Byepass Road

2023 Man Booker Long listed Perumal Murugan’s original short story first published in Litro in 2018, was the first ever story translated from Tamil into English by V. Geetha.

Translated from the Tamil by V. Geetha.

It happened on the fifth day after Kumaresan accepted a part-time job. His place of work was the field-hut that stood on the edge of the byepass road. A small fat bulb emanated light, around which the darkness sat in waiting. He had to spend nights alone at the hut. If a “party” were to come by, at any odd hour, he was to call Valavan on his cellphone and let him know. That was the work for which he had been hired.

The week before. Midnight. He was reading a novel by the light that illumined his house-front and was not aware of what time it was. Nor was he sleepy. Valavan came down the road, raising a din, but stopped on seeing him. His voice rang loud and clear over the thundering of his bike.

“Hey, Mapila! Reading into the night?” He left but not before he had woken up several people who were asleep on the road. A day or so later, he came by again:

“You’re hanging around doing nothing, except reading. So, why don’t you come there and read? Sleep if you wish to. Call me if a ‘party’ comes by. Earn something for yourself.”

That’s how he had landed this job.

Valvan had knocked a piece of wood onto the edge of the road, and hung a tyre with a red lamp attached to it. Inside the hut, covered with broken cardboard sheets for a roof, were a bunch of things to help mend a puncture. Outside the hut was a rope-cot, and a single lamp.

You could lie down on the cot in such a way that the light fell on the page you were reading. Insects that clustered around the light were a nuisance of course. If the light hurt, you could always move the cot into the dark. In four days Kumaresan had got the hang of it all. But he hadn’t got used to the sound of vehicles on the road. Each vehicle that screamed past him filled him with dread. There were a couple of houses in the distance. He was not afraid to be alone. Once he began to read, time passed rather quickly. He had planned to read a book every night.

On that fifth night, the book that he had picked up to read was not interesting enough. One sequence was straightforward narrative, the second was pseudo-philosophy. His mind was not on the book. He put it away and lay on the cot, gazing at the sky. After a while, he got up, and sat on the edge of the byepass, watching the vehicles go by. A skip and his feet landed firm on a covered storm-water drain. He began to walk along it.

In those brief moments when no vehicle came down the road, nothing but walled darkness. If it was the night of the waxing moon, it would have been nicer. Nothing as far as the eye could see. He felt odd, walking alone. He returned and flung himself on the cot. The ropes were frayed and the cot seemed a hanging cradle. He got up, moved it into the dark, and fell asleep very soon.

He did not know what time it was, but he woke up startled at someone touching him. The dark whispered, “Sir, Sir…” He could make out a shape moving. He roused himself from sleep and stood up. His first “party”. The man was probably thirty to thirty-five years old. Regular pants and shirt. A pair of rubber slippers on his feet. But one can’t judge a man by any of this. In these parts, there were folks who had crores of rupees yet managed to look starved and impoverished.

It looked like the man had been to a temple. There was sacred ash and kumkum smeared on his neck and forehead. His bike had developed a puncture. He had parked it at that very spot and come searching for a mechanic. He must have come half-walking, half-running. His neck and face were bathed in sweat. “Come, let’s go,” he said, imagining Kumaresan to be the mechanic. He looked as though he was ready to drag Kumaresan off with him. He was perturbed and in a great hurry.

Kumaresan called Valavan on his cellphone. The phone rang but was not picked up. He tried twice, but still the same. The man was impatient.

“Could we go now?”

“The guy’s got to come,” replied Kumaresan. “Sit down.” He pointed to a stone nearby. Before he could call Valavan again, he called himself.

“Will come,” Valavan said, and switched off without saying anything more. The man did not sit down.

“When will the guy come?”

He asked the same question in many different ways. Kumaresan tried talking to him about other things, but it didn’t help. The man’s heart was not in these attempts at conversation. Perhaps he was anxious at having left his bike there, thought Kumaresan.

It did not take long for Valavan to come. He was there at the tenth minute. His village was not too far from the road. He had got up, fetched his bike and was here. He looked as if he had just had sex. He looked at the man.

“What kind of bike is it?”

The man replied, giving the bike’s name. A regular, heavy vehicle.

“Where have you left it standing?”

The man was unable to tell him clearly. But he said that it was within walking distance.

