The Rite of Passage

Translated from the Malayalam by Rithwik Bhattathiri.

The morning dew still lingered on the grass blades in the park. A group of old men was sitting in a corner. In their whites, they looked like a fetid wound on the green of the grass-bed.
I watched them from the cold bench I had to myself. I was vainly trying to bury myself in the book I’d been holding for some time now. The world was already up and about. Sitting in that tiny alcove of tranquillity, the old men were singing praise to a god far removed, for granting them the earthly paradise. In the calmness of the park, their tired and broken voices faltered like dregs and hung about like an irritating impropriety.
The sun had just started beating down. Their singing over, the old men dispersed and gathered themselves in the shades. I pushed my feet further into the soothing dampness of grass and tried to crawl back into my book.
“I’d rather sit here,” said the old man. “I’m sure you don’t mind.”
I had seen him coming but pretended I hadn’t. That he came to where I was sitting, though there were empty benches around, made me uneasy. However, for the sake of propriety, I said, “Please.”
He sat down right next to me and smiled. “You stay alone?”
I was a little taken aback. What a question! That too from a complete stranger!
“Nope. With family.”
“Same here. Kids?”
“None,” I said, without taking my eyes off the book.
“Oh! Husband, then?”
I shot a look at him. My lack of interest in continuing the conversation must have turned him off. He lifted his bony, sinewy hands to his eyes and looked up at the sky. A piece of the sun lay puddled on the bench next to his leg.
I hadn’t meant to be rude. But that patch of the sunlight on the bench, that crumpled figure, those creases on his skin, those varicose veins, everything about him was detestable, I felt. That expression I saw on his face nearly brought bile to my mouth.
“Want to move into the shade?” I added as an apology. “It’s getting warmer.”
“Thanks,” he gave me a wet smile. His eyes were rheumy, I noticed. He wiped the corners of his mouth with the back of his shirtsleeve and smiled at me again.
“He’s travelling, my husband is.” I gave a hurried answer to avoid having to hear the question again.
I didn’t know what else to say.
I hadn’t known what to say to my husband either, as he walked out the door that morning. I hadn’t known whether to stop him or let him go. It was only last night he’d told me about the other woman in his life. But I didn’t know that a mere “Bye” and a nod of the head was how it would all end this morning. I had replied, “I understand.” He was very civil to me. So, I too met him with imperative nonchalance. Looking back, had he lost his cool, I would’ve looked down on him with derision. Perhaps despised him, too. Instead, we had made it an unintended display of highbrow civility. I went about the morning as if nothing happened. I made some coffee for him, put the water on the boil. It was then I decided to give him the shirt I had bought for him some time back. With a word of thanks, he returned it. I took it and stood there not knowing what to do. I dropped it on the table and was assailed by an avalanche of questions. What is she like? Is she beautiful? Did they hold hands and talk sweet nothings in their private moments? Did they talk about me? … I wondered all this as he hesitated at the door. He was expecting me to say something. When I didn’t, he said bye and nodded as if it were the sum total of a dozen years of sharing a life together, closed the door and walked away. It was quite a while before I could shake myself loose from the cuffs of a past barricaded by the rejected shirt and a future that lay beyond the closed door, and step out of the house.
“Bad move!” the old man startled me. He was pressing the walking stick to the ground as if to drive home the point. “Your inhibitions, that’s what did you in. Bad move!” It was only then I realized I was unburdening myself to him. My words were gushing forth like puss from a burst boil. He was a complete stranger. Probably I did it because he was a complete stranger. I hesitated…
“What else could I do?” I mumbled.
“Give that girl a tight slap. That’s what you could’ve done.” He continued, “You think it’s shameless? Blame it on your age if you do. Instead, what did you tell him? Ah, ‘I understand…’ Like hell you do.” He drove the walking stick deeper into the ground and leaned closer to me. “Look here … after I retired, my son wanted me to look after his son, my grandson. I agreed. I too had thought, ‘I understand…’ ‘It’s not about money,’ my daughter-in-law told me as she was leaving for work one morning. ‘Peace of mind, that’s what it’s about. When we leave him with you, he’s the least of our worries.’ She winked and added, ‘But beware, he is baby dynamite!’”
