The Burning Pyre

By Rekha Valliappan

The old woman stooped lower using her lidi stick broom in a wide arc as she swept up the dried fallen leaves into a pile besides a mound of mud at the farthest corner from the house. It was a distance of a few feet. She could not sweep as she once did. The debilitating softness of aging bones had produced a lurching gait which restricted mobility. In a few moments she would straighten her aching back stiffly to feel the relief. The imperceptible movement only caused more pain.

Her toothless mouth worked rhythmically masticating on leaves like a cow in a field chewing regurgitated grass. The methodical motion was dispirited. The vethalai betel nut leaves stained her spittle red. Some of it dribbled. Most of the juices sporadically jetted out in a stream of sticky red.

There were days when all she did was spew, like a malfunctioning fire hydrant, the spittle aimed and timed with Cotopaxiseismic consistency, transporting her back to her youth, to a forgotten hothouse in a distant land, the devil’s paradise, where the big tree was king. Slave-Man Wuz Here! Waka-Waka! The ghosts of that ‘green gold’ stored in the seeds, crossing the Madeira as it emptied into the ocean at Belem.

All around were trees, rounded tops of bare hills as turtle-humped as the curvature of the old woman’s deformed spine, surrounding dense pokok getah rubber trees in the isolated plantations of Sik. Yaaaaa-Wait-I’m-Bat-Gila Waka-Waka! A large iguana broke loose from the undergrowth and slithered past into the banana grove, its head raised sniffing at the hot air. She waved her fist defiantly at it. Her routine chore was associative. Certain moments sent adrenaline racing.

Sik had quality trees. But it was a dying era. The terrifying journey out of Amazonia over a hundred years ago, down frustrating rivers of mud, to a once colonial archipelago, had ended. The clipper route was being viewed askew together with the yellow fever, malaria and shamanism – mariners and their sea-faring ways grafted to their antipodal, the yin and yang of diametric passage.      

   The property of rubber was its unobstructed elasticity. It could be probed, prodded, stretched, bent, pulled, distended, contracted, elongated and recovered, akin to the buoyancy of the human mind. But when the doldrums were reached Amazon’s estuarine puffer fish joined the toxins to plantation journey together. The hardest hit were the forest-dwellers. Mental anguish was excruciating. They had been rubber-tappers all their lives. Nothing but rubber as far as the eyes could see. The menacing bleakness carried distant drumbeats, Waka-Waka echoing mightily in the invisible eye out of the impenetrable jungles of the Basin.

Umi winced, her task half complete, her Tree of Life destroyed. Her wrinkled face glistened with sweat in the scorching sun. She looked around, eyes brimming with unshed tears. The rings around her irises glowed a milky white. A common medical ailment. Occurs in old age. Can be corrected. Will require minor surgery. The genial unshed tears. The rings around her irises glowed a milky white. A common medical ailment. Occurs in old age. Can be corrected. Will require minor surgery. The genial municipal doctor at the estate clinic lost no time in effusively mincing his diagnosis. Bat- Gila Waka-Waka! This would never be. Umi knew only too well. Her tears were an inconvenience, but not life threatening. Nothing that a tulsi kashayam basil broth could not fix. Old age indeed! What did that junior doctor know? Or his pretty Chinese nurse? She was one hundred and two! 

Really? No, amma. Think again!Your records indicate a numerical age of eighty- eight.

Eighty-eight?! Wrong think! Aiyo! Kadavule! Peria mosum oh god! You not fix. How you say eighty-eight? My big grandchild Meenu born in Korean War. You know Korean?            

      Yes, of course amma, here are your powders, they’ll do you good.

No powders. All poison. I very good. You tell doctor.

      Please be patient amma, return in two weeks same time, we’ll see what we can do.

      Soulless odyssey of the Sindbad kind. She had never returned to the clinic, calling instead upon her Tree of Life. Chanting vel muruga, rama rama, Umi ambled unsteadily in a waddling motion to the back of the house, dragging her swollen left foot. She had cut the sole accidentally stumbling on the broken glass-piece abandoned in a quiet corner of the vegetable plot she was tending. She had been straightening the bitter gourd creeper that was blooming along the fencing besides the house. There was a patch of tangle weed she had not noticed.

