The Thicket

Rebecca Mathai

2022

Introduction

Freud, in his analysis of Hamlet, says something to the effect that “no son is a man until his father is dead.” Like Hamlet, Rebecca Mathai’s story, which is set in Kerala, also begins with a death. Philip Palliackal Thomas, known simply within his family and outside it as “Chachen” or “uncle” dies, and now his family have to decide whether their transition into proper adulthood can be postponed for just a little longer.

The story has an anonymous narrator who shares everything with the reader, but is in no doubt about the truth of its observations. After the narrator recounts a transgressive incident, we learn “that was Chachen’s style: audacious and very public which drew in everyone present as an accomplice.” This is also the narrator’s style, which is genial and avuncular and matter-of-fact. It is a curious and interesting choice, a la Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in its creepy inclusivity but without the archaic affectations of Nabokov’s prose.

We like our narrators to be on our side, the good side. When Flaubert was put on trial for ” an outrage against public and religious morals and established customs”, the public prosecutor Picard expressed outrage that Flaubert’s style made it hard to tell whether an immoral thought was the author’s or that of Madam Bovary. In Mathai’s story, it is clear enough the narrator isn’t Rebecca Mathai. But the narrator isn’t one of the characters either. It hovers outside the story, confiding secrets, giving us little peeks, postponing revelations, refusing to judge. The result is an unsettling story I can recommend without hesitation for your attention.

— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine

The Thicket

Jomon wasn’t among the first to get the news of his uncle’s death, because his cell phone had been accidentally muted. This detail would come to be accounted in the family, although treated with generosity—as death’s way of doling out surprises.

That morning, he was on his way back home, having spent all night at the hospital. This is when the traffic constable, who also served as a deacon in the local Church on Sundays, waved his bike down to deliver the news. Jomon turned the bike and sped back to the main road, weaving through the long columns of trucks halted at the red light. On the right, shops with their shutters half-down were being cleaned in a half hearted, unhurried manner for a slow build-up of the weekend business. All these daily motions that seemed to Jomon, an unabashed passing of time, that would not stop for his uncle who now lay dead in the very hospital he had helped raise, the only hospital in town.

Ivan was waiting for him at the entrance. The cousins hugged each other. “I couldn’t get you. So sent the message through wireless,” he said breathlessly. “I went in as soon as you left the ICU. And—”, Ivan wiped his tears with the back of his palm. “I held his hand. And before my eyes, Chachen stopped breathing. 7:32 am.”

Jomon cupped Ivan’s sweaty face in his palms and bent forward to kiss his younger cousin’s forehead. Devoid of motion, his calves felt leaden, the heaviness drawing him down. He could stand it no longer and he turned his back to take long strides at the entrance, blinking to push back the tears that stung at the corner of his eyes. He strode past the guard, to turn left towards the stairs rather than take the elevator—a habit since the last fortnight after Chachen was wheeled to the ICU with a red gash on his left temple as the only visible sign of a brief moment of distress, which the doctors diagnosed as a stroke before he slid into a coma. But this time, this last time, Jomon ran up the four storeys, heaving his large frame, to expel a shapeless panic pressing against the hollow of his ribcage even as he told himself that the worst had already happened.

His mother was walking towards the door when Jomon entered the ICU. Sheeba had come in half an hour early for her OPD on Saturday. Although she had reached the hospital, Sheeba wasn’t inside the ICU with her brother-in-law when he died. Jomon hugged his mother before she told him the sequence of events she had pieced together from the nurses on duty. She would come to repeat them a few minutes later to Elizabeth whose glazed eyes, Jomon realised, couldn’t register these details, unable to accept that her husband was indeed dead. The doctors including Sheeba herself had hinted to Elizabeth that multiple organ failure like Chachen’s had a poor prognosis which was the reason why they had decided not to shift him to the larger Babu Memorial Hospital in Mangalore. But such was her faith that Chachen would beat this setback, the only one in his 54-year-old life of sturdy health, that she had resisted even the Holy unction. “My faith tells me”, she pleaded, “Nothing will happen to my Chachen.” The young priest (the senior priest who had gone to drop his daughter at the University hostel, was expected to return only the day after) was patiently insistent, sombre, his left eye twitching. “Kochamme, the Unction reassures the presence of Christ not to the dying, but those in pain.”

Even so, Elizabeth had lingered in the ICU longer than usual last evening much to the discomfort of the doctors who were normally strict with ICU visiting hours. She was bent over and whispering in Chachen’s ear when Jomon relieved her of the vigil at night (deemed unnecessary by the doctors, but one that Jomon felt was absolutely necessary). That wild spark in his aunt’s eyes as if she had just whispered a magic prayer in her husband’s ears, would come to stay in his mind for a long time.

