Translated from the Khasi to the English by the writer
R. K. Narayan is dead.
Tonight he sits pensive
in his bamboo chair
talking of a “very rare soul”.
Suddenly I’m seized by a desire
to vivisect my own “very rare soul”
from end to end.
Let me begin by saying my mother is more
“plain-dealing”, more “truth-telling” than Narayan’s.
My mother is retired, toothless, diabetic and bedevilled
by headaches and a blinding cataract. In short,
she is a cantankerous old woman.
I remember the time when she was a cantankerous
young woman. When she took an afternoon nap,
she was tigerish: “You sons of a vagina!” she
would snarl, “you won’t even let me rest for a moment,
sons of a fiend! Come here sons of a beast! If I
get you I’ll lame you! I’ll maim you! … Sons
of a louse! You feed on the flesh that breeds you!
Make a sound again when I sleep and I’ll thrash you
till you howl like a dog! You irresponsible nitwits!
how will I play the numbers if I don’t get a good
dream?1 How will I feed you, sons of a lowbred?”
And this fiery salvo would come hurtling
with wooden stools, iron tongs and bronze
blowers, as we ran for our lives and she
gave chase with canes and firewood,
her hair flying loose, her eyes inflamed
and her tongue lashing with a mad rage.
And we being but children would never
learn anything except becoming experts
at dodging her unconventional weapons.
I remember how, having no daughter, she would
make me wash her blood-stained rags. Refusal
was out of the question. So, always I would pick
them with sticks and pestle them in an old iron bucket
till the water cleared. But mind you, all this on the sly.
Seeing me not using my hands would be lethal.
Those days in Cherra we never knew what
a toilet was. We never had a septic tank
or a service latrine. We simply did our job
in our sacred groves.2 But sometimes
my mother would do her job in a trash can.
Then it would fall on me to ferry the cargo
to a sacred grove. Refusal was out
of the question. So, always I would sprinkle
ash upon it, top it with betel-nut peels
and things and do my best to avoid nosy
neighbours and playmates. Those who
have seen Kamal Hasan in Pushpak3
will understand my stratagems.
I could cite a thousand and one things
to demonstrate how cantankerously
rare my mother is. And I decline
to tell you anything good about her.
I’m not a Narayan and I decline
to tell you how she suffered when
my bibulous father was alive; or how
she suffered when he died; or how
she suffered rearing her two sons
and her dead sister’s toddlers
in the proper way. There’s only one
thing commendable I will admit about her:
if she had married again and not been
the cantankerous woman that she is,
I probably would not be standing
here reading this poem today.
- Archery gambling. Some people would buy a number based on the interpretation of their dreams. ↩
- Community forests, prohibited through sanctification, found in almost every village in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. ↩
- A popular South Indian silent movie starring Kamal Hasan as a kidnapper, who tries every morning to get rid of his prisoner’s excrement in ingenious ways. ↩