“What wheel?”

“Back wheel.”

Valavan went into the hut and brought a broken steel chair. He set it outside and sat down.

“Sir, let’s go.”

“What’re we going to do? Tell me! Can’t remove the back wheel. Even if I bring my tools there, there’s not enough light for me to mend the puncture. And even if I do that, can’t fill it with air. You tell me what I ought to do.” He spoke, smiling. The man did not know what to say.

Finally, he said, “Sir, what do you think we should do?” Valavan looked at Kumaresan, now seated on the cot.

“Hey, Mapila! What should we do?” Valavan appeared as if he was deep in thought.

“Uncle! Can’t we go in your vehicle and bring the wheel back?” He wanted to somehow help the man who had come to him.

“Easy enough if it were the front wheel. Not so easy, taking a back wheel off. Especially from this kind of bike. You’d need a workshop to do that.”

“Sir, do something, won’t you? Have left the vehicle all by itself…” The man moved close to Valavan, almost begging him to act.

“You’ve left it on the road?”

“No, on the side. But I am scared.”

“Feel sorry for you. What could you have done all alone? Think you could push the bike to this spot? I could then maybe fix the puncture.”

“I don’t think I could do that. It’s too far.”

“In that case, there’s only one thing to be done. We need to get a minidor, a small van. And get the bike onto it, bring it here, and fix the puncture.”

“At this time of the night? Think we’ll find a minidor?”

“Let me see. Know a couple of chaps who have such a van. But they are probably dead drunk and fast asleep. Don’t know if they’ll pick up their phones. Should I call them, I wonder. But it would cost you something. Do you have enough with you?”

“Sure. Call them, Sir!”

His words came out in a hurry, as if he were ready to hand over his entire fortune to them. Valavan took out his cellphone and handed it to Kumaresan.

“Call Seelan!”

He tried, but no one picked up at the other end.

“Try Chandan!”

No reply. He asked him to try the numbers of a few others, but to no avail. Even Kumaresan began to feel anxious. It seemed to him that even if one of them picked up his phone, the puncture could be mended and done with.

Valavan rubbed his jaw. “There’s a fellow in the next village. Good sort of chap. He’s sure to come if I call him. But it’ll cost something. Should I try?”

“Sir, please try. The vehicle stands solitary…”

Valavan asked for his mobile, searched for the number and called. The man at the other end picked up the second time.

“Chinnava! At home? Could you bring your minidor? There’s a party here. Feel sorry for him. I have no business calling you at this time of the night. But the man looks worried … yes, come, we’ll add that to our bill. No problem. Counting you there’s four of us, and we should be able to roll the bike on to the van. Not to worry about money. Won’t you come, for my sake?”

Valavan hung up.

“He’ll come. If he doesn’t come when I call him out for a job, chances are I won’t call him the second time.”

“The bike stands alone, Sir. Ask him to come soon.”

“Patience. I’ve woken the man up from his sleep. He needs to wash his face, get going. Come, sit down. See this byepass road. Vehicles on it all the time, but not one of them would stop. This is almost a nowhere land. No one’s going to take your bike away. Is it a new bike? First time you are riding it, after you’ve got it? Why this hurry?”

Valavan continued to talk. The man sat down, on his haunches, with his head bent low. He wiped his eyes from time to time. Kumaresan felt sorry for him.

“Brother! Crying? Don’t worry, nothing will happen to your bike. Should you and I go there, and wait for these men to catch up with us. Uncle, should we go, and you follow us?”

Kumaresan tried to console the man.

“You’re such a clown! You’re going to walk all the way? The minidor should be here anytime. Stay quiet!” Valavan sounded angry.

Hearing him yell, it suddenly struck Kumaresan that he and the man whose bike had stopped were being added on as new characters to what was clearly a familiar piece of drama. Valavan must have seen many men, mended hundreds of punctures. These men have obviously worked hard at being theatrical, have trained up for it. Kumaresan got ready to play his part of interested spectator.

Hardly had Valavan quieted Kumaresan, when the light from the minidor came splashing across the inside road that led from the villages to the byepass. Chinnavan parked the van opposite the workshop, got down and lit a cigarette. He looked at Kumaresan.

“How’s he here?”

