Mayilaan’s feet drag him towards the liquor shop. Will Tiger be able to stop him?
At around 8 in the morning, Mayilaan stepped out of the house after two days. He shut his eyes tight, unable to bear the brunt of the bright sun. When that wasn’t adequate, he covered his eyes with his forearm to fight the glare. His body was unsteady. Over the past two days he had consumed all the liquor he had bought, and passed out last night. In the morning, he had combined the drops at the bottom of the bottles to wet his throat. There was nothing to eat. He had no choice but to step out.
When he was able to open his eyes fully, his glance fell upon Tiger, who was tethered outside. He saw his sunken body and a weakness in the way he wagged his tail. Pellets of stool lay strewn in a corner, darkened. Tiger had excreted at the same spot for three nights and two days. He rushed towards him and unhooked the chain around his neck. The dog simply stood wagging his tail. Mayilaan placed a big kiss on his cheek, went inside to get a flask of water and poured it into the dry bowl. Tiger bent, stuck his tongue out and wet his tongue. He licked the water slowly and drank it.
“Dei, Tiger…why would you do this? Could you not have barked a few times to get my attention? I have left you to starve for two full days, da,” he said, hugging Tiger by the neck. Tiger licked his arm. Noticing how dry his tongue felt, he went in and searched the fridge for something to eat. There was nothing.
He remembered finishing all the food these past three nights. Now, the only option was to cook. No, I should buy some food. He put on a shirt and started walking. When Tiger began to follow him, he said, “You stay here, I will be right back.” The dog stopped following him.
He could not recall what had transpired. He’d had some money in hand. He had drunk to his heart’s content. He never sought company; he worked alone and drank alone. There was no certainty he’d have money the next day so he believed in buying as much liquor as he could when he did. He vaguely recalled reaching home and Poongodi picking a fight with him.
He had little recollection of what she said or how he responded. Most likely, he would have beaten her up. And the children who may have come in his way. When the three of them left home, he indistinctly remembered yelling, “Get lost…you destitute woman…you think I will starve if you leave…I have hands…I can feed myself…,” and shutting the door. When he woke up the next morning, he realised no one was around. He had stayed confined in the house, finishing one bottle after another.
He walked with his head hanging low. He felt as though everyone was staring at him. “Look at him…the drunkard dog,” he imagined whispers around him. When he heard a female voice shouting, “He needs to be thrashed with a broomstick,” he felt a sting in his heart. He supposed those words were aimed at him. He walked keeping his gaze fixed to the ground. He prayed no one would stop to chat. He didn’t raise his head even upon reaching Bhoopathi’s shop.
“Four idlis, parcel,” he said.
“There is quite a bit of old balance due, anna,” Bhoopathi replied.
“I will pay you tomorrow. Right now, give me just four idlis,” Mayilaan said.
Begrudgingly, Bhoopathi handed him the parcel. Mayilaan felt like he was standing on fire. There were others drinking tea or eating. He chose not to make eye contact with anyone. He practically ran out the moment he got the parcel.
“Dei, Mayilaan, there are bunds to be built at the cucumber farm. Can you come?” a familiar voice said. Quite sure it was Ponnaiyan and seeing an opportunity for work when he hadn’t a paisa, he replied immediately without looking up, “Yes, I will, da.”
“The tractor is running now. If you come around 10, that would be ideal,” said the voice.
“Okay da,” he replied, and returned home.
Tiger lay outside, waiting. Tiger obeyed all their instructions except one. He had a thing for slippers. If left unattended, he would shred them and spread the pieces all over the yard. The habit he had as a puppy hadn’t changed despite their many efforts. They started leaving their slippers indoors. They reminded anyone who visited to do so as well.
Mayilaan opened the parcel, took out two idlis and crumbled them. He added a little water and mashed them with his hand. Dregs remained in the pot in which the milk had been boiled. He scraped all he could, mashed everything together and put the mixture into Tiger’s bowl. Tiger’s mouth drooled in anticipation yet he stayed away until Mayilaan finished filling it. Watching Tiger eat brought tears to Mayilaan’s eyes.
“I wish I had the willpower you have. Even though your mouth was watering, you stood there watching me. How come I don’t have such self-restraint?” Mayilaan ate the other two idlis. That was enough for him but not for Tiger. “I should feed him something more in the afternoon. When I go to work in the field, I should pack some lunch too. I can cook something.” The two idlis in his stomach made him feel drowsy.
