“Smells just like home.” Govind moved quickly along the paths crisscrossing the area of tightly packed slums and finally arrived beside a small street that partitioned the slum housing complex into two. The scent of the tanneries was like nectar to the noses of the crows and bluebottles which hovered around eagerly. The latter buzzed greedily around the sweaty, naked backs and chests of the tanners who held their breath as they continued their task. They were joined by an ever-growing fleet of slighter, nimbler houseflies which, with eagerness just as great, buzzed in to soak up the stinking soup of perspiration that flowed down the men’s bronze skin, like peasants living off an emperor’s land, Govind thought as he passed.
The last house on the left of the street was no more that a tumbledown shack-a queer sight in the otherwise very well-built city of Thanjavur. Govind saw the mangy dog that had been coming and going out of this area, hoping for even the smallest scraps from the people here.
He couldn’t help smiling at the wretched little creature’s bulging eyes, staring at his soul from its skeletal face. It tottered as it walked out of his way and he let the scent of burning wood fill his nostrils as he walked inside. A tall man, Govind had to bend a bit as he stepped in, only to see the filthy, fly-covered heap of rotting humanity that lay sprawled out on the sooty dirt floor.
A moan came out from behind the pile.
The head that stuck out from it was a Spirit of Death in the body of an ever-smiling and half-man skeletal jester. His single ninety-eight-year old left eye regarded the young man bleakly; the other was dun white with cataracts. The hole in the ceiling made a shaft of sunlight peer inside, washing over the ancient being.
Govind, who was on the right side of that room, was caught in darkness and shadow.
A few minutes of quietness passed between the men. The own sound of the young servant’s heartbeat terrified him in this unnaturally cold and sweaty room from which rose the mixed staleness of sweat and age-old human waste.
“Child,” he started, trembling, “when them damned….damned….gods told me I could live a century I never asked for eternal youth! Why did I not? Don’t they all say that a life of a hundred and twenty is a full life? Them…them…bast….bastardsss….” He hissed as he pronounced the words, sharp as a serpent. “Your mother….why is she leaving me to die? Ten damn children with me, my boy, except for yourself and why the hell is she leaving me? And…and why does your accursed face show itself to me? Begone, vision! Begone!”
He cackled and coughed dryly, writhing under his sheets. “Shivan…,” his jaws clenched tightly as he spoke the accursed name. But then a new growl of resilience and stubbornness found itself into his throat and he continued. “Leave my mother out of it! You…you raped her, don’t forget that. This is justice, Shivan, no more. You think that you can do anything because you claim to be so wise. All I want to do is…I…I don’t even know why I am here anymore.”
“When these….these people are asking for Shivan Aruldas Chelvanayagam, they think, oh an old man, a man who has a century’s wisdom!! Damn their souls to the seven hells! Damn them, damn them all! When you are asking those other people…those….those big city people like your whore, those people they don’t, don’t know! They think you are the madman,” the withered old monster told him, “and I told you, you have…have.,…your, your place in this world. Your pretty little whore doesn’t think so, oh no no!! Neither does the other whore, the other…Minakshi! Daughter of Gautam and Shoba Devapala, damned foreign woman! Doesn’t know how our Tamil names are! How the hell does she name her son? His first name is a second name in this city, stupid stupid foreign bitch…cannot speak our language clearly, stupid whore, works in the bloody big temple….stupid….”
“You know I am right, child. This rich whore…this…woman named Ishwari, this…this whore, this one….her mother was a demon and sinner, stupid boy.” He ran out of breath. Govind wondered why this horrid old thing was left to even suffer on earth. Why was he not yet dead? What perverted gods held the strings of his life for a few more minutes without cutting them? Turning his back on the living corpse Govind continued, “Ishwari is a good person! Don’t ever talk about her that way! All you people are the damn same! At least she doesn’t think I was born from the feet of God. I’m a man to her, and I….I love her for that, Shivan. Besides, I never came to talk to a decayed worm like you! I want to see my mother.” “Yes, that stupid cow who’s leaving me to rot away in my clothes!” Shivan hawked loudly, spitting a gob of phlegm at the ground.”Go to her! Suck on her nipples for a few more years, young bastard! Go, go! You think she feels anything for you? These…these womenfolk…! Ha, to latch their talons onto an innocent young Chandala man like you, just some pariah dog….”
“I am not….” How could he tell Shivan what he wasn’t when that was how he’d been born? Born with the mark that the cruel person known as God had given him. A species. Chandala.
“The bitch holds you by a chain around your neck, you little fool! Rich folk, these Kshatriya, these Vaishya, these….these peoples do not give a damn! Look at me! What the hell do I need a bloody woman like that for? Put a damn brat in her belly and let her bleed and suffer like that mother of yours is making me suffer!” he screamed at the top of his voice. “The daughter of a sinful woman! Nobody knows who her father is, and who the hell could it be? This Ishwari, this…bloody….she plays with your feelings! You’re a toy in her hands just as the whole world is in the hands of the gods.”