smell of cloying sandalwood and terry-cotton armpits (small medium large) hung in the air.
   In the Arrivals Lounge, there were four life-sized cement kangaroos with cement pouches that said USE ME. In their pouches, instead of cement joeys, they had cigarette stubs, used matchsticks, bottle caps, peanut shells, crumpled paper cups and cockroaches.
   Red betel spitstains spattered their kangaroo stomachs like fresh wounds.
   Red-mouthed smiles the Airport Kangaroos had.
   And pink-edged ears.
   They looked as though if you pressed them they might say Mama in empty battery voices.

   When Sophie Mol’s plane appeared in the skyblue Bombay-Cochin sky the crowd pushed against the iron railing to see more of everything.
   The Arrivals Lounge was a press of love and eagerness, because the Bombay-Cochin flight was the flight that all the Foreign Returnees came home on.
   Their families had come to meet them. From all over Kerala. On long bus journeys. From Ranni, from Kumili, from Vizhinjam, from Uzhavoor. Some of them had camped at the airport overnight, and had brought their food with them. And tapioca chips and chakka velaichathu for the way back.
   They were all there—the deaf ammoomas, the cantankerous, arthritic appoopans, the pining wives, scheming uncles, children with the runs. The fiancâes to be reassessed. The teacher’s husband still waiting for his Saudi visa. The teacher’s husband’s sisters waiting for their dowries. The wire-bender’s pregnant wife.
   “Mostly sweeper class,” Baby Kochamma said grimly, and looked away while a mother, not wanting to give up her Good Place near the railing, aimed her distracted baby’s penis into an empty bottle while he smiled and waved at the people around him.
   “Sssss...” his mother hissed. First persuasively, then savagely. But her baby thought he was the pope. He smiled and waved and smiled and waved. With his penis in a bottle.
   “Don’t forget that you are Ambassadors of India,” Baby Kochamma told Rahel and Estha. “You’re going to form their First Impression of your country.”
   Two-egg Twin Ambassadors. Their Excellencies Ambassador E(lvis). Pelvis, and Ambassador S(tick). Insect.

   In her stiff lace dress and her fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo, Rahel looked like an Airport Fairy with appalling taste. She was hemmed in by humid hips (as she would be once again, at a funeral in a yellow church) and grim eagerness. She had her grandfather’s moth on her heart. She turned away from the screaming steel bird in the skyblue sky that had her cousin in it, and what she saw was this: redmouthed roos with ruby smiles moved cemently across the airport floor.

   Heel and Toe
   Heel and Toe

   Long flatfeet
   Airport garbage in their baby bins.
   The smallest one stretched its neck like people in English films who loosen their ties after office. The middle one rummaged in her pouch for a long cigarette stub to smoke. She found an old cashew nut in a dim plastic bag. She gnawed it with her front teeth like a rodent. The large one wobbled the standing up sign that said Kerala Tourism Development Corporation Welcomes You with a kathakali dancer doing a namaste. Another sign, unwobbled by a kangaroo, said: emocleW ot cbt ecipS tsooC fo aidnI
   Urgently, Ambassador Rahel burrowed through the press of people to her brother and co-Ambassador.
   Estha look! Look Estha look!
   Ambassador Estha wouldn’t. Didn’t want to. He watched the bumpy landing with his tap-water Eagle flask slung around him, and a bottomless-bottomful feeling: The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man knew where to find him. In the factory in Ayemenem. On the banks of the Meenachal.
   Ammu watched with her handbag.
   Chacko with his roses.
   Baby Kochamma with her sticking-out neckmole.

   Then the Bombay-Cochin people came out. From the cool air into the hot air. Crumpled people uncrumpled on their way to the Arrivals Lounge.
   And there they were, the Foreign Returnees, in wash’n’wear suits and rainbow sunglasses. With an end to grinding poverty in their Aristocrat suitcases. With cement roofs for their thatched houses, and geysers for their parents’ bathrooms. With sewage systems and septic tanks. Maxis and high heels. Puff sleeves and lipstick. Mixygrinders and automatic flashes for their cameras. With keys to count, and cupboards to lock. With a hunger for kappa and meen vevichathu that they hadn’t eaten for so long. With love and a lick of shame that their families who had come to meet them were so… so… gawkish. Look at the way they dressed! Surely they had more suitable airport wear! Why did Malayalees have such awful teeth?
   And the airport itself! More like the local bus depot! The birdshit on the building! Oh the spitstains on the kangaroos!
   Oho! Going to the dogs India is.
   When long bus journeys, and overnight stays at the airport, were met by love and a lick of shame, small cracks appeared, which would grow and grow, and before they knew it, the Foreign Returnees would be trapped outside the History House, and have their dreams re-dreamed.
   Then, there, among the wash’n’wear suits and shiny suitcases, Sophie Mol.
   Thimble-drinker.
   Coffin-Cartwheeler.
   She walked down the runway, the smell of London in her hair. Yellow bottoms of bells flapped backwards around her ankles. Long hair floated out from under her straw hat. One hand in her mother’s. The other swinging like a soldier’s (left left lefrightleft).
   There was
   A girl,
   Tall and
   Thin and
   Fair.
   Her hair—
   Her hair
   Was the delicate colorriv
   Gin-nnn-ger (left-lef-right)
   There was
   A girl—
   Margaret Kochamma told her to Stoppit.
   So she Stoppited.

   Ammu said, “Can you see her, Rahel?”
   She turned around to find her crisp-knickered daughter communing with cement marsupials. She went and fetched her, scoldingly. Chacko said he couldn’t take Rahel on his shoulders because he was already carrying something. Two roses red.
   Fatly.
   Fondly.
   When Sophie Mol walked into the Arrivals Lounge, Rahel, overcome by excitement and resentment, pinched Estha hard. His skin between her nails. Estha gave her a Chinese Bangle, twisting the skin on her wrist different ways with each of his hands. Her skin became a welt and hurt. When she licked it, it tasted of salt. The spit on her wrist was cool and comfortable.
   Ammu never noticed.
   Across the tall iron railing that separated Meeters from the Met, and Greeters from the Gret, Chacko, beaming, bursting through his suit and sideways tie, bowed to his new daughter and ex-wife.
   In his mind, Estha said, “Bow.”

   “Hello, Ladies,” Chacko said in his Reading Aloud voice (last night’s voice in which he said, Love. Madness. Hope. Infinnate joy). “And how was your journey?”
   And the Air was full Of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.
   “Say Hello and How d’you do?” Margaret Kochamma said to Sophie Mol.
   “Hello and How d’you do?” Sophie Mol said through the iron railing, to everyone in particular.
   “One for you and one for you,” Chacko said with his roses.
   “And Thank you?” Margaret Kochamma said to Sophie Mol.
   “And Thank you?” Sophie Mol said to Chacko, mimicking her mother’s question mark. Margaret Kochamma shook her a little for her impertinence.
   “You’re welcome,” Chacko said. “Now let me introduce everybody.” Then, more for the benefit of onlookers and eavesdroppers, because Margaret Kochamma needed no introduction really: “My wife– Margaret”
   Margaret Kochamma smiled and wagged her rose at him. “Ex-wife, Chacko!” Her lips formed the words, though her voice never spoke them.
   Anybody could see that Chacko was a proud and happy man to have had a wife like Margaret. White. In a flowered, printed frock with legs underneath. And brown back-freckles on her back. And arm-freckles on her arms.
   But around her, the Air was sad, somehow. And behind the smile in her eyes, the was a fresh, shining blue. Because of a calamitous car crash. Because of a Joe-shaped Hole in the Universe.
   “Hello, all,” she said. “I feel I’ve known you for years.”
   Hello wall.
   “My daughter, Sophie,” Chacko said, and laughed a small, nervous laugh that was worried, in case Margaret Kochamma said “exdaughter.” But she didn’t. It was an easy-to-understand laugh. Not like the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s laugh that Estha hadn’t understood.
   “`ho,” Sophie. Mol said.
   She was taller than Estha. And bigger. Her eyes were bluegrayblue. Her pale skin was the color of beach sand. But her hatted hair was beautiful, deep red-brown. And yes (oh yes!) she had Pappachi’s nose waiting inside hers. An Imperial Entomologist’s nose-within-a-nose. A moth-lover’s nose. She carried her Made-in-England go-go bag that she loved.
   “Ammu, my sister,” Chacko said.
   Ammu said a grown-up’s Hello to Margaret Kochamma and a children’s Hell-oh to Sophie Mol. Rahel watched hawk-eyed to try and gauge how much Ammu loved Sophie Mol, but couldn’t.
   Laughter rambled through the Arrivals Lounge like a sudden breeze. Adoor Basi, the most popular, best-loved comedian in Malayalam cinema, had just arrived (Bombay-Cochin). Burdened with a number of small unmanageable packages and unabashed public adulation, he felt obliged to perform. He kept dropping his packages and saying, “Ende Deivoinay! Lee sadhanangal! ”
   Estha laughed a high, delighted laugh.
   “Ammu look! Adoor Basi’s dropping his things!” Estha said. “He can’t even carry his things!”
   “He’s doing it deliberately,” Baby Kochamma said in a strange new British accent. “Just ignore him.”
   “He’s a filmactor,” she explained to Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol, making Adoor Basi sound like a Mactor who did occasionally Fil.
   “Just trying to attract attention,” Baby Kochamma said and resolutely refused to have her attention attracted.
   But Baby Kochamma was wrong. Adoor Basi wasn’t trying to attract attention. He was only trying to deserve the attention that he had already attracted.
   “My aunt, Baby,” Chacko said.
   Sophie Mol was puzzled. She regarded Baby Kochamma with a beady-eyed interest. She knew of cow babies and dog babies. Bear babies-yes. (She would soon point out to Rahel a bat baby.) But aunt babies confounded her.
   Baby Kochamma said, “Hello, Margaret,” and “Hello, Sophie Mol.” She said Sophie Mol was so beautiful that she reminded her of a wood-sprite. Of Ariel.
   “D’you know who Ariel was?” Baby Kochamma asked Sophie Mol. “Ariel in The Tempest?”
   Sophie Mol said she didn’t.
   “Where the bee sucks there suck I’?” Baby Kochamma said. Sophie Mol said she didn’t.
   “In a cowslip’s bell I lie’?’ Sophie Mol said she didn’t.
   “Shakespeare’s The Tempest?” Baby Kochamma persisted.
   All this was of course primarily to announce her credentials to Margaret Kochamma. To set herself apart from the Sweeper Class.
   “She’s trying to boast;” Ambassador E. Pelvis whispered in Ambassador S. Insect’s ear. Ambassador Rahel’s giggle escaped in a bluegreen bubble (the color of a jackfruit fly) and burst in the hot airport air. Pffot! was the sound it made.
   Baby Kochamma saw it, and knew that it was Estha who had started it.
   “And now for the VIPs,” Chacko said (still using his Reading Aloud voice).
   “My nephew, Esthappen.”
   “Elvis Presley,” Baby Kochamma said for revenge. “I’m afraid we’re a little behind the times here.” Everyone looked at Estha and laughed.
   From the soles of Ambassador Estha’s beige and pointy shoes an angry feeling rose and stopped around his heart
   “How d’you do, Esthappen?” Margaret Kochamma said.
   “Finethankyou,” Estha’s voice was sullen.
   “Estha,” Ammu said affectionately, “when someone says How d’you do? You’re supposed to say How d’you do? back. Not `Fine, thank you.’ Come on, say How do YOU do?”
   Ambassador Estha looked at Ammu.
   “Go on,” Ammu said to Estha. “How do YOU do?”
   Estha’s sleepy eyes were stubborn.
   In Malayalam Ammu said, `Did you hear what I said?”
   Ambassador Estha felt bluegrayblue eyes on him, and an Imperial Entomologist’s nose. He didn’t have a How do YOU do? in him.
   “Esthappen!” Ammu said. And an angry feeling rose in her and stopped around her heart A Far More Angry Than Necessary feeling. She felt somehow humiliated by this public revolt in her area of jurisdiction. She had wanted a smooth performance. A prize for her children in the Indo-British Behavior Competition.
   Chacko said to Ammu in Malayalam, “Please. Later. Not now.”
   And Ammu’s angry eyes on Estha said: All right. Later.
   And Later became a horrible, menacing, goose-bumpy word.
   Lay. Ter.
   Like a deep-sounding bell in a mossy well. Shivery, and furred. Like moth’s feet.
   The Play had gone bad. Like pickle in the monsoon.
   “And my niece,” Chacko said. `Where’s Rahel?” He looked around and couldn’t find her. Ambassador Rahel, unable to cope with seesawing changes in her life, had raveled herself like a sausage into the dirty airport curtain, and wouldn’t unravel. A sausage with Bata sandals.
   “Just ignore her,” Ammu said. “She’s just trying to attract attention.”

   Ammu too was wrong. Rahel was trying to not attract the attention that she deserved.

   “Hello, Rahel,” Margaret Kochamma said to the dirty airport curtain.
   “How do YOU do?” The dirty curtain replied in a mumble.
   “Aren’t you going to come out and say Hello?” Margaret Kochamma said in a kind-schoolteacher voice. (Like Miss Mitten’s before she saw Satan in their eyes.)

   Ambassador Rahel wouldn’t come out of the curtain because she couldn’t She couldn’t because she couldn’t Because Everything was wrong. And soon there would be a Lay Ter for both her and Estha.
   Full of furred moths and icy butterflies. And deep-sounding bells. And moss.
   And a Nowl.
   The dirty airport curtain was a great comfort and a darkness and a shield.
   “Just ignore her,” Ammu said and smiled tightly.
   Rahel’s mind was full of millstones with bluegrayblue eyes.
   Ammu loved her even less now. And it had come down to Brass Tacks with Chacko.

   “Here comes the baggage” Chacko said brightly. Glad to get away. “Come, Sophiekins, let’s get your bags.”
   Sophiekins.
   Estha watched as they walked along the railing, pulling through the crowds that moved aside, intimidated by Chacko’s suit and sideways tie and his generally bursty demeanor. Because of the size of his stomach, Chacko carried himself in a way that made him appear to be walking uphill all the time. Negotiating optimistically the steep, slippery slopes of life. He walked on this side of the railing, Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol on that.
   Sophiekins.
   The Sitting Man with the cap and epaulettes, also intimidated by Chacko’s suit and sideways tie, allowed him into the baggage claim section.
   When there was no railing left between them, Chacko kissed Margaret Kochamma, and then picked Sophie Mol up.
   “The last time I did this I got a wet shirt for my pains,” Chacko said and laughed. He hugged her and hugged her and hugged her. He kissed her bluegrayblue eyes, her Entomologist’s nose, her hatted redbrown hair.
   Then Sophie Mol said to Chacko, “Ummm… excuse me? D’you think you could put me down now? I’m ummm… not really used to being carried.”
   So Chacko put her down.
   Ambassador Estha saw (with stubborn eyes) that Chacko’s suit was suddenly looser, less bursty.
   And while Chacko got the bags, at the dirty-curtained window LayTer became Now.
   Estha saw how Baby Kochamma’s neckmole licked its chops and throbbed with delicious anticipation. Der-Dboom, Der-Dboom. It changed color like a chameleon. Der-green, der-blueblack, dermustardyellow.
   Twins for tea
   It would bea.
   “All right,” Ammu said. “That’s enough. Both of you. Come out of there, Rahel!”
   Inside the curtain, Rahel closed her eyes and thought of the green river, of the quiet deep-swimming fish, and the gossamer wings of the dragonflies (that could see behind them) in the sun. She thought of her luckiest fishing rod that Velutha had made for her. Yellow bamboo with a float that dipped every time a foolish fish enquired. She thought of Velutha and wished she was with him.
   Then Estha unraveled her. The cement kangaroos were watching. Ammu looked at them. The Air was quiet except for the sound of Baby Kochamma’s throbbing neckmole.
   “So,” Ammu said.
   And it was really a question. So?
   And it hadn’t an answer.
   Ambassador Estha looked down, and saw that his shoes (from where the angry feelings rose) were beige and pointy. Ambassador Rahel looked down and saw that in her Bata sandals her toes were trying to disconnect themselves. Twitching to join someone else’s feet. And that she couldn’t stop them. Soon she’d be without toes and have a bandage like the leper at the level crossing.
   “If you ever,” Ammu said, “and I mean this, EVER, ever again disobey me in Public, I will see to it that you are sent away to somewhere where you will jolly well learn to behave. Is that clear?”
   When Ammu was really angry she said jolly well. Jolly Well was a deeply well with larfing dead people in it.

   “Is. That. Clear?” Ammu said again.
   Frightened eyes and a fountain looked back at Ammu.
   Sleepy eyes and a surprised puff looked back at Ammu.
   Two heads nodded three times.
   Yes. It’s. Clear.
   But Baby Kochamma was dissatisfied with the fizzling out of a situation that had been so full of potential. She tossed her head.
   “As if!” she said.
   As if!
   Ammu turned to her, and the turn of her head was a question. “It’s useless,” Baby Kochamma said. “They’re sly. They’re Uncouth, Deceitful. They’re growing wild. You can’t manage them.”
   Ammu turned back to Estha and Rahel and her eyes were blurred jewels.
   “Everybody says that children need a Baba. And I say no. Not my children. D’you know why?”
   Two heads nodded.
   “Why. Tell me,” Ammu said.
   And not together, but almost, Esthappen and Rahel said:
   “Because you’re our Ammu and our Baba and you love us Double.”
   “More than Double,” Ammu said. “So remember what I told you. People’s feelings are precious. And when you disobey me in Public, everybody gets the wrong impression.”
   “What Ambassadors and a half you’ve been!” Baby Kochamma said.
   Ambassador E. Pelvis and Ambassador S. Insect hung their heads. “And the other thing, Rahel,” Ammu said, “I think it’s high time that you learned the difference between CLEAN and DIRTY. Especially in this country.”
   Ambassador Rahel looked down.
   “Your dress is-was-CLEAN,” Ammu said. “That curtain is DIRTY. Those Kangaroos are DIRTY. Your hands are DIRTY.”
   Rahel was frightened by the way Ammu said CLEAN and DIRTY so loudly. As though she was talking to a deaf person.
   “Now, I want you to go and say Hello properly,” Ammu said. “Are you going to do that or not?”
   Two heads nodded twice.

   Ambassador Estha and Ambassador Rahel walked towards Sophie Mol.
   “Where d’you think people are sent to Jolly Well Behave?” Estha asked Rahel in a whisper.
   “To the government,” Rahel whispered back, because she knew. “How do you do?” Estha said to Sophie Mol loud enough for Ammu to hear.
   “Just like a laddoo one pice two,” Sophie Mol whispered to Estha. She had learned this in school from a Pakistani classmate.
   Estha looked at Ammu.
   Ammu’s look said Never Mind Her As Long As You’ve Done The Right Thing.
   On their way across the airport car park, Hotweather crept into their clothes and dampened crisp knickers. The children lagged behind, weaving through parked cars and taxis. –
   “Does Yours hit you?” Sophie Mol asked.
   Rahel and Estha, unsure of the politics of this, said nothing.
   “Mine does,” Sophie Mol said invitingly. “Mine even Slaps.”
   “Ours doesn’t,” Estha said loyally.
   “Lucky,” Sophie Mol said.
   Lucky rich boy with porketmunny. And a grandmother’s factory to inherit. No worries.
   They walked past the Class III Airport Workers’ Union token one-day hunger strike. And past the people watching the Class III Airport Workers’ Union token one-day hunger strike.
   And past the people watching the people watching the people.
   A small tin sign on a big banyan tree said For VD. Sex Complaints contact Dr. OK Joy.
   “Who d’you love Most in the World?” Rahel asked Sophie Mol. “Joe,” Sophie Mol said without hesitation. “My dad. He died two months ago. We’ve come here to Recover from the Shock”

   “But Chacko’s your dad,” Estha said.-
   “He’s just my realdad,” Sophie Mol said. “Joe’s my dad. He never hits. Hardly ever.”
   “How can he hit if he’s dead?” Estha asked reasonably.
   “Where’s your dad?” Sophie Mol wanted to know.
   “He’s…” and Rahel looked at Estha for help.
   “…not here,” Estha said.
   “Shall I tell you my list?” Rahel asked Sophie Mol.
   “If you like,” Sophie Mol said.

   “Rahel’s `list” was an attempt to order chaos. She revised it constantly, torn forever between love and duty. It was by no means a true gauge of her feelings.

   “First Ammu and Chacko,” Rahel said. “Then Mammachi-”
   “Our grandmother,” Estha clarified.
   “More than your brother?” Sophie Mol asked.
   “We don’t count,” Rahel said. “And anyway he might change. Ammu says.”
   “How d’you mean? Change into what?” Sophie Mol asked.
   “Into a Male Chauvinist Pig,” Rahel said.
   “Very unlikely,” Estha said.
   “Anyway, after Mammachi, Velutha, and then—”
   “Who’s Velutha?” Sophie Mol wanted to know.
   “A man we love,” Rahel said. “And after Velutha, you,” Rahel said “Me? What d’you love me for?” Sophie Mol said. “Because we’re firstcousins. So I have to,” Rahel said piously. “But you don’t even know me,” Sophie Mol said. “And anyway, I don’t love you.”
   “But you will, when you come to know me,” Rahel said confidently.
   “I doubt it,” Estha said.
   “Why not?” Sophie Mol said.
   “Because,” Estha said. “And anyway she’s most probably going to be a dwarf.”
   As though loving a dwarf was completely out of the question.
   “I’m not,” Rahel said.
   “You are,” Estha said.
   “I’m not”
   “You are.”
   “I’m not.”
   “You are. We’re twins,” Estha explained to Sophie Mol, “and just see how much shorter she is.”
   Rahel obligingly took a deep breath, threw her chest out and stood back to back with Estha in the airport car park, for Sophie Mol to see just how much shorter she was.
   Maybe you’ll be a midget,” Sophie Mol suggested. “That’s taller than a dwarf and shorter than a… Human Being.”
   The silence was unsure of this compromise.

   In the doorway of the Arrivals Lounge, a shadowy, red-mouthed roo-shaped silhouette waved a cemently paw only at Rahel. Cement kisses whirred through the air like small helicopters.
   “D’you know how to sashay?” Sophie Mol wanted to know.
   “No. We don’t sashay in India,” Ambassador Estha said.
   “Well, in England we do,” Sophie Mol said. “All the models do. On television. Look-it’s easy.”
   And the three of them, led by Sophie Mol, sashayed across the airport car park, swaying like fashion models, Eagle flasks and Made-in-England go-go bags bumping around their hips. Damp dwarfs walking tall.
   Shadows followed them. Silver jets in a blue church sky, like moths in a beam of light.

   The skyblue Plymouth with tailfins had a smile for Sophie Mol. A chromebumpered sharksmile.
   A Paradise Pickles carsmile.
   When she saw the carrier with the painted pickle bottles and the list of Paradise products, Margaret Kochamma said, “Oh dear! I feel as though I’m in an advertisement!” She said Oh dear! a lot.

   Oh dear! Oh dearohdear!
   “I didn’t know you did pineapple slices!” she said. “Sophie loves pineapple, don’t you Soph?”
   “Sometimes,” Soph said. “And sometimes not.”
   Margaret Kochamma climbed into the advertisement with her brown back-freckles and her arm-freckles and her flowered dress with legs underneath.
   Sophie Mol sat in front between Chacko and Margaret Kochamma, just her hat peeping over the car seat. Because she was their daughter.
   Rahel and Estha sat at the back. The luggage was in the boot.
   Boot was a lovely word. Sturdy was a terrible word. Near Ettumanoor they passed a dead temple elephant, electrocuted by a high tension wire that had fallen on the road. An engineer from the Ettumanoor municipality was supervising the disposal of the carcass. They had to be careful because the decision would serve as precedent for all future Government Pachyderm Carcass Disposals. Not a matter to be treated lightly. There was a fire engine and some confused firemen. The municipal officer had a file and was shouting a lot. There was a Joy Ice Cream cart and a man selling peanuts in narrow cones of paper cleverly designed to hold not more than eight or nine nuts.
   Sophie Mol said, “Look, a dead elephant.”
   Chacko stopped to ask whether it was by any chance Kochu Thomban (Little Tusker), the Ayemenem temple elephant who came to the Ayemenem House once a month for a coconut. They said it wasn’t
   Relieved that it was a stranger, and not an elephant they knew, they drove on.
   “Thang God,” Estha said.
   “Thank God, Estha,” Baby Kochamma corrected him.
   On the way, Sophie Mol learned to recognize the first whiff of the approaching stench of unprocessed rubber and to clamp her nostrils shut until long after the truck carrying it had driven past.
   Baby Kochamma suggested a car song.
   Estha and Rahel had to sing in English in obedient voices. Breezily. As though they hadn’t been made to rehearse it all week long. Ambassador E. Pelvis and Ambassador S. Insect.
   RejOice in the– Lo-Ord Or-ways
   And again I say re-jOice.
   Their Prer NUN sea ayshun was perfect.
   The Plymouth rushed through the green midday heat, promoting pickles on its roof, and the skyblue sky in its tailfins.
   Just outside Ayemenem they drove into a cabbage-green butterfly (Or perhaps it drove into them).
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Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 7.
Wisdom Exercise Notebooks

   In Pappachi’s study, mounted butterflies and moths had disintegrated into small heaps of iridescent dust that powdered the bottom of their glass display cases, leaving the pins that had impaled them naked. Cruel. The room was rank with fungus and disuse. An old neon-green hula hoop hung from a wooden peg on the wall, a huge saint’s discarded halo. A column of shining black ants walked across a windowsill, their bottoms tilted upwards, like a line of mincing chorus girls in a Busby Berkeley musical silhouetted against the sun. Butted and beautiful.
   Rahel (on a stool, on top of a table) rummaged in a book cupboard with dull, dirty glass panes. Her bare footprints were clear in the dust on the floor. They led from the door to the table (dragged to the bookshelf) to the stool (dragged to the table and lifted onto it). She was looking for something. Her life had a-size and a shape now. She had half-moons under her eyes and a team of trolls on her horizon.
   On the top shelf, the leather binding on Pappachi’s set of The Insect Wealth of India had lifted off each book and buckled like corrugated asbestos. Silverfish tunneled through the pages, burrowing arbitrarily from species to species, turning organized information into yellow lace.
   Rahel groped behind the row of books and brought out hidden things.
   A smooth seashell and a spiky one.
   A plastic case for contact lenses. An orange pipette.
   A silver crucifix on a string of beads. Baby Kochamma’s rosary.
   She held it up against the light. Each greedy bead grabbed its share of sun.
   A shadow fell across the sunlit rectangle on the study floor. Rahel turned towards the door with her string of light.
   “Imagine. It’s still here. I stole it. After you were Returned.” That word slipped out easily. Returned. As though that was what twins were meant lot To be borrowed and returned. Like library books.
   Estha wouldn’t look up. His mind was full of trains. He blocked the light from the door An Estha-shaped Hole in the Universe.
   Behind the books, Rahel’s puzzled fingers encountered something else. Another magpie had had the same idea. She brought it out and wiped the dust off with the sleeve of her shirt. It was a fiat packet wrapped in clear plastic and stuck with Sellotape. A scrap of white paper inside it said Esthappen and Rahel. In Ammu’s writing.
   There were four tattered notebooks in it. On their covers they said Wisdom Exercise Notebooks with a place for Name, School, College, Class, Subject. Two had her name on them, and two Estha’s.
   Inside the back cover of one, something had been written in a child’s handwriting. The labored form of each letter and the irregular space between words was full of the struggle for control over the errant, self-willed pencil. The sentiment, in contrast, was lucid:
   I Hate Miss Mitten and I Think Her gnickers are TORN
   On the front of the book, Estha had rubbed out his surname with spit, and taken half the paper with it. Over the whole mess, he had written in pencil Un-known. Esthappen Unknown. (His surname postponed for the Time Being, while Ammu chose between her husband’s name and her father’s.) Next to Class it said: 6 years. Next to Subject it said: Story-writing.

