It was that time of the evening when the sun began to disappear into a line defined by trees, some buildings, and mountaintops in the far west. It was also the time of the day when the villagers, once farmers but now mostly construction workers, returned home. When the rain had finally stopped, and the sky had cleared, a not-so-old man with a sharp nose and malnourished jawline dragged himself from the bus station to his bicycle, on a road paved mostly with potholes and only occasionally with asphalt.
His name was Rangan.
Rangan wore a white checked shirt that had turned greyish-yellow from splattered concrete mix. When he folded up his lungi to knee-height; his twisted, enlarged varicose veins ran for almost the entirety of his thin legs. Like his nose, he had two sharp eyes, capped by a thin forehead.
His walk to the bicycle was a short one. With his blistered palm, he dabbed the seat of his bicycle. Dust fumed towards the sky.
Then he did his routine check. He pressed the front tire. The tire was stubborn enough. He pressed the back tire. That tire was mushy. He walked his bicycle to a nearby petty shop, where an air pump hung on the outside wall. Fixing the end of the tube to the tire valve, he hopped up and down on the pump. The tire bulged with muted hissing sounds.
“What, Ranga? How is your wife?” the shopkeeper asked authoritatively emerging from a small room within his shop.
“No improvement, Swami. She is drinking all my wages as medicine now.” Rangan addressed the shopkeeper with utmost respect. “Swami” in English is Lord, a traditional for one such as he when addressing a member of an upper caste. He continued, “I took her to the doctor last week. Doctor said she would die soon if I am not taking her to the town hospital.”
“I see. How much cost is the doctor estimating for the treatment?” the shopkeeper asked.
“Doctor is saying it could cost up to twenty thousand rupees, my lord. Where will I get that much money? I have two small ones to feed now,” Rangan said, throat dry.
“How are your children?”
“The girl is fine, and she studies well. But the boy,” he choked, “the boy is sickly. Just like his mother. He resembles his mother when he coughs.”
“I see. And how old is your daughter?”
“When she reaches puberty, marry her off to someone quickly. She won’t be your trouble anymore. And you should do something about the boy immediately.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The conversation was briefly interrupted by a stout man, who asked for a half-fistful of cardamom from the shopkeeper.
The shopkeeper went inside his shop and scouted for a box of cardamom.
Looking at the new man, Rangan reflexively said, “My lord,” and obediently distanced himself from the man.
“Ranga. How is your wife?” the stout man asked, as the shopkeeper began packing a dozen cardamom pods in an old newspaper page.
“Not well, my lord. Doctor said she would die soon if I am not taking her to the town hospital,” he replied, exactly in those words, as if he had rehearsed it several times.
“I see, and how are your little ones?”
“The girl is doing fine, but the boy is the trouble, my lord.”
The shopkeeper came back with the loosely wrapped cardamom. He placed it on the lid of one of the big glass jars, arranged serially towards the front of the shop. The man took the cardamom and laid five rupees in return on the same lid and left.
Looking at the jar, Rangan asked, “Can you give me four of these candies?” As Rangan could not touch the jar himself, the shopkeeper removed the aluminum lid, dipped his hand inside the jar, and picked a few orange-colored candies. He counted them with his hand still inside the jar. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. He dropped one inside, and handed the remaining to Rangan, “Here.”
Instead of taking the candies directly, Rangan made a cup out of his palm.
The shopkeeper dropped the four candies inside the cup.
Rangan put them inside his half-torn pocket and fished in his underwear pocket. Taking out a few coins, he started counting. One. Two.
“Keep them for yourself,” the shopkeeper stopped him, and said, “Don’t lose the candy.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Rangan said.
He was welcomed home by another bout of heavy coughing from Chinnama. He was not tall, but he had to bow his head to enter the front door of his hut. The structure was made of dry, braided coconut tree leaves. The walls, all of them and the roof as well. The eaves were held up straight on the sides and slanted on the top by moderately thick bamboo canes. In the monsoon season, the floor would flood with water. Chinnama, when she was able to move and talk, which had been at least a year ago now, would bark at Rangan for his incompetence in not being able to afford a decent roof.
