‘The World of Rabbits’: This searing Malayalam story shows Dalit lives reimagined in fiction

The story by PA Uthaman is part of an anthology of Malayalam stories by Dalit writers aiming to reshape conventional narratives of Kerala.

In Appan’s locker was a cap of rabbit fur. I had my eye on it. Appan had brought it back home with him from one of his sales trips. A cap of soft white fur.

The locker was filled with the curios my father had brought home. All stacked neatly. When he was not home, I tiptoed my way to the locker. I did not think that I was doing anything wrong. When I opened it, the doors creaked. I was afraid someone would overhear. But my fear was misplaced. There was no one in the house besides me. I took out the fur cap and kissed it.

A mirror as tall as a man had been fixed to the intricately carved door panels. I stood in front of the mirror and wore the cap. The cap came down my head all the way till my neck. I felt breathless. As if someone was strangling me. My eyes popped out. A pungent smell of blood spread inside the cap. Jerking my head violently, I shook it off and threw it away. I heard the moan of an innocent creature from inside the cap. I was afraid to touch it. Yet, before Appan returned, I managed to lock it back among the other curios.

When Appan and Ammachi returned, the entire house was steeped in the aroma of roasted meat. They had gone to some feast. Both talked loudly about the taste of different kinds of meat and argued with each other. The foul language of liquor also erupted between them.

I was angry and sad. I lay alone. I lost sleep when I dreamt of an animal running in the harsh sun, screaming, its skin flayed. When I woke up, the revolt of the frenzied beast pacing my father’s room hounded me.

One day, Appan declared, “We are leaving this place.” I didn’t understand. He went out in the morning and returned with an ox-cart. We travelled in the cart to the new house on a hillside. En route, I learned that Ammachi already knew about the shift and quite liked the idea too.

We carried only a few household goods. Among them were the country gun taken from Appan’s collection and the rabbit fur cap.

Made of bamboo and reed, the house seemed ancient. I liked it. Appan made improvements. He crushed the branches of trees and made bamboo doors, windows and cots. The sooty antiquity of the house was hidden with wild-wood sculptures.

It didn’t take much time before the renovated house and the solitude all around intoxicated me. When I looked from the vast courtyard of the house, I could see the mountain sloping down through the trees. Standing in the courtyard on mornings when the mist lifted, I felt that if I had wings I should glide down the valley and soar into the sky.

Appan didn’t have to struggle much with the land. The earth learned to obey him. It began to imbibe his scent, ready to take in anything. The land around the house was soon filled with banana shoots, taro, ginger, and pepper vines.

Ammachi was drawn to the beautiful green of the farm produce. Two figures, heady on the newly worked earth, roamed around their farmland pompously.

Before the harvest, Appan went on a hunt. The hunting trip seemed to be the outcome of some inner realisation.

Appan began to climb the mountains of his adventure stories even as the aroma of roasted meat from the hunted animal spread among the hills. Ammachi was a sentinel to these countless tales. When the tales ended, the bitter taste of dried meat would stack up layer by layer in the house.

Illustration by Roshni Vyam
Illustration by Roshni Vyam

Whenever I saw the carcass of the shot animal, my mind would flip. I saw in it the tragic end of some poor creature. Appan said that it was conceit that kept me from eating the slain animal’s meat. Ammachi added that the father’s valour was despicable to the son. The meat of the hunt and the feasts became elements that disturbed my peace.

When the dried meat ran out, Appan picked up his gun again.

A day dawned with Appan howling. The proof of his mighty deeds lay in shambles. A part of the harvest had been ruined. Appan bellowed out a dare to the one who had wrecked it and lay in wait.

Finally, he took revenge on the boar that destroyed his green shoots. Exhausted, he dragged it by its hind legs to the courtyard. From the wild pig’s head blown by the country bomb, a single fang rose towards the sky. It had all the cruelty and vengeance of life inscribed on it.

Later, Appan sawed off the fang. He made a hole with a needle, and slipping a thread through the hole, wore it around his neck like a symbol of victory.

When I saw him, I could not help imagine that it was a fang hanging from the blown-up head of my father.

One day, the man who exchanged our jungle produce informed Appan that they had a guest. Immediately, Appan asked Ammachi about the stock of meat and was told there was none. Seeking out the smell of dried meat, Appan searched the store, the kitchen and mother’s secret larder. He could not find a single piece of meat. When Ammachi wondered why he was so bothered about an unknown guest, he said nothing. And then hurled himself like a beast upon Ammachi. What followed were volleys of her screams and curses.

