Short story by Noel Nadesan
It was my lunchtime. I was seated next to my favorite window in the ‘Red Back’ pub in north Melbourne. The pub is situated along Elizabeth Street, just and Royal Women’s Hospital. Usually, I long for that table next to the window facing Elizabeth Street when I pay a visit. I can have a full view of the street scene and enjoy the ability to see through the window.
There is not much of a crowd because it is a Monday It is rather difficult to step in n on Fridays and had to drink and eat in a standing position.
“What is the matter? Look worried. You have come alone!”- Quipped the girl who serves liquor as if she is well acquainted with me. She is accustomed, but not friendly. She may be a part-time worker or a university student.
“Why should I worry about it?” “Victoria bitter pot” – I said.
I used to call over at least once a week with my office colleagues. This is the closest pub with liquor and decent food to my workplace.
I can appreciate the beauty of the surroundings while seated closer to the window, even if I am alone. Lovely wind will embrace my face and can watch passer-by. I can spend my lunchtime without boring.
Blue airmail letter in my shirt pocket feels like tapping my heart, the letter was written by my cousin, Nanthan, after a long interval made me anxious. It carried the information that his mother, my aunt- aged seventy, has passed away. I felt that it is a great achievement for Tamils in Sri Lanka during wartime living for natural death at the age of 70. Why should I worry for my aunt died at the age of seventy when young kids of our community are dying on the battlefield?
Nanthan’s letter remembered my past and envisioned my childhood.
The days when I threw stones on her roof the house – lingering in my memory lane. In fact, my punishment was worse than the cruel penalty inflicted upon the female victim by the Taliban.
I have been pelting stones in the nights at my aunt’s house for a month. She would not have slept the whole night. When the relatives see her with sleepless reddened eyes in the mornings, they may have thought that she had been weeping the whole night on account of the demise of her husband.
It happened during my younger days. I found out wrongful conduct in her personal character and decided to punish her. I was highly arrogant when I found that she was unfaithful to my uncle. But later when I came to know of such transgressions rampant in society, I felt sorry for her. Do I know what my uncle was up to? What is his darker side?
Whoever whose individual drawbacks are hidden appear to be of good behavior and those who are unable to hide due to their incapability are exposed for victimization. This is the reality of happening for decades. Since I cannot forget that embarrassing incident, my heart was terribly hurt when I saw Nathan’s letter.
It was the day of my uncle’s funeral. I heard the voice of Sambasivam’s uncle who requested me to give him tobacco. He was missing for half an hour from the funeral house. He must have gone in search of his black-arrack bottle to drink half-glass of arrack pretending to have gone for a washroom. He is a person with fond of alcohol. Whenever he attends a marriage ceremony or funeral the black bottle too arrives on the sly. He will hide it in some flower plant-bush and quench his thirst whenever he wants. It is funny that he is under the impression that he only knows this drinking affair. He is now requesting tobacco to counterbalance the bitterness of liquor. He and another eight people were discussing the American space mission to the moon. Their conversation about Armstrong under the jack-tree never touched dead uncle.
The body of my uncle is placed in the verandah. The house consists of two bedrooms and a kitchen in a half-square shape and the dead body are decorated with silk attire. There are two brass lamps on either side with burning frankincense sticks. The smell of frankincense is common at all funerals. My aunt is seated on the floor near the bedhead of my uncle with unkempt locks of hair. My uncle and aunt are fair in complexion and people described Them openly as a good-matching couple.
Several women sat around aunt and wailing and weeping with a loud voice. This wailing tone at times increases in pitch and then comes down. Some are singing funeral elegy abounding with comparisons between the deceased and other revered, but some pretend to be shedding tears.
Four people were engaged in drum beating under the shady mango tree. I noticed their arm muscles bulging by the beating of the drums, they want to burst. I gave tobacco to them as well. I heard a voice mixed with authority, “Inform the women to supply tea for us”. I assign the duty of providing betel and tobacco for the people. I wanted to tell him that I am not responsible for supplying tea. But I hesitated. But no one cared about my uncle, but the betel, tobacco, tea, and a trip to the moon.
Do the wailing women cry of sorrow?
I cannot blame others too.
