Considered by many as The Best Short Story written in Tamil, Vidiyuma – Will it dawn? -was written by Ku Pa Rajagopalan. Consider the odds. He lived for just 42 years (1902-44). Lived in absolute poverty. The magazine he worked for did not even pay salaries and he walked to office from home (Triplicane to George Town). His vision was severely impaired. But he produced some of the excellent writings in Tamil, was part of the ‘Manikodi’, a literary movement and published 60 short stories. He championed women’s cause 90 years ago and fought with his family for his sister to complete schooling even though she was married.
And yes, Tamil was not his mother tongue. This classic was written when he was thirty years old and this is one train journey you will never forget.
Ku Pa Rajagopalan
Kumbakonam P. Rajagopalan (1902–1944), known by his pen name Ku. Pa. Ra. was a Tamil writer, translator and journalist. He is linked with the Manikodi tradition of Tamil writers. He has been compared with his co-writers Pudumaipithan, Mowni. M. V. Venkatram and Na. Pichamurthy. His short stories are clear and bold. His subject deals more of the hidden feelings of women on love and sex.
Rajagopalan was born in 1902 in Kumbakonam, Madras Presidency. He had his education in Kumbakonam and joined the services of the Madras government. However, he was soon affected by cataract and was forced to quit his government job.
In 1937, when sight was restored to his eyes after a successful operation, he moved to Madras in order to commence a career as a professional writer. For a time, he worked for a daily called Tamil Nadu along with C. S. Chellappa.
Will It Dawn?
When we read the telegram, we sat down crestfallen. It looked as if we did not understand the meaning of the telegram.
There were just two words in the telegram. ‘Sivaramaiyyar dangerous’. It has come from General Hospital in Chennai.
My elder sister had come from Chennai only two months back. She told us that brother in law has recovered completely and there is no sign of Tuberculosis (TB) according to expert doctors.
Kunjammal sat down as if she was hit on the head with a hammer, hallucinating.
There was a big tussle going on in our minds; Part of it was saying ‘not true’ and part was saying ‘true’. Slowly ‘not true’ was trying to get support from all corners trying to gather strength. We read the telegram many times over. There can’t be a mistake. It has come from the General Hospital, sent in the morning and addressed to Kunjammal. How could there be a mistake?
But how could something have happened so fast? A letter had come from him only three days back. If he were not well, would he have not mentioned it?
My sister and I started for Chennai by the evening train. That was the first train from Kumbakonam to Chennai.
Before starting we looked for an auspicious time and did parastanam*1. The priest told us ‘nothing to worry. There must be some small effects due to planetary movement’. Mother, remembering all the Gods, prayed to each one of them. She did a votive offering in a yellow cloth to God and packed a lot of turmeric, kumkum, betel nut and shemathandulam*2 for my sister. She compelled both of us to eat before we started. Kunjammal did everything mechanically, when mother asked her to pray she went through the motion. It was evident that she was badly shaken up and speechless. Her liveliness had deserted her for the first time.
Mother went out and checked for good omen. It was a good omen. Neighbor Sundari was bringing water from Kaveri River.
‘Nothing will be there! Why something like this should come to us? We never think of anything bad for anyone’ mother was consoling herself and others. We writhed in tension, as we had to travel the whole night in train. At the same time, since we could do nothing before we got there, our anxiety came down a bit. We sat in two opposite window seats.
‘He was alright when you left sister?’ I asked my sister to start a conversation.
‘Nothing. Otherwise would I have started? She replied anxiously. Absolutely no reason for something to happen suddenly.’
It was evident from her speech she was trying to console herself and relax her mind for the next few hours.
‘I should not have stayed for the Nonbu*3 but gone back. I feel bad I did not do it!’
‘Did brother in law get angry that you stayed back for Nonbu? He had written to you to come immediately. We wrote back saying you would come back in one week. Has he given this telegram because of that?’
‘But the telegram has come from the hospital!’
‘Could he have not sent the telegram using hospital name?’
‘Is it possible?’ there was eagerness in sister’s voice.
‘Why not? You could have told hospital name in telegraph office!’
‘Could it be true?’ my sister’s face looked little happy.
‘It should be true. There is no reason for something to happen suddenly. Only day before yesterday we received a letter?’
‘Yes there was no mention of illness in the letter?’
‘He has sent the telegram to hurry us! If he had sent it from home it would not have the same effect as sending it using hospital name’
‘Is it possible Ambi (little brother). Is it?’ she asked again with doubt.
Even if I had known that’s not possible would I have the heart to tell her at that time?
‘Listen sister! He will come to Egmore station to receive us!’ I said.
In my mind, at the bottom, fear was piercing like a worm. On top, there was little consolation. Every now and then fear used to rise to the top. Body will shake. Chest will go dry. Stomach will rattle. Face will turn grotesque. Again, the strength of consolation would go up. It will suppress the fear.
Happiness or sadness, nothing will last long in human mind. Is this a proof of that?
