Read an excerpt from 'Pork Roast', a short story that appears in Perumal Murugan's latest book, Four Strokes of Luck
Kumaresan's days of wandering the forests and hills were cut short by the introduction of the midday meal scheme in schools. He was forced to attend school so that he would have one nutritious meal a day.
Perumal Murugan's Four Strokes of Luck (translated from the Tamil by Nandini Krishnan) is a collection of short stories about lives on the margins. In one story, Amma is unable to live without her buffalo Seemaatti. In another, Kumaresu, who has found success in business, isn't able to overcome rejection by his childhood sweetheart. Another story follows Murugesu who hides in a neem thicket each day, extorting money from young couples. And in one, Saraswati, who's mocked her whole life for her dark skin, finds the will to keep going, through her secret passion for a movie star.
The following excerpt is from the story 'Pork Roast', which appears in Four Strokes of Luck. It has been republished here with due permission from Juggernaut Books.
“When Thaathan died, Kumaresan must have been seven or eight years old. It wasn’t too hard to make a living in that village, and so his family had lived contentedly in its outskirts for over a year. Their home was a little straw hut by the lakeside, where the birds would chirp and coo and sing all day. They did not hunt water birds for a living. No one from the village ever set traps for the birds. And so Kumaresan could play with them happily. His grandparents, his own family and his uncle’s family lived in the hut, making twelve or thirteen people altogether.
Patti had a single errand for the day. She would head to the village every evening. Her only possessions were three pots. On the days the pot she carried into the village was filled to the brim, she would say, ‘This is a village ruled by prosperous altruists who fill their cooking pots and not their plates.’ On the days it wasn’t, she would say, ‘This is a village of foraging misers who scrape and lick their plates clean.’ She would wake even the children who had fallen asleep and give them a fistful of food. This late dinner usually comprised balls of pearl millet in gravy. She packed the gooey kali in a separate pot. She would soak the leftover millet balls in water. She would squeeze the kali and drink it through the next day, relaxing under the shade of the large neem tree. If she was inclined to, she would trek into the forest to collect firewood or fetch water. She never failed to wash the three pots and leave them to dry in the sun so the smell of food wouldn’t linger.
Kumaresan’s mother, aunt and the other women and girls of the house would go from forest to forest to gather firewood. They would find plenty of sticks in the organic fences formed by commiphora trees. They would choose sticks that were about the thickness of a finger. Once they had gathered a certain number, they would leave them to dry in the sun. When the sticks had dried just enough to be flexible, they would weave them into baskets. Each time they had five or six baskets ready, they would go into the holdings of the farmers and exchange the baskets for food or money. Sometimes they would go to the markets and sell them. The residents of the village were particularly fond of these baskets, woven from a single unbroken branch. As the branches dried further, the basket would become progressively lighter. These baskets were ideal for gathering cow dung and garbage. They would last a long time. Not even sickles could cut them in half.
The wood stove would be lit only at dusk. The women brought enough income for the family to eat. The men would procure the meat for broth. This job took them all day. At daytime, they would keep watch at the thickets and hollows. During the cropping season, their hunt would extend into the night. A rat or bandicoot or rabbit or monitor lizard would fall prey to them every day. They would trap quails and partridges using nets. There were coconut groves in the village too. Squirrels were prone to climbing these trees and damaging the coconuts. And so the owners of the coconut trees would approach Kumaresan’s family to trap the thieves. They would set traps to lure the squirrels. Within a day or two, the number of coconut predators would reduce. Squirrel curry was so tender it oozed the flavour of melting ghee.
Kumaresan got to taste various kinds of meat. But his days of wandering the forests and hills were cut short by the introduction of the midday meal scheme in schools. He was forced to attend school so that he would have one nutritious meal a day. The teacher had targeted boys like him with great success. The scheme had just been introduced in the state. Kumaresan would go to school on some days, and play truant on others. On the days wheat grains were served, he could not be found anywhere in the vicinity of the school. The school had a single teacher. It was this teacher who had given Kumaresan his name. Since he had been a baby, he had been called ‘Eliyaan’ because he looked like a rat pup. The teacher never hit him. Whatever the teacher had to say, he would say it with kindness. Hitting the students could drive them away. The enrolment record would be affected. The teacher’s kindness was due to this consideration. But the name he had been given was only an ‘attendance name’. The teacher would call him, ‘Dei, Thomba payale!’ – You Thomban boy. Every now and again, he would mock him, saying, ‘This guy will eat everything except lizards and chameleons.’
The inhabitants of the village belonged almost exclusively to a community of caste Hindus. The women of this community would neither cook nor eat pork. But one couldn’t say the same of the men. They had a weakness for this particular meat. Vellaiyan could not do without pork once in three months.
‘There’s too much heat in the body,’ he would say, or, ‘I’m not able to work.’ This was a signal that he was going to arrange for a pork roast. Over the next week, he would find ten to fifteen people to share the animal. The advance for one’s share of a pig was two rupees. The number of shares would depend on the size of the pig. Once he had enough money for the purchase, he would begin to look for a suitable pig.
The only problem was his wife. ‘Shit eater!’ she would snap. Or she would say snidely, ‘If this shit eater can’t have panni, his stomach will swell up.’
He would limit his retort to, ‘Will any farmer’s wife refer to a muruvaan as a panni?’ In that region, pigs were referred to respectfully as ‘muruvaan’, and Vellaiyan never used the word ‘panni’, which he deemed pejorative.
He would avoid going home and spend all day in the forest. He knew every farm that reared pigs in the neighbourhood. He would visit one each day. His visit was timed so he could be at the farms around ten or eleven in the morning. The pigs would have finished their grazing and returned to their sties to rest from the heat of the day.”
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