The Cold

01 January, 2014

ABOUT THE STORY Manu Bhattathiri’s story describes a marginal man’s piquant plan for the restoration of his happiness and self-respect in a small town in south India. Kunjumon, the earnest, lonely and middle-aged accountant whose journey it narrates, is the latest entrant in Indian literature’s large hall of underdogs. Kunjumon is unable to make his peace with the humiliation of his wife having left him for another man in the same town, until he conceives of a magnanimous gesture that will redeem him in his own eyes and elevate him before those for whom he is a subject of mockery and pity.

Is Kunjumon’s desire to defend shivering old people against the cold a genuinely altruistic one, or an investment in his own restitution? Bhattathiri prefers not to judge, involving us instead in the comedy and pathos of his extremely punctilious protagonist’s preparations (“there was nothing wrong in going about something methodically and logically”) over the hours, days and weeks for his impending leap into moral heroism. A lustrous example of the art of psychological realism in fiction, ‘The Cold’ is also made distinctive by Bhattathiri’s light but sure-handed refurbishment of the conventions of the form. When we read that “the tree shook a little and suppressed a giggle”, we realise we are in the world of a story—and a storyteller—similarly tremulous with suppressed laughter and a love of human foibles.

The Cold

by Manu Bhattathiri

AS WITH ALMOST ALL THE OTHER forty-two winters of his life, Kunjumon wondered in this one too, how a cozy south Indian town like Karuthupuzha could grow quite so cold. Why, your breath blew in clouds and your teeth chattered like bolts in a box. And Eeppachan Mothalali, the owner of the rice mill where Kunjumon had been working for the majority of those forty-two years, eagerly cut salaries if you were late because of the cold. He would grow colder than the winter and say: “Work timings cannot change with the weather. Be on time, or take a cut.”

Luckily, Kunjumon had a pashmina shawl and a woollen cap given him by his cousin, who was a nurse in the army. Clutching the shawl around him, Kunjumon wondered if she might bring him some woollen socks when she came on her leave this time. Maybe he should just call her and ask. Anyway, her gifts only balanced the big jars of salted mangoes, pickles, papads and condiments that she took away each time she returned.

Being an accountant, Kunjumon liked it when things balanced and figures tallied.

As he walked by the big jackfruit tree next to Karuthupuzha’s only theatre, the tree shook a little and suppressed a giggle. It knew Kunjumon since he was a boy. And so now, it also knew the meaning of his stealthy glances at the rundown theatre.

For you see, the owner of the theatre was Varghese, the younger man for whom Kunjumon’s wife had left him five years ago. To add insult to injury, she promptly became pregnant a few months after she had left Kunjumon. Both he and his mother had often insinuated that she was sterile, not having borne him a child in their seven years of marriage.

God bless them, he thought grandly, seething inside. Funny how insults hurt so in the winter. He always thought he would avoid this route but returned to it nonetheless. The theatre attracted him like a rusty old vehicle’s tires attracted a dog.

Shuddering at the cold, he walked on. Soon he came to Chamel’s Old Age Home, usually a blind spot. Today he glanced in unwittingly. He took in the Home with its mossy, stripped-to-plaster walls, rotting windows, dilapidated roof, and the lone old man in the cane chair in the front garden. The old man was lost in a tattered magazine, quite oblivious to the mucus running freely down his nose.

Suddenly Kunjumon had an idea. Maybe the idea had been cooking in his mind without his knowledge for some time now. Maybe it was the solution to all that hurt, and a way to turn a new leaf. Yes, maybe he would do something he hadn’t done in all these forty-two years. Maybe he would do some charity.

Kunjumon was preoccupied the rest of the day. The fat account ledgers didn’t absorb him into their endless columns as they usually did. The vendors who took away bags of rice to shops saw possibilities of cheating him a little. Eeppachan Mothalali noticed this, and wondered if absent-minded employees deserved a pay cut.

By lunchtime, Kunjumon felt a strange excitement creeping into him. It was as if he was standing on a threshold, after crossing which nothing would matter. He would make a generous donation and rise up—way above cheating wives, their shameless paramours, petty bosses, and this unchanging, ungrowing, unhappening little town.

Maybe he would make charity a habit. Of course, only to the extent that he could afford. Look at it like an investment, he told himself, giving away a bottle of buttermilk to a worker in a fit of initiation. The returns on this investment would be the deepest joy and peace of mind. It would lift him in the eyes of people who hadn’t so far given him the respect he deserved. People who didn’t even know he existed. Yes, he would donate as often as possible. Maybe he would even keep aside some money from his salary every month for donations!

