Sakandasamy Sakandasamy Sakandasamy Sakandasamy Sakandasamy
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Sa. Kandasamy
Four Eyes on the Float
Spreading out the big cast-net, Manikkam called Ramu, his voice rising in pitch each time he called. When he shouted for Ramu for the fourth time, his wife answered him from inside the house, “He went out just now”.
That was the time Ramu usually pounded and prepared betel for Manikkam. He had been doing this for the past two or three years almost without fail.
One day a fish hook cut across his palm and bruised it. Then Manikkam help Ramu’s little hand and taught him how to pound and prepare betel. But, contrary to all he had said, Ramu held the pestle firmly in his hand and pounded fast. Pounding like that excited him and made him happy. On the third day he was not able to hold the pestle for there were two big blisters on his hand. Manikkam spread his big palm upwards to Ramu and burst into cackling laughter.
“You know, I’ve been pounding and preparing betel from my forty second year. No blister yet. But you’ve got four blisters within two days. This is why we say, ‘Listen to the words of elders.” And he described in a low tone the “tricks of the art” of pounding and preparing betel. Ramu listened attentively; but not once did he follow the instructions. He had a peculiar trait of his own : contrariness.
If Manikkam fished in the area to the south, Ramu used to take his fishing rod to the waterside on the east. Ramu had discovered this area of water on the day he even left his grandpa in search of a new spot. Handling a small fishing rod, he fished a whole day along with his grandpa. He drew a complete blank; he was disappointed. He turned towards his grandpa. Manikkam’s eyes were on the float.
‘THAATHA” (grandpa) I go that side,” he said to his grandpa and went to test his luck. He walked along the footpath, got down the Elephant Slope, stood under the punnai tree and cast the fishing rod out. For a while the float did not stir; it lay as it was cast. Then came a flickering movement; small fish nibbled at the bait. The float quivered.
He watched the float with intent. Instantly a stir in the water; rings rippled the clean surface. But the float lay motionless. He lifted the fishing rod, the hook alone was there. The fry had nibbled and eaten away the bait.
He wound-in the line and waded ashore. He removed some clods of earth from a coconut shell, picked an earthworm from it, snicked the hook through its skin and cast the fishing tackle near the fringe of the lily bed.
Grandpa was not in the habit of changing places like this. He would fish only at a fixed place. Fish or no fish, he won’t change his fishing spot, but would extend his arm and swing out the rod a little further and adjust the float to its proper place on the line. Not a single word would escape his mouth. He would stop talking as soon as he reached the tank bund. With a calm and dignified stance he would swing the tackle.
Determined not to quit the place without some fish, Ramu looked at the float. All at once it shot up. All his attention was riveted on the fishing rod. He let his hand go slack and allowed a free length of the line. Rapidly the float went out of sight and was completely submerged; it slid further and still further. He was convinced that the fish was taking the bait quickly. He remembered how his grandpa used to react to such a situation. With one finger he would stroke his moustache; his face would brighten. A trace of a smile as the grey moustache was brushed to one side. Unhurriedly and noiselessly he would retrieve the line straight. The fish would come up with a flurry. Many a time the fish that came above grandpa’s head used to escape due to its fitful movement.
Once when grandpa was lifting the rod high above his head, Ramu had shouted excitedly, “Draw it with a sharp tug, thaatha.” Manikkam turned slowly and looked at Ramu, an ironic smile curling on his lip. Ramu crept away. Manikkam woundup the line as he desired; but the carp, coming up with a wild dash, leaped and fell into the water.
The fish hooked in Ramu’s rod would not bolt; cleverly and cautiously he would play it and land it. He could handle the line as he willed and desired; no one to check him now. From under the surface of the water itself he drew the line with a flick of the wrist towards the right. A big mayilai fish landed on the bank. Ramu threw down the fishing tackle and looked at the mayilai leaping on the dry leaves. His heart was all joy.
Alone he had caught a mayilai. Only very rarely were mayilai caught with grandpa’s tackle. He held the wriggling fish by the scruff and lifted it. It’s a peculiar fish. Has lots and lots of bones and moustache. If the spines on its fin prick, they will cause acute pain. The sting will last for even two or three days. In summer when Ramu entered the tank and fished, a mayilai stung him for the first time. He suffered very much; he was unable to bear the stinging pain. Since than he has been particularly careful about mayilai. With that caution he caught the fish and removed the hook.
Grandpa came there and queried, “You caught it?” Ramu did not answer him. Head down he was intent on his work. “You’ve become an expert angler.” Manikkam laid his hand on Ramu.
Ramu moved aside. Suddenly he got angry with his grandpa. Along with it came the fear that his grandpa was trying to bully him. He avoided getting in the old man’s way. From that day, it seemed to Manikkam, Ramu had been growing away from him. As he thought of this, he grew bitter. He quickly got up from his seat, took his betel box, went to the veranda and sat down. He had forgotten how to pound and prepare betel – how many leaves to use and how much time. He pushed aside the betel box and paced up and down the path between the street and the house.