To be stabbed! In the foot! Her mind swirled with vapor mists. The evil Veloo. Lethal even in death! Vel! Vel! Hiding like a tree frog in the grass. And on a Tuesday. Waka- Waka! It was a bitter pill. Her foot had bled copiously, her bleeding skin sliced ‘instead of an onion‘ in the cry of a Plath poem. She had discovered Plath in the sanatorium. She had bandaged the wound with pieces of unused cloth she had found. It had puckered into a white blister. Once long ago a doctor had pulled out a maggot from such a one. Eventually her mind had quieted, helped by the good graha positioning of the celestial bodies, since it had happened on a Tuesday. She had faith that nothing more than a few drops of blood would result. As for the pain she could handle it. She understood pain as intimately as an artist would an explored mosaic.

      Only he wasn’t. Dead! She had even got the day wrong. Since he was routinely absconding from their lives, he simply did not exist for her. He did not actually live with them so it scarcely mattered. Whether Meenu and the children felt the same never really surfaced. They lived independently in the barracks provided them near the railway tracks. Scores of others filled the settlements, their world nothing but rubber, the tangled jungles and the trees oozing milk. Green tree people. It had enforced a life of promise she had grown used to. Trains ran daily disgorging new people.She saw the noisy trains, steam locomotives that puffed in fury. Running and running. She could run with them. Outdistance them. Endlessly.

      After the first two children were born Veloo had one day just left, leaving the womenfolk to cope with the abandonment as best they could. The estrangement had lasted five years. The sudden loss in income was crippling. With two young children to raise it was more than the two women could bear. They would soon learn this was to be the new normal. The rubber tree was their only Tree of Life, their green salvation, pointing to the skies, rooted in the earth.

Umi and Meenu slogged long hours, waking each morning in the wee hours, long before sunrise, with only the mosquitoes for company. It was darkest before dawn. They learnt the craft. Their daily wages depended on it. Nine hundred trees per tapper per day. Eight hectares of quality gutta-percha and jelutong trees. There was no muster call. It all depended on who arrived first at the rows of trees. It all depended on who chiseled the barks best. It all depended on the right knives, sickles and shaving tools. It all depended on who ‘double-tapped’ with accuracy and precision and speed, alternating with the untapped sides of the trunks. It all depended on who harvested the highest, over ten feet into the upper extremes. It all depended on who brought to the weighing stations the most latex. M$ 2.90 per tapper per day. Rain or shine. It scarcely changed. It all depended whom the trees favored most. Their Tree of Life.

      Yet it was these same old trees which had driven Veloo away. To booze. He was the most favored of all the tappers in Sik. His dexterity at harvesting was irrefutable. With his enormous height and flexibility he could effortlessly bleed the most milk out of a willing tree. The speed at which he worked was invigorating. It left others helpless, bound to collect scrap latex from late dripping and tree lace.

      Eventually grandmother and granddaughter had prevailed, mastering adequate skills. Determined to survive, they hauled heavy buckets weighted down by milk, every muscle straining as they trudged the two miles on foot to the centrifuge machines, where the liquid was separated from the concentrated latex, and the collected coagulants processed into sheets. Occasionally they encountered jungle wildlife, or thought they heard growls and roars. The region was notorious for tiger mutilations. It frightened them. Their arms screamed in protest with agony. Only the Tree of Life heard. It was a miracle how the children survived and grew through those early years.

      Then one day just as suddenly as he had fled, Veloo the disrupter of the family household returned, in the avatar of new poisons. Without a qualm or explanation as to his disappearance, he resumed his place once again in their lives as casually as if he had merely been away for a couple of days and never really left at all. He was vastly changed. Not only was he lethal but drowning in whiffs of samsu hooch, with an overbearing tyranny which contaminated the atmosphere. It spread in a murky red tide. He drove the children away. They were poorly prepared for what would follow.

      The contagion was the insidious illicit brew – Veloo’s distillery unit, clandestinely prepared in the remote interiors of the surrounding jungles. None could penetrate the depths of those dense rainforests. None would try. It thrived like a cottage industry, coinciding with a particularly lean month when every daily cent counted. Within weeks, householders succumbed to the man-made disaster. Families were torn apart on Greek tragedy scales. The bewildering discord spread like a plague. The beast was unleashed.

