‘Onam is round the corner. You can come to the shop and make the
bills,’ he screamed. Anger twisted his lips, slurred and flattened out the words.
‘Is Rowther the only person in this whole world who knows how to
make bills?’asked Amma.
‘Shut your mouth!’ yelled Appa. Abruptly he turned to me. ‘Get up,
you!’ he ordered.
I sprang up from my bed and stood taut as a strung bow.
‘Go. Do what I told you to,’ he growled.As if someone unseen had
tugged at the wheels attached to my feet, I moved swiftly out of the room.
I heard the horse buggy leave the house. I got ready in double quick
time. What briskness! I wore-as I usually didn’t-a dhoti over my half pants,
and a full-sleeved shirt, all in the hope that it would make me speak up with
some confidence. I didn’t feel my usual anger with Appa. I didn’t feel sad
either. It seemed as if even some little fondness seeped through. Poor thing!
He had got himself into a fix. On an impulse, he’d spoken harshly to Rowther.
He could have been more calm. Now, if a person is merely short tempered,
one can talk of calmness. But if he is anger personified?
Excited by this paradox, I went and stood before Amma. I looked her
straight in the face and I said, ‘If he is anger personified where is the question
of calmness?’Amma laughed; almost at once, she made her face stern and,
‘Smart, aren’t you?’ she asked. ‘ Now, if you are a clever boy, you’ll go take
Rowther to the shop.’ Placing her right hand over her heart she said, ‘Tell
him whatever he may have said, I apologise for it.’
I went and climbed into the buggy.
I too thought that we could not manage the Onam festival sales without
Rowther. Who could do sums like him? He was lightning quick in mental
arithmetic. Five people sitting in a row, with paper and pencils, would not be
equal to one Rowther and his brain. Remarkable. Even regular buyers who
flocked round him to have their bills tallied were amazed. ‘Is this a mere
human brain?’ many wondered aloud. ‘If the man can be this fast just by
listening to the figures, what would he not do if he’d been granted sight?’
And to think that Rowther has only studied up to the third class. That’s two
grades less than Gomathi who works in the shop, fetching and cleaning. The
dispute between Appa and Rowther had started mildly enough the previous
evening. ‘Look here, Rowther, what are you going to do if you let your debts
keep mounting like this?’ Appa asked. Rowther had chosen all the clothes
he wanted, piled them up by his side, before thinking of asking Appa for
credit. It was quite clear that Appa did not like this.
‘What can I do, Ayyah? My house is full of women. My sons are
useless. My sons-in-law are useless. Four sons, four daughters-in-law, eight
granddaughters, eight grandsons. How many is that? Just one piece of cloth
each, and the cost goes up.’
Appa was staring at Rowther, as if thinking. The man is getting out of
hand. I must cut him to size. Right away.
‘Kolappa, wrap up the clothes and give me the bill,’ said Rowther.
How dare he take the things before permission had been granted?
Appa’s face reddened. ‘It is not possible for me to give you credit this time,’
‘So, you’re saying you don’t want our relationship to continue, no,
Ayyah?All right. Girl, take me home.’
Rowther stood up. Gomathi took his right arm placed it on her left
shoulder. They went down the steps. When the shop closed in the evening,
he would usually look in the direction of my father and take permission to
leave. That particular evening he did not take permission. That is, he had
I thought I would first pick up Gomathi and take her with me to
Rowther’s house. That would perhaps lessen his hurt. But Gomathi was not
at home. ‘Rowther had sent word that he was not coming. She’s just left for
the shop,’ her mother said.
I took a shortcut through the grove, and reached Rowther’s house
through a narrow lane. A tiled house, the roof low. In the front yard there
was a well on the right hand side, its parapet wall, stark, unpainted, broken.
Velvet moss sprang around it in bright patches. Stone steps led to the house.
A strip of gunny bag hung from the main door.
‘It’s me, Ambi!’ I announced my arrival loudly.
A little girl came out followed by another who was obviously her twin.
‘Who is it, child?’ came Rowther’s voice from inside the house.
‘It’s me. Ambi,’ I said.
‘Come! Come! Said Rowther. His voice bubbled with happiness.
I pushed aside the sack curtain and went inside. The floor had been
swabbed smooth with cowdung. Rowther was sitting cross-legged, like a
lord. His arms reached out for me. ‘Come, come,’ his mouth kept saying.
I went and knelt in front of him. He put his arms around me. His eyes
stared and stared, as if trying to recapture the vision they had lost long ago.
He pressed me down by my shoulders, dragged me towards him and sat me
down beside him. His emotions seemed to overwhelm him.
‘Ah! You seem to be wearing a dhoti today!’ he said.
‘Just felt like it.’
‘What’s the border like?’
‘Just like Ayyah, uhn? The boys in the shop tell me that you look just
like your father, too. It is my misfortune that I can’t see you.’
He ran his fingers over my face, my nose, my mouth, my neck, my
eyes, my ears, my forehead. ‘Everything in place, thank the Lord.’ He laughed.
I thought that this was the right moment to tell him why I had come.
But words stuck in my throat, as if held there by an unseen hand.
‘Amma….’ I started to say, making a tentative start.
Rowther interrupted me. ‘ How is madam’s health now?’
‘I have Thuthuvalai, Khandankattri leghiyam. No better medicine for
asthma. Only, Ayyah likes to see English labels on his medicine bottles. I
don’t have English here. Only medicines,’ he said, enjoying his own joke
This was the right moment to tackle him.
‘Amma wants me to take you to the shop. She wants me to tell you
that she is very sorry if Appa has said anything to hurt you. You are not to
misunderstand him. She says please don’t turn down her request.’
Rowther’s face visibly brightened. He raised his hands in salute.
‘Mother, you are a great woman,’ he called out, ‘Get up, let’s go to
the shop at once,’ he said.
That year the sales during Onam were very good. Rowther was in his
element. With great elan he supervised the shop boys who constantly jostled
around him. He looked like Abhimanyu in the Mahabharata fighting a whole
battalion, single-handedly. He would state the price as soon as the cost and
quantity of the material were mentioned to him. Only the good Lord knew
what spark it was in his brain, what genius that did not need even a minute
to calculate? A brain that could multiply and total up the cost of sixteen
different items in a trice to announce, ‘Item sixteen. Grand total - 1414
rupees 25 paise,’ how could that be called an average brain? Even if the
whole thing were written down on the blackboard, I would have easily taken
half an hour to work it out. But for him, answers slipped forth like lightning.