The herd of impalas grazed on the grass, while the calves frolicked around. However, in a ruthless place like the savanna, all it takes is a second to shatter the serenity. A high-pitched distress call rattled the antelopes, and they bolted for dear life.
The leopard pounced on the dazed calf.
But… after a painfully terrible ordeal.
The predator swatted at the prey, as if daring it to escape. The calf made a tottering attempt to stand up, but the sharp claws of the cat held it back. The baby quaked in fear, as the searing feline gaze penetrated its doe eyes. A few agonizing moments followed. The leopard held its victim by the scruff of its neck, taunting it with occasional bites. The heart-wrenching cries of the impala echoed throughout the Masai Mara, as Mother Nature witnessed the harsh rules she had set for her children. Finally, the misery of the calf ended when the wild cat snapped its spine.
The circle of life rolled on.
Miles away, in a civilized land, Kaliamoorthy prayed fervently for death, as his son donned the role of a heartless predator, participating in a menacing ritual under the garb of tradition.
The frail nonagenarian lay on his cot, with only a loincloth covering his modesty. Occasionally his right hand twitched, as though it had acquired a life on its own and had decided to taunt the rest of its paralyzed companions. His incoherent mumblings fell on deaf ears, and tears trickled down sideways, wetting the makeshift pillow made from rolling his own dirty and tattered vest.
What goes around comes around!
Hadn’t he ignored the bone-chilling wails of his own mother?
Kaliamoorthy tried calling out his son’s name, but what emerged from his throat was a guttural sound, as though a sharp knife had delicately sliced through a goat’s neck.
Oh Holy Amman! Please take me away. Fast.
He knew, however, with a sinking heart, that his pleas would never reach the Goddess. His son Kottaichamy had made up his mind, and he wouldn’t rest unless he had executed it. Kaliamoorthy cursed his daughter-in-law Deivanai. He was sure she was the brain behind the decision.
She has always been vile. This woman!
The old man closed his eyes. Sleep would not be forthcoming. He was sure of that. It had probably connived with Death to toss him into a cauldron of miseries and temper it with doses of karmic justice, until his defiled soul begged for release.
As his bladder succumbed to its urge, Kaliamoorthy heard the approaching footsteps of his son. His failing eyes paced from the crease on Kottaichamy’s forehead to the flared nostrils. His heart stopped for a fleeting second when he saw what was in his hands. Sadly, it started beating again, as if to drive home the point – I won’t let you die so easily!
He had done that to his hapless mother. Now the chickens had come home to roost.
There was no frigging escape.
“All ok? Why are you so early today?” asked Janaki, raising her eyebrows.
“I have a severe headache. I couldn’t concentrate on my work. So I requested my manager to grant me a half-day’s leave. He agreed”, replied Kaliamoorthy. “Where is our Chamy? Playing?”
Janaki shrugged her shoulders. “He must have gone to his friend’s place. Or roaming around somewhere. I told him to be home before lunch. I will box his ears. Wait! Let him come”, she hollered.
Kaliamoorthy unbuttoned his shirt, splashed his face with water stored in a barrel, switched on the ceiling fan, and lay down on the cot. “Where’s the pain balm?”
Janaki rushed to the cupboard and took out a tube from inside. “Is it too severe?”
Kaliamoorthy nodded. “It is as if somebody is hammering away inside my head.”
Without waiting for further instructions, Janaki ambled towards the cot, sat on its edge, squeezed out a tiny portion of the balm, and rubbed it over Kaliamoorthy’s forehead in a gentle motion.
“Mmmm… I wish I could have a headache the whole day”, mumbled Kaliamoorthy.
Janaki covered her face with the edge of her saree. “Have some shame. You have a ten-year-old son now.”
Kaliamoorthy looked up. Kottaichamy was dipping his fingers into the bowl and rubbing its contents all over the shriveled body in swift, circular and brisk motions. Those eyes looked vacant, as though he had pulled a curtain over them. His lips were pursed, and his hand movements were rough. Being paralyzed had its advantages, Kaliamoorthy thought ruefully. He tried to sniff. Yes! The unmistakable aroma of coconut, castor and sesame oil. Every elderly person in the village knew about this potion.
Kaliamoorthy cursed the Amman for taking away Janaki before him. Had she been alive, she would have slapped the living daylights out of their son and reprimanded that devil incarnate Deivanai severely.
“Appaaaaaaaa”, little Kottaichamy called out.
“What happened, my Chamy?” Kaliamoorthy rushed towards the bathroom.
“There’s no water coming from the tap.”
“Wait, son. I will get some from the well.”
“Fast, appa. Fast. I will be late for school.”
Kaliamoorthy dashed towards the well, flung the bucket down, and pulled it up. He then looked around and called his wife. “Janaki. Get me the pink bucket.”
A voice came from the kitchen. “I will be needing it.”
“Later! Chamy will be late for school. You can do your chores later. I have to fill up the bucket and give it to him. He is stuck in the bathroom.”
Murmuring, Janaki limped towards the well, holding a bucket.
Kaliamoorthy poured out the water from the well onto the pink bucket, and carrying it, sprinted towards the bathroom. He knocked twice. Immediately, the door opened, and a boy’s hand filled with foam reached out, grabbing the bucket.
“C… C…. Chamy.”
The impassioned pleas of a man on the verge of death would have moved a rock, but Kottaichamy remained unperturbed as he lifted up the weather-beaten pink bucket. Cold water fell in a cascade over his father, as the semi-naked body shivered involuntarily. Kaliamoorthy gasped for oxygen when the water gushed over his face. But life still clung on to the old man, like a parent’s unconditional love for their only child.
