English translation of a short story from one of my favourite Tamil literary works, Aram by Jeyamohan, for all my friends who couldn’t read Tamil, because this is such a beautiful piece of literature.
[Jeyamohan’s original Tamil version]
You probably haven’t heard of Gethael Sahib. His small restaurant stood near the current Sri Padmanabha Theatre on Trivandrum Road Bazaar. There were no meat-lovers who hadn’t visited the restaurant in the 60s and 70s.
The original restaurant existed until Gethael Sahib passed away in ’78. His son and their relatives run multiple branches of his restaurant now. One could still savour the same flavours in their fish and chicken curries. Called Mubarak Hotel now, people still wait in crowds, for their seat at the restaurant. Meat lovers believe that any Trivandrum visit is complete only after a visit to the Mubarak Hotel. But, there was always something special about Gethael Sahib Hotel, which is a story everyone needs to know.
Even now Mubarak Hotel exudes simplicity with its location inside a small alley, a shed facade and tin-sheet roofing, which isn’t much of a difference from it’s olden days avatar of a 15 x 8ft shed with thatched roofing and bamboo furniture. It used to be open on all sides letting in cool air in the summers, while also allowing the drizzle from the Kerala monsoons, for most part of the year. Nonetheless, Gethael Sahib Hotel, as it was known in those days, was never short of large crowds.
Did I say never? For he hardly had the restaurant open for long hours. Gethael Sahib would open for business at 12pm in the noon and close by 3pm. The next shift would open at 7pm and close by 10pm in the night. People would start gathering outside the restaurant early in the morning waiting on the ottuthinnai* outside or the Rahmath Vilas tailor shop on the opposite side, else on the entrance of the K.P. Arunalachalam Chettiar and Sons provision stores. They would entertain themselves with the Mathrubhoomi or the Kerala Kaumudi newspapers and have hot debates over K.Balakrishnan’s essays.
This flurry of activity outside the restaurant would cease when the sack covering the restaurant door is rolled up, as a sign of opening, with the large crowd hurrying inside. Gethael Sahib looked like a giant, standing 7ft tall with a well-built physique. His big face still had scars from chickenpox. His one kohl filled eye looked like a gently tear-filled cowry shell, while the other eye was smaller and a cinder red. A white netted cap on his head; His moustache-less round beard was stained a reddish brown with henna. A checked lungi on his hip, held in place by a broad green belt. Though he was a Malayali, Gethael Sahib couldn’t speak Malayalam fluently. He stuck to a mixture of Arabic and Malayalam, but it was very rare to hear him speak more than a few words. He just had to say ‘Pareen’ before he went inside the kitchen, and the restaurant’s benches would be full already.
A verbal invitation was not necessary, when the different aromas from the chicken curry, fried chicken, prawn roast, pearl spot fish fry and sardine curry would already have engaged in an inviting dance. I have visited many restaurants, but none of them came close to Gethael Sahib’s. Vasudevan Nair said, “There’s something behind it dae. When one person procures the ingredients and the other cooks, the flavours just don’t blend as well. But Gethael Sahib doesn’t just buy the fish and chicken himself, he also gets the rice and provisions all by himself. He could detect if there’s even a grain of difference in the quality. The prawns come specially for him from the Chirayinkeezhu beach. His aide, Paapee brings the fresh catch still in the nets, in a tank full of water. Sahib carries them straight to the kitchen for the day’s dishes. When there’s integrity in the person who’s cooking, the flavour trickles down to the food too.”
I know not how to explain, but in the fifteen years that I’ve visited him, there’s not a single day when the quality of the flavours dwindled even a little. We’ve to commend not just the quality and his integrity, but also his ability to calculate. In Sahib’s restaurant, curry and vegetables always came hot out of the stove, while the preparation was ongoing, based on his rough estimate. His wife, two sons and two other helpers would aid him in cooking. He could taste everything with just the smell. It felt as if a Djinn resided there. Even better than the regular Arabian Djinn — one born in a Malabar village and brought up in Kallayi Puzha.