   Rahel sat cross-legged (on the stool on the table).
   “Esthappen Un-known,” she said. She opened the book and read aloud. –

   When Ulycsses came home his son came and said father I thought you would not come back, many princes came and each wanted to marry Pen Lope. but Pen Lope said that the man who can stoot through the twelve rings can mary me. and everyone failed. and ulysses came to the palace dressed liked a beggar and asked if be could try. the men laughed at him and said if we cant do it you cant. ulysses son stopped them and said let him try and be took the bow and shot right through the twelve rings.”

   Below this there were corrections from a previous lesson.

   Ferus Learned Neither Carriages Bridge Bearer Fastened
   Ferus Learned Niether Carriages Bridge Bearer Fastened
   Ferus Learned niether
   Ferus Learned Nieter

   Laughter curled around the edges of Rahel’s voice.
   `”Safety First,’ “she announced. Ammu had drawn a wavy line down the length of the page with a red pen and written Margin? And joint handwriting in future, please!

   When we walk on the road in the town, cautious Estha’s story went, we should always walk on the pavemnet. If you go on the pavement there is no traffic to cause accidnts, but on the main road there is so much dangerouse traffic that they can easily knock you down and make you senseless or a ~~ If you break your bead or back-bone you will be very unfortunate. policemen can direct the traffic so that there won’t be too many inwalids to go to hospital. When we get out of the bus we should do so only after asking the conductor or we will be injured and make the doctors have a busy time. The job of a driver is very fq~L~ His famly should be very angshios because the driver could easily be dead.
   “Morbid kid,” Rahel said to Estha. As she turned the page something reached into her throat, plucked her voice out, shook it down, and returned it without its laughing edges. Estha’s next story was called Little Ammu.
   In joint handwriting. The tails of the V’s and G’s were curled and looped. The shadow in the doorway stood very still.

   On Saturday we went to a bookshop in Kottayam to buy Ammu a present because her birthday is in 17th of novembre. We bore her a diary. We hid it in the coherd and then it began to be night. Then we said do you want to see your present she said, yes I would like to see it. and we wrote on the paper For a Little Ammu with Love from Estha and Rahel and we gave it to Ammu and she said what a lovely present its just what I whanted and then we talked for a little while and we talked about the diary then we gave her a kiss and went to bed.
   We talked with each other and went of to sleep. We had a little dream.
   After some time I got up and I was very thirsty and went to Ammu’s room and said I am thirsty. Ammu gave me water and I was just going to my bed when Ammu called me and said come and sleep with me. and I lay at the back of Ammu and talked to Ammu and went of to sleep. After a little while I got up and we talked again and after that we had a mi~~~ f~st. we had orange coffee bananana. afterwards Rahel came and we ate two more bananas and we gave a kiss to Ammu because it was her birthday afterwards we sang happy birthday. Then in the morning we had new cloths from Ammu as a back-present. Rahel was a maharani and I was Little Nehru.

   Ammu had corrected the spelling mistakes, and below the essay had written: If I am Talking to somebody you may interrupt me only if it is very urgent. When you do, please say “Excuse me.” I will punish you very severely if you disobey these instructions. Please complete your corrections.
   Little Ammu.
   Who never completed her corrections.
   Who had to pack her bags and leave. Because she had no Locusts Stand I. Because Chacko said she had destroyed enough already.
   Who came back to Ayemenem with asthma and a rattle in her chest that sounded like a faraway man shouting.
   Estha never saw her like that.
   Wild. Sick. Sad.
   The last time Ammu came back to Ayemenem, Rahel had just been expelled from Nazareth Convent (for decorating dung and slamming into seniors). Ammu had lost the latest of her succession of jobs—as a receptionist in a cheap hotel—because she had been ill and had missed too many days of work. The hotel couldn’t afford that, they told her. They needed a healthier receptionist.
   On that last visit, Ammu spent the morning with Rahel in her room. With the last of her meager salary she had bought her daughter small presents wrapped in brown paper with colored paper hearts pasted on. A packet of cigarette sweets, a tin Phantom pencil box and Paul Bunyan-a Junior Classics Illustrated comic. They were presents for a seven-year-old; Rahel was nearly eleven. It was as though Ammu believed that if she refused to acknowledge the passage of time, if she willed it to stand still in the lives of her twins, it would. As though sheer willpower was enough to suspend her children’s childhoods until she could afford to have them living with her. Then they could take up from where they left off. Start again from seven. Ammu told Rahel that she had bought Estha a comic too, but that she’d kept it away for him until she got another job and could earn enough to rent a room for the three of them to stay together in. Then she’d go to Calcutta and fetch Estha, and he could have his comic. That day was not far off, Ammu said. It could happen any day. Soon rent would be no problem. She said she had applied for a UN job and they would all live in The Hague with a Dutch ayah to look after them. Or on the other hand, Ammu said, she might stay on in India and do what she had been planning to do all along—start a school. Choosing between a career in Education and a UN job wasn’t easy, she said—but the thing to remember was that the very fact that she had a choice was a great privilege.
   But for the Time Being, she said, until she made her decision, she was keeping Estha’s presents away for him.
   That whole morning Ammu talked incessantly. She asked Rahel questions, but never let her answer them. If Rahel tried to say something, Ammu would interrupt with a new thought or query. She seemed terrified of what adult thing her daughter might say and thaw Frozen Time. Fear made her garrulous. She kept it at bay with her babble.
   She was swollen with cortisone, moonfaced, not the slender mother Rahel knew. Her skin was stretched over her puffy cheeks like shiny scar tissue that covers old vaccination marks. When she smiled, her dimples looked as though they hurt. Her curly hair had lost its sheen and hung around her swollen face like a dull curtain. She carried her breath in a glass inhaler in her tattered handbag. Brown Brovon fumes. Each breath she took was like a war won against the steely fist that was trying to squeeze the air from her lungs. Rahel watched her mother breathe. Each time she inhaled, the hollows near her collarbones grew steep and filled with shadows.
   Ammu coughed up a wad of phlegm into her handkerchief and showed it to Rahel. “You must always check it,” she whispered hoarsely, as though phlegm was an Arithmetic answer sheet that had to be revised before it was handed in. “When it’s white, it means it isn’t ripe. When it’s yellow and has a rotten smell, it’s ripe and ready to be coughed out. Phlegm is like fruit. Ripe or raw. You have to be able to tell.”
   Over lunch she belched like a truck driver and said, “Excuse me,” in a deep, unnatural voice. Rahel noticed that she had new, thick hairs in her eyebrows, long—like palps. Ammu smiled at the silence around the table as she picked fried emperor fish off the bone. She said that she felt like a road sign with birds shitting on her. She had an odd, feverish glitter in her eyes.
   Mammachi asked her if she’d been drinking and suggested that she visit Rahel as seldom as possible.
   Ammu got up from the table and left without saying a word. Not even good-bye. “Go and see her off,” Chacko said to Rahel.
   Rahel pretended she hadn’t heard him. She went on with her fish. She thought of the phlegm and nearly retched. She hated her mother then. Hated her.

   She never saw her again.
   Ammu died in a grimy room in the Bharat Lodge in Alleppey, where she had gone for a job interview as someone’s secretary. She died alone. With a noisy ceiling fan for company and no Estha to lie at the back of her and talk to her. She was thirty-one. Not old, not young, but a viable, die-able age.
   She had woken up at night to escape from a familiar, recurrent dream in which policemen approached her with snicking scissors, wanting to hack off her hair. They did that in Kottayam to prostitutes whom they’d caught in the bazaar—branded them so that everybody would know them for what they were. Veshyas. So that new policemen on the beat would have no trouble identifying whom to harass. Ammu always noticed them in the market, the women with vacant eyes and forcibly shaved heads in the land where long, oiled hair was only for the morally upright.
   That night in the lodge, Ammu sat up in the strange bed in the strange room in the strange town. She didn’t know where she was, she recognized nothing around her. Only her fear was familiar. The faraway man inside her began to shout. This time the steely fist never loosened its grip. Shadows gathered like bats in the steep hollows near her collarbone.

   The sweeper found her in the morning. He switched off the fan.
   She had a deep blue sac under one eye that was bloated like a bubble. As though her eye had tried to do what her lungs couldn’t. Some time close to midnight, the faraway man who lived in her chest had stopped shouting. A platoon of ants carried a dead cockroach sedately through the door, demonstrating what should be done with corpses.
   The church refused to bury Ammu. On several counts. So Chacko hired a van to transport the body to the electric crematorium. He had her wrapped in a dirty bedsheet and laid out on a stretcher. Rahel thought she looked like a Roman Senator. Et tu, Ammu? she thought and smiled, remembering Estha.
   It was odd driving through bright, busy streets with a dead Roman Senator on the floor of the van. It made the blue sky bluer. Outside the van windows, people, like cut-out paper puppets, went on with their paper-puppet lives. Real life was inside the van. Where real death was. Over the jarring bumps and potholes in the road, Ammu’s body jiggled and slid off the stretcher. Her head hit an iron bolt on the floor. She didn’t wince or wake up. There was a hum in Rahel’s head, and for the rest of the day Chacko had to shout at her if he wanted to be heard.
   The crematorium had the same rotten, rundown air of a railway station, except that it was deserted. No trains, no crowds. Nobody except beggars, derelicts and the police-custody dead were cremated there. People who died with nobody to lie at the back of them and talk to them. When Ammu’s turn came, Chacko held Rahel’s hand tightly. She didn’t want her hand held. She used the slickness of crematorium sweat to slither out of his grip. No one else from the family was there.
   The steel door of the incinerator went up and the muted hum of the eternal fire became a red roaring. The heat lunged out at them like a famished beast. Then Rahel’s Ammu was fed to it. Her hair, her skin, her smile. Her voice. The way she used Kipling to love her children before putting them to bed: We be of one blood, thou and I! Her goodnight kiss. The way she held their faces steady with one hand (squashed-cheeked, fish-mouthed) while she parted and combed their hair with the other. The way she held knickers out, for Rahel to climb into. Left leg, right leg. All this was fed to the beast, and it was satisfied.
   She was their Ammu and their Baba and she had loved them Double.
   The door of the furnace clanged shut. There were no tears.
   The crematorium “In-charge” had gone down the road for a cup of tea and didn’t come back for twenty minutes. That’s how long Chacko and Rahel had to wait for the pink receipt that would entitle them to collect Ammu’s remains. Her ashes. The grit from her bones. The teeth from her smile. The whole of her crammed into a little clay pot. Receipt No. Q498673.
   Rahel asked Chacko how the crematorium management knew which ashes were whose. Chacko said they must have a system.
   Had Estha been with them, he would have kept the receipt. He was the Keeper of Records. The natural custodian of bus tickets, bank receipts, cash memos, checkbook stubs. Little Man. He lived in a Caravan. Dum dum.
   But Estha wasn’t with them. Everybody decided it was better this way. They wrote to him instead. Mammachi said Rahel should write too. Write what? My dear Estha, How are you? I am well. Ammu died yesterday.
   Rahel never wrote to him. There are things that you can’t do—like writing letters to a part of yourself. To your feet or hair. Or heart.

   In Pappachi’s study, Rahel (not old, not young), with floor-dust on her feet, looked up from the Wisdom Exercise Notebook and saw that Esthappen Un-known was gone.
   She climbed down (off the stool off the table) and walked out to the verandah. She saw Estha’s back disappearing through the gate.
   It was midmorning and about to rain again. The green—in the last moments of that strange, glowing, pre-shower light—was fierce.
   A cock crowed in the distance and its voice separated into two. Like a sole peeling off an old shoe.
   Rahel stood there with her tattered Wisdom Notebooks. In the front verandah of an old house, below a button-eyed bison head, where years ago, on the day that Sophie Mol came, Welcome Home, Our Sophie Mol was performed.
   Things can change in a day.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 8.
Welcome Home, Our Sophie Mol

   It was a grand old house, the Ayemenem House, but aloof-looking. As though it had little to do with the people who lived in it. Like an old man with rheumy eyes watching children play, seeing only transience in their shrill elation and their wholehearted commitment to life.
   The steep tiled roof had grown dark and mossy with age and rain. The triangular wooden frames fitted into the gables were intricately carved, the light that slanted through them and fell in patterns on the floor was full of secrets. Wolves. Flowers. Iguanas. Changing shape as the sun moved through the sky. Dying punctually, at dusk.
   The doors had not two, but four shutters of paneled teak so that in the old days, ladies could keep the bottom half closed, lean their elbows on the ledge and bargain with visiting vendors without betraying themselves below the waist. Technically, they could buy carpets, or bangles, with their breasts covered and their bottoms bare. Technically.

   Nine steep steps led from the driveway up to the front verandah. The elevation gave it the dignity of a stage and everything that happened there took on the aura and significance of performance. It overlooked Baby Kochamma’s ornamental garden, the gravel driveway looped around it, sloping down towards the bottom of the slight hill that the house stood on.
   It was a deep verandah, cool even at midday, when the sun was at its scorching best.
   When the red cement floor was laid, the egg whites from nearly nine hundred eggs went into it. It took a high polish.
   Below the stuffed button-eyed bison head, with the portraits of her father-in-law and mother-in-law on either side, Mammachi sat in a low wicker chair at a wicker table on which stood a green glass vase with a single stem of purple orchids curving from it.
   The afternoon was still and hot. The Air was waiting
   Mammachi held a gleaming violin under her chin. Her opaque fifties sunglasses were black and slanty-eyed, with rhinestones on the corners of the frames. Her sari was starched and perfumed. Offwhite and gold. Her diamond earrings shone in her ears like tiny chandeliers. Her ruby rings were loose. Her pale, fine skin was creased like cream on cooling milk and dusted with tiny red moles. She was beautiful. Old, unusual, regal.
   Blind Mother Widow with a violin.
   In her younger years, with prescience and good management, Mammachi had collected all her falling hair in a small, embroidered purse that she kept on her dressing table. When there was enough of it, she made it into a netted bun which she kept hidden in a locker with her jewelry. A few years earlier, when her hair began to thin and silver to give it body, she wore her jet-black bun pinned to her small, silver head. In her book this was perfectly acceptable, since all the hair was hers. At night, when she took off her bun, she allowed her grandchildren to plait her remaining hair into a tight, oiled, gray rat’s tail with a rubber band at the end. One plaited her hair, while the other counted her uncountable moles. They took turns.
   On her scalp, carefully hidden by her scanty hair, Mammachi had raised, crescent-shaped ridges. Scars of old beatings from an old marriage. Her brass-vase scars.
   She played Lentement—a movement from the Suite in D/G of Handel’s Water Music. Behind her slanted sunglasses her useless eyes were closed, but she could see the music as it left her violin and lifted into the afternoon like smoke.
   Inside her head, it was like a room with dark drapes drawn across a bright day.
   As she played, her mind wandered back over the years to her first batch of professional pickles. How beautiful they had looked! Bottled and sealed, standing on a table near the head of her bed, so they’d be the first thing she would touch in the morning when she woke up. She had gone to bed early that night, but woke a little after midnight. She groped for them, and her anxious fingers came away with a film of oil. The pickle bottles stood in a pool of oil. There was oil everywhere. In a ring under her vacuum flask. Under her Bible. All over her bedside table. The pickled mangoes had absorbed oil and expanded, making the bottles leak.
   Mammachi consulted a book that Chacko bought her, Homescale Preservations, but it offered no solutions. Then she dictated a letter to Annamma Chandy’s brother-in-law who was the Regional Manager of Padma Pickles in Bombay. He suggested that she increase the proportion of preservative that she used. And the salt. That had helped, but didn’t solve the problem entirely. Even now, after all those years, Paradise Pickles’ bottles still leaked a little. It was imperceptible, but they did still leak, and on long journeys their labels became oily and transparent. The pickles themselves continued to be a little on the salty side.
   Mammachi wondered whether she would ever master the art of perfect preservation, and whether Sophie Mol would like some iced grape crush. Some cold purple juice in a glass.
   Then she thought of Margaret Kochamma and the languid, liquid notes of Handel’s music grew shrill and angry.
   Mammachi had never met Margaret Kochamma. But she despised her anyway. Shopkeeper’s daughter was how Margaret Kochamma was filed away in Mammachi’s mind. Mammachi’s world was arranged that way. If she was invited to a wedding in Kottayam, she would spend the whole time whispering to whoever she went with, “The bride’s maternal grandfather was my father’s carpenter. Kunjukutty Eapen? His great-grandmother’s sister was just a midwife in Trivandrum. My husband’s family used to own this whole hill.”
   Of course Mammachi would have despised Margaret Kochamma even if she had been heir to the throne of England. It wasn’t just her working-class background Mammachi resented. She hated Margaret Kochamma for being Chacko’s wife. She hated her for leaving him. But would have hated her even more had she stayed.
   The day that Chacko prevented Pappachi from beating her (and Pappachi had murdered his chair instead), Mammachi packed her wifely luggage and committed it to Chacko’s care. From then onwards he became the repository of all her womanly feelings. Her Man. Her only Love.
   She was aware of his libertine relationships with the women in the factory, but had ceased to be hurt by them. When Baby Kochamma brought up the subject, Mammachi became tense and tight-lipped.
   “He can’t help having a Man’s Needs,” she said primly.
   Surprisingly, Baby Kochamma accepted this explanation, and the enigmatic, secretly thrilling notion of Men’s Needs gained implicit sanction in the Ayemenem House. Neither Mammachi nor Baby Kochamma saw any contradiction between Chacko’s Marxist mind and feudal libido. They only worried about the Naxalites, who had been known to force men from Good Families to marry servant girls whom they had made pregnant. Of course they did not even remotely suspect that the missile, when it was fired, the one that would annihilate the family’s Good Name forever, would come from a completely unexpected quarter.
   Mammachi had a separate entrance built for Chacko’s room, which was at the eastern end of the house, so that the objects of his “Needs” wouldn’t have to go traipsing through the house. She secretly slipped them money to keep them happy. They took it because they needed it. They had young children and old parents. Or husbands who spent all their earnings in toddy bars. The arrangement suited Mammachi, because in her mind, a fee clarified things. Disjuncted sex from love. Needs from Feelings.
   Margaret Kochamma, however, was a different kettle of fish altogether. Since she had no means of finding out (though she did once try to get Kochu Maria to examine the bedsheets for stains), Mammachi could only hope that Margaret Kochamma was not intending to resume her sexual relationship with Chacko. While Margaret Kochamma was in Ayemenem, Mammachi managed her unmanageable feelings by slipping money into the pockets of the dresses that Margaret Kochamma left in the laundry bin. Margaret Kochamma never returned the money simply because she never found it. Her pockets were emptied as a matter of routine by Aniyan the dhobi. Mammachi knew this, but preferred to construe Margaret Kochamma’s silence as a tacit acceptance of payment for the favors Mammachi imagined she bestowed on her son.
   So Mammachi had the satisfaction of regarding Margaret Kochamma as just another whore, Aniyan the dhobi was happy with his daily gratuity, and of course Margaret Kochamma remained blissfully unaware of the whole arrangement.

   From its perch on the well, an untidy coucal called Hwoop-Hwoop and shuffled its rust-red wings.
   A crow stole some soap that bubbled in its beak.

   In the dark, smoky kitchen, short Kochu Maria stood on her toes and iced the tall, double-deckered WELCOME-HOME-OUR-SOPHIE-MOL cake. Though even in those days most Syrian Christian women had started wearing saris, Kochu Maria still wore her spotless half– sleeved white chatta with a V-neck and her white mundu, which folded into a crisp cloth fan on her behind. Kochu Maria’s fan was more or less hidden by the blue-and-white checked, filled, absurdly incongruous housemaid’s apron that Mammachi insisted she wear inside the house.
   She had short, thick forearms, fingers like cocktail sausages, and a broad fleshy nose with flared nostrils. Deep folds of skin connected her nose to either side of her chin, and separated that section of her face from the rest of it, like a snout. Her head was too large for her body. She looked like a bottled fetus that had escaped from its jar of formaldehyde in a Biology lab and unshriveled and thickened with age.
   She kept damp cash in her bodice, which she tied tightly around her chest to flatten her unchristian breasts. Her kunukku earrings were thick and gold. Her earlobes had been distended into weighted loops that swung around her neck, her earrings sitting in them like gleeful children in a merry-go-(not all the way)-round. Her right lobe had split open once and was sewn together again by Dr. Verghese Verghese. Kochu Maria couldn’t stop wearing her kunukku because if she did, how would people know that despite her lowly cook’s job (seventy-five rupees a month) she was a Syrian Christian, Mar Thomite? Not a Pelaya, or a Pulaya, or a Paravan. But a Touchable, upper-caste Christian (into whom Christianity had seeped like tea from a teabag). Split lobes stitched back were a better option by far.
   Kochu Maria hadn’t yet made her acquaintance with the television addict waiting inside her. The Hulk Hogan addict. She hadn’t yet seen a television set. She wouldn’t have believed television existed. Had someone suggested that it did, Kochu Maria would have assumed that he or she was insulting her intelligence. Kochu Maria was wary of other peoples’ versions of the outside world. More often than not, she took them to be a deliberate affront to her lack of education and (earlier) gullibility. In a determined reversal of her inherent nature, Kochu Maria now, as a policy, hardly ever believed anything that anybody said. A few months ago, in July, when Rahel told her that an American astronaut called Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon, she laughed sarcastically and said that a Malayali acrobat called O. Muthachen had done handsprings on the sun. With pencils up his nose. She was prepared to concede that Americans existed, though she’d never seen one. She was even prepared to believe that Neil Armstrong might conceivably even be some absurd kind of name. But the walking on the moon bit? No sir. Nor did she trust the vague gray pictures that had appeared in the Malayala Manorama that she couldn’t read.
   She remained certain that Estha, when he said, “Et ta, Kochu Maria?’ was insulting her in English. She thought it meant something like Kochu Maria, You Ugly Black Dwarf. She bided her time, waiting for a suitable opportunity to complain about him.
   She finished icing the tall cake. Then she tipped her head back and squeezed the leftovericing onto her tongue. Endless coils of chocolate toothpaste on a pink Kochu Maria tongue. When Mammachi called from the verandah (“Kochu Mariye! I hear the car!”) her mouth was full of icing and she couldn’t answer. When she finished, she ran her tongue over her teeth and then made a series of short smacking sounds with her tongue against her palate as though she’d just eaten something sour.

   Distant skyblue carsounds (past the bus stop, past the school, past the yellow church and up the bumpy red road through the rubber trees) sent a murmur through the dim, sooty premises of Paradise Pickles.
   The pickling (and the squashing, the slicing, boiling and stirring, the grating, salting, drying, the weighing and bottle sealing) stopped.
   “Chacko Saar vannu,” the traveling whisper went. Chopping knives were put down. Vegetables were abandoned, half cut, on huge steel platters. Desolate bitter gourds, incomplete pineapples. Colored rubber finger guards (bright, like cheerful, thick condoms) were taken off. Pickled hands were washed and wiped on cobalt-blue aprons. Escaped wisps of hair were recaptured and returned to white headscarves. Mundus tucked up under aprons were let down. The gauze doors of the factory had sprung hinges, and closed noisily on their own.
   And on one side of the driveway, beside the old well, in the shade of the kodam puli tree, a silent blue-aproned army gathered in the greenheat to watch.
   Blue-aproned, white-capped, like a clot of smart blue-and-white flags.
   Achoo, Jose, Yako, Anian, Elayan, Kuttan, Vijayan, Vawa, Joy, Sumathi, Ammal, Annamma, Kanakamma, Latha, Sushila, Vijayamma, Jollykutty, Mollykutty, Lucykutty, Beena Mol (girls with bus names). The early rumblings of discontent, concealed under a thick layer of loyalty.
   The skyblue Plymouth turned in at the gate and crunched over the gravel driveway crushing small shells and shattering little red and yellow pebbles. Children tumbled out.
   Collapsed fountains.
   Flattened puffs.
   Crumpled yellow bell-bottoms and a go-go bag that was loved. Jet-lagged and barely awake. Then the swollen-ankled adults. Slow from too much sitting.
   `Have you arrived?” Mammachi asked, turning her slanty dark glasses towards the new sounds: car doors slamming, gettingoutedness. She lowered her violin.
   “Mammachi!” Rahel said to her beautiful blind grandmother. “Estha vomited! In the middle of The Sound of Music! And…”
   Ammu touched her slaughter gently. On her shoulder. And her touch meant Shhhh… Rahel looked around her and saw that she was in a Play. But she had only a small part.
   She was just the landscape. A flower perhaps. Or a tree.
   A face in the crowd. A Townspeople.

   Nobody said Hello to Rahel. Not even the Blue Army in the greenheat.
   “Where is she?” Mammachi asked the car sounds. “Where is my Sophie Mol? Come here and let me see you.”
   As she spoke, the Waiting Melody that hung over her like a shimmering temple elephant’s umbrella crumbled and gently fell about like dust.
   Chacko, in his What Happened to Our Man of the Masses? suit and well-fed tie, led Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol triumphantly up the nine red steps like a pair of tennis trophies that he had recently won.
   And once again, only the Small Things were said. The Big Things lurked unsaid inside.
   “Hello, Mammachi,” Margaret Kochamma said in her kindschoolteacher (that sometimes slapped) voice. “Thank you for having us. We needed so much to get away.”
   Mammachi caught a whiff of inexpensive perfume soured at the edges by airline sweat. (She herself had a bottle of Dior in its soft green leather pouch locked away in her safe.)
   Margaret Kochamma took Mammachi’s hand. The fingers were soft, the ruby rings were hard.
   “Hello, Margaret,” Mammachi said (not rude, not polite), her dark glasses still on. “Welcome to Ayemenem. I’m sorry I can’t see you. As you must know, I am almost blind.” She spoke in a slow deliberate manner.
   “Oh, that’s all right,” Margaret Kochamma said. “I’m sure I look terrible anyway.” She laughed uncertainly, not sure if it was the right response.
   “Wrong,” Chacko said. He turned to Mammachi, smiling a proud smile that his mother couldn’t see. “She’s as lovely as ever.”
   “I was very sorry to hear about… Joe,” Mammachi said. She sounded only a little sorry. Not very sorry.
   There was a short, Sad-About-Joe silence.
   “Where’s my Sophie Mol?” Mammachi said. “Come here and let your grandmother look at you.”
   Sophie Mol was led to Mammachi. Mammachi pushed her dark glasses up into her hair. They looked up like slanting cat’s eyes at the moldy bison head. The moldy bison said, “No. Absolutely Not.” In Moldy Bisonese.
   Even after her cornea transplant, Mammachi could only see light and shadow. If somebody was standing in the doorway, she could tell that someone was standing in the doorway. But not who it was. She could read a check, or a receipt, or a banknote only if it was close enough for her eyelashes to touch it. She would then hold it steady, and move her eye along it. Wheeling it from word to word.
   The Townspeople (in her fairy frock) saw Mammachi draw Sophie Mol close to her eyes to look at her. To read her like a check. To check her like a banknote. Mammachi (with her better eye) saw redbrown hair (N… Nalmost blond), the curve of two fatfreckled cheeks (Nnnn… almost rosy), bluegrayblue eyes.
   “Pappachi’s nose,” Mammachi said. “Tell me, are you a pretty girl?” she asked Sophie Mol.
   “Yes,” Sophie Mol said.
   “And tall?”
   “Tall for my age,” Sophie Mol said.
   “Very tall,” Baby Kochamma said. “Much taller than Estha.”
   “She’s older,” Ammu said.
   “Still …” Baby Kochamma said.

