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Lounge Fiction: Milk and Water by Perumal Murugan

The old woman  across the road from Manga’s house is never idle. Their conversation has stopped—yet Manga can’t stop watching the old woman

Manga had thought of the old woman as her own grandmother. Illustration by Jayachandran

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(Translated from the Tamil by Janani Kannan)

She thinks she is still a young lass,” Mangaasuri muttered. The old woman across the street compels her attention. Must be over 80, yet she stands tall and upright like the stalk of a castor plant. She walks with a brisk gait, her hands never idle. She appears particularly spry today—not sure why—walking in and out of the house in a flurry, as if to mock her and challenge her to keep up. Try as she might, Manga could not keep herself from watching the old woman, her eyes remained firmly fixated on her.

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By the time Manga turned forty, her body grew heavy. She needed to sit down for half an hour, or even take a nap, between finishing a task and commencing the next. What else could she do with a body that became breathless with even a little strain? The old woman never shows any sign of fatigue! It was rare for Manga to spend an entire day at home; yet, she felt no peace even on such a day. Usually, when the old woman had visitors Manga’s eyes didn’t wander towards her. Her ears might pick up a few loud words. Those too, she shook off instantly. But when the old lady was by herself, Manga’s entire attention was only on her—on her lone movements and her singular sounds. After all, being by oneself has a way of drawing attention.

The old woman climbs down the stairs. When she climbs up or down, she holds on to the handrail and climbs only one step at a time; the only time her age shows. On reaching the bottom of the stairs she walks to the backside of her house where her dairy cow is kept tethered. The cow must have begotten a male calf this time for they had sold the calf the very next day. The old lady feeds the calf-less cow rice bran and cottonseed until the cow’s stomach weighs her down. Unable to bear the weight, the cow stands with her legs spread, content as she is being milked.

Just how many times will she check on the cow in a day? The old woman cannot milk the cow; her legs will not let her. But she supplies milk to many families in that area. She does not have to leave her home; the people come to her. Every morning and evening she would seat herself outside her house with a large container full of milk. She would keep track of the numbers with fervour; even at this age, her mind shows no signs of dulling.

When conversations used to flow between the two houses, Manga too bought milk from her. You could fault the person, but the milk was flawless. Not a drop of water floated on top when the milk was set into curd. It is for this reason that people come seeking the milk. The old woman’s family lived there even before Manga’s family moved into that neighbourhood. The old woman’s house was owned, Manga’s, rented. Initially, the household across her was helpful in every way. The first day after her family moved in, the old woman’s family did not accept money for the milk. “Let the first milk that you have here be ours. Add just a little water when you boil it. Let us be together like milk and water,” the old woman said. At the time, Manga did not comprehend the old lady’s innuendo referring to herself as milk and Manga as water. Milk, the household that owns, water the household that rents, Manga inferred later.

 

Illustration by Jayachandran
Illustration by Jayachandran

The old woman’s daughter-in-law speaks as though she did not want to hurt the words she uttered. Only three people live in the house—the old woman, her son and her daughter-in-law. The old woman has two grandsons, each married and living in different places. They visited only on occasion. The old woman’s son must be over sixty. He retired from some government office job. The daughter-in-law must be pushing sixty too. All oldies! As one ages, one becomes softer and fonder of life around, they say. All that is a lie. The older one grows, the more spite one is filled with.

The old woman comes back to the front yard, perhaps after providing the cow some fodder or water. She begins to snap away the droopy sprigs off an oleander tree that grew in a corner of her yard. Will those hands never stay still? Is it not true that with age one’s hands become less dexterous? Because the old woman is tall, she simply stands on her toes to reach the higher branches, bending them to get to the yellowed leaves. If only there were a wasp somewhere in there that could sting her finger! And just as that thought emerged within Manga, she saw the old woman let go of the branches. Maybe a speck of dust or an insect fell into the old woman’s eye as she looked up at the tree. Manga felt a tinge of cheer.

The old woman bends forward as she wipes her eye over and over again. Just last year, she underwent an eye surgery. For months she wandered about in those black glasses. “Look at that hag being all stylish,” Manga had chuckled. “Befitting, that this oldie is your rival,” her husband had said casually. Some oldies lose their eyesight. This one has no such problems. Her five senses are alert all the time.

Realising that she had been staring out of her window for a long while, she suddenly turned around and began to attend to her work. It seemed that the house was covered in dust everywhere. It felt this way often. No matter how much she worked, it always felt like nothing was accomplished. She went to the drawing room to lie down and relax. The house across is visible even better from there. Tche! Is that what my mind craves all the time? She shifted to her bedroom and locked the door. Now there wasn’t the slightest sound. What a relief!