Gethael Sahib’s origin was in Malabar. His son once exclaimed that it was his dad’s place of birth when Joseph Kechaeri’s ‘Kallayi Puzhayoru Manavatti’ sang on radio. Otherwise, he doesn’t talk about himself. The only way to know him is probably through hypnotisation. As a young boy, Sahib used to sell tea on the streets with a huge kettle, from which his name was derived. Later he started selling fish fry and gradually upgraded to a restaurant. Anandhan Nair once said, “I haven’t had a tea better than the one from Gethael Sahib. Even Kaumudi Balakrishnan used to come in person to the bazaar for his tea!”.
Sahib lived in a large house with his joint family in Ambalamukku and had about eight shops in the town. His three daughters were married and he had set up a shop for each of his son-in-laws. You won’t be surprised to hear that they were all financed by his restaurant. But you would be surprised if you knew how he made money. Sahib never charged his customers, even during his days of selling tea. There was a small tin collection box half hidden in the front corner of the restaurant. Anybody could pay whatever they wished. Gethael Sahib never bothered how much one ate or if they even paid up.
He had been following this from his days of selling tea while wearing khaki shorts with no shirt, and a circular cap. In the beginning, a few ruffians would trouble him depositing paper slips in his collection box or running away with the box itself. They would have had his tea for years without paying anything. Gethael Sahib didn’t seem to even remember their faces.
Gethael Sahib did slap someone once. There was a new lady seller from a distant village in Tamil Nadu, who was drinking tea. The famous Sattambi Karaman Kochu Kuttan Pillai ordered a tea, then looked at her with lust. He tried to drag her into an alley, when Gethael Sahib went over and slapped him hard, loud enough for the whole street to hear. Kuttanpillai lay on the road bleeding from his ears and nose, while Gethael Sahib went back to selling tea, not paying any more attention to him.
Kuttanpillai was carried away by his men and after eighteen days in the hospital, he never returned to normal. He couldn’t hear, had head tremors and frequent seizures. Seven months later, a seizure got to him when taking a dip in the Karamana River and only his bulged lifeless body could be retrieved. There were casteist outbursts of how a Maapillai could hit a Nair of the upper caste, but the trustee of Mahadeva temple, Anandhan Nair dusted it off, saying “Mind your own business dae. For someone without virtues, death can come in any form…” and nobody dared argue with him.
I went to Gethael Sahib Hotel for the first time in ’68. My native place is Osaravinai near Kanyakumari and my father worked as an accountant in a rice mill. I was a good student and my family urged me to join a college after I passed 11th standard. I couldn’t have imagined it in my dad’s income, but I had an uncle in Trivandrum Pettai, who was running a mediocre printing press. My father held my hand as we got down the bus at Thampanoor, and walked till Pettai. My first time in a city. Streaked with sweat trickling down my coconut-oil-smeared hair, a dhoti barely grazing my ankles, a crumpled shirt and feet without slippers, I walked in a daze.
Having been brought up by my father, uncle didn’t have a choice, but to let me stay with his family. I enrolled for English Literature in the university, and dad left, feeling content. Placing one rupee into my hands, he said “Have this, but don’t spend it. Your uncle will take care of everything”. I know not if my uncle favoured this arrangement, but I understood that my aunt definitely didn’t, by dinner time the same day. She didn’t ask me to join dinner with the family, and later an aluminium vessel with leftover food was kept on the kitchen counter for me.
I was used to scorn and starvation, so I was tolerant, but they continued to intensify as days went by. I had to draw multiple buckets of water from the well for household use, sweep the house everyday, drop my uncle’s daughters in the school, help the elder Ramalakshmi in eighth standard with her school assignments, clean the kitchen after dinner, among others. Despite all this, I only received a space on the thinnai for myself and two meals of rice with pickle. Aunt was always dissatisfied and lamented to everyone who visited, that I was a huge financial liability. Every time I opened my book to study, she would get wild and scream with anger.
I never mentioned any of this to dad. My family could only afford to have porridge made from discarded rice from the nearby rice mill on most days. I grew up eating curry made of greens growing on the banks of a stream. A curry made of greens boiled with just chillies and tamarind, despite being the humblest of foods, would make us drool in hunger with its aroma. Rare were the days when my mother would dare to spend a quarter rupee on sardines, but when she did, the whole house would be filled with the aroma. The memory of the fish curry would linger throughout the day, making it difficult to concentrate on anything else.