The old man went on, “But at that age his dad was an even bigger goon. So sure, I thought, I can tame this little fellow. So no worries, Sumathy. Long ago, in the past, I saw my son’s tiny hand falling across my chest like a feather as I put him to sleep. All the marbles, toys and balloons that fell out of his hand had adorned my years for a long time. ‘Biscuit at three. Have an eye on him all the time. He can be quite a handful,’ Sumathy reminded me.
“What she said was right,” reminisced the old man. “The child proved to be more than a handful. There was no respite as he was up to something or other all day long. I couldn’t take a break or snooze in the afternoon. The days were longer and nights shorter. I was so spent, when my son and his wife got back from work, darkness too stormed into the room and into my mind as well. I started venting it out on my daughter-in-law. I knew it wasn’t right. But I didn’t know how else to deal with it. I could not pacify the kid. He wailed all day long. My backache worsened. I started taking it out on the boy too. ‘Are those idiots, your parents, bothered about you? I’m running after you day in and day out. And what the hell do I get in return? Forget peace of mind. I do not even get cigarettes. There’s not so much as the stub of a cigarette in this bloody house, you know?’ I stopped feeding him on time. He started losing weight. He was always on my nerves. And it got worse by the day. That’s when I started sending him out with the maid in the afternoons, just so they were out of earshot when I took a nap. I had bought over the maid with a portion of the boy’s milk and biscuits and a few bucks. Still, why did the she betray me?! That evening when his parents returned, the boy was screaming. I had forgotten to feed him. They didn’t even look at me or ask for an explanation. My son stopped bringing cigarettes for me from that day on…”
The old man seemed to smile to himself. “I was boiling. ‘Three cigarettes a day for looking after your son, eh?’ I spat out at him. And I’ll never forget the look my son gave me. Looking back, I feel like retching at those words.”
The old man kept on turning the walking stick in his hand. “It wasn’t so long ago that I used to carry my son on my shoulders, you know? Once, I remember, he cried a lot for a pinwheel and I got him a red one. And we ran along the riverbed, up and down, up and down … and he laughed and laughed. On the way back, he fell asleep in my arms and I kept my chin away so the stubble wouldn’t bother his sleep, you know? And his sleepy legs kept a tiny rhythm to my stride…
“Are you listening?” the old man asked all of a sudden.
I was. There was rheum in his eyes and they were moist too. Probably from sitting for so long in the sun. I thought he would wipe them, but he did not. Maybe he knows it is not easy to wipe it off. Why else? I saw saliva welling up at the corner of his mouth. He didn’t wipe that either.
“Where is the boy, now?” I asked.
“They don’t leave him with me any longer. Mrs de Souza takes care of him. Nowadays, he cries when he sees me.” His voice faltered. “That day I had met up with an old friend and downed a few pegs. Before I knew it, I was fast asleep.” The old man lapsed into the past. “I hadn’t heard my son walking in early from work. The baby had fallen from the crib and was screaming. It looked I hadn’t fed him the whole day…”
I think I stared; he avoided my eyes and looked away, and added like an apology: “It hurts my back if I sit for too long. That’s when I feel like lying down. At my age, the biggest struggle one has is with one’s own limbs.”
That patch of the sun was on the old man’s thighs and stomach, but he wasn’t aware of it. People at the park were slowly thinning out. A steady stream of traffic formed a fence around the park.
“Come, let’s move out, it’s getting warmer here,” I said, helping him out of the seat. As I had nothing to look forward to back home I said, “Let me see you off at your home.”
The old man stared as if I had said something stupid. “Don’t trouble yourself,” he said. Cupping my hands in his, he added quickly, “Not just that, I haven’t been to anyone else’s house for a while. Let me come over to your place, instead… That way you won’t feel lonely either.”
I froze at his words. The returned shirt, the unmade rooms, the untouched food … all the innards of my personal life that lay there like an open book. I didn’t want the old man to see.
“Oh no! Today’s your turn to be the host!” I jerked the words out.
