This is another attempt at translating a story that I liked very much with the hope that you too would love it. It was written by T.Janakiraman, one of the best Tamil writters of the 20th century, known for thinking far ahead of the times he lived and putting it in a subtle manner without attempting to pass any judgement or preach any one. I was awestruck at my very first reading itself., but got the finer meanings as I was discussing it with my son Arun and keep finding more and more as I read again and again while translating it. Hope you will agree too provided the translation is any where near the original.
SILIRPU(Published first in Nov 1953)I was aboard a passsenger train about to leave Tiruchi junction. It was a shuttle between Tiruchi and Mayavaram. The platform and the coaches looked deserted. If only it was an express train, the entire station would be active and busy. May be even trains have class difference.
My six year old son was enjoying his afternoon siesta. An orange was lying near him. .He had gone to Bangalore for summer vacation. His aunt had taken him with her when she came to attend a wedding in Mayavaram. I was bringing him back. His uncle had come to the Bangalore station to see us off. When the vendors selling oranges came near our coach my son asked for it. His uncle standing in the platform pretended he didn't hear that. That was his nature. My look was enough to keep my son's mouth shut. Not for long. When the train started moving he started,
"yes, my son"'
"Pichu uncle earns Rs.900/ a month", he was showing with both his hands wide apart.
"He heard me ask for oranges, but didn't get them."
"He wouldn't have heard it."
"No. I was loud enough."
"then why didn't buy them?"
"While in Bangaalore I asked for a tricycle. He kept saying yes, but never bought me one."
"Why did you ask him? I will buy you one."
"how can you. You earn only Rs.100/ a month."
"Who told you so?"
"Umm.. Pichu mama"
"No . To aunty. When you had sent a letter from Madras when you went there for a celebration. That you were wasting even your meagre income by making such unnecessary trips."
"O.K. Go to sleep now."
"will you get me a toy car?"
"yes. I will."
"Yes. When we reach Tiruchi.
"But how can I get them when the train is moving?"
"Then tell me a story."
Soon after I started he fell asleep. I was wondering about Pichu's meanness. Why should they take the child in the first place. What would the child's feelings. Especially when the parents were not around? I had a sleepless night.
When we reached Tiruchi I bought oranges for him. He said he would have them on reaching home.
"Amma would peel it and remove the seeds."
"As you please."
'oh.. how much he would be missing her.'
I came back to the present in the passenger shuttle to Mayavaram.
A middle aged woman and a girl of eight or nine years boarded the train and sat opposite to us.
"When will the train leave?" she asked as if to start a conversation.
"In about half an hour"
"You are going upto Mayavaram?"
"Is it your son"
"He is fast asleep."
"We are coming all the way from Bangalore. He is tired due to the long journey."
"You wish to lie down too?" she asked the girl.
"No mami. I don't feel like"
"Better have some rest. You have a long journey ahead."
"thanks mami, but I will after some time."
The ornaments and the attire showed that the woman was from a well to do family. She was fair complexioned and on the fatter side.
The girl looked pale. She was thin with a tired look. She was very simply attired. She wore bangles and ear studs made of plastic. She had with her a small open bag apparently containing an inexpensive set of dress similar to the one she was wearing.
I kept wondering what would their relationship be but resisted my temptation to ask her.
I bought some bananas from a vendor who came by and gave one to the girl. She hesitated but took it when the woman gave her consent with a nod.
"She is going to Calcutta", the woman volunteered the information I was seeking.
"She is going to one of our neighbours living there. A friend is leaving for calcutta from Mayavaram tomorrow. She will join them."
"What is your name?" I asked the girl.
"Kamakshi alias Kunju"
"Are you wondering how such a fragile figure bears two names?"
"No. no.. I have a sister with the same name. She was married off to a nice guy. But he got his fingers burnt because of a bank guarantee he had given to a friend. They suffered for a long time and struggled hard to come out of the financial burden that followed. And another sister named Kunju. A cousin of ours was bed ridden for quite a long time and she made my parents to give Kunju in wedding to her husband. She too suffered a lot."
"It is not fair to marry her off to that man when the first wife was alive."
"It was her fate. This girl bears the names of both my sisters."
But the girl remained unperturbed.
"What is your father?"
"He is a school teacher."
"And your siblings?"
"Four elder sisters, two elder brothers. One younger sister and a younger brother."
"Elder sisters are married off?"
"Three of them got married. The second one was widowed and has come back to us."
"elder brothers have any jobs?"
"Elder one is working in a hotel on daily wages. The second one is studying in tenth."
"You have not gone to school?"
"Appa can't afford to educate his daughters also."
"So you work?"
"There is no other way out."
"What kind of work?"
