A man was sitting on the stepping stone beside the abandoned well. He coughed gently and cleared his throat. When Chidambaram moved closer, the dog groaned and leapt up. Ayya stroked its back to quieten it. As soon as Chidambaram sat down on the stone directly opposite him, Ayya removed the towel wrapped around the dog’s neck.
Chidambaram felt suddenly too shy to speak. He rubbed the dog’s neck without looking up at his father. The dog climbed on to the stone and licked his face. Its wagging tail lashed his back.
Ayya pushed the plants at the back to one side to check for intruders.
“Who told you that I was here?” Chidambaram kept his head bowed. “Mama.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“On our street.”
“Nothing happened there, right?”
“No. Our people are ready and waiting.”
“Why did you go straight to our street?”
“I took the path from the public tank. They were waiting for me.”
“Never mind where they were waiting; going to our street was a mistake.”
“I had to tell them what happened, didn’t I?”
“Fine time to tell them, after it is all over. You should have thought of it first. You’re a big man now, it seems, and it’s our job to keep track of you. If something happened to you, what would we do? Your brother is already lost, killed in cold blood. We only have you. How can we stay alive after losing you? How shall we console Mama and Aththai? That woman will cry herself to death.”
The dog lay quiet in the kamalai pit.
“Why would I have got caught?”
“You’ll say that, won’t you? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You would’ve stopped me.”
“I waited for so long to kill him. You beat me to it.”
“You tried for so many years.”
“I am a coward, son. Anyway, how does it matter who did it? He killed my older boy, and now you’ve cut him down. And he fell writhing in front of the temple entrance like a slaughtered goat. We shouldn’t have spared him for so long. He did so many terrible things in the villages around here.”
“I only wanted to see him missing an arm.”
“What good is that? This is the best way to settle accounts, once and for all. If he was just crippled he wouldn’t have kept quiet. He would have bribed the police with all his money to keep on troubling us. We wouldn’t have been able to live in peace.”
“Were you there?”
The question seemed to singe Ayya.
“I haven’t become that worthless, son. I was there, keeping an eye on everything that happened.’ Chidambaram didn’t speak. The dog was straining at the leash – it had smelled the field mice scurrying between the bushes around the abandoned well – and he was trying to hold it back. Ayya continued, “I knew something was up that day. You washed your clothes. Then you visited the temple. You came back with sacred ash smeared on your forehead. Then you carried your sister to the market and bought her all kinds of things.”
“Just the usual.”
“Don’t bluff. Why did you tell your mother to feed the dog early? She would have done it herself. While she was feeding the dog, you picked up a sickle and set out for the market. Something was bulging at your waist.”
“I carry it always.”
“Then why did your mother feel uneasy and tell me about it? So I also picked up my sickle and followed you. You entered the barbershop. You lingered near the eatery. I followed, watching you. If I had passed in front of the sweets stall, it would have thwarted your plan, so I waited under the cover of the rest house. The light was bothering me. I couldn’t think straight. So I ran to the transformer, fumbled around and pulled out the fuse. Your aim was on target, so I didn’t join you. You ran south. I came home.”
“So it was you who put out the lights. I was surprised about the timing. I did feel nervous under the light. When everything went dark, I felt confident again.”
“I heard a bomb go off. Where did you get it from? Did Mama give it to you?”
“I put it together myself.”
“Did you? So that’s why you were loitering behind the soda factory, picking up porcelain bits.”
“The other day, when you were rigging a few, I asked you for a couple of pieces. You refused.”
“From now on I should be asking you, it seems.”
Lights flashed on the cart track to the north. The men from Vadakkur were on their way. The light from their lanterns was advancing rapidly. He held the dog back, making sure that it stayed quiet. Ayya walked out, listened for sounds and came back.
“Are they from Vadakkur?”
“Yes, the punks who shaved his private parts for a living. They’re going with the police to watch over his corpse.”
“Do they think someone’s going to steal the corpse and gobble it up?”
“They are running scared.”
“What happens if the men from our street see these fellows and start a fight?”
“Your uncle will take care of it.”
“Waiting here is not a good idea.”
“I came here for a reason. How can we kill a man and go our own way? If a fight breaks out in the street, everyone will be in danger. We had to come away. If the fellows from Vadakkur approach, we can alert our men and get them ready. If something happens, we can jump in.”
“Who is going to fight for this fellow’s sake?”
“Don’t say that. If there’s talk that we went over to their town and killed a man, there’ll be trouble. Who is going to worry about why it happened? He has taken all our land and left us with nothing but our bare hands and loincloth. But are they going to think about that?”
“Let them come here if they want to.”
“They won’t go back alive if they do.”
A lapwing called out two or three times. Inside the abandoned well, the crickets had begun their loud chatter.
Both of them were sitting relaxed on the stepping stone with their legs stretched out in front of them.
“Where have you dumped the sickle?”
“I didn’t get rid of it. I washed it and tied it again to my waist. I also have two bombs.”
“Will you give them to me? I’ll carry them for you.”
“No, I’ll keep them.”
“Any bloodstains on your clothes?”
“Don’t see any.”
“Get rid of them. Here, put these on.”
Ayya took out a dhoti and shirt from his bag and gave them to him. He wore them; then he secured the sickle and the bombs at his waist.
“Did you bring a towel?”
“Mama will bring the rest.”
“Will Aaththa take my sister along?”
“Why wouldn’t she? She will stay with Chiththi. She is very brave. She was born a woman, but she is more spirited than all of us.”
Light from the traffic flow on the road had decreased. Ayya was immersed in thought. Chidambaram ventured gently: “Shall I check if Mama is on his way?”
Ayya crouched below the stepping stone, lit his bidi, concealing the flame, and inhaled deeply, covering the lit end with both hands.
“Go to the stream, wait behind the cover of a bush and look out for him.”
Chidambaram set out with the dog. Though he waited for a long time, there was no sign of his uncle. He returned to the well. He found Ayya and Mama chatting. Which route had Mama come by?
“Did you take the roundabout way, Mama?”
“I got here somehow.”
Mama pulled Chidambaram close and made the boy sit near him. Chidambaram listened eagerly to their conversation, keeping himself warm with Mama’s towel.
Excerpted with permission from Heat, Poomani, translated from the Tamil by N Kalyan Ramani, Juggernaut Books.