Vidudhalai by Saritha Rao Rayachoti
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Nagaswamy raised his eighty-three-year-old frame off the uncomfortable cotton mattress. At his age, if his contemporaries were not already dead, they had gone senile, their minds retreating to a place that promised the safety of the familiar, that the external world with its too-rapid changes could not penetrate.

 

But in his case, it was like that Vanguard car he once owned, with the body coming apart, but the engine, his mind, in perfect condition. He could easily name every one of the thirty seven plays that his troupe had enacted, along with the characters and the actors who played them over the years. The actress who had played the dainty Ahalya also proved to be a feisty Subhadra. The actor who usually played Jawaharlal Nehru had eloped with a zamindar's daughter just before one show and Nagaswamy had to take on the role, although for that day's performance, Nehru ended up looking quite burly. He even knew most of the dialogues, although lately, he had to refer his notebook.

 

It was getting unbearable. The heavy thud of slow-moving seconds had become too much to endure with a body that slowed him down. Those who ritually showered blessings of longevity, he thought, do they realise what they are really bestowing on their loved ones? A life beyond one's prime is not worth living at all. What was he to do as he waited for release from this lifetime? The passage of time held no significance when there is nothing to mark it by. And how would he die? In his sleep, segueing serenely from one dimension to another with no pain or suffering? But there was bound to be some pain. After all, birth itself is a painful process, why would death be any different?

 

*

 

When the gate juddered to a stop in mid-swing, Chandra held the folds of her make-shift raincoat in one hand, and plunged the other hand into the muddy water pulling out the obstructing brick. She tossed the brick aside, and the gate groaned open.

 

The house was the last one on the street to be still standing, when others had been razed to the ground to make way for apartments. The house itself had reached some sort of stalemate with time; it was aging surely, but refusing to be decrepit. It had a driveway from the gate leading up to the porch, but now it was a broken path submerged in last night's downpour. Moss concealed the once-glorious yellow facade, and high above on the crest, the cement lettering in Tamil that once read 'Vasuki Illam 1953', was now missing a few letters.

 

Something about this house, its silences and its dark nooks, gave Chandra a sense of sanctuary. Here, nobody could dare to beat her senseless and then force himself on her. No one would tell her that it was pointless to send her daughter to school. It was as though her dreams were cocooned within these protective walls. And under this lofty ceiling with its sturdy wooden beams, even her most improbable dreams sprouted wings. And dealing with Nagaswamy Ayya's moods was a small price to pay for such a gift of possibility.

 

She hitched up the pleats of her saree, tucking them in at her hip, and waded to the backyard past the old shed that Ayya now used as a storeroom. She unlocked the door to the enclosed verandah with its washing stone and clothesline, and shrugged off the plastic sheet. She tried to dry herself as best as she could and ensured that her hands and feet were washed clean before she entered the kitchen. It was too early in the week to get another earful from Ayya.

 

While waiting for the milk boiler's cry to reach its crescendo, Chandra brewed the decoction in the old brass coffee filter. In a few minutes, she would have coffee ready for Ayya, and it would be the way he demanded it – hot, strong and on time. Time seemed to hold a great deal of importance for him. But such fastidiousness was good, she thought. The moment the elderly gave up their idiosyncrasies, it meant that they were giving up on life. If only he could be a little less grouchy.

 

Yesterday, Ayya’s nephew, that good-for-nothing fellow, had turned up to demand money from him. Chandra had told him that Ayya was busy in the storeroom, hoping he would leave. But he had pushed past her and headed straight there. What was she to do?

 

‘YOU DON'T HAVE BRAINS?’ Ayya had shouted at her later, ‘WHY DID YOU LET THAT FELLOW IN?’

 

‘But Ayya…’

 

‘If you did not tell him, HOW did he know where to find me?’ Ayya had shouted, ‘HUMPH! I will find peace and quiet ONLY once I die!’

 

Chandra was taken aback by his vehemence but understood what was bothering him. Ayya's nephew visited him only when he was in need of money. That was the way of the world. Few people remembered Ayya and fewer still, visited him these days. But when he passes away, there will be a horde of strangers queueing up to pay their last respects. They will beat their chests, mourning in front of the cameras, clamouring for a share of the spotlight that shrouds him. There was no escaping this for someone of Ayya’s stature. He had garnered in one janmam, the kind of fame that lesser mortals could not, even in seven lifetimes.

 

Chandra left the tumbler-davara of hot coffee on the teapoy outside Ayya's bedroom. He would emerge from his bath shortly, swear that the coffee was not hot enough, drink it anyway, and then proceed to spend the morning in the storeroom, among the costumes and props from his drama company. He would return in a much calmer frame of mind, and then have an early lunch. Chandra proceeded with her other chores leaving only the rice to be cooked closer to lunchtime.

