Hareendran Kallinkeel lives in Kerala, India, after a stint of 15 years in a police organization and five years in Special Forces. Waking from a hiatus of nearly a decade, he has recently returned to fiction writing. Prior to the hiatus, he has been widely published in online and print magazines. The title story of his short fiction collection, “A Few Ugly Humans,” has earned a nomination for the Pushcart Prize in 2005. Recent publication includes flash fictions in September and October 2017 issues of Aphelion-Webzine .
BURDEN OF A SAVORY TRUTH
“Mr. Raj, let’s begin with the murder. Please be completely truthful,” the ghostwriter says. “I want to capture the emotions to the very minute detail.”
Raj contemplates. Is it possible, to be completely truthful? He looks into the eyes of the young man, sitting in front of him on a leather sofa. Its comfy seats and back rest, ensconced in a framework of teakwood, should provide him the necessary comfort to endure a long story.
The intensity of eagerness in those dark brown eyes does not appear to Raj like an investigative journalist’s curiosity seeking a sensational story. He rather perceives it as a human’s desire to know the feelings of a fellow being. He decides that he has made a right choice by entrusting the onus of writing his story to this seemingly carefree lad. His eyes wander off to the thatched roof of his hut. A gust sweeps back strands of hair from his forehead. The fragrance of ripe mangoes interlaces with the heady smell of fresh paddy straws that cover the veranda’s ceiling.
Raj remembers the mangoes strewn on the ground, their yellow skin ripped by ravens, exposing orange-colored, juicy flesh. As a child, in his father’s family garden, he had competed with his sister and cousins, to be the first to pick up and savor the best mangoes… those with no blemish, dropping to the ground, so weighed down by their ripeness that a hint of breeze would nip them off the panicles.
Despite winning competitions in the chase to claim possession of unblemished mangoes, fate has cordoned him off from life with a blemish of twenty years in prison. To him that is the ultimate truth. Can anything dilute the tenacity of that truth? Does the fame as a writer compensate for the youth and freedom he lost?
Raj stretches his legs, leans further back on his easy chair. The ghost writer, impatience camouflaged in the guise of respect for an elder, waits for the undiluted realities of an acclaimed writer’s life to unfold.
A raven, the pitch black representative of an after-death ritual, caws on a tree in the courtyard. Silvery streaks of the afternoon sun, like the vivid flashes of everlasting memories, bounce off its sleek feathers.
Ravens were invited by clapping wet hands, to the offering of food, after cremating the dead. Acceptance by them, of ghee-flavored rice balls, laid-out on banana leaves, signified the culmination of rituals to grant departed souls passage to the other world.
When Vasu was killed, those who loved him realized how life had distanced itself from him. Ravens, the black angels of salvation, discarded his soul by refusing the offerings.
Vasu’s son, Gopu, clad in a dhoti, dipped in a river to purify his body before performing the last rites. He chanted mantras, the meaning of which was beyond him, under the guidance of a priest who supervised the rituals. He clapped his wet hands, beseeching the black angels to accept a humble offer, intended to serve a divine purpose.
But the ravens did not turn up to grant deliverance to Vasu’s soul. Maybe, Gopu erred in the performance of karma towards his father; maybe, Vasu never stood up to his own karma.
Gopu, shivering in the chill of a sweeping breeze, threw his arms around Raj’s shoulders, and broke into a bout of sobs.
The refusal to accept ghee-smeared rice by ravens symbolized a popular belief that victims of unnatural death did not receive passage to the other world.
A police constable walked up to them. “Time to leave,” he spoke, voice grim, before securing Raj’s wrists with a handcuff. Raj looked back at his nephew and watched the tremors of emotions jolt his strong, athletic body.
As he and his escort approached the police jeep, Raj saw his sister, Vasu’s wife, Sheela, standing by the side of the vehicle. Her untied hair cascaded down her shoulders… the molten lava of grief, erupting to incinerate the sinner for avenging the sin. She stared at Raj, tears rolling down her cheeks. “You’ll rot in hell.” She cursed between sobs.
Raj stood before her for a moment, palms folded, and accepted the curse. “I’m sorry, sister. But please… take care of Gopu.”
He allowed his sister’s curse to prevail upon him, when the judge asked him, “You plead guilty or not guilty?”
“I plead guilty.” Raj stated.