   A little way away, Velutha walked up the shortcut through the rubber trees. Barebodied. A coil of insulated electrical wire was looped over one shoulder. He wore his printed dark-blue-andblack mundu loosely folded up above his knees. On his back, his lucky leaf from the birthmark tree (that made the monsoons come on time). His autumn leaf at night.
   Before he emerged through the trees and stepped into the driveway, Rahel saw him and slipped out of the Play and went to him.
   Ammu saw her go.
   Offstage, she watched them perform their elaborate Official Greeting. Velutha curtsied as he had been taught to, his mundu spread like a skirt, like the English dairymaid in “The King’s Breakfast” Rahel bowed (and said “Bow”). Then they hooked little fingers and shook hands gravely with the mien of bankers at a convention.
   In the dappled sunlight filtering through the dark-green trees, Ammu watched Velutha lift her daughter effortlessly as though she was an inflatable child, made of air. As he tossed her up and she landed in his arms, Ammu saw on Rahel’s face the high delight of the airborne young.
   She saw the ridges of muscle on Velutha’s stomach grow taut and rise under his skin like the divisions on a slab of chocolate. She wondered at how his body had changed—so quietly, from a flatmuscled boy’s body into a man’s body. Contoured and hard. A swimmer’s body. A swimmer-carpenter’s body. Polished with a high-wax body polish.
   He had high cheekbones and a white, sudden smile.
   It was his smile that reminded Ammu of Velutha as a little boy. Helping Vellya Paapen to count coconuts. Holding out little gifts he had made for her, flat on the palm of his hand so that she could take them without touching him. Boats, boxes, small windmills. Calling her Ammukutty. Little Ammu. Though she was so much less little than he was. When she looked at him now, she couldn’t help thinking that the man he had become bore so little resemblance to the boy he had been. His smile was the only piece of baggage he had carried with him from boyhood into manhood.
   Suddenly Ammu hoped that it had been him that Rahel saw in the march. She hoped it had been him that had raised his flag and knotted arm in anger. She hoped that under his careful cloak of cheerfulness he housed a living, breathing anger against the smug, ordered world that she so raged against.
   She hoped it had been him.
   She was surprised at the extent of her daughter’s physical ease with him. Surprised that her child seemed to have a sub-world that excluded her entirely. A tactile world of smiles and laughter that she, her mother, had no part in. Ammu recognized vaguely that her thoughts were shot with a delicate, purple tinge of envy. She didn’t allow herself to consider who it was that she envied. The man or her own child. Or just their world of hooked fingers and sudden smiles.
   The man standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body, holding her daughter in his arms, glanced up and caught Ammu’s gaze. Centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was wrong-footed, caught off guard. Sloughed off like an old snakeskin. Its marks, its scars, its wounds from old wars and the walking-backwards days all fell away. In its absence it left an aura, a palpable shimmering that was as plain to see as the water in a river or the sun in the sky. As plain to feel as the heat on a hot day, or the rug of a fish on a taut line. So obvious that no one noticed.
   In that brief moment, Velutha looked up and saw things that he hadn’t seen before. Things that had been out of bounds so far, obscured by history’s blinkers.
   Simple things.
   For instance, he saw that Rahel’s mother was a woman.
   That she had deep dimples when she smiled and that they stayed on long after her smile left her eyes. He saw that her brown arms were round and firm and perfect That her shoulders shone, but her eyes were somewhere else. He saw that when he gave her gifts they no longer needed to be offered flat on the palms of his hands so that she wouldn’t have to touch him. His boats and boxes. His little windmills. He saw too that he was not necessarily the only giver of gifts. That she had gifts to give him, too.
   This knowing slid into him cleanly, like the sharp edge of a knife. Cold and hot at once. It only took a moment.
   Ammu saw that he saw. She looked away. He did too. History’s fiends returned to claim them. To re-wrap them in its old, scarred pelt and drag them back to where they really lived. Where the Love Laws lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.
   Ammu walked up to the verandah, back into the Play. Shaking.

   Velutha looked down at Ambassador S. Insect in his arms. He put her down. Shaking too.
   “And look at you!” he said, looking at her ridiculous frothy frock. “So beautiful! Getting married?”
   Rahel lunged at his armpits and tickled him mercilessly. Ickilee ickilee ickilee!
   “I saw you yesterday,” she said.
   “Where?” Velutha made his voice high and surprised.
   “Liar,” Rahel said. “Liar and pretender. I did see you. You were a Communist and had a shirt and a flag. And you ignored me.”
   “Aiyyo kathtam,” Velutha said. “Would I do that? You tell me, would Velutha ever do that? It rnust’ve been my Long-lost Twin brother.”
   “Which Long-lost Twin brother?”
   “Urumban, silly… The one who lives in Kochi.”
   “Who Urumban?” Then she saw the twinkle. “Liar! You haven’t got a Twin brother! It wasn’t Urumban! It was you!”
   Velutha laughed. He had a lovely laugh that he really meant.
   “Wasn’t me,” he said. “I was sick in bed.”
   “See, you’re smiling!” Rahel said. “That means it was you. Smiling means ‘It was you.’”
   “That’s only in English!” Velutha said. “In Malayalam my teacher always said that `Smiling means it wasn’t me.’”
   It took Rahel a moment to sort that one out. She lunged at him once again. Ickike ickilee ickike!
   Still laughing, Velutha looked into the Play for Sophie. “Where’s our Sophie Mol? Let’s take a look at her. Did you remember to bring her, or did you leave her behind?”
   “Don’t look there,” Rahel said urgently.
   She stood up on the cement parapet that separated the rubber trees from the driveway, and clapped her hands over Velutha’s eyes.
   “Why?” Velutha said.
   “Because,” Rahel said, “I don’t want you to.”
   “Where’s Estha Mon?” Velutha said, with an Ambassador (disguised as a Stick Insect disguised as an Airport Fairy) hanging down his back with her legs wrapped around his waist, blindfolding him with her sticky little hands. “I haven’t seen him.”
   “Oh, we sold him in Cochin,” Rahel said airily. “For a bag of rice. And a torch.”
   The froth of her stiff frock pressed rough lace flowers into Velutha’s back. Lace flowers and a lucky leaf bloomed on a black back.
   But when Rahel searched the Play for Estha, she saw that he wasn’t there.

   Back inside the Play, Kochu Maria arrived, short, behind her tall cake.

   “Cake’s come,” she said, a little loudly, to Mammachi. Kochu Maria always spoke a little loudly to Mammachi because she assumed that poor eyesight automatically affected the other senses.
   “Kandoo Kochu Mariye?” Mammachi said. “Can you see our Sophie Mol?”
   “Kandoo, Kochamma,” Kochu Maria said extra loud. “I can see her.”
   She smiled at Sophie Mol, extra wide. She was exactly Sophie Mol’s height. More short than Syrian Christian, despite her best efforts.
   “She has her mother’s color,” Kochu Maria said.
   “Pappachi’s nose,” Mammachi insisted.
   “I don’t know about that, but she’s very beautiful,” Kochu Maria shouted. “Sundari kutty. She’s a little angel.”

   Littleangels were beach-colored and wore bell-bottoms. Littledemons were mudbrown in Airport-Fairy frocks with forehead bumps that might turn into horns. With Fountains in Love-in-Tokyos. And backwards-reading habits.
   And if you cared to look, you could see Satan in their eyes. Kochu Maria took both Sophie Mol’s hands in hers, palms upward, raised them to her face and inhaled deeply.
   “What’s she doing?” Sophie Mol wanted to know, tender London hands clasped in calloused Ayemenem ones. “Who’s she and why’s she smelling my hands?”
   “She’s the cook,” Chacko said. “That’s her way of kissing you.”
   “Kissing?” Sophie Mol was unconvinced, but interested. “How marvelous!” Margaret Kochamma said. “It’s a sort of sniffing! Do the Men and Women do it to each other too?”
   She hadn’t meant it to sound quite like that, and she blushed. An embarrassed schoolteacher-shaped Hole in the Universe.
   “Oh, all the time!” Ammu said, and it came out a little louder than the sarcastic mumble that she had intended. “That’s how we make babies.”
   Chacko didn’t slap her.
   So she didn’t slap him back.
   But the Waiting Air grew Angry.
   “I think you owe my wife an apology, Ammu,” Chacko said, with a protective, proprietal air (hoping that Margaret Kochamma wouldn’t say “Ex-wife Chacko!” and wag a rose at him).
   “Oh no!” Margaret Kochamma said. “It was my fault! I never meant it to sound quite like that… what I meant was—I mean it is fascinating to think that—”
   “It was a perfectly legitimate question,” Chacko said. “And I think Ammu ought to apologize.”
   “Must we behave like some damn godforsaken tribe that’s just been discovered?” Ammu asked.
   “Oh dear,” Margaret Kochamma said.
   In the angry quietness of the Play (the Blue Army in the greenheat still watching), Ammu walked back to the Plymouth, took out her suitcase, slammed the door, and walked away to her room, her shoulders shining. Leaving everybody to wonder where she had learned her effrontery from.
   And truth be told, it was no small wondering matter.
   Because Ammu had not had the kind of education, nor read the sorts of books, nor met the sorts of people, that might have influenced her to think the way she did.
   She was just that sort of animal.

   As a child, she had learned very quickly to disregard the Father Bear Mother Bear stories she was given to read. In her version, Father Bear beat Mother Bear with brass vases. Mother Bear suffered those beatings with mute resignation.
   In her growing years, Ammu had watched her father weave his hideous web. He was charming and urbane with visitors, and stopped just short of fawning on them if they happened to be white. He donated money to orphanages and leprosy clinics. He worked hard on his public profile as a sophisticated, generous, moral man. But alone with his wife and children he turned into a monstrous, suspicious bully, with a streak of vicious cunning. They were beaten, humiliated and then made to suffer the envy of friends and relations for having such a wonderful husband and father.
   Ammu had endured cold winter nights in Delhi hiding in the mehndi hedge around their house (in case people from Good Families saw them) because Pappachi had come back from work out of sorts, and beaten her and Mammachi and driven them out of their home.
   On one such night, Ammu, aged nine, hiding with her mother in the hedge, watched Pappachi’s natty silhouette in the lit windows as he flitted from room to room. Not content with having beaten his wife and daughter (Chacko was away at school), he tore down curtains, kicked furniture and smashed a table lamp. An hour after the lights went out, disdaining Mammachi’s frightened pleading, little Ammu crept back into the house through a ventilator to rescue her new gumboots that she loved more than anything else. She put them in a paper bag and crept back into the drawing room when the lights were suddenly switched on.
   Pappachi had been sitting in his mahogany rocking chair all along, rocking himself silently in the dark. When he caught her, he didn’t say a word. He flogged her with his ivory-handled riding crop (the one that he had held across his lap in his studio photograph). Ammu didn’t cry. When he finished beating her he made her bring him Mammachi’s pinking shears from her sewing cupboard. While Ammu watched, the Imperial Entomologist shred her new gumboots with her mother’s pinking shears. The strips of black rubber fell to the floor. The scissors made snicking scissor-sounds. Ammu ignored her mother’s drawn, frightened face that appeared at the window. It took ten minutes for her beloved gumboots to be completely shredded. When the last strip of rubber had rippled to the floor, her father looked at her with cold, flat eyes, and rocked and rocked and rocked. Surrounded by a sea of twisting rubber snakes.
   As she grew older, Ammu learned to live with this cold, calculating cruelty. She developed a lofty sense of injustice and the mulish, reckless streak that develops in Someone Small who has been bullied all their lives by Someone Big. She did exactly nothing to avoid quarrels and confrontations. In fact, it could be argued that she sought them out, perhaps even enjoyed them.

   “Has she gone?” Mammachi asked the silence around her.
   “She’s gone,” Kochu Maria said loudly.
   “Are you allowed to say `damn’ in India?” Sophie Mol asked.
   “Who said ‘damn’?” Chacko asked.
   “She did,” Sophie Mol said. “Aunty Ammu. She said some damn godforsaken tribe.’”
   “Cut the cake and give everybody a piece,” Mammachi said. “Because in England, we’re not,” Sophie Mol said to Chacko. “Not what?” Chacko said.
   “Allowed to say Dee Ay Em En,” Sophie Mol said. Mammachi looked sightlessly out into the shining afternoon. “Is everyone here?” she asked.
   “Oower Kochamma,” the Blue Army in the greenheat said. “We’re all here.”

   Outside the Play, Rahel said to Velutha: “We’re not here are we? We’re not even Playing.”
   “That is Exactly Right,” Velutha said. “We’re not even Playing. But what I would like to know is, where is our Esthapappychachen Kuttappen Peter Mon?”

   And that became a delighted, breathless, Rumpelstiltskin-like dance among the rubber trees.
   Oh Esthapappychachen Kuttappen Peter Mon.
   Where, oh where have you gon?
   And from Rumpelstiltskin it graduated to the Scarlet Pimpernel.
   We seek him here, we seek him there,
   Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
   Is be in heaven? Is be in hell?
   That demmedel-usive Estha –Pen?
   Kochu Maria cut a sample piece of cake for Mammachi’s approval.
   “One piece each,” Mammachi confirmed to Kochu Maria, touching the piece lightly with rubyringed fingers to see if it was small enough.
   Kochu Maria sawed up the rest of the cake messily, laboriously, breathing through her mouth, as though she was carving a hunk of roast lamb. She put the pieces on a large silver tray.
   Mammachi played a Welcome Home, Our Sophie Mol melody on her violin.
   A cloying, chocolate melody. Stickysweet, and meltybrown. Chocolate waves on a chocolate shore.
   In the middle of the melody, Chacko raised his voice over the chocolate sound.
   “Mamma!” he said (in his Reading Aloud voice). “Mamma! That’s enough! Enough violin!”
   Mammachi stopped playing and looked in Chacko’s direction, the bow poised in midair.
   “Enough? D’you think that’s enough, Chacko?”
   “More than enough,” Chacko said.
   “Enough’s enough,” Mammachi murmured to herself. “I think I’ll stop now.” As though the idea had suddenly occurred to her.
   She put her violin away into its black, violin-shaped box. It closed like a suitcase. And the music closed with it.
   Click. And click.
   Mammachi put her dark glasses on again. And drew the drapes across the hot day.

   Ammu emerged from the house and called to Rahel. “Rahel! I want you to have your afternoon nap! Come in after you’ve had your cake!”
   Rahel’s heart sank. Afternoon Gnap. She hated those.
   Ammu went back indoors.
   Velutha put Rahel down, and she stood forlornly at the edge of the driveway, on the periphery of the Play, a Gnap looming large and nasty on her horizon.
   “And please stop being so over-familiar with that man!” Baby Kochamma said to Rahel.
   “Over-familiar?” Mammachi said. “Who is it, Chacko? Who’s being over-familiar?”
   “Rahel,” Baby Kochamma said.
   “Over-familiar with who?” “With whom,” Chacko corrected his mother. “All right, with whom is she being over-familiar?” Mammachi asked.
   “Your Beloved Velutha—whom else?” Baby Kochamma said, and to Chacko, “Ask him where he was yesterday. Let’s bell the cat once and for all.”
   “Not now,” Chacko said.
   “`What’s over-familiar?” Sophie Mol asked Margaret Kochamma, who didn’t answer.
   “Velutha? Is Velutha here? Are you here?” Mammachi asked the Afternoon.
   “Oower, Kochamma.” He stepped through the trees into the Play.
   “Did you find out what it was?” Mammachi asked.
   “The washer in the foot-valve,” Velutha said. “I’ve changed it. It’s working now.”
   “Then switch it on,” Mammachi said. “The tank is empty.”
   “That man will be our Nemesis,” Baby Kochamma said. Not because she was clairvoyant and had had a sudden flash of prophetic vision. Just to get him into trouble. Nobody paid her any attention.
   “Mark my words,” she said bitterly.

   “See her?” Kochu Maria said when she got to Rahel with her tray of cake. She meant Sophie Mol. “When she grows up, she’ll be our Kochamma, and she’ll raise our salaries, and give us nylon saris for Onam.” Kochu Maria collected saris, though she hadn’t ever worn one, and probably never would.
   “So what?” Rahel said. “By then I’ll be living in Africa.”
   “Africa?” Kochu Maria sniggered. “Africa’s full of ugly black people and mosquitoes.”
   “You’re the one who’s ugly,” Rahel said, and added (in English) “Stupid dwarf!”
   “What did you say?” Kochu Maria said threateningly. “Don’t tell me. I know. I heard. I’ll tell Mammachi. Just wait!”
   Rahel walked across to the old well where there were usually some ants to kill. Red ants that had a sour farty smell when they were squashed. Kochu Maria followed her with the tray of cake.
   Rahel said she didn’t want any of the stupid cake.
   “Kushumbi, ” Kochu Maria said. “Jealous people go straight to hell.”
   “Who’s jealous?”
   “I don’t know. You tell me,” Kochu Maria said, with a frilly apron and a vinegar heart

   Rahel put on her sunglasses and looked back into the Play. Everything was Angry-colored. Sophie Mol, standing between Margaret Kochamma and Chacko, looked as though she ought to be slapped. Rahel found a whole column of juicy ants. They were on their way to church. All dressed in red. They had to be killed before they got there. Squished and squashed with a stone. You can’t have smelly ants in church.
   The ants made a faint crunchy sound as life left them. Like an elf eating toast or a crisp biscuit.

   The Antly Church would be empty and the Antly Bishop would wait in his funny Antly Bishop clothes, swinging Frankincense in a silver pot. And nobody would arrive.
   After he had waited for a reasonably Antly amount of time, he would get a funny Antly Bishop frown on his forehead, and shake his head sadly. He would look at the glowing Antly stained-glass windows and when he finished looking at them, he would lock the church with an enormous key and make it dark. Then he’d go home to his wife and (if she wasn’t dead) they’d have an Antly Afternoon Gnap.

   Sophie Mol, hatted bell-bottomed and Loved from the Beginning, walked out of the Play to see what Rahel was doing behind the well. But the Play went with her. Walked when she walked, stopped when she stopped. Fond smiles followed her. Kochu Maria moved the cake tray out of the way of her adoring downwards smile as Sophie squatted down in the well-squelch (yellow bottoms of bells muddy wet now).
   Sophie Mol inspected the smelly mayhem with clinical detachment. The stone was coated with crushed red carcasses and a few feebly waving legs.
   Kochu Maria watched with her cake crumbs.
   The Fond Smiles watched Fondly.
   Little Girls Playing.
   Sweet.
   One beach-colored.
   One brown.
   One Loved.
   One Loved a Little Less.
   “Let’s leave one alive so that it can be lonely,” Sophie Mol suggested.
   Rahel ignored her and killed them all. Then in her frothy Airport Frock with matching knickers (no longer crisp) and unmatching sunglasses, she ran away. Disappeared into the greenheat.
   The Fond Smiles stayed on Sophie Mol like a spotlight, thinking, perhaps, that the sweetcousins were playing hide-and-seek, like sweetcousins often do.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 9.
Mrs. Pillai, Mrs. Eapen, Mrs. Rajagopalan

   The green-for-the-day had seeped from the trees. Dark palm leaves were splayed like drooping combs against the monsoon sky. The orange sun slid through their bent, grasping teeth.
   A squadron of fruit bats sped across the gloom.
   In the abandoned ornamental garden, Rahel, watched by lolling dwarfs and a forsaken cherub, squatted by the stagnant pond and watched toads hop from stone to scummy stone. Beautiful Ugly Toads.
   Slimy. Warty. Croaking.
   Yearning, unkissed princes trapped inside them. Food for snakes that lurked in the long June grass. Rustle. Lunge. No more toad to hop from stone to scummy stone. No more prince to kiss.
   It was the first night since she’d come that it hadn’t rained. Around now, Rahel thought, if this were Washington, I would be on my way to work. The bus ride. The streetlights. The gas fumes. The shapes of people’s breath on the bulletproof glass of my cabin. The clatter of coins pushed towards me in the metal tray. The smell of money on my fingers. The punctual drunk with sober eyes who arrived exactly at 10.00 P.M.: “Hey you! Black bitch! Suck my dick!”
   She owned seven hundred dollars. And a gold bangle with snakeheads. But Baby Kochamma had already asked her how much longer she planned to stay. And what she planned to do about Estha.
   She had no plans.
   No plans.
   No L…custs Stand I.
   She looked back at the looming, gabled, house-shaped Hole in the Universe and imagined living in the silver bowl that Baby Kochamma had installed on the roof. It looked large enough for people to live in. Certainly it was bigger than a lot of people’s homes. Bigger, for instance, than Kochu Maria’s cramped quarters.
   If they slept there, she and Estha, curled together like fetuses in a shallow steel womb, what would Hulk Hogan and Bam Bam Bigelow do? If the dish were occupied, where would they go? Would they slip through the chimney into Baby Kochamma’s life and TV? Would they land on the old stove with a Heeaugh!, in their muscles and spangled clothes? Would the Thin People—the famine-victims and refugees—slip through the cracks in the doors? Would Genocide slide between the tiles?
   The sky was thick with TV. If you wore special glasses you could see them spinning through the sky among the bats and homing birds-blondes, wars, famines, football, food shows, coups d’ etat, hairstyles stiff with hair spray. Designer pectorals. Gliding towards Ayemenem like skydivers. Making patterns in the sky. Wheels. Windmills. Flowers blooming and unblooming.
   Heeaagh!
   Rahel returned to contemplating toads.
   Fat. Yellow. From stone to scummy stone. She touched one gently. It moved its eyelids upwards. Funnily self-assured.
   Nictitating membrane, she remembered she and Estha once spent a whole day saying. She and Estha and Sophie Mol.

   Nictitating
   ictitating
   ctitating
   itating
   tating
   ating
   ting
   ing

   They were, all three of them, wearing saris (old ones, torn in half) that day. Estha was the draping expert. He pleated Sophie Mol’s pleats. Organized Rahel’s pallu and settled his own. They had red bindis on their foreheads. In the process of trying to wash out Ammu’s forbidden kohl, they had smudged it all over their eyes, and on the whole looked like three raccoons trying to pass off as Hindu ladies. It was about a week after Sophie Mol arrived. A week before she died. By then she had performed unfalteringly under the twins’ perspicacious scrutiny and had confounded all their expectations.
   She had:
   (a) Informed Chacko that even though he was her Real Father, she loved him less than Joe (which left him available—even if not inclined—to be the surrogate father of certain two-egg persons greedy for his affection).
   (b) Turned down Mammachi’s offer that she replace Estha and Rahel as the privileged plaiter of Mammachi’s nightly rat’s tail and counter of moles.
   (c) (& Most Important) Astutely gauged the prevailing temper, and not just rejected, but rejected outright and extremely rudely, all of Baby Kochamma’s advances and small seductions.
   As if this were not enough, she also revealed herself to be human. One day the twins returned from a clandestine trip to the river (which had excluded Sophie Mol), and found her in the garden in tears, perched on the highest point of Baby Kochamma’s Herb Curl, “Being Lonely,” as she put it. The next day Estha and Rahel took her with them to visit Velutha.
   They visited him in saris, clumping gracelessly through red mud and long grass (nictitating ictitating tating ating ting ing) and introduced themselves as Mrs. Pillai, Mrs. Eapen and Mrs. Rajagopalan. Velutha introduced himself and his paralyzed brother Kuttappen (although he was fast asleep). He greeted them with the utmost courtesy. He addressed them all as Kochamma and gave them fresh coconut water to drink. He chatted to them about the weather. The river. The fact that in his opinion coconut trees were getting shorter by the year. As were the ladies in Ayemenem. He introduced them to his surly hen. He showed them his carpentry tools, and whittled them each a little wooden spoon.
   It is only now, these years later, that Rahel with adult hindsight recognized the sweetness of that gesture. A grown man entertaining three raccoons, treating them like real ladies. Instinctively colluding in the conspiracy of their fiction, taking care not to decimate it with adult carelessness. Or affection.
   It is after all so easy to shatter a story. To break a chain of thought. To ruin a fragment of a dream being carried around carefully like a piece of porcelain.
   To let it be, to travel with it as Velutha did, is much the harder thing to do.

   Three days before the Terror, he had let them paint his nails with red Cutex that Ammu had discarded. That’s the way he was the day History visited them in the back verandah. A carpenter with gaudy nails. The posse of Touchable Policemen had looked at them and laughed.
   “What’s this?” one had said. “AC-DC?”
   Another lifted his boot with a millipede curled into the ridges of its sole. Deep rust-brown. A million legs.

   The last strap of light slipped from the cherub’s shoulder. Gloom swallowed the garden. Whole. Like a python. Lights came on in the house.
   Rahel could see Estha in his room, sitting on his neat bed. He was looking out through the barred window at the darkness. He couldn’t see her, sitting outside in the darkness, looking in at the light.
   A pair of actors trapped in a recondite play with no hint of plot or narrative. Stumbling through their parts, nursing someone else’s sorrow. Grieving someone else’s grief.
   Unable, somehow, to change plays. Or purchase, for a fee, some cheap brand of exorcism from a counselor with a fancy degree, who would sit them down and say, in one of many ways: “You’re not the Sinners. You’re the Sinned Against You were only children. You had no control. You are the victims, not the perpetrators.”
   It would have helped if they could have made that crossing. If only they could have worn, even temporarily, the tragic hood of victimhood. Then they would have been able to put a face on it, and conjure up fury at what had happened. Or seek redress. And eventually, perhaps, exorcize the memories that haunted them.
   But anger wasn’t available to them and there was no face to put on this Other Thing that they held in their sticky Other Hands, like an imaginary orange. There was nowhere to lay it down. It wasn’t theirs to give away. It would have to be held. Carefully and forever.
   Esthappen and Rahel both knew that there were several perpetrators (besides themselves) that day. But only one victim. And he had blood-red nails and a brown leaf on his back that made the monsoons come on time.
   He left behind a Hole in the Universe through which darkness poured like liquid tar. Through which their mother followed without even turning to wave good-bye. She left them behind, spinning in the dark, with no moorings, in a place with no foundation.