      Led by the indomitable Veloo displaying unlimited hubris, Sik  grew into a town of happy drunks teaching Dionysus how to party. Bacchanalia. Inebriated on cheap Veera the paltry price of a goat. It sold in mamak road side stalls and teh tarik kopitiam tea and coffee shops. Its attraction was the dark glass bottle in which it was packaged, overtaking with ease all lesser brands like Kucing and Kerbau found in cardboard boxes. Besides, hawkers strongly propagated its curative powers for all seasonal ailments including asthma, tooth ache and snake bites.

      While the men-folk salivated Nemesis the diviner of retributions formidably sought revenge. Veloo drank away his savings and soon was drinking as much as he earned per day. On days he did not earn, which occurred with regularity, he took to pummeling his wife for more money. His rants defied normalcy. He threatened to kill her. By the rage he displayed it was too psychotic to be ignored. Yaaaaa-Wait-I-Bat-Gila! Waka-Waka! The children were not spared either, thrashed or knocked on the head for no apparent reason. Till one day the Tree of Life suddenly ran dry, and Veloo’s violence and fury turned the fiercest.

      It was the month of September. Heavy rains fell in torrents that month making tapping impossible. The waterlogged earth lashed by the downpours brought Sik to a standstill with rising floods. The trees spoke in curling spirals, internalizing the shackles of their ire. The thunder boomed menacingly in wild chorus. Whips of lightning rent the heavens to shreds, striking across the larynx of the threatening skies.

      There was no daily income. The trees could not be tapped.

A miserable and trying time followed. Management refused to convert to monthly wage; and government protected the powerful rubber barons and affluent plantation owners. Despite negotiations and court arbitrations, rubber-tappers were doomed. All hope was lost that September.

      Umi picked up the frayed hand-woven basket filled to the brim with withered mango leaves, patting the disobedient ones in place. She scarcely glanced at the Tree of Life these days. She struggled with her load to the front of the house. She must work faster. She glanced at their dilapidated wooden shack standing on stilts with a patchwork of tile and zinc roofing that leaked. The windows needed repair. And the front door never latched. But these were small realities which did not matter. How deathly still the morning was – not a sound anywhere! Except the drums! Waka-Waka! But then of late it seemed many of the daily sounds she was used to hearing were getting louder in her ears.

      She glanced slowly upwards at the shimmering white-blue sky. Not a cloud was in sight. The heat blasted onto her pockmarked face in waves. Remnants of her childhood disease. Somehow she had survived, covered in pustules as large as her thumb. The pox- Goddess had visited her then. Not any more. The sounds in her ears grew louder. The drumming. She winced. Drums and a flute. Loud and piercing. Could it be the thaavil and nadaswaram? The pox-Goddess must be appeased.

      The sun was high in the heavens, almost noon in fact. Time for a small lunch, Umi thought dully. But she was not hungry. The heat made her feel that way. She must burn the heaps of fallen leaves before she attended to her chores inside. The baby might awaken any time now. Difficult baby that one. Screamed all the time. The other four had been different. And if it cried she would not hear. It had happened often in the past. When she had finally attended, the poor little one was choking and blue-black in the face.

      Umi paused to listen, inclining her white head to one side in a sparrow-like movement. No, not a sound to be heard. She proceeded laboriously with her task using a dented rusty spade. Its wooden handle was chipped. She pressed the spade down onto the dried leaves compacting all into a tidy heap. Quite a sizeable amount it seemed today. The mango tree was shedding. The leaves were curled and crisp. They would burn ferociously in a strong crackle-hiss bonfire!

      She put down the rusty spade with a sigh – no use that spade. She should get rid of it. She should try burning it together with the dead leaves. Her energy was sapped. Umi squatted awkwardly, spreading her spindly knees at right angles to the cracked, parched earth. She scrutinized the spade myopically. She was unhurried which helped her efficiency. She carefully turned the spade over, memories crowding. The dent was still there at the base. Would it burn and melt in the fire? Would it disappear into ashes along with the muck and leaves?

      She ran her blackened forefinger across the rust, scraping at it. Her fingers came away smeared with a deep orange stain. Dried blood turned to powder. It had run red that day. Driven beyond reason or restraint she had used it one night to batter Veloo’s head in. Such a strength and explosive energy had possessed her!