“O Amman. Please let me die. Don’t make my dear Chamy a sinner.”
However, on that day, the Goddess decided to remain a mute witness and to turn Her attention away from rules She didn’t create in the first place.
“Appa. I am feeling so thirsty. My throat is parched. Can you buy me a cold drink?”
“No, my child. It’s not good for your health. Wait. Let me check. Ah there! I will get you tender coconut water.”
“I don’t want it, appa.”
“Why are you crying now, Chamy?”
“Everybody in my class says the cold drinks are tasty. And here you are! Making me drink this bland stuff.”
“My child! See the sun. How bright it’s shining. Coconut water will help you to keep your stomach cool. God knows what all chemicals are there in the cold drinks.”
With little Kottaichamy still flailing his arms in protest, Kaliamoorthy pulled him gently towards him and hugged him, tenderly stroking his black curly hair. Gradually the sobs died down. Father and son walked hand in hand towards the coconut vendor.
“W…. W…. Water.”
Despite the sun being directly overhead, Kaliamoorthy shivered.
High fever has set in.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Kottaichamy and Deivanai standing outside the main door. The woman’s face betrayed no emotions, as she spoke in an undertone to her husband. She then went inside, while Kottaichamy sat on the makeshift stool outside.
Five minutes later, Deivanai emerged with a steel lota in her hand.
Kottaichamy looked up, and taking the lota from her, climbed down the two steps, eyes cast down, and moved with hesitant steps towards the cot, where the frail figure of his cursed father lay.
“T… T….. Thirsty.”
“Have this, appa”, he whispered. A solitary tear trickled down his left cheek.
Kaliamoorthy’s lips trembled. “W… W … Water?”
Kottaichamy leaned towards his father, and with his left hand, pried open the lips in a not-so-gentle motion. Clutching the lota in his right hand, he brought it to Kaliamoorthy’s mouth. His eyes closed for a tiny second. Taking a deep breath, he opened them, and tilted the lota slightly. A whitish liquid rolled down the old man’s mouth. Some of the contents spilled over to his neck, where they continued on their southward journey till a few droplets settled down on his chest. The arrhythmic breathing made them wiggle, but the white tangled mass of hair entrapped them within its curls.
A sharp sound emanated from Kaliamoorthy’s throat, as he sputtered and spat out the liquid. His body shook with violent coughs, and urine leaked out.
Hadn’t he espoused the virtues of tender coconut water to his Chamy? And when the little boy had grimaced at the tumbler of milk, Kaliamoorthy had made him drink it.
It was only a matter of time now before this exact potion would work its way inside him, pushing him to the precipice of death.
“Are you listening to me?” called out Janaki to her husband.
Kaliamoorthy bit into an achappam. “Mmmm… Wait.”
His wife approached him and took her seat next to him. “What’s there to wait? You just need to hear. You don’t need your mouth for that.”
Kaliamoorthy took a sip of tea from his tumbler.
“Murukku stock is over. Our Chamy loves it. Please buy a packet when you go to the stores.”
Her husband nodded.
A faint smile hovered over her lips. The apple of her eye, Chamy.. how his eyes used to light up when he saw his mother weaving magic with the dough. Her health was failing now. But she ensured that her dearest son got his share of murukkus from the store.
“M… M… My b… b…. bad l… l…. l…. l…. luck.”
“Deivanai”, Kottaichamy thundered.
His wife sprinted towards him. “What happened?”
“I can’t take this anymore.”
“It’s too late to go back now. Wait. I will bring the murukku.”
At that moment, Kottaichamy fell down on the ground, banging his forehead with his fists. “I am a sinner. Please forgive me, O Amman.!”
Deivanai wiped her eyes with the end of her saree and sat down next to her husband. “You are not alone. I will take the blame too. Remember? We have a daughter to marry off. Your heart operation needs money too. Does it grow on trees? It’s been aged since I have had a simple meal of rice and fish. How long can we survive on porridge?”
Kottaichamy let out a wail.
Deivanai continued, “I sold my wedding bangle for his treatment. What happened? What more can I sell now? Is it selfish to think of our future? Who will look after us when we grow old?”
With that, she got up. The shocked eyes of her father-in-law would haunt her forever. But she had a job to do. She bit her lips as unshed tears threatened to give her inner turmoil away. Before she could lose her composure, she dashed towards the house.
Water mixed with mud and broken crumbs of murukku should do the trick.
A gentle breeze blew in the evening. Women with jasmine flowers adorning their hair made their way to the temple. Somewhere a loudspeaker blared out songs in praise of the Amman.
In short, it was just another day in a village.
Not for Kaliamoorthy, though!
The old man choked on the mud water mixed with murukku crumbs, and his breaths came in excruciatingly agonizing intervals. His eyes rolled up, and death finally pounced on him. His misery ended – just like the impala calf at the hands of the leopard.
The potbellied doctor lifted the left hand of Kaliamoorthy.
A lump formed in his throat and he coughed in an attempt to ward off any untoward attention towards himself. He knew!
Out came his notepad.
A heart-rending cry escaped from Kottaichamy as he beat his chest frantically. It was all over. Finally.
Death due to cardiac arrest, was the official statement.
Thalaikoothal claimed one more victim that day.
Thalaikoothal (Thalai – head Oothal – to pour) is a ‘tradition’ of a gruesome involuntary euthanasia of elderly people by their own family members. Though banned, it still thrives in remote villages in Tamil Nadu. Abject poverty is the main reason for this ghastly ritual.
Murukku – A fried savoury made of rice flour (Like Chakli)
Achappam – rose cookies, deep-fried, and made with rice flour. Though a signature Syrian Christian food, it’s relished by all
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