(Short story – Era.Murukan)
It all started at the school master Arumugam’s house.
Early in the morning, Arumugam Master’s wife opened the door at the backyard of the house to throw away the malodourous water after rinsing the fish taken for cooking. It was then her elderly neighbour Bangaru entered with an empty tin pot.
‘May I have your kitchen left overs for feeding my buffaloes? They relish your cooking, it appears’, Bangaru said in a shrill tone sounding like at a feeble attempt at flattery.
Arumugam Master’s wife would never tolerate a show of insolence of being called a cook for satiating the bovine taste buds, indirectly though. Yet she remained composed as she said in a sonorous voice, ‘Bangaru, your lost calf will return home in an hour’s time from now’.
Bangaru was rearing cattle at the backyard of her house. Sometimes they were tethered to the pegs on the pavement at the front, off the busy thoroughfare. Four buffaloes and a pair of calves constituted her dairy that mainly catered to the requirements of the tea shops around. Her clientele would include the establishment in the bus stand, that opposite to the veterinary hospital and the one on the railway feeder road. She would often think of expanding her dairy with acquiring a cow but was not sure whether buffaloes and the cows could be herded and maintained together. Moreover, the tea shop owners were demanding a delivery of only buffalo’s milk as it is highly viscous and can freely be diluted yielding more cups of tea, than with cow’s milk. A dash of diluted milk, a spoonful of jaggery laced Demerara sugar, a tea filter made of thick cloth that never went through any washing and a process to have the concoction served piping hot did the trick to keep the demand high for ever.
Any remaining milk after delivering to the tea shops, was usually made available by Bangaru to her neighbours, in exchange of their kitchen throw-away that included discarded vegetable slices and the draff strained off the cooked rice. Though strictly not a win-win arrangement of barter for both the parties, it somehow worked, perhaps with the exchange of neighbourhood gossip also bundled with the transaction.
Thus it was a happy co-existence of the buffaloes, Bangaru and her neighbours with a collateral felicity for the customers of the tea shops, prevailing for quite long. The happiness quotient went for a toss a couple of days ago, with a calf Bangaru owned that went for gracing, going astray. Nothing was heard of it from then on. The mother of the calf stubbornly resisted all attempts by Bangaru to milk it and the milk supply to the tea shops was considerably reduced, thereby inducing the vendors to add a little more water to the tea they vended, to tide over the situation.
‘Four tall, heavily built middle aged men with blue bandanas tied to their head came from the northwest quadrant and have driven the calf away. It will be extremely difficult to retrieve it’.
Iyer, the astrologer threw a fistful of cowrie shells on the floor and after carefully studying the pattern they formed, shared a piece of astrological information privy to him, with Bangaru.
Bangaru was pained to listen to that prediction. A calf lost once for all would eventually result in a steep loss of revenue accruing from the tea shops. That would have a cascading effect on the maintenance of Bangaru’s tiny dairy which again would make a still heavier dent in her income. She did not want to analyse that any further lest it would present a gloomy picture of her own future that would soon constitute the final few years of her existence. Of course she was not reluctant to pay Iyer, the astrologer for his services, though his prediction was not of the kind that would bring her cheer.
Nonetheless, she visited a few nearby villages in the north east in an attempt to elicit information about a buffalo calf and four well built middle aged men wearing blue bandanas travelling with it. Her efforts were of no avail, though.
And now Arumugam Master’s wife is offering Bangaru the hitherto elusive solace quoting her kerosene stove, free of cost.
‘Our stove is also like Iyer, the astrologer with its acquired astrological prowess. It can’t stand the smell of meat or mutton. If you try using it to make fish curry, on its own it will get extinguished and will not light up again.
Since the past two days, this stove of ours is giving me predictions like Iyer, the astrologer. It communicates with me while I am cooking. The stove only prophesied that your calf will return. Go home. It will be there’.
When Bangaru reached her home with trepidation, she saw the mother buffalo feeding the calf that came back, with a soft grunt, shaking its enormous body in a fit of ecstasy.
It was at that very moment the kerosene stove in Arumugam Master’s house became a business competitor of Iyer, the astrologer.
The astrological sessions of the stove would normally take place in the afternoon, after Arumugam Master’s wife had her lunch followed by a brief siesta. She would have reclaimed by then all washed clothes left on the cloth lines for drying, neatly folding them up. Arumugam Master would be at school then teaching the students in Class Seven about the properties of oxygen and the process to make it in the classroom using peeled potatoes, hydrogen peroxide and jars of clean water.