He considered taking a nap on the plinth outside. Someone might see me and say, “Look at that good for nothing… spreading his legs and sleeping in the middle of the day after chasing his wife and children away.” It is best to stay away from everyone’s watchful eyes. He went inside and lay down on the cot. The house, all of one room next to the kitchen, had not been swept for two days.
He shook off his lethargy, grabbed the broom and began to sweep. Ants had found their way to the morsels of snacks the children had spilled. By the time he finished cleaning, he was drenched in sweat. He was tired. No doubt the result of drinking non-stop for two days. “If only I could have a cutting now, that will take care of this unsteadiness. But I am penniless. When I go to work, I will get money in the evening.”
He soaked some rice and looked for vegetables but couldn’t find any. He found lentils bought from the ration shop in a box. He decided to cook lentils. He didn’t have any tomatoes, but cut up a few green chillies with onions to add to the cooked lentils after draining the water. He set some cooked lentils aside in a cup and left it unsalted. Salt didn’t agree with Tiger. He added salt for himself. He made rasam with the drained lentil water. When he stepped out to get some curry leaves to add to the rasam, his neighbour Selvarani saw him and snickered.
“Cooking away, anna? The aroma is heavenly. You know… they say a girl could be married off to an idler but never to one who cooks for himself. Isn’t that true!” she said and laughed.
His face shrank with embarrassment. He went back in quietly, his head hanging low. This woman who says all this…she could have given Tiger something to eat the past two days when he was tethered. Surely, she must have seen him. She would have wanted him to die of starvation so she could tell everyone about it. Have I fallen so low in others’ eyes? When a cat withers from lack of food, apparently, even a mouse will mock it. His mind was seething at how low he had fallen in the eyes of others. I will never, ever drink this garbage again, he vowed.
He wondered if he should call Poongodi. What will the children think? Tears trickled down as their sorrowful faces emerged in his mind. He whimpered a little.
She would not have gone to her older brother’s house. Her father lived with him, but had no say in anything. He was dependent on the older brother even for a meal. She would have gone to her chithappa’s house. Her father’s younger brother. She always had his support. If there was ever a squabble between husband and wife, it was the chithappa who came to pacify them. In the course of the events, he would tell her, “Why do you have to stay married to this dog? Come…you can live in my cowshed. Surely, I can afford to take care of you.” Still, she had never gone. This time, I must have hurt her more severely. He must have called her a free-for-all hooker. It was a phrase he used often. She could not bear it.
He left some rice to cool for Tiger before he sat down to eat. The lentil kuzhambu was flavourful. If only I had two tomatoes, this would have tasted better. No, this is delicious. Why is this mind always after what I don’t have? He took several servings of rasam. He packed lunch in a container. He then mixed the cooled rice with the lentils he had put aside, added some rasam to loosen the mixture and served it in Tiger’s bowl.
Seeing Tiger eat eagerly, he sat beside him and stroked his head. Tiger stopped eating and looked up at him, wagging his tail. “Okay, okay, finish eating and be good. I am going to work now. I am going to Ponnaiyan’s farm to build bunds. It will be evening by the time I return, alright?” he said. Tiger looked up from his bowl as if to acknowledge him. He realised that what he said to Tiger was what he usually told Poongodi and felt slightly ashamed. What would Tiger think of me?
He put the lunch container in a basket, locked the door and placed the key on the ledge above. That was his routine. He hoped for the unlikely scenario of Poongodi returning with the children while he was away. Tiger followed Mayilaan’s movements with his eyes. Mayilaan waved as he left. He walked with his gaze fixed straight and lowered. He heard footsteps and voices around him. He walked feverishly, hoping no one would try to talk to him.
Just as Ponnaiyan had said, the tractor had piled the soil needed to build bunds to create paths for planting cucumber seeds. His work was to flatten the bumps the tractor had left so water could flow. There was no one else in the field. Ponnaiyan must have left for lunch after finishing with the tractor. He called Ponnaiyan on his mobile phone to confirm the details. “There is three days’ work here. I will work extra hours and finish in two. Pay me ₹1,500.” They settled on ₹1,300.