It was an austere night. The evening meal was at an end when the argument had started. It was always about money. The voices roared in her ears. The loud tumult had caused her mind to snap and spin. Veloo in one of his worst reckless drunken spells was formidable. At ninety percent proof fermented ethanol-methanol-acid mix, he was screaming bloody murder. Epithets were flying disjointedly.

      While pulling at Meenu’s long hair he was pummeling at her face. “How do you make so many damned babies?” he yelled, obscenities accompanying repeated kicks as she groveled helplessly. She was six months pregnant with her fourth child at the time. Then as usual he turned on the children with a disused broken bicycle chain.

      Umi could bear it no longer. If this were a domestic tragedy this would be the moment of fatal flaw in her memory. Confused she had slipped out quietly into the garden and returned with the old iron spade. How she did it she could not recall. But she had struck him over and over and over again, till a numbness had overtaken her. It was chilling. She had grown cold, trembling violently in every fiber of her being, unable to stop. But she had still refused to throw down the spade, crying out aloud all the while . . .

      Contrary to expectation and to the surprise of all who heard the commotion, her grandson-in-law miraculously survived the attack on his cranium. The spade had broken skin and delivered some deep gashes. Veloo stunned more by the suddenness of the attack than by its ferocity at the hands of the “mad cow” as he chose to define her, had grown stone sober and silent. No one knew whether he turned contrite. He did not speak much. He stopped the beating and brusquely chased them all away. Then he took to repairing his head dexterously with the same precision and skill he used to tap rubber.

      Umi’s face broke into a rueful smile at the thought of Veloo with the needle and raffia thread, patching up his broken head. Thin lips curling downward over stained gums, she spat another glutinous blob of red spittle into the dust. Blood! She stared hard at it. Then she carefully wiped the orange rust off of her fingers, on the corners of her sweat-stained purple saree.

      Mad Cow! Orang gila! Veloo’s corrosive epithet for her.It was not to be trifled with she would bitterly learn in the days ahead. Within hours many in the slums had heard of the attack. The incident came to be as gossiped as mid-wife Panjalai’s was, when she mixed up three babies to conceal Naga’s illegitimacy. And as Perumal’s was, when he self-immolated with tiger claw marks he claimed were spirit visitations, which not even five medicine-men could devein out of him. And as Chang’s was, when he ran amok with a machete, body parts turning up all over the plantation, for which he was incarcerated for one hundred and fifty lifetimes.

      Orang gila! Mad cow! Send her away.

      Instantaneously her former-self battled with her essential-self. Defeated, fragile Umi found herself committed to a lunatic asylum. The bigger shock was when even her bruised and battered granddaughter it seemed was prepared to stand by her drunken husband in condemnation of her grand-mother. As were the abused great-grandchildren. It broke Umi. Till she discovered Plath. In Gombak, where they read to her.

      They were kind she remembered – the doctors and nurse orderlies – at the Durian Mental Institution in Gombak. She traveled by train. The center specialized in trauma counseling. As if she required any of it. The first time she had ridden the trains. It was a long journey. Running and running. Her fury matched the engine’s. Her mind blotted out the rest.The annexure which housed the female ward was neat, sparse and clean. The doors were always locked. She tried cultivating the angry- woman exterior to metabolize her rage, but whenever she sought to tell them the true story of what had occurred – which she did very often – they willingly listened to her narration. It led to the trigger of her perception of insanity, while she struggled to survive the two-dimensionality of a Saul Steinberg drawing.

      Her granddaughter and great-grandchildren never visited. But this reality she painfully accepted knowing how difficult life must be for Meenu now that she was not there to help. As for her grandson-in-law whether he lived with his wife and children or not, all those years she was away, she never knew. When Umi was finally released and eventually returned home, Veloo was no longer around. Meenu hardly mentioned him. Nor did the great-grandchildren. Other than the fact that Meenu was once again pregnant with child, no one seemed to know or care about Veloo or his whereabouts. It was as if he were ‘dead’ all over again.