   Hours later, the moon rose and made the gloomy python surrender what it had swallowed. The garden reappeared. Regurgitated whole. With Rahel sitting in it.
   The direction of the breeze changed and brought her the sound of drums. A gift. The promise of a story. Once upon a time, they said, there lived a…
   Rahel lifted her head and listened.
   On clear nights the sound of the chenda traveled up to a kilometer from the Ayemenem temple, announcing a kathakali performance.
   Rahel went. Drawn by the memory of steep roofs and white walls. Of brass lamps lit and dark, oiled wood. She went in the hope of meeting an old elephant who wasn’t electrocuted on the Kottayam-Cochin highway. She stopped by the kitchen for a coconut.
   On her way out, she noticed that one of the gauze doors of the factory had come off its hinges and was propped against the doorway. She moved it aside and stepped in. The air was heavy with moisture, wet enough for fish to swim in.
   The floor under her shoes was slick with monsoon scum. A small, anxious bat flitted between the roof beams.
   The low cement pickle vats silhouetted in the gloom made the factory floor look like an indoor cemetery for the cylindrical dead.
   The earthly remains of Paradise Pickles & Preserves.
   Where long ago, on the day that Sophie Mol came, Ambassador E. Pelvis stirred a pot of scarlet jam and thought Two Thoughts. Where a red, tender-mango-shaped secret was pickled, sealed and put away.
   It’s true. Things can change in a day.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
Chapter 10.
The River in the Boat

   While the Welcome Home, Our Sophie Mol Play was being performed in the front verandah and Kochu Maria distributed cake to a Blue Army in the greenheat, Ambassador E. Pelvis/S. Pimpernel (with a puff) of the beige and pointy shoes, pushed open the gauze doors to the dank and pickle-smelling premises of Paradise Pickles. He walked among the giant cement pickle vats to find a place to Think in. Ousa, the Bar Nowl, who lived on a blackened beam near the skylight (and contributed occasionally to the flavor of certain Paradise products), watched him walk.
   Past floating yellow limes in brine that needed prodding from time to time (or else islands of black fungus formed like frilled mushrooms in a clear soup).
   Past green mangoes, cut and stuffed with turmeric and chili powder and tied together with twine. (They needed no attention for a while.)
   Past glass casks of vinegar with corks.
   Past shelves of pectin and preservatives.
   Past trays of bitter gourd, with knives and colored finger guards.
   Past gunny bags bulging with garlic and small onions.
   Past mounds of fresh green peppercorns.
   Past a heap of banana peels on the floor (preserved for the pigs’ dinner).
   Past the label cupboard full of labels.
   Past the glue.
   Past the glue-brush.
   Past an iron tub of empty bottles floating in soapbubbled water
   Past the lemon squash.
   The grape crush.
   And back.
   It was dark inside, lit only by the light that filtered through the clotted gauze doors, and a beam of dusty sunlight (that Ousa didn’t use) from the skylight. The smell of vinegar and asafetida stung his nostrils, but Estha was used to it, loved it. The place that he found to Think in was between the wall and the black iron cauldron in which a batch of freshly boiled (illegal) banana jam was slowly cooling.
   The jam was still hot and on its sticky scarlet surface, thick pink froth was dying slowly. Little banana-bubbles drowning deep in jam and nobody to help them.
   The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man could walk in any minute. Catch a Cochin-Kottayam bus and be there. And Ammu would offer him a cup of tea. Or Pineapple Squash perhaps. With ice. Yellow in a glass.
   With the long iron stirrer, Estha stirred the thick, fresh jam.
   The dying froth made dying frothly shapes.
   A crow with a crushed wing.
   A clenched chicken’s claw.
   A Nowl (not Ousa) mired in sickly jam.
   A sadly swirl.
   And nobody to help.

   As Estha stirred the thick jam he thought Two Thoughts, and the Two Thoughts he thought were these:
   (a)Anything can happen to Anyone. and
   (b)It’s best to be prepared.
   Having thought these thoughts, Estha Alone was happy with his bit of wisdom.
   As the hot magenta jam went round, Estha became a Stirring Wizard with a spoiled puff and uneven teeth, and then the Witches of Macbeth.
   Fire burn, banana bubble.

   Ammu had allowed Estha to copy Mammachi’s recipe for banana jam into her new recipe book, black with a white spine.
   Acutely aware of the honor that Ammu had bestowed on him, Estha had used both his best handwritings.
   Bananajam (in his old best writing)

   Crush ripe banana. Add water to cover and cook on a ~ hot fire till fruit is soft.
   Sqweeze out juice by straining through course muslin.
   Weigh equal quantity of sugar and keep b~.
   Cook fruit juice till it turns scarlet and about half the quantity evapoarates.

   Prepare the gelatin (pectin) thus
   Proportion 1:5
   ie: 4 teaspoons Pectin. 20 teaspoons sugar.

   Estha always thought of Pectin as the youngest of three brothers with hammers, Pectin, Hectin and Abednego. He imagined them building a wooden ship in failing light and a drizzle. Like Noah’s sons. He could see them clearly in his mind. Racing against time. The sound of their hammering echoing dully under the brooding, storm-coming sky.
   And nearby in the jungle, in the eerie, storm-coming light, animals queued up in pairs:
   Girl boy.
   Girl boy.
   Girl boy. Girl boy.
   Twins were not allowed.

   The rest of the recipe was in Estha’s new best handwriting. Angular, spiky. It leaned backwards as though the letters were reluctant to form words, and the words reluctant to be in sentences:

   Add the Pectin to concentrated juice. Cook for a few (5) minutes.
   Use a strong fire, burning heavily all around.
   Add the sugar. Cook until sheeting consistency is obtained.
   Cool slowly.
   Hope you will enjoy this recipe.

   Apart from the spelling mistakes, the last line—Hope you will enjoy this recipe—was Estha’s only augmentation of the original text.
   Gradually, as Estha stirred, the banana jam thickened and cooled, and Thought Number Three rose unbidden from his beige and pointy shoes.
   Thought Number Three was:
   (c) A boat.
   A boat to row across the river Akkara. The Other Side. A boat to carry Provisions. Matches. Clothes. Pots and Pans. Things they would need and couldn’t swim with.
   Estha’s arm hairs stood on end. The jam-stirring became a boatrowing. The round and round became a back and forth. Across a sticky scarlet river. A song from the Onam boat race filled the factory. Thaiy thay thaka rbazy thaiy thome!”
   Enda da korangacha, chandi ithra thenjada?
   (Hey, Mr. Monkey man, why’s your bum so red?)
   Pandyill thooran poyappol nerakkamathiri nerangi njan.
   (I went for a shit to Madras, and scraped it till it bled.)
   Over the somewhat discourteous questions and answers of the boat song, Rahel’s voice floated into the factory
   “Estha! Estha! Estha!”
   Estha didn’t answer. The chorus of the boat song was whispered into the thick jam.
   Theeyome
   Thithome
   Tharako
   Thithome
   Theem
   A gauze door creaked, and an Airport Fairy with hornbumps and yellow-rimmed red plastic sunglasses looked in with the sun behind her. The factory was angry-colored. The salted limes were red. The tender mangoes were red. The label cupboard was red. The dusty sunbeam (that Ousa never used) was red.
   The gauze door closed.
   Rahel stood in the empty factory with her Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo. She heard a nun’s voice singing the boat song. A clear soprano wafting over vinegar fumes and pickle vats.
   She turned to Estha bent over the scarlet broth in the black cauldron.
   “What d’you want?” Estha asked without looking up.
   “Nothing,” Rahel said.
   “Then why have you come here?”
   Rahel didn’t reply. There was a brief, hostile silence.
   “Why’re you rowing the jam?” Rahel asked.
   “India’s a Free Country,” Estha said.
   No one could argue with that.
   India was a Free Country
   You could make salt. Row jam, if you wanted to.
   The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man could just walk in through the gauze doors,
   If he wanted to.
   And Ammu would offer him pineapple juice. With ice.

   Rahel sat on the edge of a cement vat (frothy ends of buckram and lace, delicately dipped in tender mango pickle) and tried on the
   rubber finger guards. Three bluebottles fiercely fought the gauze doors, wanting to be let in. And Ousa the Bar Nowl watched the pickle-smelling silence that lay between the twins like a bruise.
   Rahel’s fingers were Yellow Green Blue Red Yellow. Estha’s jam was stirred.
   Rahel got up to go. For her Afternoon Gnap.
   “Where’re you going?”
   “Somewhere.”
   Rahel took off her new fingers, and had her old finger-colored fingers back. Not yellow, not green, not blue, not red. Not yellow
   “I’m going to Akkara,” Estha said. Not looking up. “To the History House.”
   Rahel stopped and turned around, and on her heart a drab moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts unfurled its predatory wings.
   Slow out.
   Slow in.
   “Why?” Rahel said.
   “Because Anything can Happen to Anyone,” Estha-said. “It’s Best to be Prepared.’
   You couldn’t argue with that.
   Nobody went to Kari Saipu’s house anymore. Vellya Paapen claimed to be the last human being to have set eyes on it. He said that it was haunted. He had told the twins the story of his encounter with Kari Saipu’s ghost. It happened two years ago, he said. He had gone across the river, hunting for a nutmeg tree to make a paste of nutmeg and fresh garlic for Chella, his wife, as she lay dying of tuberculosis. Suddenly he smelled cigar smoke (which he recognized at once, because Pappachi used to smoke the same brand). Vellya Paapen whirled around and hurled his sickle at the smell. He pinned the ghost to the trunk of a rubber tree, where, according to Vellya Paapen, it still remained. A sickled smell that bled clear, amber blood, and begged for cigars.
   Vellya Paapen never found the nutmeg tree, and had to buy himself a new sickle. But he had the satisfaction of knowing that his lightning-quick reflexes (despite his mortgaged eye) and his presence of mind had put an end to the bloodthirsty wanderings of a pedophile ghost.
   As long as no one succumbed to its artifice and unsickled it with a cigar.

   What Vellya Paapen (who knew most things) didn’t know was that Kari Saipu’s house was the History House (whose doors were locked and windows open). And that inside, map-breath’d ancestors with tough toe-nails whispered to the lizards on the wall. That History used the back verandah to negotiate its terms and collect its dues. That default led to dire consequences. That on the day History picked to square its books, Estha would keep the receipt for the dues that Velutha paid.
   Vellya Paapen had no idea that Kari Saipu it was who captured dreams and re-dreamed them. That he plucked them from the minds of passersby the way children pick currants from a cake. That the ones he craved most of all, the dreams he loved re-dreaming, were the tender dreams of two-egg, twins.
   Poor old Vellya Paapen, had he known then that History would choose him for its deputy, that it would be his tears that set the Terror rolling, perhaps he would not have strutted like a young cockerel in the. Ayemenem bazaar, bragging of how he swam the river with his sickle in his mouth (sour, the taste of iron on his tongue). How he put it down for just one moment while he kneeled to wash the river-grit out of his mortgaged eye (there was grit in the river sometimes, particularly in the rainy months) when he caught the first whiff of cigar smoke. How he picked up his sickle, whirled around and sickled the smell that fixed the ghost forever. All in a single fluid, athletic motion.
   By the time he understood his part in History’s Plans, it was too late to retrace his steps. He had swept his footprints away himself. Crawling backwards with a broom.
   In the factory the silence swooped down once more and tightened around the twins. But this time it was a different kind of silence. An old river silence. The silence of Fisher People and waxy mermaids.
   “But Communists don’t believe in ghosts,” Estha said, as though they were continuing a discourse investigating solutions to the ghost problem. Their conversations surfaced and dipped like mountain streams. Sometimes audible to other people. Sometimes not.
   “Are we going to become a Communist2” Rahel asked.
   “Might have to.”
   Estha-the-Practical.
   Distant cake-crumbled voices and approaching Blue Army footsteps caused the Comrades to seal the secret.
   It was pickled, sealed and put away. A red, tender-mango-shaped secret in a vat. Presided over by a Nowl.
   The Red Agenda was worked out and agreed upon:
   Comrade Rahel would go for her Afternoon Gnap, then lie awake until Ammu fell asleep. –
   Comrade Estha would find the flag (that Baby Kochamma had been forced to wave), and wait for her by the river and there they would:
   (b) Prepare to prepare to be prepared.


   A child’s abandoned Fairy Frock (semipickled) stood stiffly on its own in the middle of Ammu’s darkened bedroom floor.
   Outside, the Air was Alert and Bright and Hot. Rahel lay next to Ammu, wide awake in her matching airport knickers. She could see the pattern of the cross-stitch flowers from the blue cross-stitch counterpane on Ammu’s cheek. She could hear the blue cross-stitch afternoon.
   The slow ceiling fan. The sun behind the curtains. The yellow wasp wasping against the windowpane in a dangerous dzzzz.
   A disbelieving lizard’s blink.
   High-stepping chickens in the yard.
   The sound of the sun crinkling the washing. Crisping white bedsheets. Stiffening starched saris. Off-white and gold.
   Red ants on yellow stones.
   A hot cow feeling hot. Amhoo. In the distance.
   And the smell of a cunning Englishman ghost, sickled to a rubber tree, asking courteously for a cigar.
   “Umm… excuse me? You wouldn’t happen to have an umm… cigar, would you?”
   In a kind, schoolteacherly voice.
   Oh dear.
   And Estha waiting for her. By the river. Under the mangosteen tree that Reverend E.John Ipe had brought home from his visit to Mandalay.
   What was Estha sitting on?
   On what they always sat on under the mangosteen tree. Something gray and grizzled. Covered in moss and lichen, smothered in ferns. Something that the earth had claimed. Not a log. Not a rock.
   Before she completed the thought, Rahel was up and running. Through the kitchen, past Kochu Maria fast asleep. Thickwrinkied like a sudden rhinoceros in a frilly apron.
   Past the factory.
   Tumbling barefoot through the greenheat, followed by a yellow wasp.
   Comrade Estha was there. Under the mangosteen tree. With the red flag planted in the earth beside him. A Mobile Republic. A Twin Revolution with a Puff.
   And what was he sitting on?
   Something covered with moss, hidden by ferns.
   Knock on it and it made a hollow knocked-on sound.
   The silence dipped and soared and swooped and looped in figures of eight.
   Jeweled dragonflies hovered like shrill children’s voices in the sun. Finger-colored fingers fought the ferns, moved the stones, cleared the way. There was a sweaty grappling for an edge to hold on to. And a One Two and.

   Things can change in a day.

   It was a boat. A tiny wooden vallom.
   The boat that Estha sat on and Rahel found.
   The boat that Ammu would use to cross the river. To love by night the man her children loved by day.
   So old a boat that it had taken root. Almost.
   A gray old boatplant with boatflowers and boatfruit. And underneath, a boat-shaped patch of withered grass. A scurrying, hurrying boatworld.
   Dark and dry and cool. Unroofed now. And blind.
   White termites on their way to work.
   White ladybirds on their way home.
   White beetles burrowing away from the light.
   White grasshoppers with whitewood violins.
   Sad white music.
   A white wasp. Dead.

   A bntrlewhite snakeskin, preserved in darkness, crumbled in the sun.

   But would it do, that little vallom?
   Was it perhaps too old? Too dead?’
   Was Akkara too far away for it?

   Two-egg twins looked out across their river.
   The Meenachal.
   Graygreen. With fish in it. The sky and trees in it. And at night, the broken yellow moon in it.
   When Pappachi was a boy, an old tamarind tree fell into it in a storm. It was still there. A smooth barkiess tree, blackened by a surfeit of green water. Driftless driftwood.
   The first third of the river was their friend. Before the Really Deep began. They knew the slippery stone steps (thirteen) before the slimy mud began. They knew the afternoon weed that flowed inwards from the backwaters of Komarakom. They knew the smaller fish. The flat, foolish pallathi, the silver paral, the wily, whiskered koori, the sometimes karimeen.
   Here Chacko had taught them to swim (splashing around his ample uncle stomach without help). Here they had discovered for themselves the discotinected delights of underwater fatting.
   Here they had learned to fish. To thread coiling purple earthworms onto hooks on the fishing rods that Velutha made from slender culms of yellow bamboo.
   Here they studied Silence (like the children of the Fisher People), and learned the bright language of dragonflies.
   Here they learned to Wait. To Watch. To think thoughts and not voice them. To move like lightning when the bendy yellow bamboo arced downwards.
   So this first third of the river they knew well. The next two-thirds less so.
   The second third was where the Really Deep began. Where the current was swift and certain (downstream when the tide was out, upstream, pushing up from the backwaters when the tide was in).
   The third third was shallow again. The water brown and murky. Full of weeds and darting eels and slow mud that oozed through toes like toothpaste.
   The twins could swim like seals and, supervised by Chacko, had crossed the river several times, returning panting and cross-eyed from the effort, with a stone, a twig or a leaf from the Other Side as testimony to their feat But the middle of a respectable river, or the Other Side, was no place for children to Linger, Loll or Learn Things. Estha and Rahel accorded the second third and the third third of the Meenachal the deference it deserved. Still, swimming across was not the problem. Taking the boat with Things in it (so that they could Prepare to prepare to be prepared) was.
   They looked across the river with Old Boat eyes. From where they stood they couldn’t see the History House. It was just a darkness beyond the swamp, at the heart of the abandoned rubber estate, from which the sound of crickets swelled.
   Estha and Rahel lifted the little boat and carried it to the water It looked surprised, like a grizzled fish that had surfaced from the deep. In dire need of sunlight. It needed scraping, and cleaning, perhaps, but nothing more.
   Two happy hearts soared like colored kites in a skyblue sky. But then, in a slow green whisper, the river (with fish in it, with the sky and trees in it), bubbled in.

   Slowly the old boar sank, and settled on the sixth step.
   And a pair of two-egg twin hearts sank and settled on the step above the sixth.
   The deep-swimming fish covered their mouths with their fins and laughed sideways at the spectacle.

   A white boat-spider floated up with the river in the boat, struggled briefly and drowned. Her white egg sac ruptured prematurely, and a hundred baby spiders (too light to drown, too small to Swim), stippled the smooth surface of the green water, before being swept out to sea. To Madagascar, to start a new phylum of Malayali Swimming Spiders.
   In a while, as though they’d discussed it (though they hadn’t), the twins began to wash the boat in the river. The cobwebs, the mud, the moss and lichen floated away. When it was clean, they turned it upside down and hoisted it onto their heads. Like a combined hat that dripped. Estha uprooted the red flag.
   A small procession (a flag, a wasp, and a boat-on-legs) wended its knowledgeable way down the little path through the undergrowth. It avoided the clumps of nettles, and sidestepped known ditches and anthills. It skirted the precipice of the deep pit from which laterite had been quarried, and was now a still lake with steep orange banks, the thick, viscous water covered with a luminous film of green scum. A verdant, treacherous lawn, in which mosquitoes bred and fish were fat but inaccessible.
   The path, which ran parallel to the river, led to a little grassy clearing that was hemmed in by huddled trees: coconut, cashew, mango, bilimbi. On the edge of the clearing, with its back to the river, a low hut with walls of orange laterite plastered with mud and a thatched roof nestled close to the ground, as though it was listening to a whispered subterranean secret. The low walls of the hut were the same color as the earth they stood on, and seemed to have germinated from a house-seed planted in the ground, from which right-angled ribs of earth had risen and enclosed space. Three untidy banana trees grew in the little front yard that had been fenced off with panels of woven palm leaves.

   The boat-on-legs approached the hut. An unlit oil lamp hung on the wall beside the door, the patch of wall behind it was singed soot black. The door was ajar. It was dark inside. A black hen appeared in the doorway. She returned indoors, entirely indifferent to boat visits.
   Velutha wasn’t home. Nor Vellya Paapen. But someone was.
   A man’s voice floated out from inside and echoed around the clearing, making him sound lonely.
   The voice shouted the same thing, over and over again, and each time it climbed into a higher, more hysterical register. It was an appeal to an over-ripe guava threatening to fall from its tree and make a mess on the ground.
   Pa pera-pera-pera-perakka,
   (Mister gugga-gug-gug-guava,)
   Endeparambil thooralley
   (Don’t shit here in my compound.)
   Chetendeparambil thoorikko.
   (You can shit next door in my brother’s compound.)
   Pa pera-pem-pera-perakka.
   (Mister gugga-gug-gug-guava.)
   The shouter was Kuttappen, Velutha’s older brother. He was paralyzed from his chest downwards. Day after day, month after month, while his brother was away and his father went to work, Kuttappen lay flat on his back and watched his youth saunter past without stopping to say hello. All day he lay there listening to the silence of huddled trees with only a domineering black hen for company. He missed his mother, Chella, who had died in the same corner of the room that he lay in now. She had died a coughing, spitting, aching, phlegmy death. Kuttappen remembered noticing how her feet died long before she had. How the skin on them grew gray and lifeless. How fearfully he watched death creep over her from the bottom up. Kuttappen kept vigil on his own numb feet with mounting terror. Occasionally he poked at them hopefully with a stick that he kept propped up in the corner to defend himself against visiting snakes. He had no sensation in his feet at all, and only visual evidence assured him that they were still connected to his body, and were indeed his own.
   After Chella died, he was moved into her corner, the corner that Kuttappen imagined was the corner of his home that Death had reserved to administer her deathly affairs. One corner for cooking, one for clothes, one for bedding rolls, one for dying in.
   He wondered how long his would take, and what people who had more than four corners in their houses did with the rest of their corners. Did it give them a choice of corners to die in?
   He assumed, not without reason, that he would be the first in his family to follow in his mother’s wake. He would learn otherwise. Soon. Too soon.
   Sometimes (from habit, from missing her), Kuttappen coughed like his mother used to, and his upper body bucked like a justcaught fish. His lower body lay like lead, as though it belonged to someone else. Someone dead whose spirit was trapped and couldn’t get away.
   Unlike Velutha, Kuttappen was a good, safe Paravan. He could neither read nor write. As belay there on his hardbed, bits of thatch and grit fell onto him from the ceiling and mingled with his sweat. Sometimes ants and other insects fell with it. On bad days the orange walls held hands and bent over him, inspecting him like malevolent doctors, slowly, deliberately, squeezing the breath out of him and making him scream. Sometimes they receded of their own accord, and the room he lay in grew impossibly large, terrorizing him with the specter of his own insignificance. That too made him cry out.
   Insanity hovered close at hand, like an eager waiter at an expensive restaurant (lighting cigarettes, refilling glasses). Kuttappen thought with envy of madmen who could walk. He had no doubts about the equity of the deal; his sanity, for serviceable legs.

   The twins put the boat down, and the clatter was met with a sudden silence from inside.
   Kuttappen wasn’t expecting anyone.
   Estha and Rahel pushed open the door and went in. Small as they were, they had to stoop a little to go in. The wasp waited outside on the lamp.
   “It’s us.”

   The room was dark and clean. It smelled of fish curry and woodsmoke. Heat cleaved to things like a low fever. But the mud floor was cool under Rahel’s bare feet. Velutha’s and Vellya Paapen’s bedding was rolled up and propped against the wall. Clothes hung on a string. There was a low wooden kitchen shelf on which covered terra-cotta pots, ladles made of coconut shells arid three chipped enamel plates with dark-blue rims were arranged. A grown man could stand up straight in the center of the room, but not along its sides. Another low door led to a backyard, where there were more banana trees, beyond which the river glimmered through the foliage. A carpenter’s workstation had been erected in the backyard.
   There were no keys or cupboards to lock.
   The black hen left through the backdoor, and scratched abstractedly in the yard, where woodshavings blew about like blond curls. Judging from her persona1ity~ she appeared to have been reared on a diet of hardware: hasps and clasps and nails and old screws.

   “Ayyo, Mon! Mol! What must you be thinking? That Kuttappen’s a basket case!” an embarrassed, disembodied voice said.

   It took the twins awhile for their eyes to grow accustomed to the dark. Then the darkness dissolved and Kuttappen appeared on his bed, a glistening genie in the gloom. The whites of his eyes were dark yellow. The soles of his feet (soft from so much lying down) stuck out from under the cloth that covered his legs. They were still stained a pale orange from years of walking barefoot on red mud. He had gray calluses on his ankles from the chafing of the rope that Paravans tied around their feet when they climbed coconut trees.
   On the wall behind him there was a benign, mouse-haired calendar—Jesus with lipstick and rouge, and a lurid, jeweled heart glowing through his clothes. The bottom quarter of the calendar (the part with the dates on it) filled out like a skirt. Jesus in a mini.
   Twelve layers of petticoats for the twelve months of the year. None had been torn out.
   There were other things from the Ayemenem House that had either been given to them or salvaged from the rubbish bin. Rich things in a poor house. A clock that didn’t work, a flowered tin wastepaper basket. Pappachi’s old riding boots (brown, with green mold) with the cobbler’s trees still in them. Biscuit tins with sumptuous pictures of English castles and ladies with hustles and ringlets.
   A small poster (Baby Kochamma’s, given away because of a damp patch) hung next to Jesus. It was a picture of a blond child writing a letter, with tears falling down her cheeks. Underneath it said: Pm writing to say I Miss You. She looked as though she’d had a haircut, and it was her cropped curls that were blowing around Velutha’s backyard.
   A transparent plastic tube led from under the worn cotton sheet that covered Kuttappen to a bottle of yellow liquid that caught the shaft of light that came in through the door, and quelled a question that had been rising inside Rahel. She fetched him water in a steel tumbler from the clay koojah. She seemed to know her way around. Kuttappen lifted his head and drank. Some water dribbled down his chin.
   The twins squatted on their haunches, like professional adult gossips in the Ayemenem market.

   They sat in silence for a while. Kuttappen mortified, the twins preoccupied with boat thoughts.

   “Has Chacko Saar’s Mol come?” Kuttappen asked.
   “Must have,” Rahel said laconically.
   “Where’s she?”
   “Who knows? Must be around somewhere. We don’t know.”
   “Will you bring her here for me to see?”
   “Can’t,” Rahel said.
   “Why not?”
   `She has to stay indoors. She’s very delicate. If she gets dirty she’ll die.”
   “I see.”
   “We’re not allowed to bring her here… and anyway, there’s nothing to see,’ Rahel assured Kuttappen. “She has hair, legs, teeth—you know—the usual, only she’s a little tall.” And that was the only concession she would make.
   “Is that all?” Kuttappen said, getting the point very quickly. “Then where’s the point in seeing her?”
   “No point,” Rahel said.
   “Kuttappa, if a vallom leaks, is it very hard to mend?” Estha asked.
   “Shouldn’t be,” Kuttappen said. “Depends. Why, whose vallom is leaking?”
   “Ours—that we found. D’you want to see it?”
   They went out and returned with the grizzled boat for the paralyzed man to examine. They held it over him like a roof. Water dripped on him.
   “First we’ll have to find the leaks,” Kuttappen said. “Then we’ll have to plug them.”
   “Then sandpaper,” Estha said. “Then polish.”
   “Then oars,” Rahel said.
   ‘Then oars,” Estha agreed.
   “Then offity off,” Rahel said.
   “Where to?” Kuttappen asked.
   “Just here and there, ‘ Estha said airily.
   ‘You must be careful,” Kuttappen said. “This river of ours—she isn’t always what she pretends to be.”
   “What does she pretend to be?” Rahel asked.
   “Oh… a little old churchgoing ammooma, quiet and clean... idi appams for breakfast, kanji and meen for lunch. Minding her own business. Not looking right or left.”
   “And she’s really a…?”
   “Really a wild thing… I can hear her at night—rushing past in the moonlight, always in a hurry. You must be careful of her.”
   “And what does she really eat?”
   “Really eat? Oh… Stoo… and… “ He cast about for something English for the evil river to eat.
   “Pineapple slices…” Rahel suggested.
   “That’s right! Pineapple slices and Stoo. And she drinks. Whiskey.”
   “And brandy.”
   “And brandy. True.”
   “And looks right and left?
   “True.”
   “And minds other people’s business…”

   Esthappen steadied the little boat on the uneven earth floor with a few blocks of wood that he found in Velutha’s workstation in the backyard. He gave Rahel a cooking ladle made of a wooden handle stuck through the polished half of a coconut shell.
   The twins climbed into the vallom and rowed across vast, choppy waters. With a Thaiy thaij thaka thaiy thai thome. And a jeweled Jesus watching.
   He walked on water. Perhaps. But could He have swum on land? In matching knickers and dark glasses? With His Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo? In pointy shoes and a puff? Would He have had the imagination?