In the evening when he left for the jungle dragging his gun with him, Ammachi prayed to the gods to come to his aid. In Ammachi, who beseeched the dark secrets of the jungle to yield themselves up, I saw an animal locked in a cage in stunned silence.

I asked Ammachi, who was shocked by Appan’s untimely trip to the jungle, “Who is the guest?” Ammachi had no idea.

Appan was back by dawn. From his hand dangled a rabbit. It was still alive. I could feel the pulse of a weakening life. Covering it with a basket, Appan lay beside it and slept. He did not even put away his gun. Soon, his snores filled the room.

Ammachi burst into tears seeing him in this state. She didn’t dare wake him up either. After a while, Ammachi picked up the gun and put it away.

Appan had been roaming the jungle all night. No animal had fallen to his gun. Worn out by sleeplessness, anxiety and the long lonely search, he had been about to return.

Just then, he found two rabbits munching on shoots of grass on the narrow path bathed in the rays of the early morning sun. Appan’s gunshots missed their target. All the shot was wasted. Seeing no other way out, Appan tracked them and grabbed the female of the pair. The rabbit pleaded with him at his feet for mercy. His feet grazed against her pregnant belly.

I didn’t know when she escaped from Appan’s prison and reached the foot of my cot. With hands folded in supplication, she begged me. It seemed her swollen belly would give way anytime. Her eyes welled up in fear. I nodded my assent. She hid under my cot. Before long, she gave birth to four little ones.

When he woke up, Appan looked around for the rabbit. His malice was at its peak. Finally, he reached my room. He saw the rabbit from the door.

As he was about to rush in, the little ones caught his eye. Something held him back. He stood at the door observing the mother and the little ones.

The mother, while licking the slime off her little ones, caught sight of Appan. In an attempt to draw them back into her womb, the rabbit pulled them to herself and lay on the floor, her face hidden. When he saw that, Appan went away to the courtyard.

He came back with the tender leaves of the plants he had grown with great care, and green shoots of grass. He placed them in front of the mother rabbit, and requested her to have them. The rabbit was still trembling with fear. I called Ammachi in to show her Appan’s exceptional mercy.
He laid down the rules. “Don’t disturb her and the little ones,” Ammachi was especially warned.
Appan had entered the world of rabbits. Soon, a time came when his guns and weapons felt orphaned without the touch of his hands.

The rabbits with their beady eyes roamed about, leaping, chewing and spitting green leaves, and digging holes in the rooms and the courtyard. From time to time, Appan joined in, asking after them and feeding them.

The little rabbits introduced me to my adolescence. While preening their soft whiskers, they reminded me of the down now visible above my upper lip. Even though I felt indebted to them in my growing curiosity at the signs of adolescence, a day came when I lost all my love and affection for the rabbits.

I could not cope with the sin of coitus in the love-play between the mother and her children. It made me lose all my compassion and love for them.

After chewing all the greens from the courtyard, I saw them fanning out across the compound to cause an accumulation of sin in their romancing and whoring and unbridled fornication. I saw sinful sons stalking the mother to mate with her.

I checked myself, thinking of Appan.

One day, when I went to the courtyard, I found it populated with little rabbits. Appan had made a hutch so they would not wander far. When they were driven into the hutch in the evenings, he counted them. The hutch was not perfect. Before he locked up the hutch, they bored a hole in the ground and got outside, mocking Father.

When their population grew, Appan lost his kinship with the land and did not find the time to grow any crop. Those creatures polished off all the greens too.

I began to work the land with a spade. The earth came to know the fertility of my power.
Once again, Appan made a hutch for the rabbits. This time, it was raised off the floor and paved with bamboo, with many chambers. He labelled the chambers by size and age and locked up rabbits from the same category together. Sometimes, he let them all out during the day. On such days, they would gobble up all the tender shoots of my green dreams. In my absence, they turned more violent. Often, I had to drive them away.

Appan had named all the rabbits. I learned that only later.