      Umi picked herself up tiredly making her way slowly towards the house. She had been too long lost in thought in the clicks of a dream. How late it was! She could tell by the length of shadow the ramshackle house cast on the uneven ground. Why was the baby not stirring? Was it not awake? She had better look in while she was getting the match- box to burn the pile of leaves. Sickly baby, weak and tiny. Habitually ailing with fevers and seizures. Every other day was an emergency. Meenu was daily frantic with fear. Umi’s nose crinkled distastefully. She ejected another glob of red spittle like a projectile into the dust.

How unlike the other four! Curly haired with trademark agile limbs! Like Veloo. Even the little one Kumli. At eight years she could carry buckets of latex with ease. It was consoling that schools were not built in Sik yet. What a waste of time that would be. Schools. When every additional daily income counted. Although this would not last. She had heard schools were mushrooming in nearby towns and would soon arrive in Sik. In the meantime Varathan the oldest, a tall mischievous lad, was proving to be far better even than his father. He had overtaken them all – at milking and delivering the magic sap.

      Could it be that the baby was not Veloo’s after all? Doubt assailed Umi. Then, whose? Her watery eyes lost their focus growing gimlet small in intensity. Her head boomed with staggering sound. Waka-Waka! Concentration was as foreign to her as thought itself. Orang gila!

      She paused in the doorway surveying the tiny sitting-room. Everything looked in place. A faint familial musty odor greeted her nostrils. The house had been swept, Umi’s first chore when she woke up each morning. There were two tiny rooms, the windows covered with garish nylon curtains which was the sleeping area. This led to the kitchen and eating space beyond. A wizened face stared back through the bathroom mirror. It wasn’t hers. She was that other woman chewing the lettuce, hearing the ragged thump of the wall clock in her ears. Rain would fall. That Cotopaxivolcano in the ring of fire was at it again. The dead leaves were ticking. Drumming. A vision came to her, slanting from the mirror. Waka-Waka!

      Meenu usually left the baby asleep at the back. It was roomier and allowed for more fresh air when the door and windows were left open. Umi bustled in noisily hoping to draw a movement from the cloth cradle – a saree strung in swathes from the ceiling rafters – in which the baby was cozily encased. No response. She trudged across and peered inside, straining her sights. The baby’s eyes were shut tight. The discolored towel used as a swaddle was partly pulled over the little face. Umi reached down and rearranged it carefully. A smell of baby urine reached her. She turned the little one gently over. The baby flopped flaccidly feeling cold to the touch. She grabbed at the towel and tossed it aside.

      “Thamini! Thamini!” she called aloud agitatedly. Her grimy hands worked feverishly. Not a movement. The baby was lifeless. Dead! Her mind balked.

      “Meenu!” she shrieked in horror, calling for her granddaughter in a gravely voice which did not carry. She could not contain herself.

      Orang gila! Waka-Waka!

      Kadavulai Deivam OH GOD! Letchumi felt disoriented, almost passing out with the strain. She hit at her head with her bony knuckles. Had she killed the baby? She could not remember. Her eyes rolled inwards of their own volition. Her hands wrung in despair. She had not checked. The whole day she had picked leaves. She had not heard the cries. What to do? Oh God! Limping painfully she trudged up and down, the curvature of her spine stooping her painfully to the floor in a pronounced bow from which she could not straighten. She chanted the baby’s name like a prayer. A grieving patchwork of guilt, fear and loathing clogged at her throat. The baby dangled limp like a rag-doll in her arms.

      For how long she ranted in agony no one knew. Abruptly a nervous calm descended. She fell cross-legged to the floor laying the inert baby a few feet away from her. She stared at it balefully. Orang gila! Then she folded her arms under her bosom, shut her eyes tight and silently rocked herself gently – back and forth, forth and back, murmuring softly. It lasted several moments.

      Gradually she awoke from her reverie. She was disheveled, rheumy eyes opening wide as she stopped rocking. She picked up the baby gently. She bathed it, pouring cold water from the tin mug out of a half-filled bucket outside. Once she gave herself something to do, she achieved a flurry of activity. She dressed the baby in one of the hand-me-downs, a simple cotton frock of blue with the hand-embroidered pink flowers. Meenu had sewn those when Aandal was born. Her task completed she swaddled the little bundle in a fresh clean towel. Then she surreptitiously made her way out through the front of the house to the mound of dried leaves prepared for burning.