   Velutha returned to see if Kuttappen needed anything. From a distance he heard the raucous singing. Young voices, underlining with delight the scatology
   Hey Mr Monkey Man
   Why’s your BUM so RED?
   I went for a SHIT to Madras
   And scraped it till it BLED!
   Temporarily, for a few happy moments, the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man shut his yellow smile and went away. Fear sank and settled at the bottom of the deep water. Sleeping a dog’s sleep. Ready to rise and murk things at a moment’s notice.
   Velutha smiled when he saw the Marxist flag blooming like a tree outside his doorway. He had to bend low in order to enter his home. A tropical Eskimo. When he saw the children, something clenched inside him. And he couldn’t understand it. He saw them every day. He loved them without knowing it. But it was different suddenly. Now. After History had slipped up so badly. No fist had clenched inside him before.
   Her children, an insane whisper whispered to him.
   Her eyes, her mouth. Her teeth.
   Her soft, lambent skin.
   He drove the thought away angrily. It returned and sat outside his skull. Like a dog.
   “Ha!” he said to his young guests, “and who may I ask are these Fisher People?”
   “Esthapappychachen Kuttappen Peter Mon. Mr. and Mrs. Pleasetomeetyou.” Rahel held out her ladle to be shaken in greeting.
   It was shaken in greeting. Hers, then Estha’s.
   “And where, may I ask, are they off to by boat?”
   “Off to Africa!” Rahel shouted.
   “Stop shouting,” Estha said.
   Velutha walked around the boat. They told him where they had found it.
   “So it doesn’t belong to anybody,” Rahel said a little doubtfully, because it suddenly occurred to her that it might. “Ought we to report it to the police?”
   “Don’t be stupid,” Estha said.
   Velutha knocked on the wood and then scraped a little patch clean with his nail.
   “Good wood,” he said.
   “It sinks,” Estha said. “It leaks.”
   “Can you mend it for us, Veluthapappychachen Peter Mon?” Rahel asked.
   “We’ll see about that,” Velutha said. “I don’t want you playing any silly games on this river.”
   “We won’t. We promise. We’ll use it only when you’re with us.”
   “First we’ll have to find the leaks,” Velutha said.
   “Then we’ll have to plug them!” the twins shouted, as though it was the second line of a well-known poem.
   “How long will it take?” Estha asked.
   “A day,” Velutha said.
   “A day! I thought you’d say a month!”
   Estha, delirious with joy, jumped on Velutha, wrapped his legs around his waist and kissed him.
   The sandpaper was divided into exactly equal halves, and the twins fell to work with an eerie concentration that excluded everything else.
   Boat-dust flew around the room and settled on hair and eyebrows. On Kuttappen like a cloud, on Jesus like an offering. Velutha had to prise the sandpaper out of their fingers.
   “Not here,” he said firmly. “Outside.”
   He picked the boat up and carried it out. The twins followed, eyes fixed on their boat with unwavering concentration, starving puppies expecting to be fed.
   Velutha set the boat up for them. The boat that Estha sat on, and Rahel found. He showed them how to follow the grain of the wood. He started them off on the sandpapering. When he returned indoors, the black hen followed him, determined to be wherever the boat wasn’t

   Velutha dipped a thin cotton towel in an earthen pot of water. He squeezed the water out of it (savagely, as though it was an unwanted thought) and handed it to Kuttappen to wipe the grit off his face and neck.
   “Did they say anything?” Kuttappen asked. “About seeing you in the March?”
   “No,” Velutha said. “Not yet. They will though. They know.”
   “For sure?”
   Velutha shrugged and took the towel away to wash. And rinse. And beat. And wring. As though it was his ridiculous, disobedient brain.
   He tried to hate her.
   She’s one of them, he told himself. Just another one of them.
   He couldn’t.
   She had deep dimples when she smiled. Her eyes were always somewhere else.
   Madness slunk in through a chink in History. It only took a moment.

   An hour into the sandpapering Rahel remembered her Afternoon Gnap. And she was up and running. Tumbling through the green afternoon heat. Followed by her brother and a yellow wasp.
   Hoping, praying that Ammu hadn’t woken up and found her gone.
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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 11.
The God of Small Things

   That afternoon, Ammu traveled upwards through a dream in which a cheerful man with one arm held her close by the light of an oil lamp. He had no other arm with which to fight the shadows that flickered around him on the floor.
   Shadows that only he could see.
   Ridges of muscle on his stomach rose under his skin like divisions on a slab of chocolate.
   He held her close, by the light of an oil lamp, and he shone as though he had been polished with a high-wax body polish.
   He could do only one thing at a time.
   If he held her, he couldn’t kiss her. If he kissed her, he couldn’t see her. If he saw her, he couldn’t feel her.
   She could have touched his body lightly with her fingers, and felt his smooth skin turn to gooseflesh. She could have let her fingers stray to the base of his flat stomach. Carelessly, over those burnished chocolate ridges. And left patterned trails of bumpy gooseflesh on his body, like flat chalk on a blackboard, like a swathe of breeze in a paddyfield, like jet streaks in a blue church-sky. She could so easily have done that, but she didn’t. He could have touched her too. But he didn’t, because in the gloom beyond the oil lamp, in the shadows, there were metal folding chairs arranged in a ring and on the chairs there were people, with slanting rhinestone sunglasses, watching. They all held polished violins under their chins, the bows poised at identical angles. They all had their legs crossed, left over right, and all their left legs were shivering.
   Some of them had newspapers. Some didn’t. Some of them blew spit bubbles. Some didn’t But they all had the flickering reflection of an oil lamp on each lens.
   Beyond the circle of folding chairs was a beach littered with broken blue-glass bottles. The silent waves brought new blue bottles to be broken, and dragged the old ones away in the undertow. There were jagged sounds of glass on glass. On a rock, out at sea, in a shaft of purple light, there was a mahogany and wicker rocking chair, smashed.
   The sea was black, the spume vomit-green.
   Fish fed on shattered glass.
   Night’s elbows rested on the water, and falling stars glanced off its brittle shards.
   Moths lit up the sky. There wasn’t a moon.
   He could swim, with his one arm. She with her two.
   His skin was salty. Hers too.
   He left no footprints in sand, no ripples in water, no image in mirrors.
   She could have touched him with her fingers, but she didn’t. They just stood together.
   Still.
   Skin to skin.
   A powdery, colored breeze lifted her hair and blew it like a rippled shawl around his armless shoulder, that ended abruptly, like a cliff.

   A thin red cow with a protruding pelvic bone appeared and swam straight out to sea without wetting her horns, without looking back.
   Ammu flew through her dream on heavy, shuddering wings, and stopped to rest, just under the skin of it.
   She had pressed roses from the blue cross-stitch counterpane on her cheek.
   She sensed her children’s faces hanging over her dream, like two dark, worried moons, waiting to be let in.

   “D’you think she’s dying?” she heard Rahel whisper to Estha.
   “It’s an afternoon-mare,” Estha-the-Accurate replied. “She dreams a lot.”

   If he touched her be couldn’t talk to be, if he loved her be couldn’t leave, if be spoke he couldn’t listen, if he fought he couldn’t win.

   Who was he, the one-armed man? Who could he have been? The God of Loss? The God of Small Things? The God of Goosebumps and Sudden Smiles? Of Sourmetal Smells—like steel bus rails and the smell of the bus conductor’s hands from holding them?
   “Should we wake her up?’ Estha said.
   Chinks of late afternoon light stole into the room through the curtains and fell on Ammu’s tangerine-shaped transistor radio that she always took with her to the rivet (Tangerine-shaped too, was the Thing that Estha carried into The Sound of Music in his sticky Other Hand.)
   Bright bars of sunlight brightened Ammu’s tangled hair. She waited, under the skin of her dream, not wanting to let her children in.
   “She says you should never wake dreaming people suddenly,” Rahel said. “She says they could easily have a Heart Attack.”
   Between them they decided that it would be best to disturb her discreetly rather than wake her suddenly. So they opened drawers, they cleared their throats, they whispered loudly, they hummed a little tune. They moved shoes. And found a cupboard door that creaked.

   Ammu, resting under the skin of her dream, observed them and ached with her love for them.

   The one-armed man blew out his lamp and walked across the jagged beach, away into the shadows that only he could see.
   He left no footprints on the shore.
   The folding chairs were folded. The black sea smoothed. The creased waves ironed. The spume re-bottled. The bottle corked.
   The night postponed till further notice.
   Ammu opened her eyes.
   It was a long journey that she made, from the embrace of the one-armed man to her unidentical two-egg twins.
   “You were having an afternoon-mare,” her daughter informed her.
   “It wasn’t a mare,” Ammu said. “It was a dream.”
   “Estha thought you were dying.”
   “You looked so sad,” Estha said.
   “I was happy,” Ammu said, and realized that she had been.
   “If you’re happy in a dream, Ammu, does that count?” Estha asked.
   “Does what count?”
   “The happiness—does it count?”
   She knew exactly what he meant, her son with his spoiled puff.
   Because the truth is, that only what counts counts.
   The simple, unswerving wisdom of children.
   If you eat fish in a dream, does it count? Does it mean you’ve eaten fish?
   The cheerful man without footprints—did he count?
   Ammu groped for her tangerine transistor, and switched it on. It played a song from a film called Chemmeen.
   It was the story of a poor girl who is forced to marry a fisherman from a neighboring beach, though she loves someone else. When the fisherman finds out about his new wife’s old lover, he sets out to sea in his little boat though he knows that a storm is brewing. It’s dark, and the wind rises. A whirlpool spins up from the ocean bed.
   There is storm-music, and the fisherman drowns, sucked to the bottom of the sea in the vortex of the whirlpool.
   The lovers make a suicide pact, and are found the next morning, washed up on the beach with their arms around each other. So everybody dies. The fisherman, his wife, her lover, and a shark that has no part in the story, but dies anyway. The sea claims them all.
   In the blue cross-stitch darkness laced with edges of light, with cross-stitch roses on her sleepy cheek, Ammu and her twins (one on either side of her) sang softly with the tangerine radio. The song that fisherwomen sang to the sad young bride as they braided her hair and prepared her for her wedding to a man she didn’t love.
   Pandoru mukkuvan muthinupoyi,
   (Once a fisherman went to sea,)
   Padinjaran katarbu mungipoyi,
   (The west wind blew and swallowed his boat,)
   An Airport-Fairy frock stood on the floor, supported by its own froth and stiffness. Outside in the mittam, crisp saris lay in rows and crispened in the sun. Off-white and gold. Small pebbles nestled in their starched creases and had to be shaken out before the saris were folded and taken in to be ironed.
   Arayathi pennu pizhachu poyi,
   (His wife on the shore went astray,)
   The electrocuted elephant (not Kochu Thomban) in Ettumanoor was cremated. A giant burning ghat was erected on the highway. The engineers of the concerned municipality sawed off the tusks and shared them unofficially. Unequally. Eighty tins of pure ghee were poured over the elephant to feed the fire. The smoke rose in dense fumes and arranged itself in complex patterns against the sky. People crowded around at a safe distance, read meanings into them.
   There were lots of flies.
   Kadalamma avaney kondu poyi.
   (So Mother Ocean rose and took him away.)
   Pariah kites dropped into nearby trees, to supervise the supervision of the last rites of the dead elephant. They hoped, not without reason, for pickings of giant innards. An enormous gallbladder, perhaps. Or a charred, gigantic spleen.
   They weren’t disappointed. Nor wholly satisfied.

   Ammu noticed that both her children were covered in a fine dust. Like two pieces of lightly sugar-dusted, unidentical cake. Rahel had a blond curl lodged among her black ones. A curl from Velutha’s backyard. Ammu picked it out.
   “I’ve told you before,” she said. “I don’t want you going to his house. It will only cause trouble.”
   What trouble, she didn’t say. She didn’t know.
   Somehow, by not mentioning his name, she knew that she had drawn him into the tousled intimacy of that blue cross-stitch afternoon and the song from the tangerine transistor. By not mentioning his name, she sensed that a pact had been forged between her Dream and the World. And that the midwives of that pact were, or would be, her sawdust-coated two-egg twins.
   She knew who he was—the God of Loss, the God of Small Things. Of coarse she did.
   She switched off the tangerine radio. In the afternoon silence (laced with edges of light), her children curled into the warmth of her. The smell of her. They covered their heads with her hair. They sensed somehow that in her sleep she had traveled away from them. They summoned her back now with the palms of their small hands laid flat against the bare skin of her midriff. Between her petticoat and her blouse. They loved the fact that the brown of the backs of their hands was the exact brown of their mother’s stomach skin.
   “Estha, look,” Rahel said, plucking at the line of soft down that led southwards from Ammu’s belly button.
   “Here’s where we kicked you.” Estha traced a wandering silver stretchmark with his finger
   “Was it in the bus, Ammu?”
   “On the winding estate road?”
   “When Baba had to hold your tummy?”
   “Did you have to buy tickets?”
   “Did we hurt you?”
   And then, keeping her voice casual, Rahel’s question: “D’you think he may have lost our address?”
   Just the hint of a pause in the rhythm of Ammu’s breathing made Estha touch Rahel’s middle finger with his. And middle finger to middle finger, on their beautiful mother’s midriff, they abandoned that line of questioning.
   “That’s Estha’s kick, and that’s mine,” Rahel said. “…And that’s Estha’s and that’s mine.”
   Between them they apportioned their mother’s seven silver stretch marks. Then Rahel put her mouth on Ammu’s stomach and sucked at it, pulling the soft flesh into her mouth and drawing her head back to admire the shining oval of spit and the faint red imprint of her teeth on her mother’s skin.
   Ammu wondered at the transparency of that kiss. It was a clear-as-glass kiss. Unclouded by passion or desire—that pair of dogs that sleep so soundly inside children, waiting for them to grow up. It was a kiss that demanded no kiss-back.
   Not a cloudy kiss full of questions that wanted answers. Like the kisses of cheerful one-armed men in dreams.
   Ammu grew tired of their proprietary handling of her. She wanted her body back. It was hers. She shrugged her children off the way a bitch shrugs off her pups when she’s had enough of them. She sat up and twisted her hair into a knot at the nape of her neck. Then she swung her legs off the bed, walked to the window and drew back the curtains.
   Slanting afternoon light flooded the room and brightened two children on the bed.
   The twins heard the lock turning in Ammu’s bathroom door.
   Click.
   Ammu looked at herself in the long mirror on the bathroom door and the specter of her future appeared in it to mock her. Pickled. Gray. Rheumy-eyed. Cross-stitch roses on a slack, sunken cheek.
   Withered breasts that hung like weighted socks. Dry as a bone between her legs, the hair feather-white. Spare. As brittle as a pressed fern.
   Skin that flaked and shed like snow.
   Ammu shivered.
   With that cold feeling on a hot afternoon that Life had been Lived. That her cup was full of dust. That the air, the sky, the trees, the sun, the rain, the light and darkness were all slowly turning to sand. That sand would fill her nostrils, her lungs, her mouth. Would pull her down, leaving on the surface a spinning swirl like crabs leave when they burrow downwards on a beach.

   Ammu undressed and put a red toothbrush under a breast to see if it would stay. It didn’t Where she touched herself her flesh was taut and smooth. Under her hands her nipples wrinkled and hardened like dark nuts, pulling at the soft skin on her breasts. The thin line of down from her belly button led over the gentle curve of the base of her belly, to her dark triangle. Like an arrow directing a lost traveler. An inexperienced lover
   She undid her hair and turned around to see how long it had grown. It fell, in waves and curls and disobedient frizzy wisps—soft on the inside, coarser on the outside—to just below where her small, strong waist began its curve out towards her hips. The bathroom was hot. Small beads of sweat studded her skin like diamonds. Then they broke and trickled down. Sweat ran down the recessed line of her spine. She looked a little critically at her round, heavy behind. Not big in itself. Not big per se (as Chacko-of-Oxford would no doubt have put it). Big only because the rest of her was so slender. It belonged on another, more voluptuous body.
   She had to admit that they would happily support a toothbrush apiece. Perhaps two. She laughed out loud at the idea of walking naked down Ayemenem with an array of colored toothbrushes sticking out from either cheek of her bottom. She silenced herself quickly. She saw a wisp of madness escape from its bottle and caper triumphantly around the bathroom.
   Ammu worried about madness.
   Mammachi said it ran in their family. That it came on people suddenly and caught them unawares. There was Pathil Ammai, who at the age of sixty-five began to take her clothes off and run naked along the river, singing to the fish. There was Thampi Chachen, who searched his shit every morning with a knitting-needle for a gold tooth he had swallowed years ago. And Dr. Muthachen, who had to be removed from his own wedding in a sack. Would future generations say, “There was Ammu—Ammu Ipe. Married a Bengali. Went quite mad. Died young. In a cheap lodge somewhere.”
   Chacko said that the high incidence of insanity among Syrian Christians was the price they paid for Inbreeding. Mammachi said it wasn’t.
   Ammu gathered up her heavy hair, wrapped it around her face, and peered down the road to Age and Death through its parted strands. Like a medieval executioner peering through the tilted eye-slits of his peaked black hood at the executionee. A slender, naked executioner with dark nipples and deep dimples when she smiled. With seven silver stretchmarks from her two-egg twins, born to her by candlelight amid news of a lost war.
   It wasn’t what lay at the end of her road that frightened Ammu as much as the nature of the road itself. No milestones marked its progress. No trees grew along it. No dappled shadows shaded it. No mists rolled over it. No birds circled it. No twists, no turns or hairpin bends obscured even momentarily her clear view of the end. This filled Ammu with an awful dread, because she was not the kind of woman who wanted her future told. She dreaded it too much. So if she were granted one small wish, perhaps it would only have been Not to Know. Not to know what each day held in store for her. Not to know where she might be, next month, next year. Ten years on. Not to know which way her road might turn and what lay beyond the bend. And Ammu knew. Or thought she knew, which was really just as bad (because if in a dream you’ve eaten fish, it means you’ve eaten fish). And what Ammu knew (or thought she knew) smelled of the vapid, vinegary fumes that rose from the cement vats—of Paradise Pickles. Fumes that wrinkled youth and pickled futures.
   Hooded in her own hair, Ammu leaned against herself in the bathroom mirror and tried to weep.
   For herself.
   For the God of Small Things.
   For the sugar-dusted twin midwives of her dream.

   That afternoon—while in the bathroom the fates conspired to horribly alter the course of their mysterious mother’s road, while in Velutha’s backyard an old boat waited for them, while in a yellow church a young bat waited to be born—in their mother’s bedroom, Estha stood on his head on Rahel’s bum.
   The bedroom with blue curtains and yellow wasps that worried the windowpanes. The bedroom whose walls would soon learn their harrowing secrets.
   The bedroom into which Ammu would first be locked and then lock herself. Whose door Chacko, crazed by grief, four days after Sophie Mol’s funeral, would batter down.
   “Get out of my house before I break every bone in your body!”
   My house. My pineapples. My pickle.
   After that for years Rahel would dream this dream: a fat man, faceless, kneeling beside a woman’s corpse. Hacking its hair off. Breaking every bone in its body. Snapping even the little ones. The fingers. The ear bones cracked like twigs. Snapsnap the soft sound of breaking bones. A pianist killing the piano keys. Even the black ones. And Rahel (though years later, in the Electric Crematorium, she would use the slipperiness of sweat to slither out of Chacko’s grasp) loved them both. The player and the piano.
   The killer and the corpse.
   As the door was slowly battered down, to control the trembling of her hands, Ammu would hem the ends of Rahel’s ribbons that didn’t need hemming.
   “Promise me you’ll always love each other,” she’d say, as she drew her children to her.
   “Promise,” Estha and Rahel would say. Not finding words with which to tell her that for them there was no Each, no Other.
   Twin millstones and their mother. Numb millstones. What they had done would return to empty them. But that would be Later.
   Lay Ter. A deep-sounding bell in a mossy well. Shivery and furred like moth’s feet.
   At the time, there would only be incoherence. As though meaning had slunk out of things and left them fragmented. Disconnected. The glint of Ammu’s needle. The color of a ribbon. The weave of the cross-stitch counterpane. A door slowly breaking. Isolated things that didn’t mean anything. As though the intelligence that decodes life’s hidden patterns—that connects reflections to images, glints to light, weaves to fabrics, needles to thread, walls to rooms, love to fear to anger to remorse—was suddenly lost.
   “Pack your things and go,” Chacko would say, stepping over the debris. Looming over them. A chrome door handle in his hand. Suddenly strangely calm. Surprised at his own strength. His bigness. His bullying power. The enormity of his own terrible grief.
   Red the color of splintered doorwood.
   Ammu, quiet outside, shaking inside, wouldn’t look up from her unnecessary hemming. The tin of colored ribbons would lie open on her lap, in the room where she had lost her Locusts Stand I.
   The same room in which (after the Twin Expert from Hyderabad had replied) Ammu would pack Estha’s little trunk and khaki holdall: 12 sleeveless cotton vests, 12 half-sleeved cotton vests. Estha, here’s your name on them in ink. His socks. His drainpipe trousers. His pointy-collared shirts. His beige and pointy shoes (from where the Angry Feelings came). His Elvis records. His calcium tablets and Vydalin syrup. His Free Giraffe (that came with the Vydalin). His Books of Knowledge Vols. 1-4. No, sweetheart, there won’t be a river there to fish in. His white leather zip-up Bible with an Imperial Entomologist’s amethyst cuff-link on the zip. His mug. His soap. His Advance Birthday Present that he mustn’t open. Forty green inland letter forms. Look, Estha, I’ve written our address on it. All you have to do is fold it. See if you can fold it yourself. And Estha would fold the green inland letter neatly along the dotted lines that said Fold here and look up at Ammu with a smile that broke her heart. Promise me you’ll write? Even when you don’t have any news?
   Promise, Estha would say. Not wholly cognizant of his situation. The sharp edge of his apprehensions blunted by this sudden wealth of worldly possessions. They were His. And had his name on them in ink. They were to be packed into the trunk (with his name on it) that lay open on the bedroom floor.
   The room to which, years later, Rahel would return and watch a silent stranger bathe. And wash his clothes with crumbling bright blue soap.
   Flatmuscled, and honey colored. Sea-secrets in his eyes. A silver raindrop on his ear.
   Esthapappychachen Kutappen Peter Mon.
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Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Chapter 12.
Kochu Thomban

   The sound of the chenda mushroomed over the temple, accentuating the silence of the encompassing night. The lonely, wet road. The watching trees. Rahel, breathless, holding a coconut, stepped into the temple compound through the wooden doorway in the high white boundary wall.
   Inside, everything was white-walled, moss-tiled and moonlit. Everything smelled of recent rain. The thin priest was asleep on a mat on the raised stone verandah. A brass platter of coins lay near his pillow like a comic-strip illustration of his dreams. The compound was littered with moons, one in each mud puddle. Kochu Thomban had finished his ceremonial rounds, and lay tethered to a wooden stake next to a steaming mound of his own dung. He was asleep, his duty done, his bowels empty, one tusk resting on the earth, the other pointed to the stars. Rahel approached quietly. She saw that his skin was looser than she remembered. He wasn’t Kochu Thomban anymore. His tusks had grown. He was Vellya Thomban now. The Big Tusker. She put the coconut on the ground next to him. A leathery wrinkle parted to reveal a liquid glint of elephant eye. Then it closed and long, sweeping lashes re-summoned sleep. A tusk towards the stars.

   June is low season for kathakali. But there are some temples that a troupe will not pass by without performing in. The Ayemenem temple wasn’t one of them, but these days, thanks to its geography, things had changed.
   In Ayemenem they danced to jettison their humiliation in the Heart of Darkness. Their truncated swimming-pool performances. Their turning to tourism to stave off starvation.
   On their way back from the Heart of Darkness, they stopped at the temple to ask pardon of their gods. To apologize for corrupting their stories. For encashing their identities. Misappropriating their lives.
   On these occasions, a human audience was welcome, but entirely incidental.
   In the broad, covered corridor—the colonnaded kuthambalam abutting the heart of the temple where the Blue God lived with his flute, the drummers drummed and the dancers danced, their colors turning slowly in the night Rahel sat down cross-legged, resting her back against the roundness of a white pillar. A tall canister of coconut oil gleamed in the flickering light of the brass lamp. The oil replenished the light. The light lit the tin.
   It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.
   That is their mystery and their magic.
   To the Kathakali Man these stories are his children and his childhood. He has grown up within them. They are the house he was raised in, the meadows he played in. They are his windows and his way of seeing. So when he tells a story, he handles it as he would a child, of his own. He teases it He punishes it. He sends it up—like a bubble. He wrestles it to the ground and lets it go again. He laughs at it because he loves it. He can fly you across whole worlds in minutes, he can stop for hours to examine a wilting leaf. Or play with a sleeping monkey’s tail. He can turn effortlessly from the carnage of war into the felicity of a woman washing her hair in a mountain stream. From the crafty ebullience of a rakshasa with a new idea into a gossipy Malayali with a scandal to spread. From the sensuousness of a woman with a baby at her breast into the seductive mischief of Krishna’s smile. He can reveal the nugget of sorrow that happiness contains. The hidden fish of shame in a sea of glory.
   He tells stories of the gods, but his yarn is spun from the ungodly, human heart.
   The Kathakali Man is the most beautiful of men. Because his body is his soul. His only instrument. From the age of three it has been planed and polished, pared down, harnessed wholly to the task of storytelling. He has magic in him, this man within the painted mask and swirling skins.
   But these days he has become unviable. Unfeasible. Condemned goods. His children deride him. They long to be everything that he is not. He has watched them grow up to become clerks and bus conductors. Class IV nongazetted officers. With unions of their own.
   But he himself, left dangling somewhere between heaven and earth, cannot do what they do. He cannot slide down the aisles of buses, counting change and selling tickets. He cannot answer bells that summon him. He cannot stoop behind trays of tea and Marie biscuits.
   In despair, he turns to tourism. He enters the market. He hawks the only thing he owns. The stories that his body can tell.
   He becomes a Regional Flavor.

