“What does this mean?” Arumairaj asks Krishnamurthy Iyer.
He is angry. Walking about the house aimlessly. First straight. Then in a circle. Then back to the old spot. His dhoti is folded in half and a white cloth hangs on his dark, bare, left shoulder. Because his headgear sits on his shoulder, Mary can see the unlit country cigarette, behind his ear. That’s his resting place for everything cylindrical and narrow. She watches him quietly. Waiting for Iyer’s reply.
Mary has never seen Iyer so lost in thought. Never heard her father’s voice so raised in front of this man. Iyer’s head is low. His gaze averted. No answer, still.
Mary is impatient. She knows what it means. “It means you cannot kill cows,” she steps up and tells him. Arumairaj’s face softens a bit. His wrinkly, leathery forehead loosens, unknotting briefly his anger, replacing it with tender love.
“I know that, chellam.” He smiles at his daughter. When she smiles back, Arumairaj sees his dead wife and her bovine grace.
She holds the newspaper in her hand. Tamil Nadu bans cow slaughter!!! The Tamil paper screams with exclamatory points.
Iyer calls out to his daughter, Kannammal, who is in the backyard, at the workshop watching Arumairaj’s brother, Arockiaraj, fix her father’s instruments. His first love. The genius’s drums. Arockiaraj is working on Iyer’s heirloom mridangam. He has a concert tomorrow. And as is routine, Iyer needs them to say that the instrument he will play on is fine. He usually brings seven of the several dozen of his mridangams, most of them made by the brothers or their father, or grandfather. Seven. His lucky number. They check each of them, zero in on one, and finally match the pitch of the drum with that of the main artiste Iyer is to accompany.
When he goes to America on concert tours, Iyer, who has been hailed as the greatest mridangam artiste of his generation, takes Arumairaj with him. That’s twice every two years. Arumairaj has been featured in every newspaper in town. Not for hailing from a most distinguished family of drum makers, whose job it has been for hundreds of years. Not for making the best drums used by the best players. But for crossing over Tamil Nadu’s inerasably large caste lines, travelling to the land of dreams. On work. Bringing back large orders for making mridangams for America’s musicians, right here in Mylapore.
At the workshop, a hand, most assured, strikes against taut hide and strings together a complex calculation.
Beads of sweat trickle down Arockiaraj’s hunched bare back. The unforgiving mid-morning sun bears down on him.
“The seasons don’t matter here. The sun has one job. And that one job, it does well. With absolute faithfulness,” Arockiaraj says to Kannammal. She is lying on her stomach, resting her face on both palms. Watching his hands carefully.
“Mmm hmm.” She is in a cotton skirt and a blouse. Loose. Hand-me-downs. The weather-worn dress, coconut frond roof and Arockiaraj’s chivalry keeps her safe from the heat. Buzzing flies, crows, hens and squirrels conduct a concert of their own just outside the room. Kannammal is given the only spot that is cool and dark.
“And when the sun goes home, the cattle come back. More work to do. Those pigs. Feeding them is like trying to feed a battalion,” Arockiaraj says, working on the drum.
“Why don’t they run away?” Kannammal asks, her voice flat.
“You have cows in your house. Why don’t they run away?” he asks, unanimated.
“But you also kill them. And eat them,” Kannammal says. She is still looking outside, waiting for Mary. “We pray to the cows, give them good food and drink only the milk.”
“You see your father’s favourite mridangam?” Arockiaraj asks and taps the drum. Thom! He points to the leathery surface on top, “This was a cow.”
“It was old and it died. To remember the cow, my father asked you to make one for him,” Kannammal says, defiant. The calf learns of the world from the cow after all.
“Wrong.” Arockiaraj says, “I went to the abattoir myself, Kannamma. Our job it is, to make sure, there is no dead skin on the cow. When there is dead skin, she is no of use to artistes like your father. My brother and I chose Lakshmi, whose very skin was throbbing with life. We chose her so that when your father places his fingers on her skin, she may experience eternity…”
“This,” he continues, “was a goat and this here, a buffalo.”