When they were locked up and counted, one was missing. Appan went to the compound with a hurricane lamp. Ammachi followed him. The light could be seen from the slope below the compound. Appan called out to the rabbit plaintively. I joined him, though half-heartedly. It was past midnight when Appan located the little one. It was hot with fever. He coddled and kissed it. He walked back, the rabbit warmed in a blanket against his chest. He did not even notice that we were with him. Ammachi followed him. The little rabbit slept against Appan’s chest till dawn.

From time to time, the rabbits would disappear. When this became common, I stopped caring. As Appan was getting more and more forgetful, he sometimes let them out almost every day. On such days, the hurricane lamp shone constantly in the compound, with Appan calling out and Ammachi following him like a shadow.

Sometimes, the rabbits stole away to the fringes of the jungle. Appan and Ammachi waited anxiously for them. Unable to sleep, they roamed around in the night. They continued searching during the day. When the rabbits were back, Appan and Ammachi were overjoyed. Appan spoke to Ammachi unceasingly about the rabbits’ love.

One day, when I was not paying attention, the rabbits ate up the entire stock of grains that were just sprouting. I yelled at Appan, but he sat there as if it wasn’t a serious issue. Finally, he just said, “You, too, saw the eyes of the mother that day!”

I chanced upon the gun that Ammachi had stashed away. I cleaned it, oiled it and made it workable. I didn’t know how to use it properly. I roamed around and shot at random targets.

Within a few days, I learnt how it worked. Ammachi cooked the meat of the animals I shot down. I ate the meat. Slowly, the taste of hunted meat began to intoxicate me. Appan despised it. Ammachi would not eat it either.

I went in search of the spoor of animals in the morning. I looked in places where I thought I could get them, but didn’t get any. A few pellets were wasted. Disappointed and tired, I returned home.

I heard Ammachi in the kitchen, but could not find Appan. In the compound, my pet plants were growing lush. Green leaves that filled the soul with exhilaration. I forgot my fatigue when I looked at them. Then something caught my eye. A flurry among the plants. The murmur of leaves.

The rabbits were mating in the gentle shade of the plants. How could I stand that? The leaves of my toil. The shade of my youth. Someone else had grabbed them.

That night, I hung up the bloodied rabbit skins for drying. I roasted the rabbit meat and stacked it up in a vessel. I looked for Appan and Ammachi to ask them to join me but could not find them in the house.

Out in the yard, in the flickering flame of the dying hurricane lamp, I heard the sobbing voices of Appan and Ammachi calling out, “Children...our children...where have you all disappeared?”

Excerpted with permission from ‘The World of Rabbits’, by PA Uthaman, translated by Ravi Shanker, from Don’t Want Caste: Malayalam Stories by Dalit Writers, translated by Abhirami Girija Sriram and Ravi Shanker, edited by MR Renukumar.

PA Uthaman’s stories normalise the strange and estrange us from all familiar narrative topography. The beguiling directness of his style carries us along to an “other” world that is at once foreign and intuitively familiar. He achieves this by advancing the language of sensibility to a primal condition, composed of both intuition and fragmentary experience, as indeed are the years of childhood. “The World of Rabbits” amply demonstrates these qualities.

M.R. Renukumar – poet, painter and translator, whose day job is with the State Audit Department in Kottayam – writes in his editor’s introduction to Don’t Want Caste: Malayalam Stories by Dalit Writers:

“This book features stories by twenty-three dalit writers of different generations published in Malayalam over seven decades of independent India. These works, which represent many sensibilities associated with different times, deal with and confront a Kerala which is alien to the ordinary world of experiences generally termed as ‘Keraleeyam’ (unique to Kerala)…

“What also comes to light in this collection is the human lives that traditional Malayalam writing and reading pushed to the edges of society, choosing to alienate or assimilate them, whether in a derogatory manner or with steamrolling generosity. These interventions in literature are a reflection of how dalit social life developed on its own without languishing in the backyards of savarna generosity.”

Uthaman’s story, featured here, has its true counterpart in the voice of Clarice Lispector, the greatest of Brazilian modernists. Just as her singular style was long overlooked amid the male line-up of Joyce, Kafka, Genet and Beckett, Uthaman’s story can be recognised as a neglected global classic.

Roshni Vyam – along with the poets Karthika Nair and Sampurna Chattarji and artist Joëlle Jolivet – is currently working on Metro Lands, a collaborative book project that uses poetry and art to speak of the metro experience in Paris and the suburban railway of Mumbai.

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This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.