All this would come to be accounted for later as Elizabeth would recall the events leading to her husband’s death. Who was with Chachen in his last moments, the accruals of the debts and the love that Chachen came to apportion to each, in the right measure, until the very end of his life?

Ivan held the ace in this account. “Chachen held on to his breath until his son was by his side!” they said. A man on his way to death reveals himself— his loves, his faith— in its purest form, said the senior priest at the funeral. Though the priest was referring to something more profane: a donation for a science lab in the Church-run Junior School was the last cheque Chachen had signed.

That Chachen died in his own son’s arms should have made Elizabeth proud. But she was generous in dividing the honour. “I wish Chachen’s luck on every man,” she said, “To have both his boys by his side. Ivan, yes. And Jomon, like a son, was with him the night before. Like every other night in the ICU.” Her daughters had rushed in too, but they didn’t really count because they were only girls and had been married off, no longer part of the family.

The town would expect, and so did Elizabeth come to resolve, that Chachen would get a funeral that befitted a king. Everyone also knew that Jomon, Chachen’s trusted nephew, would make his aunt’s wish come true and take over the funerary arrangements. Jomon was a communist, so was Chachen, and in Moonaram, a communist bastion, he would find all hands on the deck for a magnificent funeral that would indeed befit a king.

As a bonus to Jomon, Elizabeth would come to drop another story after the funeral. “Now when I look back, Chachen had a premonition. Wasn’t it three weeks back when he told me that Edi, when I go, you will be fine. As long as there is Jomon.” She rubbed her eyes with the edge of her pallu and leaned her head on the peach wall. It didn’t escape Jomon that this was her way of upbraiding Ivan for his plan to join back work in Cochin University and return to Moonaram five weeks later, on time for his father’s fortieth-day prayers.

“Edo, you will have to be here. Your mother has the memory of an elephant. Wouldn’t let you forget”, Jomon had already counselled Ivan. “That wouldn’t do”

Ivan tapped the top of his head, messed his unruly hair with his fingers. Each of his attempts to get away, including admission to some American university in his student days, was met with such disappointment. The (visiting) assistant professorship at the Cochin University was the farthest Ivan could get to from Moonaram. He wouldn’t be allowed to get away this time either.

As for Elizabeth, it was in her nature to say one thing and mean something altogether different. Targeted misdirection. It hung like a honey-tipped blade on her tongue. This was how she had kept her family together, her extended family that included Jomon himself and his mother Sheeba.

#

The mourners had already gathered in the courtyard when Sheeba returned from the mortuary. She led a visibly tired and still dazed Elizabeth through the crowds. Once inside the house, she arranged for a hot shower and then a hot cup of tea and biscuits for Elizabeth, before the family would sink their teeth into the funerary preparations.

The clang from the kitchen, now taken over by Elizabeth’s girls to serve the mourners, was indistinguishable from that of any ordinary late afternoon. Its rhythms established over decades to meet Chachen’s needs, wouldn’t come to a halt suddenly and in fact, it seemed as though they were directed from the mortuary where he lay frozen, preserved, until the funeral the next day. Chachen’s soul, with a free rein to his house, Sheeba imagined, was pressing through the throngs in the living room, their din, ridiculing his funerary arrangements.

After the men left for the Simeon’s—the town’s only Undertaker and a nephew from Chachen’s extended family—Sheeba got up from among the mourners who stretched themselves on the red and blue durrees in the living room for a break. By the time she reached her room, the singing had resumed, “Samayamam rathatill…..” and then a loud wail, an old woman’s wail, that sounded like that of a farmhand unrestrained and rising to an expectation—who would have arrived just then.

When Sheeba stepped out of her washroom, she found Elizabeth holding on to the bedstead, preparing to sit down. Her arm, held up on the dark wooden post, fell in pouches of white flesh as if pouring out from her baby pink blouse. Elizabeth was a svelte woman in her youth, spent in Borneo. That part of her past hung in photos, in her study. Curls arranged on the narrow forehead with her arm around her friend, staring with large black eyes into the camera. Occasionally, a memory from those days would animate Elizabeth. Like a mock introduction of herself in Malay, with a curtesy, “Ngadan Kudih Elizabeth”. The cook had turned it to Naadan Kundi Elizabeth that’s what the help called her— the object of ridicule being as usual, the overhang of her backside, the kundi. And she would fondly remember her Dutch music teacher, for whom she said, she was always Lijsbeth, my love. Lijsbeth, she would make the cook repeat after her. It had been a while since the piano in the living room had been used, but it never stopped being a part of Elizabeth’s plans for the future.

That Elizabeth now sat in front of Sheeba, weeping with her head on the bedstead as Sheeba stroked her back, whispering,“Chedathi, aiyo!”