Under the scrutinizing eyes of Eeppachan Mothalali, Kunjumon left the mill early that day, walking stooped and lost out into the cold again. But either the evening was less cold than the morning, or Kunjumon’s teeth too had become so involved in his new idea that they seemed to have forgotten to chatter.

His heart beat faster as he reached Chamel’s Old Age Home. He stood in front of it for a while, a strange conflict in his heart, like two opposing waves in the same pond. Years of being an accountant told him that he needed to think twice, thrice, endlessly, before taking a step that would cost money. But the day’s thinking had made it clear that this was one idea that could change his estimate of himself. It could turn him from a sore loser to a man of great depths.

Hesitantly, then more resolutely, Kunjumon opened the rusted old gates. This time there was an even older man sitting on the same cane chair with a small fire burning in front of him. But Kunjumon didn’t see him.

At the dirty, cracked glass window, he could see Chamel’s mammoth form perched on his tiny steel chair, legs up on a table, reading a magazine that was almost certainly pornography. Indeed, Chamel had the largest collection of pornographic material in all of Karuthupuzha. From cartoons to illustrated magazines to story collections and novels to adult videotapes, he had them all. He even charged a rental if you wanted to borrow any. That way, Chamel was all businessman.

Of course, this made him a hot and forbidden topic among the women. The younger ones were scared of him and crossed the road hurriedly if they saw him approaching. The middle-aged housewives scorned him and observed him from afar. The old women steadily spread the rumour that he was a pimp and that the old-age home was just a guise to keep the authorities in the dark. The men thought he was a good sport, but always warned their women to keep away. Either way, no one could ignore him.

But Chamel completely ignored them. He kept to himself in his own world, busy getting funds from god knew where, keeping and feeding his old folk, god knew how. The squirrels who ran along the moss-covered fence of the Home could have told you that Chamel periodically got some grants from kind-hearted souls from surprisingly faraway places in the form of money orders that the postman delivered.

So this was the Chamel—cynic, recluse, supplier of pornography—who now sat precariously on a tiny steel chair, making no move to hide his magazine as Kunjumon entered. Kunjumon was oddly relieved to note that the magazine was an India Today, albeit one with a sex scandal as its cover story.

“Kunjumon, the accountant!” Chamel exclaimed in his gruff, tobacco-hardened voice. “My friend, brother and fellow sufferer of this insufferable town. So how’s your wife’s husband?”

Kunjumon decided he hadn’t heard that last one, but his teeth suddenly started to chatter embarrassingly. “Chamel, I came t-t-to ask you s-s-something…”

“Ah, I thought you never would. I have some latest Russian incest videos. You have a VCR, right?” And he waved him to another steel chair, which wasn’t so small after all when someone less of a Chamel sat on it.

“It’s not t-t-that. I wanted to make a donation t-t-to this Home.”

“Oh,” said Chamel, disappointed. “Well. What do you want to give? These old rascals seem to have everything actually. Considering I even let them in on the adult stuff.” He closed his magazine and lit a cigarette, not bothering to keep the smoke off his visitor’s face.

“Well, how about a lunch or a dinner this weekend? I could arrange for a good caterer from the city.”

“Kunju, don’t get me wrong,” Chamel said delicately, “But these old half-deads are hardly suckers for food. Their taste-buds have been there, sinned that. They can no longer really taste anything. Besides, I have enough food grains and stuff. How about just some money?”

Might as well buy him some more porn, Kunjumon thought. “Er, Chamel, I would be really happy if I could give them something tangible, you know. Something they really need.”

Chamel leaned back and appeared to meditate for uncomfortably long minutes. His cigarette glanced up, sighed and shook off some of its piled up ash. Then he opened his eyes and said: “Blankets! Yes, give them blankets, can you? I don’t know if they play tug-of-war with their blankets, but all of them are in tatters. It’s winter, and they need new blankets.”

The opposing waves in Kunjumon’s pond clashed violently. “How many old people do you have here?”

“Twenty-one. You will need to buy twenty-one new blankets. But can you afford it? You are just an accountant, not the owner of a cinema.”

This last one Kunjumon didn’t quite hear. For his mind was already in a storm, figures furiously multiplying themselves by twenty-one, cutting themselves off his savings, and forming giant whirlpools upon joining Eeppachan Mothalali’s possible salary cuts. The waves of conflict became tsunamis, principles of accountancy contradicting the impulsiveness of philanthropy. But he just had to do it, he told himself. But, could he afford it?

Kunjumon mumbled something to Chamel, who had already picked up his India Today again, and walked out in a daze.

