This is one of my favorite short stories in Tamil, probably the best written by C N Annadurai. This is as good as ‘The Gift of the Magi’ written by O Henry and published in 1905.
Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai (15 September 1909 – 3 February 1969), popularly called Anna (“Elder brother”) or Arignar Anna (“Anna, the scholar”), was an Indian politician who served as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, a state in South India, from 1967 to 1969. He was the first member of a Dravidian party to hold that post.
He was well known for his oratorical skills and was an acclaimed writer in the Tamil language. He scripted and acted in several plays. Some of his plays were later made into movies.
Now the Story….
The place where the red banana plant was growing has become the playground for Sengodan’s children now. Like women are drawn to flowers and the honeybee to honey, the children got attracted to it. Sengodan was taking care of it as if it’s his favourite child. Even if he returned after dark, after a tiring day at the field, he would go to backyard and look at the plant and check if enough water was poured that day. Only then he would come and talk to his four children. He was growing it with so much love and affection. As the plant kept growing his joy and happiness grew as well. His eyes widened in pride when he watered the plant and mended the soil on which it was growing.
That he was showing more affection on the plant than on his first son Karian, made Kuppi, his wife little jealous. He would brag, “Kuppi take care of the plant. Make sure that a cow or a buffalo does not stamp on it. It’s a superb sapling. Red banana plant is very rare. The cluster of fruits will be so huge. The fruit would be big and round. It would be so tasty and beautiful as well. Even if you just look at it, your hunger will subside.” The children would agree with him. The children would, in turn, brag about it with the neighbourhood children. What else a farmer’s children can brag about? Can they talk about his new car or mom’s diamond stud or a radio bought by an elder brother? Only the red plant is their car, stud and radio.
His eldest son would say, “One big bunch of fruits will be mine.” Ellappan from opposite side of the hut would say, “you won’t give me even one? I have given you a mango and also roasted peanuts. Remember that!” Karian’s sister Kamatchi would say with a twinkle in her eyes, “if you take one bunch, I will take two; one from mom and one from dad.” Third son Muthu would say, “don’t make calculation with numbers. Nobody knows what will happen before the fruit is ripe for eating!” he would not say this for fun. He had already decided even by stealing, he would take more bananas than others. Thus the plant was growing as everyone’s favourite.
Sengodan toiled on the field. There was lot of work. The manager of the farm would harass him to no end. All this would evaporate when he saw the plant. He would pacify a crying child by showing the tree to him or he would threaten an adamant child showing the same tree. He would think the children would eat the red banana with lot of love. The farm owners’ children can eat apples and grapes. But how can Karian and Muthu get those fruits. He thought he would give them the red banana and make them happy. This though made him show even more affection on the plant.
Even if he toils all the time at the field he can’t save enough money to buy sweets and fruits or snacks for his children. The paddy he gets as wages would not be enough to fill even half of their stomachs. Kuppis’ work would help mitigate the hunger a bit. All the benefits of his hard work goes to the farm. After spending all his energy for the farm’s owner, he used to spend a rare resting time on the plant. He thought the entire benefit for this toil would come to him. He would not clearly get all these thoughts in his mind. The thoughts would randomly strike him like a smoke and disappear. But he believed he would get the benefit of this and that made him happy. As the plant grew, Sengodan’s happiness grew in similar proportions.
“Will it flower in one-month dad?” Karian would ask his father. “No, it will take two months” Sengodan would reply. At last when the plant flowered, there was a spring in Sengodan’s steps. He would look at the flower with pride. Parandama Mudaliar, the owner of the farm, would not look at the diamond necklace adorning his daughter-in-law’s neck with so much pride. As the flowers started growing, the arguments on how to share the fruits increased between the children and so were their ‘appeals’ to parents.
His daughter would ask him, “when will it become fruit?” “Karian would ask, “how many days should we leave it on the plant?” Sengodan was waiting for the right time to cut the banana bunch, ripen then to give to children. He was happy that the entire benefit of the toil would come to him. At the farm, even if he tilled the land, the land belonged to the Landlord. Only after he takes his share, something would come to Sengodan. But the red banana is not like that. The toil and the title both were his. After two days, he thought he would cut the bunch. The children jumped with joy. The news spread to other famers’ children like wild fire. They reserved a fruit for themselves by giving an ‘advance’ to Karian by way of peanuts or a mango or a root.
‘I have toiled and I am going to get the full benefit. The life would be so much better if I get the same result from my toils in the field. I have not put in one in hundreds of effort in the banana that I have put in the field. But there, only toil is mine and the land is his and thus he enjoys all the benefits. The red banana grew in my garden so I get the benefit. Similarly, if I have even a small piece of land, our lives would be better. Will a time come for that? Or there should be a law that the land should belong to the person who toils on the land and not to the Landlord. Will I see such a day?’ thought Sengodan.