I saw blood draining from his face; he was shaken. He pulled his hands from mine as if he had touched a cold rail. I pretended not to see it.
We walked down the narrow road to the old man’s house. I saw his walking stick ricocheting off the sharp edges of the pavement rocks. The loose end of my saree caressed his pyjamas. The road was familiar, I’d been through with my husband many times before. He might not have gone to work today, I thought. Probably he’d be recounting our last evening together to that woman. He’d be lying in the bed, smoking. What’d he be feeling now? Melancholic? Sad? Relieved? She’d be sitting in front of the mirror doing her hair, listening to him… I had forgotten to ask him, was she married too? That way I could’ve gone one up on him. I’d missed the chance.
“It was a similar flower she was wearing.” The old man halted, pointing to the bushes. “She was standing in front of me at the temple and I snatched the flower and ran it down the nape of her neck…” He smiled as if he was reliving that moment. And when this girl turned to look at him, he froze – she turned out to be a newly-wed from the village! The old man burst into an irreverent laughter.
By now, exhaustion had gotten better of him. He was perspiring heavily. I slowed down further to match his pace. The house he had pointed to had its windows closed. Despair hung over the place like an old cloak. “Careful, the steps might come loose,” he said as we climbed the stairs. He sounded so grave all of a sudden. A strange grimace had replaced the old man’s salivary smile. He fumbled with the key and opened the door a crack. A sigh of stale air and damp darkness jumped out at us from inside. He seemed to sneak inside and was eager to close the door behind us.
“Have a seat,” he said, tucking away the keys. “Let me get you some tea.”
As he was about to go inside, he turned around and hastened to switch on the fan. “Don’t open the windows, it’s boiling outside.”
A tinge of unpleasantness hung in the air. No longer did the old man seem to be interested in any of the past stories. The dry, stale air from the fan beat down on me. He went inside and I felt the viscous silence spread around the room in his wake like a drop of oil on water. Silence howled above the strained drone of the fan and even above the ruthless sun. Sitting there in the damp dimness, I started feeling that silence had eyes and it was staring at me out of them. I wanted to open the window, but decided not to, though the heat inside the room also had started burning my skin like an open gash.
“Can I have some water please?” I might have raised my voice a bit. “It’s so warm in here.”
“I’m making some tea,” he said from inside, and it seemed like he was speaking under his breath.
But I couldn’t bear to be alone there. “No worries, I’ll fix it.” Casting aside the sense of propriety, I hurried inside. He was clearing all the food that had been made for him from the table. On the stove, the kettle trembled like an irregular heartbeat. He did not turn to look at me.
I stood at the kitchen door for a moment. He neatly wrapped the food into a pack and bound it tightly and dumped it into the waste bin. He then covered it with carefully folded old newspapers, closed the lid and washed his hands again and again. His wrinkled face looked spent. He didn’t even utter a word. Silence wailed inside these walls like a haunted spirit. Even here the windows weren’t open.
That staleness of air, that hunch on his back, that piercing silence, that irregular beat of the kettle on the stove, everything worked up an unbearable crescendo, and I suddenly turned the stove off.
“You could’ve had the food. I can keep you company,” I said to break the silence.
The old man shot a glance at me. I didn’t know why, but I saw a wave of fear crash on his face. Without taking his eyes off me, he slowly edged towards me. I felt my fear swell like a balloon about to burst. He had transformed from the person I had met in the park earlier. Inching away from him, I suddenly turned around and picked up a glass of water from the table behind me.
Moving closer still, he hissed, “Do you know my son?” His breath fell on me like the lick of a flame.
“His wife, do you know her? Do you?”
That posture, that awkwardness, reminded me of the state I left my home in. Probably when I tried to cleaned up the mess back there, silence would stalk me, ready to pounce, like the old man did now. With a shiver, I turned away and wiped my face hard. And my eyes fell on a door that was bolted and barred with from inside. His stare continued to fall on me like a welding torch. I saw his skin tighten. And I saw a tinge of froth at his mouth. I put down the glass of water without drinking it.
“This is my room,” he said without taking his eyes off me, as if taking them would mean my escape. “Come in.”
Damp stale darkness inhabited the room like water in a gutter.