Ponnaiyan would pay only after the job was done. I should ask for an advance to take care of my expenses. If I get that, I should pay Bhoopathi his dues. When I return from work, one cutting is all I’m going to drink. That is how I think every time, but as soon as I set foot at TASMAC, I ask for a quarter. Did Tiger not go without food or water for two days? Can I not do what a dog can? If I can resist the temptation of going to TASMAC today, that would be best. If I call Poongodi, will she come back with the children? Or do I have to go in person to bring them back? Even if I promise that I won’t drink, she won’t believe me. The only way is to show her that I won’t. As the short-handled spade moved up and down, so did his thoughts.
When he felt hungry, he pulled out his phone and checked the time. It was five minutes to two o’clock. He walked towards the portia tree where he had hung his lunch bag. As he neared it, he spotted Tiger lying under the tree. If Poongodi or the children were back, Tiger would not have come looking for him. He must have found it dreary to be alone in the house. Feeling guilty for starving Tiger for two days, he took him in his lap. Tiger too wanted the hug. He tried to shrink himself to fit in his lap.
“Are you still a puppy? How is my lap enough for you?” he scolded playfully, patting him on the head. He planted a kiss on each of his cheeks. “Enough, now,” he said, pushing him aside and opening his bag. He took a handful of rice and placed it on a rock. Tiger did not go towards it. Perhaps he believed there wouldn’t be enough for Mayilaan if he ate. “Where are you getting all this smartness from?” Mayilaan chided him affectionately.
It was because of Mayilaan’s younger daughter, Iniya, that Tiger came to them. The older one, Inba, was in class VI and cycled to her school in the city. Iniya was in class III and went to the elementary school in the neighbouring village. She walked four kilometres to and from school with other children. One day as they were walking back, they heard puppies yelping from a burrow beside the mud path. The three abandoned puppies were so young they could barely open their eyes. Iniya was the first to take one in her arms. The other children hesitated, afraid of whether their parents would give a dog a home. “I will bring this one up. My parents will not say anything,” she said. Two more children bravely picked up one each to take home.
“Who is going to feed this thing?” Poongodi asked angrily, even though she liked the puppy. They got him a feeding bottle. In a few days, he was able to open his eyes. Inba kept referring to him as a tiger cub and the name stuck. The children taught Tiger many good habits: He should not cross the threshold; he should not come near his bowl until food was served. The only thing they could not teach was not to chew on slippers.
Mayilaan lay down under the tree to take a nap. “What, Mayilaan… did your wife pack good lunch for you? Looks like a good nap after a good meal,” Ponnaiyan’s voice called out, waking him. The news that his wife and children walked out must have spread. He realised Ponnaiyan was feigning ignorance. So many rejoice when a family has a problem. He got up with a sigh.
He picked up his short-handled spade and went back to the field. Tiger followed, then ran back to the rock to eat and rest.
The second part of the day went faster. When he finished, the motor was running at the well. He got under the stream of water and playfully pulled in Tiger too. Tiger darted away and shook off the water. “Do not roll in the mud and make yourself dirty again. If you do, I will thrash you,” he warned. After a day’s work, the water was soothing; he remained bathing for a while.
Tiger walked in front of him. In the light of dusk, he felt energised. He was confident that all his problems would be resolved. He played and raced with Tiger. As they reached a fork in the road at the village outskirts, Mayilaan stopped. One path led to the TASMAC liquor shop by the village cemetery. In a heartbeat, he submitted to the call of a cutting and headed in that direction. He’d taken barely four steps when Tiger began howling.
Mayilaan had never heard Tiger howl. He barked in different ways but never howled. A dog’s howl is believed to be a portent of death. He looked at Mayilaan, he looked to the sky and did not stop. “Dei… dei…” Mayilaan tried to get him to stop but to no avail.
When the howl began to sound like a funereal conch, Mayilaan was shaken. He retraced his steps and hurried towards Tiger and the path leading to the village. “No da, no da, I am not going anywhere. Let’s go home.” He gave Tiger a hug and walked briskly towards the village. Tiger stopped howling and raced ahead.
Translated from the Tamil by Janani Kannan.
Perumal Murugan is the award-winning author of books such as One Part Woman and Pyre. He won the JCB Prize for Literature 2023 for Fire Bird.
Janani Kannan is a writer and translator.