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It was the beginning of Monsoon. Moisture collected at the tip of my elbow and trickled down steadily against the urgency of the situation. I felt sticky although my throat was parched. Heat radiated out of the top of my head only to be trapped by my thick coconut-husk hair. My polyester saree felt like a tarpaulin sheet and I wanted to get out of it and sit just with my blouse and inner skirt as I often did during summers when Thayamma was home. But the village elders and relatives were there and I had to find a picture of Thayamma.

I found an old framed picture in her dowry trunk case and cleaned the glass with a soft towel. The steel frame had rusted and turned into a reddish-brown goo that stuck to my fingertips. I rolled up pellets of rust and flicked them away with my fingers until the steel frame looked cleaner. Black and white faces emerged from under the layer of dust. There was my bare-chested grandfather Karuppaswamy sporting a dhoti and a green nylon belt, my father Gopalakrishnan with an aranjanakayaru around his hip, and their dog Poochi. That picture was my last hope. I had scanned for my grandmother Thayamma’s face in every other picture at home.

Thayamma had passed away the previous night in her sleep. The elders had asked me to find a picture for Thayamma’s pada thirappu, the memorial ceremony where after a series of rites, the picture of Thayamma was to be unveiled and consecrated. Our community believed in certain things: that we needed to please the dead as much as we pleased the living because the dead also lived amongst us, but sometimes we needed to please the dead more because they had magical powers which the living did not possess. Because if the dead weren’t happy with us, they could make our lives miserable. They lived among us in objects and spaces between them. So, a pada thirappu was, in a way, a housewarming ceremony for the new homes of the dead. I had to find a new home for Thayamma. But, I did not believe in any of it. I did not see any use for the ceremonies and rituals either especially when one could not afford it. Since I had no support from the elders, I had to reluctantly ask everyone if they had a picture of Thayamma. I had to find a picture before the ceremony in two weeks.


For most of the next two weeks, days began with morning opparis and ended with evening opparis. The men were on the floor outside the house, playing cards and occasionally downing quarters of alcohol. Women sat on the floor, huddled together, unaware that their sarees had slipped off, their thick jute-like hair let down like a curtain of a theatre, taking turns leading the cry.

When a husband died, the wife was the chief mourner who led the oppari party, who beat her chest and wailed, whose bangles were smashed, who was made to wear a white saree and shave her head. If it was a young boy or a girl or a woman, it was the mother. But Thayamma had no mother, no daughter, no distant woman blood who could sing songs of her life. I was the only one left, the granddaughter: the chief mourner. And I did not know how to mourn. Papaathi who led the oppari party in my stead told me that she consciously recollected her favourite memories of Thayamma. Kala nodded her head in agreement and told me—while choking on phlegm—that she would from that day onward use rice flour for her kolams, to feed the pillayar ants, like how Thayamma used to do. And then there was Mookayi, the milkmaid, who spoke of Thayyama's love for manathakkali keerai rasam.

The elders called for one ritual after the other the way they would order idli after pongal after puri at the Ganapathi mess—insatiate, loud, shouting over each other and expecting someone else to pay the bills. But I could tell that they respected me. I had a job. They asked my permission before making important decisions. It was easy for the widows and lone women to be run over by the elders, in these situations.

I emptied my savings and pawned the jewellery I had been saving up for my marriage to pay for the rituals. It was everything I saved from working at Ramaiah and Sons rice mills for fifteen years as a bookkeeper. Attendance turned out to be easily three hundred heads per feast. So many mouths howled during the rituals and devoured the feasts right after. During the interludes, some of those mouths provided me with valuable advice—it is dangerous to be alone as a woman. Thayamma’s death was too expensive to afford. I would have preferred to keep her alive. I was so completely swallowed up by the numerous rituals and faces that I did not find a picture of Thayamma. I had only three more days for the pada thirappu. Papaathi told me about the abandoned storage at the temple. I had to go there soon. But when I saw little children dance to the parai drums, I also remembered another picture that meant the world to Thayamma.


Between greeting people who came to offer condolences, listening to their stories about Thayamma, and serving coffee, jalebis, and idlis with sambhars, I found the time and went behind the house. The ground was littered with dead coconut flowers, gravel, and grass. It took me a while to find the right spot. It was between the two masculine roots of the peepal tree that had popped out of the ground like veins on the shoulders of the workers at the rice mill. I tied up my skirt and started digging into the ground with my bare fingers. The hum of Thayamma’s lullaby weighed me down and I had to push the earth away to stop myself from falling into it.     

Ro ro ro ro rokkanakottachi     

Amma vara neramaachi     

Thoongu pappaathi

Thayamma never missed to stress on the first syllable of the last line. She would draw in a deep breath to prepare for it, dramatizing her effort for suspense. She drew out the syllable and it rang forever in my ears. Thooooongu pappaaathi. Words appeared out of her mouth like butterflies that were set free into the wild. I levitated above the ground feeling Thayamma’s cotton saree embrace my skin and her warm breath cradling my thoughts to sleep.

