Not even the old men remember which king built the massive earth dam that gave birth to Meenakshipuram village.
To the locals, the structure has always been there, catching the torrents of rain that ran off from the west during the monsoon. What seemed like a collection of stagnant green ponds during the hot season would grow to a vast lake, spreading life across thousands of acres.
One would think that the residents of Meenakshipuram would be a happy people, living with so much water while others scratched about in the dust for a few sacks of millet and beans.
Chellapandi the stonemason was born in Meenakshipuram and grew up with a hammer in one hand and a chisel in the other. He was one of those bouncy boys who loved to train with the silambam master, becoming proficient in the moves of Tamil stick fighting. His chest and arms were polished granite; he thought of himself as fearless.
Perhaps one day he would fight a band of thieves like the ones his grandfather had told him about. In those days, the lake’s basin had been filled with so much silt that a jungle of thorny acacia trees had grown up, sheltering roving Kallars. The thieves would emerge to rob and pillage, then flee to the safety of their thicket.
Even then, Meenakshipuram was a town divided, each caste with its own neighborhood, school, and temple. Chellapandi’s family lived with the other craftsmen in the Aasari quarter, a blue lane only five feet wide.
His house had thick mud walls with a drooping tile roof and low doorways.
The earthen floors had been plastered with years of fresh cow dung, leaving a papered surface cool and supple beneath the feet.
Across the courtyard was an old shed that had been used by Chellapandi’s ancestors to make wheels for bullock carts. That was before they had switched to cutting stones for a living. The shed was now filled with odd chunks of granite and a clothesline.
Next to this was the small workshop where each morning, his father would pound red-hot lengths of steel into chisels for the day’s work. The man had deep lines in his forehead and wiry hair that was surprisingly dark for a sixty-five year old.
What gave him the most pleasure was buying shoes and jeans for his two-year old grandson. And teaching him how to hammer stone.
These days, Chellapandi’s wife never smiled, but still, every morning she would draw a fresh chalk kolam on the lane in front of their gate.
Her little boy would accompany her. He had long curls and two black dots on his cheeks to ward off the evil eye.
Four doors down lived Chellapandi’s older sister who was married to Rajendran, a fast-talking, fast-thinking carpenter. He loved to guzzle cups of tea while chiseling dovetail joints with enviable precision. Whenever there was trouble in the family, he was the one people called.
One day, Mayandi Thevar moved in across the narrow lane with his brassy wife and thirty-something son Karthik. The family were Kallar Thevars from out of town, and Chellapandi was not pleased to see them. Mayandi Thevar wore a huge moustache like that of a villain in a movie. Chellapandi imagined him being one of those rogues who had ruled the thorny thickets.
Mayandi Thevar’s wife wore a scruffy sari and huge chunks of gold so heavy, they had stretched out her earlobes.
Karthik had never married, preferring to drink with his lazy load men friends. He was bulbous, wore a tee-shirt with a playboy logo, and loved firecrackers. The louder the better. If his day as a load man had been especially lucrative, he would inhale a quarter of brandy, buy a hundred Lakshmi firecrackers in Bodi, and light the entire string in one go. Right outside Chellapandi’s home.
Pataass! Dumaa! Chaos raining, fire spitting, sulfur smoking, toxic petals of paper covering the kolams of Aasari lane.
“I can’t take it,” Chellapandi’s wife said one evening as her husband pulled his Atlas cycle onto its stand. “I asked you to talk to him a week ago, but still you do nothing.”
“Don’t you see how many hours my son puts in?” her dove-eyed mother-in-law said. “He has to finish the paving stones for Tooth Doctor’s new bungalow. In two days, important guests are coming for the house warming ceremony.”
“Then perhaps I will take your grandson home with me to my Appa’s house in Theni.” She turned to her husband. “What if our little boy gets his hand exploded? Or loses an eye? What, are you afraid to talk to them?”
“I’m not afraid of man or beast!”
“Then be a man.”
The next morning as usual, Chellapandi’s wife swept up the firecracker litter, sprinkled water to wash the street in front of their gate, and drew a delicate white kolam. Just as she had finished, Karthik’s bulky mother came out, lugging a dented bucket of water.
“No you don’t!” Chellapandi’s wife said. “Maammaa! Come quickly! She’s going to do it again.”
Chellapandi emerged from their thatched bathing cubicle, wrapped only in a faded pink towel and smelling of Lifebuoy soap. As he approached the neighbor lady, she spat a stream of tobacco juice to the side and looked at him defiantly.