 

She had first heard about Ayya's Kalaivani Drama Company when she was about ten years old. Their repertoire consisted of several plays that highlighted the antics of Tenali Raman, the glory of the Chola empire under Raja Raja Cholan, along with the inevitable sub-plot enactments of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Company also included one of the first women on stage, who played leads like Rani of Jhansi and Kannagi as well as supporting roles like Menaka and Panchali. Some of the actors had a loyal fan following across villages and towns in Tamil Nadu.

 

Chandra remembered watching a play called Vidudhalai. It was initially dismissed as yet another patriotic drama, as the title translated to ‘freedom’. But as word got around, people from nearby villages flocked to see it.

 

Vidudhalai was the story of the emperor of Paambaarai. A devotee of Lord Shiva, he performed rigorous penances seeking immortality. Shiva tried to dissuade him, but finally, impressed by the king's perseverance, granted him a boon of immortality. However, Shiva added a word of caution, that every granted boon is a latent curse whose time will come.

 

The blessed king now believed that he was unconquerable. To expand his empire, he launched several conquests of neighbouring lands, and even waged wars against kingdoms across the sea. However, after the king had lived the full life of an average mortal and entered the realm of true immortality, he realised the wisdom of Shiva’s words. He was cursed to outlive those who were dearest to him.

 

Unable to overcome his grief any longer, he withdrew from the world and invoked Shiva yet again, this time, to seek release from the immortal life. Shiva appeared with his trusted bull, Nandi by his side. The earlier boon could not be reversed as the king was already well into living the immortal life. A mortal existence was no longer his prerogative.

 

At this point, Chandra’s memory faltered. The king's predicament was resolved in the play, but she didn't remember how. She remembered the anguish of the monarch. She could clearly recall the grandeur of the robes and the screen backdrop of Mount Kailasam. Two men costumed as Shiva's bull. The live serpent coiled around Shiva's neck. She also remembered asking her mother why Shiva looked so different from the deity at the temple. The memory of the ending, however, was tantalisingly close, yet just out of her grasp. She gave up, knowing it would eventually come to her.

 

Despite the popularity of his plays, Ayya had succumbed to the lure of cinema. However, his years of stage training could not be unlearned to express nuances. On stage, he had learnt to project himself physically so that even the person in the last row in the audience could perceive the emotion being enacted. On screen, however, his slightest movement appeared exaggerated, even comical. He was eventually relegated to playing the comedian or the villain, the only characters exempt from subtlety. The monotony of takes and retakes set in and the fascination for the medium wore off.

 

Ayya returned to stage, but with little success. The audience had by then begun to flock to cinema tents to watch formula romances and social dramas with happy endings. There were no takers for the Kalaivani Drama Company and its stagecraft. Eventually, despite attempts by Ayya's nephew to keep it afloat, the troupe disbanded. Nobody knew what happened to Ayya for nearly a decade after that. There were rumours that he had died. One film magazine even claimed that he had moved to a little village at the foothills of the Himalayas. After a while, people's interest was piqued by younger, more scandalous subjects from the film industry.

 

It was here, to this house that he had built in his heyday, that Ayya finally returned. His only family were his nephew and a niece. When Ayya had made his intentions clear about not selling the house to make ends meet, his niece had taken on the expenses. For the first time in his life, Ayya was financially dependent on someone. At the insistence of his niece, he had even consented to hire Chandra. Ayya had entrusted her with the keys, save the one for the storeroom, so she could enter and leave without disturbing him.

 

She realised that in this last month, he had been spending more time every morning in the storeroom. A few days ago, when she passed it on her way out for an errand, she heard him speaking to himself. God knows what he did in there every morning, but it made him calmer for the rest of the day.

 

*

 

The droplets soaked through his vest, as Nagaswamy unlocked the door to the storeroom. He paused a moment to inhale the reassuring mustiness and switched on the light. He sat on the rattan chair, and turned the pages of the old notebook that contained dialogues for the character he had in mind. His theatre festivals that ran across ten days, always ended with this play.

 

He searched the glass-encased wardrobes for the costume and finally found it between Tipu Sultan's Angarakha and a British soldier's uniform. He shed it of its outer protective wrapping and stroked the fine brocade on the royal blue fabric.

He slipped on the costume, donned the wig and the moustache, and finally the jewellery. He referred the notebook for the dialogues he had uttered over a hundred times.

 

His voice acquired strength.

 

His stature belied his age.

 

Nagaswamy, the old man was gone. In his place, stood an emperor, majestic and leonine.

 

The audience waited, unblinking.

 

*

 

Chandra had to put up with Ayya’s short temper for many years. But lately, it had little to do with the arthritic pain that showed up about six years ago. Maybe it was the monsoon. Rain evokes such different emotions in people. It signified water-logged roads for those who cast their eyes down, those who had the means to live in dry houses and not get their delicate feet wet. But for those of fewer means, those like her who looked heavenward for inspiration, it meant the pent up humidity of the city finally found its release.

