IT was raining. There was a sea of black umbrellas, all open, all moving. Their rib
cages gleaming copper in the dusk. Occasionally one could see the river, but it was just a
glimpse, through a dark mass of moving people.
What in hell was I doing here? My teeth were cold and clamped together. My clothes were
soaked, my bags were heavy and I had no umbrella.Then I felt someone holding my arm.
"Who was the bishop to you?" he asked me, the way he always spoke, curtly,
"My father's friend. They studied together. And to you?" I answered.
"My mother's brother."
"That close? I never knew."
"Come back with us to the house. My mother will want to see you after all these
"I can't. I am going to Allapuzha. I must see my father today."
"How old is he now? Seventy?"
"He had you when he was thirty-three then. How many children do you have.?"
"None" I said, smiling "I never married."
"What! I always imagined you with a thin bony husband with curly hair and ironed
"You thought of me."
"Often. It's a pity you had no dowry, and then you had ambitions. We would not
have lasted together for long."
"You always were so shameless and cruel."
Philip let go of my arm. His hair was grey in place, and his square jaw was resolute.
"So did you become a doctor?" he asked me.
"And where did you go?"
"I went to Bombay."
"Bombay. What's it like?" he asked idly We had reached the main road. The
river glinted behind us -- neither blue nor grey nor black -- just spangled by the lights
of the roadside.
"Sounds like Europe."
"Been there?" I started laughing.
"No. Who's got the time? But I watch films." He rolled up his starched linen
sleeves. His wrists were very thin and the bones were very prominent.
"What about you? Did you marry?" I said as clinicalIy as possible.
"Of course I did. You know I was not destined to study like you. I grew tapioca.
"Tapioca." l looked at him in horror.
"Why not? Don't you eat tapioca and fish any more?"
"I haven't eaten tapioca or any sort of yam since I left home."
"Come home then. There's the car -- my wife and my children -- come and meet
"No, I'll go. I don't want to meet them."
"Forgotten your Malayalam?"
"What are we speaking in?"
He turned his face away towards the stream of traffic coming our way. The second of the
funeral cars stopped, and he got in. He slammed the door shut and looked straight ahead.
His wife was very lovely -- small, squat, sturdy with a round face and laughing eyes.
It was not strange really the quick intimacy we had fallen into. I may be protesting
too much, but it was not sexual, and it was not because it was Philip. Men always talked
to me with an ease -- not flirtatious-- but a closeness that came from the belief that I,
as a physician, understood their bodies, anonymously and immediately. Bare all. I am
forty-seven! Not so old -- half way through life, since everyone lives to a great age in
my family. The longevity was a charm, not a curse. All the men and women in both father's
line and mother's line, had this great gift of a long life. How did they spent it? Reading
newspapers and the Bible, looking up for a moment when over-ripe jackfruit dashed to the
ground in some nearby field.
I wanted to see my father. He would be waiting for me across that huge expanse of
water, waiting for news of his friend, now interred, who had studied with him sixty years
ago -- Mar Raphael.
I caught the Fast Passenger from the junction. We went hurtling through narrow country
roads, falling through potholes and rolling out with amazing ease.The passengers were surprised to see me alone -- a woman, at night in a Fast Passenger!-- but I sat comfortably listening to the rain drumming against the tarpaulin curtains.
I took out my cigarettes from my squelchy leather handbag. How it had rained! I didn't
look about, but I could sense the astonishment about me, "Cigarettes, no secret!" I knew I ought not to smoke, but then what the hell! My patients, smokers at the end of the line themselves, didn't object either to my rasping bedside tone or the raw odour of tobacco around me. Father would of course. I shuddered, and looked out of the window, twirling up the heavy tarpaulin as best as I could. The rain slanted in. Everything was hazy, but the red tiled roofs of hurtling houses came across in the dim lights washed and clean.
We reached Allapuzha at eight in the evening. The house had been newly painted. The
coconut trees had started to flower. The door was shut. I rang the bell, and sat on the
mosaic ledge which circled the balcony. The smell of bitter lemons was in the air. The
rain had stopped, not even a drizzle. I could hear the dog barking at the back.Was my
father already asleep? Oh God. It was difficult waking him up once he'd gone to bed. Then
I saw him through the iron grille: he was shuffling to the door, tying his white linen
dhoti, his face crushed and wrinkled from sleep and age.
"Is this the time to come home?"
"It's only eight o' clock.
"Exactly. Look at it! It's night."
"Why do you go to sleep so early? Aren't you glad to see me?"
Suddenly he smiled -- his teeth were crooked and yellow, but his beautiful brown eyes were alight.
"Come in. I wake up at four you know in the morning, and then there's so much to
do the whole day. If your mother were alive I wouldn't be so tired. Look, have you eaten?
There's some bread and butter. Fresh bread from the bakery. Go wash. And don't give the
I put my bags into the cupboard. The teak-wood was thick and old, the latch was a solid
block which ran across the length of the two doors. I hid my cigarettes behind my books.
Father always went through everything I had -- a habit of surveillance he'd kept on
from my childhood. There was no point expecting things to be different. Neither he nor I
believed that I had been around for more than forty years. In some ways I would always be
a child: talented, skilled professionally, but unable to mature. Luckily it was not
noticeable enough to matter.
I slept the sleep of the exhausted -- dead to the world in the pitch dark room where no
moon shadows came. I loved that room. It had been mine since birth.
I went out to speak to father. He was raking leaves.
"So. Why have you come home at this time of the year. Want money to set up a
"No. I thought I'd see you."
"There's nothing wrong with one. Nothing right either. Tell me, do you really get
"I'm the best."
