Suneetha Balakrishnan writes in and translates into English and Malayalam. Her latest publication is the Malayalam translation of Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. She is an independent journalist by profession and works from her home in Trivandrum, India. Her debut novel, set in her paradoxical home region, Kerala, awaits a publisher.
Translation: ‘In Hope They Trust’ by Chandramathi
The woman sat on a chair, near her beloved who was stretched out on the cot in eternal sleep. Several inmates shuffled in and out of the room. She saw everyone, yet did not see anyone. Another woman sat on another chair and murmured the lines from the all-religion-prayer that they usually recited at dusk. She was a friend of the first woman. She maintained her distance from the corpse and watched her friend whose eyes were perpetually wet.
‘Rachel’, she called out, ‘Don’t cry. The Lord calls everyone to him one day. Avarachan just happened to leave a day ahead. You haven’t even taken a sip of water since yesterday. Gather yourself up. And those who want to come will come in their own time. Shall I tell that girl Mary to get tea for you?’
‘No’, mumbled Rachel, ‘Let them come first.’
Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you. You will get dizzy. What sort of behaviour is this? Just listen to me, Rachel.’
‘Elizabeth, would you just be quiet?’
Silence reigned in the room after this conversation. Shyamala, the old woman who was sitting on the floor despite a vacant chair, said, ‘It’s the custom where I come from that when there’s a corpse lying around, no living creature even swallows a sip of water. And this is her husband…’
Granny Elizabeth glared at Granny Shyamala and then decided to swallow what she had been about to say. Granny Rachel went back to her private mourning without having heard Granny Shyamala.
The committee members gathered on the verandah were losing patience. They were talking about legal proceedings against those who didn’t obey the law. Each organization had a set of laws, and they were written in steel, meant to be obeyed. Individuals were bound to obey them. And the last rites of inmates did not come under the legal framework of this Old Age Home. It was a compulsory clause for those people who came to admit old people at this home: once the inmates breathed their last, the dead body would be taken away. And look at what was happening here!
All the corpses so far have behaved with decorum. They went out in willing obedience with their heirs. Avarachan and Rachel have been trouble-makers right from Day One. There isn’t a single person here with whom Avarachan has not fought. Rachel is just slightly better. This guy has even had words with me! And there wasn’t a day when he didn’t have a sharp word with Mary, in the kitchen.
Mary, the Girl, who had been listening to this monologue by a committee member, muttered to herself, Marry not Mary; that’s the name my parents have given me. This bloody place has made me Mary.
She remembered how the Grandpa who was lying dead used to address her with a loving ‘Hey Girl Marry’, when that Granny was nowhere near him. She felt her anger calm down at that.
It was the third son they finally got on the phone, and the committee secretary, a young man, informed anyone who cared that he did not seem very interested in coming. The man’s son had been preparing for the Entrance examination, which was to be held the next day. And a death in the family would play havoc with the kid’s chances.
‘How many children do they have?’ an older member enquired.
‘Two boys and a girl, and the elder son is in America.’
‘Then dial that girl.’
‘I did that, dear brother. And you know what her husband suggested? That we do all the formalities here; that they would come in time for the funeral; also to consider that it’s the World Cup Finals today and not to hold the funeral while South Africa was batting.’
‘Only the TV has Life these days,’ the middle-aged committee member commented.
‘Did they mention anything about the expenses?’
‘No they didn’t, so I asked. And then they want us to call America.’
‘No! With that money, we can hold a grand funeral.’
‘Brother, this is a credit call.’
‘What’s that, brother?’
‘The American guy will pay for the call we make to him, and we need to confirm before that that he is okay with paying.’
‘Now, who is going to ask that?’
‘There is a number for that too.’
‘We don’t need new ‘numbers’ now, so tell me how do we decide what to do with Avarachan?’
‘Let’s ask the old lady.’
Rachel was adamant even then. ‘No, don’t do anything here. They will come. My girl Lissy and Thomaskutty will rush in when they hear. I am only doubtful about Antony making it from America.’
The committee members moved to the verandah again.
‘Now what do we do? How do we tell the old lady what two of her kids have said?’
‘It will be the last of her, if she gets to know this.’
‘That would be better and cheaper for us; we can hold both the funerals together. It doesn’t look like any of their kids are going to contribute anything.’
‘Don’t talk nonsense.’
‘Let’s see what the American says now.’
‘Right you are! Till then… hey you girl, Mary, get us five strong cups of tea.’
‘Marry, not Mary,’ she spoke under her breath as she walked to the kitchen.
‘They will come,’ Rachel told Shyamala. “My children are all sweet; it’s their spouses who are thorny. Till they came in, do you know how happy we were? Five acres and latex… I can still see Thomaskutty with a band round his head, walking out onhis daily routine of gathering latex…. When Dad and son went out, Lissy would cry. Antony was not around then. We made our wealth with our sweat. We have eaten only the fruit of our sweat. And when we built up assets, our children took spouses, and they made all the trouble…’
‘Who brought you here?’ asked Shyamala.
‘No one. When the daily fights grew, and we lost peace of mind, Avarachan said, come Rachel, we will go to an old age home, we don’t need to listen to these Satanic conversations. And that’s how we came here alone. And we gave these people the money they asked. And now Avarachan has gone off on his own, leaving me alone…’
Rachel started to weep again.
‘My partner went away so long ago,’ Shyamala sighed.
‘How did he die?’ Elizabeth made small talk.
‘That sinner is damn alive. He married again and is living happily. It’s just because he was not there to support me when my kids kicked me out that I had to come here.’
Rachel did not hear any of this; three fat babies ran round her mind, playing.
‘They will surely come,’ she murmured again.
Antony spoke to the committee secretary from America.
‘No problem. Do it in a way that suits our status. You can get the money from Sheila Jewelers in the city. And Sheila and I cannot even consider coming down. There is a slight problem with that. You see, Sheila has told all our fellow repatriates here that my parents died two years ago in a car accident. That’s what is considered a respectable death here. Now how can I tell them a different story?
Again, if we leave for the home country now, we will have to face a thousand questions on what emergency is making us travel. You know how the people from our place behave, everyone is jealous of us. They say we have black money, and it’s our own people who spread these rumours… so what I say is, do what is needed at your end… And one more thing, if anything happens to Mom, don’t waste your time calling me up. You can do the same things as you do for Dad… Okay, so I hope there are no more problems. Shall I end the call?’
The committee members came back to the room and Rachel looked up and said again, ‘They will definitely come. They can’t but come; that’s how we have brought them up…’
Short story ‘Varum Varaathirikkilla’ by Chandramathi, dated 1999, in Malayalam.