The kerosene stove based astrological sessions became a regular feature soon. It became a daily occurrence with a break on Sundays when Arumugam Master would be at home availing complete rest after an elaborate oil massage and a hot water bath. Also, there would not be any sessions for three consecutive days in a month, when the Master’s wife was having her periods, as she herself was keen to keep the environment ‘unpolluted’. She was a little embarrassed to indirectly make a public disclosure of the onset of her periods every month though, but with the menopause creeping in, she was confident that the three day off could soon become a thing of the past.
As the session begins, all women from the neighbourhood would sit in a circle around the kerosene stove in the front hall of Arumugam Master’s house. Near the stove without blocking the view would be seated, the wife of Arumugam Master.
Sitting erect with both her hands stretched out and the fingers touching the outer rim of the stove, she would appear to be in complete command.
To counterbalance her hold on the stove from the opposite direction, a neighbourhood woman would be selected on a daily basis, as per the discretion of the Master’s wife.
Any one would be welcome to pose a question to the kerosene stove and anything under the Sun can be asked about.
However questions of the following nature constitute a different lot altogether :
‘when will the lass Pushpa at the corner house down the street attain puberty?’
‘Ranganayaki ammal’s daughter even after completing four years of married life is yet to be blessed with a child; is there a problem with her reproductive system or does it relate to her husband’s potency?’
‘Did the youngest daughter of the bank cashier elope with the cowherd Gopalan or the lawyer’s clerk Kuppusamy’s son, the one with a persistent stutter?’.
Arumugam Master’s wife as a proud owner of the stove decreed such questions are ethically wrong and are strictly unwelcome. It was true that the bank cashier’s family was related to her by marriage which could explain the ban on rising questions about an elopement in the family. However in the case of other queries in the banned items list no such conclusion could be arrived at as the families involved were remotely connected with Arumugam master.
Whatever it is, Arumugam Master’s wife was not expected to explain the rationale behind her decision. The stove belonged to her. The right to decide upon what to ask and what not to ask the stove would entirely be hers. The neighbourhood women grudgingly acknowledged this and were content to be the participants in the sessions with minimum privileges.
When will my son get a job?
This would be a permitted question. The mother of the boy sitting at the far end of the crowded hall would ask this in a trembling voice. The query would be relayed loud with the details about the person rising the question added. As everyone knew everyone else, the question would be sufficiently enriched with additional details even without asking, with the sole purpose of keeping the stove appropriately informed to enable it to respond:
Dhana Textile Shop proprietor’s wife Ganga from the third house to the left of the radio repairer’s shop asks when her eldest son will be gainfully employed. Her son Jagan is 20 years old this February and has completed his Bachelor of Science graduation in the third attempt.
Arumugam Master’s wife would be taking the final decision about how the question should be framed and conveyed to the stove to enable it to come out with an appropriate astrological prediction. She would in a soft voice full of pride and affection whisper the question to the stove, looking at it with all affection and pride like a breastfeeding young mother glancing at the new-born,
She would smile at the stove immediately after asking the question. The stove then would lift one of the four legs of the overall frame and bring it down on the cemented floor of the hall. For this question about the boy getting employed, it would gently tap on the floor , once or more than once. The woman facing the Master’s wife and holding the stove with her hands would count the number of taps the stove would make as well would ensure that it would not tumble down while in action.
‘The stove has struck two. That means the boy will be employed in two months’, Arumugam Master’s wife would announce solemnly, a little louder for the benefit of the anxious mother at the far end of the room.
‘Amma, will it be two months or two years’?
The visitor would be anxious to get a precise answer. The supplementary question would be phrased appropriately by the master’s wife and would be posed next –
‘If two years, strike once; if two months, strike twice’, she would cajole the stove and after a minute apparently of deliberation within, it would raise its leg to strike one or two.
‘The stove has now struck twice. That means it would be two months from now, the boy will be employed’, the Master’s wife would announce majestically being the harbinger of good news.
In the case of the lost buffalo calf, the Master’s wife was able to coax out additional information also from the stove. She asked, ‘from which direction the calf would come back walking’? The stove lifted the leg to the east and came down smooth on the smooth cemented floor. The calf indeed reappeared from the East.
