Every day as the sun rose in Neelapaakam, a small village facing the Indian Ocean, the men set sail in search of fish to send into town, a surplus allowing them to feed their families. The women woke up just before the men did and started on their daily chores with a discipline that had been passed down through the ages. The older boys accompanied their fathers while the younger boys and girls slept in, a luxury they recognized only later in their lives. The homes of the villagers were unspectacular — the few made of brick and cement standing out amongst the mud and straw huts that lined the coast.
“Take care of it like your own son.”
One evening, after the villagers had retired for the day, Ramanathan Iyer, the District Collector, drove into Neelapaakam in his white Fiat and parked outside Appu Rajan’s house, the most recently painted and sturdy of them all. He picked up a big cardboard box from the backseat of his car and carried it in, its open flap colliding with his nose along the way. Appu, recognizing the man, signaled to his wife to get the Collector a cup of tea. Ramanathan Iyer set the box down and pulled out a black and heavy device; it had a handle with curved ends and was connected by a short coil of wire to a base with a circular dial. He placed it on the table besides him, took the cup of tea from Appu’s wife, and told the couple that they were now the proud custodians of Neelapaakam’s first telephone. “The honorable Chief Minister has gifted this to your village. Take care of it like your own son,” he said, and glanced at eight-year-old Pappu standing in the corner of the room.
News spread quickly as Appu explained the wonders of the telephone to anyone who would listen. His fishing responsibilities, however, kept him from home during the day and his wife was too busy cleaning up, cooking and standing in line at the village well to care for the device. So, Pappu was pulled out of school and tasked with guarding the telephone, picking up calls and delivering the messages that were left behind.
The first few times the telephone rang, the neighbors gathered and cheered as Pappu, per his father’s instructions, picked up the receiver and bellowed, “Hello!” The undercurrent of jealousy and resentment, though, came to the fore once the villagers’ initial fascination with the device faded. Kids with whom Pappu would play Hide and Seek mocked him by ringing the bells of their fathers’ bicycles to mimic the sound of the telephone. Shopkeepers, who used to throw in a free piece of chocolate whenever he accompanied his mother to their stores, began to regard him with distaste. Pappu now brought them news about the money they owed and about lenders from town threatening action if they didn’t pay up. They drove him away with a flick to the ear or forced him to wait around by ignoring his presence.
As the phone number made the rounds, calls started coming in with regularity. Pappu had to convey a wide range of messages: from young men and women who ran away to elope and called to say that they were not coming back, from thugs who wanted a cut on the profits made by the fisherman they had helped in the past, and from mistresses in neighboring towns who wanted to know when their men planned to visit next.
“Do you have a message for me?”
One day as Pappu walked out of his home, eyes looking upwards, he heard someone say to him, “Why are you looking up? You’ll trip and fall.” The voice belonged to a woman who lived by herself four doors down in a hut with a thatched roof. Her name was Valli, but the neighbors addressed her as Paati for she seemed old enough to be a grandmother. She would often ask when Pappu walked by, “Do you have a message for me?” He would always shake his head and keep his distance. She made him nervous with her shriveled arms that were barely covered by a sari, and her ears that drooped under the weight of bulky earrings.
“Why are you looking up?” Paati asked again.
“Kannan, the postman, said that it would help me remember the messages I need to deliver,” he said, still staring at the sky.
“That mischievous Kannan!” she laughed, and he forgot the postman’s suggestion for a second as he turned towards her. “You look tired. Would you like some buttermilk?” she asked.
After that day, going over to Paati’s hut became part of his routine. While drinking buttermilk, he would talk to her about the food he had seen in the different homes when he interrupted people’s lunchtimes, the simple toys he saw babies being entertained with, and the fights he temporarily halted as those involved united in their dislike for what he had to say. Pappu was a wonderful source of gossip and nonchalantly revealed telephone conversations, whether it be that the milkman was struggling to pay off his loans or that the young brides shipped away with their husbands hated having to tend to them in towns so far from home. Paati returned the favor by enchanting him with stories. She told him about the pranks played by her son, Muthu, before he left the village looking for work, about great fishermen and their adventures out at sea, and even narrated the epic legends of the Kings and Demons who had long ago roamed the lands of Southern India. However, Pappu didn’t let the temptation of buttermilk and Paati’s stories affect his duty. Her hut was within earshot of the telephone, and whenever he heard the distant ring he’d sprint home to pick up the call before the noise disturbed his neighbors.
