Jegadeesh Kumar is a student of Eastern Philosophy, Mathematics teacher, writer, and translator, raised in Southern India, now living in South Carolina, USA. He writes, both in English and Tamil, short stories, poems, and Eastern Philosophy. His work has appeared in The Prometheus Dreaming, Indian Periodical, The Academy of Heart and Mind, Spillwords, Vallinam magazine, The Piker Press and elsewhere.
Jeyamohan (b. 1962) is a Tamil writer and literary critic based in Nagercoil, India. One of India’s finest authors writing today, he has traveled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, and his work examines and reinterprets India’s rich literary and classical traditions. His best-known, critically acclaimed novel, Vishnupuram (1997), is an epic fantasy that layers history, myth-making, and philosophy. His works of fiction include the novels Pin Thodarum Nizhalin Kural (1999), Kaadu (2003), Kottravai (2005), and Vellai Yaanai (2013), and explore diverse themes ranging from ideological anguish following the collapse of Soviet Russia to the symbol of the mother goddess in Tamil cultural history to the great famine of Madras in 1876-78. A prolific writer, his output includes multiple novels, short stories, volumes of literary criticism, writer biographies, introductory texts to Indian and Western literature, books on philosophy, and numerous other translations and collections. He has completed his serialized retelling of the Indian epic Mahabharata called Venmurasu (The White Drum), consisting of twenty-six volumes. This is the longest novel in the world. https://www.jeyamohan.in/
He was lying inside that large house, which had always been dark so one could never see dawn or dusk, on a straw mat propped up on a century-old wooden cot. He’d piled up books on the cot, which was large enough for four or five people to comfortably lie and roll. The books were scattered throughout, leaving space only for him to lie down, and were full of dust.
Not dust. It was the shedding of white powder that resembled sawdust from the decaying terrace of the ancient house. It was the droppings of the tiny creatures that fed on planks. If he sat there and read, motionless, the powder would continue to pour and blanket him as a thin film, covering him completely by the time he woke up in the morning.
The house was crumbling utterly quietly. Sounds emerged only when things broke and collapsed. The journey to its complete cessation was like a quiet immersion. Heavier and denser things do not make noise when they sink.
He’d rented out only three rooms from that house. A kitchen, a bedroom, and a hall. The owner had stacked old furniture in the other rooms and locked them with rusty locks. Rats multiplied within. Hundreds of rats. Somewhere they went out and grazed and came back to bask in the rooms’ darkness. Even during daytime, their quarrel and incessant talk were heard . They scurried across the terrace in mischief. They nibbled and ate his books.
When he picked up a book that hadn’t been touched for several days, he saw at the back little mice the size of an index finger bumping into each other. Mice with a red nose and blind, mustard seed eyes. Tender bodies looked as though they were skinless. He’d been accustomed to reading the rest of the portions of the rat-eaten books. It was as though the house itself had chewed off a portion of each of his books.
When he informed Shafi, the owner of the hostel canteen, that he wanted a private room for himself, Shafi asked him what was wrong with the hostel he was staying in. There wasn’t any problem. But one. The mirthful mood that prevailed there.
Earlier he used to indulge in it. Books, cinema, politics… night-long discussions. But in a single week, he became unfit to participate in any joyful affair. Laughter made him cringe. He began to get startled and tremble if someone tried to talk to him. He was unable to respond to anything asked of him. Their words did not unite themselves into meaningful sentences. Nothing touched his heart. So he looked perplexed at any question thrown at him.
People at the hostel felt embarrassed by him. Initially, they tried to drag him along. But, unconsciously, the happy tend to avoid the unhappy. He simply kept watching them as if they were shadows dancing on the wall.
Somewhere along the line, he developed a dislike toward them. Day by day, the revulsion grew and became hatred. Only when it appeared to him that he could never stand those people did he decide to leave.
Without realizing what was playing in his mind, Shafi showed him only single-room apartments located upstairs, with petty shops downstairs. School teachers resided in those apartments.
“No. I want to be alone. It’s okay if it’s a private house.”
But the rent for private houses was very high. Annoyed by the persistent hunt, Shafi said, “There’s a house. But no one can live there.”
His words shook him. A condemned house! “I want that,” he said.
“What?” said Shafi.
“The condemned house.”
Shafi kept staring at him for a few minutes. Then he said, “Are you going there to die?”
“Yes,” he said. “But don’t be afraid. I won’t kill myself.”
“Then how do you plan to die?” asked Shafi.
“I’m going to read books.”
Shafi burst out laughing. “That’s a good way to die,” he said.
Shafi brought him here on his motorcycle. Upon reaching the beach, they rode along the tar road adjacent to it, the sea breeze carrying water droplets slapping their faces.
To the right were coconut groves, with small, tiled-roof houses within. To the left was the sea where the dunes collapsed into. Due to the rainy season, the sea was pale and mossy with high tides. The foamy lines remained in the sand for a long time due to muddy water.
No houses were visible once they passed the old lighthouse. Groves everywhere. They entered one of the groves and reached this house, pushing the motorcycle with their hands, as the wheels got stuck in the sand. The house stood slightly buried in the sand.