Five years have passed since they moved into this house. For about a year and a half, the two neighbours enjoyed a warm relationship. If the son and the daughter-in-law travelled for a day or two, Manga kept the old woman company, or sent one of her children. The children mostly refused to go fearing the old woman’s bickering; it was Manga who usually ended up going there. The old woman took a long time to fall asleep. She talked endlessly about the hardships she went through from the time she was a child. As she was in the business of distributing milk, she possessed intimate knowledge of all the happenings in town. She stirred up every family’s issues, pointing out only everyone’s shortcomings. Manga listened considerately sometimes but when she was tired, she drifted off to sleep.

Plenty of kuzhambus and special dishes were exchanged between the houses too. Manga didn’t have a permanent job. She worked in a departmental store for a few months. Any problem there and she moved to a textile showroom. She even went back to work at the same place after a gap. She knew everything about a variety of stores in the city. Her work schedule also changed constantly. Manga had two daughters. The mornings were never a concern but in the evenings she and the children returned at different hours. When that happened, Manga did not have to worry about their safety because she knew the neighbours would watch them for her. Manga usually left something for them to eat. At times the old woman or the daughter-in-law fed them something too.

Manga had thought of the old woman as her own grandmother. Many a time, she had felt warm at heart thinking about how crippling it would be if the two families were not so compatible. “You look just like my aaya,” she has also told the old woman. And the old woman has affectionately grazed her hands over Manga’s cheeks and cracked her fingers near her temples as a sign of warding off evil eyes. “There, I am indeed your aaya.”

It was on a Deepavali day that this sweet relationship started to sour. The older grandson had arrived with his family. The younger grandson had gone to his father-in-law’s. The old woman’s family was happy that at least one of them was joining them. The old woman’s son often wondered aloud, “who is going to take care of us the way I am taking care of my mother?” It was quite ironic that he worried about this even though he had two sons. Manga reassured him, “Aren’t we here, right across your house? We will take good care of you!” Indeed, she lived in a rented house and because the owner lived abroad, there were no immediate concerns about continuing here. Thoughts of being asked to vacate unannounced and such always ran in the mind; still, there was no dearth of reassuring words.

There were empty houses on either side of the house across. It was the same on Manga’s side as well. The street continued on with many empty houses on both sides. The few that were occupied, it was rare to see their inhabitants on the street. Even though Manga had worried about this house and this street initially, she gained confidence with the presence of her neighbours across the street. She felt happy considering them family. She addressed the old woman as paati, grandma. The old woman was periya paati, great grandma, to her children. Manga called the old lady’s son and daughter-in-law appa and amma. A lot was imagined based on those liberties.

The top floor of the opposite house was spacious enough and with all facilities for a family to live comfortably. The grandsons stayed there when they visited. Other than those times and the frequent times when the old lady swept and mopped the place, it remained unoccupied. If only they let her move in there! She would take care of the two, why, even the four, in exchange for living there. She would pay no rent and take no fee for caregiving. The old woman herself is fit as a fiddle even though she is over eighty. She looks like she is going to live to be a hundred. The question in Manga’s head was if she herself would make it for twenty more years.

All those fantasies went up in flames that Deepavali. That year, Manga’s family did not celebrate Deepavali due to a relative’s demise. The celebrations across the street were full-fledged. The old woman’s grandson bought an abundance of firecrackers. They rolled out a thousand-wala down the street and set it alight. At night, they lit firecrackers on the street between the two houses in such a way that no one from Manga’s house could step out. When the noise subsided, Manga came out and saw that the crackers were being set off across the middle of the road, closer to her house.

The pieces of paper from the crackers lay scattered all over her front yard and entrance. Why are they being such a nuisance? They could burst the crackers closer to their yard. Or set them off on either side where the houses are empty. Manga felt a flash of anger. “Can you not light these over there? The debris is getting all the way into the house. We cannot even open our door. The noise is so loud it is constantly ringing in our ears,” she said, quite calmly. Perhaps her words betrayed her anger.

The first words of disagreement came directly from the old woman. “Who do we have to take permission from to light crackers on the street, di? Those who don’t have the money to buy should just put up with the noise.” Manga did not expect that. She stood there, tongue-tied.

The old woman didn’t stop there. “The bottom-feeders have all begun to have an opinion, only because we enable them. We should have kept them at a distance!”

Manga could not stay quiet any more.