As he walked back home, he failed to notice the theatre for the first time since his wife had left him. He walked past the almost sleeping jackfruit tree, thinking that the first step was to walk up to the two or three shops in town that sold blankets. He had to get a rough estimate, he told himself firmly, a powerful sneeze seeming to underline his thought. Tomorrow, he thought, cooking up reasons to vanish from work at lunchtime, and sneezing violently again, thrice.

But when tomorrow came, Kunjumon couldn’t get up from bed. He sent word through a friend that he wouldn’t be in for work. His old mother made him hot peppered black coffee for his sore throat and a cold pack for his burning forehead. She realized there was something on his mind, but she didn’t bother him by asking. It was at such times that her Kunju badly needed a new wife, she mused. The old one was a bitch anyway.

The next few days passed in feverish delirium as Kunjumon, covered in layers of blankets, dreamed of the definite salary cut now that he couldn’t go to work, of his donation, and tattered blankets. He had decided he would make a donation. The only question was could he afford twenty-one blankets? Once he dreamt he was serving rice to the old people at the Home as the townsfolk watched in admiration. His wife was there beside Varghese and Eeppachan Mothalali, Bhaskaran the milkman, and an unidentified face whom he somehow knew to be Joby, the town drunk, because he was swaying. Chamel was playing a blue film for his old folks on a huge screen, which was an old blanket full of holes.

When he woke up from that dream, Kunjumon’s head seemed to have cleared a little. He didn’t know how long he had been sick. His mother brought him some hot rice soup, and he asked her: “Ma, how long have I been sick? What day is it?”

“Lie back Kunju, and relax. It’s been a week and a day. Here, drink this,” and she pushed the bowl to his lips.

A week! Eeppachan Mothalali would really perform an amputation on his salary. How was he to make his donation with such a huge pay cut? Didn’t the gods really want him to become a new man then? Why this silly flu now just when he was about to take the most important step of his life?

Kunjumon again fell into a troubled sleep. When he woke up, it was late evening, but he felt much better. He even had the energy to mutter aloud: “All right, just put away the blankets for a while. Why blankets?”

The old woman came running from the next room and moved his blankets aside. “No Ma, not these blankets. I’m not talking about these,” and he pulled them back over himself. She gave him a worried look, felt his forehead to see if he was feverish again, and went away. Thereafter, Kunjumon was careful not to think aloud.

But why only blankets, he asked himself. After all, Chamel had said they did have blankets for now, right? Maybe he could buy them walking sticks instead. Twenty-one shiny new walking sticks. Sounded grand. But no, they would already have some support to walk with. How about utensils then? Same old food in new utensils. Nah. Not exciting. Maybe some dried fruits from the city? But they could hardly taste anything, remember? So then what could he give them, Kunjumon wondered, feeling weak and lost. He even felt a sudden rush of anger for the old folks, whom it seemed practically impossible to help! Then he bit his mind’s tongue and resumed being kind.

By the time he was well enough for work, almost two weeks had passed. Half a month’s salary cut, going by Eeppachan Mothalali’s glances and body language.

One evening, as he walked by Chamel’s Old Age Home, Kunjumon decided to at least go and survey some blankets. So the next day, which was fortunately a Sunday, he went over and checked in the three stores in Karuthupuzha that sold blankets. He found the lowest quality he could perhaps afford, provided Eeppachan Mothalali was unusually kind. The next quality was just about out of reach, but they were good blankets. The final quality, the very best, Kunjumon couldn’t afford even for himself.

Doodling on his account ledger one morning, he debated telling Eeppachan Mothalali about his plan so he could request him not to cut his salary despite his two weeks’ leave. Then he almost laughed aloud. What would someone like the Mothalali think about charity? The only person he had ever been kind to was himself. No. Eeppachan Mothalali would think he, Kunjumon, was a fool to give dying old men blankets.

Besides, there was a certain romance to doing such things without discussing it with anyone.

Now, it was that part of the year when festivities forced Eeppachan Mothalali to give his employees some bonus. Of course, the bonus amount was usually so pathetic that if you ever thought of giving it to a beggar you risked getting slapped, but Eeppachan Mothalali never failed to give it. However, this time around, a golden ray of light from between two dark clouds shone directly into his heart and sowed some seeds of extreme, unprecedented kindness there.

