Born Equal, a short story by Jegadeesh Kumar at
Om Prakash Sethia

Born Equal

Born Equal

written by: Jegadeesh Kumar



As the temple procession entered Perumal Koil Street, the people standing at the entrance of their houses pressed their palms together and gazed reverently up at the deity. But Senthil was looking up at his grandmother’s face. Her wrinkled eyes welled up with tears, her chapped lips quivered, and her sunken cheeks twitched. Her eyes weren’t gazing at the deity nor were her palms pressed together in reverence. Senthil softly tugged the hem of her saree as she continued to weep without noticing him. Senthil’s dear little playmate Lalli’s mother, their house owner’s wife, placed a hand on the old woman’s shoulder.
“Amma, why are you crying? Is something bothering you?”
“Every year, Balu would be at the forefront, doing all he could for the temple festival. Seeing him not here hurts my heart. I wonder where he is now and what he is doing. I pray that Lord Karivaratharaja Perumal should look after my son and send him back to me.” Her voice trembled as she spoke through tears.
“Don’t you worry, Amma! He’ll be back soon. It’s not that he’s run away for the first time!”
“Once he returns, I’m going to find a girl for him and get him married. That’ll put him in his place.”
“How can you get him married when there’s his older brother?”
“Wouldn’t he have gotten married if his legs were alright? I honestly don’t know what’s written on his head.”
Amid sweet sounds of chariot bells and the chants of the devotees, the deity was slowly approaching their house. Lalli pulled Senthil’s shirt and the two went down to the street. Driver Kumaresan was pulling his autorickshaw over to the side to allow the procession to pass. The Grocery Store Annachi came out of his store, an act he did only very rarely, and observed the deity, which had by now reached the front of Senthil’s house. Not taking their eyes off the deity that sat on a small wooden chariot, three devotees chanted, “Kuzhagnae, endhan komalap pillai! Govinda! En kudangaiyil manni!” Another in a white dhoti, a sacred thread worn across his bare chest, was offering people Tulsi leaves soaked in water. Lalli rang the tiny bell on the side of the chariot as Senthil closed his eyes and prayed. He did not know what to pray for. He prayed that uncle Somu’s legs would be well soon. His uncle’s go to god was Mother Mary of Velankanni, whom he had been praying to for years now that she must permanently cure him. He wasn’t sure if his uncle would approve of his prayer to Perumal. Senthil and Lalli received their share of prasadam and started back. Chewing Tulsi leaves, Lilli asked, “Did your uncle die?”
Senthil was startled. “No! He just left home. Left when my half-yearly examinations were over. Hasn’t returned yet.”
“My uncle died last year. Before you all moved in here.”
“God!” he said, his eyes widening. Talk of death was frightening and traumatic to him. “How did he die?”
“Suddenly one day, when I was a little girl, he’d gone crazy. I was always scared of him and never went near him. Then a few days later he was gone. Disappeared totally. For two days my dad and his friends searched for him everywhere. They found him dead in the mango grove next to the railway station. He’d hanged himself.”
Senthil kept looking at her.
“Holding a picture of him, my grandmother cries every day thinking of my uncle.”
Uncle Balu was not insane. However, he was easily enraged by any number of silly things and in his rage, had severely beaten Senthil on many occasions. He’d watch him sob for some time and take him to the bakery to buy him cakes and peanut candy. He stayed home most of the time. While at home, he cleaned the grandfather’s clock, the brass lamp in front of the deity, or the transistor radio that had stopped working years ago. And he ate a lot. He was a glutton.
But Uncle Somu, the older brother, devoted his life to his work. Every day he got up at five in the morning and got ready to open the lottery shop he ran at the Ukkadam bus station. Each morning, Senthil awoke with him and accompanied him to the lottery shop, holding his hand, trying to keep up with his teetering, before returning home so that he could get ready for school. Now that Senthil had summer vacation, he would spend time with his uncle after he helped him open the shop, flipping through newspapers and their attachments. At eleven o’clock, he would run home to bring his uncle lunch, home-cooked freshly by his grandmother. Then he would go home and play games with the street boys, such as three marbles, pambaram, or pachakuthira, until seven o’clock when he had to go help his uncle close the shop and bring him back.
But uncle Somu closed his shop earlier, at eleven o’clock, that day. Kalyani, the daughter of the owner of the petti shop nearby, who brought them tea everyday at this time, looked nonplussed. “Is it going to rain today? You’ve closed the shop early!” she asked. People in Tamil Nadu ridiculed an unusual act by asking if it was going to rain that day since raining was a rare occurrence during summer. “Isn’t it going to rain today? That’s why,” replied uncle Somu, with a chortle. Kalyani squinted at him, wondering if the reticent man was capable of cracking jokes.

