My father was a policeman in the police corps’ camp at Kakkayam. He quit the job when the Emergency was withdrawn. Thereafter, the old man’s custodial torture routines were trained on us at home – mother and her three children. His hands never had their fill of vocational savagery. Wanting more, he would kick me around like a soccer ball having tied my feet and arms in a single knot.
But he couldn’t sleep either. During his daily drink binges, he regurgitated the fond old tales of brutal torture from his camp over the pickle. We were to stand in attention and listen to him repeat the bloody tales of his butchery on the inmates at the camp lock-up. Thus I’d known K Rajan, P Rajan, Cheria Rajan and Rajan the rubber tapper since my childhood.
Cheria Rajan was found dead in a school building. Every time he recalled Cheria Rajan’s story, my father would let out a hiss as though his tongue just got seared by a spicy fish curry: Ishhhh . . .
It wasn’t long before tremors from Parkinson’s disease struck my father down. Unable to move, he lived the rest of his life trapped in our house. Amma’s cousin moved in soon after, ostensibly to help us out. But like traitors, paramours too could never sleep. They too wouldn’t be able to laugh or hold their heads high.
Whatever . . .
It was my father who identified Yudas at the shore. This is Das…isn’t he?” he asked of Yudas in a trembling voice.
Yudas’s visage suddenly turned pale, like a dead man. I too was dumbstruck. That night Yudas fled from our village.
Earlier that day, my father and I had gone to identify the body of his nephew at the lake. The boy had drowned, and Yudas had to dive and recover his body. The boy, Balu, was one of the students at Yudas’s classes on the art of lovemaking. It was from him that I came to know about those classes.
He was a nice lad. He used to like me a lot. I couldn’t forget how he’d lean on a column to watch me comb and plait my hair in the little mirror on the wall while rain poured into the open central courtyard of the Naalukettu.
One day he gathered enough courage to plant a kiss on the nape of my neck. I turned around to glare at him. Our ages were the same. Cornered by my glare, his courage drained instantly. Afterwards he begged me for forgiveness. I felt funny when he confessed to me, in tears, that it was Yudas who’d taught him that kissing a woman’ neck would render her defenceless.
“What else did he teach you?
I interrogated Balu under the mango tree in the south end of our courtyard with the curiosity of a fifteen-year-old.
“I can’t tell you any of that, Prema…”
“What about those bodies from the lake…how does he find them?”
“He never says anything about that.”
“Isn’t he scared when he dives deep into the lake?”
“Who knows? He only talks about undead women and their bodies.”
“Does he kiss the nape of dead women’s necks too?”
Flustered, Balu looked at me. “You must forgive me, Prema!”
“I never thought you’d behave like this.”
“Please don’t tell anyone.”
“I won’t. But I do want to have a word with that man…”
“Prema, please don’t…”
“I will, so long as I am Prema!”
In the afternoon, as soon as my mother settled down for her siesta and my younger brothers went away frolicking, I sneaked out of the house from the south end of the yard. I leapt across the fence and sprinted along the valley towards the lake.
In those times, crossing the pebble-strewn valley didn’t require much effort. All you had to do was hitch your long skirt higher at the top of the ridge and let yourself go in a free fall. Like a bouncy ball, you would ricochet past the mounds and roll in the wind until you finally reached the shore.
That day when I arrived at the desolate shore, drenched with the dusky sunlight, I was out of breath. The immense bluish lake lay before me, stretching beyond the limits of my vision.
I couldn’t find Yudas there. The hedgerows in the valley had had a harvest of white gooseberries and wild red strawberries. I marched towards his shack, dragging along my white skirt printed with blue flowers. There I saw him weeping as he lay on the ocherous floor built from sand and dirt.
I was only fifteen then; the cries of grown men hadn’t begun to make me laugh yet. If anything, his tears melted my heart. I looked at him as I fiddled with a pebble that protruded from the yellowing wall. The lake billowed lazily, about a stone’s throw away behind me.
He stood up with a start, perhaps because my shadow blocked the light. Tugging at my plaits, I waited in terror. When I asked him the reason why he cried, he frowned and chided me for showing up at his place. That was it. I lost my temper.
“You taught Balu filthy stuff! Why? I inquired boldly. “He tried to be dirty with me…And you made him do it…I am going to tell on you…I’ll tell everyone.”
His face turned slightly pale,as he recognised the sincerity in my threat.
He reacted angrily at nobody in particular. “Go right ahead. Tell on me. I am not afraid of anyone.”
“Get away from my face!”
“What if I don’t?”