I had to pay the college fees, and with a lot of difficulty, brought up the topic to my uncle. “Ask your dad… I only promised to take care of your lodgings and food…”, he said. I knew there was no point in asking my dad and was denied entry to college until I paid the fee. I grew distraught and sat at the Thampanoor railway station for a whole day, listening to the sounds of metal on rail, imagining thousand different ways of dying on the railway tracks. That’s when Kumara Pillai, a classmate, showed me a way. He took me to K. Nagaraja Panicker’s rice mill for accounting work. The work timings were from five in the evening till twelve at night and paid me one rupee a day, with forty rupees as advance. With this, I paid the college fee.
Reaching home around one or two every night and waking up at seven in the morning, I could only learn during breaks at college, but still I managed to do well. I would listen attentively during classes, but time was never enough. To go from college via the Secretariat and to reach the bazaar via Karamana would take forty five minutes in total. Shanmugam Pillai’s class would go on till four thirty and if I got late, Paramasivam would take my accountant spot, and I would lose my income for the day.
I was not paid for the first month. My employer Panicker, debited the fifteen rupee salary from the advance. When I woke up in the morning, I saw a notebook that my aunt had left in front of me. I flipped through. Old note. She had recorded expenses for every single meal I’ve had at her home totalling to forty-eight rupees. I felt dizzy. I slowly went to the kitchen and asked her about it. “Of course, there’s no free lunch. Aren’t you earning now? I’ve been maintaining a record from day one”.
I closed my eyes for a few seconds to regain composure. “I never expected this Maami. I don’t really earn that much. I need to pay my college fee and buy books too”, I said. “Listen, why should I feed you for free? I have two young daughters and I need cash and jewellery to get them married. There’s dignity only after you settle up”. I softly uttered, “I have no money now, Maami. I’ll pay you back little by little.” “How can I trust you?”, she asked. I said nothing. I left that evening. I came straight to Panicker’s godown and stayed there. He was glad to have a watchman for free. My aunt sold some of my books for cash.
I was generally happier after that — Bathing in the Karamana river, four idlis at Elysamma’s shop, college, no lunch. After work in the evening I would drink a cup of tea and go to bed. I could afford only one meal day and was perpetually hungry. Food was always a predominant thought. I couldn’t take my eyes off anybody who was chubby, wondering how much they got to eat. I would enter the Mahadeva temple if there was ever the aroma of payasam. The rice and fruit on the leaf would save the cost of idlis for a day. I still did not have enough money. The next instalment for college fees was already due. Apart from this I was paying back my aunt in instalments of 5 rupees every month. And I had to get back my remaining books from her, before the exams.
I lost weight and couldn’t function well. While working, I’d suddenly feel dizzy. There was always a bitter taste in my lips and a tremor in the limbs. It took an hour for me to walk up to college. My dreams were all about food. One day I saw a dead dog on the road and couldn’t stop myself from salivating over the wild thought of having the meat for dinner.
That’s when Coolie Narayanan told me about the Gethael Sahib Hotel. It was unbelievable that I need not pay. I still did not dare go there. But the thought of the Gethael Sahib Hotel was always at the forefront of my mind. Four or five times I stood outside the hotel, watched and came back. That scent got me crazy. I have only eaten fried fish twice in my entire life. A week later, I went to the Gethael Sahib Hotel with the three rupees that I had managed to save.
I continued to tremble until Sahib opened the restaurant, guilty like I was committing a crime. I went inside with the crowd and sat in a corner so that nobody would pay attention. A lot of noise. Sahib was serving up a storm on lotus leaves. He served the red samba rice from a large bowl and poured red fish curry over it. For some, it was chicken broth. Roast chicken curry for some. It seemed that he didn’t notice anyone. I understood after a while that he knew everyone. He did not converse, but served everybody himself.
“Are you new here, pillaicha?”, he came next to me and asked. I was speechless wondering how he noticed me. He served rice and broth, with a large fried chicken leg. Two pieces of fried fish. “Eat”, he murmured, then turned away. It will cost more than three rupees anyway. My limbs began to tremble. Rice stuck in my throat. Suddenly, Sahib returned and boomed, “What are you doing? Start eating.” I ate with fervour. The flavour spread all over my body. Taste! God, I have forgotten that such a thing existed in the world. Tears flowed from my eyes to my lips.