After a quarrel with my mother, my father went to buy beedis and never returned. I was about four then. Mother died, two years later, worried sick about him. There was only Thayamma. Nothing in the world could threaten her. Even the bare-chested, thick-moustached, and broad-shouldered patriarchs of the village could not make her insecure. But they never missed a chance to mock her—Your skin is black and thick like a buffalo’s. She greeted everyone with a constant disapproving stare. Disapproving the most ordinary things that people did—wearing a saree incorrectly, not bending sufficiently enough to sweep the floors, speaking a bit too much than was necessary.

The only thing that she cared about was her son Kichan, who died of rabies when he was six. There was a photograph of Kichan that she had kept. It was captured and later developed in Singapore by our distant relatives who sailed off to lands beyond the great seas in search of a better life. In the picture, Kichan wore khaki shorts and stood on top of a bullock cart. Excitedly looking to his side at something. I had often guessed at Kichan’s object of excitement—a dragonfly tied to a thread trying to escape, or his friends mock-talking through a telephone receiver made of empty matchboxes, or a garden lizard whose mouth stuffed with chewing tobacco teetering on the roadside? It took two years after he died for the processed image to reach Thayamma's hands because they did not travel across oceans often back then. When Thayamma received it, Papaathi watched her shake in fright as if she had seen a ghost. A year passed before Thayamma embraced it and kept it under her saree next to her bosom. And years later, it found its place on the wooden stand alongside pictures of Ganesha, Murugan, Shiva, and Mariamma. 

I was conditioned not to show anger, disagreement, or displeasure in front of her. Whenever I tied up my inner skirt in the same way the men at the mill tied up their lungis, and when I knitted my eyebrows because of something she said, she smacked me in my face with the same hand that could snap a chicken’s neck, with the very hands that could also gracefully lay out the beautiful kolams in front of our house. When I insisted on going to school, she thought I would elope with men of other castes. She did little to support me in finding a job and I grew tired of being the rebel—being the unsatisfied woman at home. To her, my place was there. With her. And at that age, it was my turn to take care of her since she spent the last thirty years caring for me. And I did just that. But when I got the job as a bookkeeper at the rice mill and spent most of my time outside the home, she gradually descended into silence.

When Konaiyyan, who cleaned cobwebs for a living, saw me laughing with Muni at the bus stand, Thayamma overheated the ladle and burnt her feverish hatred onto my foot to teach me a lesson. A scar to remind me to not fraternize with men of other castes. She had gotten away with such outbursts for most of her life. But this time, I refused to take it quietly. So, when she went out to buy her weekly stock of beedis, I stole the picture of Kichan and buried it in the backyard where she could never think to look.

She lost her son for the second time. Stumbling into her days and nights, she hugged the pillars and caressed the floors and walls to find the photo of Kichan. Slowly, the strength and cruelty faded away from her body and the weak arms and wrinkled skin became prominent. I wanted to forgive her. I wanted to apologize and give back the picture to her.

But after a few weeks, I found her making kanji with a bit of regained strength. Her head was shaved. The disapproval on her face had returned. She gave me an evaluative look and ordered me to clean the house. Then we resumed our lives without thinking about Kichan. But sometimes at night, when I tallied the accounts of the mill under the kerosene light and heard Thaymma’s muffled cries, I wondered if she was thinking about Kichan.

When I found the picture deeply buried in the ground, its edges were soft. The spirit of the alluvial soil seeped into the picture, rendering everything red. Etched on it was the form of a boy whose face was forgotten—and my lament drowned out the lullaby.


The temple priest was informed in advance by the elders. He pointed me in the right direction.

I dug my hands into the dusty cobwebs among wooden planks on top of the granary. It was a bulky black-bellied elephant that could store up to a hundred sacks of rice every harvest. The one I stood on top of was only used to store broken things. Termites had eaten away parts of it. It stood next to encircled navagraha idols under a thatched roof at the back of the temple. During the day, the juxtaposed objects did not look very different. Lifeless and their imperfections were clear. The greasy bodies of the idols were covered with tattered pieces of cloth with embellishments that had lost their shine. The granary was half-eaten by termites, covered in cobwebs and limped on a worn-out foot. When the night arrived, the image was contrasting. The idols were well-lit divinity and the black granary was swallowed in darkness.

When I found a wooden plank that looked like a painting, I took it down and went near the idols where there was light. Beetroot-coloured forms woke up against a grey background after I cleaned the cobwebs and dust. The beings in the painting seemed weak and caricaturesque. Great-grandfather was on a throne, his hands clasped together, as though greeting the onlooker. My grandparents stood behind him—grandfather with well-combed hair and khaki shorts, and Thayamma looked young as a morning mist. She could not have been more than twelve. Her arms and legs were emaciated and her innocence was hidden under the formality of a cotton saree. She seemed too young and frightened as if she was born at that very moment.