As he walked with his uncle hand in hand, carrying a tattered leather bag, Senthil noticed that there seemed to be a little bounce in his uncle’s gait. “Where are we going, chittappa?” he asked. His uncle replied simply, without turning toward him, keeping his vacant look straight ahead, with an enigmatic smile. Senthil also noticed that he carried a yellow bag in his left hand.
Although it might be a little roundabout route, they could still make their way home if they made a right turn just in front of the Nass movie theater. Yet his uncle dragged him past the old movie house, Moideen’s watch repair shop, and even the Raja theater next to it. Senthil had never seen his uncle walk this far. Each day, his weak, nerve-wracked legs carried him back and forth, only from their house to the lottery shop. For his purchase of the wholesale lottery, uncle Somu had to depend on his neighbors who ran shops in the Ukkadam bus station. He had even sent Senthil twice on this mission, and the boy felt so proud that uncle Somu had confided in him to do such an important job. Senthil accomplished the task all alone, crossing three main streets, several large buildings, and speeding buses, though he had messed up with the number of tickets bought with a D.C (Tickets bought without a D.C fetched more commission).
They entered the Maniyam Wholesale Lottery Shop opposite the Prakasa Textile Showroom. The shop owner Ravi, who sat at the cash register, called out, “Come on in Somu! Hit a jackpot, haven’t you! I’m so happy for you. I feel like I’ve won it.” He smiled at Senthil, showing his protruding teeth, and said, “Dei Senthil, ask your uncle to buy you idiyappam and paya at the Taj Restaurant.”
Opening his leather bag, uncle Somu handed Ravi a bunch of lottery tickets and said, “In the Arunachal Pradesh Weekly, one ticket has won fifty thousand rupees. It was bought without a D.C. Will you give me the whole commission today or will you drag it as usual?”
“Come on, Somu! Don’t be so stiff-necked. Let me check it out. Had you come here a little later, I would’ve had a surplus amount. Now, I would have to wipe the cash register down to the last rupee in order to match your sum. However, I will give you the money, just because it’s for you. So…, you’ve got a huge commission for the first time. Why don’t you buy lottery tickets for the whole month with this money?”
“I need the money, Ravi. I’ve got something to do with it.”
“Do you need it for the Velankanni trip? I don’t think you need such a huge sum for that.”
“I don’t have any complaints against Mother Mary. She looks after me really well. A trip once a year is enough. This is for a different cause. Why do you care? Shouldn’t I spend money for my sake?”
“Why not? You can do whatever you want with it. Here, take the sum. What really is the matter? Have you got an eye on a girl or something?”
“Ha! With these legs, do you think I can afford those kinds of dreams?” Uncle Somu counted his money and put it inside his bag.
“Tell me if you are ready for it. I’ll find a girl for you. Granted that your legs aren’t alright, but you are the owner of a lottery shop. Unlike your younger brother, you work hard to provide for your family despite your physical limitations. Any idea where he might be right now?”
“Yow! Do you think he’s run away for the first time? The scoundrel leaves home every time he has some cash in his hand. He’d squander it mindlessly and, the moment he’s run out of cash, he’d think of returning home, to torture us, to gobble my money. No, no. Let him rot wherever he is,” snapped uncle Somu.
The journey with uncle Somu did not end just with the visit to the wholesale lottery shop. From there they walked to Raja Street, ate samosas at Meenachi Akka’s cafe, and drank Nannari sherbet at a trolley shop. Senthil had to turn his head in all directions as he entered Ganapathy Jewelers on Raja Street with his eyes wide open in order to comprehend what he was seeing. It was his first-ever visit to a jewelry shop. Gold rings, bangles, and necklaces glowed in fluorescent light. On one of the glass doors at the entrance, actress Nadhiya smiled in a life-sized photograph, wearing jewelry worth more than she weighed. A boy slightly older than Senthil brought them Torino in silver mugs. Senthil felt in him a slight surge of pride.
With the entire commission money, uncle Somu bought a gold chain with a red pendant. He still needed to pay six hundred and twenty extra rupees. From his yellow bag, he took out a undiyal in the shape of a figurine that was Mother Mary. In it he had been saving money to visit Velankanni every year. Senthil could not believe that his uncle could use the saved up money for any other purpose. The chain did not look like the ones worn by men. Senthil had seen his aunt who lived in Koundampalayam wearing a similarly shaped chain. Maybe uncle Somu bought this chain for grandmother? But he had never seen her wearing any kind of jewelry ever since his grandfather passed away.

