Right outside the city corporation grounds were vendors who had targeted the fitness mania of the walkers and sold various health products – Bermuda grass juice, aloe vera squash, buffalo milk, peppermint infusion, essence of spinach, foxtail millet laddoos, kozhukattai, mung bean balls, mango rice cake, chickpea rolls, coconut flatbread and banana flower vadais. Each stall drew its faithful.
Kumarasurar was no patron of the stalls. He, along with others who dismissed these health foods as opportunistic businesses, gathered at Gluttony Vilas. The shack had no name board, but had been christened by its customers.
This was a favourite gossip spot. Asuras liked scheming while eating or drinking. Even if Kumarasurar secreted himself away in a corner, his fellow customers wouldn’t leave him alone. Someone would approach him with a strangely authoritative request like, “Sir, this gentleman is retiring from our office this week. We need a poem to felicitate him. Write one, won’t you?”
Kumarasurar had a reputation as a poet.
He took great pride in this, and never turned down such requests. He would write a short poem overnight and hand it over the very next day. His poetic style followed this pattern:
You tireless scion, bullion who was forged in a golden ore
Fearless lion who served the government with a mighty roar
As long as they could spot rhyme, people were happy to celebrate it as poetry. Some of his aficionados would return the next day with a ponnadai, the golden shawl that is ubiquitous at felicitation events in Asurapuri. They would present it grandly to Kumarasurar, saying, “We want to honour the poet.”
He had collected several such shawls over the years, and his wife Mangasuri had found various uses for them. In her kitchen, the blender, grinder and refrigerator had each been endowed with a shawl. The cabinet wore a shawl. The television flaunted a shawl. Their home shimmered with shawls.
Kumarasurar had written poems for weddings, for ear-piercing ceremonies, for birthdays. Requests for ghostwriting came from anxious parents whose children wanted to participate in poetry contests, and he obliged. Some of these poems even won prizes. When he was informed of this, he would jump about as if it were he who had been honoured on stage. It delighted him that society could appreciate poetry. His penchant for poetry also ensured that he was treated to free vadais at Gluttony Vilas.
The shop would start making urad dal vadais early in the morning. These vadais, fried in an enormous pan, each had a hole in the middle that was just the right size to stick a finger through and hold the vadai up to one’s mouth. The vadai was wrapped in paper that turned greasy from all the oil. Kumarasurar would squeeze out the oil from the vadais until they fluffed up like cotton balls, and then savour their flavour and texture.
Each time he ate them, it struck him that Mangasuri’s vadais were never quite like this.
He couldn’t stop with one. His tongue would beg him for just one more as soon as he was done with the first. And for just one more when he was done with the second. He would argue with his tongue every day at the shop. On most days, he managed to put in the enormous effort it took to silence the voice of his tongue. On the few days that his tongue assumed demonic proportions and refused to listen to him, he would bend his ear to it and accord it the respect its victory deserved. He would eat two vadais, drink a glass of tea and burp his satisfaction. And then his tongue would acquire a different voice.
“If you’re going to gobble up vadais dripping with oil early in the morning, won’t your cholesterol and blood pressure go up? And heaven knows what kind of oil it is, too. It must be old stock left over at a wholesale shop. Apparently, that’s the sort of thing that leads to jaundice. So much for your morning walk. The calories in your vadai are far more than you burn.”
What could he say in response? The voice would nag him all day. The slightest burp made him think it was the vadai going about its insidious work. When he farted, he would panic. The aroma which had teased him into helpless temptation in the morning had morphed into a stink that taunted his nostrils. A spell of dizziness or heartburn or drowsiness conjured a gigantic finger that pointed right at the vadai.
I’m not the only one. There are hordes of customers at Gluttony Vilas. I’m not the worst, I stop with two. There are morning walkers who eat four or five vadais. Nothing happens to them, does it? So why are you tormenting me?
He would answer his conscience bravely. He would vow not to eat even a single vadai from the next day on. He would promise to avoid even looking at the delicious handfuls of flour mixture in the pan. The resolve would last until the next morning.
Excerpted with permission from Estuary, Perumal Murugan, translated by Nandini Krishnan, eka.