Ki Rajanarayanan, popularly known as Ki Ra, an award winning writer best known for his ‘Gopallpuram Village’ novel, has written about the land of black soil and its people for over 40 years. ‘Karisal Kadu‘ or the black soil is the driest place in Tamil Nadu and living is an every day struggle.
I have earlier translated his story, Door – கதவு – which is one of my favourite stories of Ki Raa. Chair is another story which is close to heart. Long after you finish reading it, you would always think about the characters of the story.
Chair – நாற்காலி – கி ரா
Is it a house if it doesn’t have a chair; the thought has come into most of our minds. Immediately it was kept in family ‘agenda’ and discussion started in full earnest.
The day before, a friend of the family visited us. He was a sub-judge. He did not come dressed like us, in a dhoti and shirt. He was suited and booted. We had only a stool at home and it was only 3/4th of foot in height. Our grandma used to sit on it when she churned curd. She was heavyset and our father asked the carpenter to make it little broader.
Sub-judge had a body nature like grandma. Since we did not have anything else to offer him to sit on, we brought the stool and asked him to sit. He moved to sit on it, pressing the edge of the stool. The biggest drawback with the stool is, if you don’t put pressure anywhere except on top of the legs, it will tilt. Many a time we used to stand on it to reach the uri (a hoop where small pots are kept) to get the clarified butter and fallen if we were not careful in avoiding sensitive points of the stool. We thought the sub-judge may end up in the same state and opened our mouth to warn him but it was bit late. He just fell and rolled over a couple of times. We (my younger brother and the youngest sister) could not hold our laughter and ran to the backyard. And the moment our laugh subsided, our sister playacted how the judge fell and rolled and we started laughing again.
One more reason for our laughter was we saw our parents covering their mouths so as not to laugh in front of the guest who just fell down.
So when we came back into the house stealthily as a cat, we could not find the heavyset sub-judge. And we could not see the stool either. My sister asked me if he had taken it with him.
Only after this incident, the decision to get a chair was made. A practical difficulty in getting this done was there was no chair in the village to copy nor was there a carpenter who knew how to make one.
Pethanna suggested that we could get one from the city which would solve the problem. But dad rejected the idea saying it won’t be strong enough.
Our aunt suggested that there is indeed a good carpenter in the next town and he has made all types of chair and even the Governor who visited the shop had appreciated his craft.
Mom, after hearing this comment from aunt. especially the second one, made a face.
Dad called the servant and sent him to the village to see the carpenter came sat with us. Now discussion on which tree would be the best for making a chair started.
“We should make it in Teak wood,” declared our grandma as she kept massaging her legs. It looked as if she was very fond of her legs she always kept doing this.
As were discussing, our uncle (mom’s elder brother) came into the house. Pethanna ran and got the stool for him. We all laughed.
Uncle has chosen a particular place to sit whenever he came visiting and he would not sit anywhere else. He would sit in a place south of the store room leaning on the pillar for support. As soon as he sat down he would untie his tuft, scratch his head and tie his tuft tightly. He would do this without fail. After tying his tuft, he would look down on the floor and pethanna would tease him, “No coin has fallen from your tuft.” We would laugh at this.
Whenever he visited us he would be subjected this endless teasing and he would look at us as if to say, “you are all in laws. If not me, who would you tease?” He took this sportively. When this went out of hand, mom would scold us and invariably, her scolding would end up with the word, ‘Donkeys!’
As soon he sat down, mom stood up and walked towards the kitchen and dad followed her.
In few minutes, she came back carrying a silver tumbler filled with Asafoetida flavoured buttermilk. Dad followed her imitating her walk and looked at us. It was to convey, “her brother has come. That’s the reason for this special buttermilk.”
The aroma of the flavoured buttermilk was so good we wanted to drink the same.
We always thought uncle came to our house only to drink this special buttermilk. The buttermilk from our cow was so good. We also thought that he is the stingiest person in the village.
