The Stair and Ravi: A Short Story by Sarah Joseph

He wanted to get married by falling in love.   He also wanted to discard the issues of caste, religion, and dowry.  But because of so many reasons everything was in peril.  He loved two women; Sreeja and Mary.  But it was over the question of caste that his family raised a hell.

“If you bring that Nazrani (Christian) girl home, I ‘ll hang myself right here.”   Mother pointed towards the wooden beam that held the roof.

“You shouldn’t  bother, I ‘ll hang myself.”

Ravi startled his mother by retorting.  She looked at him with a gaping mouth that he was not the one to say such shocking things to her.  When the heart is on fire what the hell is this thing called caste!  Love has not begun today or yesterday.  It’s been two long years since the hot pursuit of the two girls has started.  Everybody knows that too.  If they are still poking their nose into it, something should be said.

“Didn’t you get anyone from your own caste to love?”

Elder sister asked over the phone from Gulf.  Actually he loved a real Nair wench!  A lot of money had gone into that!  She would never bring lunch from home.  Daily meals, tea and snacks went to Ravi’s account!  With rice she always took the fried sardine fish that was six rupees a piece!  When people began to murmur canteen manager Unni Nair called Ravi.  The sweeping and cleaning in the ward was not over.  He put the broom and bucket in a corner and went straight to the canteen.  Unni Nair opened the book of love.  “Are you serious?”

When nodded yes, Nair began to tap on the table.

“Ravi you better leave it.”

It’s a real puzzle!  What’s up? Did anyone do the gossipy game?  Unni Nair is a good soul who doesn’t want to harm others.  He never articulates his whims and fancies in public.  He is trustworthy.

“Unni Nair, what is the matter?”

“That girl got some other musings as well; you better leave it!”

What musings? He should have asked him to make it clear.  But a few customers came to pay the bill right then.  Nair was busy with the currencies and coins.  Like a fixed pole he stood there for some time forgetting duty.   Even forgot the fact that it was the time for rounds.  Also forgot that the lashing tongue of matron Santhakumari would be nasty.  When the rush was over, Unni Nair said:  “If you still want her, I won’t say anymore, you can probe it for yourself.”

With whom could such things be asked?  Ravi doesn’t want others to talk ill of a girl (Hasn’t Ravi got two sisters?).  It could be asked straight on her face.  And it was asked amidst lunch.

“Sreeja, what I heard, is it all true?”

“What did you hear?”

“Apart from me do you have affairs with other guys too?”

Sreeja did not lie.  She did not stop eating either.  Two guys before Ravi and two even after Ravi’s coming.

“Then what you have shown to me, was it not love?”

“Who said no?”

Sreeja smiled.  The smile showing the white teeth that snared Ravi earlier!  She washed her hands while still smiling.  She gurgled and rinsed her mouth clean.  With the same smile she entered the door above which it was written that it was the place for examining blood, excreta, urine and phlegm.  Then through the same door Mary came out sobbing.  An innocent love ended at that door and another innocent love began there. 

“Why are you weeping?” Ravi asked Mary.  She turned down her face and flowing tears from the eyes went away without answering.  For what, Ravi doesn’t know even today.  Ravi followed weeping Mary on and on!  Passing the wards, the blocks, the dispensary, the blood bank, the X ray unit, enigmatic rooms and mysterious corridors…  Ravi followed her until she stopped before a closed door near the physiotherapy unit in the underground.  With a bang that is capable of startling the fast asleep, that door opened and closed at once and Mary disappeared!  Sweeping, broom, bucket, doctor, patient and matron came to Ravi’s mind all of a sudden.  While ascending the stairs, Sreeja is descending down! She is smiling as well!

“To where did you run after her like a shot wild boar?”

Sreeja asked, “You got tamed after her show of tears?”  She descended down the stair brushing the body of Ravi in a close encounter.  Bitch! I don’t want to see that thing! Sreeja shouted from a few steps below.

“Ravi you are not going to get her, she got plenty of debts to pay.”

Ravi became furious. Then let her debts be settled first and then the rest!  He wanted to walk a few steps before this bitch with her!

“How much is your debt Mary?”  Ravi asked Mary.  Mary unleashed her tears.  She walked through dark corridors.  Ravi followed her.  They descended the dark steps of the nether world.  The door opened with a bang and closed.  Mary disappeared and Ravi was startled.  Whenever he ascended back Sreeja came down the stairs.  She casted her canine moonlight smile.  His hairs stood still and erect as she brushed past him.  Ravi could not understand a thing.  One weeps.  One smiles.  One descends the stairs and the other ascends it.  Women are such fierce stuff!