The red banana kindled such philosophical thoughts in his mind. But the children were jumping in joy at the thought of getting the banana. At the same time, the Landlord, decided to celebrate his daughter-in-law’s birthday in a grand scale. He asked the priest at the temple to do a grand Pooja on that day. He called his accountant and asked him to list of things they would need for the celebration. When he listed out the things that was required, Landlord mentioned two big bunches of bananas. Sundaram, the accountant replied, “there are no good bananas in the market, just green plantain is available.” Landlord said, “OK get that. Where are you going to get good bananas…?” before he could finish his sentence, Sundaram interrupted, “Sir in Sengodan’s garden there is a big bunch of Red Bananas. We can bring that.” Landlord said, “OK. Get it.”
Sengodan’s banana bunch! His sweet dream! Efforts of his toil!! His children’s joy! Sundaram has sounded the death knell for it. Sengodan’s family derived joy from the banana for past many days and Sundaram became the murderer of it. Danger came to the banana which gave joy, happiness, confidence and peace to Sengodan’s family. When Sundaram and Sengodan were talking in the street, his children did not think it was about the bananas. Sengodan’s head spun on hearing the news. His tongue stammered. Words came out from his mind but got caught in his throat.
Sundaram reasoned that it’s the birthday of Landlord’s daughter-in-law. What could Sengodan do? What can he say? In his mind, the desire which grew up with the banana, the desire which made his children happy and raised their expectations, their desire waiting for tomorrow- what can he say? Landlord is asking. ‘What a cheap fellow? You said no to Landlord? You don’t have basic gratitude to someone who gives you life? After all, for one bunch of banana! For his status, is this big?’ he thought the village would speak like this. On the other hand, counter thoughts ran in his mind as well. ‘What dad? You have betrayed us? I also watered the plant. Made sure cattle did not stamp on it. You said the fruits would be as sweet as sugar. Even sister is so much in love with it. You told us you would give it to us and now you are betraying us. Did we ask you to buy us apples and oranges? This is from our garden and we grew it’ he could imagine his children crying over it and his wife’s anger, ‘you are making the children suffer! You are betraying them? Is this correct?’ But the man standing in front of him is the accountant. He went to pick his sickle.
“Dad is going to cut the bunch – the red banana bunch” his children shouted in happiness. Tears came out of Sengodan’s eyes. He cut the bunch and brought it inside. “Dad keep the bunch on the floor. We want to feel it!” the children shouted again. Sengodan touched Karian’s shoulder. “Dear! The Landlord wants this for a function. I am taking it to him. Next month another plant will flower and give fruits. I will give that to you.” He started for the Landlord’s house before his heart could be broken by children’s tears and cries. A deathly silence fell on his house. Only late in the night, he picked up the courage to return to his house. After crying for hours, the children have fallen asleep. Tears flowed from Sengodan’s eyes as he looked at them. He wiped them and fell on floor. Thousands of thoughts came into his mind.
What’s the use in growing the banana as if it’s his own child…! For the Landlord, it was not a big thing. He can buy a thousand like that. But for him? How much did he struggle to see that bunch? How many dreams? How many times he would have kindled the desire in his children’s minds! How much effort! How much care! All went down the drain in one second.
After four days, the daughter-in-law, walking like a swan, carried four red bananas on a silver plate to the temple. The children could not be pacified even after four days. Karian was adamant that he wanted one red banana. Kuppi searched for some money found a quarter anna and asked him to buy one from the shop. Karian ran towards the shop. One red banana bunch was hanging in the shop.
The accountant has sold the banana bunch to shopkeeper after the daughter-in-law has taken just four bananas. Karian was now standing in front of it with expectation and desire. “Hey! red banana is one ana (six paisa). You can’t get it for quarter ana” the shopkeeper was driving Karian out of the shop. How would Karian know it was his bananas that’s now hanging in the shop? How many days he would have watered the plant for the fruit. Now the fruit is there but at a distance where Karian cannot afford to reach. He was returning back home after buying some roasted peanuts with the quarter ana his mom gave and with so much of sadness. Sengodan was coming out of the house, holding the stem of the plant in his hands. Karian asked him, “is this also for Landlord’s house?” Sengodan replied, “no dear. Parvathi, the old lady is dead. This is for decorating the stretcher which would carry the body to the cremation ground.”
In the stretcher, Sengodan’s plant was kept as decoration. There was lot of crying all around. Karian said proudly to the neighbour’s child, “see that’s our stem decorating the stretcher. We gave the fruit bunch to the Landlord and the stem for decoration.”
Poor child. He does not know that, in this exploiting world, Sengodan’s red banana is a very common occurrence.