Ganesan had noticed that often a wealthy man stood outside his large bungalow at the corner of Annavasal Street, staring at him as he walked past. Sometimes, their eyes would meet.
Ganesan often wondered why the man looked at him so fervently. At times, he observed that the man seemed restless, almost ready to dash across and envelop him in a tight embrace. Ganesan couldn’t understand why. He asked his fellow students about the man and they, too, didn’t seem to know much. They only knew that he was very wealthy. Ganesan decided to ask a student from West Street, off River Haridra, who seemed to be better informed.
“He is Singam Rauth, a rich and prominent man, and a temple trustee. He is also a member of the committee that contributes to your chatram. Singam Rauth was the first man in Thanjavur district to buy a motor car,” the boy informed Ganesan.
“We had an Ibrahim Rowther in Kodavasal, from a well-known Muslim family, who ran a big garment shop,” said Ganesan.
“That’s Rowther. He is Singam Rauth. I am told they follow Brahminical traditions. He never stays here for long though; he is forever travelling.”
One Sunday, Ganesan found himself walking down the same street. He stopped outside Singam Rauth’s house. Ganesan wondered if this man, who was one of the richest in the area, with the first motor car to his credit, would be a gentleman.
There was no one near the gates. It was about three in the afternoon. Ganesan stood staring at the house front. Suddenly, he sensed some movement and saw that a person had stepped out.
It was Singam Rauth. He hurriedly walked up to Ganesan, nearly stumbling. “Please come in, my dear, my lovely. Please do come in,” he stuttered, sounding excited.
He clutched Ganesan’s hand and drew him into his arms before taking him inside. He was fair and thickset. Ganesan towered over him. Gold rings glinted on his fingers, diamond studs twinkled on his earlobes and a heavy gold chain with a tiger’s claw pendant hung around his neck. He wore a silk veshti and his torso was bare without a towel or vest. He had a broad chest and a small belly, and while he was not short, his girth made him look so. His lips were wide and narrow, his eyes were droopy and his face was small compared to his body.
Ganesan saw that there were many people of all ages inside the house. An elderly woman wearing gold-rimmed spectacles rested on a large wooden chair. Her eyes were half-closed, and her hands were on the armrests. Singam called out to her, “Amma, Amma!”
The woman woke up and sat up straight. “Yes, Singam, who’s this boy?” she said and held her hands out for Ganesan.
Singam Rauth brought Ganesan forward, so that she could reach him. The old woman looked at Ganesan as though she would swallow him with her eyes, which looked huge behind her heavy spectacles.
Ganesan stood unnerved when she rolled her eyes. “Come, my dear, you look exactly like my grandson,” she said and caressed Ganesan’s hands and folded him into her arms. “Singam, whatever happens, don’t let this boy leave our home. This is divine intervention, and I think our Sengamalam has sent him to us. I’m not talking about your sister, but goddess Sengamalam. Before I close my eyes in eternal sleep, we have found a way to take care of all this property. But be careful,” she said.
“Everything will happen according to your wishes, Amma,” Singam said.
“Take him in and serve him snacks and coffee. Oh, Singam, I don’t think I will last long. Do send a man to the astrologer on Thatta Pillai Street and summon him here.”
“I’ll send someone right away,” Singam said and ushered Ganesan through a maze of rooms. He ordered a manservant, “Bring snacks and coffee to my room upstairs.” His hold on Ganesan’s waist tightened as they climbed the stairs to a room on the first floor. A twenty-something, gangly and sallow-complexioned fellow lay reading on the bed. He got up and looked at both of them.
“Ramu, go home now and meet me after four or five days,” Singam said curtly. The young man hesitated. “Oh, what is it now? Why are you still standing here? Do you want...?”
Ramu didn’t answer. Singam impatiently pressed some money into his hands and almost shoved him outside.
The room was comfortably furnished with a bed that had a thick and inviting mattress and fat pillows. A fan whirred above and a small table and a couple of chairs were placed nearby. After Ramu left, Singam gently pushed Ganesan into a chair and sat beside him, dragging a small teapoy between them. The manservant walked in carrying a silver tray with halwa, kara boondi, thayir vadai and a silver kooja pot with coffee.
“Bring some water from the pot and leave,” Singam ordered. After the man left, Singam bolted the door and sat next to Ganesan, asking him to eat.
