An Ordinary Man – Vidya Panicker

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Illustration – Rashi Agrawal

 

 

At the age of 37, Narayanan vomited blood and died.

He was seated on the steel stool at his workplace, right outside the ‘pay and use’ toilet of the public bus station where he worked part time as a cash collector, giving away little pink and yellow slips to people who were desperate to empty their bladders, when a spasm of blood gushed to his lungs, choking him from within. By the time he was taken to the hospital, his body was blue, and his vest bright red. Narayanan was declared dead on arrival.

Narayanan died an ordinary death, in adherence to the standards that was expected of him.

Narayanan’s mother takes the opportunity of this death to renew her acquaintances with all her relatives who had last visited the house when her husband died 10 years ago. She happily totters from room to room, holding hands, hugging and kissing her first, second and third cousins and their children and grandchildren. Her only worry today is that she cannot serve her guests tea, her famous home-made sweetsand banana chips. She toyed with the idea of entering the kitchen, as technically the dead person did not live under this roof — years ago, Narayanan had moved into the outhouse a few meters away from his house— but ultimately decides to forego the pleasure of feeding her guests for fear of rebuke from her guests.

**

Narayanan was an ordinary man who lived an ordinary life.

Did Narayanan sing or dance?

No he did not.

Was Narayanan good looking?

If one could overlook the slight stoop and his protruding teeth.

Did Narayanan top any of the subjects in school?

No, not even in kindergarten; not even a dictation test.

Did he ever win a lottery?

He was not really the lucky kind.

Thus being rather short on skills, intelligence and luck, ridiculed by his four elder brothers, all of them who possessed skills, intelligence and luck, or some combination of one or more of the three, ignored by a mother who was by then tired of bringing up 4 boys before him and repelled by a father who coughed out yellow sputum day and night without a relapse, Narayanan lived an insignificant life and in his mid-teens, gravitated towards the only category of individuals who would give him acceptance in their midst, the children of the manual laborers who worked on the land owned by Narayanan’s family. This association gave him the first taste of toddy, the palm wine, fresh from the mud pot of the toddy tapper who visited their palm field every morning and evening. The slight tinge of sweet liquid was soon replaced by the bitter fizziness of arrack, fermented with batteries, by a local brewer who accepted payment in the form of coconuts, rice, tapioca or brass and silver wares. By the time he was 21, Narayanan was a full-fledged alcoholic, who could walk without a trace of intoxication and had mastered the art of partially obscuring the odor of his drinks with the aid of Tulsi leaves, cardamom and elaichi.

**

“How did he die?” someone asks the mother.

“He began crying one night and would not stop. I could hear it from this room, inside the house. I thought it was the dog, but it would not stop. So I went to the outhouse and found Narayanan rolling on the floor, clutching his stomach.”

His mother launches an unemotional monologue, explaining how his liver was nothing more than a netted mat of flesh when the doctor first diagnosed him. A series of tests were run on him, on every organ that he partially or completely possessed.

The results were normal, as normal as it could be for a person who had been tirelessly drinking for twenty odd years.

‘Did Narayanan give up drinking after that?’

Before Narayanan’s mother can effectively frame the answer to that extremely relevant question, one of the mourners (guests) nudges her shoulder and voices a concern that has been on everyone’s mind for a long time.

“Where is the body?”

“What body?”

“The dead body.”

The elder brother looks at the younger ones; they look at each other. No one had given it a thought. Everyone got calls from the hospital bystander that their brother had died, so they all rushed with their families to the house. None of them thought about the body of the deadman.

No one missed his presence, dead or alive.Even on the day of his death, Narayanan is a forgotten person.

The mother smiles asaintly smile, with the countenance of someone who has executed a brilliant plan.

“The body is in the mobile freezer.”

The third of the five brothers is in Cyprus or Nicaragua or Bolivia. No one knows for sure, but the villagers did know that the man is not in US, Canada, or the Gulf nations or Pakistan/China, so the rest did not matter anyways. It would take him a day to reach, hence the funeral can happen only later, meanwhile the body was being embalmed and preserved in the mobile freezer owned by the local coffee merchant who owned an ambulance as a side business.

The visitors and the brothers themselves are now worried. They had made plans for a single day and not one minute more, thanking Narayanan for dying before 7 am, which would ensure that the funeral can be arranged sometime in the afternoon, sparing them the pains of an overnight stay or another trip on another day. The elder brother, a cosmetic dentist, has a TV interview scheduled for the next day, in which he would explain why pearly white teeth are important for a successful sexual life. The other two are busy professionals who cannot afford more than a day’s leave. Besides it was not as if someone important had died.

It was just Narayanan, their younger brother who had lived an ordinary life and died an ordinary death and who now lay in a mobile mortuary like any ordinary dead body.

**

Narayanan always earned his poison.

As a child, he had a free share of everything that was tapped out of his own palm trees, as he grew older, he worked as a day laborer and drank all night. His previous employments included the ones as a porter, a tourist guide, and a short stint of cleaning up the cowsheds of a cattle farm.