Gethael Sahib came in with something like melted ghee in a small jug. He poured it over the rice with more broth and said ‘fish fat’. It was a yolk from the earlobes of freshwater fish. It gave the curry a distinct taste. At one point my stomach got stuffy as I wasn’t used to a large quantity of food. Suddenly Sahib heaped two more bowls of rice onto my leaf. “Oh no”, I exclaimed, trying to block him, when he slapped me off. “How dare you block the food? Eat this dae”, he said. Sahib’s bloodshot eyes told me that he might hit me if I got up or wasted the food. I struggled to move when I finished eating. I held on to a bench for support, as I walked over to wash my hands.
My legs trembled as I approached that box. Somewhere along the way it seemed that Gethael Sahib was watching me. But he was busy serving others. I noticed that many people went without depositing money. Some casually dropped money into the box. I deposited three rupees with trembling hands and guiltily waited for someone to call out to me. I started feeling light as I walked out. There was a cold breeze on the road. With goosebumps all over, I walked as if in a trance.
I did not go back for four to five days. I picked up the courage to go back to Gethael Sahib Hotel after saving two rupees. It was only when he brought the fish fat and poured it that I knew he recognized me. Same bossy tone. Same quantity of food, enough to make me explode. This time I casually dropped the money into the box. When I went back three days later, I had seven rupees in my hand. I had to give it to my aunt the next evening. I thought I could spend two rupees on the food. Eating more than two meals a day is the pinnacle of extravagance for me. But the taste did not leave me. Those days, I would even dream of the fish curry and chicken fry of the Gethael Sahib Hotel, in my meagre sleeping hours. I had even penned down a poem in my notebook about it.
As I was eating, I wondered what might happen if I left without paying up. The thought shook me. I couldn’t eat any more. I had to stuff rice down my throat. My eyes darkened. I got up, washed my hands and walked away with heavy cold feet. It wasn’t clear whether I was dizzy or why my chest was tightening up. I wondered if I should simply pay. I walked slowly and came near the deposit box. I couldn’t walk past it. A static filled my ears. I jerked and dropped seven rupees before walking out. It was only when the outside breeze blew over me that I understood what I had done. Half a month’s earnings gone. The college fee deadline was eight days away. What have I done? The pinnacle of stupidity!
I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my throat. It felt like someone close had died. The biggest disappointment ever. I went to the store and sat down. Work helped to distract me, else I would have headed to the rail tracks in that frenzy. I wondered why I should worry. I just had to continue visiting Gethael Sahib Hotel till I ran out of the value I had paid. I fell asleep with the comfort that that thought gave me.
I came straight to the Gethael Sahib Hotel after college the next day. He kept serving me, as though I’d leave even if there was a small break. When leaving, I was putting into words the reasons I had to say if I Gethael Sahib saw me leaving without paying up. He never noticed. I was slightly disappointed when I came out. The disappointment took the form of annoyance at his being so generous. He survives only because of the money he’s earned. Isn’t that how he’s accumulated property and assets? Slightly annoyed, I thought I would just push the boundaries and see how long he’d tolerate not getting paid by me.
It was with the same annoyance that I went the next day. I knew Gethael Sahib wouldn’t question a thing. But I resolved to stop going there, if there was even a small difference in his attitude toward me. If he showed a little too much hospitality that also meant that he maintained a mental account. But Gethael Sahib was serving at his same usual pace. He served chicken and said, “Have this chicken, pillaicha”. Then followed the fish. Is he real? Or is he a Djinn? It was frightful too. When the last course was done, Sahib served some curry powder with a little charred chicken in it. I always tried not to show how much I enjoyed it, but it was no surprise that he knew.
As I mixed the curry powder with the rice, my heart started feeling heavy. I couldn’t hold back the tears. I’ve never been taken care of by somebody else, in my life. For my mom who had to make do with the handful of rice to prepare porridge for the whole family, couldn’t split portions without her curses and reprimands. Here was the first person who thought I should eat until I was full. The first hand to feed me without any calculation. Isn’t this hand with the beaded wrist, thick fingers and a hairy elbow, truly that of a mother’s? Since then I have never paid Gethael Sahib. With my whole heart I thought I was being fed by my own mother and didn’t feel obliged to pay for the next — not one or two years, but five full years.