“Aththai,” he said. “Please. When you dump your bucket, it washes away my wife’s kolam.”
“Then tell that sorry mouse to take her kolam somewhere else. I’m drawing mine here.”
The woman sloshed the entire bucket of water across the pavement and began to sweep away Chellapandi’s wife’s kolam with her coconut stick broom.
“Hey! You can’t do that,” Chellapandi said.
When she ignored him, Chellapandi moved directly in front of her, his stocky legs blocking her way. “This is our neighborhood. You’re newcomers. This is not a way to behave.”
She stood up and raised her broom.
“One step closer, and I’ll strip off your little cloth and charge you with attempted rape.”
Karthik emerged from his doorway, sticky-eyed. “What, can’t a man sleep around here?”
“This dwarf is threatening me,” his mother said. “He won’t let me make my kolam.”
The sleep in Karthik’s eyes vanished, replaced by an ugly red glow. He marched down the stairs towards Chellapandi.
“Poyah!” he said, waving both arms. “Are you threatening my Amma? Back off, you pubic hair pig!”
Chellapandi stepped to the side. “Look, we don’t want trouble. Just ask her to pour less water so my wife’s kolam doesn’t get washed away.”
“Who are you to instruct us? We paid a 30,000 rupee lease for his house. We will do what we want.”
Chellapandi thrust out his barrel chest and planted his feet wide. He scowled and pointed his index finger at the man.
“Dey! Our family has been here for five generations. If you lot want to dump buckets of water and blast your crackers all over the place, then get out! Go back to your hole of a village. I’m sure your relatives will be happy to slap some sense into that pimple face of yours.”
Karthik snapped his jaws. “Watch your mouth, dog licker!”
Karthik’s father Mayandi Thevar stuck his head out of their front door. “Vadah! Come inside, Karthik. You too, wife. The stench out there is unbearable.”
That evening, Chellapandi rode his cycle to the Bodi Rural Police station and reported the incident to the Sub-Inspector.
“Please sir, you must help us. How can we live like this? My child is not safe and my wife is threatening to leave.”
The middle-aged officer in khaki yawned and turned to the front entrance.
“Boy! Where’s my tea?” He sniffed, wiped his nose with a handkerchief and turned to Chellapandi. “Yes, yes. Definitely we will help you. I’ll have a constable visit you in Melachokkanathapuram.”
The constable never came. Not that day. Not that month, in spite of continued complaints.
One Sunday afternoon, Karthik staggered into the lane and started lighting Saraswathis, a type of tightly wrapped bomb that cause one’s chest to ache when they explode. He would light them and toss them at dogs and laugh when the animals ran away yelping. He then lit a string of red firecrackers near Chellapandi’s thatch fence which caused it to catch fire.
As the flames began to rush up towards the main house, Chellapandi grabbed a bucket and managed to douse the flames. He then charged out with his old bamboo stick fighting rod. The lane smelled of wet smoke.
“Rascal! This time you have crossed the line!”
Karthik picked up his ax.
“What, you come after me with a stick? Like I’m a street dog?”
Before Chellapandi could react, Karthik bashed him across the forehead with the handle. Blood began to spurt. Enraged, Chellapandi rushed into his workshop, grabbed a steel crowbar and throttled Karthik across the chest.
Chellapandi’s mother and wife were screaming as they tried to pull him back. Karthik’s mother was shouting. Chellapandi raised the crowbar again and struck Karthik on the side of the head, splitting his temple. The man stood there stupidly as blood seeped into the knit fabric of his tee shirt.
Neighbors rushed in. Karthik’s mother began to wail. Mayandi Thevar was swearing as he tried to control the bleeding of his son’s head.
Chellapandi’s father dove into the melee with a kitchen knife.
“What have these dogs done to you, my son! My son!”
He tried to stab Karthik, but caught Mayandi Thevar’s hand instead, slicing off the tip of his thumb. Mayandi Thevar punched Chellapandi’s father in the gut and again in the face until neighbors pulled them apart.
Chellapandi’s brother-in-law Rajendran tore a piece off his veshti and pressed it on Chellapandi’s wound.
“Somebody bring some ashes. He’s going to bleed out.”
A yellow and black three-wheel auto drove up and a group of Thevar elders dressed in white veshtis climbed out. One was Big Mokkai, a local power broker. He took one look and pulled out his cell phone.
“We’re not afraid of you people!” Chellapandi’s father said. He pointed vehemently at Karthik. “This criminal belongs in jail.”