“That was a stupid decision to make.” The family lawyer struggled to contain his resentment as he stood outside Raj’s cell. “Everybody knew he was a rogue. We’d enough grounds to prove self-defense.”
“A human being shouldn’t assume Almighty’s role and take lives, whatever be the excuse.” Raj sucked in the stale, humid air that hung inside his cell. “I owe responsibility to what happened. I deserve to be punished.”
The lawyer threw his arms up.
“And you know too well that this isn’t the first time I caused a death.” The humidity in the cell became too unbearable for Raj. “My soul straying for unpaid sins is the last thing I’ll want.”
The lawyer left without another word.
Later, Gopu visited Raj in the prison.
“How long would my father’s soul stray?” Gopu asked, standing outside the cell, a hint of tears in his eyes.
Behind the iron bars, Raj realized that a prison cell did not merely restrict physical freedom but also choked one’s yearnings in the stronghold of its murky dampness. He couldn’t reach out to hug Gopu. His voice quivered when he said, “Go home. Don’t ever come back.”
Gopu shuffled away, shoulders stooped.
Did the burden of an unsavory truth weigh so heavy? Raj’s hands tightened around the iron bars. Could he wipe away destiny’s design by scrubbing his palms against rusted, cold iron?
The hints to Raj’s destiny, purportedly sketched among the lines that crisscrossed his palm, remained a matter of anguish for his father, right from the stage when he was thirteen.
“He’d earn fame that’d make others envy,” the palmist said, pushing tender areca nut and tobacco wrapped in a betel leaf, smeared with lime paste, into his mouth. He ran his hand over Raj’s right palm as he began relishing his pan, waiting for the stimulant’s psychoactive properties to kick in.
‘Don’t ever expose the lines of your fate to anyone’s scrutiny.’ Mother used to warn Raj when he was a small child. ‘Knowing your destiny alters your life.’
Raj pulled back his hand.
“What’s wrong with you?” His father, relaxing next to the palmist on an easy-chair, and watching the proceedings, asked.
“Nothing, father…” Raj wiped his hand on his cotton shirt. “It’s just that my hands are sweating.”
A shooting star, crashing down from the sky, disappeared behind the mango groves. Raj remembered his mother’s smile. Her face would brighten up like shooting stars’ glow when she held him close to her bosom.
Raj felt his hand grow cold. The palmist’s coarse hand had overridden the warm feeling his mother had left in his palms… almost wiping out his sense of security.
‘My father was a great palmist. But he never read hands for money,’ Mother had said. ‘It was a divine call for him.’
More shooting stars disappeared into the murk beyond the mango trees. How could he ever sift the sweetness of his mother’s smile from the ashes of fallen stars?
“You’re a good boy, ain’t you? Open your hand.” The palmist cajoled him, wiping a red trail of saliva oozing from the corner of his mouth with the back of a hand.
‘You must be careful, son. The clouds of ill fate hover above you.’ She’d press his palm between her hands, as if in a desperate bid to drive away the lurking demons of bad luck with the warmth she poured into his palm.
“May I…” the palmist spoke, indicating a spittoon by the side of father’s chair, seeking permission to spit out the pan, whose juices he had devoured to the last drop.
Raj stared at a maze of scarlet veins that accentuated the redness in his father’s eyes. Normally he didn’t like others using his belongings.
“Sure,” Father said, pushing the spittoon towards the palmist. “Please make yourself comfortable.”
“Thank you,” the palmist said after spitting out the lump in his mouth.
“Show him your hand,” father said to Raj.
Raj stretched his hand, palm open. The palmist held the tip of his middle finger and resumed examination through a magnifying glass. Raj allowed his hand to be twisted and turned, for the palmist to analyze each hidden line that provided the clues to his destiny.
“Indications of misfortune...” The palmist’s voice lowered into a barely audible whisper. “It involves lives. He’ll be punished for taking one.”
Father scooped Raj abruptly into his arms, causing his head to crush against his muscular chest. “No! There must be a mistake.” His fingers groped through Raj’s hair.
Raj choked in the scent of his father’s sweat, tasted the salt in the pores of his skin, under the coils of hairs that matted his chest. He raised his head and watched a watery film float over the redness in his father’s eyes. Despite the smell of sweat, Raj kept leaning to his father’s body, his small hands soothing the robust neck and moving down to muscular shoulders.