Elizabeth shook her head, “How could anyone think that a man can just fall off, like this? A banyan of a man just falls like this!”

“He didn’t suffer. He could have. He lived a good life. Much-loved.” Sheeba paused to take a deep breath before sitting down on the bed, “The whole town loved him. See what a farewell they will give him. You will see.”

Elizabeth wiped her nose with her kerchief and Sheeba continued, “See, even Ivan came in time. The girls are already here. What else can a father want?”

“Iypechayan is also coming. My uncle from Bangalore? Remember? He will reach by 7:30. Sheeba, I was thinking of adjusting his family in this room, if you…”

Sheeba didn’t wince for a moment. “If Jancy comes, we will—”

Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled through her tears, “Is she coming? Really?”

“Not confirmed. But I am not ruling it out,” Sheeba was lying; she knew that her daughter wouldn’t fly down from Edinburgh for Chachen’s funeral. But Elizabeth was easily beguiled, with a touching faith that Jancy would naturally set aside the past; she was family after all, and be at the funeral. “Chachen’s favourite niece, she should come.” Elizabeth’s voice cracked and she massaged her throat and said, “Praise the Lord! Has she saved enough for the tickets?”

Sheeba stood up to get Elizabeth a glass of water and ignored the questions. She was still smarting under Elizabeth’s preposterous suggestion that she should vacate this room; her room for the last thirty years, the room that has been hers from the day of her marriage. Of all the rooms in this large ancestral house, of all the members in this joint family residing here, Elizabeth could only find this room and her—Sheeba to dislodge to accommodate her uncle!

Elizabeth sniffled and in low moans said, “We unfortunate women. First Blesson. And now Chache —”

“Though Chedathi, even you know that the two situations aren’t the same.” Bending over, Sheeba brought her face at Elizabeth’s eye level and said sharply, “I am not a widow.”

Since the last few years, Elizabeth had begun to allude to Blesson as if he were dead. Not Chachen. Chachen was hopeful like Sheeba, that her husband would return. What was once their secret plan—Sheeba and Blesson’s— for Blesson to move to the US first and then take his family, had turned a cruel joke on her. Blesson’s plans had changed once he reached Florida and since then, she had no contact with her husband. That was fifteen years back. Blesson would turn 51 on May 31st, as would she later this year. 51 years, Sheeba repeated to herself.

Elizabeth continued as if Sheeba hadn’t spoken. “It is because of Blesson that Chachen wouldn’t let go of anyone. Remember, how he let go of such good offers for my girls on this account. Only from families not more than two hours away from Moonaram would do, he said. His family, all of us. That was Chachen’s world.”

Except for Jancy who left. Jancy, his favourite niece. No, his Favourite. Period.

“His beloved girl”, that was Elizabeth’s save that morning too, a year after Blesson had simply melted away in Florida. Sheeba was to take a break with her brother in Kottayam. While Jomon loaded the bags in the car and Sheeba waited at the door, impatiently fidgeting with her car keys, Chachen had pulled eight-year old Jancy to his lap and whispered into her ears from behind, “How am I to live in Moonaram if little Jancy goes away?” He bobbed Jancy up and down, the ball of his knee pushing between her legs to propel her up, his grip on the tiny buds on her chest tight and secure. Before Sheeba could get to her daughter—who was smiling with her lips pursed, bewildered, shame-faced—Elizabeth swooped in, laughing “Oh, this Chachen’s beloved girl!” to extend her arm out to lift Jancy off his lap.

That was Chachen’s style: audacious and very public which drew in everyone present as an accomplice. What stayed with Sheeba, what she found difficult to expel from her mind, was his laughter: a noiseless laughter, only an open mouth with his white teeth drawn out, unsheathed, the eyes empty of any emotion except its pure intent.

Jancy had remained sullen during the car ride, but when they reached Kottayam, she jumped out of the car into her older cousin’s arms, ready to play. Not Sheeba. Through the three days spent in Kottayam, she went through the motions of how to deal with Elizabeth, who she knew would deny that anything happened, though happen it did, even she—Elizabeth was there. But on her return, it was Elizabeth who surprised Sheeba with the suggestion that Jancy should get an education that befitted her academic prowess, for which the famed boarding school at Ballikamatham would be ideal. God knows that Sheeba never let down her guard when it came to her daughter, even when Jancy was home during vacations from the boarding, although realistically speaking who, which mother, can vouch with certainty on these matters in the best of homes? Sheeba ensured that Elizabeth remain committed to Jancy, then and now, for her Master’s at the University of Edinburgh. This, according to Sheeba, was the very least Elizabeth could do.

