Sangam House



SEASONS OF THE PALM by Perumal Murugan

An Excerpt

“Look! A fire!”

Selvan points to a line of dancing flames in the distance. Shortie looks past his pointing finger and sees tongues of fire peeling the dark of the night. Are those huts burning? Cannot be. No huts there in that corner where the Manakkadu road meets the highway to Erode. Maybe someone has put up a goat pen. Who does not like a fire at night? Perhaps even now they are roasting peanuts and palm fruits. The fire does not appear to spread and is not very tall.

“Shortie! Is that a fire-eating spirit?”

Shortie smiles to himself. Selvan cannot possibly know of these things—he has no sense of the fields or the sky. And besides he is afraid of the dark. This is no fire-eating spirit. No spirit beckons cheerily to those it wishes to frighten. Spirits come upon their victims suddenly, almost ambushing them from behind. Sometimes a spirit waits on the roadside, sitting on its haunches, like someone taking a shit. At other times, it holds a cheroot to its gaping mouth. Or saunters down a path, smoking a bidi[1]. And if someone takes the spirit to be human and greets it, the spirit spits fire in that person’s face. Fire that rises and falls, that comes out in warm gasps from its stomach and burns a man.

“Master, fire-eating spirits don’t do this sort of thing. That must be someone roasting palm fruit.”

Selvan shakes his head and goes into the pen. He climbs on to his cot and lies down. Shortie stretches out on the hard earth. He is not afraid. Spirits are like the wind and rain, they come and go. He does not think spirits would dare haunt this part of the field, where the god Munisami[2] rules and protects.

Shortie watches the twin palm sway gently. At last, the wind. Slowly the entire field is captive to the wind. The air turns chilly. This is not the doing of a spirit. He is sure of that. A spirit’s wind is burning hot, not like this one that caresses the earth as its own. It has come a long way, the wind, wound its way down Tiruchengode hill to the lakebed, and carries with it the damp of the lake’s meager waters. Shortie pulls his sack over his head.

The wind rasps in his ears, lifting and blowing dry leaves off the ground. Poochi whines. Selvan will not like this, Shortie knows. He is probably shit scared, even now. Spirits are visible only to dogs and cattle. When a dog barks into an empty space that means he has spied a spirit and is barking at it. Poochi is still though, curled into a ball.

The wind continues to blow, rustling dried palm fronds and still intent on scattering dry leaves far and wide. Shortie shuts his eyes and thinks of the different palm trees around him. He knows each one of them, like a friend. He knows how the fruit in each of them tastes. He knows when the palms flower and mature into flesh, when they are ready to be picked. Even Kandamoopan, the old tree climber does not know these palms as well. He knows the ones that he usually climbs to bring down toddy. But not the others.

Shortie slowly slides into sleep, feeling the wind, the palm and the cool earth in his mouth. He does not hear the soft bleating of mother goats calling to their kids. Lost to the world, he sleeps on, while the land watches over him tenderly.

He sees a tongue of flame move towards him. Now it is in front of him. He has not expected it. Not like this. He stares at it until it grows bigger and bigger. A tall pillar of fire jumps up and down between earth and sky. But there is no smoke. The fire continues to grow until he thinks he has never seen anything as tall, as massive. Not even when the neighboring Gounder’s huge haystack suddenly burst into flames. He wants to shut his eyes but cannot. His mouth is dry and his tongue feels thick and useless in his mouth. He stands up slowly. Silent, wide-eyed and wondering. The fire changes shape and becomes a column of light. Shortie peers into it. There is a white horse inside. Naked. It does not have a saddle or bridle. A taut, rider-less horse that seems to be held by voices coming at it from who knows where.

Even as he watches, the horse neighs and then, unexpectedly, leaps out of the column of light. It sails up and stands several hundred feet on top of the twin palm. Shortie tilts his head back and looks up. No use, he cannot see its head or face. His eyes travel down the length of its body and rest on its legs. It is a black-hoofed horse. A milky white horse with hooves that look as if they have trapped the dark of the night in them.

The light is everywhere now, a million lightning streaks that have come together. The white horse neighs again, this time like a thunderclap. As the sound of the neighing dies, the horse comes down to earth. Dazzling in its own white glow, it bears a rider. A White Munisami, with a chest as long and hard as a rock that stretches on and on. A figure as tall as ten thousand men standing high on high. As steep as the Tiruchengode hill. Shortie cannot bear to look at Munisami. The god sits calmly, a slim palm tree in its right hand.