In a while Ramu came running. Manikkam watched as Ramu ran to the inner courtyard of the house, washed his hands came to pound and prepare the betel. Stuffing the prepared betel in his mouth Manikkam asked, “Where have you been at this time?”
“That big fish-”
Grandpa exploded into laughter. Ramu looked at him askance.
“You tried to catch it?” – the tone of his voice rose. “You can’t catch it; nor can your father.” Out of the corner of his eye Ramu watched his grandpa indulging in self-praise.
Keeping the prepared betel in this mouth Ramu had handed him, Manikkam went toward the tank with the thread-lone tackle. No fish had ever snapped it. It was one which couldn’t be broken by a fish. Ramu went with him.
In a few moments after the thread lone tackle was swung out, the float dipped quickly. It went down, came up, cocked upright and gambolled.
Ramu wound in the line. Something from under the surface of the water pulled it violently. It was evident that the big fish had begun to pick up the bait. He ran fast and fetched his grandpa.
Manikkam said, “Caught so soon?” He untied the line, fastened it to the punnai tree and glanced at the float. The big float pranced like a hobby horse. He saw that the fish had not yet swallowed the bait. He slackened the line. The frisking float slid down obliquely. The fish dragged in the bait and gulped it. Manikkam’s had instantly held the line taut. Below the water there were bites on the line – pluck, pluck… Manikkam decided to slacken the line so that the barb might fix in the fish’s throat and then drew in the line before the fish started its fight.
His eyes searched for a convenient place. Standing under the punnai tree he drew the line very fast. For a short distance, the fish came up easily enough. Then it began to thrash in the water with its tail. Manikkam slackened the line and then drew it in with all his force. The fish came up but arched quickly churning the water. The line snapped and Manikkam slipped down into the tank.
Ramu ran and helped his grandpa out of the tank. He wiped off the blood that oozed out of the old man’s shin.
“Did the fish escape, grandpa? Could’ve caught it, had you waited a little?”.
Stroking his knee joint, Manikkam glared at Ramu. He felt like strangling the boy. “Why do you stand here?” he growled.
Ramu moved aside glancing uncertainly at his grandpa. Manikkam went to the bund. His heart was sore. He walked round the tank once and went home. Ramu was sleeping on the small veranda. Manikkam sighed. He took the hurricane lamp from the wall niche, burnished it with ashes and poured kerosene to its brim. Manikkam finished his meals and walked toward the tank with the lamp and a spear. The light of a waning moon. As time passed the moon shone brightly.
A murrel with its young ones cruised about the tank. A big one. Would, no doubt, fetch four or five rupees. Another like this might come up too, and Manikkam surely could trap one of them. But today his aim was not the murrel but the freshwater shark that slapped and roiled the water as it came up to the tank from the river. He went round the tank, noting carefully every movement in the water. No sound save that of the jamun fruit falling. The tank was very quiet. He wondered if the fish had gone back as it had come. He trimmed the lamp a bit and scanned the tank. When his eyes went past the southern corner he noticed the shark quickly swirling its tail against a shoal of carping its tail against a shoal of carp.
He chose a comfortable place. He raised the wick of the lamp and it emitted more light; the moon’s glow too was bright. “The time is now propitious.” The shark was swallowing its prey quietly. He took two steps forward and raised his spear. A swirl in the water. From somewhere a big carp leaped. The spear went past shearing off the scales of the fish. Spoiled in a minute. Nothing had turned out well. Manikkam got down into the tank searched for the spear, retrieved it and returned to the bank.
The fish was now wary. Its boisterousness and pranks were not to be seen. Manikkam went round the tank. No sign of the fish. Disgust and weariness. With the lamp and the spear Manikkam staggered home as the cock crew.
He couldn’t do much the next day. Despondency and distress simmered within his chest. All of a sudden he felt angry with the fish. He sat up. “Either it or me. Have to settle the account between us two.” He climbed up to the loft, took the tackle which he had made and thrown there two years ago, and proceeded to the tank.
Ramu was sitting on the tank bund. He was watching the fish frisking in the water. Manikkam saw the fish first and then Ramu. He beckoned to Ramu and in a low tone asked, “what are you doing here?” Ramu did not reply.
“I’m asking you!” He pulled Ramu by the ear and then pushed him away saying, “Granny has been searching for you and you’re squatting here-?” Ramu fell down and got up; he saw his grandpa’s contorted face and was amazed at the sight. After Ramu went away the shark frolicked in the tank and the water broke all over.
“What a big fish – like a king!” Brushing his moustache to one side, Manikkam walked towards the outlet of the tank. He saw the fish circling near it, seeking a way out. Quickly Manikkam took out a live carp from an earthen bowl. Well grown live bait! If tied to the hook, it would last more than two hours. Since the fish was here it could be hooked with this carp. He held the carp aslant, removed four or five scales with the hook, inserted the hook into its back and threw the bait on the water. The float rode erect and moved. As time elapsed, his conviction that the live bait would somehow lure the shark was strengthened.
He got down into the water without causing any splash and swung the line near the edge of a mass of lily pads. The float moved to and fro and lodged itself on a leaf. He pulled it aside. Gradually the movement of the float lessened. He looked at it. Its vivacity was gone. The live bait was dead. Manikkam stepped into the water again, retrieved the line and whirled and swirled the bait against the water. This made the bait flake off.
