Written in Tamil and translated into English by N. Ravi Shanker, The Ichi Tree Monkey is a collection of short stories that speak about everyday acts of dalit resilience and resistance in the face of upper-caste discrimination. Set in the Tamil countryside and dalit colonies, these stories are filled with energy and vitality of a raw, unique kind, articulated through humour and defiance. The collection is a mix of writer Bama’s older short stories as well as some new ones.
Read below an excerpt from the collection: the story titled “Annachi”.
‘This fellow seems to be a mischievous one. Though his father and mother were such innocents, look how this donkey born to them has grown to be such a nuisance,’ Even as Madathi said this with a great deal of anger, Muthurathnam went further, ‘The boys from that family are all like this. The others at least you can adjust to, but this Ammasi, no adjustment is possible in his case. Such a headstrong fellow!’
‘Who are you talking about, that grandson of that Irulayi? Yemma…was he not born from the ribs?’ Thayamma, who was sitting nearby and cleaning the green gram, asked.
Ammasi was all of twenty. He was an odd one, just as street gossip had it. The elders did not like him at all, but the youngsters worshipped him.
He was good-looking, with a body that matched his age, and sported a dark moustache. Good physique. When he smiled, his teeth glittered like a kenda fish thrashing in the sun. What did he brush his teeth with! Though he kept arguing all the time, there was some logic to his arguments. Seeing him wandering around aimlessly one would think he was a good-for-nothing, but he was a knowledgeable boy.
There were complaints about him every day. I thought people were criticizing him like this only because they didn’t know him well. Even with this latest incident, I felt what he had done was right. So I met him and asked him all about what had happened.
I saw him early in the morning on the way to the kamma-bank to take a shit. It was then that we spoke to each other. When I asked him what the matter was, he gave me a big smile and, smiling, related the incident.
‘Ei, machan, tell me what’s wrong with this? Yesterday I did the ridge-levelling work at that Parasuramu’s fields and came home early in the morning. I drank some koozh as soon as I reached, and while I was drinking I decided I would go to Nettiyakallu and come back, so I boarded a bus…’
‘You had some work in Nettiyakallu?’ I asked him.
‘Just listen, machan. That shopkeeper’s kid told me there was some well-digging work there and I thought I’d try and get that job. When I tried to board the bus at our village bus stand, it was difficult, as there was a big crowd.’
‘Did you pick a fight with someone while boarding the bus?’
‘Now don’t be a spoilsport, machan! You just carry on yourself without hearing what I’m saying! Now, listen without interrupting.’
Since I knew him well, I said, ‘Seri, you proceed. I won’t butt in.’ I settled down to listen to what he had to say.
‘Somehow I managed to squeeze my way through the crowd and found a seat on the bus. That Chandrasekhar also got onto the same bus. Now, ask me who this Chandrasekhar is? The same upper-caste landlord for whom my father does farm labour! What did he say as soon as he set eyes on me? Now, listen carefully. I will repeat the dialogue that took place between us:
“Elai… Are you not the son of that Madasami?”
“Sure, I am the son of Madasami.”
“Elai…Haven’t you recognized me?”
“I have, I know you very well. Are you not Chandrasekhar?”
Saying this, Ammasi lifted his lungi and taking a beedi out of the pocket of his under-shorts, lit it.
‘You know why I lit this beedi?’ he asked me. ‘Didn’t I speak to that Chandrasekhar just like this after lighting a beedi and blowing out smoke? I wanted to create the same effect now.’
‘Seri, now carry on. Agreed, you are a good actor, but you’re testing my patience,’ I said a bit irritably.
‘Okay, okay. So listen:
“Still sitting, even after recognizing me? Get up, let me sit.”
“It was with great difficulty that I had squeezed through the crowd and managed to grab this seat and sit down,” I said. “I’m getting down at Nettiyakallu. I’ll keep sitting till then. You can sit after that.”
“Elai…Nettiyakallu is right here, okay? Now get up, da, and stand aside. Is it right for you to keep sitting while your ayya is standing, not paying him due respect?”
“Did you say ayya? My ayya is ploughing your field at this very moment. When did you become my ayya? I will
not get up even if you stand on your head!”
By this time Ammasi’s beedi had gone out. Throwing it aside, he laughed out loud. Even I burst out laughing, seeing the wicked grin on his face.
‘You didn’t get up till the end?’ I asked, unable to suppress my curiosity.
‘Adey, did you think I would get up? Let me tell you some more then.’ Saying this he changed his voice.
“Elai…are you trying to act big in front of the landlord who measures out the grain to you? You don’t seem to have the smallest bit of your father’s loyalty. When the landlord comes, all the Pallars and Parayars stand up in respect. You youngsters don’t seem to know all this.”
“Yov,” I said, “I can’t get up and I will not. And saying any more will not add to your stature!”
‘I got down as soon as we reached Nettiyakallu. He was still grumbling. That’s all I said, and this is what happened, machan. The fellows from our street must all be gossiping about me.’
‘How did the news spread so fast to the village?’ I asked.
‘Don’t ask me! By evening itself, Chandrasekhar had told my father about it and asked him to discipline me properly. All the shouting that my father did at home, now the entire street is discussing it.’