On payday he called Kunjumon aside and said: “Kunju, you’re my oldest employee. So even though you didn’t appear for two weeks and I had to do all the accounts myself, I don’t really have the heart to cut your pay.” Kunjumon looked at him, wonderstruck. “It’s a clean case of partiality, so please don’t tell anyone that I’ve been so generous to you. And just so I don’t feel like I’m discriminating against the others, I’m cutting your bonus. Okay?” And he simply started counting out the money, making it clear that he wasn’t at any point asking for his oldest employee’s consent.

Kunjumon didn’t know whether his bonus was more shameful or his salary. But a few quick calculations on his way home told him that had his salary really been cut, it might have been a bigger chunk to forgo. That’s positive, he thought. Be positive Kunju, he told himself firmly. And in any case, he wasn’t about to make a donation unless he got a bonus, right?

Now Kunjumon somehow started to think that the heavens were supporting his decision. Why, getting a full salary out of that Mothalali when he had worked only about half the month was an unprecedented feat. And so when one day, Eeppachan Mothalali asked him to go to the city to discuss finances with some of their rice retailer customers, Kunjumon directly saw the hand of god. For now he could check out the rates of blankets in the city. He was sure it was a very different story there. If he bought in bulk, there would be places that would offer him huge discounts.

Before setting out for the city, Kunjumon went to Karuthupuzha Provision Store, one of the most thriving shops in the little town. As he was buying some toiletries, a familiar smell of sweat and tobacco wafted from behind, and he didn’t have to turn around to know who it was.

“Ah! Who but my favourite donor! So where are the blankets, Kunju?” Chamel thundered regrettably loudly as his large hand descended heavily on Kunjumon’s shoulder. Fortunately, only the toothless old shopkeeper was there to overhear, and he went into his shop just then.

“I am going to the city to get them,” Kunjumon feebly replied, half annoyed, wondering why the hell was he feeling guilty.

“Okay, okay, just asked. Can’t force someone to do good, you know,” Chamel grinned, motioning for the toothless man to bring him a sample from a sack of rice. Then leaning even closer, he whispered into Kunjumon’s ear, “The incest videos are waiting. I know how it feels without a wife, you know.”

Blushing and angry, Kunjumon left the shop, deciding he would buy his toiletries once he got to the city.

Kunjumon loved these rare but regular trips to the city in Karuthupuzha’s only bus. Once he got there, he checked into the usual decrepit lodge near the bus stop, where thousands of bedbugs had already checked in knowing he was coming. They particularly liked his country blood and his permanent rice smell. That night they happily kept him awake as he scratched himself thoughtfully, gazing at a lone moon out of the room’s one broken window.

Tomorrow, he would cover Venkatachalam Rice Traders to the south of the city. They were the biggest and the most important of Eeppachan Mothalali’s customers. He would convince them about the rise in prices and make deals that would make his Mothalali’s eyes water. That would be easy. He would finish early and then go to Chotta Chowki, a street where woollens and warm stuff came in from Delhi.

Perhaps for a beginning he would buy the lowest quality blankets, so he wouldn’t feel the pinch so much. So that the euphoria of charity wouldn’t be overshadowed by the financial dent it would make. That is best, he thought. He would get a great deal on already cheap blankets and order twenty-one of them. On such a number, they would probably even deliver it to Karuthupuzha for free…

A bedbug bit him right on the stub of his left toe and he jerked himself fully awake. Would you buy such cheap blankets for your mother? the bedbug asked. Kunjumon thought guiltily about how the really cheap blankets might be pre-used. No, that won’t do. Maybe the next quality.

But twenty-one of them?

And what if the traders conned him! He knew nothing about blankets. What if they gave him the cheapest seconds at the price of the next quality? And then, if you thought about it, what were blankets for? Wouldn’t even the cheapest ones keep the old folk warm? They didn’t have to endure for ages. The old dears themselves wouldn’t last long anyways…

Another bug-bite. Kunjumon twisted and turned, scratched, thought of blankets, drank stale water from a jug, stared at the moon, thought of numbers, scratched, debated, and fell asleep.

The next day at Venkatachalam’s took much longer than he had thought, but the deal came through, bright and smooth and lucrative. He called Eeppachan Mothalali from a phone booth near his lodge and said excitedly: “Venkatachalam is bagged, Mothalali! Huge one!” And he rambled off the figures of the deal.

“No big deal,” Eeppachan Mothalali said, after listening in absolute silence to all the financial details Kunjumon had to give. “They would anyway have come to us. Now don’t get carried away and concentrate on the remaining businesses.”

“Yes, Mothalali,” Kunjumon said, neither surprised, nor disappointed. He knew Eeppachan Mothalali would never show that any of his employees had done a good job. Pat on the back equals dent on the pocket, he believed. Let anyone think that he was too good and he would ask for a raise. After so many years of working at the rice mill, Kunjumon was fine with all that. “Certainly, Mothalali,” he said and hung up happily.