"You always were absentminded. Are you sure you don't leave things behind in
I shifted weight from one foot to another like I did when I was small. Now he would ask
me whether I cooked at all. I was longing for coffee and cigarettes. The smell of dry
leaves, scented with margosa and mango was terrific. The sky was clean blue, not a cloud.
I thought of Philip. There had been something troubling about the way he fitted back into
my life, everything as familiar as well-trod memory. He'd thought of me often and I of
him. An absence of thirty years had made no difference.
I made tea slowly -- no coffee to be found. Mother drank coffee, and father drank tea.
My back hurt, my head was heavy. I felt slowed down and sad. Then I remembered one
morning, decades ago. I was inextricably tied in with my avoidance of Philip, of being
seventeen, of fear, cowardice, the sheer hopelessness that life filled me with even then.
Nothing to hold on to, nothing to believe in, everyone a stranger. Things hadn't really
changed, I was older now, that's all.
All the rooms in father's house were kept empty, except three. He believed in
frugality. That February, mother had been away at Maramon,, where our Church holds a
prayer meeting on the river bank. It was early summer. I had come back from Medical
College -- everything looked green. Father had kept the water tanks at the back always
filled. He would leave the hose-pipe on all night, and the fish would swim about in happy
shoals. During the day, the sun would evaporate almost one-third of the water.
They were catfish.
These catfish which father bred were different. They were fat and placid, and loved the
sun The water was always shadowed and green, mossy, and from nowhere at all large snails
had attached themselves to the sides of the tank. Were there water-lilies? I don't recall.
The sun would run into the water through the leaf-green guava trees and the fat bodies of
the fish would display themselves. Suddenly there would be schools of them. When had they
spawned? I was always curious about how these fish actually spent their days. They hoped
for food, and ripples of excitement would pattern the water whenever I arrived. I would
put my feet into the water as I sat on the topmost step, and immediately my feet would be
nibbled by perennially hungry fish.
One day as I sat immersed up to my knees in the moulting water, I saw the snake. I
leaped up and ran in, shivering. I looked out through the slats of the bedroom windows. It
was looking back at me.
"Father!" I began to scream. "A snake. A snake."
Father came rushing out with a bamboo pole. "Where?" he cried, his frail body
"There." l pointed to the snake looking out from the water. Its eyes were
"Oh," said father. "It's only a water-snake."
"Please chase it away."
"I said, it's only a water-snake."
"I know it's only a water-snake, but I'm scared."
Father was bored, angry. I thought he was going to repeat "It's only a
water-snake" but he stopped himself and said "It will eat a couple of fish and
go away. He was anxious to get back to planting a quinine bush someone had gifted him.
"Call Pappu Pillai," l said, adamant.
"What on earth for? Say his name and it costs me twenty rupees.Why should I call
hirn? I don't have any work for him."
"Please call him. Please chase away the snake. I'm frightened. This snake will
call his mate. They'll have children. They'll come into our house. They'll hang from the
rafters. Please call Pappu Pillai. Tears were running down my face. In those days I could
cry at will.
"Alright," said father, looking at me in disgust. He yelled over the wall for
Pappu Pillai who was washing down my uncle's cowshed.
Pappu Pillai sauntered in. He was around seventy, with a face out of a colonial
gazetteer on Caste and Tribes of Travancore. He constantly smoked a beedi, and didn't seem
to notice, as we all did, that he was dying of cancer.
"What is it? What do you want?"
"There's a snake in the water tank."
"We want you to chase it away" I said.
"It'll go by itself."
"Please, Pappu Pillai.
"Twenty-five rupees to kill a snake. Even if you gave me a thousand, ten thousand,
I wouldn't kill a snake."
"Don't kill it. Just send it away."
"Stone it? I couldn't stone it. Catch it, I can't. Bind it, trap it ... no, I
"Please, Pappu Pillai, do something. Adichu Viddu. Beat it away." I was
"Alright I will. Azhichu Viddam. I'll let it loose," he said slowly.
"What? What will you do?"
"You'll see." He spat some bloody phlegm, dusted tobacco powder off his
hands. Then he went to the wall, where the stopper of the tank was ensconced and pulled it
It happened in a moment. The water spilled out, swilled out. The fish all flew out in
the current through the hole, rather like those helpless catfish, representative of souls
in the clear streams of that Northern mountain temple. They died in the sun. There were
thousands of them. I couldn't bear to see their death, agony, but I could not look away
either. Their murky moss coated black backs began to shine luminescently as they died.
Thousands of eyes begged me for life as they fought in the grass, singly and collectively
for a bubble of water.
"I'll collect my money later," said Pappu Pillai, as he went back to my
Father said nothing to me, as he came and stood beside me watching the thousand frail
glittering bodies turning in the sun like wind blown mica.The snake was still in the tank,
slithering out to the centre, where small patches of water remained on the rough cement
"Jesus said 'Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves'."
"Don't you know that Pappu Pillai will never harm a snake?"
My uncle came across. He looked at the still brown serpent in the empty tank.
"So is he dead or not?" he asked me.
"No," I said.
"I'll do it."
My father went back to the front garden.Uncle broke a stout stick from the guava tree and killed the snake, as neutralIy as if he were hitting a coconut on a rock.
"Dangerous things, snakes, even water-snakes. Just fear can kill," he said
and threw its mangled body near an ancient mildewed wall, covering it with earth.
Pappu Pillai never spoke to me the whole summer. After a month I saw a peepal tree
growing where uncle had buried the snake. It was coincidence, an airborne seed, but Pappu
Pillai felt that I could be forgiven. As for the fish they merged with the rich loam
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