“Who are you referring to as a bottom-feeder, di, you hag? You licked clean the kuzhambu I made, and you call me a bottom-feeder? I will pull out your tongue and cut it right off,” she retorted. The comeuppances multiplied as the exchanges continued on, with the old woman’s daughter-in-law joining in midway. The old woman made a big deal about how they took care of the girls. Manga quipped back with how she kept the old woman company when she was alone at home. The old woman’s grandson dragged her indoors and shut her in. Manga’s husband and children brought her into their home. But Manga’s anger did not subside. “Just look at how they behaved with us all these days, with so much filth in their hearts! Unbelievable, how they put on such a show.” She rambled on; her mind unable to settle down.

Everything abruptly changed after that. When Manga stepped out in the mornings to clean and decorate her yard, the old lady threw innuendos within her earshot. “Look at the time the mistress of the house wakes up to clean the yard,” the old woman once said. “Let the one who spews insults drop dead with mouth ulcers,” snapped Manga. “Who said anything about you? I was talking about my daughter-in-law. Why, is your guilt pricking you?” came back the old woman’s voice. Manga decided it was not worth her time and stopped talking to the old woman altogether.

The street became divided, a half unto each. The trash in the middle appeared to delineate each half. The old woman pushed some of the trash from her side on to the other on some days; so did Manga. The street dogs had all of the street to relieve themselves, yet they always chose to do their business right outside one of these two houses. The old woman picked up the dog faeces with her broom and flung it to the other side. How could Manga not respond to that? And so it went on. Manga considered moving out of the house many times but the convenience it provided won that argument every time.

Manga’s husband advised her. “Why do you let her bother you so much? Just mind your own business and ignore the old woman, no matter what she does. She will try to draw you in for a day, maybe two. But how long can she go on like this? At some point she will realise it is futile and stop all this.” And Manga too wanted to ignore the old woman. But these eyes, they do not pay any heed. She does not say a word in response to the old woman no matter what she throws at her, but her eyes cannot help but follow every move of that ghostly form in her white sari.

The idea of taking a nap clouded the mind with all sorts of thoughts. She remembered the clothes she had washed but had not yet hung out to dry. The old lady is so agile even at this age. And here I am, have I become so lazy that I can’t even hang the washed clothes to dry? A surge of energy sparked through Manga’s body. She grabbed the bucket of clothes and climbed up the stairs to the terrace. The heat made its presence known. She slipped her feet into a tattered pair of slippers by the wall and began to hang the clothes. Her eyes duly spiralled towards the house across. Unable to control them despite trying, she let go grudgingly.

The old woman’s movements around her compound were clearly visible. She has her sari tucked up to her knees as she mops the front. The cleaning cloth in her hand opens and closes like a fan as she wipes with it. The old woman is handy with everything. She grips the cloth with might and wipes thoroughly. Manga watched in peace, knowing that the old woman would not look up her way. Adada… give this old woman two more houses and she can manage them too. She left her clothes as they were and rested her hands on the parapet wall. That was when it happened.

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As the old woman tried to reach far with her cleaning cloth, she tripped and fell. Manga saw it happen as the old woman tried to dig her heels to the ground but still fell on her back, spreading her legs apart. At first, she didn’t understand what was going on. “Aiyyo” cried out the old woman after she came out of shock. Only then did she read the situation. A sense of cheer, never felt before, filled up within Manga. Never had she seen an incident like this. The old woman was working fervently and everything had changed in an instant. What tripped the old woman? Was it her gaze? Her eyes have been transfixed on the old woman since morning. She took a keen look at her; she lay on the ground, fallen like a hawk with its wings spread out. Pleasure and sympathy clashed inside her mind.

The old woman is unable to get up. She tries kicking her legs. One responds well but the other is lifeless. Her hip doesn’t move. Is her hip broken too? Or just the legs? Is the spinal cord twisted? The body lay supine, only the mouth moved screaming for help. “Aiyyo… someone please help!” Manga looked on both sides of the street. There wasn’t a single person. The voice will not reach anyone in any house; these are houses with doors and windows kept shut.

The old woman’s voice rose again. “Oh gods, don’t you all have eyes?” and she looked upwards trying to join hands in supplication. “Aiyyo! Oh gods!” her mouth uttered over and over again, loudly once, softly the next time. The singular voice that only she can hear. The sight of the old woman lying on the ground and pleading with her hands drained Manga of any pleasure. A shocked Manga slapped herself on her face. “Aaya…. I am coming!” she called out loudly as she ran down the stairs.

Perumal Murugan is an award-winning writer of Tamil literature. His acclaimed work, Madhorubhagan, was published in English as One Part Woman (2013).

Janani Kannan has previously translated Perumal Murugan’s debut novel Eru veyyil (1991), published in English as Rising Heat (2020). She is a practising architect.

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