In the living room, the mourners had stopped once again, for a break. Sheeba watched Elizabeth raise herself by holding on the corner post with one arm, and then both arms together and once on her feet, wipe away drops of sweat dangling on the tip of her nose with the back of her palm to ask, “Can you check my BP, Sheeb-e?”

“Oh! Ivan borrowed the machine last night.”

“Ivan? Why?”

Sheeba shrugged. The machine wasn’t in her room and she wanted Elizabeth to leave her room.

After Elizabeth left the room, Sheeba washed her face and sat down at the teak study table to slowly unlock the lower shelf, and pull out a note-book at the top of the pile. The note-books—the newer ones are green with photos of endangered wildlife on the cover, the one in her hand had a cheetah on it—were arranged neatly and contained her letters to Blesson. Letters she couldn’t send him because there was no address to send them to. She sometimes felt that the letters had somehow written themselves. The writer of those letters was chatty and curious, a woman so unlike herself, that it seemed to her that she possibly couldn’t have written the letters. That woman was unafraid to peer unflinchingly at the world, without the fear of being seen. She trusted her thoughts like Sheeba could not.

Even back then, young Sheeba could not have spoken so openly to her husband as she did in the letters. Theirs was an arranged marriage. Blesson was a genial and cheerful man, the sort who would paint the world in a glossy green, not unlike the cover of her notebook. It seemed to her that it was only after he left that their relationship could take roots, these letters building a companionship that fanned out into the sky with the branches ready to receive the sun, braving through the filigree of her teetering self-esteem after he left her, perhaps abandoned her, although she didn’t quite feel like that anymore.

Of late, her letters to him had begun to sound more like Blesson himself. Upbeat like cheering roars from the stands in a local football match. She was bracing for the audacious hope Jancy had given her—to leave Moonaram and join her in Edinburgh. And she had only Blesson to share the secret.

That was before Chachen’s death. The tone of the letter that was not meandering as it normally was, she had no time for that.

8 June 2008
Dear Blessacha,
There is no more any reason for you to stay away.
Is it better for me to wait for you here or Edinburgh?

Yours,
Sheebamol

#

The mood in the house was frenetic and upbeat after the priest confirmed that two Bishops assisted by five priests, would conduct the funeral the next day. (Gregorios Tirumeni belonged to Elizabeth’s family and being the senior, would lead the service, news that seemed to have particularly cheered Elizabeth). The arrangements too quickly took shape. Chachen’s body would be kept in the living room for display from 7:00- 9:00 am. It was a rectangular room, longer than wide, painted peach with white trimmings. The chandelier in the centre which came with Elizabeth in dowry, was rarely used and must be polished. The sofa chairs, a pistachio-blue floral combination, would be fine with a bit of cleaning, and in any case, would be kept outside in the veranda for guests. The rest of the furniture, including the teak sideboards inlaid with mother-of-pearl, would remain in their place with chairs placed in between them, and in a semi-circle along the casket. Outside, the porch and the veranda would have to be washed later in the evening before the Trisagion.

Jomon and Elizabeth were discussing these arrangements, when Sheeba joined them and pointed their attention to the smell. Was it a dead rat? Or a seepage from the sewage pipes? Once she pointed out, the foul smell flitted into every corner of the room like a wraith. It became clear that all the furniture would have to be removed, the culprit excavated and dispelled, before everything else.

The smell unsettled Jomon and he shook himself out of the group for a smoke under the coconut palm at the courtyard. Che, he spat on the ground. The sneaky appearance of the smell felt like a betrayal, a deliberate subversion of his neatly laid plans and he had no one to blame. His phone rang. It was Jancy, but he disconnected the call. Soon, he returned to the house with an idea: how about burning juniper? Lots growing near the old well. The idea of burning juniper particularly pleased Ivan’s young wife: wouldn’t Chachen love that?

Jomon slipped out from the house quietly, texted Jancy a quick message, and in unhurried steps found himself in the shorter, dirt path between the plantation.Rubber trees lined the path, forming a cathedral of tall spires, a thicket especially where the canopies met, the path darker today with dense clouds shrouding the sun. Dapples of white pools on the grey, slender trunks, looked leprous to Jomon, as his shirt brushed against the yellow plastic protecting the creamy latex flowing into coconut shells. He accidentally stamped on a loose branch from the pepper vine coiled tight around the trees. As a boy, he would walk with Chachen, his palms wrapped in Chachen’s firm grip, his nose up in the air to catch the lingering smell of vanilla. Today, the smell seemed like a cheap perfume. He threw down his half-smoked cigarette and quickened his pace to run through the plantation, jumping over the low fence lined with pineapple bushes, and then cut left to the banana groove where a dog from the hamlet of the plantation labour joined him with its tail flapping. The dog ran back to the call of karuppi when Jomon reached the mango tree.