The recent job, on which he died, was the most esteemed one to date, because this one offered him a desk, a chair and a fixed monthly pay package. As a matter of fact, it was tailor made for him. Before Narayanan, the average period of employment of anyone who handled the responsibility of being the receptionist at the toilet counter had invariably been less than a month. The major reason was the offensive odor in and around the work place. Men could not eat or sleep, they could never get used to the reek that settled on them like a film of toxic vapor. Narayanan did not mind. He altered his lifestyle to begin drinking early in the morning, so that by the time he was seated on the steel chair, his eyes were blood shot and breath stinking of various brands of liquor, camouflaging the stench around him to his own nostrils. He ate very less even otherwise, so the breakfast, lunch and tea times fled past him without bothering him. The only physical efforts required in completing the tasks he was assigned were raising the fingers (1 for peeing, 2 for shitting), collecting the money, returning the change, ripping of the token receipts (pink for peeing, yellow for shitting) and handing it over to the customer. It may be assumed that the demands of this post took its toll on Narayanan’s apparently deteriorating health.

But Narayanan was happy in his job.

He was drunk and happy.

**

“When will his brother reach?”

His brother would not be coming.  He has informed that airline tickets are difficult to procure in these busy months, though the month was not really busy by any standard.

Perhaps he did not try hard enough. After all, it was just Narayanan who died, Narayanan who lived an ordinary life.

“Where is the body?”

The mourners gathered are now demanding a proof of death of the deceased. They want a body, any body would do — as long as there was a passing semblance to the man they remembered as Narayanan. Not many people could recall how he looked.

“Is there a photograph of his somewhere in the house?”

The second brother was discussing the possibilities of publishing a piece in the obituary section.

“But why?”

Why indeed? No one knew Narayanan really. Definitely, no one was going to miss him, except some daily commuters who were forced to regularly urinate in the toilet where he worked.

Narayanan had long detached himself from the troublesome bonds of relations. He knew to disappear in their presence. Even after his death, he left no traces behind, except the body itself, which he could not take with him. That is why, in spite of searching for about 30 minutes, the only photograph of Narayanan that the brothers could discover was a fading black and white snap on a vintage camera, which showed him as a 3 year old with an amused smile, sitting naked, the fancy tip of the waist chain tangled around his tiny pee-pee.

Thus the plan of the obituary was discarded. Nevertheless, the brother arranged for hand written posters to be pasted all around the village — in the bus stops, near the fish market, in front of the public library, near the bus station where he worked and finally, with a little reservation, on the wall of the toddy shop, arrack parlors and the beverages shop of the village.

“Do you really want a swarm of drunkards dancing in front of this house?”

It is the third brother, who was expressing his genuine concern when he knew of the notifications of Narayanan’s death to his co-drunkards.

“Look around.”

Most of the other mourners had left, discerning that the funeral would not be taking place on the same day. Very few felt the need to spare anymore of their expensive time to mourn for someone whose existence did not benefit them when he was alive and even less now that he was dead. The house looks ominously empty and still. When the body is finally taken to the pyre, there has to be someone around, even if they are a bunch of alcoholics, swaying under the inebriation.

The ambulance siren wakes the household and finally reminds them of the finality of the death that befell its member. Death clearly affects the living more than the dead. For a moment, the mother and the brothers are reminded of a boy, who sat in the corners, away from them all, never really belonging, never once complaining. For a moment, the mother realizes that she has a lost a part of herself. Only for a moment, after which she begins thinking of what to cook for dinner.

The arrival of the body is welcomed by a flurry of events. A long and firm banana leaf is hacked off from the base and laid on the portico. Lamps are lit, incense sticks burned and stuck on to plantain stems. Someone opens a Ramayana epic and begins reading. Narayanan is bathed and wrapped in a white cloth and laid on the leaf.

Now this did feel like a house where death has happened. A few wails from women specialized in the skill and you would know from a distance that someone has become dearer to God.

Narayanan’s body is set to flames when the sun is at the peak. Yet it refused to burn and even when it did after much coaxing and prodding, the smoke rose high and stung everyone’s eyes. People wiped tears off their eyes on their shirt sleeves and saree ends —Narayanan had finally made his loved ones cry.

In the assembled crowd with most of the ones present pinching their noses against the reek of burning flesh and eager to leave, an alcoholic with a thick tongue gurgled out a question in a tone that only a true alcoholic (or an efficient imposter) can evince.

“Do you know what his favorite drink is?”

Almost everyone wants to know the answer to that question, but the man raises his palm with the forefinger and little finger in a hip-hop fashion and curls his lips condescendingly, hinting that he was not about to answer.

What is Narayanan’s favorite drink?

Whiskey? Brandy? Gin? Vodka? Toddy? Arrack? Butter milk to fight the hangover? Or the cup of tea his mother never served him?

Whichever is the cheapest, one would believe, because Narayanan was just an ordinary man.

Vidya Panicker, a writer from Kerala, India, has stories published or upcoming in journals and magazines including Muse India, Himal South Asian, East Lit journal, The Fem Literary Magazine, Criterion journal, Expound, Femina fast fiction, Contemporary Literary Review of India, Indus Woman Writing, and Reading hour magazine. Some of her work have been translated and published in other Indian languages as well.

4 thoughts on “An Ordinary Man – Vidya Panicker”

  1. MehakSrivastava said:

    Absolutely, ABSOLUTELY loved this. So beautiful.

    Like

  2. Akshata Ashok Kumar said:

    Vidya chech, you are such a Beautiful Writer.
    This one specially will touch the depths of each reader’s heart!!
    Keep going!! :))
    You Rock!!

    Like

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