The palmist shook his head. “Don’t ever look for what isn’t there at all,” he said. “I can only read what the lines of destiny on his palm suggest to me. You know…” The palmist’s eyes fell on Raj and he hesitated.
“It’s okay,” Father said. “Let him be… there’s no harm if he knows.”
Life would perhaps have been easier for Raj, if Father had not let him be. He would not have known that he had to owe responsibilities for the loss of lives.
“His mother’s death should be seen as the beginning,” the palmist said. “It’s not his fault though. Somehow, he’s been cursed to bear losses. Fate denies him lasting relationship with females.”
Later, the prediction had become true, when Raj lost his wife in a car accident while he was driving home with her after a vacation.
Father’s voice quivered when he spoke, “Give me a solution. You’d earlier foretold that his elder sister would fall for wrong charms, and now this!” Father’s grip around the easy chair’s armrest tightened, rendering his knuckles a pale hue. “There should be a remedy.”
“Do this puja, wear that gem... others may suggest many solutions…” The palmist put the magnifying glass back into his handbag. “But nothing can alter the course of destiny.”
For the first time, Raj felt his Father’s hand shake as it pressed against his shoulder. He had always seen the imposing figure as strong, brave, and powerful. Maybe, it was a myth that emotions could not shake such men.
The palmist rose to leave. “Pay me a thousand rupees. Check, in the name of Our Children.”
Father’s expression turned quizzical as he looked at the palmist.
“It’s an orphanage I run. I’ve nearly fifty children lodged there.”
Raj squeezed his palms together as he watched his father write a check for five thousand.
“Mr. Raj, are you ready?” the ghostwriter asks.
“Call me Raj. I’ll call you John.” Raj places a hand on John’s shoulder and squeezes. “It may sound strange. But those bleak walls of the prison cell stirred my imagination. Female organs drawn with charcoal on the dirty walls offered me another dimension of human perspective. My writings sold not because I’m talented but because they were destined to.” Raj fishes out a cigarette and lights it.
“You’re a prolific writer. How come you don’t write the biography yourself?” John shifts in his seat, before accepting the packet of cigarettes and lighter Raj offers him.
“The inner voice,” Raj says, blowing out smoke in curls. “I dread its intensity.”
John watches the curls move, twisting and turning, towards the ceiling.
“I’ll provide you a few details. Rest you must fill in,” Raj says. “I don’t want it to be an accurate account of my life. Play with your imagination, concoct a few lies. I don’t mind if images get distorted; true feelings may be too touchy.” Raj takes another drag of the cigarette and lets out smoke.
John’s eyes follow the rings, coiling into perfect ‘O’s.
“Not a scribe’s design, John. Since the breeze’s stopped, it takes its shape, moves its way.” Raj stubs out the cigarette in an ashtray on the center table between them. “Are you aware of ‘Marumackathayam,’ a prevalent tradition in Kerala in the earlier days?”
“Well, Raj...” John says. “Though our family never practiced it, I know it’s a matriarchal system of hierarchy.”
“Yes... one’s inheritance doesn’t go to his son, but his sister’s son,” Raj says.
“That explains why uncles became predominant in those days,” John responds as he stubs out his cigarette.
Raj nods. “A man’s sister’s daughter is the traditional bride for his son. Basic idea is to keep properties within the family.” Raj lights another cigarette. “We’ll begin with Vasu, my father’s nephew. I’ll tell about the murder later.”
Without Vasu there was no story. No murder, no prison term. No writing, no fame.
Raj takes a long drag on the cigarette. “My father objected to Vasu marrying his daughter, Vasu’s customary bride. Vasu, infatuated by her, was very possessive, which accounts for the dent in his psyche.”
The stench of Vasu’s stale breath invaded Raj’s nostrils. The reek of cheap arrack, mixed with the acrid odor of cheroot, stung worse than the knife’s blade Vasu held against his throat. “Get off me.” Raj’s voice assumed the tone of a hiss.
Vasu ground his hip to Raj’s groin, rather in an attempt to mock than to hold him down. “Shut up, bastard!” he said. “I’ve enough reasons already to drive this knife into your throat. Don’t gimme another.”
The blade cut into Raj’s skin and blood oozed out. He remembered the palmist’s warning about his destiny of having to take blame for lost human lives. He allowed the pain to sear him.