The tree, once a giant, the largest in the plantation, was now a burnt-down stump. The wooden bench behind the tree survived the fire but bore its ravages blackened, the right side hanging loose from the frame. Situated down the hill was a small mangrove where Jomon took his women for quick sex. The cool ground under the bough, the tumbling of sweaty bodies on the carpet of dry leaves, the unexpected remonstrance, and the danger of being sighted, together made this a perfect hunting ground for Jomon.

What had started as a light drizzle had now gained strength. But Jomon didn’t run for cover and stood looking at the tree he had once burnt down. He kicked on the stump and stamped on the black plaster which crumbled under his feet onto the wet ground caving in towards the tree. He found himself caving in as he went down on his knees and hid his wet face between his elbows.

It was under this tree that Chachen had asked him to drop his pants. In his mind’s eye, Jomon could see the 13-year-old standing on the bench, while Chachen stroked his penis and watched it swell in his palms until it expelled its contents, and Chachen waved his hands dry and wiped them on the mango leaves. “See”, he told Jomon, “This is a man’s latex. You shouldn’t waste it but keep it well. Chachen is there to help you. You have me, I wouldn’t leave you like your father.” When tears streamed down Jomon’s cheeks, Chachen said, “No, no. You are a big boy. And strong. The two of us are together. Provided you remain a good boy.”

Chachen brought Jomon to this place many times later. And soon the roles switched, depending on the mood. Who would drop the pants? Who would ejaculate? This hunt stopped when the fire gutted the tree and the bench. A few years later, it was Jomon’s turn to bring women to the mangrove for a fill of his loins and his restless mind now, a hunter himself.

He wanted to get up and leave the bench but the rain pulled him down on the ground. He pictured the family back in the house pulling out the furniture to trace the lurking smell which he imagined must have overtaken all other work, obnoxiously pressing each into the search party. But his mother would have returned to her room, unaffected, without any obligation to participate, and would be at her study table, writing letters. If only that woman could put aside her ego, Jomon thought, and admit that her husband had abandoned her along with his kids and was never, ever, going to come back!

With a swell of anger building against Sheeba, he pressed the soles of his feet hard into the ground—for her failure as a parent to foster her children instead of pining for a man who had abandoned her, and didn’t deserve her attention, that attention which she should have lavished on those who were with her and in need of care. Him, her own son. Who else did he have but Chachen during those growing years?

Finally, he stood up and walked to the juniper bushes growing in clumps on rough-hewn rocks around the old well, now abandoned. It was quiet, not buzzing with insects as it did back then when he was with Chachen. Even then, the insects remained unseen, but their chirping provided a constant drone that stayed with him long after he left the place. The juniper now grew in abundance, yet he chose to be economical, plucking only five branches and walked back towards the house slowly, his soles caving into the wet red earth with each step. By the time he reached the path along the plantation, he was fully drenched and exhausted. He took off his shirt to squeeze out the water and squatted under a tree with the wet juniper held close to his nostrils, and waited for the rain to peter down.

As a young boy, he would squat on this path and play a game with the sun, watching his shadows mimic his finger movements. A late afternoon like now was perfect for this lonesome game, affording the longest shadows and the silence of a sleepy hamlet. But today the rain clouds had shrouded the sun. Time for the game in the shadows was over. That thought propelled his body to rise and he removed himself from under the tree to stand erect, his chin held up to face the rain. When he spotted Eliyachan from far, he called out to him to rush, snatched the umbrella off the mason and ran back home.

His mother was in her bedroom, sorting the washed clothes pulled out of the clothesline in the downpour. Sheeba held her back erect, her long plait cradled inside the pallu that she had tied around her firm waist. With the juniper in his mouth, Jomon hugged her from behind. A shocked Sheeba turned to him and asked under her breath, “Are you drunk?”

No, he wasn’t drunk. He bent over to meet her brown eyes behind the rimless glasses and mocked her, “Who did you think it was?”

He wanted her to punish him like a mother should, in his view for a misdemeanour, but she didn’t. She never did. Sheeba didn’t flinch when Jomon brushed the juniper under her nostrils before he returned to the living room where the source of the smell had been detected, a seepage which added one more item on the list of chores to be completed by evening, the rain notwithstanding.

#

After Jomon left the room, Sheeba moved to the window, but pulled herself back when a wind brought a sheet of rain slashing on the other side of the glass. Back on the bed, leaning on the bedstead, she took long, controlled breaths to control her helpless rage against Jomon’s audacity that afternoon. The way he brushed the juniper under her nose. How dare he! What then was the difference between him and Chachen? They were brutes, a species of men that replicated themselves to oppress their families. No wonder Blesson couldn’t stand this, he wasn’t like these men; he was too sensitive to live in such a house. At least, Blesson didn’t have to see, not yet, Sheeba thought, that his son had turned in the image of Chachen.