It was a very old, Muslim tharavad house. “This is Sameer Ikka’s house. He uses this to store coconuts. Three rooms are still vacant. He’d accept any rent you pay. But you have to walk four kilometers to get to the bus stop. You don’t ride a motorcycle, do you?”
“Shafi! Why is this house sinking?”
“Sinking? What are you saying? This is the beach. The wind brings sand all the time. The wind blows like a sandstorm in the Aadi month. Here, all the old houses become slightly buried over time.”
The ground floor was one-half of a foot lower than the sandy area outside. When he opened the door, it was pitch dark as if a curtain had been draped.
“These old Muslim houses usually have no windows. Even if they had, you can’t keep them open. The salt brought by the sea breeze settles here and melts,” said Shafi. “I told you. You can’t live here.”
He kept looking through the darkness. It frightened him. Even in broad daylight, it was pitch dark inside. It might be due to his eyes having been exposed to the light that filled the outside.
The ocean was not far away from here. It folded like a white burlesque feather fan and entered the land, causing turbulence. “This is ulkadal. You get high tides here,” said Shafi. Here, they referred to the bay as ulkadal. If you sit on the porch, you could witness the fanning ocean.
“Sitting on this porch, you can watch the ocean. You can write poetry,” said Shafi.
The ocean’s luminescence glistened on the coconut tree trunks. The trees’ fronds were filled with light waves. In the sea wind, they swirled and swung back and forth.
Suddenly, he became tense. He thought there was no way he could live there. Living alone in a land where tens and thousands of trees constantly swayed and wobbled and thrashed about, with the unstable ocean beyond is unthinkable. The land here too was shaky. As he watched, the waves rose above the beach and pleated themselves.
I don’t want this place. He did not utter those words. His words wouldn’t come out, despite his best efforts. His lips had always been dry and sticky.
Like going under the feathers of a giant hen, he entered the darkness. As soon as he sat on the bed, the darkness, gently and warmly, embraced him. His tension eased. His muscles and limbs gradually relaxed.
He lay down and dozed off immediately. He woke up hearing his own snoring.
Shafi had been talking non-stop. “You have to keep the lights turned on. Fortunately, you’ve got electric lighting now.”
He said he would take that house. Shafi was astonished. “Try living here for a month to see if you like this place,” he said.
“No. It’s okay.”
“Try for a month.”
When bidding goodbye, Shafi said, “Mashe! Don’t do anything wrong, okay!”
He laughed and said, “I won’t. This is a nice porch. A nice breeze comes here. Lying on this porch, you can watch the ocean for as long as you want.”
There were no coconut trees immediately in front of the yard. The sandy beach sloped down to the ocean. The ocean stretched as far as the eye could see. And then there was the horizon.
But he never once sat on the porch. Never opened the front door. He was entering and exiting only through the backyard.
The front door was large, and had murals on it. It wouldn’t shut properly, always letting a thin strip of light seep through. The thin strip would glow like a sword and split the front room into two.
The sword cut him apart once when he passed through. One half of him stood across and screamed, throwing one hand in the air. He stood across from it, screaming, stretching out the other hand. The other half leapt on him when he jumped toward the door and slammed it shut. They hugged each other tightly, trembled, and cried. Then they smiled, heaving a sigh.
Several times, standing deliberately in front of the glowing sword, he allowed the sharp beam of light to cut his body through vertically into two pieces, causing him to bleed profusely and writhe on the ground. With one hand and leg, he’d kick and push away the other half that tried to reunite with him.
Finally he closed the door slit with a heavy sack. The room went completely dark. He left open the peephole that looked like an eye. He felt as though a kind of formless savagery settled inside when that eye was closed. Through the peephole, light stretched out like a shining silver rod and fell on the opposite wall like another open eye.
Then one day when he went into the front room, he saw thin shadows dancing on the opposite wall. He didn’t know whose shadows they were. There wasn’t any object inside the room. They were like shadows of clothes moving on a line.
Then he discovered that they were the inverted shadows of the coconut trees that stood outside. The shadows had emerged because the sunlight from the sea had somehow fallen down the slope. Why did they fall upside down? Then he thought about the technique of the needle camera he studied in his youth.
He sat there and watched the shadows of the swaying coconut trees. They danced like festoons coming from the sky. Suddenly the sight of a cow walking upside down revolted him. At a corner of the wall the cow melted and vanished.
It’d been a struggle for him to get himself out of bed. Even in the afternoons when the sun was blazing outside, he’d be reading in bed, under the electric light. He’d kept a large loaf of bread and a bottle of water next to his bed. Occasionally, he took a bite and drank from the bottle. He urinated in the bed, used the toilet only once every several days. Except for going to the toilet, he never got out of the bed. Never thought of getting out. Even if he did, the thought never reached his body.
His body, now skinny and bony, encased in his long hair and beard, felt as if it were wrapped with strangers. He was startled to see himself in the mirror. He frowned in hatred at the sight, and received the same hatred back.