“But I wouldn’t kill you,” Vasu said. He withdrew the knife from Raj’s neck, pointed it against his chest, and stood up.
Freed of the suffocating odors, Raj heaved in a lungful of breath. The thick veins on his strong forearm became more pronounced as he got up, pressing a hand to the floor. The blood flowing from his robust neck had made his shirt stick to his chest, accentuating the sculpted shape of his toned muscles. Life would have been a lot easier if no one had ever read his palm. He would not have to tolerate the stench; or worse, the humiliation.
“You and your family will pay in a different way for dumping me, for marrying her off to another man.” Vasu scratched the stubs on his chin with the tip of his knife. “I’m gonna spend a lot of time pondering how. She’s mine. It’s destined.”
Raj pitied his rival’s perceived virility... a vanity, allowed by a virile man’s reinforced dread for bleak prison cells. “Vasu, if it’s property you’re after, don’t worry.” His passiveness veiled the contempt for the man standing tall in front of him. “I’ll give you a share of my mother’s property. But leave my sister alone.”
“Property?” Vasu laughed. “You know what? I could’ve pretended to be an all-abiding nephew to your father and received what he amassed, and claimed his daughter too.”
“It’s your fault you didn’t,” Raj said.
“You call it a fault; living the way one likes?” Vasu put the knife back into its sheath attached to his belt. “My mother chose to marry a man from a lower caste. That’s the reason why your father didn’t like the idea of me marrying his daughter.”
“Vasu, you don’t know my father. Caste and status were never an influence in his decisions. You know, he sheltered your mother when your father died.” Raj said. “What he abhors is your wayward life.”
“Oh! So your dad expects me to shake hands with those bastards who call me a pariah’s son? I should tolerate their lewd remarks about my mother so that I can thrive on your father’s estates?”
Raj casted his eyes down. “I feel sorry things didn’t work out well for you. But it’s over, Vasu. My sister is now married. You should find another girl; move on with your life.” He placed a hand on Vasu’s shoulder. “I’ll arrange for your marriage.”
“Get away from me, you son of a bitch!” Vasu shrugged off Raj’s hand. “No matter what… don’t think you can change destinies. Your sister is born to be my woman. And so shall she be.” Vasu stomped out.
Raj stared after him, suppressing the urge to go after him.
Vasu paused at the door and looked back. “And don’t forget the payback.” A smirk creased his cheeks as he said, “I’ll rip your family’s pride.”
Raj turned away from the glee on Vasu’s face. Was taking a life worthy of nothing? Wasn’t a prison cell better than humiliation? He slammed his fist against the wall.
Destiny’s lack of concern and insensitiveness toward human conditions became obvious to Raj when Sheela’s husband also died in a car accident on their honeymoon trip to Goa.
On the day of his funeral, Vasu barged into the house. His legs wavered as he walked up to Raj’s father. “Aren’t you satisfied yet? You spoiled your daughter’s life, like you did mine!”
Raj watched his father recoil from the stench of arrack Vasu spewed onto his face. Father held a hand up, as if to ward off the evil and its stench. “Go away. You should learn to respect death.”
“Father, I love Vasu.” Sheela, attired in a grieving dress, emerged from the bedroom, her feelings of grief overridden by her sense of loyalty to her paramour. “I’ve always loved him. You should understand the needs of a daughter, and honor Vasu’s love.”
Stunned, Father just stood there, looking at her.
Vasu laughed. “See, only a woman knows a man. They’ve mutual respect. Both you morons never earned respect.”
More than enough reason to kill…
Raj glanced at his father’s face. Instead of embers burning, he noticed a thickening film of tears beginning to blur the redness of his eyes. He stood silent, his broad shoulders stooped and the muscular chest heaving.
“Life is predestined. Isn’t it, father?” Sheela asked.
For the first time in his life, Raj saw his father’s dominant figure shrivel. All those years, from crib to floor, thence to courtyard, to hillocks, roads and seashores… Forgotten, defied, and denied.
Raj walked out, in the dire need for a vent to exhaust his fury.
Is the whole truth so trivial to be exposed to public scrutiny, through a memoir? Raj thinks. Can his audience ever understand the burden of savory truths? Burdens come only with unsavory truths.
“The death of Sheela’s husband was a matter of realization than shock,” Raj says. “The ways of destiny stifled me to acquiescence.” He runs a hand through his curly hair. “I was concerned about my sister’s conjugal life. I pleaded to my father and, finally, he agreed. Vasu claimed his traditional bride. This is the plot prior to the murder.”