They really are a terrible stuff!  Mary walks ahead with a tray in hand, drooping and weeping into it.  At deserted corners she asks Ravi:

“Why do you follow me?”

Before he gets time to gather an appropriate answer she also says something that ruins Ravi.

“I am a sinner.”

“It means?”  Ravi had to approach Unni Nair himself to find the reality of it.  Unni Nair doesn’t differ in his opinion.

“A virtuous girl with discipline and honesty” He said.

“But she says she is a sinner!”

“Never mind it, it is said by all Christians about themselves.  Do you believe her?”

“I believe her.”

“Then why worry?”

“Will she believe me in turn?”

“Then why should she say to you that she is a sinner and all… be bold, go and tell her.”

While Ravi gathered courage Unni Nair began to tap on the table.

“You could have done this from your own caste…”

One’s own caste!  Unni Nair is the right person to say that too!  However human you are you could not pull out this thorn from you.  This was the problem with father too!

“Mary and Carey are not allowed here.” Father expressed his anger.

“It means I need to go elsewhere with her.”

Father cooled down at that.  The monthly salary (excluding the food bills of Sreeja) is submitted to father regularly.

If that practice stops, it is the end.  That is why while he was day dreaming in the verandah father came and poked his belly.

“You could not forget her?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Your mother, me and siblings?”

“Yes.”

Father’s eye’s must have bulged out.  Didn’t he come to say about one’s own caste?  How many times they were told that Ravi has no caste and religion!  Are you my own son Ravi, father looked him in such a manner.  He never said a word.  Mother is so sure that it’s all taught by that nasty Nazrani (Christian)!  Let her have it!  She has never taught anything unwanted to Ravi.

“Man would join his wife abandoning his father and mother.  They become a mind and body.” Mary taught thus.  Isn’t it so?  What is the point if man and wife quarrel like the snake and the mongoose?  Is it a small thing to become a single mind and body?  Ravi is absolutely agreeing on this point.  But the problem is something else.  He could not understand a question often repeated by Mary.  Something confusing is in it.  He could not understand it.

“Will my debts be forgiven?” Mary asks in tears.

“How much is it, we’ll think about it.”

Ravi gave an assurance.  But Mary descended down the steps to the netherworld weeping in vein.  Ravi felt that something severe than the problem of one’s own caste is in it.

Ravi also promised to take the responsibility of her debts in broad day light too.  Mary was frightened.  Ravi felt that the debts are of millions and millions.  He advised:

“You need not fear everything.  My belief is that a woman to whom you are married to must not be frightened. “

“Ravi has not married me yet?”

“May be not but still it is the same, isn’t it?”

Mary sobbed and tears flowed down.  He wanted to tell her that except this anything else could be tolerated.

Mary was descending down the steps leading to the netherworld passing through dark corridors, crammed pathways, blood tasting wards, sighs of the death awaiting people, with feeble steps that resembled her own heart beat.  Ravi was following.  Amidst the hide and seek of light and shadow when Mary’s woman-smell suffocated and entangled him he grabbed her in his arms and kissed.  Mary stood frozen.

“I shall pay Mary’s debts.”

“Ravi, you can’t.”

“Is it such big debt?”

Tears splashed down into the tray that Mary held in her hand like flash floods.  She descended all the steps.  The door was open.  She disappeared.  Darkness and Ravi remained.  Ravi stood in the mud of cries.  Sreeja is on top of the stair.  The moonlight smile with canines appeared.

“Ravi you cannot do it.  We took the debt for compound interest… how much you pay back it is not going to end…”

Sreeja came down the stair.  She brushed past him.  The door was opened. Sreeja disappeared.  The stair and Ravi remained.

 

 

Translated from Malayalam by  Ajay Sekher

Courtesy: This appeared in Indian Literature May/June 2012; journal of Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.

Original Malayalam titile: “Koniyum Raviyum”.  From Malayala Manorama Weekly Annual Issue 2011.

Inspired by Sahodaranism: The New Fraternity Movement in Kerala

Sahodaran portrait at SMHS Cherayi

“All human beings are equal by birth.  All communities too are equal.  They all have the right to live, to grow and to seek welfare and greater good.  This is truth. This is ethics.  Everything against it is untruth, non-ethics and injustice.”

– Sahodaran Ayyappan

The new fraternity movement which is christened Sahodarya Prasthanam that came to existence in Cherayi in the birth place of the social revolutionary, renaissance thinker and writer Sahodaran K Ayyappan, on 20th February 2011 is a unique social  formation that proclaims to  include the socio-politically and culturally challenged sections of Kerala society.  It is a greater fraternity of dalits, backward communities, women and minorities of various denominations including religion, language and sexuality.  It is important to mark that it was here in Cherayi that Sahodaran launched his anti-caste agitations through the 1917 inter-caste dining that startled the orthodoxies and initiated social change.

