The River knows
by Prema Sastri
“He has to be taken away in chains.” Manickam, the leader of the panchayat, looked down from the platform under the banyan tree.
The villagers of Tirutanni, a village on the banks of the Kaveri, looked at one another, in shock and horror.
“To Marur. To the mental hospital.”
His father will die if we do that.”
“We will die if he stays here. He tried to set fire to himself, and almost burned down the village. He screams the whole night. We can’t sleep. He lets his bull stray into our fields. He has to go.”
Everyone thought the same thing. It was not possible. Kannan the brave; Kannan the beautiful, Kannan who could climb the tallest coconut tree; Kannan whose heart and spirit were broken since his brother Ablu died. Never since the days of Rama and Lakshmana had there been such love between brothers.They dispersed in silence.
Ablu was only two years older than Kannan. To Kannan it seemed so much more. He could not remember a time when Ablu was not around; pulling him by the hand, or stuffing his mouth with jaggery,coaxed from their mother in the kitchen. They played marbles; they spun tops; they flew kites.Ablu raced ahead on dusty roads, and Kannan followed. Keeping up with Ablu was his childhood ambition.
During the mango season the brothers picked mangoes from a nearby grove. The owner repaid them with a basket of fruit each. Once, Kannan saw Ablu select the best fruit from both baskets and hide them in a cloth bag. He was angry but did not say anything.That evening Ablu took the mangoes out of the bag, washed them and gave them to Kannan.“These are for you.”
They sat side by side on the floor at mealtimes. On feast days Kannan would find an extra vada or laddu on his leaf, where Ablu’s was bare. He regarded his brother as a king, giving gifts to an attendant.
In the house it was Ablu who was called by their parents.
“Ablu! Help me to yoke the bulls.”
“Ablu.” I need gingelly oil from the market”.
Kannan was given the simpler jobs like pouring water in the trough, or bringing in the firewood.
“Ablu is the son,” he told himself: “I am just an extra person.”
One morning their mother lay on her mat groaning with a high fever.
“Send for Savili,” she moaned. Savili lived with her mother and sister in a hut behind theirs. Kannan ran and gave her the message. Savili piled up firewood. The mother was given hot rasam. She cooked dal and rice and kept them aside.
The mother recovered, but Savili kept coming. She cut vegetables. She filled pots with water. Kannan began to notice her. Her blouse was too tight for her blossoming breasts. Her pavade was short and exposed lengths of brown leg. Her davani was generally wet with perspiration and clung to her waist and hips. As Kannan looked at her he knew how the bull felt as it bellowed after a cow.
One day Savili was lifting a pot of water when Ablu appeared. He bent to help her. Their hands touched. Kannan saw the expression on Ablu’s face change. After that he often saw them whispering together near the well. Kannan felt he was discarded like paddy husk.
To appease his pain he sought out the willing girls of Tirutanni. He led them to banana fields, and behind boats tied up on the shores of the river. They rolled, they fumbled: they parted without feeling, as straws part on the waters of the Kaveri.
It was summer. Every evening Kannan and Ablu went to the river to swim. There was a place surrounded by high rocks on three sides. Within, the water was
calm till it met the raging waters of the river on its downstream course.
They stood on the rocks and dived. Kannan surfaced first. As Ablu’s head appeared he held it and pushed him down; but not before he saw the eyes looking at him full face. He pulled the body towards the current, which swept it away
Kannan ran up the rocky slopes to the village.
“Ablu! He went too far. I could not save him.
He threw himself on the ground, as if in grief: a grief he realised was real. Ablu had gone out of his life for ever.
They found his body washed up on the sands a few miles away. His father lit the funeral pyre. The mother lay in the hut, attended by Savili.
It was now Kannan’s name that was being called in the hut: Kannan who went for provisions and took care of the bulls. His father had given up ploughing. Kannan tilled the ground in the hot sun. He walked the furrows as the sun hit the earth. His feet were blistered, his throat was dry. He did not notice. All he could see were the eyes looking at him full face.
Savili was now constantly in the hut, looking after his parents. She looked at him with a sadness, he could not bear. Sometimes she made as if to speak to him. At the last moment she turned away .
Did she know? Did the villagers suspect? It did not matter. Without Ablu the earth was a lonely place. He could think only of those eyes. As he swam towards Ablu, his brother, not knowing his intentions, had turned on him those eyes so full of love and trust. All Kannan now wanted was to have them look on him again. His hand went out to a burning piece of firewood. He did not know what he was doing and was startled to see the villagers surrounding him in panic, as they stamped out the flames around him. There was only one thought in his mind. He would fulfill his childhood ambition of keeping up with Ablu. Ablu was in the water waiting for him.
One evening he went to the river. On the way he saw the villagers under the banyan tree. He knew they were discussing him. He did not care what they did .. He was going to join Ablu. He hurried on. He climbed up the highest rock, slipped off his veshti and dived into the current.
They found his clothes the next day. Three days later his body was washed up in the same place as Ablu’s.The villagers beat their breasts.
“Ayyo! Kannan could not live without Ablu.
Manickam addressed them.
“The river saved us from the sin of sending him to the mental hospital. The river knows best.” He arranged for the cremation and lit the pyre. The parents were unconscious in their hut.
Only Savili did not join in the lamentation. She knew as the river knew, what had really happened. She loved Kannan and Ablu had promised to make her his brother’s bride. She had little hope this would happen. From the time she was a small girl she had watched Kannan. She had seen him crouch in corners and bang his head against the mud walls of the hut for no reason. She knew the dark wanderings of his mind,of his jealous imagination and how it would destroy him and those who loved him. She had warned Ablu.He had laughed at her.Ablu was sure of himself. He never listened to anyone.
There was nothing she could do. She knew as the river knew, that the waters of life take their own course, bearing human beings on their surface, like broken branches. End