She wondered if she had held on to Jomon for her sake. Did she convey a helplessness which he, as the older son, took over as his responsibility? Jancy couldn’t be held back, that girl was bright and spirited. While Jomon wasted his opportunities, struggling in academics, and now left with no education or will to free himself from this wretched town. But even Jancy, her insolence now had hurt Sheeba. What would it have taken to speak to Elizabeth on phone, to condole Chachen’s death. Wasn’t his death a good time to forgive and release the dead soul. And get peace yourself, seal the matter.

But Jancy hadn’t phoned and Sheeba now felt that she wouldn’t.

Restless, Sheeba walked back to the window. The rains had stopped and the sun peeped from under the armpit of thinning clouds. The sun was a dull gold, playing with the clouds, and Sheeba felt her muscles uncoil and relax. From between the rubber trees, she could see the hill with the burnt bench, charcoal black. This bench used to be hidden behind a giant mango tree once, before it had burnt down a few years back, perhaps from a lightning. The dark half-burnt bench reminded Sheeba of another bench around fourteen years back when she was in her first year M.D. While the secret plans for US were afoot, she had put off her studies, but under Blesson’s insistence (and promise to take over with the kids), she had yielded. A day before the viva voce (and two months after Blesson had left for US and was incommunicado), Sheeba had suffered a breakdown. But Chachen had accompanied her to the Calicut Medical College and that was where she had found him after the exam—sitting on a wooden bench outside the canteen, his legs crossed over, the sun behind him and the birthmark on his forehead like a dark shadow above his eyebrows, rifling through Kim & Clark’s Clinical Medicine, the textbook she had left behind in the car. That was the first of the many times Chachen came to support her against her weakening will to complete her M.D. and later to push her to work in the hospital, which he often boasted, he had helped construct for her Sheeba—his sister-in-law.

Sheeba had stayed back in Moonaram for this certainty. That she or her children would never be left to fend for themselves. No nasty surprises. What was on offer was clear. A house where Blesson could return to take his family back with him. Another woman in her place would have taken the risk, maybe gone to the US herself, dragged her kids on a futile search for their father. But she didn’t do that. She had stayed back to give her kids a firm, certain ground, from where they could take off, bear the risks, like Jancy had.

Should an account of her life be drawn up, at the time of her own death, this was what she hoped her children would appreciate.

The Trisagion prayers began on time in the evening, led by three priests, with Shudhan ni aloho hallelujiah. The women’s voices trilled over that of the deacon’s as they leaned over to share the song-book. Jomon didn’t need a song-book, he knew the songs. He stood leaning against the wall, tall with his thick hair swept back, wet after a bath and the white shirt billowing off his fair torso. Sheeba kept her attention on his melodious voice, which she could separate from the rest, rising above the dripping wind hollering through the palm fronds, the silvery jingle of the ceremonial fan with the carved seraphim in tow and, smoky clouds of incense from the censer that now overpowered the gentle banishment by the junipers of that insistent smell which only Sheeba had caught earlier at noon.

#

Next morning, the rain had stopped, but the tamarind tree sprinkled raindrops from its canopy, while Jomon arranged to have plastic chairs lined along the boundary walls. The rain hadn’t kept away people from the viewing of the body. The mourners had spilled out of the white shamiana and the courtyard to outside the gates of the Palliakal House. Now and then, the sun shone bright, the sunlight falling on the red laterite stones, freshly washed in the rains, and through the open windows to the wooden casket, and on the gold chain on Chachen’s flaccid neck.

The Simeon’s had done a clean job on Chachen. His face was shaved, scrubbed, and the cheeks now filled in and slathered with cream looked like polish over expensive leather. The body and face had been sutured and zipped in tight, even the mouth tied tight with gauze, just in time, so that when it was removed just before being put out for viewing, his face looked like freshly cast. He was dressed in a cream shirt and cream nerethu mundu, and around his neck, the zari of the mundu lay along a perfect line. The white gloves held a wooden cross. The man behind the shut eyes seemed calm—although the eyebags had been rouged more than necessary—and Jomon thought as to how it was in the eyes were life resided: a man’s love, his malevolence, or all of it together. Else, the man in the casket was really an empty shell. Even Chachen.