For the next few days in the city, Kunjumon deftly and expertly handled all business, and always went back to the streets for blankets. He compared quality and prices, bargained, scribbled on the back page of his ledger, grew uncertain about whether it should be blankets, grew certain again, went for a movie to take his mind off blankets, went back to the shops after abandoning the movie at the interval, read about woollen clothing at the public library, spoke to the manager of the hotel where he was staying (they would be buying in bulk), thought about going to the next city to survey blankets, called up Eeppachan Mothalali and requested him for the bonus money after all since he had ensured great business in the city, was refused, checked his savings, discussed with the bedbugs at night, and finally came to a conclusion.

The reasoning behind the conclusion wasn’t too complicated really, if you looked at it objectively.

The thing about blankets is however much you researched, however much you thought about it, you could never be absolutely sure if the quality matched the price. Whether you bought the lowest quality or the next, whether you bought it at seconds or fresh, whether you bought it from a shabby, dark store or a big, well-lit showroom, you could never really be sure. Besides, the dealer who gave a good deal refused free delivery to Karuthupuzha. The dealer who agreed to free delivery didn’t stock a particular quality of blankets. The dealer who had it all seemed so obviously sly and cunning that Kunjumon was sure he couldn’t trust him.

So how could you buy twenty-one of these blankets with absolute certainty about quality and price? Impossible.

The conclusion Kunjumon reached was this: he would buy just one blanket for now. He would take it home, give it to his old mother, and test it out for a few days. He could always come back and place the big order if the blanket met his expectations.

So the bus to Karuthupuzha soon saw Kunjumon sitting with a package of one blanket on his lap. He felt a strange joy. He had finally done something. And there was nothing wrong in going about something methodically and logically. Even if it was charity, there was no need to be impulsive and stupid. He had to make sure the old dears got the best of the blankets.

But on the way he had another thought. He wouldn’t give this blanket to his mother. If he wanted to really test it out, he had to keep it for himself. He would use it, stretch it, wet it, dry it in the sun, and really test it out. And when he was sure, he would just telephone the dealer in the city and place the order.

After he got off the bus at Karuthupuzha town, Kunjumon walked proudly down the street and past Chamel’s Old Age Home, the package wedged in his armpit and his small trunk in his hand. He felt good. Very soon he would do something this Home and the whole of Karuthupuzha would remember him for. Very soon he would rise high above Varghese, the cinema owner, who thought he had won. Why, even his wife would no doubt realize what a noble man she had abandoned for another who was no more than a wife stealer.

But may they come to good and be happy, he thought magnanimously.

When he reached home, something he hadn’t anticipated happened. His mother, overjoyed at the sight of her returned son, thought the blanket was a gift for her. It was embarrassing and difficult to explain, but he had to.

“This one is for me, mother. I want to test it out, see. I will buy you another just like this one if it is really good,” he said. The old woman quickly touched his forehead to see if the fever and delirium had returned.

With a few pleasantries, he sent his mother to the kitchen and hurried to his little room. He took the blanket out of its wrap and laid it on his bed. He felt an intense sense of fulfillment and joy. He felt the blanket with his palm. It was soft, comforting, strong and dependable. It was far, far better than he had thought it to be at the store. Now that it was the only blanket he was looking at and feeling with his palm, he realized that it was indeed the best.

Kunjumon’s eyes welled up. He buried his face into the blanket and let its soft richness caress his soul. He couldn’t explain why he felt like crying, but the tears felt good and right.

He called out to his mother that he was going to bed early and didn’t want dinner. Thankfully, the old woman let him be.

Kunjumon washed himself hurriedly, opened his ledger to tally a few numbers and put a slightly exaggerated figure of his expenses in the city; then he eagerly stretched out on his bed. In no time at all he fell asleep, the blanket holding him in its folds like a mother’s lap. His sleep was total and untroubled, such as can come only when you have arrived at a long-pending and difficult decision.

But sometime late in the dark, he woke up disturbed. With quick movements he threw the blanket off his legs. He was sweating. The room was warm.

Fully awake now, Kunjumon pushed the blanket completely off him, simultaneously taking stock of what month it was.

Winter was over.

Sleep was returning to him now that the blanket was gone. Kunjumon’s last thought of the night was that now it no longer made any sense to give blankets to the old folks. But he would do it next year. And as with almost all the other winters he’d seen so far, the next one too would be surprisingly cold.