I was probably eating there everyday. Evening or afternoon. That was enough for me. Along with another four idlies. I gained weight. My cheeks gained sheen. I grew a mustache. My voice turned heavy. Tall strides, assured tones and confident laughter came with it. My place in the store grew almost identical to a manager’s. It was my sole responsibility to credit the goods and buy them as required. I sent money every month to my family. After being ranked first in the university in BA, I went on to pursue MA. I rented a room above the Arunachalam Nadar shop on the road and bought a nice bicycle.
I continued to eat at Gethael Sahib’s everyday. I continued to harbour suspicion that he was watching me. But as his heavy hands stretched out with the food over my leaf, I knew it was the hand of a loving mother. When my brother Chandran finished eleventh standard and started working at the Government Transport department, the financial burden reduced for my family. Mom buys good rice and prepares fish broth, and serves it herself. But poverty has lasted for so long that she couldn’t bring herself to serve wholeheartedly without calculating how much food was left in the pan. She would pour back half of whatever she scoops in her ladle. To serve some more, she couldn’t bring herself to take more than a few drops. Stumped by scarcity. When served a stew of sardines and samba rice by her, I’d feel full by the fourth handful, and it would be tiring to have any more. Weakly she’d say, “Eat dae”. I’d nod and wash off.
I ranked second at the university in MA and immediately got a job as a lecturer at the same college. The afternoon that I received the order, I went straight to the Gethael Sahib hotel. The restaurant was not open. I went to the back and pushed aside the sack covering the door. Gethael Sahib was intently bent over, cooking fish broth in a huge cauldron. It was like a prayer. It did not seem right to call out to him. I left. I looked up at his face, when Gethael Sahib served me lunch the same afternoon. There was no special meaning he intended for me. I decided not to tell him anything. It seemed to not make any difference to him.
I went home to my family in the evening. I don’t know if Mom was happy. She has a facial expression that shows nothing but worry. Dad just asked ‘How much will they pay?’. ‘It will be good enough’, I said casually. ‘What, two hundred rupees?’, he asked. I was annoyed to see the petty clerk in him. “Seven hundred rupees along with an allowance”, I replied. I can never forget the momentary spite that I saw in his eyes. He had retired without ever making more than 20 rupees a month. My younger brother jumped with real excitement. “You’ve to conduct lectures in English, which means you speak good English, isn’t it? Do you speak like an English noble?” My mother angrily said, “Enough of the excitement. Learn to save the money and get our daughters married off well.”
She found a moral reason to show her angst against. “Have you seen where the ostentatious end up? I met the Thazhakudy folks at Shanmugam’s wedding. She looked like dried fish gone bad. Remember how she used to show off? God always finds a way to teach a lesson.” “What’re you talking about? Your son who’s standing here, has grown so well because she fed him. Show some gratitude. Gratitude…”, replied dad. “What gratitude? If she has fed him regularly, we just have to calculate and settle the account. Otherwise, she would come back with her own account tomorrow, the shameless woman”. Dad seethed back telling her to shut up.
The next day I went to Thazhakudy. It had been two years since my uncle passed away. It was a sudden fever. I was in the hospital too. An infection caused by a bacteria had spread to his heart. He was gone on the third night. We looked into the financial accounts of his printing press and found that he had left behind a debt of two thousand rupees. The building owner asked to vacate the press. After selling the machines and repaying the loan, my aunt came back to Thazakudi with the remaining three thousand rupees. She had a small land asset under her name and found a house for lease. Ramalakshmi did not continue her studies beyond eleventh standard, while the younger girl stopped at eighth. My aunt was shocked. Day by day the money dwindled and I saw panic glaze on her face and grow into a thin dry shadow. Whenever I was in town, out of respect, I’d visit them and leave ten rupees on their table.
Aunt wasn’t home. Ramalakshmi was there. Her face showed dark traces too. The house comprised only a courtyard, thinnai and a kitchen area. Rolled mats hung on the flag. The floor was waxed with dung. A Ranimuthu novel sat on a small table. Ramalakshmi went out through the backyard to the house next door to borrow some sugar or tea powder to make some black tea for me. She placed the tumbler on the table and stood near the door half hiding herself. I could only see her hair parting. She was a smart woman. But her math was weak. I tried to teach her the principles of compound interest for more than twenty days, back in Trivandrum. I wasn’t sure what to talk about. She seemed like a stranger.