Before they could enter, the appetizing whiff of mutton curry reached from inside the house. Usually, Senthil’s Grandmother cooked meat only on Sundays. This was a Thursday. Senthil wondered what could be the occasion. As he entered first, the familiar gravelly voice of uncle Balu invited him. “Hey, skinny fellow! What? Have they released you from school?” Has he returned! He was utterly unrecognizable! Uncle Balu’s face was dark, skin cadaverous, and body emaciated. He was sitting in the backroom corner, framing a picture of the deity Ganesha. Uncle Somu, who entered following Senthil, chanced to look at his younger brother, and, his face flushing and fuming, went and sat on a footstool in front of the kitchen. Grandmother came out of the kitchen and whispered, “Dei Somu, By God’s grace he’s back. Please don’t start a brawl now. I beg you.”
“Why? Do you think he’ll run away again? The rascal won’t leave until he has some money in his hands. Just feed him well, out of my money. He won’t go anywhere.”
“Look at him! He’s gone thinner, hasn’t he? Let him eat well for a few days and fatten up a little.”
“Look, he’s got to work if he wants to live in this house. Ask him to go meet Aliyar tomorrow.”
“He’ll go. Now you wash your hands and feet so you can have some lunch. Dei Senthil! I’ve made low-spiced meat for you. Get ready.”