Train was going at a good speed. It looked as if it was going fast to catch up with the dawn in far away Chennai. Looked as if, in darkness, a ray of light was going like the courage, which comes out of fear. When we reach Chennai, would our fear also be left behind like the darkness? Would peace come to us like dawn? Darkness surely will not come with us. Peace will be upon us in Chennai! Mind was consoling in so many different ways.
Kunjammal took some betel and nut from the sack and gave me and put some in her mouth. In our family Kunjammal is known to be very beautiful. Light complexion and slim figure. She had a good influence in the neighborhood.
That day she was looking even brighter. A longing look appeared first time on her face and may be because of that she looked even more beautiful.
Kunjammal liked flowers. She won’t care if anyone teased her. She would wear a lot of jasmine flowers on her head. It looked to my eyes, that day it shined even more. Her lips became fully red with betel nut like never before.
Will beauty show up more when one is tired or in fear? Or is it like the candle glowing brightly before going off? No – No
Kunjammal was looking so beautiful that day.
Munching the betel nut half way, she commented, ‘what happiness did I get marrying your brother in law?’ Tears were flowing down from her eyes, ‘always adamant, fought every day, is there a day I did not cry? – My life has turned into tears’ she started crying but stopped abruptly. ‘Has he ever listened to me? Anyway last time when he fell ill, I thought it’s enough if he is alive!’
For some agonizing moments both of us were keeping quiet. But the minds were not quiet.
At mid night, passengers were sleeping in different postures, sitting and reclining. When the train stopped in a small station some of them would get out like silent evil spirits. Passengers who woke up would poke their head through the window and ask, ‘which station is this?’ A porter would say the name of the station half asleep himself. Again the train would start moving like a centipede.
At One in the midnight, the train reached Vizhupuram station with lot of fuss. Till then there was absolute silence and stillness in the compartment. At the station, the crowd and noise increased. Our bench, which was empty up till now, was filled with things. A city woman with an infant and a feeding bottle in her hand came and sat next to my sister.
Her diamonds shone through the darkness of night. She was lost in her own world and was playing lovingly with her daughter.
After the train started moving, she turned her head towards my sister and asked her, ‘where are you going?’
‘City’ my sister said in short.
‘I am also going there’ she said and continued with many questions. Then she opened her bamboo bag and took some jasmine flowers and gave to my sister.
My sister was enthralled. With lot of eagerness she took the flowers and wore it carefully on her head. She thought as if Goddess Mahalakshmi herself came and offered her the flowers and said, ‘don’t worry nothing will happen to your flowers’*4
Till then my sister who was replying to the lady’s question in monosyllables, suddenly opened up and told her the whole story.
‘You look like Goddess Mahalakshmi. Nothing will happen to you. Don’t worry’ she said. My sister took it as divine words and consoled herself and started talking to her freely.
Suddenly as if she remembered something and committed a crime she jerked up. It was evident that she was thinking, ‘I am talking and laughing as if nothing has happened’. Even with the wind blowing through the window of a running train she was sweating.
But how long can you keep worrying? The tiredness coming out of our worries made us sleep for sometime.
In sorrow, does sleep and forgetfulness join, intoxicate and subside the longing?
When the train was nearing Chengalpet we woke up with a jerk and sat down. It was getting brighter in the Est. As the train was passing through a small village we could hear the cock calling.
‘Oh my God will it dawn?’ a thought on one side
‘Oh it’s dawning! What’s in store for us today? A fear on other side.
The light, which was coming through the daybreak was trying to take away the consolation provided by the darkness of the night.
Kunjammal was sitting with fear staring at a far away object.
‘Should we brush our teeth and have some coffee in Chengalpet?’
‘Only we reach Chennai’ replied my sister. The lady sitting next her was sleeping peacefully.
The train was flying fast as if telling us its almost over. But it looked to us as we were nearing Chennai the train was just crawling. It reached Egmore at last.
No one was there at the station. I meant my brother in law was not there. ‘Why should he come to station? That expectation was not correct’ it struck me.
We reached home. But it was locked. So it’s confirmed he was not well.
We rushed to the General Hospital. After half an hour a clerk came out.
‘Are you from Kumbakonam?’ he asked.
‘Yes’ I said.
‘Patient – last night – died’ he said casually.
‘How did he die? So soon?’ Even then our doubts and mistrust did not go.
‘Is it possible?’
‘Just wait for sometime. You can take the dead body’ he said and went back to his work.
After sometime we received the dead body.
Once we saw the body it was confirmed.
At last the fear went away. The fright was over.
*1 Parastanam: The Hindus at least in the olden days, looked for an auspicious date and time to start any travel. If the day of travel was not auspicious they went to relatives place or friends’ place the day before and started the next day. Sanskrit word ‘para’ means other and ‘stanam’ means place.
*2 Shemathandulam: Rice dipped in Turmeric. Considered very auspicious and put on heads
*3 Nonbu: A festival for Goddess Lakshmi. Women fast during the day of the festival
*4 Flowers: Hindu women once widowed remove all jewelry. They eschew all make-up and stop wearing flowers on their head. The meaning here she can keep wearing the flowers. Nothing is going to happen.