Gilbert Thaata came to our thinnai on King’s Day, 14 July. No one could remember why the town celebrated the fall of the Bastille in this way, using the name of a long-forgotten festival. But, in spite of the anachronism, Pondicherry loved a holiday. It gave in to the joy of the crowd with a flag-waving earnestness. Everything that happened that day, each singular event, is carved into my memory as if with chisel and hammer.
Early that morning, Lourdes, our Creole servant, had lost her virginity under the ancient naga tree. Leaning against the tiny shrine at its foot, she had just given in to the persistence of Three-Balls Six-Faces, who had long been dreaming of this moment. My uncle caught him while he was still under Lourdes’s upturned skirt.
The guilty party scrambled up the tall branches. He leapt from one to another like a macaque, not knowing how he’d come down. My uncle tried to knock him off with a stick, insulting him with every epithet imaginable and inviting the members of his caste to go fornicate with primates.
In the house, my father had taken off his belt to punish Selvanadin’s father, who cooked for us. He had just ruined my favourite dish, rabbit civet. Actually, he hadn’t ruined it. He had simply taken the money that my father had given him to buy the meat and gone drinking; he had killed the neighbour’s cat and passed it off as rabbit. After striking him, my father tied him to the foot of a coconut tree and let him roast in the sun.
Across the street, our neighbour Marie-Madeleine was giving birth to the child she had been carrying for thirteen months. Rumour was that it refused to leave her body. Some spoke of a curse; others blamed the solar eclipse. There was a local superstition that during a solar eclipse, pregnant women should avoid any sort of physical exertion. If by some misfortune a mother-to-be neglected to take these precautions, the child would be born with the tell-tale marks of whatever she had been doing.
The whole neighbourhood gathered in front of Marie-Madeleine’s house to watch the miraculous birth. As a stained cloth was brought out into the street, the crowd screamed. The child had been born with a head as big as a watermelon. Not only was it abnormally sized, but there were fingermarks on its soft surface.
After a second of stupefied horror, Marie- Madeleine’s mother-in-law, bending over the filthy cloth, beat her chest and face as she shouted, “Ayio, Tevudiya mundai! I told you,I told you not to do anything during the eclipse of the sun! Did you listen when I told you not to touch the kozhukattais? No! You just had to make those goddamned kozhukattais for your grandmother – the toothless slut can’t even eat them! Now look what’s happened. Not only did you give birth three months late, but the child has a head shaped like a kozhukattai. How will I explain this to my son?” And so Emile Kozhukattai-Head was born.
While the young mother fainted at the sight of her child, a fight was breaking out at the end of the street. Bhuminadin’s father, Pascal Pig-Tail, was chasing Edouard the Cripple with a bloody knife.Trying to escape his assailant, Edouard tripped over the inert body of Joseph One-and-a-Half-Eyes, who, drunk as usual, had collapsed in the middle of the street.
Pascal Pig-Tail grabbed Edouard’s withered leg, dragging it and its owner towards his hut. Edouard tried to cling to Joseph as Pascal brandished his knife and shouted, ‘Tevudiya maganai, give me the money for the boudins! If you didn’t sell them, at least give me what’s left; if not, I’ll butcher you like a pig!’ Bhuminadin came to his father’s aid. Father and son began to drag the cripple and the drunk together towards their hut.
Besides his work as a road-mender, Pascal Pig-Tail made boudins and sold them on festival days.When he had a big order to fill, Edouard the Cripple would work for him. But the two men hated each other. Pascal accused his employee of stealing money; Edouard complained that his employer was dishonest. Welded together by a demon of fate, neither could do without the other. In spite of his wife’s protests, Bhuminadin’s father couldn’t prevent himself from calling on Edouard the Cripple whenever he was overwhelmed with work.
Things always came to the same end. Pascal would pursue Edouard through the streets of Kurusukuppam with his knife and a storm of curses; Edouard would try to escape, but after a few metres he’d be caught, betrayed by his feeble leg. It would conclude with a doubles match: the two fighters joined by their wives, who, after trying to tear apart their husbands, always began tearing out each other’s hair. It was as if the two men had tacitly arranged the whole thing.
At first, neighbours had tried to intervene, separating them and trying to reason with them, but it was of no use. The two men would avoid each other like the plague, until their reconciliation at the next festival.
As soon as Edouard the Cripple smelled boudins, he shuffled like a zombie to Pascal Pig-Tail’s house. He waited by the door, shuffling from side to side. Pascal sensed his presence, but kept haughtily silent. From time to time, he would sneak a glance at the door and order his wife, “Tell that crippled bastard to screw off before I break his other leg. I don’t work with thieves!”
Edouard scratched his head; he wouldn’t respond directly, but gave his answer to Bhuminadin’s mother, “Akka, please! Tell him to give me one last chance. I swear on my son’s head that this time I’ll come back with the money. Every time I finish I go past that damn liquor shop, the devil tempts me and I drink up the money. I swear by Saint Francis of Assisi, it’s the devil who makes me drink.”
As he said it, he’d cross himself and turn a pitiful face to Pascal Pig-Tail. And so the routine began again. A few minutes later, Edouard would be heading off with a basket full of boudins; he would come back drunk, wobbling and ready for a beating.
Alerted by the shouts from the crowd gathered around Marie-Madeleine and by the moaning of Edouard the Cripple, my uncle dropped his stick to see what was going on.Three- Balls Six-Faces grabbed the chance to escape. Instead of climbing down the tree and running away, he had concocted a different strategy.
The naga tree was enormous, with ancient branches stretching from the edge of our house and spreading over the neighbours’ roofs. With his typical cleverness, Three- Balls Six-Faces imagined that he could make his way to the end of the branch on which he was perched, then slide onto the roof of his own house. Fate had other plans – the branch collapsed under his weight. Three-Balls Six-Faces dropped on our neighbour’s palm-leaf roof, broke through it and flopped onto two naked, sweaty bodies.
“Ayio, ayio, peyi, pisasu!” As soon as she saw a dark mass falling from the sky, the woman began to scream. The man didn’t bother trying to make sense of the situation; he took off running, naked as a worm. The terrified woman sheltered herself in a corner of the hut, pulling her sari from the floor to conceal her nakedness. As soon as Three-Balls Six-Faces was back on his feet, however unsteadily, he realised that he had landed in the house of the Killer Widow, whom he had been eyeing for some time. Taking advantage of her surprised and semi-clothed condition, he threw himself at her.
The Killer Widow realised that it was neither a ghost nor a devil who had come through her roof. She recovered her senses and readjusted her sari. Guessing what Three-Balls Six-Faces was thinking, she pushed him off; then taking a cauldron of boiling fish sauce, she poured it over his head and turned him out with a huge kick in the rear.
“Ayio, ayio, help! My head is burning!” Three-Balls Six-Faces shouted at the doorway of her hut. Then, picking himself up, he ran to the public fountain. His dirty, tousled head looked like that of Medusa, although instead of snakes there hung fish, cilantro and karuvaipilai.
Excerpted with permission from The Thinnai, Ari Gautier, translated from the French by Blake Smith, Hachette India.
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