Surprisingly this time, within two days of his arrival, uncle Balu went to work at Aliyar’s mechanical workshop. He left at nine in the morning and returned around six with his lubricant-stained hands. Aliyar’s workshop was located just twenty feet ahead of the right turn to the Ukkadam Bus Station, in close proximity to uncle Somu’s lottery shop. Aliyar was a friend of uncle Somu, by whose request his younger brother was appointed to assist in the workshop in spite of his repeated fleeing from the job. Now Senthil had to carry lunch for both his uncles. A single box container for the older: rice, curry, and vegetable fry all mixed in it. A three-tier tiffin food container for the younger, in which each food item is individually packed. Grandmother said uncle Balu would not eat if rice and curry were mixed. When Senthil brought meals for him that day, uncle Balu was lying under a lorry, working on its rear axle. Aliyar, who sat puffing a bedi on the top of a toolbox, said, “Just keep it over here. I’ll inform him.” When Senthil was about to leave he called out, “Hey! Your uncle is a highly skilled fellow at his job. Get some training from him. You can make good money. What good is your school education?”
When uncle Balu returned home at six that evening, Senthil saw him holding a magnificent object in his hand. A tape recorder! Senthil had never seen a tape recorder in his entire life of thirteen years. In the past, through one of their open windows, he had heard new film songs being played on their neighbor’s tape recorder. They worked on him like a tranquilizer. After he heard the song vikram, vikram, naan vetri petra van on their neighbor’s tape recorder, he had been mumbling it for days on end.
“Wow! It’s a tape recorder!” Senthil exclaimed. Uncle Balu beckoned to him to come over and made him sit next to the wonder object. The two sat in front of the device and listened to new Tamil movie songs for hours on end. Ennammma kannu, chinna manikkuyile, mandram vantha thendralukku … rare songs that one could not get access to from a transistor radio. Uncle Balu recorded his voice on the instrument, which could play two cassettes at once.
“Where did you get this tape recorder, uncle Balu?” asked Senthil.
“Just shut up and listen to the songs,” replied uncle Balu.
At seven, Senthil went to uncle Somu’s shop to help him close and accompany him home. As they entered the house, Uncle Somu’s eyes caught sight of the tape recorder and his younger brother sitting next to it. He threw his handbag on the table and sat heavily on the wired chair in the front room. Grandmother peeped from the kitchen and said, “Oh, you’ve arrived,” and went back to her cooking. When Senthil was about to sit next to the tape recorder, uncle Somu called out, “Dei, go to your grandma and get the key to the wooden bureau. There’d be a red-colored box in it. Bring it to me.” Senthil ran fast to the kitchen and got the key from his grandmother. Running back to the living room, he hurriedly opened the wooden bureau, took the red box from it, and brought it to uncle Somu. Then he ran again toward uncle Balu and sat next to him.
“Mom, come here! At once!” bellowed uncle Somu. He held the box in one hand and the lid in the other.
Grandmother came out wiping her hand with her sari. “What happened?”
“Where is the gold chain I kept in this box?”
“Why, it should be in there.”
“See for yourself! Do you remember taking it somewhere safer?”
“No, I haven’t touched it after you kept it there. It has to be in that box. Did you place it somewhere else by mistake?”
Without saying a word, uncle Somu kept looking at Grandmother. In the few moments when everyone was quiet, the tape recorder, in a faint volume, was playing the song panivizhum malarvanam un paarvai oru varam. Uncle Balu had turned down its volume when Senthil opened the bureau to take the red box out.
Uncle Somu staggered as he stood up abruptly. “Are you all playing with me? How can the jewelry vanish from the locked-up bureau? I need the jewelry now!”
“Dei, I haven’t touched anything in that bureau after the jewelry was kept inside. Opened the bureau only one or two times just to keep the folded clothes,” said grandmother, looking at uncle Somu apprehensively.
As though possessed by a demon, uncle Somu threw the red box at his younger brother with all his might, but uncle Balu, instantly curling himself and leaning against the wall, narrowly escaped the attack. “This scoundrel must’ve taken it. And you must be his accomplice,” uncle Somu accused in a trembling, raucous voice, shaking violently. Senthil stared alternately at the three of them, his heart pounding against his chest. Utterly indifferent to the situation, uncle Balu had a sheepish grin on his face.
“I don’t think he would’ve taken it. I’m always here. The key is linked to the chain that hangs around my neck. It’s just not possible. You better think hard. Did you take it to the shop or something?” said the grandmother.
“Right. My mistress waits there at my shop. I took the chain to adorn her neck. Stop coming up with your fantasies. I’m burning with rage here. If you try to trick me into believing in your lies, I’ll beat you to death. Ask him! Ask him if he took the chain,” said uncle Somu. Unable to control his trembling body, he placed his right hand on the table next to him and leaned against it, breathing furiously.
“I haven’t taken anything,” uncle Balu answered in a muffled voice. Senthil found it hard to understand why uncle Balu still had that funny smirk on his face. Grandmother’s face looked gloomy as she shook her head from side to side, all the while looking at her younger son. What was she trying to say? Was she pleading with him to return the article in case he had stolen it?
“How did this tape recorder come about? He must’ve stolen it from somewhere.”
“No! This belongs to Aliyar. He’s let me have it for two, three days.”
“Sonofabitch! If you don’t get me my gold chain right away, I’ll kill you!” Uncle Somu leaped up, lifted the footstool from in front of the chair, and threw it at uncle Balu. Unable to control the force with which he threw, he immediately recoiled and tumbled backward. He lay there, sprawled face-up on the floor, gasping for air, while Senthil looked on at his older uncle, wondering how he managed to summon such strength. The footstool did not reach uncle Balu and fell just in front of his folded legs. Grandmother ran and stood guard in front of him. “Please don’t hurt him! He’s just returned. The chain should be somewhere here. I’ll somehow find it for you,” she pleaded.