Shortie blanches. Shivering, he tries to bring his palms together and bends his head to the god. But his fingers shake so much that he cannot pray. He has played around the Muni’s temple by the riverside. But he has never felt comfortable with the god’s strange red eyes. Now those eyes are on him. Suddenly a tongue of flame appears besides the column of light, as if from nowhere. The flame glows for a moment and then hardens into a bar of fire. A bright red horse leaps out, spilling its heat into the dark, ready to burn it into black dust.

The red horse neighs loudly, smearing the night with slivers of fire. Burning red fruits that fall all over the field. The earth chars and changes color. The horse draws itself up and lets out a loud moan. It kicks its legs in the air and dashes against the clouds in the sky. There is fire in the heavens now and still the horse is restless. And then, as if whipped, it quietens and comes down. Shortie has never seen any creature glow like this. As if the dull red of the land around had caught fire and congealed into the molten red of the horse.

At first he does not see it. Rolling its eyes and staring down at Shortie from the horse’s back is a fire-spitting Red Munisami. The Red Munisami is an angry god. Each time it draws his breath in, its nostrils flare out in rage. Its face, masked by an intense rage, the Red Munisami stands—ready to suck the whole world into its wrath.

Shortie does not know what to do. Before him stand the two gods. And around him, alongside the white and red horses, are wild hunting dogs. The White Munisami’s dogs are quiet, but the Red god’s growl and bare their fangs. Shortie recoils from them but feels their eyes on him. They bark together and throw him off his feet with their mean and angry sound. He claws at the earth, to keep himself from falling. The dogs are mad, crazy. As they howl and scream, a storm sets in, whirling red dust into the air.

A while after, all is quiet. The dogs are silent. Something has held them back. Shortie looks up, completely afraid now. The Red Munisami grits its teeth. Shortie feels dizzy, everything seems to be spinning…something warm trickles down his legs.

Dai![3] You dare come in the way of my hunting path?”

The Muni’s words come at Shortie like a flaming sentence. But it is a sentence spoken in a language he knows, the familiar language of the village.

Sami! Sami!”[4]

He can barely hear himself. This is the Red Munisami’s hunting path and he, fool that he is, has made his bed on it. Should he beg for forgiveness? The White Munisami is still. Maybe he should appeal to its grace, fall at its feet. But first he must move. Why do his feet feel like lead? Are they weighed down with iron balls? And why do his hands feel odd, suddenly very hard and cold? Was he turning into stone?

He hears something behind him. A sort of chortle. It is Veeran. Veeran, who has been pledged to the Munisami. Veeran runs up to the Muni. Veeran, the fearless goat. He stops in front of the Red Munisami and raises his head to the god. Is Veeran saying something? Maybe he is pleading on his behalf? Or is the goat asking the god to devour Shortie for teasing and scolding him sometimes?

“I won’t, not anymore. Won’t scold Veeran. Won’t tease him. Muniappa! Sami! Save me, save me!”

Shortie tries to pray but finds his tongue is still stiff. He opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them again. It is not dark anymore. Nor light. His eyes discern a line of faint white on the horizon. A dull moon has begun to climb the eastern sky. Where have the sky-high flames gone? He sits up, then lies down again.

He is full of wonder. Not afraid, or worried. He feels a flush of joy warm his body. He has seen the Muni, towering into the sky. He, a speck, a mite of dust beside the god…he is alive, why he could have been dead, charred to ashes. He turns over and finds the sack wet. He reaches down and touches his loincloth. It is damp. He gets up and takes it off. He pulls the towel off his head and ties it around his middle. He hangs the wet loincloth to dry on the pen’s bamboo fence.

Shortie looks about him. The field around him looks washed. There is a lone moon in the sky, pouring its silver light down. He hears Veeran grunting from inside the pen. Must be at his favourite task, butting a reluctant she-goat. Shortie sighs. Veeran’s love games exasperate him. But for the moment he is happy. For was it not Veeran who saved him from the Muni’s rage? Shortie lifts the bamboo poles at the pen’s entrance and steps in quietly.

“Who’s that?”

Selvan’s tone is fearful. Poor Selvan. He must have been petrified all night.