There was a rope bed at the center of the hut with no mattress on it. Upon which lay Chinnama, half-dead. Her life was affirmed only by the coarse wheezing sound of her breathing.
Towards the left end of the hut, his girl was writing something in a neatly maintained notebook. School homework, he guessed. She was small for a ten-year-old, but everything about her was neat. She had neatly combed hair. She was neatly dressed, though old and overly worn. She did not wear any jewelry on her. On the other side of the small hut, his boy was playing with an old, half-torn plastic toy. The boy was sickly, with a distended stomach and thin body. His nose constantly oozed mucus. He sat naked on the sandy floor, and had a red rope tied around his hip. A tradition.
“Here.” Rangan offered the candies to his children.
The boy left the toy, and hopped over with a sense of innocent happiness. The girl, put down her pencil, stood up, and also walked over to Rangan. Both of them held their palms in the shape of a cup, just as he had done at the shop earlier. He dropped two candies into the girl’s hands and two in the boy’s. The boy’s hands were so tiny that one of the candies fell to the floor. He picked it up immediately, blew off the sand around the edges, and popped it in his mouth.
“I will be back after I take a bath,” Rangan announced, and left the hut.
The girl sucked at the candy. The boy, with enthused delight, put both candies in the mouth together. Though made up of 99 percent sugar and one percent Food Safety Administration-prohibited orange-flavored chemical, the candy had a peculiar property. Just sucking it wouldn’t yield the sugary juice.
Impatient as the boy was, he bit into the candies and started chewing. He gulped the mouthful of now sugary saliva, and the taste went with it.
The girl returned to her homework. She sucked the candy until it was reduced to a size of penny; then she bit and swallowed the very last bit. As she was about to pop the other candy, she noticed the boy standing in front of her.
He stretched out his hand and asked, “Half?”
“Where is yours?” she sighed.
“I ate it. Aaaah…” he said, and opened his mouth wide to prove it.
She could see all twenty teeth in his mouth, and a tiny bit of candy stuck at the deep end of his right lower jaw. She sighed again and offered her last candy to him. “Here.”
Rangan came back to the hut after a short bath, refreshed. He was bare-chested now; his stubborn hair was wet and loose. He moved his fingers fiercely on the hair, and droplets of water splashed around. Meanwhile, Chinnama slowly starting coughing again. This time, it was longer and louder. He could feel her rugged breaths and coughs, like those of a whimpering child.
With hair half-dried, he walked to the bed and sat on the floor next to Chinnama’s head. “How are you, Chinnama?” he asked gently.
She replied with a heavy cough.
Next to her head, on top of the rectangular bed frame, she kept a small bottle of balm which had the fragrance of eucalyptus. He removed the drape around her torso and unbuttoned her blouse, revealing her upper body.
Her chest was thin and sickly; the stomach fatless than ever, and her breasts shrunk to half their size in a single year. Rangan opened the plastic lid on the bottle, gently ran his right index finger over the surface of the balm, and rubbed it over her chest and between her breasts.
She thanked him with another heavy cough. The coughing went on for five whole minutes, and the spree ended only due to her inability to produce anymore cough.
“Did you have the porridge?” he asked, looking at her stomach.
She did not reply. Her eyes were still closed, and she breathed with titanic effort. His caring expression turned to pity. He could not bear to see her struggle for something as simple as breathing, so he turned to the boy and the girl and said, “Let’s go outside.”
He had a chair that he had picked from an old store for free. He sat on the chair, the girl on his left leg and the boy on his right. It was the second night from the full moon, so the moonlight lit the place well enough for him to see their faces.
“Is Mother going to be alright?” the girl asked.
“Yes, of course,” he said, and gently squeezed her cheeks. She smiled and blushed.
“When are you going to get me the earrings?” she asked, squeezing her right earlobe.
Until that point the boy had been silent. “When are you going to get me new toys?” he demanded.
“I will get new stuff for both of you tomorrow. Okay?” Rangan said confidently.