“He sleeps here to notify me if a party were to come. He’s book-mad. I told him that he could read into the night, and if anyone should come by, let me know. That way, I told him, you tend your goats, and also find a bride for your brother,” replied Valavan, laughing.

“Sir, shouldn’t we go? Have left the bike standing…” The man pleaded and began moving towards the minidor.

“Hey, wait awhile. Tell us how far we need to go, and where your bike stands. I don’t want any haggling later on over costs,” said Chinnavan. The man realized that there was nothing he could do on his own.

“It stands two to two and a half kilometres from here. Will give you whatever you ask for. Let’s just go. The bike’s stood alone for too long…” The man was ready to fly his way to the spot.

Chinnavan threw his smoked cigaretted stub on to the ground and stabbed it with his feet. “Look, five hundred rupees for up to five kilometres. After that one hundred rupees for every kilometer. Three chaps to drag your bike up, and that’s two hundred rupees for each of us. Pay us after the work’s done. But no whingeing afterwards, saying that you have only this much money and so on. If you do, then we won’t hand over your bike. You’d need to bring us the money before we hand it over. Is that alright with you?”

The man pulled up his shirt, put his hands into his pocket and took out a purse. He opened it, and showed it to them in the light.

“Will pay up, Sir. Let’s go. The bike stands by itself.” His purse had several colourful banknotes. Valvan looked pleased.

“Right, let’s go. Why this anxiety, as if you’ve left behind your newly wedded bride?” Valvan smiled crookedly as he got ready to leave.

Valavan sat in front with Chinnavan. Kumaresan and the man climbed onto the back of the minidor.

“Look, the van has to go left for a kilometer, then turn right again. There’s no other way out. One kilometer up, then one kilometer to the right, and that is already two kilometres. And after that, hopefully we stop within a three-kilometer radius. If we go on, then you’ve got to give us the money we asked for. If you’re going to fuss and say this way, that way and so on, that won’t work.”

Chinnavan spoke up loudly from the front. The man shood his head in assent. He must have realized that there was no other way out for him.

In the night the byepass appeared one long whir and blinding brightness. It was not clear how much the man was familiar with the night road. As Chinnavan had noted, the van went ahead for a kilometer, turned right and came back to a spot opposite the puncture shop.

“This is where we started out from” said Kumaresan.

The man kept his eyes fixed on the road on the other side. He must have some marker in mind to identify where he’d left his bike. But he did not say anything. Suddenly, at one point on the road, he yelled: “Stop here! Stop here!”

Kumaresan pushed the small sliding door and put his mouth into the space that opened up to speak to the driver.

“Uncle! Stop!”

The van slowed down and stopped on the side of the road. The man jumped off even before the van had come to a complete halt and ran to the other side of the road.

“Careful!” shouted Kumaresan. A vehicle that appeared far away on the byepass could be upon a man in a trice.

The men melted into the darkness on the other side. He returned after five minutes. “Not here. We need to go ahead.”

“Why do you wake us from sleep and make us go here and there? Tell us correctly. We’ve already done four kilometres,” said Valavan.

“Drive slowly, let me keep my eyes on the road.”

“If we crawl along the byepass road, we’d be thrown off it, remember!” Chinnavan was angry.

“Brother, do you have any landmark in mind? Tell me, I could also look out for it,” offered Kumaresan. The man had at last started to trust him.

“There’s a small temple under a pala tree,” he said. “You hear the sound of spear-bells all the time. On the west side.”

Kumaresan was familiar with the road and all the villages around, but after the byepass road had been built, recognisable landmarks had all disappeared. Thousands of tamarind trees on both sides of the road had been chopped down, and with them went old and well-worn markers. Currently, there was only one marker – the tar on the road.

Kumaresan shut his eyes and thought. Pala tree, a small temple, the sound of spear-bells – his mind summoned all these images. After a while, it appeared as if he knew the place.

“Is there a long fence close to the spot?” he asked.

The man had not registered such a marker, but Kumaresan had actually guessed what place it could be. He should tell Valavan, he decided. He was sure to get scolded, though, for the two in front wanted to literally wander on the byepass.

Kumaresan looked out for the place, and when he spotted it said that they had arrived. The man yelled to the men in front. “Stop!” Only after they slid the small door and shouted into it did the van stop.

The man jumped down and disappeared into the darkness. There was no sign of him afterward.