“Me, Master.”

Shortie walks to the far end of the pen and extracts a small packet of sacred ash from under a bamboo slat. He takes a pinch of it and smears it on his forehead. He collects sacred ash from pilgrims who have returned from the temple at Palani or elsewhere. At times he even anoints the goats with it. Especially Veeran. He does that now. He goes towards the naughty goat who is bent on worrying a trembling kid and sprinkles ash on his head. Veeran stands still. Shortie cuffs his face and pulls his ears back. Veeran does not move. Selvan sits up, puzzled. He decides to climb down from his cot.

Veeran suddenly arches his back and bleats. The sacred ash on his face scatters into a cloud of dust. Shortie heaves a sigh of relief. He goes down on his knees and prays to the goat. He gestures to Selvan and asks him to pray likewise. Selvan is bewildered. Has Shortie gone mad, going round and round a bloody goat in the middle of the night?

Shortie is at Veeran’s feet now, touching them with devotion. He does not seem to mind the smell of piss, the hard, dried balls of goat shit, the awful stench of fresh droppings… it is as if he does not want to let go of Veeran’s feet. The goat tries to kick his forelegs forward, but still Shortie holds on to them. He lets go finally and goes out. His face is bathed in tears. Selvan follows him, not sure if he should talk to Shortie or keep away from him. Was the fellow possessed?

“Dai, what the hell’s going on?”

Selvan’s screaming question slices through the calm of the night. Poochi’s ears go stiff as he looks up at the agitated Selvan. Shortie does not reply. He is all bliss inside and wants to bury his head on Selvan’s shoulder. But, of course, he cannot do that. He asks Selvan to sit down and tells him the whole story. Almost the whole story, that is. He does not tell him that fear made him piss in his loincloth.

“Master, it is this Veeran who just saved me. You should have seen him talk! Just like us. How he argued with the Muni. So brave, like a lion…”

“He is the Muni’s goat after all…”

“Your father has told me this many times, that this field where we have put up our pen is the Muni’s hunting path. The Old Master, your grandfather, has warned me that the Muni wanders this path sometimes. We must move this pen tomorrow and pitch it somewhere else.”

Shortie looks at Poochi. He lies curled into a tight ball, like a fat bandicoot. Nothing to fear anymore. He prays silently to Munisami. Sami, this is your goat, please don’t trouble us anymore.

Selvan is jealous that it was Shortie who had seen Munisami and not him. But he is also afraid.

“Master, tell your father that this year we must give up Veeran to the Muni. For three years now we have had him…”

“Hmmm…maybe that’s why Munisami came tonight, to ask for what is due to him.”

“And tell your father you saw the Muni. He won’t believe me. ‘So that Chakkili[5] rascal thinks he saw our god…’ he’ll say.”

“True, true. I’ll tell him I saw the Muni.”

Selvan is happy. He wants to continue talking, but Shortie is tired. Sleep stings his eyes. His body feels slack, given over to a languor that has set into his hands and feet. After what seems to Shortie a very long time, Selvan stands up.

“Sleepy…going in…”

Shortie shakes out his sack, turns it over and prepares to lie down. Things around him appear hazy and he cannot see very well. He feels drunk on the moonlight that is everywhere.

Suddenly he cannot sleep. He wants to, but his heart goes wandering. The night is not the same anymore— it is stained with an unknown fear. What if the Muni appears again, in all his massive height? Should he go in and lie down with the goats? But what if Selvan teases him? He cannot bear that.

He tries to sleep on his side, lies on his stomach, and shuts his eyes tight. The dark edges out the soft light of the moon and wraps him in its relentless black.

Shortie sits up. He can see the inside of the pen. Bands of moonlight have slipped in through the bamboo slats and light up the roof, the walls. Goats and kids lie, half in shadow and half in light. He looks for a while at the moon in the pen. For how long, he asks himself.

[1] An inexpensive cigarette locally produced in India usually from cut tobacco rolled in leaf.

[2] A village god, associated with night, magic and revenge.

[3] ‘Hey, you!

[4] Lord! Lord!

[5] One of the so-called untouchable castes in Tamil Nadu.

Translated from the original Tamil by V. Geetha.

Perumal Murugan was a resident at Sangam House in . This piece has appeared in Other People: The Sangam House Reader vol. 1

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