The bane of a coffin maker is the absence of a regular income. Hence, he fights a losing battle with a life lacking stability and security. A stretched calendar, seeming longer than twelve penurious months, is his working life. The black and red colour variations on the calendar hold no meaning for him and he passes through life unaffected by holidays or working days.

Coffins are not products whose sales can be increased through a special offer on Onam or Christmas, are they? Neither is a coffin shop an enjoyable tourist destination. If no one dies, a coffin maker would be easily forgotten.

I often grieve the despicable condition of having to wait for someone’s death to earn my bread. A coffin maker is likely to celebrate Christmas or Easter only if some families, owing to a loved one’s death, are deprived of the festivities. It cannot be any death: there is an angle of religious discrimination involved, as it has to be a Christian death!

While studying in the church-run primary school, tortured by hunger pangs, I would wish fervently for everyone to purchase coffins, irrespective of their religion. I would allay my hunger by breathing in the delectable scent of cooked meat emanating from the kitchen behind the rectory.

Analysing the heady smell of the food, I would try to guess whether it was chicken curry, beef fry or mutton roast. I would close my nostrils and inhale through my mouth, as I wanted the air to reach my stomach instead of my lungs. Later on, I was disappointed to learn that air goes to the lungs whether inhaled through the nose or the mouth.

I used to drink water from the pond beyond the rectory and the kitchen. Climbing down a few steps, I would wade into knee-deep water, shove aside the shimmering green foam with my elbows, and bend down to drink straight from the pond. Since other kids scooped the water with their hands, my style of drinking invited much ridicule.

“Look, he laps up water like a buffalo!”

Having laid me on a bed of arrows tipped with the poison of their sharp-edged mockery, they bestowed on me the nickname “Buffalo”. I never felt bad about the name-calling. When I hesitated to answer questions in class, the teachers also hailed me as “Buffalo”. Since I ended up hearing “Buffalo” more often than my own name, Hendri, I sometimes believed that was my true name.

But Saraswathy teacher, who taught me Malayalam, never used that nickname. Malayalam was the only subject in which I always scored well. As I loved reciting poems melodiously, she would often make me sing Changampuzha’s lines: “Aaaru vangum innaru...” [1] For me, Saraswathy teacher was the incarnation of the Goddess of Letters.

Perhaps the attention she paid to my recitation triggered my fondness for reading in those days. I became acquainted with the books of Basheer, Kesavadev and Thakazhi stocked in our village library. On reading Dev’s Odayil Ninnu [2] I wept. I adored Pathummayude Aadu [3], and Karoor’s Marappavakal [4] became a favourite. But except for Malayalam, no other subject lingered in my head.

Somehow, I managed to reach the tenth standard, but could never surmount that formidable barrier. When I failed to clear the obstacle in my second attempt, Appan told me kindly, “You can join me now, son.”

Thereafter, language also abandoned me. My Appan’s coffin shop circumscribed my life. The death knell from the nearby church became my life’s tempo. Whenever the bell chimed death, a ray of hope arose in our hearts. For Appan and me, the pealing of that death bell came as auspicious tiding of the next business opportunity.

When fifteen lives were lost in a sudden landslide, we got an unexpected deal. It is indecent to refer to that as a “deal”. Though we fished a bountiful harvest from the sea of tears of fifteen families, Appan’s turbulent mind was far from peaceful. I felt uncomfortable wearing the new garments that Appan purchased to clothe my thin body. It seemed that the warp and weft of the cloth had been woven with the thread of death. My heart was heavy with the realisation that it carried traces of lamentation for the departed.

When the exultations of the Perunnal [5] were cut short by the agony of a mass burial, I pondered deeply. Why did my Appan, who could not bring himself to harm an ant, turn into a coffin maker? Why did he anoint me as his heir? Had Appan pursued some other decent business, I too could have followed suit.

What could be done? My grandfather was also a coffin maker. The profession had come to me in the form of a legacy. There is no one to blame for certain facts of life. Which branch of knowledge can explain why some are born in palatial bungalows and others in squalid hovels? We can only accept it placidly. Nowadays, coffins having become an intimate part of my life, I tend to adopt the impassivity of a mature philosopher.

If not I, someone else was bound to wait with his mallet and chisel on this karmic path. It is all nature’s selection.

“Indri, it is not feasible to have a world where everyone holds a top-notch job. The Lord has entrusted us with making homes for the dead. It is a holy task, my child.” Those were Appan’s words to anchor my unsteady mind.

It astounded me that Appan had such an unconventional perspective on every matter. Some of that blood must be flowing in my veins too.

[1] Who will buy the gift of the garden today?

[2] From the Gutter by P Kesavadev

[3] Pathumma’s Goat by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer

[4] Wooden Toys by Karoor Neelakanta Pillai

[5] Feast day of the Saint


Excerpted with permission from Anti-Clock, VJ James, translated from the Malayalam by Ministhy S, Vintage.