“Where the hell has he gone now?” Chinnavan was annoyed.

The man returned after five minutes. Yes, this was the place.

“Can’t turn here to get to that place. We’d have to go for a kilometer at least. Remember the rates we quoted?” asked Chinnavan.

“I’ll wait here for you. You go and come back this side,” said the man.

They did not trust him and so asked Kumaresan to get off and stay with him.

The man crossed over, faster than any vehicle could. Kumaresan followed him at a leisurely pace. The temple stood fifty yards away from the road. The pala tree was dense with foliage. The man had already begun to wheel the bike that stood underneath the tree and towards the road. As he had noted, the spear-bells tinkled. They sounded a musical note that you could hear, when the din on the road ceased. The bike was not all that new. Perhaps a few years old. Why did the man fuss over such bike, thought Kumaresan, who was now somewhat irritated.

Kumaresan helped heave the bike on to the side of he road and sat down next to it. The man disappeared again into the darkness surrounding the temple. Must be his stomach churning. All that fear and worrying.

It was not clear how far the minidor had to go before it turned back. Even if they could veer around soon, they would return late, stop at some point and then start again. Valavan had a workshop in a nearby town. This sort of night job probably came his way once in a while. And brought him extra income. He probably had to pay something to the man who owned the land, where he had put up his makeshift hut. The bulb burned into the night, and he probably had to pay for that as well.

Kumaresan looked at every passing vehicle with double lights, wondering if it was the minidor, only to be disappointed. He was reminded – god knows why – of a film sequence featuring the comedian Koundamani. The latter hides from his wife the fact that he can’t see come sundown and continues to drive his lorry: “Two bikes were ahead of me, still I thought I could get in between them!” He laughed silently. Imagine sitting out on the road at that unholy hour and laughing within, surely that makes him a madman. The thought pleased Kumaresan.

At last, the minodor appeared on the road and stopped at Kumaresan’s feet. The man who had gone into the darkness was yet to return. Chinnavan opened the back door of the van. The man returned just then, and helped to wheel the bike towards the back of the van.

“We had to go around for two kilometres. Why would anyone come on this road at this time of night? No one ought to, even in the daytime! What’s the hurry that you should drive during the night?” Valavan had plenty of advice to offer.

Chinnavan climbed onto the back of the van. Valavan lifted the front wheel of the bike and placed it on the incline of the back door. Chinnavan pulled at the front wheel, and the other three pushed the bike from below and without trouble it climbed onto the van.

“Climb up!” called out Chinnavan.

“One minute,” said the man and ran towards the temple. When he returned, they saw a woman walking alongside him, her head bent to the ground.

“The man whined that the bike was standing solitary. Didn’t know he meant this bike!” laughed Valavan.

“Check out to see if it’s a new vehicle. After all, you’re the mechanic!” said Chinnavan.

As soon as they came closer, the woman covered her head with the ends of her sari. A slightly built woman. She looked rounder than she was, clad as she was, in a shining bright sari. Kumaresan was eager to see her face.

“Hey! What’s this? You’ve brought a woman…”

“Not that, Sir. She’s my wife. We’d gone for a function. We have some work in the morning, so we left even though it was late. Didn’t imagine the bike would develop a puncture.” The man sounded as if he was pleading.

“Whatever. In any case, give us your name, address. We don’t want any trouble,” said Chinnavan. The man attempted to absolve himself by providing names of his family, kinsfolk, village… Much of what he said pertained to places that were within a close radius of where they were, yet they could not quite place him.

The woman kept her face turned to the dark. Perhaps he had spoken the truth. But Valvan and Chinnavan spoke as if they suspected him of the worst. Maybe she was that sort of a woman? If so, would Valavan and Chinnavan speak to her? And what should he, Kumaresan, do? He stood, wondering.

“After this byepass was built, all sorts of chaps, drunkards, louts, those who are into debauchery hang around here. The darkness provides them all with the opportunity to do what they wish. Can’t trust a man, these days!” said Chinnavan, and added: “Okay, get on to the back. Pay up for that ticket as well!”

“She’s my wife.” The man sounded weepy. He put his foot on to the door of the minidor and hoisted himself up. He then held his hand out to his wife. She looked as if she was not even breathing. She clambered up and went and stood behind him. Valvan was all set, having shut the back door and was ready to go up front, when he stopped suddenly. He opened the back door and climbed up.