Elizabeth sat on the second of the six chairs arranged around the body. Lisa sat next to her, gaunt with hollowed-out eyes, and a notebook jotting down points for her tribute to her father on Facebook. Her sister Nancy had a 15-month boy to mind and feed, so she sat hunched on the far end. Time and again, Ivan moved behind Elizabeth to kiss her head or put his palms on her shoulders. His wife, eight years his junior, sat with her head bowed next to Lisa, helping her with her Facebook tribute. Sheeba’s chair was generally vacant, for on her was the duty to greet people, satisfy them with details on Chachen’s stroke, his death—she, the doctor, being best placed to answer such questions and take that load off the grieving Elizabeth. Now she was arranging the wreaths around the casket with Jomon’s help, taking care to leave the important ones on top like the ones from the Moonaram Police Station, the Plantation Owners’ Association, the Palliackal Finance, and Palliackal kudumbayogam. Her phone beeped and she straightened her back, put her glasses up the bridge of her nose to read and then tilt the screen to Jomon. It was Jancy’s message ‘Will call Lizzyma today.’ Jomon put his palm on Sheeba’s shoulder, as if to rub off her annoyance with Jancy’s cussedness which Sheeba had voiced to him. “What is the harm in calling her, speaking to her on phone?” A question for which Jomon had no answer.

When the Tirumeni (from Elizabeth’s family) entered the room, the mourners rose in respect. The deacon placed the wreath from the cathedral on the body after the Tirumeni touched it with his crosier. The red silk scarf tied at the base of the crosier fluttered under the fan. A leaf dislodged from the wreath had got stuck to the red underside of the sleeves of his seamless black robe and remained stuck there until the end of the prayers. As the Tirumeni extolled the dead man, Ivan once again moved close to his mother, holding her tight on her shoulder and she surrendered, with her head on his chest. Sheeba moved to take the baby from Nancy and all the three kids circled tight around their mother.

The Bishop’s eulogy was rich “Philip Palliackal Thomas was an exemplar of earthly life. His family was at the centre of his life. The alpha and the omega. The Lord keeps an account, he will receive the rewards on the day of the Judgment but he also got its rewards in full measure during this brief illness. Elizabeth remained like a shadow meeting all his needs. Sheeba and her children, who can forget his support to them in their hour of grief? We serve the Lord with our families. Now it is up to his family to continue this legacy.”

Lisa would come to incorporate some of these words in her Facebook message a week later.

#

Jancy had already posted her message on Facebook before they reached home. Now that it was publicly spoken, Sheeba knew, there would be no phone call, regardless of Sheeba’s insistence. With that message, her daughter had signalled that she had gone beyond such claims. Though Elizabeth would still have to keep the reparations flowing until Jancy winged out of Edinburg.

Goodbye, Chachen. I was at your funeral service, virtually. Even in death, you had an unequalled presence. No one can take your place in our lives. We are what we are, all of us, because of you. It is on us to remember that life, its rich ledger. Chachen, when the day of judgment comes, you will be there at your rightful place. Good bye.

The post received 435 likes and 220 comments. Elizabeth too liked the post with a comment ‘Jesus Loves’, which was again liked by 48 friends.

Mourners continued to stream into the house through the forty days of mourning. They shared their memories of Chachen, praised Elizabeth for having supported him through his public service and reaffirmed what was a given: their support to make the fortieth day feast for Chachen, a true celebration of his life. Various members of the clergy took turns to join the family in evening prayers on each of the forty days. Ivan’s wife watched the buzz in the household with curiosity. And shared her Facebook post a week later, quoting from a book she was
reading.

The soul, we believe, leaves the body and rushes out of the house— past the throng of the wailing family and friends. Free of its corporeal weight, it searches for the debris of its past in the houses that it once dwelt in, the playgrounds of its childhood. Thus, it corrals its life. And sometimes, it might go so far that it forgets to return. So, the loved ones wait with a lamp that isn’t allowed to dim and prayers that can guide the soul back to its home. Until the fortieth day when the soul leaves the earth.

#

Every evening of the forty days, Ivan and his wife would walk around the plantation, and Jomon would sight the young couple from the terrace, stealing a quick hug or a kiss behind the trees. Terrace was where he and Elizabeth’s uncle, Iypechayan would drink whiskey in steel tumblers (which fooled no one) after the evening prayers. One such evening, Jomon showed Iypechayan a photo of his with Chachen on this very terrace. Jomon in his khakhi shorts, his school uniform: the sky, his eyes and the whiskey in his boy hands, sharing the golden glow of dusk.

“13? 14? How old were you, mone?” Iypechayan asked softly.

Jomon beamed, “Chachen treated me as an adult. He said I was special.” Iypechayan rubbed Jomon’s shoulders and placed his palm on the young man’s as they stood together facing the plantation. His new dentures clicked while Jomon continued, “It was Chachen who told me that I was the man in Amma’s life. 13 or 14, I was that man.”

