Excerpt: Heat by Poomani
15-year-old Chidambaram kills a powerful landlord to avenge the murder of his elder brother. Told in vivid flashes as the boy and his father wander through the hinterland avoiding capture, Heat presents at a family transformed by grief. This excerpt looks at the first tragedy that foreshadows the one at the centre of this classic of modern Tamil literature
For visaakam, Ayya received a brand-new dhoti and towel from the ginning factory.
Janaki and Chidambaram happily traipsed behind Annan. When she saw a karagam dancer, a woman, swivel her waist sharply, Janaki asked him, ‘Won’t her waist break in two, Chelambaram?’
In another place, a kuravan–kurathi dance accompanied by naiyaandi melam was being performed. Dramas sponsored by a few big bidi companies were performed at the temple junction. They didn’t watch any of the acts to the end. When they were returning home, the programme on the radio was blaring above all the other noise.
Three days later, Janaki insisted stubbornly that she would come to the hill. No matter how much Aththai tried to convince her, she simply would not listen. Aththai relented finally and sent her with Chidambaram. She remembered to give them flipflops to wear for the trip.
Janaki ran eagerly to climb the hill. He didn’t find climbing difficult. His main difficulty was taking her along. She started whining when they were halfway up the hill. ‘Chelambaram, I want custard apple.’
She loved green custard apples. She would keep them like cowpeas in a pouch at her waist. She would whine and make such demands whenever there was no school. He wouldn’t be able to face her if he didn’t bring some for her.
‘We’ll go up and look for them.’
All along the route, she peeped into the caves. He kept scaring her till they reached the cave temple.
When she saw the cave temple, her cheerful mood vanished and her face shrank. How eager she had been at the entrance to the temple!
There were two statues inside the temple, of an adult man and a boy. The adult was grotesque to look at. He was wearing the boy’s entrails around his neck.
The boy lay on the ground, his belly torn open and bleeding, and the imprint of death upon his features. On another side, there was the statue of a woman looking at the two and laughing.
Janaki gripped his hand. He asked her, ‘Why are you staring like that?’
She was still unable to speak. She wanted to leave. She didn’t speak until both of them had reached the tamarind tree at the top.
When they sat down under the shade of the tree, she asked him, ‘Why is it like that inside the temple, Chelambaram?’
‘How would I know?’
‘I don’t like it either.’
‘That poor little boy. Why did they have to pull out his intestines?’
‘There’s a story they tell in the village. Don’t you know it?’
‘The big man is the father and the boy is his son, it seems.’
‘See that temple next to this one? Inside that temple, there was a half-done idol that the father would sculpt daily, they say. Every afternoon, the boy would bring him food from down below. When the father was sculpting, the son too picked up a chisel in the next temple and started sculpting in time with the taps of his father’s chisel. So the father couldn’t hear the sound of two chisels. One day, when the father stopped his work, he heard the sound of another chisel. He went out to look and found out that in the neighbouring temple the boy had finished carving a beautiful idol. The father became very angry. He tore open his son’s belly with the same chisel and wore the boy’s intestines around his neck.’
She closed her eyes with both hands. Then she looked at him. ‘Poor boy. Why should the father mind if the son makes an idol?’
‘The little boy had done a much better job than the adult, see? That’s why the father got angry.’
‘Who made idols of these two, then?’
‘The father himself did it, perhaps.’
Janaki didn’t speak much after that. She seemed unwell. They didn’t go to the temple near the hilltop.
They peeped into another cave. Inside, a hermit was sitting on a deerskin spread on a stone seat. His eyes were closed. His head was full of grey hair. After moving on from there, Janaki asked Chidambaram, ‘Does that man sit here all the time?’
‘What will he do for food?’
‘People who climb up the hill give him fruits and milk. That’s his food. If you go down a short distance from here, there’s a spring that never goes dry. He bathes there.’
‘He has matted hair. Won’t he get it cut?’
‘He never comes down from the hill.’
‘Why should he live like this?’
‘I don’t understand it, either.’
When they climbed down to the foothill, Janaki didn’t ask for custard apple. He wondered what had been the point of bringing her along.
She didn’t go back to the hill a second time.
He still couldn’t quite believe that Janaki had died. She had been laid up with fever for nearly four days, moaning terribly all night. One night was especially bad, with no one managing any sleep. He stayed awake too for a while, and then fell asleep. In the morning he woke up to the sound of people wailing. Janaki was no more.