Kannammal says nothing.
He sits in the lotus pose. Places the mridangam on his lap. As if it were a baby. As if he’s cradling that mother of three. Lakshmi. And plays. A rhythm that will never be heard on this instrument outside of the workshop. That rhythm of death. A powerful routine. That is at once defiant and tragic. Played usually on a different drum, a parai. Made too from the skin of a cow. Whose beats accompany the dead, on their final journey, to the funeral grounds.
Kannamma and Arockiaraj have had this very conversation over a dozen times. The first time they had it, Iyer and Arumairaj fought.
“What filth is your bastard brother teaching my daughter?” a drunk Iyer had asked. “I am the head of the cow protection committee of this neighbourhood. I will make you address-less!” he’d said and walked away. That threat looming in the air, Arumairaj knew, was very much a possibility. He retreated.
A few weeks, and a few mishaps at his concerts later – sometimes the pitch of his drum was not right, sometimes Iyer’s guilt showed up in the form of a missed beat – all was forgotten. Iyer came back to the workshop as if nothing had happened. Arumairaj was too dignified to bring it up again anyway.
But whenever Kannammal came to the workshop after that, she asked the same questions. Relentlessly. And Arockiaraj answered. Without fear. The same words.
At first when she asked, after the fight, she thought Arockiaraj would change his answer. He’d have to give her what she wanted. When he didn’t she asked him again. And again. Until the words lost all meaning and they were both just saying them; the way people asked, ‘How are you?’ while writing letters.
The sounds from the workshop are not so constant anymore. A few beats. Tilt. Tap. Few more.
“Kannamma. Adiye! Kannammaaa…” Iyer calls out, between sips of rose-scented soda.
Kannammal emerges from the workshop, looks up at the sun, placing a hand over her eyebrow, to shield herself from the glare, and then runs in.
“Take Mary with you” Iyer says to his daughter.
Mary and Kannammal go to the same all-girls school in Mylapore. Kannammal sits in the front row. With other Brahmin girls. Mary sits somewhere in the middle. The two are good friends. But like their fathers, they too know that some friendships are meant to be private.
Kannammal takes Mary in her hand and the two walk out of the house.
Mary is on the swing – a plank tied to a jack fruit tree, whose sibling is now the body of Iyer’s drum. She stands up. Pushes the swing forward with her body. She goes up. Down.
When she goes up, Kannammal sings the ascending scale’s notes of a melody.
Sa ri ga pa da sa.
As Kannammal sings each note, Mary stomps her foot. First left. Then right. A glorious, free-spirited child of the earth. A real daredevil. A foot in eternity, and the other rooted in the present. A dancer. Diva. Soaring high. Her hair flying. Her face twisted in unabashed glee thrashing against the wind.
Sa da pa ga ri sa. Now downward.
Kannammal increases the tempo. Mary catches up.
Faster. Faster. Faster.
Up. Down. Up. Down.
Until both girls are breathless.
And then they exchange places.
Tha. Tha. Tha. Tha.
Thi. Thi. Thi. Thi.
Thom. Thom. Thom. Thom.
Nam. Nam. Nam. Nam.
Mary knows the first lesson of mridangam by heart. She was taught that four years ago. By her now-dead grandfather. She takes pride in the fact that she can play it fast. Faster than anyone else in her house.
Left hand. Right hand. Left and then right.
An hour passes and the two girls are summoned back into the workshop.
In the evening, after counting his cattle, Arumairaj makes beef fry for dinner.
“Ban this!” he says to no one in particular. Eats a mouthful. And then breaks down.
Krupa Ge is a Chennai-based writer and journalist, whose short fiction has appeared in The New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology 2014, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, Purple Pig Lit, Reading Hour, Papercuts and will appear in Blink-Ink’s Issue 18. Her non fiction writing has appeared in The Hindu, Times of India, Alternative, etc. She was a finalist in the César Egido Serrano Foundation’s Flash Fiction Competition Prize’s second edition. She is currently working on her first novel. She curates The Madras Mag, a multilingual literary journal. http://madrasmag.in/