I got up ten minutes later to leave. “Amma will be here soon,” she said in a soft voice. I said I had to leave, and left a fifty rupee note from the table. As I was walking down the alley, I saw my aunt walking towards me. She was carrying a box on her head, supported by a rolled up saree. She looked at me casually and recognised me after about half a second. “Oh my!,” she exclaimed. I helped her unload the box. There was bran in it. She was going to pound rice for hire and the bran was the wage. She seemed to be on her way to sell it. She held out her hand, “Come home, son.” “No. I have to go. I’m leaving for Trivandrum today…” and then I said “I’ve found a job… at my college”. She didn’t quite understand it. Poverty blunts the brain.
Suddenly she understood the meaning of it a few seconds later, and grabbed my hand, saying “Oh… my son .. You’ll do well… You’ll do well, dae”. “I was putting it off till you were employed. It is not my place to ask you. I do not have anything. We’re able to have rice porridge after pounding rice for strangers for a daily wage. There was a time when I used to feed you. Even if it’s two meals a day, for eight months, I’ve fed you about five hundred meals. Your mother will not realise it now. I know you feel that gratitude even if she doesn’t… Son, Ramalakshmi has nobody else but you. The poor girl thinks of you day and night… Give her a life, son… If you don’t show gratitude for the food that you ate, you’ll have to continue to pay back in your afterlife.”
When I said goodbye to her and got on the bus, I was left with a bitter taste. I came straight to Trivandrum. If I had not been immersed in the excitement of the new responsibility that came with the work, that bitterness would have stayed alive throughout my body. I sent my first month’s salary to my mother. In the reply letter, she mentioned, “Subbamma spoke to your father. Your dad is half-hearted too. We shouldn’t get into this. Let’s just pay in hundreds or thousands for her daughter’s wedding. It shouldn’t look like we owe something to anybody else. There’s a good prospect from Boothapandi. Shall I talk to them?”, she had asked. It kept me up all night. I grew tired and fell asleep. In the morning, my mind was clear. ‘Go ahead mom. The girl must be a little educated. ‘
I had joined a twenty thousand rupee savings chit fund run by Canteen Swaminatha Iyer, in my first month of employment. The installment was five hundred rupees a month. I took it out for auction when another four thousand rupees was left. He rolled up a total of sixteen thousand rupees in the Mathrubhumi newspaper and handed it over. In hundred rupee notes. I had never touched so much money with my hand. A kind of horror tickled my hands. I brought it into the room and kept looking at those notes. I never thought I would make so much money someday. You could even buy a small house in the suburbs of Trivandrum with it. I smiled at the thought of the strangeness with which I had grown accustomed to the money in a short while.
At noon I went to the Gethael Sahib hotel. I started depositing money in the cash box. When the box was full, I asked Gethael Sahib for another box. “Da Ameed! Replace the cash box”, he said. The guy replaced the box and I deposited all the money, washed my hands and sat down for a meal. Gethael Sahib served my favorite fried prawns on the leaf, rice and poured the broth over it. I knew very well that there would be no change in him. Not a word. A little farther sat two young boys. Pale Nair boys. Undernourished fungal skin. White eyes. They were devouring the curry ladled by Gethael Sahib. He poured some more and one of them exclaimed “No!” and got up, to which he slapped his head saying “Eat dae”. The strong blow got him to sit down, scared. As if cayenne pepper hurt his eyes, he cried and ate.
Gethael Sahib was busy serving chicken, broth, fish and prawns. I was waiting expectantly to meet his eyes. Don’t I want my mother to know that I too have become accomplished? But his eyes never met mine as usual. I only caught sight of his huge arms when serving. Only they seemed to belong to me. As if they only measured my appetite.
I left for the city that day. I got married to Ramalakshmi in the next month of Aavani.
English translation of a short story from one of my favourite Tamil literary works, Aram by Jeyamohan, for all my friends who couldn’t read Tamil, because this is such a beautiful piece of literature.