Monday, Nov 29, 2021
Book Extract

Snakes And Fishes

Extracts from Susan Visvanathan's Something Barely Remembered, shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award

Snakes And Fishes
Snakes And Fishes
Something Barely Remembered
By Susan Visvanathan
IndiaInk Rs 250: Pages 171

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. It was Philip. We walked together silently for a while, barefoot on the sand. The people swirled about us. I hadn't seen him for thirty years! And this was a Bishop's funeral. Philip had always been in the classroom when I collected my things. We were always the last to leave -- I was slow and disorganised, and he in charge of putting things in order. He had a way of looking which was typically his -- sharply, steadfastly. It always unnerved me because it implied an objectivity of diagnoses.

"Who was the bishop to you?" he asked me, the way he always spoke, curtly, suddenly.

"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 years."

"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 shirts."

"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. He had remained on his father's land. No degrees.


"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. Export variety."

"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 them."

"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. His daughters were at the. back sprawled across their mother. The funeral was over, they had fallen back into what looked like a general and normal state of contentment and ease. She had bangles from her wrist to her neck. In all probability she never took them off. Tapioca Export Limited. Philip was doing well.

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 felt exhausted by my meeting with Philip. No reason, really. I just felt torn into the vortex of some shamed half-stated desire. Marriage was a rational business -- that he would do well, with the quietness and cunning of old practice: marry good blood, money, acquiescence.

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. The moon hasn't even risen."

"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 dog any."

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 had opened my eyes to the thick brown ceiling, from which hung the brown wicker baskets of lights. Moths hurtled about, with dull satin wings. The darkness always enclosed one, and the fragility of one's life always appeared in stark contrast to the teak laid room. No more children of our family were to be born in this room. I hadn't married, my brothers and sisters had never been born. I lay there as the clean morning light filtered in, listening to the voices of people who had inhabited this room, lain together in love or enmity, marriages captured in circles of emotion.

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 practice?"

"No. I thought I'd see you."

"There's nothing wrong with one. Nothing right either. Tell me, do you really get patients."

"I'm the best."

"You always were absentminded. Are you sure you don't leave things behind in bellies?"

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. Desire, like an old shoe, fitted smugly, cocooning and familiar. If need was trite, inaccessibility could be a demon. We could not have made a life together -- that was clear enough -- but that did not stop him from looking at me, or I at him. No guilt either -- I wasn't going to moan about the thoughts that crossed my head. They were free to come and go, I barely glanced at anything that distracted me from the central principle of my life -- my work.

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. Have you ever seen them? They have shiny backs, rheumy and smooth, which shine in the sun. They have long whiskers, cat's whiskers. We don't eat these fish. Maybe they're alright to eat if one was desperately hungry -- that is, poor -- but usually we don't. I'd seen them once hurtling along in a fast flowing clear temple stream somewhere in Kashmir, rolled along by a current , with no control of their life.They were fed by pilgrims, and I remember touching them through the cold crystal of that fervent water.

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. It was only a water-snake.

"Father!" I began to scream. "A snake. A snake."

Father came rushing out with a bamboo pole. "Where?" he cried, his frail body trembling.

"There." l pointed to the snake looking out from the water. Its eyes were black.

"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. I'll ask father to give you twenty-five rupees to get rid of the snake." I looked for father, he had disappeared.

"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 can't."

"Please, Pappu Pillai, do something. Adichu Viddu. Beat it away." I was desperate.

"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 hard.

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 uncle's house.

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 surface.

"Jesus said 'Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves'."

"I'm sorry."

"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 earth.


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