Last Monday was very strange for me — unnerving and sad. It was the fourth and the final day of Pongal. Pongal is the South Indian Harvest Festival; it’s a late English August held on the 14th of January. Christmas here is usually a vague awareness that something might be going on, and if you have a name like John, some body or other will doubtless send a wave or holler a call of Merry Christmas, more likely in hopes of getting a present than a concern over whether your enjoying your own festival. Christmas is dwarfed because we’re getting ready for the New Year (the western one) and that’s dwarfed by the prospect of Pongal.
There are 12 days of Christmas, but only four days of Pongal: and on the fourth day of Pongal, the wise keep a low profile; their heads are kept down low, their eyes cast down to the ground, or on the bed with sheets pulled up to chins; on the fourth day of Pongal you stay indoors, or you creep into your garden cautiously and you don’t go outside your compound wall.
On the fourth day of Pongal, the ghosts of Old India rise up as the clock is wound back 30 years or more. In that time ‘we’ are the lords of the fiefdom, and ‛they’ are outcastes from the colony sector, who come to work in our fields and enter our boundaries, hands out-stretched in supplication. Old folks on their death-beds rise up from their final agues, hands stretched forth in hope of a bag of rice, not to nourish their skeletal bodies for now, but to nourish their souls for later on. My spine tingles. This can’t be happening.
The Present—Past Tense
Someone drops the lid of a saucepan. The clang shocks me out of my brown study. This isn’t the mid ’70’s — it’s Monday 17th January 2011, for Heaven’s Sake. The Old India has gone, and gone for good. The New India has arrived, the India that powers the software that runs British Gas. These days, India is everywhere, not just here. You know: the India where in the Home Counties I stub my toe on a sharp stone in the garden and curse because the street light’s bust. In a fit of pique I pick up the phone to dial the Council. I’m answered by a pleasant young man. He thinks I think he’s local, so I exploit his illusions and play with him for a bit. He wonders how I appear to know so much about him, little suspecting that his call centre language training hasn’t ironed out all the creases in his accent. I pick up the wrinkles in his speech envelope, because I specialise in the pieces that other people miss. I already know his Indian PIN code from the dialect twang, and I tell him my UK postal code and the number of my house. He apologizes profusely for the neglect ‛our’ local council has shown me, and promises that he’ll send a van round the following day. He asks if there’s anything else he can do for me, and I sigh down the wire, giving him a benediction in the Tamil Tongue as I disconnect the line. Perhaps he’s now wondering who is who and whether he’s awake or sleeping. I muse about him too, finding I’m wracked with a twinge of guilt, because I moaned about a street light, but I do have other lights in my village street. If the call-centre man is lucky enough to have a street-light, he’ll be even luckier if it’s working.
Snap Out of It!
Now I must attend; I must wake up from the dream within my reverie. I’m not sure which dream was which, but the one I’ve woken into now sounds urgent: There are shouts and calls and shrill reedy whistles as fingers are stuck in mouths. My Devaraj, normally so attentive, is only half ‘there’; mobile phones chirrup, and motorbikes are revving. ‟Sorry anbey” he says, putting on his coat, “There’s trouble” and he’s half out the door... I’m seized with panic as my dream cruelly collapses. This is like being left back at the hospital again, your mother going away and leaving you. I look pleadingly at him but he says he has to leave, and he’s left an uncle to see over me. My final plea is that of course he must go, but please at least tell me what all this is about, and it’s here that he takes a short pause and sits down to tell me the tale.
I Must Take the Beating
There’s been a bit of trouble, dear, he explains. A friend was involved in a motor-cycle accident and Barney went to help. It was in Anna Purna, a village which contains factions which rival ours; things were taken amiss and someone in a state of intoxicated insobriety called the Police. (The bastards, I think. The bastards called out bigger Bastards, who horned in to join in the fray. And the bigger Bastards’ policy is: take money first and beat the other side. Make an arrest for disrupting the peace, then take the culprits down to the Police Station for a further beating. There’s usually a big brutish bloke in there. They pick him out for his size and put a uniform on him and give a piece of rubber to beat people with.)
That’s what they’ve done with Barney. After the first beating, they’ve taken him down to the station for a further, harsher beating. I have to go to help. If they keep on beating him, they’ll end up making out an FIR, a First Incident Report. Once that’s done there’ll be no turning back. There’ll be a Court Case which will take months and months; his passport will be impounded, and he won’t be able to accompany you to England.
I have to go. I’ve got a different T-shirt to the one my brother’s wearing. While they’re taking a breather between beatings, we’ll switch shirts. Then when they see me with his top on, they’ll think he’s me, and I am he. So goodbye, my love, I’ll go and take what comes to me. Don’t worry —I’ll be back. Two or three hours, or perhaps a little sooner. I’ll be back.
Going to help out a mate in trouble is standard practice here, but it’s not just social politeness. It’s really vital. Helping out a friend is part of the survival mechanism. My tender carer, whose soft hands know every inch of my delicate frame, is going to swop places with his brother. He’s cheerfully going to submit to the pain, to let the Police beat him with fists, with sticks, and perhaps a rubber hose. And after that, he’s planning to return, and take his place along my side for the remainder of the night.
* * * * *
For a moment I wonder why the cicadas sound so shrill tonight, but then I know that the singing in my ears is just the sound of being stunned. I recall a recent commuication we received a week or so back: Barney’s Visa restrictions have now been lifted and he is free, should he so desire it, to apply for membership as a Reserve Policeman.
|Laying Down His Life...|