Appa’s full-time occupation used to be selling sodas and “colours”, or soft drinks, at the market. After the division of the family property, he had to do part-time agricultural work as well. But he could be seen in the fields only on days the market was closed. Since ragi was the staple food, finger millet was the main crop in our acre of irrigated land.
Other crops like cotton, or vegetables like cucumber and ladies’ fingers were grown in the interim period. Appa’s only responsibility was irrigation. But he constantly drank toddy when he was out in the fields and often passed out. My mother did not allow him to draw water from the well when he was drunk; he made a habit of disobeying her. Amma’s work and responsibilities increased manifold after moving out of the joint family.
Around this time, her eldest son – my brother – was five years old, and I was only ten months.
Between grazing the cattle, farming and cooking, Amma hardly got a break. Her parents-in-law were not the only ones waiting to see how the daughters-in-law would run their families; the entire village was watching as well. This put pressure on Amma, who worked day and night in a frenzy.
It was the Tamil month of Thai, mid-January to mid-February. Though the millets had been harvested and threshed, the barren millet stalks needed to be pulled out in order to pluck the vegetables from the broad beans and cowpea creepers before they withered away in the sun. These were needed all round the year to make curries, but there wasn’t any time to clear the field.
While Amma’s mother-in-law remarked indirectly, “The field looks odd. The stalks look like roosters beheaded in a fight,” her father- in-law told her, “Why don’t you hire someone to pull out the stalks, girl?” The incomplete work on the field continued to bother Amma.
Later that night, when she took her elder son who wanted to pee and went outside the house, the moon shone so brightly that it seemed like noon. It was only a couple of days after full moon’s day and more than three-fourths of the moon was out. It seemed to be calling out to her with arms wide open. There was a gentle nip in the air. The bright moon banished her sleep and fatigue. She thought she could pull out some of the millet stalks now. Her son was only happy to join her, excited by the idea of playing in the moonlight.
Amma locked up her husband, who lay in a drunken stupor inside the house, hoisted her ten-month-old on to her shoulders, held her five-year-old by hand and left for the fields.
She gave the lantern to her oldest. If she walked down the street, the dogs would bark and wake up the neighbours. It would become difficult to answer their questions. She could avoid the dogs if she walked through the field behind the house and went around the residential quarters, even if it added an extra half-mile to what should have been a mile’s walk.
There was just one hurdle. There was a dense, thorny patch of the invasive karuvelam tree en route, spread over an area as big as two fields. The narrow path running across it could only fit one person at a time. And on that path, the karuvelam would block the moonlight, with only dappled light filtering in through the leaves. The lantern would come in handy. Amma was scared of snakes more than the darkness.
On the other side was a tar road leading to Erode, flanked on either side by dense tamarind trees. It would take only moments to cross the road, but there was another obstacle. A madman with dreadlocks and clad only in a dirty towel wrapped around his hips was often spotted on this road during the day. He was not known to have hurt anyone, but Amma was worried about encountering him at this time of the night.
After crossing the road, she would be in fields empty after the harvest, and so she had nothing more to worry about. Making her way through these, she would reach the millet field. The toddler weighed her down, while the older son walked enthusiastically on his first moonlit outing.
Once they passed the karuvalem patch and quickly crossed the big road, Amma walked unhurriedly and reached the millet field. There were no troubles on the way, but the weight of the child on her shoulders, speed-walking and fear had made her heart race. Sitting on the bund, she placed the baby on her lap. He was fast asleep. Within sight was a cow shed and next to it a goat pen.
There would be drinking water around there. Following his mother’s thoughts, the elder son said, “I’ll go fetch water, Amma,” and took off before she could even respond. The boy was intrepid. As she sat watching his silhouette, she saw him reach the shed.
He came back in some time with a stray dog in tow. It ran ahead of him wagging its tail and circled Amma’s legs.
The boy was balancing a basket taller than him on his back and a pot of water in his hand. To prevent the basket from touching the ground, he was walking slightly bent over. When Amma thundered in anger, “What is this basket for?” he smiled and said, “You can place thambi in this, no?” He was a smart kid.
Placing the child in the basket, and leaving the dog and the boy to guard the baby, Amma stepped into the field. She said a prayer and began to pull out the stalks. Since they were already turning brown, and there was dew to aid the process, the stalks came out easily. Her son and the dog ran around in the bunds and the furrows emptied of millet stalks. She wondered if the baby would wake up with all the noise and kept an eye on the basket as she worked.
The roots looked like tightly knotted hair buns as they came away, gently like a flower, when she tugged. She left behind a few stalks for the broad beans and cow pea creepers to latch on to. A little quail that had built its nest among the creepers got startled and flew away. The eggs and little chicks left behind would attract snakes. Though Amma was not afraid of snakes, she was worried about stepping on a well-fed, immobile one, which would then bite her.
The moon lit up the furrows now that the stalks were harvested. Amma was neither tired nor aware of the passing of time. Only when her hands found no more stalks did she look up and realise that she had cleared the entire field.
Anxious about having ignored her sons, she rushed to the basket and found her baby asleep, just as she had left him. Her elder son was asleep beside the basket, next to the dog that was sleeping with its head tucked into its curled-up body. It was the first to wake up, stretching and wagging its tail.
Lifting the baby on to her shoulders again, Amma took the basket and the dog back to the cowshed. The trio reached home just as dawn was breaking.
Amma always concluded this story with three observations:
The baby had slept peacefully through the entire thing, without so much as a tiny wail. He was such a good child.
The next day, her father-in-law ran back in shock after seeing the empty fields and told his wife, “An evil spirit has pulled out all the millet stalks in the field overnight!” Unfazed, his wife said, “All right. We have been spared the work.”
The husband, passed out drunk from a purudu of toddy and locked up in the house, had been unable to get out. He had to take a leak in a corner inside. Getting rid of that stench became the greater challenge for Amma.
Excerpted with permission from Amma, Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Nandini Murali and Kavitha Muralidharan, Eka.