When Arumugam Master would be back home at five in the evening, riding his rickety old bicycle, the hall would have become vacant after the session for the day ending a few minutes before his arrival. He had decided upon to address the captive audience who would assemble in his house, about the necessity to have a scientific outlook. He should return home at least half an hour earlier one of the days, he reckoned. Many nights he was tossing in his bed thinking about what he had to speak to win over the neighbouring crowd against the unscientific and illogical occurrences like that of the kerosene stove making astrological predictions. On Sundays, he would stand in the empty hall rehearsing his speech diligently. However, as it always happened, he had had to conduct the last session for the day at school always and as such, he could not put his plans to practice. He necessarily had to postpone his lecture till the vacation, it occurred to him.
The Master while cycling homewards made a reckoning in his mind about how long he would have to wait for the annual school holidays to commence. It was barely a fortnight away, he was happy to reckon. Reaching home, as he locked the bicycle feeling contended, his wife restored the stove to the kitchen to prepare the cup of piping hot coffee for the fatigued Master.
One afternoon, the sessions had a new visitor – Iyer, the astrologer. Arumugam Master’s wife had all along held the stove sessions strictly as a women-only participatory programme. Once in a while when men accompanying their wives or sisters would show signs of staying back for the session, she gently goaded them to leave. But she would not like to mete out that treatment to Iyer, the astrologer, as he was an elderly person and quite learned too.
As Iyer, the astrologer arrived somewhat earlier, the Master’s wife took the clean stove she brought to the hall for the session, back to the kitchen to prepare coffee for him. The stove appeared keen on being present in the hall for the session rather than beating a retreat to the kitchen at that juncture. It showed its impatience by lifting one leg almost tripping the pot of milk on it being heated. It was then the master’s wife admonished the stove for showing bad manners. She categorically told the stove that it had to confine its intelligent interactions to the hall and should behave in the kitchen as a stove would behave.
Iyer the astrologer watched the Master’s neighbourhood woman bringing a cup of coffee for him closely followed by the Master’s wife carrying the stove on her arms like an infant fresh from the bathtub. He told the Master’s wife that it would be pertinent that she should always face East while interacting with the stove and that the place where the stove is placed should be sanitised with a fresh mix of cow’s urine, cow dung, milk, curd and ghee, before it is seated there.
He also suggested that decorative geometrical patterns using rice floor (kolam) should be drawn on the floor before the stove arrives at the hall. All the suggestions were immediately implemented by the Master’s wife.
When the stove was in session, Iyer the astrologer, for each of its astrological predictions, was taking a handful of cowries out of his handbag and was casting them on the floor to arrive at his own predictions through reading the pattern the cowries formed on ground. Comparing his predictions with those of the kerosene stove, he appeared satisfied as they were in concordance with one another.
When he bid farewell at the end of the session, he did not forget to ask the Master’s wife where the stove was bought and when. He also asked whether the kerosene was filled up to the brim in the storage compartment or was it partially filled up. He took a few steps homewards only to return and ask the final question – where were the wigs for the stove purchased. The Master’s wife was happy to make him fully knowledgeable of all the facts about her prestigious possession.
The street folk to one person lauded the professional honesty and good-at-the-heart nobility of Iyer the astrologer for his providing suggestions to the Master’s wife on enhancing the efficacy of the stove sessions, even if that would amount to helping his business competitors out, leading to a loss of revenue for him from his regular customers who might have switched over their allegiance to the stove. They all wished he should be blessed with many more years of healthy life. When someone attempted to pose a question to the stove as to how long he will survive, it was immediately vetoed by the Master’s wife. The questioner profusely apologised to the stove holding both her ear lobes with her hands and executing ceremonial push ups in the proximity of the stove, begging for divine forgiven.
In that atmosphere of overall goodwill the stove commenced maintaining a stoic silence while at the kitchen and confined its interaction only to the hall, that too on being asked more than once.
Close on the heels of Iyer, the astrologer, other old men like the retired post master, the retired railway station master, retired sub inspector of police and all other men who retired from Government services started to troop in for the stove sessions. Arumugam Master’s wife was in a predicament by their visit. She would never send them back or would welcome them wholeheartedly though.