"I can wash dishes. Make coffee and tea and also sambar and rasam. Grind rice in the chakki. Baby sit. Wash clothes and clean the house."
"Where did you learn all these?"
"I was working for a Judge's family for three years and learnt it."
" So you have work experience. Umm.. How old are you?"
"I am nine years and six months old."
"So you started when you were six? And how much do you earn?"
" They don't pay in cash. I get two square meals a day, which I can't get at home. Then they would buy me new dress for diwali."
"And this inexpensive dress that you are wearing is all that you get for the endless list of things that you do?"
"Couldn't you ask for something better?"
"You say you were having two square meals a day. But you seem to be very much under nourished."
The train entered Thanjavur station. Asking the woman to take care of my seat and luggage, I prepared to get down with my son for lunch and asked the girl,
"What did you have for breakfast?"
"They gave me some left over food."
"She is leaving them for good, about to begin a long journey after serving them for three years. Can't they offer her some good food?"
"Come with me. Let us have lunch in the railway canteen."
But she was too hungry to resist when the woman also insisted.
Looking at them in the restaurant table, I felt they missed their mother's touch while having food. But one of them will join his mother in a couple of hours, whereas the other one is moving away from her mother.
She spontaneously helped him with his food and offerd water when he needed. And also helped him clean the hands after the meal was over. My son who was normally very fussy while taking food seemed to enjoy her help.
"Do you know the people in Calcutta where you are going?"
"No uncle. They are very rich people with Rs. 3000/ per month as salary and need me for baby sitting."
I couldn't help thinking that one child is on her way to look after another child.
"She is a smart little girl," I told the woman when I got back to the train.
"Smartness comes out of necessity. She easily adapts to the situation. She didn't utter a word until we offered her lunch. If only she was not going to Calcutta, I would have had her with me. May God bless her."
My son's attention turned to his orange once more.
"Shall I help you peel it?" the woman offered.
"No thanks. My mom would peel it when I reach home."
"I'm a mom too."
He didn't relent.
"How old are you?" he turned to the girl and asked.
"I'm ten years."
"Then you must be studying in fifth class" he started counting with his fingers.
"Look appa. I'm six years and in first class. Six plus four is ten. She is ten. Must be studying in fifth" he couldn't lift his eyes from his fingers.
"She is not going to school, my son."
"Then are you studying from home?"
"She is not studying because she is going to Calcutta."
"To work there."
"Don't kid me appa."... "Are you going to work?"
Still unable to believe what he heard, he asked "can you go cycling?"
She gave a hearty laugh for the first time since we met.
"How can I? I don't know to cycle."
" How will you go to your work place then?"
"I shall walk."
He simply couldn't come to terms with it. His father went to work by a bicycle. How can anyone do otherwise.
Soon the attention of both the children turned to the trees and paddy fields slipping speedily outside the train.
"How can one be sure that she will be safe in the place where she is going?" I was surprised to hear me ask that question to the woman.
"They are related to the Judge she was working with. Having a monthly income of Rs.3000/. They would prabably have a soft corner for a girl from their home town. Might be offering her good food and clothing. But they would treat her as a paid servant only. She is capable of feeling at one with any family. But she can't feel at home. Can anyone substitute one's parents?" she too had more questions than answers.
I started feeling uneasy as if I am myself going to a strange place where I had no contacts.
"May be her parents believe that almighty will take care of her."
"What else is there to hope for? We are left with no other option than to think that way. The family had been driven to such a state of affairs. But then I can't help thinking that if only that almighty had better plans for the members of that hapless family, this child would not have had to find herself in this predicament.."
"Who will look after Judges' children then?"
"That is right."
Perhaps the Giver had paucity of ideas as the teacher had paucity of funds.
Other passengers in the coach had a glimpse of the story. That they found it difficult to swallow was writ large in their faces turned away from the girl.
The train was nearing our place. I gave a rupee to the girl before starting to leave.
"Why should you?" the woman resisted.
"I feel obliged as you do. She is not your child either, but you are offering help. But I can't afford to do more than this."
"May God bless you. Take that from the uncle, my child."
"Shall I give her this orange, appa" my son asked me.
"It's good. Why do you ask me at all?"
"No my boy. You wanted to get it peeled by your mom" the woman said.
"Ask her to take it appa" my son called me to his help.
The girl took it when I too insisted.
"You are blessed with a wonderful kid." The woman kissed my son and bade farewell.
I could hardly control my emotions. Turning my face away from the passengers to hide my emotions, I got down with my son. I lifted him up.Can't he walk? But I didn't want to allow him to.
I embraced him with all my strength and love. I simply can not describe the feelings I had. It was ecstacy as if I was embracing Affection, no, no, God Himself personified.