He went to Kannavaram personally to buy this cow for his younger sister. My younger brother and sister were affectionate to the cow’s calf. Whenever he visited us he would go around the cow couple of time and say a couple of words in praise of her. We all feared that once the cow stopped giving milk he would take it to his house and the calf would go away with it’s mother was the fear my younger brother and sister had.
This future event had made them to like the cow and calf even more and started an hatred towards him. They will stare at him and pierce and pinch with their sharp look.
Presently uncle joined the discussion on the chair subject and showed interest that he also wanted one. He suggested that the chair should be made from Neem tree as this will give a cooling effect and prevent piles disease. As soon he said this, dad looked at him suspiciously. Only the day before, dad was telling the farm workers that the huge neem tree at our farmland could be cut for fuel wood.
Pethanna said we should make this from Indian Tulip. It will be rigid and it will give a good shine.
Sister added, “all these are light varieties. They won’t look good. After few days we may start hating them. I say we should make it from a tree either in light red colour or utter black from a sesame tree. It is up to you.” A flash went through our minds imagining a chair in shining black with carved legs and we are sitting on it stretching out.
We all agreed to what our sister said and immediately an order went out for two chairs.
When the two chairs arrived, we could not decide which one to keep and which one to send to our in law. Both looked like twins. We chose one and sent the other and then wondered if we had sent the good one to our in law.
One by one we sat on the chair. None of us had an heart to get up from it. Just to give someone else a chance we had to get up. Pethanna sat on it and said, ‘Ah ah wow.’ He felt the hands of the chair with his hands. “We should stitch a cover for it or it would get dirty,” declared our elder sister.
Little sister and brother fought all the time on sitting rights. Sister would say, “You are sitting on it all the time. Get up!” He would reply, “I just sat on it. Look mom she is fighting always.” He will keep his face as if he was about to cry.
Few days went by.
The news spread like wildfire. Young ones and elders came in groups to see it. Some just looked and some even sat on it. One old man lifted it and commented, “the Carpenter has made it very well.”
One day at about two in the night, someone knocked on the door. Pethanna opened the door. The man who knocked the door said some big shot has just died and he wanted the chair.
The man who died was someone we were close to. So we went to pay our respects. What we saw shocked us. They have made the big shot to sit on our chair.
Before this chair arrived, the dead one was usually kept a the grinding stone, a gunny bag filled with hay would be kept on the grinding stone and the dead would be kept reclining on it.
We could not understand where did they see and learnt to make the dead sit on the chair. Our chair had to endure this new fashion.
Once the ceremony was over, they brought the chair and put it on our forecourt. We were just afraid to see it let alone sit on it. We called our servant to clean it. He used fifteen buckets of water and scratched it repeatedly. But our fear would not go away. We did not know how to make the chair ‘normal’ again.
To our good fortune, one day a guest came to our house. We asked our servant to bring the chair so that he could sit on it. “It is OK, I will sit on the mat” the guest said. We were afraid that he would not sit on the chair; we rushed to get the chair and all of us forced him to sit on it. The moment he sat on it, little sister and brother ran to the backyard and every few minutes peeped in to see if something had happened to the guest.
The next day an old man from our village came to our house and sat on the chair. Pethanna commented that he was doing a rehearsal.
Thus we were bringing the chair back to normalcy. First the elders sat on it. But the children were still afraid. Younger sister would ask the brother to sit on it and he would shout back, “why don’t you sit first?”
A girl living in the next street bought her one year old brother and made him sit on the chair. From that day the children in our house started sitting on it.
After few days, again there was knock on the door past midnight and they borrowed our chair for the ceremony. This kept happening repeatedly.
When we looked sad, the people who came to borrow the chair thought that we were sad because of the sad news of death. Little did they know.
Added to this, is the disturbed sleep. Pethanna commented why do these people die at an unholy hour. He said, “we made a chair for the dead people of this village to sit.”
