01 May, 2010

Prominent Malayali writer Subhash Chandran has received much acclaim in his home state; this month, we bring you his first published story in English, written in 2000 while Bill Clinton was still president of the USA.

FATHER APPEARED IN MY DREAM today during the usual ten minute siesta after lunch at the office. Quite a dream it was. He was mounting the head of a deer caught in game on the drawing room wall. He had then called out to mother: “Look, Devu, the entire wall should be covered like this with trophies from the forest. There should be a lion’s head for your kitchen.” Father then kissed the muzzle of his double-barreled gun, entered the house and ended the dream.

This was a scene my father, a primary school teacher at Eloor, was unlikely to have dreamed himself. Guns, game and forests were far more serious subjects than the primary school lessons which had filled his mind. But my habit of analyzing all dreams quickly spotted the link—my wife had persistently been after me to get a Kathakali mask to hang on the drawing room wall of our new house.

I made a mental note to get two things on the way home, in the evening. One was, of course, the Kathakali mask, made of plaster of Paris. The other was the package of export quality prawns that my friend Thankachan had promised to give me today.

Thankachan was employed at the state fish seed farm. He had triggered my appetite with his tantalizing description of the big prawns growing on that farm: each prawn was a newborn’s arm, he said, shocking me with his metaphor; that’s how big they were. But most compelling was his claim that it would be a rare treat to eat prawns grown exclusively for export to America; it had me hooked. In fact, his telephone call this morning had triggered goose pimples all over my body.

“Come this way in the evening,” he said. “I’ll give you a few prawns on the sly. Fry ‘em up in coconut oil and gorge it all up and make your home America tonight.”

I went straight to the curio shop after work to buy the Kathakali mask. Crowns embossed with the wings of monster bugs, manayola, minukku, chutti… well, well, even romance was evident in the wide-eyed plaster casts displayed in the shop. The shopkeeper’s wrapping of the paccha  mask I selected disturbed me. The newsprint wrapping had burst at the crown, so I could see it. I felt that the nightmare of a headless body dancing on stage was about to haunt me.

The late July sky was overcast as I rode my scooter to Thankachan’s fish seed farm, weaving with difficulty through the maze of school children rushing home after school.

Thankachan received me with much warmth, for we had been out of touch for some time. His domain consisted of a small building and two large concrete tanks. The building bore a small signboard: ‘Govt. Fish Seed Farm’. The fish frolicking in the tank scattered the reflection of the rain clouds on the surface. Thankachan explained how he and his security guard had caught the prawns that had escaped from the tank when it overflowed during rain the previous evening.

“Poor creatures, must’ve felt that our own frying pans are better than Clinton country,” he joked.

We talked about several things at his desk: the price of prawns in American markets, exporting firms, Monica Lewinsky and so on. The flab on his tummy rollicked as he laughed.

“I’ll be coming to see your new house one of these days.” he said. “It’s at the turning near Christian College, didn’t you say?”

“Bring your wife along,” I said. “The house is in the first lane after Christian College. Next to White House.”

“White House?” he asked.

“Don’t be put off. It’s the name of a big house there. I haven’t met the residents yet; but that’s my new address,” I said.

“A good landmark, anyway,” said Thankachan, as he stuffed five or six large prawns into my lunchbox. “Keep this matter to yourself,” he told me, adding, “Have you ever had this export quality stuff before?”

“Once or twice,” I said, as I listened to the brittle shells of the prawns cracking as Thankachan stuffed them into the vessel. I remembered Father showing me some of them lazing around on the boulders in the Aluva River on the rare occasions when the bathing ghats weren’t busy. The long whiskers of the creature were proving to be a nuisance in the packing process.

We bade goodbye to each other before sundown. The revving of our respective scooters drowned out the murmur of the ripples created by the fish frolicking in the tanks. We went our separate ways, promising to meet again soon.

I reached home feeling relieved that the sky had spared me another downpour. As I parked the scooter in the small, cement courtyard and was getting into the house, my wife said: “Must somehow find the source of the stink today. It was terrible throughout the day.”