“You always say that, but you never get them,” the girl, almost breaking down.
“I promise. Tomorrow these ears will have new earrings.” He continued, looking at the boy, “And for you, I will get a remote-controlled truck. Do you know how to drive one? It is very difficult and dangerous,” he said, his voice playful yet serious.
Now the boy blushed.
“Now go and play inside,” he said abruptly, sending them off.
The girl was right. In the past, he had made several promises, a new dress, bangles, bracelets, and whatnot. In spite of his genuine efforts to keep those promises; everytime, before planning to go to the shop, or on his way to the shop, or at the shop, something urgent would come up. For some reason, the matter could only be attended to with the money he had in his pocket. When he returned home empty-handed after attending to it all, the girl would be standing at the door waiting nervously. When she asked whether he had bought it, he would say he would the next time — only that next time never came — and offer her a conciliatory goodies like the orange candy, or a pencil. But this time, this time, when he said he would buy earrings and a remote-controlled truck, he meant it with utmost surety. He had already selected the truck and earrings in the fancy store down the block.
He could get at least 2,500 rupees, if not more, if the Chit Fund auction tomorrow went according to his calculation. Two thousand five hundred rupees was a worst-case scenario. He could even get up to 2,800 rupees if less number of people participated in the auction. Two thousand five hundred or two thousand eight hundred, he had plans for all of it — a premium to pay at the pawn shop, medicine for Chinnama, earrings for the girl, a new toy for the boy, chappal for him, and some unadulterated rice to eat, finally.
The premium payment would be 1,600 rupees. He definitely had to pay that this time, or the pawnbroker would not return the jewelry. Medicine for Chinnama was running out. He had to get the medicine for the next month, as his salary would not be coming any sooner. Medicine for a month would cost 300 rupees and the earrings would cost 200 rupees. The boy’s toys were at least a year old, and all of them were disjointed, in pieces; and moreover the boy, to Rangan’s surprise, had grown a lot in the last year. Lately, he showed little interest in the toys he was playing with. So he would get a remote-controlled truck for 100 rupees. I hope he will be careful with the toy. These remote-controlled toys are delicate bastards, he thought.
Lastly, he would buy a chappal for himself. He was working barefooted at a heavy construction site, mixing concrete in ratios not allowed by any safety standards in the world. He’d already gotten two small stones lodged in his foot. That defined his walking in the last few weeks – vaulting with his forefoot without letting the heel touch the ground. I will get that thick chappal like the one Rama was wearing the other day. I need to keep it safe, else it will be stolen like last time. That would be another 100 rupees.
He calculated the numbers for about 2 minutes, he would be left with 200 rupees. He would be left with 200 rupees. The last batch of ration rice had a lot of worms and was adulterated with tiny white stones that were difficult to spot with the naked eye; and only identified by the crackling sound in the mouth when they got pulverized into tiny pieces. Let’s get some unadulterated rice from my lord’s shop.
The working of the village’s chit fund was simple. It had three fixed things: a fixed number of members, a fixed set of terms and a fixed amount per term. Every month, every member put a fixed amount in a pot. Once everyone had dropped their share of money, the pot was auctioned. A member in need of money would bid for the pot. Others, who are also in need of money, counter bid. Whoever bid the lowest money won the bid. The lowest bidder was then awarded the money he bid from the pot. The remaining money would be put in a common vault. Once a member won the bid, he was not allowed to bid again till the end of the chit fund. His turn was over. Every month, the same bidding and awarding process continues with one less bidder than previous month. At the end of the last term, all the money gathered in the common vault over the lifetime of Chit Fund was divided equally, excluding a salary for the chit fund’s host. It was a common knowledge that the member who bid in the first always lose money mainly because of stiff competition. The one who bid at the very end profits the most as there would be no one to counter bid his’. Then why would someone bid the initial times in the first place? Firstly, banks won’t provide loan to the villagers as they did not have any security to turn in. Secondly, in the time of need, Chit Fund was the only source for the villagers to raise any fund at all, whether it may for daughter’s marriage, elderly’s operation.
