She walked to the Laxmi tea stall right next door and returned her glass. There was an unfamiliar quietness here, as well. Just the boiling of the water could be heard. She untied the knot at the end of her sari and pulled out three coins and left it on the biscuit tin. She turned around and looked at the man in black beginning to strike a match softly so as not to make noise. Mangamma found this all unsettling. Maybe this was the apocalypse her grandson had been talking about. Pulling her saree around her head, she began walk towards Kalanther Madeena shop, where she worked. Although there’s probably no point in doing so, she thought.
Vellachaamy watched the old lady walk away, disturbed. He then attempted to light his cigarette again, as quietly as he could. Having lit his last, he threw his matchstick away and took one long, deep drag. He hadn’t smoked in twelve hours or more, which in itself was unusual. He remembered having saved this one for his evening tea, in fact. But where had been the time or space? So here was, smoking his surprisingly first cigarette of the day. He couldn’t take it anymore, this fucking silence. There was no cacophony of vendors shouting out the price of their wares and customers announcing the price of those wears. There were no orchestra of horns of the busses on the bridge. There were no prayers from the mosque. There were no security guards blowing their whistles at any man, woman, child, bird, animal or vehicle blocking the entrances.More than anything, it was silence at the tea shop that freaked Vellachaamy out. There was no chatter. No clatter of glasses, vessels, spoons. There was no jokes with the tea master, no Appu to make fun of, no newspapers to fight over. There weren’t even any samosas. There was no noise, not even the buzz from a cigarette.
And watching the emptiness; the uncanny emptiness. Murugakanna looked at the empty roads in disbelief. He wasn’t pouring tea into glasses because there was no one to drink it. He didn’t mind if no one paid for the tea, he just wanted to make some; have some purpose. He didn’t know why he woke up in the morning and opened shop. He guessed there would be no one here. And yet, he wasn’t too surprised when Subramani’s mother-in-law and Vellachaamy came in for their morning tea and smoke, respectively. He related to them, trying to make the day seem normal somehow; trying to hide the looming emptiness in front of them.
If this were a normal Saturday, these roads would be bustlingly busy. The crowds here ran on a displacement mechanism, there being no place to make deliberate movements. You just went where the crowd took you. This crowd was, of course, dominated by the large, imposing women in their best silk sarees (inevitably a bright orange, green or violet), with their purses filled with food, water, pepper spray... anything to survive this place for a day. Pothy’s, his neighbouring shop, rarely was less than three-fourths occupied. He remembered being unable to believe his uncle when he told Murugakanna that there were thousands of women and children that flood this store everyday. And yet, when he took over the tea shop, he realized this was a reality he would have to live with, learn to love maybe. And eventually he did.
And hence, the emptiness filled the space, looming over an already gloomy day. Murugakanna refused Vellachaamy’s money for the tea and sent him off to work, with a glance of his eyes. He sat down on his stool, (which he was very unaccustomed to, usually having no time to sit) and scanned the area for people; any people. And then, the crows came.
The crows flew around Pinjala Subramaniam Street. Murugakanna was wondering when they’d discover Ranganathan street, a little down the road. He heard some squawks and a fake gun firing around the street. He figured Old Man Karuppu was walking around trying to scare the crows away. He wanted to take some tea to Karuppu, but knew his senses would not handle the trip. Besides, he was scared of vultures, and knew they’d be coming before the officials. So he just sat and watched; wondering if the Big White Car would be turning into this road today. He knew that if it wasn’t here in approximately three minutes, it wouldn’t turn up. So he sat and watched. And then decided to make some food. To have some purpose again.
Karuppu, on the other hand, had too much to do. He was walking around firing a simple roll-tape gun at the crows, keeping them from picking on the meat. He walked in the middle of the road because the sidewalks were too littered. He swore under his breath at the crows. He had never liked them as a species of birds, as such. Not since his twelfth birthday, since a crow performed its mythical function of stealing his food that his grandma had made. Ever since then, he managed to deprive any crow of food that it might have a chance at. He loosened the kerchief around his mouth for a second. He realized the cloth was being an effective barrier, between the stench and his nostrils. He usually complained about the smell on this road; loving how he could declare – “I worked with death, and I still think the stench is unbearable.” But today? Today, no. Today, he understood the weight of that statement, with each step he took. And brought his cloth back to his face. Each step was hard, you see. Luckily he’d had practice. He’d worked around Usman Road for twenty years now, in a variety of shops and roles – sugarcane juice, peanuts, underwear salesman, roadside astrologer, sweeper, back-office guy. And yet, his most treasured skill was navigating through these roads. The first time a person walks on this street, his eyes would be fixed on his feet, finding clean spots on the road stained with spit, pan, faeces, stray pieces of fruit and nails and needles. But as time passes, you stop worrying about that. And yet, today, wading through that street in what he didn’t know was blood or shit, Karuppu had to re-learn how to walk through those streets, one careful step at a time.