Jomon was that man in the days leading to the fortieth day prayers. Within days after the funeral, the plantation workers, the priests and, in fact, the town, organically moved to Jomon to direct the preparations and to take over the family’s affairs, including the Palliackal Finance. He was also that man, mimicking Chachen in this role, when he parried Elizabeth’s taunts, “Mone, I know that you are busy, but this old aunt also has some wishes. Don’t forget to put lilies on the table for the Tirumeni.”

Most often, her ire was at Ivan, who was biding his time to return to Cochin. Beyonce playing behind closed doors of Ivan’s bedroom would rattle her. “Shut that devil!’ she would scream, “Chachen isn’t gone for a month and look how the devil rushed in.” She wouldn’t publicly air, what seemed to Jomon, was the real reason for her ire: Ivan’s disinterest in his father’s business. She would come to punish Ivan by insisting that he leave behind his wife in Moonaram after the fortieth day prayers to look after her in her moment of grief.

And some mornings, Elizabeth would be waiting for Jomon in the living room, her cup of tea gone cold long back, to accost him, “Who all have confirmed? Where will they stay? Shouldn’t I know? What about your sister, mone? When will she come?” Elizabeth had not expected such coldness from Jancy; truth be told, Jomon himself was surprised at Jancy’s cussedness. Whatever be her gripes, Jomon thought, Chachen was family and Jancy should have come to kiss him a final good-bye.

#

On the day of the funeral, the family members led by Elizabeth had kissed Chachen one last time before the candles were put off and the cross was removed. Several umbrellas had shot out in the air over the casket as it was loaded on the hearse. The hearse passed through the town to the cemetery behind the Church, the street leading to the main road lined on either side with mourners under umbrellas. Three green and brown banners of The Palliackal Finance Company fluttered in the rain, and when the muddy rain slashed through, it looked as if the brown print was bleeding. Uniformed children from the school Chachen studied, the orphanage that he supported, families of farmhands, the staff union at the Plantation Club—greeted the hearse with folded hands along its way.

The casket was placed on a cement slab in the cemetery. Ivan covered the face with two white handkerchief-sized cloth in the presence of the priests before the casket was shut. The pall bearers waded through the slush slowly, and in one file with Ivan and Jomon leading the way. Until Ivan tripped on his white mundu, and Jomon hailed Nancy’s husband Roy before relieving Ivan on his end. A set of actions so quick but it didn’t escape the eyes of the mourners that Jomon and Roy carried the body to the family vault while Ivan stood aside, bewildered, shame-faced. Once the body was placed on the bamboo poles over the grave, the mourners took turns to sprinkle dust—dust-to-dust—on the casket before it was lowered down with coir ropes.

Four men worked in the downpour till evening, taking care to fill the grave with stones, aware of the risk that the backfilling might yield and the soil would sink, displacing the casket. The rain continued for the next two days after which the work resumed. It hadn’t happened in Moonaram, but they knew that caskets had been known to break out of the ground in such conditions.

Jomon wouldn’t let such disfiguration of Chachen’s grave. He would come to inspect the grave every morning for months—even after the fortieth day feast before his many responsibilities at the Palliackal Finance took over his day. And some evenings, he would return home from the plantation— belly full of local arrack, his hair limp and dripping brown dust, his skin stinging with sweat—to the strains of piano from the living room, and then he would peer from the edge of the open window to watch Ivan’s wife straighten herself, waiting for Elizabeth at the piano to raise her finger to signal her entry into the song, her voice as upholstered as her ample breasts. Then there were other days, darker days, when he would find Elizabeth waiting for him, stretched out on the easy chair, surly and in want of an account (now that she had signed a power of attorney for Jomon to operate the bank accounts), or any account at her whim, and then he would wonder if her demand was to be met, now or ever, a mean spirit curdling inside him while a hollow wind fanned a longing for the old and the familiar—of Chachen seated on the easy chair, surveying his land, swirling the glass of golden whiskey before taking a measured sip.

At 7:00 pm each night and before dinner, the family would gather for the evening prayers which Elizabeth led, a ritual which by being unwavering, provided Jomon the familiar cadence for the day after. The days spreading out before him, just like the town itself in its unhurried rhythms immutable, unassailable— as it was on the day Jomon rode through the town, spilling over from inside, wondering if the news that had been conveyed to him could be wrong or if Chachen of Moonaram was indeed dead.

Contributor

Rebecca Mathai

I joined the civil service straight out of the University. Along the way, I have been many things, but since I began writing five years back, I call myself a writer. I read and write fiction and Alice Munro is my hero. I am currently editing a novel, the concept of which was a winning entry in the iWrite contest at JLF 2020; the judges cited it as “Very original, the best of the lot”. My short story is being anthologized by the Written Circle.

Over the course of thirty years as a bureaucrat, I have made several cities my home. Currently, I live in Delhi. Besides writing, I love trekking and am obsessed with trees and dogs.

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