“Here’s your Kathakali mask,” I said, extending the packet and hoping to change the subject. I sought to double her delight even before she opened the parcel by extending the lunchbox before her: “And here are some prawns. Export quality. Fry them up for dinner.”

“Really?” Her eyes opened wide, like a true housewife.

“Indeed,” I said. “Genuine stuff exported to America.”

She handed back the Kathakali mask without even taking a good look at it, saying: “OK, you hang it up on the wall; I’ll take care of the prawns. And, if you can trace the source of the stink and clear it up, we’d enjoy this even more.”

Indeed, the stink had been our main problem for three days now. An overpowering stench hovered over our new house like an apparition in the unrelenting monsoon rain. Dusk had already set in, but I was determined to trace the source of the stink today, with the help of the children.

“Where are the children?” I asked.

“Oh, guess where!” She shrugged her shoulders, disgust writ large on her face, and went into the kitchen.

I changed into casuals and began looking for a nail to hang the Kathakali mask on. I also secretly sought to see if the stink wasn’t actually originating from inside the house. The children, aged six and four, were, as usual, glued to the television. I must have crossed their vision at least half a dozen times as I went looking for a nail, and every time they objected as I stopped to see whether the stink was coming from inside the television set. The screen hero and heroine were chasing each other like a dog and bitch in heat, in a song sequence. My little girl, who hadn’t yet learned all her alphabet, kept operating the buttons on the remote. Images of her liking leaked into the house through the dish antenna fitted atop the house.

I found a couple of rusted nails in an old tin box. I removed the Kathakali mask from its wrapping with much pleasure, in front of the kids.

“What’s that?” asked my son.

“What do you think it is?” I said.

“A head.” My son came and touched the mask, amused.

”Hey! Whose head is it?” asked my daughter.

I didn’t bother to answer her, and turned to drive the nail into the wall. Darkness had already set in outside. After fixing the Kathakali mask on the wall, I picked up a torch and went in to call the children. They had switched off the TV and begun to play fashion parade. My daughter, all of four years old, had a towel which she would wrap around her body; then she would untie and wave it as she catwalked in her little panty on the dining table. My son had his hands held in such a way that they imitated a camera, and he ran around the table, clicking away, shouting ‘Crack!’ and flashing a smile. After a round on the tabletop, my daughter threw away the towel and announced to her brother: “Now watch Aichra Rai comin’.”

I went about searching every nook and cranny in the compound with a torch. I didn’t find anything except a pair of frogs mating within the four cent plot. I stopped at the side of the big house next door that now looked like a huge, decaying monster. Little rays of light discharged from different parts of that house like prurient oozing from a rotting carcass.

I felt that someone was standing in a dimly lit back corner of the compound. I inched near the compound wall, extended my neck and flashed the torch.


In the soft light of the torch, the source of the stench that had been suffocating us for the past three days became clear. A scavenger, wearing only a loincloth, was scooping out excreta from the septic tank - whose cover had been removed - with a bucket and emptying it into a pit nearby.

I quickly withdrew the torch, uneasy at this prying into another’s privacy. The sight of the floating excreta hit me as though the prawns in Thankachan’s fish seed farm had come alive, wriggling.

Seeing the flash of the torch, the owner, perhaps, of White House drew near the spot I was standing. Seeing my mop above the compound wall, he displayed his first smile in two months of our neighbourly existence, and said, “Hello.” His teeth flashed like the sabers of a bear in the dark. “Sorry for the nuisance; been waiting for a rainless day to clean the tank,” he said.

"Of course it will look a lot more impressive when we have a full set." Carton Arts International/ Distributed by The NYT Syndicate

Overwhelmed by the stench, I couldn’t even have my dinner, so I went out to the porch and sat on a chair. I saw my wife having her meal and savouring the prawns. It must be a feminine ability to absorb the insufferable. The children were oblivious to anything, enjoying the prawns, noisily fighting and blaming each other as they ate.

I thought I heard a sound from the portico wall resembling the croak of a dying game animal. I looked up and was startled to see the Kathakali mask staring at me with its reddened eyes. The raw black jute strings dangling from its neck looked like blood that had dried up on the wall.