He experienced the well differently. While swimming, he stroked the water gently, as if he was embracing a flower-soft baby. The irregular shape of the well gave him immense pleasure. As the sun was really hot, the coldness of the water felt like a poultice all over the body. He enjoyed dunking his head frequently under water; he also liked swimming on his back. The sun’s rays which had scattered on the well came looking for him as he lay inside that deep hollow and struck him on the face. The well held a hoard of miracles within, and was giving it to him, little by little. Intense ardour for the well bloomed in his heart. He craved to caress and embrace its every speck. He spent a long time travelling towards each of its corners which were strewn with cobwebs pushed aside by the sloshing water. Each corner formed a small niche where a person could stand and rest – or at least had formations like railings that a swimmer could hold on to.
The well was full of compassion. In the corners, he experienced the pleasure of ice-cold water. He wanted to plunge towards the depths and get to know the well’s nether parts. A few seconds after going down the centre of the well, he sensed that he had submerged a long way inside. The well stretched even deeper. Unable to grasp how deep and how long he had travelled, he struggled to breathe. He pressed his hands down quickly and rose upward. There were so many secrets inside the well. Was it going to unpack and spread them out in barely a few minutes for an occasional visitor like him? What kind of fool am I, he scolded himself. He sat on a at stone slab near the steps leading upward and relaxed a little. He eyed with fresh wonder the frogs that clung to the walls with every shift of the water as well as those that leapt into the water from above. He felt for a brief while that he was merely a spectator at the well.
The children did not tire at all. Ignoring the mud sliding down from the walls, they kept climbing up and jumping off by turns. He saw little difference between them and the frogs.
He felt that the well was watching them with gentle amusement that was like a smile rising to an old man’s lips. When the girl stretched and jumped, with her tassel loose and ribbon uttering in the wind, it was as if the well obediently received and held up a little angel as she descended amid the splendour of sunshine. The boys were so quick that their climbing up or jumping down went by in a blur. The well proudly accepted their meaningless shouts. It was perhaps relishing all these capers with the attitude of someone who had been engrossed in companionless solitude for too long and was tired of it.
The secret breeze that embraced his body caused a chill. All the droplets that rolled down from his body had mingled with the well.Once the body was dry, the tremors began. The cold he didn’t feel while he was in the water gripped him suddenly when he went up a little. In fact, it was the well’s trickery. Its invitation to step in. If a man visited once, the well cast a spell that goaded him to return again and again. He dived through a wave. Now lukewarm water caressed his skin and embraced him. Without being conscious of it, he thought of the well as a circle and swam a full round. Though the traces of his leg strokes kept disappearing instantly, the eddies remained. They induced him to swim another round. Meanwhile, the little girl called out to him:
“Chittappa, how many rounds can you go without stopping?”
He was unable to give her a number. He scanned the well. Its expanse, devoid of sharp angles, did not lead him to any conclusion. Not having an answer, he offered a bland, evasive smile. She was adamant.
“Can you do ten rounds?”
The boy answered her question: “Chittappa can’t even swim two.”
Though he could sense that the boy had said it only to provoke him, he was of a mind to give it a try and face the challenge. A round consisted of starting from the step, touching every corner, one by one, and returning to the step. By the time he finished the first round and was midway through the second, his respiratory organs felt weak from the strain. He started breathing through the mouth. His arms were tired and his legs refused to cooperate. However much he tried, he simply could not go on. The well had defeated him again. Stopping at a corner, he doubled over and gasped for breath. Their shouts were so loud and deafening that he wondered if the well itself was rejoicing in his defeat. The shouts compounded his humiliation. He wanted to climb up and go away.
The well was a universe that no one could conquer.
He had to accept his defeat. To compete with it and lose was in itself an act of courage. He sighed with a swell of pride. He swam towards the step. His arms stroked the water with the pious modesty of a devotee holding the rope of a sacred chariot. On reaching the steps, he took a last dip, combed his hair back with the water and said:
“I’m going up. If you want to keep playing, come back after you’re done.”
His announcement must have given them a rude shock. For a few moments, there was no sound except the gentle sloshing of water in the well. A pall of sorrow had settled on the little girl’s face. The boys looked dejected. They couldn’t accept that the pleasures of the well had to end so soon. If he got out of the well, they had to follow suit. They were not permitted to be in the well without any adult to mind them. The well harboured so many threats within. There could be venomous old snakes hatching in the holes high above the water. In some evil moment, those snakes might stretch their heads and come out. There could be hidden rock cavities that trapped and dragged underwater swimmers inside. There was the ever- present danger of slipping and plummeting under water. Adults could handle such situations, but children...? Moreover, it was a lone well sloshing at the centre of a ring of tall coconut trees. It looked haunted. The echo of voices could arrive from any direction. An eerie silence had come to dwell permanently in the black water. If the man who was a protective shield against all these dangers went up, it was the end. The little girl started again in the same pleading tone that she had used to invite him to the well.
“No, chittappa. Some more time, chittappa.”
Her pleas did not affect him now in any way. He was resolute in his decision to leave. With a disdainful smile on his face, he took another step forward. From where she was standing in the east corner, the girl leapt effortlessly in the water and came near him. She clung tightly to his legs. Drenched hair swaying, she begged him, “Don’t go, chittappa.” He had not expected this. Her hands held his legs like a snake twisted and wound around them. “Let go, kannu...let go,” he said. He imagined that these ordinary words were enough to free him of her obstinacy. But she would not let him go. I won’t let go till you grant me a boon, her bent figure seemed to plead with him.
He didn’t understand any of it. In his confusion, he bent down and tried gently to prise her fingers from his legs. Her grip only grew tighter instead of loosening.
“Don’t let him get away, girl,” a voice called out from somewhere.
Excerpted with permission from The Goat Thief, Perumal Murugan, translated by N Kalyan Raman, Juggernaut.