Ganesan sat stunned. His eyes and ears were seeing and listening keenly to what was happening around him. He caught a whiff of scent in the room and took a deep breath. When Singam touched him, he felt unspeakable shyness and shockwaves rock his body.
“What’s your name?” asked Singam.
“Ganesan. I want to go out. It’s been a long time since I came in. They will be waiting for me at the chatram. I was simply standing and looking. This feels different. I request you to please let me leave.”
“There is nothing to fear. My mother and I and everyone here want to shower you with affection. There is nothing different about this. You seem to be seated awkwardly. Relax and eat first,” Singam said, looking ravenously at Ganesan.
Thoughts whirred in Ganesan’s head. He seems to talk like a Brahmin, but he’s not wearing a poonal. The snacks on the plate look and smell tempting. What’s the worst that could happen? he thought, tucking in. The food was delicious and the coffee was excellent.
“Ganesan, my mother is an old woman. I had an elder sister, Sengamalam, and she was married to our uncle. Her in-laws were wealthy and belonged to a big village near Shiyali. They had a son who was good-looking and well educated. He died suddenly. Within four or five months, my sister and her husband died, too. My mother went into shock. She now calls any young lad she sees her grandson.”
Singam continued as Ganesan listened intently, “I have been observing you since the day you came here. I am often fascinated by young, good-looking boys and desire to keep them at home with me. I have to say you do resemble my nephew. I am not lying. In fact, I told my mother about this the other day. Since then, she has been pestering me to bring you over. I was hesitant to approach you. Of course, I am a member of the committee that runs the chatram, and I have been asked to join your school committee. I am also a trustee with the big temple and many other temples, villages and more. Most importantly, my uncle’s entire estate has passed on to me, and I have to make arrangements to turn it into a trust and run it. Didn’t my mother say not to let you go, that it’s divine intervention that you have been sent to fulfil her desire to take on the responsibilities of the trust? She desires to bestow a portion of the property on you and have you married and settle down in the Shiyali mansion. I wholeheartedly agree. That’s why I would prefer that you live here with us. This house follows your customs. I call myself ‘three-fourths Brahmin’, and my friends are mostly Brahmins. Let’s leave for the chatram now and bring back your things. Tomorrow, I will pay a visit to your headmaster and explain the matter to him,” Singam spoke in an emotional tone. He sounded very convincing.
Ganesan was confused. He steadied himself and calmed down after taking in the surroundings and the food. Singam’s explanation had reassured him.
“Don’t worry about anything. I will visit your school tomorrow and meet the headmaster. Now, let’s bring your belongings from the chatram,” Singam said.
Ganesan was tempted. It had been over two and a half months since he had joined the school, and he had begun to dislike it. Studying in sixth standard with classmates who were not his peers in age or physical development was difficult. If he dropped out of school, he wouldn’t find food and boarding in the chatram.
He knew he could not return to Thoppur. The villagers would heckle him. He had spent days thinking about the fix he was in. He had been unable to focus and take his first-term school exams. Though Vadhiyar had visited Ganesan a month ago, he was not around to motivate him when he sat down to study. Ganesan knew that Vadhiyar did not have enough time or money to visit Mannargudi regularly.
When Ganesan got off the car with Singam, the folks at the chatram went into a tizzy. The manager fussed over Singam and dragged in a chair. The boys looked at Ganesan with awe and surprise.
“Manager, my mother is adamant that we keep Ganesan in our home. She’s an old woman and would be heartbroken if he is not with us. She’s been saying repeatedly that she’s not going to live for long. I have also decided to play along. Please load the boy’s belongings in the car,” Singam said.
The manager hesitated a little but then got Ganesan’s stuff put into the car.
Singam went through the clothes in Ganesan’s trunk when they reached home. He took out a couple of garments, stuffed the rest back into the old trunk and asked his manservant to put it away. Ganesan never saw the trunk and bedroll again. The very next day, he got expensive shirts and veshtis to wear.
Singam’s bed, covered in velvet sheets and pillows, became Ganesan’s, too. That week, Ganesan didn’t go to school at all. Singam, however, met the headmaster.
Excerpted with permission from Hungry Humans, Karichan Kunju, translated from the Tamil by Sudha G Tilak, Penguin Viking.