For a moment, I was wondering if I should enter, when he slammed the door shut behind me.
I reeled in pitch darkness.
“Where’s the light?” I shouted. There was not a thing that I could see. Raising my voice probably had him in panic. He rushed to cover my mouth. I slithered out of his touch, before I even realized.
“No. Don’t!” he pleaded. “No lights or he will know I’m here!” I had to strain to hear him.
In my state of shock, he lit a wick. In the shaky flame, I saw the room, the lone window that was barbed and buttressed with crisscross wooden planks. There was leftover food strewn on the table. There was some water in a bucket.
“He tries the window at night…” The old man was shaking. “He knows I’m alone … I don’t sleep. But he scares me … he’s younger, stronger…”
My eyes fell on the handle of blade that stuck out from under the pillow.
“For my safety,” he said, thumbing the rusty blade as if it were a charm to ward off spirits. “I got this the day I knew I was a burden to him.”
To my shock, I realized that the smell of the room seemed strangely familiar as it filled me with nausea. Last night, when my husband spoke about the other woman in his life, the many questions that came tumbling into my mind had smelled the same too. It was to escape this suffocating smell that I stepped out later into the night. I retched at this realization. With a start, I reached for the door.
“Don’t!” he squealed. “He won’t stop at anything. Even this food is spiked! When I fed it to the crows this morning, they dropped dead!”
Those beads of sweat, that matted grey hair, that hot breath – I wanted to scream. Cold fear hung around my neck like a tight noose. I tried not to show it and reached for the door again. He grabbed me with the hand that held the blade.
“He … he asked me if I can move in with him…! Do you know what it means?!” His face was flush with blood that nearly dripped. That shock, that fear, that bitterness of his splashed on me like dirty water. “Do you know what it means?!” he repeated epileptically.
“He shouldn’t have said that…” I replied, frantically groping for the lock.
The exhaustion on his face should have prompted me to force him to the floor and ask him to relax, that’s what I would’ve done. But that heat, that stench, that darkness was unbearable and I was despairing now of getting out. That’s why, when my hands found the lock, I yanked the door open.
“Don’t leave me… Why? Is your husband coming back after all…?”
The last bit stung like acid. “Don’t know, but I must go!” I barked.
As I leaped out of the room, he wound around my leg like a piece of rag. Even a gentle shove wasn’t enough. I unhinged his claws from my skin. In the darkness scarred by the open door, I saw his rheumy eyes filling with tears.
“Don’t! Please don’t…” Probably because I was expecting him to roar an order, I felt he was meekly begging. “He knows I’m alone here. His mother died here. On this very floor. But he doesn’t care, he doesn’t,” the old man wailed. “He can easily break in! Please, please don’t leave me!” His face was dripping wet. On that wetness, words floated like dead ants on water. For a moment, I wondered if what I felt for this man now was what my husband felt for me when I offered him the shirt that morning. I recoiled as if I touched a flame. I turned to leave.
“Stop it! Leave me alone,” I spat. “It’s stupid! Why would your son want to kill you? You’re only blowing it up! You’re tired from sitting in the sun, that’s all. Take a break, and you’ll be fine. Why not open the windows…?”
I stopped. The old man was braying. The wrinkles on his soggy face were shamelessly wet with tears, rheum, and saliva. I suddenly felt relieved that I hadn’t wept in front of my husband last night.
“You don’t understand … my kid doesn’t speak to me now … it’s been almost two years…” His voice trailed off into a long wail. The old man wasn’t looking at me now. But his gooey tears came flooding into my mind. His howl was so piercing. I didn’t want this to haunt me ever after. That’s why I threw my hand at him.
It was the sloppy wetness of his face that hit my hand as I shoved him away from me. I desperately wanted to wash it off. I didn’t bother to close the door to his room as I rushed out. Nor did I bother to pick him up from the floor where he had fallen like a discarded rag, or even blow out the wick that was burning despite it being only noon. Outside, the scorching sky hung petrified over me. It’s humanly impossible to tie up all the loose ends, I told myself, and took unflappable comfort in the irrefutable justification of that argument. After all, we are only human!

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