      Dragging her injured foot she stumbled slowly to the flower patch. Plucking an orange marigold, she strew its petals over the mound. With little bits of dried sticks and twigs she made a small pyre. It stood in the center of the compost heap. She placed the tiny bundle on it. Two large tears wended their way down her furrowed cheeks as she impatiently brushed them aside.

      With a little sigh she set the pyre alight.

      She watched it burn in a daze, standing forlorn and still for a long while as the flames caught at the structure. It crackled and roared ferociously just as she knew it would. Smoke filled the sky. Swirls of burning debris floated gently in a cascade towards her.

      She then went in to warm up the evening meal for the family and her own special rice porridge which she would eat with salted pickles. She had no appetite. Soon everyone would be home. They would be hungry. She stirred the water-thin onion curry gruel, savoring the aroma.

      The evening sun was aflame, setting in a shower radiance of fiery gold. The sky was an orange blaze. Burning.

      “The estate manager will let us know the minute Veloo is caught. Don’t distress yourself Maa,” Meenu was muttering matter-of-factly, more to calm herself than to quell her grandmother’s fears.

      The discovery of the baby’s disappearance had reached all corners of Sik. Meenu needed the reassurance. She looked tired and listless. She even looked vaguely relieved. But not angry. She had every right to be. Umi eyed her granddaughter suspiciously.

      “Don’t look so frightened Mother! What’s the matter?” Meenu shook her head vexed. The older children were sent to bed. It was late into the night. All of the concerned and chatty neighbors had retired.

      “I orang gila is matter!” the old woman shrieked, on the edge, teetering precariously. “When baby ill – everyday you going crazy . . .”

      “But that was before!” cut in Meenu impatiently, “Come, I have work tomorrow. We have rubber to tap. And now we have clearing to do.”

      “Before what? How you tap?! You don’t care?” Umi’s agitated eyes turned shining red, stinging with unshed tears.

      “. . . before we knew baby going to die! Doctor told. Oh Mother, you don’t remember? Baby too sick from day she born,” Meenu’s voice shook, choking off her words into momentary silence. “Last night, I knew it was end. All night I held her, my Thamini! It’s over now . . . so small baby . . . so much she suffering . . .”

      The old woman sat carved in stone. Not a muscle twitched, except for a little tic in the corner of her right eye. The minutes dragged soundlessly.

“Why you not tell me?” she finally whispered in a croak, breathing heavily. Her voice was hoarse. It sounded unnatural to her ears. The drums roared. Waka-Waka!

      Meenu shrugged. She was weary with the endless questioning, first the estate manager, then the authorities, then the nosy neighbors, now her grandmother. She could not take any more.

      “I don’t know why you’re making such a big fuss,” she snapped accusingly, rising from the floor in one swift movement. The pots and pans had to be washed and put away. The hour was late.

      “Why you not tell me baby going to die–?” Umi was in a trance. Hyperventilating. Twisted tendrils from the Tree of Life. The deceitful tree. Tying her tightly into knots. She wanted to bolt. She felt paralyzed. Fears of a poison tree encircled a pyre burning to ashes.

      “Complain! Complain! Complain! Why, you not relieved baby dead?” responded. It sounded cruel even to her, but she could not understand the fuss her Grandma was raising, so unlike her usual spaced-out self. “How I feel–little, you think? Stolen! By my own husband. Even dead body he cannot leave for me–” She burst into angry tears.

      The pots clanked ominously as if in applause as she picked one, then another, for cleaning.

      “Here help me with these, Mother. Yeeechh! Your rice porridge. Why so lumpy? Why you not eat? And . . . what’s this?? flower petals?”

      Meenu frowned darkly into the blackened insides. She scrubbed vigorously removing vestiges of charred ash, burnt rice grain, and orange looking flower bits, which clung to the bottom of the aluminum pot, like it would never let go.

      “What did you cook Mother?”

      “. . . fire, you not taste, all cooked. I eat. Now I make more kashayam. Is good. So good. But come, first help me collect more flowers . . . come!”

      “Mother, stop it! No more orang gila talk, remember? No one is sending you away. How many times to tell you that place was not asylum? Only old folks home.Sanitarium, for health. Understood? It was for your own good, your safety. Now help me with these dishes.”∎