The breeze from the lake had begun to unfurl my long skirt like an umbrella. I scooped it up to sit on my knees. Then I chanted, “Naxalbari Zindabad!”
His face turned red and in that moment he seemed vulnerable and delicate like a timid fifth grader. I was certain then that he was a Naxal who’d been hiding in our hamlet.
“What do you want?”
I had a smile on my face. “Teach me how to swim.”
He kept peering at me. He had languorous eyes. His hair was bronzed and overgrown. The teardrops on his scarlet-speckled beard and moustache gleamed. Suddenly, I had a crush on him.
“Teach swimming? To a girl?”
“Not just swimming. You have to teach me how to dive and recover dead bodies too.”
It took him a while to rein in his rage. Then he stood up, rubbing hard on his beard and moustache.
“Girl, you should go back home.”
“I am going to tell everyone what Balu said.”
“I’ve already told you not to intimidate me. I am not scared of anything in life any more.”
“You are a pest! What in the world do you want?”
“Where do you get the grit to touch a dead human?”
He suddenly became stiff as if he’d just been slapped on his face.
“Aren’t you scared when you swim up to a corpse?” I continued. “What crosses your mind when you look at a dead face?”
He was seething with anger and his face betrayed a smidgeon of anguish at having been humiliated unexpectedly.
“Get lost, you scamp!” he yelled.
I too was stubborn. “I am not going anywhere until you agree to teach me how to swim.”
We confronted each other. He called me names. Enraged, I hurled my plaits around and challenged him. If he wasn’t going to teach me, then watch out, I would do it myself.
Tugging at the hem of my skirt, I ran towards the lake. I could hear him curse over the wind – “Damn you girl, you mean nothing to me. I couldn’t care less if you were dead.” Yet when I fell into the shoal with a splash, I saw him run to the doorstep. I turned to watch him as I dipped deeper into the water, dragging my long skirt further into the mud and leafless water plants.
The lake turned into a husband waiting for his bride. I fell in love with it. The water had a strange warmth as it held me in a sensuous thrall. My white skirt with blue flower prints bobbed momentarily above the water like an umbrella before I submitted myself to the surge and it began to wash me away.
When the water pulled me towards the deep end of the outer lake, I stood upright straddling the waves. The lake held me up.
That was a weird experience. I was frolicking with abandon along the green layer of water in the middle of the lake. The sky above was a clear blue. A school of lovesick white pearl fish tapped my hands. Chromides bit my ankles lustily. I wanted to cry. Freedom was luring me.
“Naxalbari Zindabad.” I chanted for no reason. “Long Live the Revolution. Comrade Varghese Zindabad.”
Momentarily, I spread my arms amid the waves as if they were my wings and I began to plummet towards the lake’s bottom. Like “Croc” Yudas, I dived deeper into the water. “As deep as possible,” I commanded myself with a fifteen-year-old’s spunk.
I had heard that the blood-red, gooey mud at the bottom of the lake had magnetic power. Once you were trapped in its field, you couldn’t escape. There was another lake boiling underneath the bed of this one. I wanted to get there.
The upper lake tried to stop me. But I refused to give up. I plunged intractably into the dense water like a chromide with plaited hair. My heart began to stir as I neared the bottom. I craved for water like a fish thrown out of it. Sometimes I felt as though I was a baby jostling to get out of its mother’s womb. At other times I was a combatant waging a revolution all by myself.
When I think about that experience after all these years, my mind unveils the myriad colours of the lake. The shimmering green above the rim of my eyes that turned to grey as I sank. The pale yellow when I swooped in. The orange of the ravenous depths where I sank and didn’t exhale. The deep red that shone brightly as one descended deeper and touched down at the bed of the lake…The vision had me mesmerised and terrified at the same time.
My eyes were closed as I held my breath one more time. When I opened them again, I was startled to find someone lying straight and serene on his back with his arms tucked under his head on the reddened mud on the lake bed. His eyes were open and disdainful.
I began to bawl in fear. Water filled my mouth and I couldn’t breathe. The shock had me toss around at the bottom like a pearl fish. I began to lose consciousness when water entered my lungs. I saw him one more time before I passed out. Having been underwater for a long time, his face was white and swollen. His body was incandescent as though there was a lamp lighting him up from behind his head.
For a moment I thought it was an illusion. A thousand chromides darted in all directions from his gut. I was certain it was a corpse. I felt suffocated in the unbearable light that emanated from the red silt and thick slimy green algae. I closed my eyes. My memory flapped its open gills like a pearl fish out of the water before it became still.
