Comrade PM was nowhere in sight when I awoke. The rays of the sun fell sharply on my face, as if mocking me for sleeping late. The thatched roof reminded me of where I was. What would Comrade PM have thought of me? That I was a lazy and irresponsible fellow? On some future occasion he would probably level this opinion at me as a criticism. I hadn’t slept well the previous night; the place was new to me. It was only near dawn that I fell asleep and slept like a log. But what would people here think if I slept in at a strange place?
This was where the workers lived. Comrade PM had already warned me, too, that this was peanut harvesting season. People went off to the fields before dawn while it was still dark. Nobody would have noticed that I have slept so long, I told myself. Where might this Comrade PM have gone? He could have told me, or taken me along. Why had he abandoned me at this new place? I happened to be lying in a thatched shed with no doors. Opposite was a small thatched hut that had walls for the sake of it. I stood at the entrance between the shed and the hut, stretched my hands, yawned and looked around. There was not one human around. All I could hear were thin, unintelligible voices from afar. A single crow cawed from somewhere. I didn’t know what to do. The buffalo calf tied to a neem tree raised its head and looked at me. Its eyes were filled with fear. It trotted about the tree, bleating. What kind of comradeship is it to abandon a person new to some place?
Comrade PM had brought me to an area with no electricity no less. I had no idea what this place was like. I was upset with him and used a cuss word or two for him to myself. My eyes were getting used to the light of the sun. From one angle, it shone like a halo. I went inside and sat back on the cot. The blanket I had been given lay crumpled in the middle. I folded it. Looking around, I caught sight of a water pot, bent slightly out of shape. A mild breeze created ripples in the water inside the pot. The ripples looked inviting. I gargled and washed my face with the water. Its chill brought about clarity in my heart. I would feel better if I drank some.
The thatch door was shut firmly with the help of a stick. I was embarrassed to open it to drink water. The family were supporters of the party, yet it was not right to go inside the house when no one was around. The water I had used to gargle would have to do. I collected some water in both my hands and drank it. The moss underneath the pot was rippling now. The water shrank my stomach, which realised that it had been empty for a while. There were dogs lying about on the uneven lanes of the street. It looked like all the houses were empty. To my surprise, everyone, from the children to the elders, had gone to the fields. I was the only person in the midst of forty or fifty huts. Had Comrade PM gone to work with them? Whatever the case, shouldn’t he have told me? I squatted on a lane near the shed and pissed in a hurry, afraid that I would be caught by someone approaching from some unseen corner, and stood up. The buffalo calf stood at the opposite edge of the stake to which it was tethered. I didn’t know how to give it hope.
Let Comrade PM come when he would. I decided to take a stroll and look for a tea shop. I put on the shirt that was hanging on a pole in the shed. A bed sheet and a thick book lay on the cot used by Comrade PM. I had a vain hope that the book might hold a letter for me from Comrade PM, some message of sorts. It was Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? The book had only Lenin’s words and no note from Comrade PM as I had hoped. But then, he wouldn’t have gone far. Maybe he had had a message to pass on to the comrades. It could be a local chore, which he would quickly finish and come back. The book gave me hope that he would be back soon.
I felt at peace and went looking for a tea shop. Comrade PM had brought me to this place late last night. I knew nothing about its residential areas. In the dark, I had simply understood that we were walking among the huts, all of which looked nearly alike. A cow or a buffalo calf stood next to almost every hut. In many places, there were tracks left by goat dung. It was a slum colony, occupied by the working class. The party had worked hard to build a structure in these areas. Ordinary citizens now used terms like “comrade” casually. The mobilisation had been so strong that the party believed that this area would be the epicentre of revolution in the future. So, newer comrades like me were sent to these areas to feel optimistic about party activities and to be trained in party work among the people.
As I had been in the party for over a year, they decided to elevate me from a supporter and move me to the next level. I was asked to spend my holidays in this area as part of this process. I had romantic ideas about villages and villagers, and so had no qualms about coming here. I saw open fields soon after I emerged from the huts. A single lane ran through the fields. I thought I might find a tea shop if I walked through the lane. I had no doubt that all roads led to tea shops. However remote a village is, a tea shop still serves as a place that brings the village together. I walked hopefully down the lane.
How would Comrade PM, who had abandoned me without even guiding me to a tea shop, guide the people towards revolution? The party might have made a wrong choice with him. I could not explain the abhorrence I felt for Comrade PM. It might perhaps have mellowed down if I had been able to find a tea shop soon. But the single lane passed from one field to another, and a tea shop was still nowhere in sight.
Excerpted with permission from Sandalwood Soap and Other Stories, Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamily by Kavitha Muralidharan, Juggernaut Books.