Until then, I had a different image of Thayamma in my mind: Thayamma who wore off-white cotton sarees and never any blouses, with big eyeglasses with hemispherical lenses at the bottom and a head full of grey. The glass’s frame was stained by the white ash she applied on her forehead for years, and which she never bothered to clean. Her earlobes drooped to her shoulders from the weight of her clunky earrings which she never took off. She was silent mostly and stubborn at other times and was strong and wise as a peepal tree. She was a mixture of everyday sights and sounds—the smell of kanji, the mustiness of the walls, the contours of kolam, the march of Ganesha ants and the tiny teardrops I shed when she used to hit me. Quite a bit different from the Thayamma in the painting from the temple. The Thayamma I did not know. At that moment, I decided to use the painting for the ceremony.


Strong west winds brought the news of a seasonal change on the day Thayamma passed away. The pitiless heat was replaced by the gloomy sky and a chilly breeze. Monsoon was about to arrive. For most of us, it was a welcome change. During summers, our home kept most of the heat outside.

I saw the tumbler of kanji I had left the previous night for her untouched, its rim smeared with dried kanji with jagged edges. A swarm of Ganesha ants emerged as if from under the tumbler, carrying little fragments of the food. Another bunch of them, the unlucky ones, had drowned in the contents. Apart from serving as a reminder of Thyamma’s stubbornness, the tumbler was also where death and sustenance found their place together. Usually, when we fought, on the first day, she would reward me with silence. The next day, she would make some kanji on her own, not without any struggle. A day more, she would not have the strength or the patience to cook and furtively moved towards me, and would ask me when I would be serving. But this time, she had not come out to eat. I picked up the tumbler and threw the rest of the contents outside quickly—with utter disregard for the dead and the living ants.When I played with pillayar ants as a child, she often watched me. When the traffic of ants thinned down, I had the habit of dashing with my fingertip— perpendicular to their path, as if to barricade them—and watch them run chaotically in every direction. I would briefly enjoy the moment before they returned to their routine. I often wondered how they got back to their march-past without any trouble. Thayamma once told me that they had a scent of belonging and knew the scent of every colony member. Then she proudly lifted a bunch of ants and said they would never hurt us and unleashed them on me. I collapsed on the floor kicking and screaming with laughter.

She lived a full life—raised two children and saw their marriages, births, and deaths. She saw her husband raise the family out of poverty, as well as his descent into gambling addiction and death from alcoholism. In her village, she witnessed the independence movement, and the coming of railroads, postal services, police stations, and party offices. But she only talked about her six-year-old son, who had not experienced much of the world. When I needed company, I would try unsuccessfully to elicit stories from her. She, though, solely spoke about Kichan’s hunger for the five paisa honey sweets and the first time he monkey-pedalled his bicycle.

When the village elders arrived, I was sitting on the floor at the other end of the house, across her bed. Each of them inspected Thaymma’s condition and came to the same conclusion. One of them looked at me with pity and said that I had suffered enough.

Arrangements were made for the cremation. After informing everyone in the village about the death, the cremator returned home with a braided pair of coconut leaves. Outside the home, a group of parai drummers sat around a small fire, warming their drums. Several rituals were performed. Thayamma was cleaned with sesame oil and shikakai and clothed in a new saree. Once I gave her my final goodbye at the end of the street, the men carried her to the cremation ground. The elders then gave me the instructions to find a picture of her.


When I placed the painting I found at the temple for the pada thirappu, people first asked me if there was a better picture in which she was alone and older. The one in which she looked like the Thaymma they knew. When I replied that there was none, they came close to the painting and pointed fingers at Thayamma, while giggling and sharing stories in each other's ears. Even the men came up asking questions about Thayamma: Which village is she from? Where did all that soft skin go? When did she become this backbreaker? I went closer to inspect the picture and saw that she did have a shiny soft skin. Maybe she paid the painter to paint her that way, I turned around and addressed no one in particular, with a shy smile quivering on my lips. The men chortled. True, true, she would have, someone in the crowd said.

After I said my final goodbyes to Thaymma who was taken to the cremation ground by the men of our village, I joined a bunch of shirtless kids who were playing with pillayar ants outside the house and sang, Ro ro ro ro rokkanakottachi, Amma vara neramaachi, Thoooongu pappaathi. They bobbed their heads and asked me to sing again and again.

After the ceremony, the cotton saree, Kichan’s picture, and burnt bones of Thayamma drifted in the Cauvery, along with other soiled clothes.

Bharath Kumar is a fiction writer and translator from Tamil Nadu. He has an engineering degree from NIT, Trichy, and an MA in Philosophy from MAHE, Manipal. He is also a Young India Fellow from Ashoka University. He has worked with the Oxford University Press as a translator in their English-Tamil bilingual dictionary project. His translations have appeared in the Usawa Literary Review and the book project I, Salma. His translation of S Ramakrishnan’s Tamil short story was longlisted for the inaugural Mozhi Prize. As a South Asia Fellow, he is currently working on his debut collection of short stories.

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