People at the Fraternity Meet, SMHS Cherayi, Ernakulam

It is floated by some of the leading social activists and fighters for justice in contemporary Kerala like K K Kochu, Sunny Kapikkadu, Adv. K S Madhusudanan, P K Abdul Razak, K D Martin, K S Abdul Karim and others.  It is a democratic alliance and fraternity between the marginalized and excluded sections of Kerala society.  It is all the more significant in the contexts of  the alienation and demonization of the minor subjects and contested sections of the Kerala society under the hegemonic discourses of the patriotic and militant cultural nationalism and its various regional avatars.

Tamil dalit writer Charu Nivedita inaugurating Fraternity Meet. From Right: K K Kochu, Adv. Madhusudanan, Sunny Kapikadu...

According to the spokesmen it is also vital for the people at the bottom as a platform for affirming and articulating their fraternity when the monopoly ruling classes/castes try to divide them in terms of religion, caste, gender, class and sexual orientation and usurp their rightful share in political power.   The victims of the divide and rule strategy adopted by the internal imperialism of Brahmanism are getting aligned themselves under the banner of human brotherhood or sisterhood or cross gender fraternity here.  This kind of radical realization of the subaltern is all the more important in the contexts of hate propaganda models like “love-jihad’ and ‘talibanisation’  that split the people at the grass root level.

Sunny Kapikkadu presenting the declaration of fraternity

An installation at the venue (Sahodaran Memorial High School, Cherayi) by leading young artists Jayalal M T, Benoy P J, Baiju Neendoor and the rest enacted the spirit of Kerala renaissance and the working culture of the basic communities of Kerala.  It visually installed the philosophy and praxis of love and fraternity invoked by the life and works of Sahodaran.  An Ayyappanist in many respects like me reads the ideology of Sahodaranism in this simple, seductive and enagaging visual narrative which is spatially de-centered and aesthetically and politically plural in its signification.  The work titled “Smell of Salt” is a profound artistic critique and tribute to the people or subaltern in Kerala, their historic struggles for liberty and their organic and human instincts of equality and fraternity.

Artist Jayalal M T before the installation "Smell of Salt" at SMHS Cherai

I salute the artists and organizers and appeal them to document and preserve this political and public art which is a rare manifestation in the cultural politics of Kerala.  It again enlivens the historic memories of the burning of the caste monster by Ayyappan at the very heart of Cherayi more than a century ago which initiated the whole repertoire of symbolic protest in the public sphere of Kerala.  That kind of radical intervention in and renewal of visual sensibility of the people is involved in the present installation work as well.  It links this contemporary art/political  practice to the historic installation at Aruvipuram by Narayana Guru himself (1888) that distinctly and poetically marked the subject formation and voice consciousness of the subaltern in Kerala through its unprecedented challenge and critique of caste and Brahmanism.

K K Kochu delivering the key-note address at the public meeting, Gauriswara temple premise, Cherayi

The very meeting for the declaration of fraternity at SMHS Cherayi was conceived after Sahodaran’s historic Declaration of Human Rights(1945) at Ernakulam.  The meet was marked for its mass participation of people from all walks of life.  Women and children from minority communities were present in large numbers.  There were representatives from all sections of the society on the platform.  Even dalit feminists and lesbian feminist activists addressed the mixed gathering and shared their concerns for the development of the idea and practice of fraternity in a diverse and heterogeneous society where difference is the key word.  But the fraternity meet proved that co-existence of differences is the democratic way of life  in a diverse and plural society like us in the coming days.

K K Kochu speaking in the public meeting at Gauriswara temple. From right: Rev. Fr. Vincent Kundukulam, Holy Imam of Palayam, Adv. Madhusudanan...

The fraternity meet at SMHS and the public meet at Gauriswara temple premise (historic site of Narayana Guru’s own installation) prove that the movement ensures inclusion and representation in the true egalitarian and ethical spirit of democracy.  In its greater spirit of tolerance, co-existence and inclusion the movement is more close to the teacher of Sahodaran rather than to the rationalist himself.  While Sahodaran critiqued the religious for its anti-human aspects  his guru upheld the humanitarian and ethical role of religions across cultures and societies.  The Sahodarya movement has to address such profounder, epistemological and historic issues in its further acts and articulations.  The beginning is artful and ethical in its multiple significations.

Lesbian/Gay/Trans-gender Rights activist Deepa V of Sahayatrika articulating her concerns on fraternity
Dalit feminist Rekha Raj addressing the gathering