When the boys crooned the ditty, Kunju would throw a handful of dirt at them and run back home. Paati was pleased that her Kunju had learnt so much in just a fortnight. She scooped up the cleverness from his face with both hands and rested it on her cheeks.
Kunju was not her grandson in fact, but her great-grandson: her granddaughter’s son, child of her daughter’s daughter. The daughter herself had passed away a few years ago, but the granddaughter somehow still remembered her grandmother. Most of the old woman’s relatives had flown away in every direction like newly feathered chicks in search of prey. Whenever any of them visited the village on some occasion, happy or sad, they looked up Paati as well. Some pressed rupee notes into her hands. She did not depend on such gifts for her survival; arrangements were in place to provide her a monthly allowance. It was quite a generous amount for a solitary woman. Even so, she happily accepted the gift. If it made the giver happy, why should she spoil it? In Paati’s fantasy everyone would come together to visit her one day. The whole village would gawk at them, amazed that she had so many relatives. When it happened, she might not even be able to see all of them. During sleepless nights, she would gaze at the sky and try to remember all the various branches of her network of relatives. She felt dejected if she was unable to remember someone’s face. She did not rest content until she had somehow called up that face before her mind’s eye. It was many years now since names had completely slipped from her memory.
Paati’s body might have shrunk, but there was no let- up in the performance of her daily chores. Each day passed in a brisk routine of activity: cleaning the house and front yard, cooking, eating and bathing. When she sat on the front pyol and watched the street, there were so many scenes for her to witness. The human voices and activities that played out before her were a perennial source of wonder and amusement. Though she lived away from everyone, like a discarded object, someone or other passing by would provoke her deliberately with a remark or two. That would in itself become the old woman’s biggest consolation for the day. ‘Who are you waiting for, Paati?’ Some young girl might ask just to make fun of the old woman. Earlier, if anyone asked her such questions, Paati’s retort would be swift and sharp: ‘Your husband has promised to come by this evening. That’s why I am sitting here, waiting for him.’ She would get it back too: ‘Look at her! Our Paati is still as saucy as ever.’
But these days, she broke into a toothless grin and said, ‘I am waiting for that Koothuvan to come.’ ‘You send the lord of death to all our homes while you sit here, solid as a rock. You must be the Koothuvan,’ they teased her. Since there was some truth in that, Paati’s face would wilt in sorrow. As someone who had witnessed countless deaths over the years, she would think sadly to herself: ‘I am not refusing him, am I? For some reason, the Koothuvan doesn’t seem to like me.’ Brooding over the cruelty of the Koothuvan who seemed to be keeping away from her, she would lament within, ‘Who knows what else fate has in store for me?’
One afternoon, when she was stretched out on the front pyol for a nap, her granddaughter, along with her husband and their boy, this Kunju, alighted in front of her from a motor car. She welcomed them, thinking that they might have come to the village on some other business and had dropped by to pay her a visit too. That she recognized them immediately and enquired about certain family matters pleased them enormously. When Paati went inside to bring them water to drink, she heard her granddaughter remark: ‘As she gets older, the woman’s eyes and ears seem to be growing sharper.’ Kunju stood stiffly, with his eyes fixed on Paati.
It took Paati a few minutes to understand the reason for the granddaughter’s visit. Both the young woman and her husband were office workers. Quite unexpectedly, both of them had to travel on work for a few days. It was summer vacation for the boy. So they had decided that Paati should look after the little one. Leaving him with anyone else was not an option.
If Paati could mind him for as long as she was able to, they would make some alternative arrangement in the meantime. They had two or three other places in mind. Worried that Paati might refuse, the granddaughter conveyed their proposal in a tone of abject pleading. Only then did Paati realize that she could still be of some use to others. ‘Feel free to leave him here, ma. I’ll look after him for even a month if necessary.’ He was a six-year-old boy who had never lived away from his parents. His parents were visibly concerned that they were forced to leave their boy with an old woman. She tried to reassure them and instil some confidence in their minds. She grabbed Kunju’s cheeks with her moist hands and held on to them. It made the boy squirm, but that touch was something he couldn’t reject offhand.
‘Kunju, Paati will buy you anything you want. This entire street is yours. You can play around here. There is a parrot chick in a tree that I’ll get for you. Will you stay here with me?’
The expression on Kunju’s face alternated between clarity and confusion. He had seen the figure of an old woman with wrinkles all over her body, sunken eyes and hunched back only as a cruel witch in cartoon shows. Although this old woman’s appearance was very similar, he was confused by her voice which dripped affection and by the way she called him Kunju like no one else had done before. Besides, he couldn’t understand much of what she said by curling her lips over her toothless gums. His father and mother had briefed him thoroughly before they brought him. If he acted stubborn, they would just leave him there, crying and screaming, and simply go away.
(The Goat Thief by Perumal Murugan was published by Juggernaut Books in 2017)