   In the Heart of Darkness they mock him with their lolling nakedness and their imported attention spans. He checks his rage and dances for them. He collects his fee. He gets drunk. Or smokes a joint. Good Kerala grass. It makes him laugh. Then he stops by the Ayemenem Temple, he and the others with him, and they dance to ask pardon of the gods.
   Rahel (no Plans, no Locusts Stand I), her back against a pillar, watched Karna praying on the banks of the Ganga. Karna, sheathed in his armor of light. Karna, melancholy son of Surya, God of Day. Karna the Generous. Karna the abandoned child. Karna the most revered warrior of them all.
   That night Karna was stoned. His tattered skirt was darned, There were hollows in his crown where jewels used to be. His velvet blouse had grown bald with use. His heels were cracked. Tough. He stubbed his joints out on them.
   But if he had had a fleet of makeup men waiting in the wings, an agent, a contract, a percentage of the profits—what then would he be? An impostor. A rich pretender. An actor playing a part. Could he be Karna? Or would he be too safe inside his pod of wealth? Would his money grow like a rind between himself and his story? Would he be able to touch its heart, its hidden secrets, in the way that he can now?
   Perhaps not.
   This man tonight is dangerous. His despair complete. This story is the safety net above which he swoops and dives like a brilliant clown in a bankrupt circus. It’s all he has to keep him from crashing through the world like a falling stone. It is his color and his light. It is the vessel into which he pours himself. It gives him shape. Structure. It harnesses him. It contains him. His Love. His Madness. His Hope. His Infinnate joy. Ironically, his struggle is the reverse of an actor’s struggle—he strives not to enter a part but to escape it. But this is what he cannot do. In his abject defeat lies his supreme triumph. He is Karna, whom the world has abandoned. Karna Alone. Condemned goods. A prince raised in poverty. Born to die unfairly, unarmed and alone at the hands of his brother. Majestic in his complete despair. Praying on the banks of the Ganga. Stoned out of his skull.
   Then Kunti appeared. She too was a man, but a man grown soft and womanly, a man with breasts, from doing female parts for years. Her movements were fluid. Full of woman. Kunti, too, was stoned. High on the same shared joints. She had come to tell Karna a story
   Karna inclined his beautiful head and listened.
   Red-eyed, Kunti danced for him. She told him of a young woman who had been granted a boon. A secret mantra that she could use to choose a lover from among the gods. Of how, with the imprudence of youth, the woman decided to test it to see if it really worked. How she stood alone in an empty field, turned her face to the heavens and recited the mantra. The words had scarcely left her foolish lips, Kunti said, when Surya, the God of Day, appeared before her. The young woman, bewitched by the beauty of the shimmering young god, gave herself to him. Nine months later she bore him a son. The baby was born sheathed in light, with gold earrings in his ears and a gold breastplate on his chest, engraved with the emblem of the sun.
   The young mother loved her firstborn son deeply, Kunti said, but she was unmarried and couldn’t keep him. She put him in a reed basket and cast him away in a river. The child was found downriver by Adhirata, a charioteer. And named Karna.
   Karna looked up at Kunti. Who was she? Who was my mother? Tell me where she is. Take me to her.
   Kunti bowed her head. She’s here, she said. Standing before you. Karna’s elation and anger at the revelation. His dance of confusion and despair. Where were you, he asked her, when I needed you most? Did you ever hold me in your arms? Did you feed me? Did you ever look for me? Did you wonder where I might be?
   In reply Kunti took the regal face in her hands, green the face, red the eyes, and kissed him on his brow. Karna shuddered in delight. A warrior reduced to infancy. The ecstasy of that kiss. He dispatched it to the ends of his body. To his toes. His fingertips. His lovely mother’s kiss. Did you know how much I missed you? Rahel could see it coursing through his veins, as clearly as an egg traveling down an ostrich’s neck.
   A traveling kiss whose journey was cut short by dismay when Karna realized that his mother had revealed herself to him only to secure the safety of her five other, more beloved sons—the Pandavas—poised on the brink of their epic battle with their one hundred cousins. It, is them that Kunti sought to protect by announcing to Karna that she was his mother. She had a promise to extract.
   She invoked the Love Laws.
   They are your brothers. Your own flesh and blood. Promise me that you will not go to war against them. Promise me that.
   Karna the Warrior could not make that promise, for if he did, he would have to revoke another one. Tomorrow he would go to war, and his enemies would be the Pandavas. They were the ones, Arjuna in particular, who had publicly reviled him for being a lowly charioteer’s son. And it was Duryodhana, the eldest of the one hundred Kaurava brothers, that came to his rescue by gifting him a kingdom of his own. Karna, in return, had pledged Duryodhana eternal fealty.
   But Karna the Generous could not refuse his mother what she asked of him. So he modified the promise. Equivocated. Made a small adjustment, took a somewhat altered oath.
   I promise you this, Karna said to Kunti. You will always have five sons. Yudhishtra I will not harm. Bhima will not die by my band. The twins—Nakula and Sahadeva—will go untouched by me. But Arjuna—him I will make no promises about. I will kill him, or he will kill me. One of us will die.

   Something altered in the air. And Rahel knew that Estha had come.
   She didn’t turn her head, but a glow spread inside her. He’s come, she thought. He’s here. With me.
   Estha settled against a distant pillar and they sat through the performance like this, separated by the breadth of the kuthambalam, but joined by a story. And the memory of another mother.
   The air grew warmer. Less damp.

   Perhaps that evening had been a particularly bad one in the Heart of Darkness. In Ayemenem the men danced as though they couldn’t stop. Like children in a warm house sheltering from a storm. Refusing to emerge and acknowledge the weather. The wind and thunder. The rats racing across the ruined landscape with dollar signs in their eyes. The world crashing around them.
   They emerged from one story only to delve deep into another. From Karna Shabadam—Karna’s Oath—to Duryodhana Vadbam—the Death of Duryodhana and his brother Dushasana.
   It was almost four in the morning when Bhima hunted down vile Dushasana. The man who had tried to publicly undress the Pandavas’ wife, Draupadi, after the Kauravas had won her in a game of dice. Draupadi (strangely angry only with the men that won her, not the ones that staked her) has sworn that she will never tie up her hair until it is washed in Dushasana’s blood. Bhima has vowed to avenge her honor.
   Bhima cornered Dushasana in a battlefield already strewn with corpses. For an hour they fenced with each other. Traded insults. Listed all the wrongs that each had done the other. When the light from the brass lamp began to flicker and die, they called a truce. Bhima poured the oil, Dushasana cleaned the charred wick. Then they went back to war. Their breathless battle spilled out of the kuthambalam and spun around the temple. They chased each other across the compound, twirling their papier-mâchâ maces. Two men in ballooning skirts and balding velvet blouses, vaulting over littered moons and mounds of dung, circling around the hulk of a sleeping elephant. Dushasana full of bravado one minute. Cringing the next. Bhima toying with him. Both stoned.
   The sky was a rose bowl. The gray, elephant-shaped Hole in the Universe agitated in his sleep, then slept again. Dawn was just breaking when the brute in Bhima stirred. The drums beat louder, but the air grew quiet and full of menace.
   In the early morning light, Esthappen and Rahel watched Bhima fulfill his vow to Draupadi. He clubbed Dushasana to the floor. He pursued every feeble tremor in the dying body with his mace, hammering at it until it was stilled. An ironsmith flattening a sheet of recalcitrant metal. Systematically smoothing every pit and bulge. He continued to kill him long after he was dead. Then, with his bare hands, he tore the body open. He ripped its innards out and stooped to lap blood straight from the bowl of the torn carcass, his crazed eyes peeping over the rim, glittering with rage and hate and mad fulfillment. Gurgling blood bubbles pale pink between his teeth. Dribbling down his painted face, his neck and chin. When he had drunk enough, he stood up, bloody intestines draped around his neck like a scarf and went to find Draupadi and bathe her hair in fresh blood. He still had about him the aura of rage that even murder cannot quell.
   There was madness there that morning. Under the rose bowl. It was no performance. Esthappen and Rahel recognized it. They had seen its work before. Another morning. Another stage. Another kind of frenzy (with millipedes on the soles of its shoes). The brutal extravagance of this matched by the savage economy of that.
   They sat there, Quietness and Emptiness, frozen two-egg fossils, with hornbumps that hadn’t grown into horns. Separated by the breadth of a kuthambalam. Trapped in the bog of a story that was and wasn’t theirs. That had set out with the semblance of structure and order, then bolted like a frightened horse into anarchy.
   Kochu Thomban woke and delicately cracked open his morning coconut.
   The Kathakali Men took off their makeup and went home to beat their wives. Even Kunti, the soft one with breasts.

   Outside and around, the little town masquerading as a village stirred and came to life. An old man woke and staggered to the stove to warm his peppered coconut oil.
   Comrade Pillai. Ayemenem’s egg-breaker and professional omeletteer.
   Oddly enough, it was he who had introduced the twins to kathakali. Against Baby Kochamma’s better judgment, it was he who took them, along with Lenin, for all-night performances at the temple, and sat up with them till dawn, explaining the language and gesture of kathakali. Aged six, they had sat with him through this very story. It was he who had introduced them to Raudra Bhima—crazed, bloodthirsty Bhima in search of death and vengeance. He is searching fir the beast that lives in him, Comrade Pillai had told them—frightened, wide-eyed children—when the ordinarily good-natured Bhima began to bay and snarl.
   Which beast in particular Comrade Pillai didn’t say. Searching for the Man who lives in him was perhaps what he really meant, because certainly no beast has essayed the boundless, infinitely inventive art of human hatred. No beast can match its range and power.
   The rose bowl dulled and sent down a warm gray drizzle. As Estha and Rahel stepped through the temple gateway, Comrade K. N. M. Pillai stepped in, slick from his oil bath. He had sandalwood paste on his forehead. Raindrops stood out on his oiled skin like studs. In his cupped palms he carried a small heap of fresh jasmine.
   “Oho!” he said in his piping voice. “You are here! So still you are interested in your Indian culture? Goodgood. Very good.”
   The twins, not rude, not polite, said nothing. They walked home together. He and She. We and Us.
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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 13.
The Pessimist and the Optimist

   Chacko had moved out of his room and would sleep in Pappachi’s study so that Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma could have his room. It was a small room, with a window that overlooked the dwindling, somewhat neglected rubber plantation that Reverend E. John Ipe had bought from a neighbor. One door connected it to the main house and another (the separate entrance that Mammachi had installed for Chacko to pursue his “Men’s Needs” discreetly) led directly out onto the side mittam.
   Sophie Mol lay asleep on a little camp cot that had been made up for her next to the big bed. The drone of the slow ceiling fan filled her head. Bluegrayblue eyes snapped open.
   A Wake.
   A Live.
   A Lert.
   Sleep was summarily dismissed.
   For the first time since Joe had died, he was not the first thing that she thought about when she woke up.
   She looked around the room. Not moving, just swiveling her eyeballs. A captured spy in enemy territory plotting her spectacular escape.
   A vase of awkwardly arranged hibiscus, already drooping, stood on Chacko’s table The walls were lined with books. A glass-paned cupboard was crammed with damaged balsa airplanes. Broken butterflies with imploring eyes. A wicked king’s wooden wives languishing under an evil wooden spell.
   Trapped.
   Only one, her mother, Margaret, had escaped to England.
   The room went round in the calm, chrome center of the silver ceiling fan. A beige gecko, the color of an undercooked biscuit, regarded her with interested eyes. She thought of Joe. Something shook inside her. She closed her eyes.
   The calm, chrome center of the silver ceiling fan went round inside her head.
   Joe could walk on his hands. And when he cycled downhill, he could put the wind inside his shirt.
   On the next bed, Margaret Kochamma was still asleep. She lay on her back with her hands clasped together just below her rib cage.
   Her fingers were swollen and her wedding band looked uncomfortably tight. The flesh of her cheeks fell away on either side of her face, making her cheekbones look high and prominent, and pulling her mouth downwards into a mirthless smile that contained just a glimmer of teeth. She had tweezed her once bushy eyebrows into the currently fashionable, pencil-thin arcs that gave her a slightly surprised expression even in her sleep. The rest of her expressions were growing back in a nascent stubble. Her face was flushed. Her forehead glistened. Underneath the flush, there was a paleness. A staved-off sadness.
   The thin material of her dark-blue and white flowered cottonpolyester dress had wilted and clung limply to the contours of her body, rising over her breasts, dipping along the line between her long, strong legs-as though it too was unaccustomed to the heat and needed a nap.

   On the bedside table there was a silver-framed black-and-white wedding picture of Chacko and Margaret Kochamma, taken outside the church in Oxford. It was snowing a little. The first flakes of fresh snow lay on the Street and sidewalk. Chacko was dressed like Nehru. He wore a white churidar and a black shervani. His shoulders were dusted with snow. There was a rose in his buttonhole, and the tip of his handkerchief, folded into a triangle, peeped out of his breast pocket. On his feet he wore polished black oxfords. He looked as though he was laughing at himself and the way he was dressed. Like someone at a fancy-dress party.
   Margaret Kochamma wore a long, foaming gown and a cheap tiara on her cropped, curly hair. Her veil was lifted off her face. She was as tall as he was. They looked happy. Thin and young, scowling, with the sun in their eyes. Her thick, dark eyebrows were knitted together and somehow made a lovely contrast to the frothy, bridal white. A scowling cloud with eyebrows. Behind them stood a large matronly woman with thick ankles and all the buttons done up on her long overcoat Margaret Kochamma’s mother. She had her two little granddaughters on either side of her, in pleated tartan skirts, stockings and identical fringes. They were both giggling with their hands over their mouths. Margaret Kochamma’s mother was looking away, out of the photograph, as though she would rather not have been there. Margaret Kochamma’s father had refused to attend the wedding. He disliked Indians, he thought of them as sly, dishonest people. He couldn’t believe that his daughter was marrying one.
   In the right-hand corner of the photograph, a man wheeling his bicycle along the curb had turned to stare at the couple.

   Margaret Kochamma was working as a waitress at a cafâ‚ in Oxford when she first met Chacko. Her family lived in London. Her father owned a bakery Her mother was a milliner’s assistant. Margaret Kochamma had moved out of her parents’ home a year ago, for no greater reason than a youthful assertion of independence. She intended to work and save enough money to put herself through a teacher training course, and then look for a job at a school. In Oxford she shared a small flat with a friend. Another waitress in another cafâ.
   Having made the move, Margaret Kochamma found herself becoming exactly the kind of girl her parents wanted her to be. Faced with the Real World, she clung nervously to old remembered rules, and had no one but herself to rebel against. So even up at Oxford, other than playing her gramophone a little louder than she was permitted at home, she continued to lead the same small, tight life that she imagined she had escaped.
   Until Chacko walked into the cafâ one morning.
   It was the summer of his final year at Oxford. He was alone. His rumpled shirt was buttoned up wrong. His shoelaces were untied. His hair, carefully brushed and slicked down in front, stood up in a stiff halo of quills at the back. He looked like an untidy, beatified porcupine. He was tall, and underneath the mess of clothes (inappropriate tie, shabby coat) Margaret Kochamma could see that he was well-built. He had an amused air about him, and a way of narrowing his eyes as though he was trying to read a faraway sign and had forgotten to bring his glasses. His ears stuck out on either side of his head like teapot handles. There was something contradictory about his athletic build and his disheveled appearance. The only sign that a fat man lurked inside him was his shining, happy cheeks.
   He had none of the vagueness or the apologetic awkwardness that one usually associates with untidy, absentminded men. He looked cheerful, as though he was with an imaginary friend whose company he enjoyed. He took a seat by the window and sat down with an elbow on the table and his face cupped in the palm of his hand, smiling around the empty cafâ‚ as though he was considering striking up a conversation with the furniture. He ordered coffee with that same friendly smile, but without appearing to really notice the tall, bushy-eyebrowed waitress who took his order.
   She winced when he put two heaped spoons of sugar into his extremely milky coffee..
   Then he asked for fried eggs on roast. More coffee, and strawberry jam.
   When she returned with his order, he said, as though he was continuing an old conversation, “Have you heard about the man who had twin sons?”
   “No,” she said, setting down his breakfast. For some reason (natural prudence perhaps, and an instinctive reticence with foreigners) she did not evince the keen interest that he seemed to expect from her about the Man with Twin Sons. Chacko didn’t seem to mind.
   “A man had twin sons,” he told Margaret Kochamma. “Pete and Stuart. Pete was an Optimist and Stuart was a Pessimist.”
   He picked the strawberries out of the jam and put them on one side of his plate. The rest of the jam he spread in a thick layer on his buttered toast.
   “On their thirteenth birthday their father gave Stuart an expensive watch, a carpentry set, and a bicycle.”
   Chacko looked up at Margaret Kochamma to see if she was listening. “And Pete’s—the Optimist’s—room, he filled with horse dung.”
   Chacko lifted the fried eggs onto the toast, broke the brilliant, wobbling yokes and spread them over the strawberry jam with the back of his teaspoon.
   “When Stuart opened his presents he grumbled all morning. He hadn’t wanted a carpentry set, he didn’t like the watch and the bicycle had the wrong kind of tires.”
   Margaret Kochamma had stopped listening because she was riveted by the curious ritual unfolding on his plate. The toast with jam and fried egg was cut into neat little squares. The dc-jammed strawberries were summoned one by one, and sliced into delicate pieces.
   “When the father went to Pete’s—the Optimist’s—room, he couldn’t see Pete, but he could hear the sound of frantic shoveling and heavy breathing. Horse dung was flying all over the room.”
   Chacko had begun to shake with silent laughter in anticipation of the end of his joke. With laughing hands, he placed a sliver of strawberry on each bright yellow and red square of toast-making the whole thing look like a lurid snack that an old woman might serve at a bridge parry
   “`What in heaven’s name are you doing?’ the father shouted to Pete.” –
   Salt and pepper was sprinkled on the squares of toast. Chacko paused before the punchline, laughing up at Margaret Kochamma, who was smiling at his plate.
   “A voice came from deep inside the dung. `Well, Father,’ Pete said, `if there’s so much shit around, there has to be a pony somewhere!’”
   Chacko, holding a fork and a knife in each hand, leaned back in his chair in the empty cafâ‚ and laughed his high, hiccupping, infectious laugh till the tears poured down his cheeks. Margaret Kochamma, who had missed most of the joke, smiled. Then she began to laugh at his laugh. Their laughs fed each other and climbed to a hysterical pitch. When the owner of the cafâ‚ appeared, he saw a customer (not a particularly desirable one) and a waitress (an only averagely desirable one) locked in a spiral of hooting, helpless laughter.
   Meanwhile, another customer (a regular) had arrived unnoticed, and waited to be served.
   The owner cleaned some already clean glasses, clinking them together noisily, and clattered crockery on the counter to convey his displeasure to Margaret Kochamma. She tried to compose herself before she went to take the new order. But she had tears in her eyes, and had to stifle a fresh batch of giggles, which made the hungry man whose order she was taking look up from his menu, his thin lips pursed in silent disapproval.
   She stole a glance at Chacko, who looked at her and smiled. It was an insanely friendly smile.
   He finished his breakfast, paid, and left
   Margaret Kochamma was reproached by her employer and given a lecture on Cafâ Ethics. She apologized to him. She was truly sorry for the way she had behaved.
   That evening, after work, she thought about what had happened and was uncomfortable with herself. She was not usually frivolous, and didn’t think it right to have shared such uncontrolled laughter with a complete stranger. It seemed such an over-familiar, intimate thing to have done. She wondered what had made her laugh so much. She knew it wasn’t the joke.
   She thought of Chacko’s laugh, and a smile stayed in her eyes for a long time.

   Chacko began to visit the cafâ quite often.
   He always came with his invisible companion and his friendly smile. Even when it wasn’t Margaret Kochamma who served him, he sought her out with his eyes, and they exchanged secret smiles that invoked the joint memory of their Laugh.
   Margaret Kochamma found herself looking forward to the Rumpled Porcupine’s visits. Without anxiety, but with a sort of creeping affection. She learned that he was a Rhodes Scholar from India. That he read Classics. And rowed for Balliol.
   Until the day she married him she never believed that she would ever consent to be his wife.
   A few months after they began to go out together, he began to smuggle her into his rooms, where he lived like a helpless, exiled prince. Despite the best efforts of his scout and cleaning lady, his room was always filthy. Books, empty wine bottles, dirty underwear and cigarette butts littered the floor. Cupboards were dangerous to open because clothes and books and shoes would cascade down and some of his books were heavy enough to inflict real damage. Margaret Kochamma’s tiny, ordered life relinquished itself to this truly baroque bedlam with the quiet gasp of a warm body entering a chilly sea.
   She discovered that underneath the aspect of the Rumpled Porcupine, a tortured Marxist was at war with an impossible, incurable Romantic—who forgot the candles, who broke the wineglasses, who lost the ring. Who made love to her with a passion that took her breath away. She had always thought of herself as a somewhat uninteresting, thick-waisted, thick-ankled girl. Not bad-looking. Not special. But when she was with Chacko, old limits were pushed back. Horizons expanded.
   She had never before met a man who spoke of the world—of what it was, and how it came to be, or what he thought would become of it—in the way in which other men she knew discussed their jobs, their friends or their weekends at the beach.
   Being with Chacko made Margaret Kochamma feel as though her soul had escaped from the narrow confines of her island country into the vast, extravagant spaces of his. He made her feel as though the world belonged to them—as though it lay before them like an opened frog on a dissecting table, begging to be examined.
   In the year she knew him, before they were married, she discovered a little magic in herself, and for a while felt like a blithe genie released from her lamp, She was perhaps too young to realize that what she assumed was her love for Chacko was actually a tentative, timorous, acceptance of herself.

   As for Chacko, Margaret Kochamma was the first female friend he had ever had. Not just the first woman that he had slept with, but his first real companion. What Chacko loved most about her was her self-sufficiency. Perhaps it wasn’t remarkable in the average Englishwoman, but it was remarkable to Chacko.
   He loved the fact that Margaret Kochamma didn’t cling to him. That she was uncertain about her feelings for him. That he never knew till the last day whether or not she would marry him. He loved the way she would sit up naked in his bed, her long white back swiveled away from him, look at her watch and say in her practical way “Oops, I must be off.” He loved the way she wobbled to work every morning on her bicycle. He encouraged their differences in opinion, and inwardly rejoiced at her occasional outbursts of exasperation at his decadence.
   He was grateful to her for not wanting to look after him. For not offering to tidy his room. For not being his cloying mother. He grew to depend on Margaret Kochamma for not depending on him. He adored her for not adoring him.
   Of his family Margaret Kochamma knew very little. He seldom spoke of them.

   The truth is that in his years at Oxford, Chacko rarely thought of them. Too much was happening in his life and Ayemenem seemed so far away. The river too small. The fish too few.
   He had no pressing reasons to stay in touch with his parents. The Rhodes Scholarship was generous. He needed no money. He was deeply in love with his love for Margaret Kochamma and had no room in his heart for anyone else.
   Mammachi wrote to him regularly, with detailed descriptions of her sordid squabbles with her husband and her worries about Ammu’s future. He hardly ever read a whole letter. Sometimes he never bothered to open them at all. He never wrote back.
   Even the one time he did return (when he stopped Pappachi from hitting Mammachi with the brass vase, and a rocking chair was murdered in the moonlight), he was hardly aware of how stung his father had been, or his mother’s redoubled adoration of him, or his young sister’s sudden beauty. He came and went in a trance, yearning from the moment he arrived to return to the long-backed white girl who waited for him.
   The winter after he came down from Balliol (he did badly in his exams), Margaret Kochamma and Chacko were married. Without her family’s consent. Without his family’s knowledge.
   They decided that he should move into Margaret Kochamma’s flat (displacing the Other waitress in the Other cafâ) until he found himself a job.
   The timing of the wedding couldn’t have been worse.
   Along with the pressures of living together came penury. There was no longer any scholarship money, and there was the full rent of the flat to be paid.
   With the end of his rowing came a sudden, premature, middleaged spread. Chacko became a fat man, with a body to match his laugh.
   A year into the marriage, and the charm of Chacko’s studently sloth wore off for Margaret Kochamma. It no longer amused her that while she went to work, the flat remained in the same filthy mess that she had left it in. That it was impossible for him to even consider making the bed, or washing clothes or dishes. That he didn’t apologize for the cigarette burns in the new sofa. That he seemed incapable of buttoning up his shirt knotting his tie and tying his shoelaces before presenting himself for a job interview. Within a year she was prepared to exchange the frog on the dissecting table for some small, practical concessions. Such as a job for her husband and a clean home.
   Eventually Chacko got a brief, badly paid assignment with the Overseas Sales Department of the India Tea Board. Hoping that this would lead to other things, Chacko and Margaret moved to London. To even smaller, more dismal rooms. Margaret Kochamma’s parents refused to see her.
   She had just discovered that she was pregnant when she met Joe. He was an old school friend of her brother’s. When they met, Margaret Kochamma was physically at her most attractive. Pregnancy had put color in her cheeks and brought a shine to her thick, dark hair. Despite her marital troubles, she had that air of secret elation; that affection for her own body that pregnant women often have.
   Joe was a biologist He was updating the third edition of a Dictionary of Biology for a small publishing house. Joe was everything that Chacko wasn’t.
   Steady. Solvent. Thin.
   Margaret Kochamma found herself drawn towards him like a plant in a dark room towards a wedge of light.

   When Chacko finished his assignment and couldn’t find another job, he wrote to Mammachi, telling her of his marriage and asking for money. Mammachi was devastated, but secretly pawned her jewelry and arranged for money to be sent to him in England. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough.
   By the time Sophie Mol was born, Margaret Kochamma realized that for herself and her daughter’s sake, she had to leave Chacko. She asked him for a divorce.
   Chacko returned to India, where he found a job easily. For a few years he taught at the Madras Christian College, and after Pappachi died, he returned to Ayemenem with his Bharat bottle-sealing machine, his Balliol oar and his broken heart.
   Mammachi joyfully welcomed him back into her life. She fed him, she sewed for him, she saw to it that there were fresh flowers in his room every day. Chacko needed his mother’s adoration. Indeed, he demanded it, yet he despised her for it and punished her in secret ways. He began to cultivate his corpulence and general physical dilapidation. He wore cheap, printed Terylene bush shirts over his white mundus and the ugliest plastic sandals that were available in the market. If Mammachi had guests, relatives, or perhaps an old friend visiting from Delhi, Chacko would appear at her tastefully laid dining table—adorned with her exquisite orchid arrangements and best china—and worry an old scab, or scratch the large, black oblong calluses he had cultivated on his elbows.
   His special targets were Baby Kochamma’s guests—Catholic bishops or visiting clergy who often dropped by for a snack. In their presence Chacko would take off his sandals and air a revolting, pus-filled diabetic boil on his foot.
   “Lord have mercy upon this poor leper,” he would say, while Baby Kochamma tried desperately to distract her guests from the spectacle by picking out the biscuit crumbs and bits of banana chips that littered their beards.
   But of all the secret punishments that Chacko tormented Mammachi with, the worst and most mortifying of all was when he reminisced about Margaret Kochamma. He spoke of her often and with a peculiar pride. As though he admired her for having divorced him. “She traded me in for a better man,” he would say to Mammachi, and she would flinch as though he had denigrated her instead of himself.

   Margaret Kochamma wrote regularly, giving Chacko news of Sophie Mol. She assured him that Joe made a wonderful, caring father and that Sophie Mol loved him dearly—facts that gladdened and saddened Chacko in equal measure.
   Margaret Kochamma was happy with Joe. Happier perhaps than she would have been had she not had those wild, precarious years with Chacko. She thought of Chacko fondly, but without regret. It simply did not occur to her that she had hurt him as deeply as she had, because she still thought of herself as an ordinary woman, and him as an extraordinary man. And because Chacko had not then, or since, exhibited any of the usual symptoms of grief and hearthreak, Margaret Kochamma just assumed that he felt it had been as much of a mistake for him as it had been for her. When she told him about Joe he had left sadly, but quietly. With his invisible companion and his friendly smile.
   They wrote to each other frequently, and over the years their relationship matured. For Margaret Kochamma it became a comfortable, committed friendship. For Chacko it was a way, the only way, of remaining in touch with the mother of his child and the only woman he had ever loved.
   When Sophie Mol was old enough to go to school, Margaret Kochamma enrolled herself in a teacher training course, and then got a job as a junior schoolteacher in Clapham. She was in the staff room when she was told about Joe’s accident. The news was delivered by a young policeman who wore a grave expression and carried his helmet in his hands. He had looked strangely comical, like a bad actor auditioning for a solemn part in a play. Margaret Kochamma remembered that her first instinct when she saw him had been to smile.
   For Sophie Mol’s sake, if not her own, Margaret Kochamma did her best to face the tragedy with equanimity. To pretend to face the tragedy with equanimity. She didn’t take time off from her job. She saw to it that Sophie Mol’s school routine remained unchanged—Finish your bomework. Eat your egg. No, we can’t not go to school.
   She concealed her anguish under the brisk, practical mask of a schoolteacher. The stern, schoolteacher-shaped Hole in the Universe (who sometimes slapped).
   But when Chacko wrote inviting her to Ayemenem, something inside her sighed and sat down. Despite everything that had happened between her and Chacko, there was nobody in the world she would rather spend Christmas with. The more she considered it, the more tempted she was. She persuaded herself that a trip to India would be just the thing for Sophie Mol.
   So eventually, though she knew that her friends and colleagues at the school would think it odd—her running back to her first-husband-just-as-soon as her second-one-had-died—Margaret Kochamma broke her term deposit and bought two airline tickets. London-Bombay-Cochin.
   She was haunted by that decision for as long as she lived.