‘The women in our village cannot keep their tongues from wagging. They’re saying, “When a landlord stands, is it proper for a Parayar boy to keep sitting? Why should he have such a swollen head? He’s so puffed-up, his end must be near.”’
When I said this, Ammasi laughed. ‘Cut it out, machan…Do you know what that old Paniyaramuthu is saying? “Landlords are like gods to us. Can we survive without them? These young lads—foolish fellows. It is said that a dog never bites the hand that feeds it, but this dog insists on leaping on the whole body, fangs and all! If the landlords want to, they can easily knock all his teeth out…” When the old man said this, machan, I could not help laughing, and then he started chewing my ear off even more.’
Ammasi laughed again as he said this. I also laughed with him, and then left.
Hardly a week had gone by when there was a flurry of talk once more in the village about another misdeed of Ammasi’s. But he went about his business as usual, as if nothing had happened.
So I called out to him one day and asked, ‘Yeppa, now what have you gone and done?’
He immediately turned to me and said, ‘Machan, tonight there is a panchayat gathering. They are going to put on trial and then hang a great murderer.’
‘Never mind the panchayat, tell me what you did.’
‘It’s me they’re going to try, machan, make sure you’re there,’ said Ammasi.
‘What’s the complaint against you this time? Tell me.’ I was almost pleading.
‘Machan, what happened was, that Chinnayya Muthukaruppan, he came and asked me to go and divert water to that Jayashankar landlord’s fields.’
‘Yes, I saw you, all dressed in white, carrying your spade. The way you were dressed, I thought you were going to have the spade repaired,’ I told him.
‘Machan, no need to make fun of me! Ei…can’t I go to work wearing white? And I was wearing the shirt that was ironed by that Muthirulan. I paid him one rupee for it.’
‘Yes, yes. The shirt wasn’t wrinkled at all. Now, get back to the topic.’
‘When I got to Jayashankar’s fields he was standing near the pump-set. I went towards him with the spade and he started talking…’ Ammasi suddenly changed his voice, mimicking the way Jayashankar spoke:
“Elai…I told Muthukaruppan from your street to find me a man to divert water to the field. No one has shown up and it’s getting late.”
“Muthukaruppan chinnayya asked me to come—that’s why I’m here.”
“Do you look like someone who has come to work? You look like you’re going to an office! Dolt! Couldn’t that idiot find anyone else? Did he have to send you?”
“What’s it to you? You only want to divert the water, don’t you? What do you care about how I’m dressed?”
“Elai, do you know what the time is? Look at this fellow showing up now, like a big-shot going somewhere far away!”
“Annachi, only you have a wrist-watch. I don’t. Only you can tell the time, Annachi. I will try and buy a watch soon, Annachi. After that I will be able to tell the time.”
I burst out laughing seeing the look on his face, but Ammasi said, ‘Wait, machan, keep listening. You should have seen his face when I called him Annachi, it was black with rage.
“What did you say? Annachi? You keep saying Annachi? Who is Annachi, da? To whom am I Annachi, da? A Parayar motherfucker dares to call me Annachi?”
“Don’t say whatever comes to your mouth, because then I will also start talking. It’s only your reputation that will get soiled. If you don’t want me, tell me to leave, that’s all.”
‘And I turned and left, but not before I called him a swine. I don’t know what he came and reported in the village, but now these people have called for a panchayat.’
‘Well, you’re sure to get punished today. You called the landlord a swine?!’
‘You’re something else, machan! You thought they were going to try me for that! No, no, it’s my calling him Annachi that has become a big crime. The panchayat is assembling for that.’
As Ammasi had said, the panchayat assembled at night. The Nattamai asked, ‘Elai, Ammasi, what is our caste and what is the landlord’s caste? Who can address whom as Annachi? Are you not guilty of being unreasonable?’
Ammasi replied, ‘We are Parayars, they are Naickers. It was I who called him Annachi. Are you having a meeting for this?’ And he scratched his head, looking confused.
All the youngsters laughed loudly at this. The headman controlled his anger and said, ‘Seri, why should I waste time asking you all this? I need a straight reply. Why did you call the landlord your Annachi?’
Ammasi’s reply was instant. ‘Well, he is elder to me, that’s why I called him my elder brother. If he was younger, I would have called him Thambi, my little brother.’
At this, the young boys laughed even more uproariously.
‘This fellow is completely wild, just listen to him! Obstinate fool,’ the second Nattamai said.
The headman began again, his tone grave. ‘Elai, we are not assembled here to laugh at your jokes. Till today, among Pallars and Parayas, has anyone ever addressed Naickers as blood relatives? Born yesterday, and you come up with some damn fool argument? Wasn’t it wrong to address him as Annachi?’
Ammasi, too, responded gravely, ‘There’s nothing wrong with what I said. Did I call him mama or machan, trying to create a relationship by asking for the hand of his daughter or sister? I only called him Annachi politely, respectfully—and you raise hell? What did you people do when I addressed Irulappan, the drain-cleaner, as Annachi last week? You reproached me for addressing a Kuravar as Annachi. Now you ask me why I called a Naicker Annachi! It’s just what the old woman Poovathi, says, “When a donkey shits is there a difference between what it shits first and what it shits last?” Shit is shit. All men are just men.’ So saying, Ammasi walked away.
And everyone watched him leave, awestruck.