 

Chandra roasted a few appalams, and, as the rice would be ready anytime now, she went to look for Ayya. He usually returned from the storeroom at this hour muttering about how lunch was never ready on time. But today, he was not in his customary reclining chair on the front verandah.

 

The pressure cooker emitted a hiss and Chandra’s trained ears picked up a cue that something was amiss. She returned to the kitchen, and was about to check what was wrong, when the cooker emitted a louder hiss. Chandra waited for the rest of the ‘whistles’, turned off the stove and set the dishes on the formica dining table.

 

As she laid Ayya's plate at his customary place on the table, she heard the hiss again. It was not from within the kitchen. She thought, automatically picking up the pestle, that a snake must have entered the house. Around this time last year, she had found one in the study under a wardrobe that displayed Ayya's awards. She had panicked and the snake had escaped.

 

She checked the study. There was no snake. As she approached Ayya's bedroom, she found the coffee untouched on the teapoy outside. She paused, beginning to worry. She checked his bedroom. He was not there, and the bed was unmade. In all the years she had worked here, Ayya had always made the bed, with the blanket folded neatly at the foot.

 

She now realised that she hasn't seen Ayya all morning.

 

Meanwhile, the rain resumed with force.

 

Unmindful of the icy jabs that pelted her back, Chandra approached the storeroom hoping the snake had not entered there. Her concern for Ayya now turned into fear. While the unmade bed and the coffee bothered her, the more urgent danger was from the snake.

 

In all the years she had worked here, the storeroom had always been locked. Only Ayya had a key. She has never entered, let alone cleaned it. She knocked on the door and waited for a response, fearing that if she entered unannounced, she would interrupt him.

 

Chandra noticed the ornate carvings on the door that she passed every day but never paid attention to. The door depicted plant creepers that looked deceptively like intertwined snakes. When she didn’t get a response to her knocks, she tried the brass door handle and found it unlocked. She pushed open the heavy door.

 

The room was lit by a sole bulb that hung by a wire from the ceiling. It did little to dispel the pall of disuse that hung over the room. The bulb itself was caked with dust and Chandra resisted the urge to wipe it. Large glass wardrobes, the kind found in dry-cleaning shops, dominated the room. They were pushed against the walls and windows, blocking out the light. Rows of costumes encased in plastic hung in the wardrobes. Despite this, some of them were in tatters.

 

Chandra adjusted her hold on the pestle that now felt heavier in her hand. She found a toilet on her left but the door was ajar and the room, empty. She was relieved that Ayya was not here in the storeroom, as it was likely that the snake was. The room, with its clutter of old things was the perfect place for a snake with an inundated burrow.

 

But where was he? What if he was going senile? What if he had wandered off? She didn’t know too many old people who did that, but it could happen. Especially with someone like Ayya, with what must surely be hundreds of memories from an eventful life.

 

She advanced only a few steps when she stepped on something. To her wet bare feet, it felt like a piece of paper. She stepped away, and in the gloomy light, found that it looked more like a scrap from one of the old costumes, aged but with a dull sheen to it. As she knelt to touch it, she recoiled, realising in an instant what it is.

 

Now in a panic, she renewed her search for the snake. But an old memory made her pause in her tracks.

 

The way the play ended, all those years ago, came to her.

 

The old immortal king of Paambaarai stood defeated, his eyes welling with tears. He spoke then, about life and immortality. About the mortal life being more blessed than the immortal one. He lamented his fate. The heart-rending sight of his dead princes who had fought valiantly by his side in his conquests. His beloved queen, who had died a little at the sight of the dead princes. The endless days were hard enough, the long sleepless nights provided little reprieve. The gain of the boon had been transitory, but the loss and the pain, eternal.

 

Shiva was moved by the king’s agony. The Lord of Destruction remembered only too well, his own anguish at losing Sati, when in senseless grief, he had wreaked devastation on the world. Finding inspiration from the serpent coiled around his neck, Shiva turned the king into a snake. In this form of regeneration, the king would get release from human suffering even as he lived an eternal life. Thus, the immortal king became an immortal serpent.

 

Chandra snapped back to the present. The end of the play lingered in her mind. She tried to push it away, not willing to heed what her intuition told her.

 

It is then that another thought, about the title of the play, unspooled.

 

Vidudhalai also meant ‘release’.

 

*


Saritha Rao Rayachoti is a Chennai-based independent writer who has written over a hundred articles for Indian and International publications like Atlas Obscura, Architectural Digest India, Arts Illustrated, The Hindu, National Geographic Traveller India, Mint, Scroll, Madras Plus and Culturama.Her short stories were published in anthologies like Urban Shots: Crossroads, The City of Gods and more recently, in The Best Asian Short Stories 2017. Saritha is drawn to the quirky, the paradoxical and the heartfelt. She attributes her curiosity to a somewhat nomadic childhood, moving cities every three years, not belonging to any one place, yet in a sense, belonging everywhere.

Browse her writing at https://saritharaorayachoti.contently.com/