Big Mokkai approached him calmly. He wore gold rings and had a tank of an abdomen. “Come, respected sir. We are all reasonable men. You don’t want to be filing reports with the police.”
“Yes we do!” Chellapandi said. “I won’t rest until that dog is put away.”
The big man turned to Chellapandi. “Calmly now, son. Please. Making an official report to the police will make things complicated. And very expensive for you all. Believe me.”
“Karthik and his family must answer for this,” an old Aasari said. He was wearing a collarless shirt and had a dark green towel over his shoulder. “We have witnesses. What if that drunken fool had used the ax blade instead of the handle?”
“You’re absolutely right, respected sir. They have to pay. Let’s sit down and talk it out. Driver, go bring us all tea. Gentlemen, come. How much do you think would be a reasonable settlement?”
‘‘What, you think we’re beggars?’ Chellapandi said. “We don’t want your filthy coins. I demand that the police throw Karthik in jail for attempted murder!’”
“Che, che che!” Rajendran said. “No, don’t!” He leaned in close to Chellapandi’s ear. “They have their people in the police force, da. Don’t talk nonsense.”
A police jeep pulled up at the entrance to the lane. The Sub-inspector that Chellapandi had met previously climbed out, along with two constables.
“Please come,” Big Mokkai said. “It’s good you’re here, Sahr. We were just about to sort out this mess. Young hot heads fighting is all. A bit too much to drink.”
The Sub-inspector quickly sized up the situation. He put a hand on Chellapandi’s shoulder.
“Son, come. I advise you work things out now. Don’t waste time. We need to get you all to a doctor.”
“The doctor can wait,” Chellapandi said. “What’s wrong with you people? I go to you ten times about this and you do nothing and now he intentionally tries to burn my house down, and then attacks me with an ax. Are you lazy or what?”
“Dey, loose!” Chellapandi’s father said. “Shut it, son! You listen to your father!”
Chellapandi jutted out his jaw and lunged towards Karthik. The cops shouted and restrained him. “Let me go! Please, Inspector Sahr. I beg you. I just want to finish him off in front of you.”
Chellapandi fell to the ground and grasped the Sub-inspector’s black boots. “Please, Sahr. I can’t take it anymore. Please just let me kill him.”
The officer jerked Chellapandi to his feet.
“This is crazy talk! You have a wife and a kid. Either you settle down, or I’ll pack you off to jail.”
“Fine, send me to jail. I’m not afraid of your jail.”
Chellapandi stood up and held his wrists out to be arrested.
“Djoh!” Rajendran slapped his shoulder, then jutted his hand in Chellapandi’s face. “Yennadah! What are you doing?”
“That’s it,” the Sub-Inspector said. “You’ve coming with me.”
The police pushed Chellapandi and his father into police van, then turned to the Thevar elders. “Bring Karthik and his father down to the station immediately so we can file the First Information Report.”
In the police station, the officers went into the Police Writer’s room with the Thevar elders. Half an hour later, a young officer came out and thrust a hand-written F.I.R. in front of Chellapandi and his father.
“Sign here,” the officer said.
Chellapandi read it aloud so his father could understand too. He turned to the officer. “You left out the part about him setting my house on fire and bashing my head with an ax handle.”
“Just sign, or we’ll charge you both with attempted murder in addition to assault with a potentially lethal weapon.”
“But he’s the one who attacked me.”
“That’s not true!” Chellapandi turned to Rajendran. “Machaa, they’ve twisted it all!”
Chellapandi’s father was bent over, holding his head with both hands.
“What did I tell you?” Rajendran said. “Yet you wouldn’t listen. Now it looks like you and your father are to be shipped to Madurai. There’s nothing more we can do at the moment.”
Chellapandi, his Appa, Karthik, and Mayandi Thevar were transported to Madurai Central Jail. Though Rajendran checked in on his mother and wife from time to time, they were truly stressed at living alone without their men. And angry at the senseless waste of money, when they were already struggling to buy groceries and pay the electricity bill.
After two days in jail, Karthik and his father were released on bail. The police then forced them to break their lease and leave Meenakshipuram.
Chellapandi and his father were kept longer. Rajendran had to abandon a building contract and run from court to lawyer to government office, paying five hundred here, a thousand there, getting this certificate, that affidavit. When he ran out of money, he borrowed from a money lender at 24% interest. After two weeks of grueling work, the bail petition was finally granted. Rajendran travelled to Madurai Central Jail, paid the jailer a two thousand ‘gift’ and procured the release of the prisoners.
