It is after dawn. A sharp, black knife of darkness greets the soda man when he comes into the room. His eyes hurt. He rubs them and waits until they get used to the black and then steps inside.
His feet brush against warm flesh. He bends down to see who it is.
A body lies on a film poster.
One of the boys. Whoever it is has shrunk into himself, a small tight ball, wrapped in a lungi. A sack of something. Sathi?
The soda man tries to peel the lungi off the sleeping body to catch a glimpse of the face.
Something slithers down his hand. Something creepy. He pulls his hand back and shakes it. He uses his other hand to rub away the feeling. A louse? He bends down again and twitches the lungi from the sleeping face. The Hulk.
He straightens up, disappointed. The Hulk’s face twists into a complaint and his hands instinctively pull the lungi back over his face.
The soda man wonders if he should go across, past the sleeping Hulk, to the other side. Should he call out?
– Sathi! Dai, Sathi!
His voice is soft but clear. No one stirs. The quiet walls echo his call. Maybe Sathi isn’t even here. Who knows, he could be sleeping inside the theatre. He rubs his eyes and looks around him again.
He sees two, no, three tangled bodies – one head on another’s thigh, another leg on a third stomach.
Is one of them Sathi?
The soda man leans on the wall and jumps over The Hulk’s body to land on the other side. He finds himself standing between a pair of legs. He hears a rustle and the sound of something scampering along the walls. A cockroach?
He looks across the line of bodies. He can see the vague outlines of cloth bundles, stacked against the end of the passage. He can smell them – a musty, rotting smell that turns his stomach. He can’t stay here for long. He is already short of breath.
– Dogs! How they sleep! Clutching their cocks. Deaf dogs!
He kicks at a shape in front of him. Its head rests on the curve of another shape next to it. He kicks again. The shape rolls over. He can see the face now. Sathi. The soda man is angry.
He bellows the young man’s name. A sound like grating metal, calling a stubborn buffalo to its meal. He kicks at Sathi’s leg. It takes many kicks to wake Sathi up.
He tries to open his eyes, but cannot. His eyelids are locked, stuck to each other. He tries again, but as soon as he opens them, they shut. Even the faint light is too much for them. He tries once more and sees a blur of hand in front of him. The light is cut off for a moment. A voice, tight with anger, rages.
The soda man crosses over The Hulk’s sleeping form once more, his hands firm on the walls. He goes out of the passage.
Sathi cannot lift himself up.
His head is heavy and his eyes appear to be full of poster glue. He rubs them gently and feels scum on his fingers.
He shakes his head until his eyes open.
He tries to sit up and get to his feet. One hand, wrapped around Natesan, has gone to sleep. He takes his other hand to it and picks it up like a piece of wood.
He stands up and finds his right foot trapped in the tear in his lungi. He pulls his lungi up and ties it round his waist. He can barely walk.
Insects have bitten him. Bed bugs. Lice. He must wash his clothes. Bathe. Should he wake up Natesan? He decides against it. Natesan likes to sleep. Anyway, he’ll be up soon. He steps on The Hulk. The Hulk is lost to the world.
Once across, he holds on to the walls. Why did the old fart want him now? Kicking him up from deep sleep as if his house were on fire. Bastard can’t sleep in his old age.
From the first day that Sathi had come to work, the soda man had pushed for it.
The soda man had a hard, rough face. A strong face. Someone had picked up a broken rope cot from somewhere for him to sit on. The cot was like a horse. Its legs split at the bottom and were held in place with a wire. The ropes had worn off and hung limp and sad. It was hard to tell the head from the foot of the cot. The soda man was too big for it. He sat in the middle, half his body falling through the thin ropes. His feet stuck in a mess of twisted rope. The boys sat at the foot of his throne-seat.
Seasons of the Palm
In the early days, when he had just begun to work for her, he rebelled against that voice, tried to steal an extra minute of sleep, lying still for a few moments after she yelled for him. But soon he learned that it did not pay to disobey.
Thwack! One morning, a thin strip of leather caught his naked foot. At first he thought a monstrous mosquito had bored into his skin. The sheep shed was full of big, black mosquitoes. He turned around and tried to sleep on. Thwack! He opened his eyes and heard a rasping voice float in through the dark.
“Here I am, yelling my throat dry! And you continue to sleep! A young lad like you should get up at once! I should starve you and then you’ll know. You’ll be up when I call for you. You’ve become lazy, that’s what it is...”