The chit fund took place under a banyan tree, which was at least a hundred years old. It had mushroomed in the middle of a large empty area, where Kandan’s daughter and son sometimes came to play with other kids. On the other side of the tree was a modest temple, seating the Elephant-head God inside.
It was a bleak morning when everyone gathered under the tree. The chit fund group included 30 people, and the fixed amount was 100 rupees. This was the sixth month of the fund. Last month, the final bid amount was 2200 rupees. It was a common knowledge that each month, the final bid amount was higher than the previous month. The very first month, six people bid for the pot and it closed at 1600 rupees. Second month, 1800 rupees. Third month, 1800 rupees. Fourth month, 2000 rupees. And the fifth month, the last month, it was 2200 rupees.
In the worst-case scenario, the final bid had remained the same. If that was the case this time, Kandan wouldn’t be able to get the unadulterated rice that he had planned for. A thin man, Kumar, walked up to the crowd. He wore a plain white shirt and a white dhoti. Walking slow and steady, the golden chain around his neck did not move even slightly. On his right wrist he wore a golden bracelet, and on the left a gold-painted watch with writing on it: Rolec. He carried a purse in his armpit whose contents were a well-known secret: the remaining amount from the last five months. He held a silver-painted bronze pot in his hands.
“Are we missing anyone?” he asked the crowd.
Everyone glanced around and mouthed No with their lips.
Rangan glanced around and shouted, “Kandasamy is yet to come.”
“I am here, I am here,” Kandasamy said from behind, raising his hand and establishing his attendance.
Rangan turned back and located Kandasamy. “Ah,” he said, and laughed at his own negligence. Kandasamy followed suit.
“Is anyone missing? Everyone here?” Kumar asked authoritatively.
Nobody said anything.
“I assume that is a yes.” He rested the pot on the stool and took the purse from his armpit, then laid it on the stool next to the pot, before continuing. “Well, then. You know how this chit fund works. But I am going to explain for anyone who does not know. We have 30 members. Each will put a 100 rupees in this pot. We will then auction this pot. Whoever bids the lowest amount wins the auction. They will get the amount they bid from this pot. The remaining amount will go into the common vault, which will be divided equally among all, including me, at the end. Is everything clear?”
But for the villagers, this format of the chit funds was more than a process. It was a tradition followed by their fathers and their fathers’ fathers and even the generation before. All 30 members nodded in agreement.
“Well, then. Put your share in the pot now,” Kumar said.
Everyone lined up, walked to the front, and handed over their 100-rupee bills one by one to Kumar. Kumar, as he naturally did with matters of money, checked the bills carefully, and dropped them inside the pot. He then took a notebook from the purse, and marked the names of each member with a tick. Rangan was the third one in the queue. He walked up to Kumar and handed over his 100-rupee bill. Kumar held the bill to the now-awakened sun, saw the smiling Gandhi within the white space in the bill, and spotted the glittering dashed lines next to another portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. He dropped the money in the bucket and marked a tick next to the name “Rangan” in his notebook, which looked very similar to that of Rangan’s daughter.
That notebook reminded him of his girl. When he had left home that morning, the girl, still sleepy-eyed, had asked again for the earrings. He had replied with absolute poise, “I will have a surprise for you when I come back.”
Kandasamy was next in line. He walked to Kumar and handed over the money. Kumar held the bill to the sun; Gandhi was smiling, and the glittering dashed line went from top to bottom. Kumar dropped the bill in the pot and marked a tick next to the name “Kandasamy.”
“Are you bidding this week?” Kandasamy asked.
“Yes. You?” Rangan asked.
“If too many people don’t bid, I will. I can always use some money.”
Kumar repeated his process for all the members — check for a counterfeit bill, drop the bill in the pot, and put a tick next to their name in the notebook.
“All right, now. Everyone has dropped their money, I think,” Kumar said, and verified whether all the names had tick. Thirty names. 30 ticks. “Let’s start the bidding now. We start with the maximum amount, 3000 rupees.”
“3000,” Kandasamy shouted.
“3000 one,” Kumar started the countdown.
