Excerpts from Devibharathi’s The Solitude of a Shadow

“Later, I loitered aimlessly for three days like an unhinged person. I had taken a day’s leave on the false pretext of having to accompany Amma to the hospital. Since Sharada had planned to come to see Amma on Sunday, I avoided staying at home and went to the district capital to meet an old friend. When I returned after drinking with my friend until late into the night, Sharada opened the door. I wanted her to be appalled by the smell of alcohol wafting from me. Pretending to be unsteady on my feet from intoxication, I went off to bed. In the morning, I lay feigning sleep until Sharada and her husband had left. When I was in office the next day, there was a call from Sharada. ‘What happened?’ she asked. I replied as though I did not understand what she was talking about. ‘Did you see him?’ ‘No,’ I said. She must have been upset when I disconnected the call with evident irritation.

I opened the files on my desk, which had been left untouched for three days, and started answering the letters received from our district headquarters. A senior arts teacher who had applied for a loan from his provident fund account invited me to have tea with him. I walked with him to the tea stall, wondering all the way if I should tell him about Karunakaran. I thought obsessively about ways to bring Karunakaran’s esteem down in the community. After recess, I sat alone in my sweltering office and wondered whether I should threaten him by sending an anonymous letter. Almost immediately, I abandoned the idea as juvenile and foolish. But it grew in my brain on its own, like a malignant tumour, or like a project, swiftly and secretly. I floundered, unable to control my still vengeful mind which kept formulating the required sentences and stashing them away. Rummaging through the files, I found Karunakaran’s residential address and noted it down on a piece of paper. I decided that it would be safe to post the letter from the district capital which was quite far away. I sat in front of the typewriter with the air of someone typing official letters and promptly lost myself in rumination. As soon as I typed the first line, I realized that the letter could not be brief. Terrified by the steady traffic of teachers and colleagues through my office, the words began to hide and take cover.

I told the headmaster that I had to clear pending files and got his permission to spend the night in the office. The night watchman—who made his rounds with an air of sobriety while being moderately drunk—kept chatting with me all the while. He had an urgent wish to share with me all the secret, intoxicating stories he had collected about teachers and students. I listened to his stories as I waited impatiently for the moment when he would pass out. He asked me for money to buy a bottle of beer. I gave him three times the amount. He went to the market happily and came back with packets of food, a half-bottle of whisky and two beers. I lied that I was suffering from an upset stomach and refused to touch any of the items. Unable to stay up after dinner, the night watchman collapsed in a heap. I sat uneasily on a wooden stool that had stiffened in the heat of the still ferocious late summer and started to type a threatening letter addressed to Karunakaran. Once begun, the letter galloped to a finish in no time, but since it was full of jagged sentences, it left me dissatisfied. I remained quiet for a long time, racking my brain for words that would give him the fright of his life. Then, having made up my mind, I described in full the cruel events of that nightmarish day in the form of a story that would remind him of those events even if he had forgotten them. The first part of the letter recounted how our lives had been ruined irrevocably; the second was about the vow of revenge I had made on that day and the intensity of my thirst for vengeance. Then, still mulling over the idea of fixing a deadline for killing him, I went to the school’s playground and lit a cigarette.

I wanted the day of his murder to be a special day. I kept thinking, absurdly and theatrically, that it should happen on Karunakaran’s or Sharada’s birthday, or during the school’s Annual Day or Independence Day celebrations. Just then, I heard the pulsating thumps of udukkais— double-sided, hourglass-shaped hand drums—coming from somewhere not far away. Having grown up in the shadow of itinerant storytellers like Kunnadaiya Kavundan, I had no difficulty in recognizing the subject of the intense recital. Most likely, it was the battlefield scene. The voice sounded as though it belonged to Kallamadai Ramasami Pandaram. It could have been Valanthankottai Chellappa Pandithan’s too. Thrilled at having made a chance discovery, I walked in the direction of that sound with starlight for company. I stopped one of the men passing by on the foot trail and asked him about the performance. ‘Yes, it is Valanthankottai Nasuvan (the barber from Valanthankottai) who is reciting the stories. It’s been going on for twelve days now. Today it’s the story of Nallathangal’s lament. Everyone in the audience is crying and weeping. I couldn’t bear it myself. What a horrible fate! It’s only a story, I know, but who can bear this sorrow?’

I forged ahead with newfound vigour. A short distance away, Nallathangal was wailing in extreme anguish. As Nallathangal, with his thin ribcage covered by a short length of sari, Chellappa Pandithan swung his stilt-like legs and pranced around. Holding the udukkai close to his chest, he had plucked the unendurable torment of loss from the instrument and passed it on to the audience. The song lyrics that floated through the moist air, drenched with the tears of the audience, reminded me of Veerapur’s dense forest filled with wunja trees, its blood-encrusted fields, the dilapidated Periya Kandiyamman temple, and the Koovandam Valley where water flowed in abundance. It was at that moment that I began to indulge in glorious fantasies of vengeance. Walking past the crowd, I came to a cluster of trees. As I stood in a small umbra of darkness and watched the performance, I was able to visualize the time and place for my act of revenge.

To take a short break and chew a round of betel, the singer handed the udukkai to an assistant and headed towards the pandal behind the temple. Accepting the invitation in his swollen, bleary eyes, I followed him.

‘Is your mother better?’

‘Can’t say she is, Mama,’ I said with a sigh.

‘Did you take her to a hospital and have her looked at?’

‘We do take her to the hospital now and then.’

The singer looked intently at me with his cold eyes as he chewed the betel wrap. ‘Are the girls doing well?’he asked. I didn’t feel like replying. I was searching for Nallathangal’s vengeful eyes in the singer’s red-painted face.

‘So, you heard me singing and came over, did you?’

‘Yes, Mama. I was in the school to finish some pending work. When I heard your voice, I got up and came here.’

‘How can anyone listen to this song and continue to work? Is it for nothing that so many people lie around in this dirt until daybreak?’ He smiled, brimming with pride.

Spitting out the betel juice, he stood up, removed and flapped his veshti, then wrapped it around his waist again. The udukkai was back in his hand. 

‘Stay back and watch the show untill the end.’ 

I gave him the slip and made my way back to the school.

In my mind, I thanked the singer for helping me transform a juvenile, anonymous letter into something with an epic quality. I came back to my office and, deciding on a date for taking revenge on Karunakaran, started to complete the letter. The clacking sounds from the collision of the typewriter’s metal tongues with its roller lent an uneasy edge to the peaceful night. When I read through the letter, I thought it had turned out more perfect than I could have expected. Proud of myself for having taken a concrete first step in my plan for revenge, I read the letter again and again. Then, lighting a cigarette, I considered various strategies for posting it. “

Pick up Devibharathi’s “The Solitude of a Shadow” from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

Leave a comment