He wound in the empty line and sat under the tree. He was seized with hate and fury. He felt like giving Ramu four slaps, holding him under water and drowning him. He took another carp, tied it to the hook and swung the line into the tank. As soon as the line fell into the water there were bid eddies. The shark gamboled. Manikkam brushed his moustache aside and leaned against the tamarind tree.
He exhibited some unusual traits; he began talking to himself. He threw out a challenge to the fish, “Can’t go anywhere deceiving me.” Joyfully he whistled.
The float moved; the big fish had come. Manikkam stood up. The fish splashed the water with its tail. It came up, opened its mouth and took a breath; it sank quickly. Bubbles rose in succession. The dish darted eastward.
From a Portia tree in the south a king-fisher jumped into the water and winged its way up. A heron darted and alighted on a lily leaf.
Manikkam held the line taut. The float quivered slightly. If only a murrel or a carp doesn’t come, I could catch this big fish, he thought.
He got on to the bank, walked north, sat down under the mahua tree and lit his cheroot. He had finished two chaeroots; but still there was no stir or eddy in the tank. The sheet of water was placid.
A hereon soared above. The light faded away. Manikkam rose fatigued and went home. Ramu was mending the mesh of a net. Manikkam growled, “When did I tell you to do this work? And you’re attending to it only now!”
Ramu didn’t answer. Head bent, silently he untangled the twisted : mass by applying oil to the horse hair.
Ramu raised his head. His eyes were filled with tears. An angry thought seized him – to pour kerosene over grandpa’s face and set it ablaze.
“What did you do since yesterday?” He shook Ramu’s head and lifted him.
“Why have you been grilling Ramu like this for the past two days?” his wife queried.
“Will someone foist this poverty stricken filler on one’s head?”
“Are we so poor that we have to be beaten and killed like this?”
“You’ve always had lots of people on your side.”
“That was clear enough even on the day your daughter died.”
“What did you say? You daughter of a thief!” He slapped his wife hard.
“Kill us! Finish both off and them roam the streets!”
“Hold your tongue.”
Her tone rose.
Manikkam removed the big belt from his waist and said, Get inside!”
“Kill me! I left all my family just to marry you – now kill me along with this young child!”
“Rambhai, that beauty! If I weren’t there thousands would have come as your suitors!”
The lashes of the belt fell on her chest and check, she writhed, fell on the floor and screamed. The neighbours intervened. Flinging the belt into Ramu’s face, Manikkam went to lie down in the veranda.
Bitterly his wife recalled past incidents. What she said touched him. He regretted having picked this quarrel he had stopped many years ago.
Two years after their marriage, his only daughter had died leaving Ramu alone. Her demise had broken Manikkam’s heart. That grief made him cease quarrelling with his wife. As his sorrow swelled, his ire turned into ashes. He thought he had gone too far that day.
His wife was now singing dirges about her daughter. He couldn’t bear it. He had loved his daughter more than his life. He got up slowly and began to walk, his legs turning towards the tank.
The peace by the tank was profound. He went near the tank and looked at it. The float alone was bobbing. He pulled the line and swung it toward the eastern side contrary to his usual practice. That was Ramu’s area of water. Manikkam swung the line as though drawing on Ramu’s luck and got up on the bund.
The tank was disgustingly calm. Whistling softly Manikkam sat down under the Konnai tree. His exhaustion increased. He felt like taking a bite of food. He snarled “H’mm” and leaned down against the tree. In a moment he was snoring.
When he awoke, it was past ten. “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this tank!” He looked at the line. The frisky float was not visible. Catching hold of the reeds, he descended into the tank and hauled out the line. It came out with ease. But only a portion of it. The fish had eaten the other half. Was it a murrel or a shark that did this? Possibly a tortoise? No sign to confirm the surmise. Whatever it was, another line was lost. Such things have never happened before.
He finished his meal, took two balls of thread and twisted them together. As he increased the number of strands the thread became stronger; but he was not satisfied. That thread line was not strong enough to hold that fish, he thought. It looked as though it would snap if pulled forcibly.
He wound the fag end round both his hands and gave a sudden pull. The line snapped.
“Chei!” he said in disgust; snuffed the lamp flame and lay down.
The first half of the night. The line had hardly swung when the shark was caught. He drew the line in very fast. The fish was coming in without any hindrance. What wild ecstasy! The fish that landed on the bank jumped back into the water. Manikkam got up and sat on it. The fish went down, down to the abysmal depths. He became suffocated. “Ha,” he cried loudly. He opened his eyes and was relieved to know that it was only a dream. Couldn’t sleep any longer. Placing a pillow against the wall, he leaned against it and smoked a cherrot.
The cocks crew.
“See, what a clever little boy ours is!”
Manikkam’s hands fell on Ramu’s shoulder. They moved against his neck and passed on towards his ears.
“Oh, mother!” Ramu howled hard, then rushed and hid behind his granny’s back.
Translated from Tamil
By M. S. Ramaswami