Muthannan did not have the heart to leave his village. However, an infuriated Peruma had moved into her parents’ house with the children and had declared that she would come back to him only if they relocated to another village. With no other option left, the man readied his cart and set out accompanied by Kuppan, his father-in-law’s farmhand. Every person he knew recommended a different village. His father-in-law suggested Maatoor; he knew of it from their weekly market on Saturdays. He talked to him about the largely agricultural villages around there and said, “Our people form the majority in these places. They will be of help when in need, maaple. One is respected only when one is among his own, bear that in mind.”.

Although Muthu nodded in agreement, he did not want to move there. Neither did Peruma; she wanted to live at a safe distance away from all their relatives. When they reached Karattur, he found himself unclear on which road to take. It was true that he used to drive there every day to deliver loads on hire. But back then, he was never uncertain of his destination. The hirers decided which depot he needed to pick up the load from and gave him a chit with the name of the village on it. For a man with a plan, there is but one path. For one with none, limitless options open up. A myriad roads appeared in front of him. Curving in and out, they each seemed to flutter their lashes to lure him into an embrace. Muthu stopped at the base of a hill with a temple on the top and prayed with all his heart. All I ask for is the ability to decide which path to take. After that, his mind was cleared of any doubts. He decided to take the road that ran along the foothills. If I embraced the feet of God, isn’t he bound to show the way?

Kuppan was an older man with barely any exposure to the outside world. Still, Muthu would have found it difficult to manage without Kuppan. He referred to him as Kuppannan, something he learned from the depot owner during the few days that he worked there. No matter who it was or how old they were, the owner always referred to them as annan, or elder brother, and never used the derogatory da. Most considered the labourers unimportant, but not the owner. “Refer to them as annan, Muthu, and you can get any work done.” That habit had stayed with Muthu as well.

“Saami, please call me da. I feel strange when you refer to me as annan, please,” Kuppan had protested, initially. But Muthu wasn’t going to listen to him. ‘You are older than me, aren’t you, Kuppanna?” Kuppan found it odd at first; eventually, he not only got used to it, but the affectionate honorific made him happy too. Once they left their village, everything was new to Kuppan. Muthu, on the other hand, was familiar with the neighbouring villages from his days of chartered deliveries.

The road along the foothill ran due east, passing by the larger towns of Mandoor and Kuratoor. Past the Kuratoor mitaadhar’s house that now appeared sullen. This house, or “the palace”, as people referred to it, was once bustling with men, machines, horses and ox-drawn carts. Every Tamil month of Maasi, during Karattur’s chariot festival, food was served around the clock in the long, open corridors along the exterior of the house. The stoves were not turned off for nearly a fortnight. People arrived in throngs day and night, and ate to their fill. Muthu had come here once or twice when he was a little boy, with his eldest brother. The mere sight of the dazzling bright grains of paddy rice that sparkled like dew drops, served in little heaps on leaves, was alluring. Crowds gathered just to eat that rice to their heart’s content. At times, they had to wait in line between rope barricades before they could be seated to eat. At the back of the house, in a pandal that covered almost half an acre, they served food to the needy.

Needless to say, that got crowded too. The people who came to eat there usually went on their own to the section they belonged to. However, once, the time that Muthu visited, someone who should have gone to the backyard pandal decided to sit in the front instead. Just as he settled down and began to sprinkle water on his leaf to clean it, someone identified him and called him out. “Dei, aren’t you Meenur Vatthan’s grandson?” A face still too young to shave looked up and blinked vacantly.

The person supervising the food distribution came rushing over, scolded him and directed him to the pandal at the back of the house. Hearing someone mention that the rice served in the front corridors was finer than the rice served in the backyard pandal, this lad had craved to taste the difference. The incident died down after only a small rumble because the supervisor said, “Don’t raise a hue and cry over it. There will always be a case or two like this. Make this any bigger and the mitaadhar may stop serving food altogether. Look around and see for yourself how many that have never eaten paddy rice ever before are eating their fill here.”

On the days the great temple chariot was pulled through the streets of Karattur, the road to Kuratoor would be jampacked with vehicles. People from other villages who set out to see the chariot would also plan to stop for at least one meal at the Karattur mitaadhar’s palace. Food was served generously on areca leaves. Only rice and saaru were served. As the leaves became empty, they served more. But food could not be taken away. The sight of sated folks lying stretched out in the shade of the tamarind trees lining the road was still fresh in Muthu’s mind. The palace was completely empty right now. All the relatives of the mitaadhar had moved to big cities in the north. No one went to the palace because they believed it was haunted. The palace was taken over by bats. As soon as they crossed Karattur, the road forked into two. The road to the right went to Nangoor, the other to Rattoor.

Muthu paused at that spot, unsure of which way to go. He then loosened the harness a little – he would go where the oxen went. The oxen took the road to Rattoor without any hesitation. And he accepted that. If we take this road, we will go to Raattoor and reach the foothills of Selli hills. If we go west, we will join the road to Saethoor. Muthu had been on this road only once or twice before, that too at night. So what, I can always ask around for directions. Dense tamarind trees lined the way. So dense that their branches touched each other across the path, like hands joined together. “Saami, why are they all trees that ghosts reside on?” said Kuppan. Muthu laughed. “Are ghosts bigger than man, Kuppanna?”

Excerpted with permission from Fire Bird, Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Janani Kannan, Penguin India.