Uncle underwent his studies in his younger days in town. He was appointed as a teacher at Kurunegala immediately after completing his studies. He comes home only during the school holidays. Even if he comes, he never moved with the society.
I saw uncle’s son playing in the backyard. He is five years old. I am damn wild with him. He is responsible for all the happenings. He does not resemble my uncle. He is coal-black whereas my uncle and aunt are very fair in complexion.
“I have got to provide tea as well. You better serve tobacco.”
He told jerking his body and said, “I can’t.” He spoke
I kicked him, as it was the right opportunity.
He sobbed quietly.
I moved from there and approached Sinnappoo who is our laundryman preparing the customary garments to spread clothes along the route of the procession before cremation of the body. He is a six-foot person and very much fond of me. I had the crazy desire to see the whole world by being seated on top of his shoulder.
He comforted, saying, “Son! Are you feeling sorry for having lost your uncle?” –I just looked at Nanthan who is crying by my punishment while Sinnappoo embraced me.
He is crying, no one bothered to console him because it is a funeral house. If not, he would have gone and made a complaint to my aunt. I noticed that the moaning tone of Aunt had stopped, and others got an interval. Ponamma who was leading the elegy may have felt the urge to chew betel. She is famous for her elegy singing at funerals.
The bier-makers who were ‘doing research high above at the sky’ under the jack-tree now commenced their assigned work because the sun was settling down
Uncle’s garden consists of several trees required, such as coconut leaves, tender shoots, and coconut flowers for making a bier. The bier-building work was in progress under the leadership of Sambasivam another uncle. The shades of the bier-builders in the evening sunlight gave long dark shadow appearances.
“Son! Tell them to bring tea for all”- Sambasivam’s uncle gave sudden order.
My mother is administering the funeral arrangements. My mother liked his brother very much and she praised him for his studies. My mother disliked my aunt. I have heard her accusations that my aunt is ill-treating my uncle. I have seen my uncle having his meals in our home. I remember to have seen him stay in our house. I remember to have seen him stay in our house for two weeks.
One day I rushed to my uncle’s house to show my performance report of the fifth standard when I heard that he had come from Kurunegala, south of Sri Lanka. I was rolling the metal rim of the cycle through the thatched gate in the backyard.
I was stunned by the loud voices from his house.
“If you continue to behave like this, I am not going to call over here.” This is uncle’s reflexive voice.
“How can I tolerate an unmanliness married person spending whole life in Kurunegala?”- Aunt’s aggressive reply.
“You better live with the person who had fathered your child. Why should I come here?”
“Why should I sneak behind another man if you were possessing Manliness?”
“I have not touched you for the last six years as you have not behaved properly”.
“How dare you say like that to a daughter of a village- headman?”
I came back home when I heard the undignified angry voice from Aunt. I also did not want to tell the matter to my mother. It took several days to overcome the unexpected shock caused by the incident.
My uncle went back to Kurunegala the next day itself.
My uncle’s corpse arrived within a varnish-painted coffin in a van. The doctor has certified that he had committed suicide by taking folidol insecticide.
I moved out from that place, as I could not stand the performance of the last rites of uncle holding torch from coconut oil by Nanthan.
Uncle’s dead body started the last journey in the decorated bier at 6.00 p.m. Children were not allowed to go to the cremation ground near the beach. However, when I went hiding behind Palmyra trees and beach rocks, his body is in flames. Sambasivam uncle and Sinnappoo were the only persons who were at the cremation ground till the body is completely burnt to ashes.
“Ranee! Something fell on the roof the whole of last night. It seems that your brother is not going to allow us to live in peace, even after his demise. My son and I were awake the whole night”- Aunt made a complaint to my mother for the next day.
“ Sister-in-law! My brother is so affectionate with you. I think that is why he is coming and troubling you as a ghost. It will be all right after 31 days when the priest comes and attends the purifying ceremony”- My mother told her.
My mother was not aware that I am the person who had pelted stones on the thatched- roof of her house till I went to the town for higher studies. I used to keep the stones underneath my pillow daily for pelting purposes.
“What! Shall I bring another bottle?” – waitress’s voice brought my thoughts back to Melbourne.
It was the end of lunchtime when I came back from recollection. I was not feeling hungry on that day. Has a guilty conscience on stone-throwing deprived hunger?
I vacated the liquor restaurant after making the payment.