“You chose a wrong time to order the chair,” commented our aunt.
Pethanna gave an idea and we kept it ourselves.
One day mom asked us to go Uncle’s house on some errand.
When we visited he was sitting on the chair lavishly, preparing his beetle-nut. His beetle-nut eating saga is an interesting episode to watch. He would open his glittering beetle-nut box, about 6 inches in length, 9 inches width and 4 inches in thickness very carefully as if it would get hurt and slowly remove the beetle leaf. He would clean the leaf but will not clip the tip (such a miser).
He would take the nut and smell it. Otherwise it won’t give the kick. he would blow the nut as if to remove all the micro bugs away. He would start this slowly and the rhythm would increase to a high decibel level and soon the beetle and nut would disappear into his mouth.
One can certainly say about someone cleanliness by looking at their lime (which is applied at the back of the beetle leaf) box. Chinna Mamanar was a king in this. His lime box would glitter without a speck of dirt on it. The Eveready torchlight which was bought fifteen years ago still look new as if bought only yesterday from the shop. Our torchlight which was bought at the same time looked yellow, is bent all over its body and looked like a terminal patient about to die.
He would not allow anyone else to sit on his chair. If it had to be moved, he would do that himself, carrying slowly and putting it down so carefully as if he it was a clay pot filled with water.
The moment he saw me, he welcomed saying, “come in son in law. Will you have some beetle-nut?” He answered the question himself saying, “if students eat this, they will only get zero marks.”
I conveyed the news my mom asked me to convey to him and returned home.
Past midnight someone knocked the door. I woke up Pethanna.
Some people were waiting to borrow our chair for the final ceremony. Pethanna took them to corner of our street and I went with him.
Pethanna told them, “You want the chair? It is at our uncle’s place. Go and ask him but don’t quote our names. If he says no, come to us. We will see then.” They went away and we smiled at each other.
When we came back to bed, dad asked, “Who was that?”
Pethanna replied, ‘they came for the bull.”
Dad turned in his bed and went back to sleep.
Now the rain started showering on our in law’s house.
After a long time, when I went to his house, he was sitting on the floor, preparing his beetle-nut ritual.
“What happened? Why are you sitting on the floor? I asked him looking for the chair around. He continued applying the lime on the back of the beetle leaf, looked at me intensely, let out smile and said, “I gave the chair to the village to keep it for the ceremony permanently. Anyway we need one for that. Is it not?”
I did not know how to respond to him. I started walking fast towards my house to convey the news to Pethanna. But as I walked further the speed kept reducing and became a crawl.
Ki. Ra.’s first published short story was Mayamaan (lit. The Magical Deer), which came out in 1958. It was an immediate success. It was followed by many more short stories. Ki Ra’s stories are usually based in karisal kaadu (scorched, drought stricken land around Kovilpatti ). He centres his stories around Karisal country’s people, their lives, beliefs, struggles and folklore. The novels Gopalla Grammam (lit. Gopalla Village) and its sequel Gopallapurathu Makkal (lit. The People of Gopallapuram) are among his most acclaimed; he won the Sahitya Akademi award for the latter in 1991. As a folklorist, Ki. Ra. spent decades collecting folktales from the karisal kaadu and publishing them in popular magazines. In 2007, the Thanjavur based publishing house Annam compiled these folktales into a 944-page book, the Nattuppura Kadhai Kalanjiyam (Collection of Country Tales). As of 2009, he has published around 30 books. A selection of these were translated into English by Pritham K. Chakravarthy and published in 2009 as Where Are You Going, You Monkeys? – Folktales from Tamil Nadu. Ki. Ra. is well known for his candid treatment of sexual topics, and use of the spoken dialect of Tamil language for his stories (rather than its formal written form). In 2003, his short story kidai was made into a Tamil film titled Oruththi. It was screened in the International Film Festival of India.