“Mr. Raj… Raj, I’ll flesh it out a little and I’m confident it’ll come off well. Can we discuss the murder now?”
“Yes… the murder. That’s the hook.” Raj contemplates. “But before that there is a subplot. Life goes on; the characters have children, and they enjoy life. Until later, when the subplot takes an ugly turn…” He calls for his servant. “And, before I unveil the tension, we can use a drink.”
Moments later, a male servant arrives, pushing a food cart laden with a bottle of Glendronach Single Malt, an ice tray, two glasses, a bowl containing assorted fruits, and another with roasted cashew nuts. Bowing to his master, he leaves.
“You mind fixing a drink for me, John?”
“My pleasure, Raj… how’d you prefer it?”
“Double shot, on the rocks… and make yours too.”
John prepares the drinks and hands a glass over.
Raj accepts the drink, raises the glass in a toast, and downs it in a single gulp. He leans back in the easy chair, and exhales. “The subplot involves children,” he says. “Vasu’s son and my daughter… I’m the uncle, Vasu’s son, the nephew, my daughter the customary bride. Traditions survive in family.”
John listens, taking occasional sips from his glass.
“The subplot is transparent. The brother wants to keep with traditions. The sister too… Practically, her brother’s property goes to her son. The children like each other. No, they love each other… a comfortable situation, right?”
“Can I have a cigarette, Raj?”
“Exercise your freedom, John. That’s something I missed for the best part of my life… and that’s something you can lavishly enjoy in my place.”
John pulls out a packet of Wills Navy Cut from his pocket. “You know, Raj, foreign scotch is okay to me. But when it comes to tobacco, I prefer the native.”
“Now you need a conflict in the story,” Raj says. “Sheela failed to understand Vasu’s hatred for his uncle’s family, but her father always did.” Raj makes another drink, gestures John to pour his.
John downs the remaining drink in his glass, relishing its flavor lingering on his palate, and reaches for the bottle.
“You prefer something other than fruits and nuts? Red meat or seafood, perhaps…” Raj asks.
John shakes his head. “It’s a wonderful place you’ve here, Raj. A hut that challenges a saint’s notion of an abode… So naturalistic in its elegance that it’d put the ancient hermits to shame of their dwelling. The best part though is your sense of hospitality.”
“Yes, I wanted this hut built in tune with that of the saints’ abodes. I find my peace in here, John. That matters.” Raj lights a cigarette.
“What bothers me is the repetition of the conflict in the family,” John says.
“A Hindu joint family, John… conflicts are bound to occur in such a setting.” Raj replies. “It happens in every family, one way or the other.”
“Yes, maybe, what’s the resolution?”
“The dent in Vasu’s psyche, aggravated by the feelings of revenge, prompts him to molest his brother-in-law’s daughter, the prospective bride of his son.”
“Damn it! How could he?”
“Ha! He could, because his advances within the family had been tolerated,” Raj responds in a snapping tone. “My fear of prison cells…”
“If I were you, I would’ve ripped him into pieces,” John says.
“You’re not deterred by the hands of fate… or the fear of prisons. My father had no curses to deal with. He contained his fury for the apprehension that I’d interfere and get hauled off into prison for taking a life.”
John thinks for a while and then asks, “Now fill me about the exact details of how you did him in, so that I can capture your real emotions when you committed the murder.”
Gopu stood still holding a knife, its blade painted crimson. Vasu’s body continued to jolt in spasms, and then went limp.
Palm readers have never predicted a life behind the bars for Gopu. “Uncle...I’d no other options but…” Gopu said as my daughter, his bride, cringed towards a corner of the bedroom.
Raj looked at the pool of blood around Vasu’s head, and then at his daughter. “You did the right thing,” Raj said as he wrenched the knife from Gopu’s hands. “‘You had to do it ‘cause I’d never mustered the courage.”
“Get away, Gopu. Don’t ever tell anyone you’d been here,” Raj said. “And, always take care of my daughter.” Gopu walked out, without a second glance.
Was that filament of truth so trivial to be revealed to public scrutiny? Raj thinks as he pours another drink for himself.
John sits and waits while Raj ponders, pretending to relish the drink, whether the burden of a savory truth should be revealed to public scrutiny.