When I opened my eyes, I was lying along the edge of a cot in Yudas’s cabin as though I were a wet skirt hung out to dry. My head drooped from the cot and when I tried to get up, water spilled out of my petticoat with a pearl fish in it. In a stupor I watched it heave about on the dirt floor. “Croc” Yudas bent down, scooped up the fish and threw it out of sight. I smiled when it fell in the lake. I whispered to him: “Long Live the Revolution.”
“Croc” Yudas was alarmed. I gazed at him upside down. He too was soaking wet. He had striking features that I couldn’t explain. He was not like any other men I knew. I sat up slowly and smiled once more. Then I chanted, “Long Live Naxalbari.”
“What did you say?” He looked at me in dismay. His body shook involuntarily. He stood next to me and lifted my face with his hands. I saw teardrops swell in his turbid eyes that looked like two murky sediment-laden lakes.
“Total Revolution Is Our Goal, Future Generations Belong to Us!” I said.
He looked at me in panic. “How old are you?” he enquired.
“Down with Fascism!” I continued. Watching him panic made me laugh. I leaned on his chest impulsively. He shivered with an icy chill.
“Please go home,” he begged.
“Kiss me,” I commanded.
He glanced at me in trepidation. Despite my exhaustion, it made me giggle.
“You’re the one teaching boys how to kiss girls, aren’t you?”
“But I…I’ve never…”
He was blushing crimson. It was funny.
He was almost twice my age. I watched him become bashful with curiosity, and stood up gallantly. Water continued to drip from my forehead. His bewildered countenance made me bolder. I was learning about the alliance of fear and assault; rebellion and victory. There must be something in everyone’s heart that is hard to find, as though its limbs have been tied to a grindstone at the bottom of the lake.
I sat leaning against his chest. Water from the river drained off our bodies, intermingling as it flowed to the floor. With my half-closed eyes, I could see the rousing tingle coursing through our hands as if tiny grains of sediments were being stirred up by deep-water fish reposing in their camouflage.
Perhaps it was then that Balu walked in. Neither Yudas nor I knew.
“Please go home.” He continued the pleading, “Do not touch me. Don’t ever love me. Prema, you have no idea who I am!”
“You are my Naxalite. Please rescue me. Let’s run away to Pulpally? Or Andhra? How about Bengal?”
I too pleaded with him. He tried to push me away. But I held him tight.
“Let’s run away. The world needs us. Our love. Sacrifice. Our blood…”
“I am a sinner. You shouldn’t love me!”
“I will love you. I will always love you. You are my Naxalite.”
He pushed me away with a whimper. However, the fire in his chest stayed in mine. I felt for him the same yearning that a fish has for water. I took his face, soaked with tears and lake water, in my palms.
“There is blood on my hands,” he said in a muffled voice. “These hands have touched countless dead people.”
“You can’t scare me with stories of blood and dead bodies.”
“You are only a little girl.”
“Well, I am more mature than you are.”
I smiled again and planted the tenderest kiss I could possibly conjure on his cheek. I caressed his beard and stroked the copper strands before I pulled away from him in tears.
“I will come again,” I declared.
Afterwards I left Yudas, shaking the edge of the long skirt long dried from the steam of our embrace, my wet hair unfurled. I scampered back home, splashing water over sikerpud bushes with their little spittoons, and the droseras waiting to snare ants in their gum-laced leaf traps.
The sun had begun to wane. The wafting lyre from the hills across the shore had begun to unwind. Womenfolk hauling linens had begun to arrive at the lake, past the valley, to wash the dirt off their clothes and their bodies. I stopped at the bend hidden by the butterworts’ hedge.
Behind the thicket of wild raspberries, on top of the laterite stones that looked like dark-brown coral reef, Balu waited for me. He looked at me with the reproachful eyes of the betrayed. I skipped across the bend as if nothing had happened.
“I will die, Prema!” he called out from behind.
I turned around to see him. “Why not! Die,” I said nonchalantly.
The tears that welled up in his eyes made me laugh. I didn’t look back as I rushed to climb the steep ascent from the lake towards my house.
Balu vanished after that. The next day his dead body showed up. It was then that my father identified Yudas, once he landed the dead body at the shore, and the villagers learned who he really was. In the end Yudas left the village, leaving behind the nip of lake water and the warmth of blood in my heart.
After all these long years the only regret I ever had was this: the corpse I saw at the bottom of the lake – it never came to the surface.
Excerpted with permission from The Gospel of Yudas, KR Meera, translated from the Malayalam by Rajesh Rajamohan, Hamish Hamilton.