But it is good if the body becomes weak. Because the consciousness becomes enfeebled with it. As his self-awareness melted away, he felt oddly liberated. The loads placed on him were leaving. He lay like an old rag, his body or mind never opposing anything.
Rat droppings fall on him. Sometimes rats themselves run over his body. Inside that decaying, crumbling house, he is being digested like food in the gut. Nevertheless, what he reads goes inside him, each and every word of it. The words of those books continue to pour down on him like a waterfall on a mountain rock.
Nothing forces him to be, so he disappears completely from there. He is living in unknown lands, in ancient times.
Occasionally he turns to look back. He is startled at the sight of a dusty, skinny body lying on the bed. Then he comes out of it and looks at the world. It takes a long time for his thoughts to reach his body. Even longer, for his eyes to conduct what they see to his thoughts.
He just lies there, staring at nothing in particular. There are waves on the terrace, waves of thin vibrations in the dark. The walls look like curtains. The darkness swallows all sounds. Dissolved are the shapes of the outside world in the light that seeps through the darkness.
For days, months, he’d given up going to his office. No one looked out for him. If he goes there, he will get to do some work and be paid. But even that job had too much competition.
The house was slowly sliding into the ground. Perhaps it might get completely buried deep in the ground. He’d be lying inside that house like an embryo in a seed.
When he tried to get up from the bed, the ground pushed him to his right, his shoulder slamming against the wall. Nevertheless, he stood upright, supporting the wall. There was bitter taste in his mouth, irritation in his eyes, and numbness in his limbs.
He hadn’t eaten anything for four days. He’d been reading for days, wading through thousands of pages, walking on foreign lands where it snowed constantly, meeting strangers, living through familiar emotions.
He lit the woodstove and, inadvertently tearing off the sheets from the book in his hand, set them ablaze with a match and put them in the stove. But the logs were cold and wouldn’t catch fire. He placed the whole book inside. The sheets curled and burned into blue flames. He set an aluminum pot on the stove and poured water in it. He’d kept sugar, tea, and rice powder in bottles. He added rice powder in boiling water, stirred it, and added sugar to make it a pudding. His whole body greedily devoured the pudding when he scooped it up and ate it. His blood carried the sugar to all his muscles, making them relaxed, comfortable. His heart felt a faint sweetness. The sweetness of being.
Then he drank some water and went out. It was late afternoon. The shadows spread like a net all over the coconut grove and swayed about in the wind. As another shadow, he merged in them and walked, appearing and vanishing.
He found no one on the road to his office. At a distance, he saw Kaiyikkarai Ahmed Ikka riding a bicycle, carrying tea, for sale to fishermen who mended fishing nets at the beach. He wore a lungi and a net skullcap and pedaled his bicycle with his hobbling, handicapped leg.
Ikka stopped his bicycle and rang the bell. Some people bought tea from him and started to drink. When he went closer, Ikka smiled, showing his large teeth, and asked, “Would you like some tea?”
He drank the tea and gave him money.
Ikka said, “Son, why are you like this? Why don’t you cut your hair and shave? If you take a shower and wear some nice clothes, you’ll look handsome.” As always he put his hand on his shoulder and said, “What’s the matter with you? Tell Ikka. I’d do anything for you.”
Tears came to his eyes. Ikka was the one who would truly give away the last of his possessions.
“Tell me, son! What bothers you?”
“It’s nothing, Ikka.”
“Son, Allah has commanded people to be happy.”
He smiled. “I’m trying, Ikka.”
“Why are you alone? Come join these people. Rasul says one should live in harmony with people.”
He smiled again. He liked Ikka but he was never able to stand next to him nor talk to him. He walked away, pretending to be going to watch the ocean. Ikka called out, “Write everything that has passed in Allah’s account.”
He stood watching the ocean and wondered how long since he had been at the beach. He never went to the front of the house. Even when he went to work, he never looked back at the ocean. The ocean looked as though it was made not of water but of light and made his eyes glaze over. Its waves, the white flames that filled with heat, were slapping the shore.
He wiped tears and lifted his eyes again to look at the ocean. His body felt like it was burning. He turned and walked along the beach. The sea was howling. The coconut trees were dancing ecstatically. The voice of the ocean was very close to his ears, constantly speaking out the same word. Just one word. He was startled and turned to look. Folding its tongues, the sea was bawling the same word over and over again. He stood there, his hands trembling, as though he would collapse any moment. He cried, “Aargh!” and started to run. The word of the ocean rang out behind him. Entering the coconut grove, he tripped, fumbled, got up again, and continued to run, getting his feet buried in the sand. The wind was blowing sand against the wall. He climbed up on the porch and looked back. His footprints had completely vanished.
He entered the house and closed the door behind him. He heaved a sigh of relief when darkness enveloped him. Slowly he calmed down and his breathing relaxed.
Then he went and sat on the bed. He picked up a book, opened it, and for some time, continued sitting in the dark. Then he closed the book, got up, and went out. The peephole on the front room door shone like a little white light bulb. He turned and looked at the opposite wall. There, he saw the rippling, upturned ocean on the wall and stood watching it for a long time.