“How are you doing?” he said. “I see your wounds have healed, but you’ve both lost a lot of weight.”
“You should see how bad off some of the prisoners are in there,” Chellapandi said. “We were very polite, so the jailers gave us medicines, food and decent water. Lucky for us, one of them was an Aasari from Bodi.”
For the next two months, Chellapandi and his father had to sign in every day at the local police station. By now, Chellapandi’s father had cut off completely from his son, angry at the way his behavior had resulted in jail for both of them. And the heavy loss of. He refused to talk to Chellapandi, even though they were living in the same house. Chellapandi’s wife stopped making kolams, doing the bare minimum with a long face.
When the assault case against Chellapandi and his father finally went to court, the proceedings were postponed, more money was paid, and another date set. This was followed by many more postponements and the continued slow bleed of the family’s meager resources. Chellapandi had to sell his cycle.
With the help of powerful contacts, Chellapandi finally managed to file a corruption and bribery case against the Sub-Inspector for having taken money from the Thevars and filing twisted charges against Chellapandi and his father. More months of wrangling and work lost. Then one day, Chellapandi received the news that the officer had been transferred. Soon after, Chellapandi’s lawyer reached an out of court settlement with Karthik’s family and the cases against them were dropped. Their legal nightmare was finally over.
In all, Chellapandi, Rajendran, and their families had spent one year and 150,000 rupees to finish the ordeal. Chellapandi worked two years to repay his debt to Rajendran and the others from whom they had borrowed. The damaged relationship with his father was barely holding together. The discontent of Chellapandi’s wife grew steadily until she finally took their little son and left for her parents’ home.
In spite of his sadness and loneliness, Chellapandi continued to rise at dawn, prepare the chisels in the forge, and go to work.
Pounding stones gave him purpose, a way through, the feeling of bedrock. Though he could still wield his hammer through the sweat of noon and into the leaning of the sun, his shoulders were rounded now. It was as if something within had broken.
Perhaps it was knowing that he could have killed a man.
In time, Chellapandi and his wife reconciled. They moved to a mixed caste street in a large village about five kilometers away. Another Aasari family had quit the little blue lane.
One evening, a surprise visitor knocked on Chellapandi’s door. It was the Sub-Inspector out of uniform, the same man who had sent him to jail.
The feelings came churning back, a wave of nausea, a tightening of the pulse.
“You know who I am?”
That man was balding, haggard. He looked at Chellapandi with a pleading, a quivering of the upper lip.
“Please. I know I have no right to ask you this, to even talk to you.” He began to weep. “They’re going to fire me over this case. I have two daughters to marry off. You have every right to hate me, I know. It was unforgivable, what I did to you.” He fell at Chellapandi’s feet. “Please, I’ve even thought of drinking poison, but…i”
Chellapandi looked at the man’s sobbing back, his long white sleeves moist under the armpits, the rim of his collar starched and threadbare. Chellapandi’s wife was standing quietly with their little boy, her expression inscrutable. He thought back to when he had fallen at this man’s feet, begging for his permission to kill Karthik. He remembered walking into that jail and hearing the iron gates slam shut, his wife’s shame at having a husband in prison like a common rowdy, the loss of intimacy with his father, the loss of the good and simple life on Aasari lane. Suddenly he felt tired, as though his bones could barely hold their shape. He knelt besides the man.
“Aiyaiyoh, please, Inspector Sahr. It’s not right for you to be like this. Please stand up. Of course, I’ll drop the case against you.”
The man looked at Chellapandi, his eyes puffy. He wiped his nose on his shirt sleeve. Chellapandi pulled him up.
“I’ll talk to my lawyer, Inspector Sahr. First thing in the morning.”
Several months passed. Chellapandi was sitting on the bus as it curved across the long dam. His son bounced in his lap, pointing out the window at a flock of wild ducks landing on the water.
The two were on their way to Meenakshipuram to visit the grandparents.
Chellapandi was debating whether or not to tell his father that the Sub-Inspector had been reinstated into the force, then sent off to a punishment posting far away. Perhaps now was not the time to speak of such things, as his father had only recently begun to talk.
Gazing out across the quiet lake, Chellapandi noticed how green the waters had become, how much they had receded since his last visit home. He buried his nose in his son’s sweaty curls and thought back to when he himself had been the little boy pointing at ducks. How many years had he watched this lake fill with rain, then retreat, as if it were breathing in, then exhaling.
It struck him how small Meenakshipuram looked from here.
How very, very small.