“2900,” Rangan counterbid.
“2900 one. 2900 two,” Kumar started again.
“2800,” Kandasamy shouted.
“2800 one. 2 …”
“2700,” Rangan shouted.
“2700 one. 2700 two.”
“2600,” shouted a voice from the left end of the crowd. It was Murugan.
“2600 one. 2600 two,” counted Kumar.
“2500,” Rangan shouted. At this point, he had reached the expected amount of money that he would return home with. But he expected the auction to be more crowded than usual. The Festival of Light was around the corner: one week, to be exact. People would need money for buying new clothes, sweets, crackers for the family.
“2500 one. 2500 two. I am going to close the bid with one more count. 2500 thr…”
“2400,” a deep voice came from behind. Everyone including Rangan turned to the back to see the bidder. It was Arjun, a twenty-one-year-old boy who got married two weeks ago.
“Newlywed is trying to impress his wife,” Kandasamy said.
“Or his wife won’t allow him inside the house without the money,” another said.
The members around Kandasamy laughed, except for Rangan.
“2300,” Rangan counter bid.
“2300 one. 2300 two…”.
“2200,” Arjun shouted again from the back.
Now the bidding had officially reached last month’s amount. That also officially ended Rangan’s dream of buying unadulterated rice. To win, he had to bid at least 2100, which meant he would be left with money only to buy Chinnama’s medicine, pay the premium at the pawn shop, buy earrings for the girl, and buy the remote-controlled truck for the boy. It also ended officially the dream for a chappal to wear to work.
Unable to hide his disappointment, he stopped Kumar when Kumar was counting, “2200 one. 2200 two,” and said “2100.”
Without waiting for Kumar to start his countdown, Arjun shouted, “2050.”
Now Rangan had to give up either the boy’s truck or the girl’s earrings. But he quickly devised a Plan B. I still can buy that set of 100-rupee earrings I selected first, instead of the 200-rupee ones. To be honest, the 200-rupee set is too big for her ears. Plus, they have red stones embedded in them. It completely ruins the look of the earrings, whereas the 100-rupee ones are simple and elegant. If the girl saw both sets of earrings, she would prefer the 100-rupee ones. “2000,” he shouted.
“2000 one. 2000 two…”
“1900,” Arjun shouted.
This meant it officially ended Rangan’s plan to buy either the toy for the boy or the earrings for the girl. For a moment, his face exposed a deep sense of sadness and pity for his daughter and his son. In a mild voice he said, “1800.”
“1800 one. 1800 two. I am going to close the bid with another count… 1800 three. The auction is over now. The auction closes at 1800 rupees. The winner of this month’s auction is Rangan. Ranga, come here.”
As Rangan approached Kumar, Kumar dipped his hand inside the pot, plucked a chunk of 100-rupee bills, started counting them and arranged them neatly at the same time. Rangan reached Kumar. Kumar counted his last few bills. One thousand seven hundred. One thousand eight hundred. He dropped the remaining bills back into the pot and said, “Ranga, congratulations. Here is your money. Use it properly.” Without touching Kumar’s hand, Rangan took the bills, put them in his trousers, and said, “I will, my lord.”
“You won the auction as you wanted. Happy now?” Kandasamy asked from behind him, patting Rangan’s back gently.
Rangan turned back and smiled. Without uttering a word, he left.
When he entered the hut, the girl was doing her homework and the boy was playing with his chicken doll, just like the previous night. Upon seeing Rangan, both of them stopped, ran up to him excitedly, and hugged his legs. The girl the left one. The boy the right one.
“Did you get my earrings?” the girl asked.
“Did you get my truck?” the boy asked.
He dipped his hand inside his shirt pocket, took out four orange-colored candies, and stretched his hand out to them.
Siva, short for Sivaprasanth Masilamani, is a native of India but currently lives in the bicycle city of Utrecht, The Netherlands. A fan of “Chicago Bulls”, he is binge watching “The Last Dance” at the moment. He enjoys playing Squash, arguing with friends about controversial topics and beer tasting in the micro breweries here.