He had been beaten! Whipped on the sole of his foot! Close to tears, but helpless, Shorty got ready for work. This happened a few times. Gradually,
Shorty learned to wake up at the Mistress’s first call.
As for the mosquitoes, they are still there. They hang in thick clusters, on the roof of the sheep shed, on its walls. The sheep shed is a natural mosquito breeder. Its mud floor is always wet with sheep piss and shit. Shorty cannot ever hope to keep the tiny wretches away. They are at their worst in the monsoon months. Then he needs two jute sacks – one to lie on and one to cover himself with. But they manage to pierce through his cover somehow. Often, he has woken up to see mosquitoes hovering like bees around his face.
Sometimes, he collects wild basil leaves, strews them in a circle around him and curls up within that charmed ring. But the mosquitoes stay out only as long as the leaves are fresh. If he rolls over or kicks at the leaves, they are squashed and of no use. Then the mosquitoes return, vengeful and triumphant, to taunt him.
Sitting under the neem tree makes him sleepy. He yawns loudly and stretches out on the ground. The earth is cool. Its thin carpet of neem leaves and twigs grazes his skin. He looks up. He has always wondered at this single neem. Solitary and shady. How old is it? Through the delicate tracery of leaf and twig, he spies a pair of sunbirds. They chase each other, springing lightly from branch to branch. His eyes follow their play but stop at a splash of black. The black-winged koel.
Shorty never loses a chance to seek out the secretive koel. He loves the bird’s dark red eyes and black beak. The koel is a shy bird. It does not show itself easily. It changes its perch often and somehow manages to tuck its sheer black into the green of the neem. Shorty wonders if it feels his intent eyes roaming the neem’s branches. But he never gives up. He goes around the tree, until he sees at least a bit of the bird’s black tail between the leaves. If the koel flies away, Shorty makes a face.
“Loser, loser! Got you, got you!”
If the koel stays on despite his probing eyes, he is equally thrilled.
“Saw you! Saw you!”
It is his favourite game. But today, he is tired. He wants to close his eyes, not pursue the black bird. His body aches from working since dawn. He has been up a long time, since the cock’s first crow.
The Master’s cowshed is a messy place. It holds a pair of overworked oxen that help to draw water from deep, sunken wells, a milch cow, a pregnant buffalo and two other she- buffaloes with their calves. The floor is always wet from the animals’ piss and dung. The oxen and the calves shit huge mounds. Their dung is easy to cart away. But not that of the ageing she-buffaloes. They shit down their legs, and their dung is loose and smelly. Whether they graze on fresh grass or feed on dried leaves and twigs, their dung remains the same. The pregnant buffalo is not too bad. Her dung is firm and almost dry.
The dung has to be gathered carefully, with dried palm fronds. But a bit of dung always falls through the fronds. The Master does not like it if that happens. He has a thing about dung. He cannot bear to see it anywhere. If he sees some, his hands get to work right away, to fling it into his field or into the manure hole. Sometimes he is seen rushing away with handfuls of dung to the outfield, beyond the house.
The Master likes his cowshed floor clean and swept first thing in the morning. He hates it if the animals are fed before the dung is removed. Sometimes, disgusted by cow feed and dung lying in heaps next to each other, he starts on the floor himself. His dhoti off his waist in a flash, he is seen bent to the floor, gathering turd.
The Master in his loincloth – an angry man, whose wrath both shames and hurts.
Shorty knows he must not let this happen too often.
After the dung gathering, Shorty has to feed the animals. He fetches hay and dried stalks of the kambu to the shed. Huge piles that exhaust his thin hands. The animals immediately set up a chewing rhythm that follows Shorty as he sets about his next task. There is not a minute to be lost between his various duties. Just as he finishes with the animals, the Mistress shouts for him.
The voice never fails to startle him. Every day. It grabs him by the neck and shakes him up.
It is not enough if he replies. He has to be at her kitchen door that very instant. She has a big can of milk ready, fresh from the buffaloes and mixed appropriately with water. The can is open, with a rough cloth tied to its mouth as a lid.
Shorty has to take the can to where the Nadar caste people live.
This is not easy, for he has to hold the heavy can by the cloth. On no account must he touch the can directly.
Once he gets to the houses in the Nadar neighbourhood that buy milk, he sets the can down and stands away. The lady of the house opens the cloth lid, pours her share of milk into a vessel and ties up the can’s mouth once more. This happens in all the houses to which Shorty goes.
Excerpted with permission from Current Show and from Seasons of the Palm, Perumal Murugan, translated by V Geetha, Penguin Books.