Translated by Sivasakthi Saravanan
Father bought four bathing soaps , a long soap bar for laundry , a tin of Milk Maid, and half a seer chocolate at the shop, paid a five-rupee note, and collected the balance of two rupees, nine annas and three paise. The shopkeeper handed a cloth bag to help them carry the purchase. Quite surprisingly, it had Tamil words on it: ‘Nanjankoodu Toothpowder’. He carried it home along with the snakegourd that Father bought at a vegetable shop.
The first thing he did on reaching home was to search for Nanjankoodu in the Taj Mahal Atlas. It was his hunch that Nanjankoodu must be the name of a place. He looked up all the continents in the Taj Mahal Atlas but couldn’t find Nanjankoodu.
He could ask Father; but that astrologer-guest was chattering with him all the time. Mother suspected that since Nanjankoodu sounded similar to thenkoodu, which in Tamil meant a beehive, it must be some nest. He felt a sudden desire to brush his teeth with Nanjankoodu toothpowder. But no one in his family used toothpowder. They pounded some stuff bought from a shop of herbal remedies and used its powder. It left a hot tingle in the mouth for an hour after brushing.
Eventually, the astrologer left after a week, and when Father looked amiable, he immediately asked him about the bag. He was right about Nanjankoodu: when they searched the map together, they did spot it!
But he lost interest in Nanjankoodu after what Father had to say further about the bag: it was made of khaddar cloth.
To Father, khaddar was like the fabled blossom from Devaloga— always talked about, but never seen. People believed you would be arrested immediately if you wore khaddar. About two miles down the road to Silkalguda from where his home was, you could see the Mashirabad prison complex. He had taken that road all by himself quite a few times. The prison had imposing walls thick with broken glass pieces on top of it. He could see those on the other side of the wall only through his mind’s eye. He knew from the occasional picture in the magazines and the heroes of films that prisoners were dressed in checquered clothes; But whether pictures or heroes, they didn’t look similar in their prison uniform, so he concluded that even those who drew those pictures and made those movies couldn’t have seen the inside of Mashirabad Jail. You had to wear khaddar to get there.
He wished to go to jail. At least he must have a khaddar shirt to get into the jail. But where could he get one?
They bought a full length piece of Ramgopal Mill cloth and made shirts, jackets, and skirts for them all. Ramgopal Mill cloths had very few patterns. They were heavy; always had stripes or checks in grey—or stripes or checks in brick red; once, he thought they had purchased what must surely have been meant for the prisoners: it had a design of large, black squares. Going to school, he felt like he was a prisoner, except that there was no police in pursuit of him.
The only Tamil magazines available in the town were Kalki and Ananda Vikatan. It was just after the Second World War. Like everything else, khaddar too was scarce. One could get clothing material in khaddar only if they bartered it with the yarns they had spun.
He earnestly wanted to try his hand at the spinning wheel, whether or not he could actually exchange it for khaddar cloth.
But the images in the magazine, the movie heroines, they were recurrent; they turned the wheel oh so beautifully, sitting on the floor with folded legs. But where would he get a spinning wheel? He stood his cycle on its stand, sat down by it, and turned the pedal fast as if turning the spinning wheel. A mountain of yarn poured out; the whole world would be inundated with khaddar; all must wear khaddar, prisoners and policemen included.
But no, the only khaddar he could get to see was that bag with ‘Nanjankoodu Toothpowder’ printed on it.
He started to carry it to school instead of the more convenient canvas bag. The khaddar bag was broader, but it wasn’t deep enough. His books piled up at one end, the bag itself hung out of shape. They even fell out if he was not careful enough. A slight drizzle would drench them thoroughly. But the biggest worry of all came in the form of Wahab.
In those days teachers were not afraid to detain the students Wahab, who turned out to be a friend as well as an enemy, joined him in class seven and sat next to him. It was his second year in that class for Wahab. He slept during class without fear. He didn’t worry about not being able to give an answer in the class. At first Wahab didn’t pay much attention to him. But he had a bad day when he answered a question that Wahab couldn’t, and his voice must have betrayed some pride. Wahab hated him from that day. Later, it occurred to him that he needn’t have been so conceited after all.
It was the start of a long drawn out war between Wahab and him. If he placed his pencil on the desk, Wahab would push it down and break the tip; Wahab would paste a sticker on his back, with the word ‘Fool’ written on it; and would push his bag of books from the desk. Wahab not only pushed down the khaddar bag but kicked it too . He might have kept quiet and ignored the bully, had it been him that got the kick; but Wahab had kicked his bag; the khaddar bag—made from the threads spun by Mahatma Gandhi.
He did something thoughtless: when everybody was rushing out after class, he pushed Wahab down from behind. Wahab was a big boy but he hadn’t expected it and fell down. Looking at him with fiery eyes, Wahab said, “kya pe sala”.
‘But why did you kick my bag?’, he asked in return in Urdu. His question confirmed Wahab’s suspicions. He had been pushed down intentionally.
Wahab sprang on him. He held tight to Wahab’s arms. They tried to trip each other. In the melee, the big toe of Wahab’s right leg got caught in his pyjama. Before Wahab could free his foot, he pushed him down. The back of Wahab’s head hit the ground when he fell down. It was known as ‘sidh’ in kushti parlance. He loosened his hold and stood up as he felt satisfied that he had performed sidh on Wahab. But this wasn’t a bout in the kushti ring. Kushti rules were out of place there. As a result of this inappropriate act, Wahab retaliated with heavy blows on his head and shoulders before running off.
There was great commotion at home. They took him to the hospital which was a mile away and salved the wounds. They were told to apply boric powder and hot pack for the bumps. He kept quiet about who had hit him or why. But how could he conceal news about the fight that started because of a little bag, that too out in the open?
Mother prodded Father who set out for Wahab. Wahab was terrified. Still, Wahab could have told Father that he was not solely responsible for the whole episode. Father approached the class teacher. Wahab stood on the bench for a whole day. But he didn’t hold any grudge against him for that.
Soon after, the bag turned dirty, and when washed hard started tearing, and finally had to be consigned as a rag used for cleaning the cycle. It took in all its grime with much affection and became disfigured. He did not see it as a sacrifice, though he felt sad; he was disappointed at khaddar’s impermanence. Later on in life he did get his chance to wear khaddar. But Nanjankoodu Toothpowder proved elusive.
Ashokamitran Sirukathaikal published by Kavitha Pathippagam
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