“Brother, I thought you were going to climb up front! But you’ve climbed behind!” said Chinnavan from the wheel.

“I am bored climbing up front all the time. Why not climb onto the back, this one time?” said Valavan, his mouth to the sliding door. Kumaresan heard them both laugh out loud. He was both afraid and worried. His mind searched in the pages of the books he had read, if they featured scenes such as this one. He did not know what to do. He could not also figure out which way his own mind was inclined.

The van started off on the road. The man and his wife stood behind the bike. On the left stood Valavan and Kumaresan. In five minutes they would be at the workshop. But Valvan could not stay quiet even for that short period of time. He started to say this and that. The wind that blew from the opposite end swallowed his words so none could actually hear what he said. Kumaresan asked from time to time: “What, Uncle? What’re you saying, Uncle?” But he could not make out what Valavan was saying. But he realized that his words were spilling over with laughter.

The van arrived at the workshop. The man held out his hand and helped her get down. She adjusted her sari ends that had slid off and went and stood near the van, at its very edge. They brought the bike down.

“Thought it was a new bike? Been riding it for long?”

“No, Sir. An old one. Bought it second-hand. Over a year now.” The man sounded humble.

“You were excited over this old bike? Let me ride it around once, after I’ve mended the puncture. I’ll know the condition it’s in then,” said Chinnavan. Valavan went in to the hut to get all that was needed to mend the puncture.

“You get your cash from the party and leave. I’ll handle this,” said Valavan.

“I’ll go. But what’s the hurry? Let me check this bike out!” said Chinnavan. He was laughing.

“You don’t let a bike be! Broken or old, you try and get on to it. Alright, stay. Good to have someone to talk to. Mapilai here is new. Look at him. One look at the bike, and he’s shivering in his pants” said Valavan.

The man went and stood by the woman’s side, half hidden from view.

“Why don’t you come and sit here? Don’t you want to see what’s happening to your bike?” shouted Valavan. He and Chinnavan sounded excited.

Chinnavan turned to Kumaresan. “Ever mended a puncture? Want to try doing it now?”

“Brother, I don’t know how to.”

“Hey, he says he doesn’t know how to…” echoed Chinnavan. Valavan laughed aloud and Chinnavan joined him. Valavan pulled the tube out and held it in his hand.

“The tube’s frayed and almost gone. You must have rolled the bike along nicely.”

Valavan shouted in the direction of the van, where the man was standing. He came out of the darkness.

“Brother, please mend it somehow. It’s enough if the bike gets me home. I’ll deal with it in the morning.” There was a tremor in his voice.

“Not possible. If there’s a puncture you ought to stop right there. If you roll the bike this way and that, the tube is bound to get this way,” said Valavan.

“Will the tube work or not? Tell us that!” said Chinnavan.

“You feel it now and tell me what you think,” retorted Valavan.

At that moment Kumaresan realized there was not a word in the language that meant only one thing and nothing else.

Let me tell you at this point that things did not turn out as Kumaresan had anticipated. I shall summarise here what actually happened. Valavan said that they’d have to go and wake up the cycle shop owner and get a new tube. He asked the man to go along with Chinnavan. But the man refused. He did not move away from the woman, even for a moment. So Valavan and Chinnavan went along and returned with the tube. They changed the tube and handed the bike back to the man. The cost of renting the minidor, money owed for pulling the bike on to it, the price of the tube, labour costs for changing it: Valavan got this numbers together and demanded a considerable sum of money. Without saying a word, the man gave him whatever he had asked for and then sped away on his bike. She sat behind him, but even then did not show them her face.

Valavan and Chinnavan argued amongst themselves about whether she was his wife or not. They left thereafter, but not before they handed a five-hundred rupee note to Kumaresan. He was, however, disappointed. His mind refused to accept the money – wages of sin, he felt. What was he to do with it, though, now that he had it?

Should he drop it in a beggar’s bowl? But then he was determined never to give money to beggars. Should he send it to an orphanage? On the other hand, was it right to pass on the wages of sin to another? It was best that he dropped it off in a temple hundi. But he did not quite believe in God. At least not that much. After thinking about it for a long time, he decided at last to use the money to buy a book that he had long wanted.

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