However, she and the neighbourhood women did not like one bit these cranky old ones posing questions about the general political environment in the country, the polling forecast, global terrorism, political sanctions and protectionism, though the stove appeared to savour those queries.
‘Don’t they have the newspapers discussing these dull and drab matter for pages together? These pensioners read all those local broadsheets from beginning to end right from early morning, hold parleys among themselves to discuss for hours together and would visit the library in the evenings to read those newspapers published elsewhere to keep themselves updated on all the insignificant subjects. How are we to tell them the stove sessions are to be utilised for very important purposes only?’ The Master’s wife and other women of the street lamented, thoroughly disgusted.
It was then the reputation of the stove sessions reached the adjoining Temple Street, the Canal Street, the Cathedral lane, Grove Street, Grave Street and other areas. Men and women from all these streets and even a few from the adjoining town taking the town bus started gathering for the stove sessions at Arumugam Master’s house. The Master’s wife began to look worried as this was gradually becoming a major inconvenience to her and the family.
‘Shall I collect an entry fee for the sessions?’, she enquired the stove in the privacy of the kitchen when she was making coffee for Arumugam Master in the evening. The stove however made a point not to provide a response.
The Master’s wife became more irritated to find a huge crowd blocking the entrance and spreading onto the street with the tail enders trying to push their way in. One afternoon, a pumpkin from her garden was stolen by someone who came for the sessions. On another day, her sari washed and left for drying on the cloth line in the front yard vanished without trace. The next day the betel nut cutter performed the vanishing trick.
She could have posed a few queries to the stove to find out whose handiwork this could be but she felt embarrassed to ask in front of a large audience about the missing pumpkin and betelnut cutter. It could be quite possible this might be taken as wasting the quality time of the stove on trivia like international politics.
Arumugam Master looked with content at the large crowd going back from his house after the stove sessions, as he alighted from his bicycle. In another six days time, the annual examinations in the school would be over and the summer vacation would commence. He would be at home throughout, all days. He would be explaining in detail to this huge mass of humanity who throng his house for the stove session on the necessity to have a scientific outlook and would wean them away from everything illogical. He would as a grand finale demonstrate to them how to produce oxygen using peeled potatoes and Hydrogen Peroxide. There could be a remote possibility that his wife would also get sufficiently enlightened and shun her unscientific outlook in all earnestness.
As he was tossing in bed late at night trying to give a final shape to his discourse to the masses that would visit for the stove sessions, his wife nearby was having a sleepless night attempting to find a way out of the stove sessions. Both being at their late forties, would not have done anything better together that night, they knew.
A day before the summer vacation commenced, the stove became totally silent. It stopped lifting its leg whatever be the question posed to it. No amount of cajoling by the Master’s wife would bring it out of its ascetic trance.
When Arumugam Master alighted from his bicycle conducting in his mind the final rehearsal of the lecture he would be delivering the next day, the house and even the street was looking awfully empty.
His wife briefed him of the developments in the astrological front which made him feel sad. Such an important and interesting lecture he prepared would be of no use to humanity. He thought of the positive outcome of this sudden turn of events. He was relieved to observe the stove would then on be a stove and would fully be utilised for the purpose it was procured, namely cooking. His wife had a smile radiating in her face, as she was making coffee for her husband. She was happy with the thought there would not be any mob at her house and the pumpkins, drumsticks, brinjals, sarees and betel cutters would not disappear.
‘Have you heard the news, Master’s wife? The kerosene stove in the house of Iyer the astrologer has commenced making astrological predictions. He and his wife are sitting in the central hall of their house with their stove cleaned and decked with chrysanthemum flowers, kept beside. Iyer, the astrologer has blessed their stove with a few divine chants and had broken a coconut in its proximity to ward off any evil. They are charging two rupees for a single question posed to the stove. If three questions are asked together, there would be a concession. It is enough you pay only five rupees’, Bangaru said, when she entered the Master’s house the very next morning through the back door looking for draff for her buffaloes.
‘Is it not a steep tariff to charge five rupees for three questions?’. The Master’s wife was trying to obtain her stove’s opinion about its peer in Iyer the astrologer’s house. Her stove said absolutely nothing. It was emitting a low flame as the fish fry was getting golden brown in the frying pan, on it.
Arumugam Master stood at the patio of his house on a wooden stool, facing the house of Iyer, the astrologer. He commenced reciting in his mind, his grand address on the need for scientific temper.