Suddenly, the crows all shot up into the air at once, circling their way up an imaginary staircase. Karuppu, startled, turned around and saw the Big Man passing by in his new Big White Car, on time. Although for what, was beyond Karuppu. He watched the car glean by, still radiating newness. You knew you were rich if you could afford to travel in a white car in Chennai. You knew you were really rich if you could afford to drive that white car recklessly in Renganathan Street. Everyday. Through the hordes of people, all with the potential to spit their paaku at you, throw food at you, throw sharp things at you... throw sharp things at you.
Karuppu stared deep into the darkened glass; searching for the Big Man’s eyes. And Vanna stared right back at him, comforted by his invisibility. He urged the driver to stop the car at the corner of Usman and Ranganathan. Vanna was not in his trademark white veshti and white shirt today. He had stepped out from his house barefoot, in a vest and lungi. He had to hurry, see it with his own eyes. He was seeing it now, but still couldn’t believe his eyes. Things were quiet and empty. Through the darkened glass, all the red seemed blacker; all the brown looked green. And it was all wet. Stained by the rain. Vanna lowered the glass slowly, eyes fixed on the looming building of red and white. From inside the car, a flute played out.
The radio sang out to the street, “Putham pudhu boomi vendum nitham oru vaanam vendum, thanga mazhai peiya vendum, thamizhil kuyil paada vendum..”
His doctor had told him. He’d told him again and again to keep his anger under control. But he’d never listen. The slightest thing would send him into a rage. Yesterday, for example, he yelled at his rooster. It didn’t crow when it was supposed to. Because of that, his wife couldn’t wake up and make him his tea. He blamed it on the rooster. And Vanna yelled at the rooster. For a good fifteen minutes too. Till he realised that the rooster wouldn’t understand him; more because it was an Andhra rooster, than because it was well, a rooster. And this is what had sent him into his rage for the rest of the day. He knew he was going to be made fun of and criticized for a while. But what did they know about that unique relationship between a man and his cock? But he didn’t know this would happen, this mini apocalypse.
Staring out at the ugliness, his gold chain irked him. Vanna slid into panic. The beads of sweat peeked out and wondered what was going on, why they were called upon. His fingers itched for the handle and out he went into the rain, lungi and all. Bawls were choked by gulps of panic. He ran for the door of his building.
“Saar, Vanna! Saar! Saar!” Ramesh yelled out. What was wrong with this man, he wondered to himself.
In wondering, he stepped back into the car. He’d broken out in cold sweats by now. He sunk his head into his hands, oblivious to Vanna’s shrieks and screams from outside. The man was pulling his hair out, but Ramesh had more important things to look at; the colours inside his eyelids. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He opened his eyes slowly and looked at rain on the windshield. He looked to the right, and saw the pillayar temple was locked shut. On a Saturday.
None of this was supposed to happen. He ran a palm across the imprint of Vanna’s palm on his cheek that lasted through the night.
All he wanted was some extra money. He should have known that he should not have taken the car for personal use. But it had worked. Well, almost.Not that his religious conscience was helping. Vanna had ordered him to take the car over to Egmore and get it blessed by Bodyguard Muneeswarar. Instead of that, he took it over to Sarika’s house. And why did he ever do that? Why? He started hitting his head on the steering wheel. Lightly at first, in regret, his hair grazing the steering wheel. Pretty soon, very much like his boss outside, he worked himself into a rage; at himself. He was banging his head right into the steering wheel now; slowly, strong, and deliberate. Till the entire road filled itself with the sound. Like the low moaning of funeral bells.
Vellachaamy was just about to walk in to his stall when he heard the low moaning of the Big White Car. He ran towards it, tying his veshti up. He was barefoot. A solitary vein stuck to his foot somewhere. He grimaced in disgust and continued running. He was used to disgusting thing sticking to his feet as he ran through these roads; faecal matter, pasty peanuts, sticky pineapples, pieces of meat...So he took it in his stride and ran upto the Big White Car.
A sudden knocking tore Ramesh away from his self-reprimand. He screamed at the figure in black through the blackened windows. He stepped on the throttle and drove away. The air was such. It gave you the feeling that anything could kill you.
Vellachaamy looked around. There were no dogs or cats either. Not even monkeys. Something underneath an abandoned pushcart caught the gleam of a sliver of sunlight. He walked towards it. He looked at it. He pondered at it. He spit at it. And he walked away in disgust.
The hacksaw lay there; one of the thousand that had led to this grave morning. A man in his lungi sat outside his shop and beat his breast for his had-been customers. Another, having driven up to CIT nagar, got out of his car and rolled his white-clad body in the rained mud. One figure in black sat on the pavement watching the last of bubble fluid flow out of a what had probably been a child’s hand, into the blood-mixed puddle. Karuppu, exhausted from his shooing, sat on what used to be a fruit pushcart. And watched the massacre soak in the unnatural rain.
Welcome. Amrutha. Call me Am. Only half-crazy. Unfortunately. Prone to mood swings very often. Random. Erratic. Very. Save the world. I love me and hate me. Yes, I'm just like you.