   She took with her to her grave the picture of her little daughter’s body laid out on the chaise longue in the drawing room of the Ayemenem House. Even from a distance, it was obvious that she was dead. Not ill or asleep. It was something to do with the way she lay. The angle of her limbs. Something to do with Death’s authority. Its terrible stillness.
   Green weed and river grime was woven into her beautiful redbrown hair. Her sunken eyelids were raw, nibbled at by fish. (O yes they do, the deepswimming fish. They sample everything.) Her mauve corduroy pinafore said Holiday! in a tilting, happy font. She was as wrinkled as a dhobi’s thumb from being in water for too long.
   A spongy mermaid who had forgotten how to swim.
   A silver thimble clenched, for luck, in her little fist.
   Thimbe-drinker.
   Coffin-cartwheeler.
   Margaret Kochamma never forgave herself for taking Sophie Mol to Ayemenem. For leaving her there alone over the weekend while she and Chacko went to Cochin to confirm their return tickets.

   It was about nine in the morning when Mammachi and Baby Kochamma got news of a white child’s body found floating downriver where the Meenachal broadens as it approaches the backwaters. Estha and Rahel were still missing. Earlier that morning the children—all three of them—hadn’t appeared for their morning glass of milk. Baby Kochamma and Mammachi thought that they might have gone down to the river for a swim, which was worrying because it had rained heavily the previous day and a good part of the night. They knew that the river could be dangerous. Baby Kochamma sent Kochu Maria to look for them but she returned without them. In the chaos that ensued after Vellya Paapen’s visit, nobody could remember when they had actually last seen the children. They hadn’t been uppermost on anybody’s mind. They could have been missing all night.
   Ammu was still locked into her bedroom. Baby Kochamma had the keys. She called through the door to ask Ammu whether she had any idea where the children might be. She tried to keep the panic out of her voice, make it sound like a casual enquiry. Something crashed against the door. Ammu was incoherent with rage and disbelief at what was happening to her—at being locked away like the family lunatic in a medieval household. It was only later, when the world collapsed around them, after Sophie Mol’s body was brought to Ayemenem, and Baby Kochamma unlocked her, that Ammu sifted through her rage to try to make sense of what had happened. Fear and apprehension forced her to think clearly, and it was only then that she remembered what she had said to her twins when they came to her bedroom door and asked her why she had been locked up. The careless words she hadn’t meant.
   “Because of you!” Ammu had screamed. “If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here! None of this would have happened! I wouldn’t be here! I would have been free! I should have dumped you in an orphanage the day you were born! You’re the millstones round my neck!”
   She couldn’t see them crouched against the door. A Surprised Puff and a Fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo. Bewildered Twin Ambassadors-of-God-knows-what Their Excellencies Ambassadors E. Pelvis and S. Insect.
   “Just go away!” Ammu had said. “Why can’t you just go away and leave me alone?!”
   So they had.
   But when the only answer Baby Kochamma got to her question about the children was something crashing against Ammu’s bedroom door, she went away. A slow dread built up inside her as she began to make the obvious, logical and completely mistaken connections between the night’s happenings and the missing children.

   The rain had started early the previous afternoon. Suddenly the hot day darkened and the sky began to clap and grumble. Kochu Maria, in a bad mood for no particular reason, was in the kitchen standing on her low stool savagely cleaning a large fish, working up a smelly blizzard of fish scales. Her gold earrings swung fiercely. Silver fish scales flew around the kitchen, landing on kettles, walls, vegetable peelers, the fridge handle. She ignored Vellya Paapen when he arrived at the kitchen door, drenched and shaking. His real eye was bloodshot and he looked as though he had been drinking. He stood there for ten minutes waiting to be noticed. When Kochu Maria finished the fish and started on the onions, he cleared his throat and asked for Mammachi. Kochu Maria tried to shoo him away, but he wouldn’t go. Each time he opened his mouth to speak, the smell of arrack on his breath hit Kochu Maria like a hammer. She had never seen him like this before, and was a little frightened. She had a pretty good idea of what it was all about, so she eventually decided that it would be best to call Mammachi. She shut the kitchen door, leaving Vellya Paapen outside in the back mittam, weaving drunkenly in the driving rain. Though it was December, it rained as though it was June. “Cyclonic disturbance,” the newspapers called it the next day. But by then nobody was in any condition to read the papers.
   Perhaps it was the rain that drove Vellya Paapen to the kitchen door. To a superstitious man, the relentlessness of that unseasonal downpour could have seemed like an omen from an angry god. To a drunk superstitious man, it could have seemed like the beginning of the end of the world. Which, in a way, it was.
   When Mammachi arrived in the kitchen, in her petticoat and pale pink dressing gown with rickrack edging, Vellya Paapen climbed up the kitchen steps and offered her his mortgaged eye. He held it out in the palm of his hand. He said he didn’t deserve it and wanted her to have it back. His left eyelid drooped over his empty socket in an immutable, monstrous wink. As though everything that he was about to say was part of an elaborate prank.
   “What is it?” Mammachi asked, stretching her hand out, thinking perhaps that for some reason Vellya Paapen was returning the kilo of red rice she had given him that morning.
   “It’s his eye,” Kochu Maria said loudly to Mammachi, her own eyes bright with onion tears. By then Mammachi had already touched the glass eye. She recoiled from its slippery hardness. Its slimy marbieness.
   “Are you drunk?’ Mammachi said angrily to the sound of the rain. “How dare you come here in this condition?”
   She groped her way to the sink, and soaped away the sodden Paravan’s eye-juices. She smelled her hands when she’d finished. Kochu Maria gave Vellya Paapen an old kitchen cloth to wipe himself with, and said nothing when he stood on the topmost step almost inside her Touchable kitchen, drying himself, sheltered from the rain by the sloping overhang of the roof. –
   When he was calmer, Vellya Paapen returned his eye to its rightful socket and began to speak. He started by recounting to Mammachi how much her family had done for his. Generation for generation. How, long before the Communists thought of it, Reverend E. John Ipe had given his father, Kelan, title to the land on which their hut now stood. How Mammachi had paid for his eye. How she had organized for Velutha to be educated and given him a job
   Mammachi, though annoyed at his drunkenness, wasn’t averse to listening to bardic stories about herself and her family’s Christian munificence. Nothing prepared her for what she was about to hear.
   Vellya Paapen began to cry. Half of him wept. Tears welled up in his real eye and shone on his black cheek. With his other eye he stared stonily ahead. An old Paravan, who had seen the Walking Backwards days, torn between Loyalty and Love.
   Then the Terror took hold of him and shook the words out of him. He told Mammachi what he had seen. The story of the little boat that crossed the river night after night, and who was in it. The story of a man and woman, standing together in the moonlight. Skin to skin.
   They went to Kari Saipu’s House, Vellya Paapen said. The white man’s demon had entered them. It was Kari Saipu’s revenge for what he, Vellya Paapen, had done to him. The boat (that Estha sat on and Rahel found) was tethered to the tree stump next to the steep path that led through the marsh to the abandoned rubber estate. He had seen it there. Every night. Rocking on the water. Empty. Waiting for the lovers to return. For hours it waited. Sometimes they only emerged through the long grass at dawn. Vellya Paapen had seen them with his own eye. Others had seen them too. The whole village knew. It was only a matter of time before Mammachi found out. So Vellya Paapen had come to tell Mammachi himself. As a Paravan and a man with mortgaged body parts, he considered it his duty.
   The lovers. Sprung from his loins and hers. His son and her daughter. They had made the unthinkable thinkable and the impossible really happen.
   Vellya Paapen kept talking. Weeping. Retching. Moving his mouth. Mammachi couldn’t hear what he was saying. The sound of the rain grew louder and exploded in her head. She didn’t hear herself shouting.
   Suddenly the blind old woman in her rickrack dressing gown and with her thin gray hair plaited into a rat’s tail stepped forward and pushed Vellya Paapen with all her strength. He stumbled backwards down the kitchen steps and lay sprawled in the wet mud. He was taken– completely by surprise. Part of the taboo of being an Untouchable was expecting not to be touched. At least not in these circumstances. Of being locked into a physically impregnable cocoon.
   Baby Kochamma, walking past the kitchen, heard the commotion. She found Mammachi spitting into the rain, THOO! THOO! THOO!, and Vellya Paapen lying in the slush, wet, weeping, groveling. Offering to kill his son. To tear him limb from limb.
   Mammachi was shouting, “Drunken dog! Drunken Paravan liar!” Over the din Kochu Maria shouted Vellya Paapen’s story to Baby Kochamma. Baby Kochamma recognized at once the immense potential of the situation, but immediately anointed her thoughts with unctuous oils. She bloomed. She saw it as God’s Way of punishing Ammu for her sins and simultaneously avenging her (Baby Kochamma’s) humiliation at the hands of Velutha and the men in the march—the Modalali Mariakutty taunts, the forced flagwaving. She set sail at once. A ship of goodness ploughing through a sea of sin.
   Baby Kochamma put her heavy arm around Mammachi.
   “It must be true,” she said in a quiet voice. “She’s quite capable of it. And so is he. Vellya Paapen would not lie about something like this.”
   She asked Kochu Maria to get Mammachi a glass of water and a chair to sit on. She made Vellya Paapen repeat his story, stopping him every now and then for details—whose boat? How often? How long had it been going on? –
   When Vellya Paapen finished, Baby Kochamma turned to Mammachi. “He must go,” she said. “Tonight. Before it goes any further. Before we are completely ruined.”
   Then she shuddered her schoolgirl shudder. That was when she said: How could the stand the smell? Haven’t you noticed? They have a particular smell, these Paravans.
   With that olfactory observation, that specific little detail, the Terror unspooled.
   Mammachi’s rage at the old one-eyed Paravan standing in the rain, drunk, dribbling and covered in mud was re-directed into a cold contempt for her daughter and what she had done. She thought of her naked, coupling in the mud with a man who was nothing but a filthy coolie. She imagined it in vivid detail: a Paravan’s coarse black hand on her daughter’s breast. His mouth on hers. His black hips jerking between her parted legs. The sound of their breathing. His particular Paravan smell. Like animals, Mammachi thought and nearly vomited. Like a dog with a bitch on beat. Her tolerance of “Men’s Needs,” as far as her son was concerned, became the fuel for her unmanageable fury at her daughter. She had defiled generations of breeding (The Little Blessed One, blessed personally by the Patriarch of Antioch, an Imperial Entomologist, a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford) and brought the family to its knees. For generations to come, forever now, people would point at them at weddings and funerals. At baptisms and birthday parties. They’d nudge and whisper. It was all finished-now.
   Mammachi lost control.
   They did what they had to do, the two old ladies. Mammachi provided the passion. Baby Kochamma the Plan. Kochu Maria was their midget lieutenant. They locked Ammu up (tricked her into her bedroom) before they sent for Velutha. They knew that they had to get him to leave Ayemenem before Chacko returned. They could neither trust nor predict what Chacko’s attitude would be.
   It wasn’t entirely their fault, though, that the whole thing spun out of control like a deranged top. That it lashed out at those that crossed its path. That by the time Chacko and Margaret Kochamma returned from Cochin, it was too late.
   The fisherman had already found Sophie Mol.

   Picture him.

   Out in his boat at dawn, at the mouth of the river he has known all his life. It is still quick and swollen from the previous night’s rain.
   Something bobs past in the water and the colors catch his eye. Mauve. Redbrown. Beach sand. It moves with the current, swiftly towards the sea. He sends out his bamboo pole to stop it and draw it towards him. It’s a wrinkled mermaid. A mer-child. A mere merchild. With redbrown hair. With an Imperial Entomologists’ nose, and, a silver thimble clenched for luck in her fist. epiillsherou of the water into his boat. He puts his thin cotton towel under her, she lies at the bottom of his boat with his silver haul of small fish. He rows home—Thaiy thaiy thakka thaiy tbaiy thome— thinking how wrong it is for a fisherman to believe that he knows his river well. No one knows the Meenachal. No one knows what it may snatch or suddenly yield. Or when. That is what makes fishermen pray.

   At the Kottayam police station, a shaking Baby Kochamma was ushered into the Station House Officer’s room. She told Inspector Thomas Mathew of the circumstances that had led to the sudden dismissal of a factory worker. A Paravan. A few days ago he had tried to, to… to force himself on her niece, she said. A divorcee with two children.
   Baby Kochamma misrepresented the relationship between Ammu and Velutha, not for Ammu’s sake, but to contain the scandal and salvage the family reputation in Inspector Thomas Mathew’s eyes. It didn’t occur to her that Ammu would later invite shame upon herself—that she would go to the police and try and set the record straight. As Baby Kochamma told her story, she began to believe it.
   Why wasn’t the matter reported to the police in the first place, the Inspector wanted to know.
   “We are an old family,” Baby Kochamma said. “These are not things we want talked about…
   Inspector Thomas Mathew, receding behind his bustling Air India mustache, understood perfectly. He had a Touchable wife, two Touchable daughters—whole Touchable generations waiting in their Touchable wombs…
   “Where is the molestee now?”
   “At home. She doesn’t know I’ve come here. She wouldn’t have let me come. Naturally… she’s frantic with worry about the children. Hysterical.’
   Later, when the real story reached Inspector Thomas Mathew, the fact that what the Paravan had taken from the Touchable Kingdom had not been snatched, but given, concerned him deeply. So after Sophie Mol’s funeral, when Ammu went to him with the twins to tell him that a mistake had been made and he tapped her breasts with his baton, it was not a policeman’s spontaneous brutishness on his part. He knew exactly what he was doing. It was a premeditated gesture, calculated to humiliate and terrorize her. An attempt to instill order into a world gone wrong.
   Still later, when the dust had settled and he had had the paperwork organized, Inspector Thomas Mathew congratulated himself for the way it had all turned out.
   But now, he listened carefully and courteously as Baby Kochamma constructed her story.
   “Last night it was getting dark—about seven in the evening—when he came to the house to threaten us. It was raining very heavily. The lights had gone out and we were lighting the lamps when he came,” she told him. “He knew that the man of the house, my nephew Chacko Ipe, was—is—away in Cochin. We were three women alone in the house.” She paused to let the Inspector imagine the horrors that could be visited by a sex-crazed Paravan on three women alone in a house.
   “We told him that if he did not leave Ayemenem quietly we would call the police. He started off by saying that my niece had consented, can you imagine? He asked us what proof we had of what we were accusing him of. He said that according to the Labor Laws we had no grounds on which to dismiss him. He was very calm. `The days are gone,’ he told us, `when you can kick us around like dogs.’” By now Baby Kochamma sounded utterly convincing. Injured. Incredulous.
   Then her imagination took over completely. She didn’t describe how Mammachi had lost control. How she had gone up to Velutha and spat right into his face. The things she had said to him. The names she had called him.
   Instead she described to Inspector. Thomas Mathew how—it was not just what Velutha had said that had made her come to the police, but the way he said it. His complete lack of remorse, which was what had shocked her most. As though he was actually proud of what he had done. Without realizing it herself, she grafted the manner of the man who had humiliated her during the march onto Velutha. She described the sneering fury in his face. The brassy insolence in his voice that had so frightened her. That made her sure that his dismissal and the children’s disappearance were not, could not possibly be, unconnected.
   She had known the Paravan since he was a child, Baby Kochamma said. He had been educated by her family, in the Untouchables’ school started by her father, Punnyan Kunju (Mr. Thomas Mathew must know who he was? Yes, of course). He was trained to be a carpenter by her family, the house he lived in was given to his grandfather by her family. He owed everything to her family.
   “You people,” Inspector Thomas Mathew said, “first you spoil these people, carry them about on your head like trophies, then when they misbehave you come running to us for help.”
   Baby Kochamma lowered her eyes like a chastised child. Then she continued her story. She told Inspector Thomas Mathew how in the last few weeks she had noticed some presaging signs, some insolence, some rudeness. She mentioned seeing him in the march on the way to Cochin and the rumors that he was or had been a Naxalite. She didn’t notice the faint furrow of worry that this piece of information produced on the Inspector’s brow.
   She had warned her nephew about him, Baby Kochamma said, but never –in her wildest dreams had she thought that it would ever come to this. A beautiful child was dead. Two children were missing.
   Baby Kochamma broke down.
   Inspector Thomas Mathew gave her a cup of police tea. When she was feeling a little better, he helped her to set down all she had told him in her First Information Report. He assured Baby Kochamma of the full cooperation of the Kottayam Police. The rascal would be caught before the day was out, he said. A Paravan with a pair of two-egg twins, hounded by history—he knew there weren’t many places for him to hide.
   Inspector Thomas Mathew was a prudent man. He took one precaution. He sent a Jeep to fetch Comrade K. N. M. Pillai to the police station. It was crucial for him to know whether the Paravan had any political support or whether he was operating alone. Though he himself was a Congress man, he did not intend to risk any run-ins with the Marxist government. When Comrade Pillai arrived, he was ushered into the seat that Baby Kochamma had only recently vacated. Inspector Thomas Mathew showed him Baby Kochamma’s First Information Report. The two men had a conversation. Brief, cryptic, to the point. As though they had exchanged numbers and not words. No explanations seemed necessary. They were not friends, Comrade Pillai and Inspector Thomas Mathew, and they didn’t trust each other. But they understood each other perfectly. They were both men whom childhood had abandoned without a trace. Men without curiosity. Without doubt. Both in their own way truly, terrifyingly adult. They looked out at the world and never wondered how it worked, because they knew. They worked it. They were mechanics who serviced different parts of the same machine.
   Comrade Pillai told Inspector Thomas Mathew that he was acquainted with Velutha, but oI~TIitted to mention that Velutha was a member of the Communist Party or that Velutha had knocked on his door late the previous night, which made Comrade Pillai the last person to have seen Velutha before he disappeared. Nor, though he knew it to be untrue, did Comrade Pillai refute the allegation of attempted rape in Baby Kochamma’s First Information Report He merely assured Inspector Thomas Mathew that as far as he was concerned Velutha did not have the patronage or the protection of the Communist Party. That he was on his own.
   After Comrade Pillai left, Inspector Thomas Mathew went over their conversation in his mind, teasing it, testing its logic, looking for loopholes. When he was satisfied, he instructed his men.

   Meanwhile, Baby Kochamma returned to Ayemenem. The Plymouth was parked in the driveway. Margaret Kochamma and Chacko were back from Cochin.

   Sophie Mol was laid out on the chaise longue.

   When Margaret Kochamma saw her little daughter’s body, shock swelled in her like phantom applause in an empty auditorium. It overflowed in a wave of vomit and left her mute and empty-eyed. She mourned two deaths, not one. With the loss of Sophie Mol, Joe died again. And this time there was no homework to finish or egg to eat. She had come to Ayemenem to heal her wounded world, and had lost all of it instead. She shattered like glass.
   Her memory of the days that followed was fuzzy. Long, dim, hours of thick, furry-tongued serenity (medically administered by Dr. Verghese Verghese) lacerated by sharp, steely slashes of hysteria, as keen and cutting as the edge of a new razor blade.
   She was vaguely conscious of Chacko—concerned and gentlevoiced when he was by her side—otherwise incensed, blowing like an enraged wind through the Ayemenem House. So different from the amused Rumpled Porcupine she had met that long-ago Oxford morning at the cafâ.
   She remembered faintly the funeral in the yellow church. The sad singing. A bat that had bothered someone. She remembered the sounds of doors being battered down, and frightened women’s voices. And how at night the bush crickets had sounded like creaking stars and amplified the fear and gloom that hung over the Ayemenem House.
   She never forgot her irrational rage at the other two younger children who had for some reason been spared. Her fevered mind fastened like a limpet onto the notion that Estha was somehow responsible for Sophie Mol’s death. Odd, considering that Margaret Kochamma didn’t know that it was Estha—Stirring Wizard with a Puff—who had rowed jam and thought Two Thoughts, Estha who had broken rules and rowed Sophie Mol and Rahel across the river in the afternoons in a little boat, Estha who had abrogated a sickled smell by waving a Marxist flag at it. Estha who had made the back verandah of the History House their home away from home, furnished with a grass mat and most of their toys—a catapult, an inflatable goose, a Qantas koala with loosened button eyes. And finally, on that dreadful night, Estha who had decided that though it was dark and raining, the Time Had Come for them to run away, because Ammu didn’t want them anymore.
   Despite not knowing any of this, why did Margaret Kochamma blame Estha for what had happened to Sophie? Perhaps she had a mother’s instinct.
   Three or four times, swimming up through thick layers of druginduced sleep, she had actually sought Estha out and slapped him until someone calmed her down and led her away. Later, she wrote to Ammu to apologize. By the time the letter arrived, Estha had been Returned and Ammu had had to pack her bags and leave. Only Rahel remained in Ayemenem to accept, on Estha’s behalf, Margaret Kochamma’s apology. I can’t imagine what came over me, she wrote. I can only put it down to the effect of the tranquilizers. I had no right to behave the way I did, and want you to know that I am ashamed and terribly, terribly sorry.

   Strangely, the person that Margaret Kochamma never thought about was Velutha. Of him she had no memory at all. Not even what he looked like.
   Perhaps this was because she never really knew him, nor ever heard what happened to him.
   The God of Loss.
   The God of Small Things.
   He left no footprints in sand, no ripples in water, no image in mirrors.
   After all, Margaret Kochamma wasn’t with the platoon of Touchable policemen when they crossed the swollen river. Their wide khaki shorts rigid with starch.
   The metallic clink of handcuffs in someone’s heavy pocket. It is unreasonable to expect a person to remember what she didn’t know had happened.

   Sorrow, however, was still two weeks away on that blue cross-stitch afternoon, as Margaret Kochamma lay jet-lagged and still asleep. Chacko, on his way to see Comrade K. N. M. Pillai, drifted past the bedroom window like an anxious, stealthy whale intending to peep in to see whether his wife (‘Ex-wife, Chacko,’) and daughter were awake and needed anything. At the last minute his courage failed him and he floated fatly by without looking in. Sophie Mol (A wake, A live, A lert) saw him go.
   She sat up on her bed and looked out at the rubber trees. The sun had moved across the sky and cast a deep house-shadow across the plantation, darkening the already dark-leafed trees. Beyond the shadow, the light was flat and gentle. There was a diagonal slash across the mottled bark of each tree through which milky rubber seeped like white blood from a wound, and dripped into the waiting half of a coconut shell that had been tied to the tree.
   Sophie Mol got out of bed and rummaged through her sleeping mother’s purse. She found what she was looking for-the keys to the large, locked suitcase on the floor, with its airline stickers and baggage tags. She opened it and rooted through the contents with all the delicacy of a dog digging up a flower bed. She upset stacks of lingerie, ironed skirts and blouses, shampoos, creams, chocolate, Sellotape, umbrellas, soap (and other bottled London smells), quinine, aspirin, broad-spectrum antibiotics. Take everything, her colleagues had advised Margaret Kochamma in concerned voices, you never know, which was their way of saying to a colleague traveling to the Heart of Darkness that
   (a) Anything Can Happen To Anyone.
   So
   (b) It’s Best to be Prepared.
   Sophie Mol eventually found what she had been looking for.
   Presents for her cousins. Triangular towers of Toblerone chocolate (soft and slanting in the heat). Socks with separate multicolored toes. And two ballpoint pens—the top halves filled with water in which a cut-out collage of a London streetscape was suspended. Buckingham Palace and Big Ben. Shops and people. A red doubledecker bus propelled by an air bubble floated up and down the silent street. There was something sinister about the absence of noise on the busy ballpoint street.
   Sophie Mol put the presents into her go-go bag and went forth into the world. To drive a hard bargain. To negotiate a friendship.
   A friendship that, unfortunately, would be left dangling. Incomplete. Flailing in the air with no foothold. A friendship that never circled around into a story which is why, far more quickly than ever should have happened, Sophie Mol became a Memory, while The Loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and alive. Like a fruit in season. Every season.
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Chapter 14.
Work is Struggle