Uncle Somu tried to advance toward them, but his legs did not cooperate. He stumbled and was about to fall again before he grabbed the sidewall and stood his ground. Grandmother kept begging him, “No, please don’t!” Uncle Balu slipped out from behind grandmother, stepped on the table placed against the wall, and ran out of the room. At his speed he kicked Senthil on his way, making him trip over uncle Somu.
Senthil was the first to go out. He looked in both directions down the lane, but uncle Balu was nowhere to be seen. Lalli’s grandmother and her mother peeped from their house. “What’s happening?” Lalli’s mother asked. “My uncles had a fight,” said Senthil. Lalli’s father called out from the inside, “I’m going to ask this family to get out of here. They come up with some issue every two months.”
Senthil went back into the house and found uncle Somu in the same position. Grandmother was seated on the floor. “Please don’t get mad. Be patient. I’ll ask,” she said to her son.
“Just now you maintained he would’ve never done it. And then you say you’ll ask him. Do you know where you both got this incorrigible arrogance from? From my paying money for the rent and food. I’ll do one thing. I’ll go away. I’ll go kill myself. Then you both can lead a peaceful life,” said uncle Somu.
“Please don’t say that. I’ll get the chain from him. Please be patient.”
“Patient I’ve been all these years. Now it’s up to you and your lastborn,” he said, turning around and staggering toward the entrance. He crossed Senthil on his way, his face looking like a rock shining in the blazing sun. Senthil muttered, “Chittappa!” “Go away!” Uncle Somu yelled back. The two women from Lalli’s house stood at their door and watched the handicapped stumble along the wall and leave the compound. As soon as he passed the common gate, both came out and called grandmother. “Amma! Please come out and check where he is going,” said Lalli’s mother. “Amma! Balamma! Please don’t lose your son amma. Please go find him,” said Lalli’s grandmother.
Grandmother was in tears. “I don’t know what I would do, sheltering two arch-rivals under the same roof. I don’t know where this Balu went! Hey Senthil, go look for your big uncle. He might fall in a pit,” she said, her lips quivering. Senthil, with heart thumping against his chest, ran along in the lane, colliding with the hand pump near the front gate. He saw uncle Balu coming out of the common toilet when he looked up. “Go fast and bring your chittappan!” he said, with the same smirk on his face, now widened even further.
Senthil ran out of the gate and hurriedly looked at both sides of the street. Could it be possible that his uncle walked so fast to vanish from the street within minutes? Getting down into the street, he looked into the open, narrow sewer canal that ran along the sides of the street. Then for a while, he stood there in the middle of the road, not knowing what to do next. The grocery store owner Annachi spotted him. “Hey, Senthil! Your uncle just took Kurmaresan’s auto,” he said.
His grandmother started wailing when Senthil told her the news, with the two women standing on either side holding her shoulder in comfort. Lalli’s father learned the news too, and immediately left the compound, saying he would go on the lookout for the missing uncle. When his mother said, “Search next to the railway station,” grandmother wailed even louder. “Ayya! Please find my son! Please!”
Until Lalli’s father and some of his friends left to find uncle Somu, nobody noticed uncle Balu. Grandmother was sitting alone, her head lowered, after the women went back to their house. Uncle Balu said, “I’ll not be here any longer. Your son’s crazy! He might kill me. I’m going to stay at Aliyar’s workshop.” Carrying the tape recorder, he immediately left the house. Senthil went and sat next to his grandmother. He did not know what to say to her. His legs were trembling at the dreadful thought that his uncle too might return home as a corpse like Lalli’s uncle did.
Lalli’s father and team searched for uncle Somu until 2 a.m., and they returned empty-handed. They had searched in the railway station, the adjoining mango grove, his shop at Ukkadam bus station, and even in the Perumal Temple Hall, but to no avail. Lalli’s father said to grandmother who lay on a straw mat, “Just go to sleep, amma. I will resume my search in the morning. If we don’t find him, we’ll call the police.”
But they could not find the missing uncle until the next afternoon. Grandmother cried for a while and started cooking at eleven. She packed food for her younger son and asked Senthil to deliver it at Aliyar’s workshop. When Senthil reached the workshop with the food carrier, he found it locked. When he was about to turn to walk home, he saw Kalyani Akka approaching him from the direction of the bus station.
“Come here, Senthil,” she called. When he went closer, she said, “Your uncle Somu is at our home. My dad saw him last night at the railway station and brought him. Now your uncle wants to see you. Come with me.”
Senthil met his uncle at Kalyani Akka’s house. Overnight, he’d gone dirty and withered. Senthil reported that his younger uncle had gone to stay at Aliyar’s workshop. “Go and tell your grandma! If he ever comes back home, I’ll murder him,” said uncle Somu. “Chitappa, please come back!” said Senthil. “I’ll come. You can leave now,” said his uncle. He turned and addressed Kalyani Akka, “First time in life I wanted to do something dear to me. It’s all gone to waste now.” “It’s okay. Leave it,” said Kalyani Akka.
Grandmother sat sobbing in the front room, holding a picture of the younger uncle when Senthil entered the house. Lalli came from behind and pulled his shirt. “Someone came and yelled terribly in front of your house. He smelled of cigarettes. He complained that your small uncle had stolen his tape recorder and demanded compensation. My dad is extremely angry. He said he is going to ask you all to vacate,” said Lalli.


The End

Latest posts by Jegadeesh Kumar (see all)