A couple of days after his ninth birthday, the ring of the telephone awoke Pappu at six in the morning. His father had already left for sea, and his mother was on her way to the village well. He got up, grabbed the receiver and asked what was so important that he be woken up so early. His anger, however, disappeared as the voice on the other end informed him that Paati’s son had been hit by a car the previous night and had died on impact. Pappu stood still, the receiver limp in his hand. “We’ve already cremated him,” the voice said, and then added with a cruel directness, “Just let her know.”
“Just let her know.”
The old woman was sweeping the floor outside her hut when Pappu showed up with his head bent. He felt jitters running through his body, and the chilly morning air did nothing to put him at ease. “Why are you up so early, child? Do you have a message for me?” she asked with a laugh. “Why don’t you wait inside? I’ll be right there.”
Pappu walked into her hut and drew circles on the sandy floor with his toe. His eyes landed on a small, framed photograph propped against the back wall. The woman in the photograph looked familiar. Her hair was long, dark, and fell over her shoulders, rebelliously unbraided. A smile lit up her face. Her arms were wrapped around the waist of a young child, his hair patted down and parted towards the right, a frown on his face as he struggled to escape the woman’s grip.
“Muthu was just like you,” Paati said, following Pappu’s gaze. He hadn’t noticed her come back in. “He wouldn’t stop talking.” Pappu found it hard to believe that this hunched woman, her hair white as an eggshell and tied up in a frail bun, was the mother in the photograph. The smile, however, he recognized the smile.
Paati picked up a steel tumbler to make a cup of tea for her messenger and asked, “Do you really have a message for me?” The smell of kerosene filled his nose as she lit a fire under a vessel of milk. He looked at the photograph again, and wondered why Muthu was so keen to get away from his mother. Were his friends calling out to him for a game of Hide and Seek?
Maybe he could say that Muthu had called to let her know that he was doing great, that he missed her and hoped she was doing well, too. Pappu had delivered a couple of messages of goodwill and he knew that if he tried hard enough he could recount one of them to Paati as if it was meant for her. But he would be shirking his duty by doing so.
“Your son was hit by a car last night,” he whispered. There was silence, and then the oscillating ring of the tumbler hitting the floor. He felt Paati clutch his shoulders.
“I’m a weak, old woman,” she said, with a nervous laugh. “Pappu, please tell me Muthu is alive.”
Pappu gently lifted her hands off him, walked over to the stove where the boiling milk was flooding out the vessel, and turned off the fire. He then recited everything the voice had told him, not missing a word, the art of delivering messages verbatim perfected over the past few months. He spoke rapidly, hoping that would lessen the pain. Paati’s knees buckled and she sat down hard on the floor. She covered her face with her sari, muffling her sobs.
“Paati?” he whispered. The floor felt rough, and his discomfort increased as he noticed how settled the pieces of sand were between his toes. The ever-present smell of dead fish suddenly nauseated him. He could hear from the neighboring homes the sound of other kids waking up to a new morning, their mothers shouting at them to stay out of trouble. Pappu sat down besides Paati, and even though she refused to look at him, he embraced her. She felt so small and weak in his arms, and he worried if her body could withstand her heaves, coughs and raw sobs.
As he gently adjusted her sari that had slid, he heard a familiar sound, louder and crisper in the morning air. The telephone he was supposed to guard was calling out to him, commanding him to pick up.
But this time, he let it ring.
* * *
Niyantha Shekar has a certificate in literary fiction from the University of Washington, and his work has appeared in the Asian Review of Books, Nazar Magazine and as an Editor’s Pick on Medium.com. His writing can be seen at niyantha.com.