   Chacko took the shortcut through the tilting rubber trees so that he would have to walk only a very short stretch down the main road to Comrade K. N. M. Pillai’s house. He looked faintly absurd, stepping over the carpet of dry leaves in his tight airport suit, his tie blown over his shoulder.
   Comrade Pillai wasn’t in when Chacko arrived. His wife, Kalyani, with fresh sandalwood paste on her forehead, made him sit down on a steel folding chair in their small front room and disappeared through the bright pink, nylon-lace curtained doorway into a dark adjoining room, where the small flame from a large brass oil lamp flickered. The cloying smell of incense drifted through the doorway, over which a small wooden placard said Work is Struggle. Struggle is Work.
   Chacko was too big for the room. The blue walls crowded him. He glanced around, tense and a little uneasy. A towel dried on the bars of the small green window. The dining table was covered with a bright flowered plastic tablecloth. Midges whirred around a bunch of small bananas on a blue-rimmed white enamel plate. In one corner of the room there was a pile of green unhusked coconuts. A child’s rubber slippers lay pigeon-toed in the bright parallelogram of barred sunlight on the floor. A glass-paned cupboard stood next to the table. It had printed curtains hanging on the inside, hiding its contents.
   Comrade Pillai’s mother, a minute old lady in a brown blouse and off-white mundu, sat on the edge of the high wooden bed that was pushed against the wall, her feet dangling high above the floor. She wore a thin white towel arranged diagonally over her chest and slung over one shoulder. A funnel of mosquitoes, like an inverted dunce cap, whined over her head. She sat with her cheek resting in the palm of her hand, bunching together all the wrinkles on that side of her face. Every inch of her, even her wrists and ankles, were wrinkled. Only the skin on her throat was taut and smooth, stretched over an enormous goiter. Her fountain of youth. She stared vacantly at the wall opposite her, rocking herself gently, grunting regular, rhythmic little grunts, like a bored passenger on a long bus journey.
   Comrade Pillai’s SSLC, BA and MA certificates were framed and hung on the wall behind her head.
   On another wall was a framed photograph of Comrade Pillai garlanding Comrade E. M. S. Namboodiripad. There was a microphone on a stand, shining in the foreground with a sign that said Ajantha.
   The rotating table fan by the bed measured out its mechanical breeze in exemplary; democratic turns—first lifting what was left of old Mrs. Pillai’s hair, then Chacko’s. The mosquitoes dispersed and re-assembled tirelessly.
   Through the window Chacko could see the tops of buses, luggage in their luggage racks, as they thundered by. A jeep with a loudspeaker drove past, blaring a Marxist Party song whose theme was Unemployment. The chorus was in English, the rest of it in Malayalam.
   No vacancy! No vacancy!
   Wherever in the world a poor man goes,
   No no no no no vacancy!
   “No” pronounced to rhyme with door.
   Kalyani returned with a stainless-steel glass of filter coffee and a stainless-steel plate of banana chips (bright yellow with little black seeds in the center) for Chacko.
   “He has gone to Olassa. He’ll be back any time now,” she said. She referred to her husband as addeham, which was the respectful form of “he,” whereas “he” called her “eli,” which was, approximately, “Hey, you!”
   She was a lush, beautiful woman with golden-brown skin and huge eyes. Her long frizzy hair was damp and hung loose down her back, plaited only at the very end. It had wet the back of her tight, deep-red blouse and stained it a tighter, deeper red. From where the sleeves ended, her soft arm-flesh swelled and dropped over her dimpled elbows in a sumptuous bulge. Her white mundu and kavath were crisp and ironed. She smelled of sandalwood and the crushed green gram that she used instead of soap. For the first time in years, Chacko watched her without the faintest stirring of sexual desire. He had a wife (Ex-wife, Chacko!) at home. With arm freckles and back freckles. With a blue dress and legs underneath.
   Young Lenin appeared at the door in red Stretchlon shorts. He stood on one thin leg like a stork and twisted the pink lace curtain into a pole, staring at Chacko with his mother’s eyes. He was six now, long past the age of pushing things up his nose.
   “Mon, go and call Latha,” Mrs. Pillai said to him.
   Lenin remained where he was, and, still staring at Chacko, screeched effortlessly, in the way only children can.
   “Latha! Latha! You’re wanted!”
   “Our niece from Kottayam. His elder brother’s daughter,” Mrs. Pillai explained. “She won the First Prize for Elocution at the Youth Festival in Trivandrum last week.”
   A combative-looking young girl of about twelve or thirteen appeared through the lace curtain. She wore a long, printed skirt that reached all the way down to her ankles and a short, waist-length white blouse with darts that made room for future breasts. Her oiled hair was parted into two halves. Each of her tight, shining plaits was looped over and tied with ribbons so that they hung down on either side of her face like the outlines of large, drooping ears that hadn’t been colored in yet.
   “D’you know who this is?” Mrs. Pillai asked Latha.
   Latha shook her head.
   “Chacko saar. Our factory Modalali.”
   Latha stared at him with a composure and a lack of curiosity unusual in a thirteen-year-old.
   “He studied in London Oxford,” Mrs. Pillai said. “Will you do your recitation for him?” –
   Latha complied without hesitation. She planted her feet slightly apart.
   “Respected Chairman”—she bowed to Chacko—”mydearjudges and”—she looked around at the imaginary audience crowded into the small, hot room—”beloved friends.” She paused theatrically.
   “Today I would like to recite to you a poem by Sir Walter Scott entitled `Lochinvar.’” She clasped her hands behind her back. A film fell over her eyes. Her gaze was fixed unseeingly just above Chacko’s head. She swayed slightly as she spoke. At first Chacko thought it was a Malayalam translation of “Lochinvar.” The words ran into each other. Like in Malayalam, the last syllable of one word attached itself to the first syllable of the next. It was rendered at remarkable speed:
   “O, young Loch in varbas scum oat of the vest
   Through wall the vide Border his teed was the be:
   sTand savissgood broadsod he weapon sadnun,
   He rod all unarmed, and he rod al lalone..
   The poem was interspersed with grunts from the old lady on the bed, which no one except Chacko seemed to notice.
   Whe swam the Eske river where fird there was none;
   Buitair he alighted at Netherby Gate,-
   The bride had cansended, the galla ntcame late.”
   Comrade Pillai arrived mid-poem; a sheen of sweat glazed his skin, his mundu was folded up over his knees, dark sweatstains spread under his Terylene armpits. In his late thirties, he was an unathietic, sallow little man. His legs were already spindly and his taut, distended belly, like his tiny mother’s goiter, was completely at odds with the rest of his thin, narrow body and alert face. As though something in their family genes had bestowed on them compulsory bumps that appeared randomly on different parts of their bodies.
   His neat pencil mustache divided his upper lip horizontally into half and ended exactly in line with the ends of his mouth. His hairline had begun to recede and he made no attempt to hide it His hair was oiled and combed back off his forehead. Clearly youth was not what he was after. He had the easy authority of the Man of the House. He smiled and nodded a greeting to Chacko, but did not acknowledge the presence of his wife or his mother.
   Latha’s eyes flicked towards him for permission to continue, with the poem. It was granted. Comrade Pillai took off his shirt, rolled it into a ball and wiped his armpits with it. When he finished, Kalyani took it from him and held it as though it was a gift. A bouquet of flowers. Comrade Pillai, in his sleeveless vest, sat on a folding chair and pulled his left foot up onto his right thigh. Through the rest of his niece’s recitation, he sat staring meditatively down at the floor, his chin cupped in the palm of his hand, tapping his right foot in time with the meter and cadence of the poem. With his other hand he massaged the exquisitely arched instep of his left foot.
   When Latha finished, Chacko applauded with genuine kindness. She did not acknowledge his applause with even a flicker of a smile. She was like an East German swimmer at a local competition. Her eyes were firmly fixed on Olympic Gold. Any lesser achievement she took as her due. She looked at her uncle for permission to leave the room. Comrade Pillai beckoned to her and whispered in her ear.
   “Go and tell Pothachen and Mathukutty that if they want to see me, they should come immediately.”
   “No comrade, really… I won’t have anything more,” Chacko said, assuming that Comrade Pillai was sending Latha off for more snacks. Comrade Pillai, grateful for the misunderstanding, perpetuated it.
   “No no no. Hah! What is this? Edi Kalyani, bring a plate of those avalose oondas.”
   As an aspiring politician, it was essential for Comrade Pillai to be seen in his chosen constituency as a man of influence. He wanted to use Chacko’s visit to impress local supplicants and Party Workers. Pothachen and Mathukutty. the men he had sent for, were villagers who had asked him to use his connections at the Kottayam hospital to secure nursing jobs for their daughters. Comrade Pillai was keen that they be seen waiting outside his house for their appointment with him. The more people that were seen waiting to meet him, the busier he would appear, the better the impression he would make. And if the waiting people saw that the factory Modalali himself had come to see him, on his turf, he knew it would give off all sorts of useful signals.
   “So! comrade!” Comrade Pillai said, after Latha had been dispatched and the avalose oondas had arrived. “What is the news? How is your daughter adjusting?” Hc insisted on speaking to Chacko in English.
   “Oh fine. She’s fast asleep right now.”
   “Oho. Jet lag, I suppose,” Comrade Pillai said, pleased with himself for knowing a thing or two about international travel.
   “What’s happening in Olassa? A Party meeting?” Chacko asked.
   “Oh, nothing like that. My sister Sudha met with fracture sometime back,” Comrade Pillai said, as though Fracture were a visiting dignitary. “So I took her to Olassa Moos for some medications. Some oils and all that. Her husband is in Patna, so she is alone at inlaws’ place.”
   Lenin gave up his post at the doorway, placed himself between his father’s knees and picked his nose.
   “What about a poem from you, young man?” Chacko said to him. `Doesn’t your father teach you any?”
   Lenin stared at Chacko, giving no indication that he had either heard or understood what Chacko said.
   “He knows everything,” Comrade PilIai said. “He is genius. In front of visitors only he’s quiet.”
   Comrade Pillai jiggled Lenin with his knees.
   “Lenin Mon, tell Comrade Uncle the one Pappa taught you. Friends Romans countrymen …”
   Lenin continued his nasal treasure hunt.
   “Come on, Mon, it’s only our Comrade Uncle—”
   ~Comrade Pillai~~
   “Friends Roman: countrymen lend me your—?”
   Lenin’s unblinking gaze remained on Chacko. Comrade Pillai tried again.
   “Lend me your—?”
   Lenin grabbed a handful of banana chips and bolted out of the front door. He began to race up and down the strip of front yard between the house and road, braying with an excitement that he couldn’t understand. When he had worked some of it off, his run turned into a breathless, high-kneed gallop.
   “kndmeyawYERS;”
   Lenin shouted from the yard, over the sound of a passing bus.
   “I cometobery Caesar, not to praise him. Thee-vu that mendoo lives after them, The goodisoft interred with their bones…”
   He shouted it fluently, without faltering once. Remarkable, considering he was only six and didn’t understand a word of what he was saying. Sitting inside, looking out at the little dust devil whirling in his yard (future service contractor with a baby and Bajaj scooter), Comrade Pillai smiled proudly.
   “He’s standing first in class. This year he will be getting double promotion.”
   There was a lot of ambition packed into that hot little room.
   Whatever Comrade Pillai stored in his curtained cupboard, it wasn’t broken balsa airplanes.
   Chacko, on the other hand, from the moment he had entered the house, or perhaps from the moment Comrade Pillai had arrived, had undergone a curious process of invalidation. Like a general who had been stripped of his stars, he limited his smile. Contained his expansiveness. Anybody meeting him there for the first time might have thought him reticent. Almost timid.
   With a street-fighter’s unerring instincts, Comrade Pillai knew that his straitened circumstances (his small, hot house, his grunting mother, his obvious proximity to the toiling masses) gave him a power over Chacko that in those revolutionary times no amount of Oxford education could match.
   He held his poverty like a gun to Chacko’s head.
   Chacko brought out a crumpled piece of paper on which he had tried to sketch the rough layout for a new label that he wanted comrade K. N. M. Pillai to print. It was for a new product that Paradise Pickles & Preserves planned to launch in the spring. Synthetic Cooking Vinegar. Drawing was not one of Chacko’s strengths, but Comrade Pillai got the general gist. He was familiar with the logo of the kathakali dancer, the slogan under his skirt that said Emperors of the Realm of Taste (his idea) and the typeface they had chosen for Paradise Pickles & Preserves.
   “Design is same. Only difference is in text, I suppose,” Comrade Pillai said.
   “And the color of the border,” Chacko said. “Mustard instead of red.” –
   Comrade Pillai pushed his spectacles up into his hair in order to read aloud the text. The –lenses immediately grew fogged with hair oil.
   “Synthetic Cooking Vinegar,” he said. “This is all in caps, I suppose.”
   “Prussian Blue,’ Chacko said.
   “Prepared from Acetic Acid?”
   “Royal blue,” Chacko said. “Like the one we did for green pepper in brine.”
   “Net Contents, Batch No., Mfg date, Expiry Date, Max Rd Pr. Ri... same Royal Blue color but c and Ic?”
   Chacko nodded.
   “We hereby certify that the vinegar in this bottle is warranted to be of the nature and quality which it purports to be. Ingredients: Water and Acetic Acid. This will be red color, I suppose.”
   Comrade Pillai used “I suppose” to disguise questions as statements. He hated asking questions unless they were personal ones. Questions signified a vulgar display of ignorance.
   By the time they finished discussing the label for the vinegar, Chacko and Comrade Pillai had each acquired personal mosquito funnels.
   They agreed on a delivery date.
   “So yesterday’s march was a success?” Chacko said, finally broaching the real reason for his visit.
   “Unless and until demands are met, comrade, we cannot say if it is Success or Non-success.”
   A pamphleteering inflection crept into Comrade Pillai’s voice. “Until then, struggle must continue.”
   “But Response was good,” Chacko prompted, trying to speak in the same idiom.
   “That is of course there,” Comrade Pillai said. “Comrades have presented Memorandum to Party High Command. Now let us see. We have only to wait and watch.”
   “We passed them on the road yesterday,” Chacko said. “The procession.”
   “On the way to Cochin, I suppose,” Comrade Pillai said. “But according to Party sources Trivandrum Response was much more better.” –
   “There were thousands of comrades in Cochin too,” Chacko said. “In fact my niece saw our young Velutha among them.”
   “Oho. I see,” Comrade Pillai was caught off guard. Velutha was a topic he had planned to broach with Chacko. Some day. Eventually. But not this straightforwardly. His mind hummed like the table fan. He wondered whether to make use of the opening that was being offered to him, or to leave it for another day. He decided to use it now.
   “Yes. He is good worker,” he said thoughtfiuly. “Highly intelligent.”
   “He is,” Chacko said. “An excellent carpenter with an engineer’s mind. If it wasn’t for-”
   “Not that worker, comrade,” Comrade Pillai said. “Party worker.” Comrade Pillai’s mother continued to rock and grunt. There was something reassuring about the rhythm of the grunts. Like the ticking of a clock. A sound you hardly noticed, but would miss if it stopped.
   “Ah, I see. So he’s a card-holder?”
   “Oh yes,” Comrade Pillai said softly “Oh yes.”
   Perspiration trickled through Cha‡ko’s hair. He felt as though a company of ants was touring his scalp. He scratched his head for a long time, with both his hands. Moving his whole scalp up and down.
   “Org kaaryam parayattey?” Comrade Pillai switched to Malayalam and a confiding, conspiratorial voice. “I’m speaking as a friend, keto. Off the record.”
   Before he continued, Comrade Pillai studied Chacko, trying to gauge his response. Chacko was examining the gray paste of sweat and dandruff lodged under his fingernails. I
   “That Paravan is going to cause trouble for you,” he said. “Take it from me… get him a job somewhere else. Send him off.”
   Chacko was puzzled at the turn the conversation had taken. He had only intended to find out what was happening, where things stood. He had expected to encounter antagonism, even confrontation, and instead was being offered s1y, misguided collusion.
   “Send him away? But why?! have no objections to him being a card-holder. I was just curious, that’s all… I thought perhaps you had been speaking to him,” Chacko said. “But I’m sure he’s just experimenting, testing his wings; he’s a sensible fellow, comrade. I trust him…”
   “Not like that,’ Comrade Pillai said. “He may be very well okay as a person. But other workers are not happy with him. Already they are coming to me with complaints. You see, comrade, from local standpoint, these caste issues are very deep-rooted.”

   Kalyani put a steel tumbler of steaming coffee on the table for her husband.
   “See her, for example. Mistress of this house. Even she will never allow Paravans and all that into her house. Never. Even I cannot persuade her. My own wife. Of course inside the house she is Boss.” He turned to her with an affectionate, naughty smile. “Allay di, Kalyani?”
   Kalyani looked down and smiled, coyly acknowledging her bigotry.
   “You see?” Comrade Pillai said triumphantly. “She understands English very well. Only doesn’t speak.”
   Chacko smiled halfheartedly.
   “You say my workers are coming to you with complaints…”
   “Oh yes, correct” Comrade Pillai said.
   “Anything specific?”
   “Nothing specifically as such,” Comrade K. N. M. Pillai said. “But see, comrade, any benefits that you give him, naturally others are resenting it. They see it as a partiality. After all, whatever job he does, carpenter or electrician or whateveritis, for them he is just a Paravan. It is a conditioning they have from birth. This I myself have told them is wrong. But frankly speaking, comrade, Change is one thing. Acceptance is another. You should be cautious. Better for him you send him off.”
   “My dear fellow,” Chacko said, “that’s impossible. He’s invaluable. He practically runs the factory—and we can’t solve the problem by sending all the Paravans away. Surely we have to learn to deal with this nonsense.”
   Comrade Pillai disliked being addressed as My Dear Fellow. It sounded to him like an insult couched in good English, which, of course, made it a double-insult—the insult itself, and the fact that Chacko thought he wouldn’t understand it. It spoiled his mood completely.
   “That may be,” he said caustically. “But Rome was not built in a day. Keep it in mind, comrade, that this is not your Oxford college. For you what is a nonsense for Masses it is something different.”
   Lenin, with his father’s thinness and his mother’s eyes, appeared at the door, out of breath. He had finished shouting the whole of Mark Antony’s speech and most of Lochinvar before he realized that he had lost his audience. He re-positioned himself between Comrade Pillai’s parted knees.
   – – flg œ-lapped his hands over his father’s head, creating mayhem in the mosquito funnel. He counted the squashed carcasses on his palms. Some of them bloated with fresh blood. He showed them to his father, who handed him over to his mother to be cleaned up.
   Once again the silence between them was appropriated by old Mrs. Pillai’s grunts. Latha arrived with Pothachen and Mathukutty
   The men were made to wait outside. The door was left ajar. When Comrade PiIlai spoke next, he spoke in Malayalam and made sure it was loud enough for his audience outside.
   “Of course the proper forum to air workers’ grievances is through the Union. And in this case, when Modalali himself is a comrade, it is a shameful matter for them not to be unionized and join the Party Struggle.”
   “I’ve thought of that,” Chacko said. “I am going to formally organize them into a union. They will elect their own representatives.”
   “But comrade, you cannot stage their revolution for them. You can only create awareness. Educate them. They must launch their own struggle. They must overcome their fears.”
   “Of whom?” Chacko smiled. “Me?”
   “No, not you, my dear comrade. Of centuries of oppression.”
   Then Comrade Pillai, in a hecronng voice, quoted Chairman Mao. In Malayalam. His expression curiously like his niece’s.
   “Revolution is not a dinner party. Revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence in which one class overthrows another.”
   And so, having bagged the contract for the Synthetic Cooking Vinegar labels, he deftly banished Chacko from the fighting rank of the Overthrowers to the treacherous ranks of the To Be Overthrown.
   They sat beside each other on steel folding chairs, on the afternoon of the Day that Sophie Mol Came, sipping coffee and crunching banana chips. Dislodging with their tongues the sodden yellow mulch that stuck to the roofs of their mouths.
   The Small Thin Man and the Big Fat Man. Comic-book adversaries in a still-to-come war.

   It turned out to be a war which, unfortunately for Comrade Pulai, would end almost before it began. Victory was gifted to him wrapped and ribboned, on a silver tray. Only then, when it was too late, and Paradise Pickles slumped softly to the floor without so much as a murmur or even the pretense of resistance, did Comrade Pillai realize that what he really needed was the process of war more than the outcome of victory. War could have been the stallion that he rode, part of, if not all, the way to the Legislative Assembly, whereas victory left him no better off than when he started out.
   He broke the eggs but burned the omelette.
   Nobody ever learned the precise nature of the role that Comrade Pillai played in the events that followed. Even Chacko—who knew that the fervent, high-pitched speeches about Rights of Untouchables (“Caste is Class, comrades”) delivered by Comrade Pillai during the Marxist Party siege of Paradise Pickles were pharisaic—never learned the whole story. Not that he cared to find out. By then, numbed by the loss of Sophie Mol, he looked out at everything with a vision smudged with grief. Like a child touched by tragedy, who grows up suddenly and abandons his playthings, Chacko dumped his toys. Pickle Baron-dreams and the People’s War joined the racks of broken airplanes in his glass-paned cupboard. After Paradise Pickles closed down, some rice fields were sold (along with their mortgages) to pay off the bank loans. More were sold to keep the family in food and clothes. By the time Chacko emigrated to Canada, the family’s only income came from the rubber estate that adjoined the Ayemenem House and the few coconut trees in the compound. This was what Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria lived off after everybody else had died, left, or been Returned.
   To be fair to Comrade Pillai, he did not plan the course of events that followed. He merely slipped his ready fingers into History’s waiting glove.
   It was not entirely his fault that he lived in a society where a man’s death could be more profitable than his life had ever been.
   Velutha’s last visit to Comrade Pillai—after his confrontation with Mammachi and Baby Kochamma—and what had passed between them, remained a secret. The last betrayal that sent Velutha across the river, swimming against the current, in the dark and rain, well in time for his blind date with history.

   Velutha caught the last bus back from Kottayam, where he was having the canning machine mended. He ran into one of the other factory workers at the bus stop, who told him with a smirk that Mammachi wanted to see him. Velutha had no idea what had happened and was completely unaware of his father’s drunken visit to the Ayemenem House. Nor did he know that Vellya Paapen had been waiting for hours at the door of their hut, still drunk, his glass eye and the edge of his ax glittering in the lamplight, waiting for Velutha to return. Nor that poor paralyzed Kuttappen, numb with apprehension, had been talking to his father continuously for two hours, trying to calm him down, all the time straining his ears for the sound of a footstep or the rustle of undergrowth so that he could shout a warning to his unsuspecting brother.
   Velutha didn’t go home. He went straight to the Ayemenem House. Though, on the one hand, he was taken by surprise, on the other he knew, had known, with an ancient instinct, that one day History’s twisted chickens would come home to roost. Through the whole of Mammachi’s outburst he remained restrained and strangely composed. It was a composure born of extreme provocation. It stemmed from a lucidity that lies beyond rage.
   When Velutha arrived, Mammachi lost her bearings and spewed her blind venom, her crass, insufferable insults, at a panel in the sliding-folding door until Baby Kochamma tactfully swiveled her around and aimed her rage in the right direction, at Velutha standing very still in the gloom. Mammachi continued her tirade, her eyes empty, her face twisted and ugly, her anger propelling her towards Velutha until she was shouting right into his face and he could feel the spray of her spit and smell the stale tea on her breath. Baby Kochamma stayed close to Mammachi. She said nothing, but used her hands to modulate Mammachi’s fury, to stoke it anew. An encouraging pat on the back. A reassuring arm around the shoulders. Mammachi was completely unaware of the manipulation.
   Just where an old lady like her—who wore crisp ironed saris and played the Nutcracker Suite on the violin in the evenings—had learned the foul language that Mammachi used that day was a mystery to everybody (Baby Kochamma, Kochu Maria, Ammu in her locked room) who heard her.
   “Out!” she had screamed, eventually. “If I find you on my property tomorrow I’ll have you castrated like the pariah dog that you are! I’ll have you killed!”
   “We’ll see about that,” Velutha said quietly.
   That was all he said. And that was what Baby Kochamma in Inspector Thomas Mathew’s office, enhanced and embroidered into threats of murder and abduction.
   Mammachi spat into Velutha’s face. Thick spit. It spattered across his skin. His mouth and eyes.
   He just stood there. Stunned. Then he turned and left.
   As he walked away from the house, he felt his Senses had been honed and heightened. As though everything around him had been flattened into a neat illustration. A machine drawing with an instruction manual that told him what to do. His mind, desperately craving some kind of mooring, clung to details. It labeled each thing it encountered.
   Gate. He thought as he walked our of the gate. Gate. Road Stones. Sky. Rain.
   Gate.
   Road.
   Stones.
   Sky.
   Rain.
   The rain on his skin was warm. The laterite rock under his feet jagged. He knew where he was going. He noticed everything. Each leaf. Each tree. Each cloud in the starless sky. Each step he took.
   Xoo-koo kookum theevandi
   Kookipaadym theevand
   Rapakal odum theevandi
   Thalannu nilkum theevandi
   That was the first lesson he had learned in school. A poem about a train.
   He began to count. Something. Anything.One two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve thirteen fourteen fifteen sixteen seventeen eighteen nineteen twenty twenty-one twenty-two twenty-three twenty-four twenty-five twenty-six twenty-seven twenty-eight twenty-nine.
   The machine drawing began to blur. The clear lines to smudge. The instructions no longer made sense. The road rose to meet him and the darkness grew dense. Glutinous. Pushing through it became an effort. Like swimming underwater.
   It’s happening, a voice informed him. It has begun.
   His mind, suddenly impossibly old, floated out of his body and hovered high above him in the air, from where it jabbered useless warnings.
   It looked down and watched a young man’s body walk through the darkness and the driving rain. More than anything else that body wanted to sleep. Sleep and wake up in another world. With the smell of her skin in the air that be breathed. Her body on his. He might never see her again. Where was she? What had they done to her? Had they hurt her?
   He kept walking. His face was neither lifted towards the rain, nor bent away from it. He neither welcomed it, nor warded it off.
   Though the rain washed Mammachi’s spit off his face, it didn’t stop the feeling that somebody had lifted off his head and vomited into his body. Lumpy vomit dribbling down his insides. Over his heart. His lungs. The slow thick drip into the pit of his stomach. All his organs awash in vomit. There was nothing that rain could do about that.
   He knew what he had to do. The instruction manual directed him. He had to get to Comrade Pillai. He no longer knew why. His feet took him to Lucky Press, which was locked, and then across the tiny yard to Comrade Pillai’s house.
   Just the effort of lifting his arm to knock exhausted him.

   Comrade Pillai had finished his avial and was squashing a ripe banana, extruding the sludge through his closed fist into his plate of curd, when Velutha knocked. He sent his wife to open the door. She returned looking sulky and, Comrade Pillai thought, suddenly sexy. He wanted to touch her breast immediately. But he had curd on his fingers and there was someone at the door. Kalyani sat on the bed and absentmindedly patted Lenin, who was asleep next to his tiny grandmother, sucking his thumb
   “Who is it?”
   “That Paapen Paravan’s son. He says it’s urgent.”
   Comrade Pillai finished his curd unhurriedly. He waggled his fingers over his plate. Kalyani brought water in a little stainless-steel container and poured it out for him. The leftover morsels of food in his plate (a dry red chili, and stiff angular brushes of sucked and spat-out drumsticks) rose and floated. She brought him a hand towel. He wiped his hands, belched his appreciation, and went to the door.
   “Enda? At this time of the night?’
   As he replied, Velutha heard his own voice beat back at him as though it had hit a wall. He tried to explain what had happened, but he could hear himself slipping into incoherence. The man he was talking to was small and far away, behind a wall of glass.
   “This is a little village,” Comrade Pillai was saying. “People talk. I listen to what they say. It’s not as though I don’t know what’s been going on.”
   Once again Velutha heard himself say something which made no difference to the man he spoke to. His own voice coiled around him like a snake.
   “Maybe,” Comrade Pillai said. “But comrade, you should know that Party was not constituted to support workers’ indiscipline in their private life.”
   Velutha watched Comrade Pillai’s body fade from the door. His disembodied, piping voice stayed on and sent out slogans. Pennants fluttering in an empty doorway.
   It is not in the Party’s interests to take up such matters.
   Individual’s interest is subordinate to the organization’s interest.
   Violating Party Discipline means violating Party Unity.
   The voice went on. Sentences disaggregated into phrases. Words.
   Progress of the Revolution.
   Annihilation of the Class Enemy.
   Comprador capitalist.
   Spring-thunder.
   And there it was again. Another religion turned against itself. Another edifice constructed by the human mind, decimated by human nature.

   Comrade Pillai shut the door and returned to his wife and dinner. He decided to eat another banana.
   “What did he want?” his wife asked, handing him one. “They’ve found out. Someone must have told them. They’ve sacked him.”
   “Is that all? He’s lucky they haven’t had him strung up from the nearest tree.’
   “I noticed something strange,” Comrade Pillai said as he peeled his banana. “The fellow had red varnish on his nails.”

   Standing outside in the rain, in the cold, wet light from the single streetlight, Velutha was suddenly overcome by sleep. He had to force his eyelids to stay open.
   Tomorrow, he told himself. Tomorrow when the rain stops. His feet walked him to the river. As though they were the leash and he was the dog.
   History walking the dog.
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Chapter 15.
The Crossing

   It was past midnight. The river had risen, its water quick and black, snaking towards the sea, carrying with it cloudy night skies, a whole palm frond, part of a thatched fence, and other gifts the wind had given it.
   In a while the rain slowed to a drizzle and then stopped. The breeze shook water from the trees and for a while it rained only under trees, where shelter had once been.
   A weak, watery moon filtered through the clouds and revealed a young man sitting on the topmost of thirteen stone steps that led into the water. He was very still, very wet. Very young. In a while he stood up, took off the white mundu he was wearing, squeezed the water from it and twisted it around his head like a turban. Naked now, he walked down the thirteen stone steps into the water and further, until the river was chest high. Then he began to swim with easy, powerful strokes, striking out towards where the current was swift and certain, where the Really Deep began. The moonlit river fell from his swimming arms like sleeves of silver. It took him only a few minutes to make the crossing. When he reached the other side he emerged gleaming and pulled himself ashore, black as the night that surrounded him, black as the water he had crossed.
   He stepped onto the path that led through the swamp to the History House.
   He left no ripples in the water.
   No footprints on the shore.
   He held his mundu spread above his head to dry. The wind lifted it like a sail. He was suddenly happy. Things will get worse, he thought to himself. Then better. He was walking swiftly now towards the Heart of Darkness. As lonely as a wolf.
   The God of Loss.
   The God of Small Things.
   Naked but for his nail varnish.
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