“Saavu, word is that the old chieftain won’t live to see the sun rise. The doctors in the town hospital have given up. You are going to make a kill tomorrow,” Esakki, perched precariously on his bicycle said aloud to Mari who was sauntering aimlessly inside his house.
Mari or ‘Saavu’ Mari as he was popularly known for his mastery over dancing in funeral processions, had fallen on bad times. Not many people seemed to be dying of late, at least not as many as he would have liked. Mari for his part, hadn’t bothered to equip himself for another vocation. Having carved a niche for himself, so much so the epithet of ‘Saavu’ – meaning death – had become synonymous with him, Mari commanded a handsome pay for his services and that was enough.
“Saavu, on your way to transform a mourning house into a celebration zone?” people would ask when he they would see him head to work. It would make him beam with pride. His presence had become indispensable and not a single funeral procession took place without him.
Sadly, it appeared that such days were a thing of the past. With deaths dwindling by the day and with that, his fortunes, Mari found it hard to hold on to both money and his epithet. He yearned for the sound of the death bell and the conch – the most auspicious of signs for someone in his profession.
Even before Esakki could take off after giving the news, Mangalam, Mari’s wife barged out, smiling wide. “Thank you brother. You’ve brought just the news I needed. It seems as though God himself has spoken through you,” she said, her eyes exuding gratitude. “This man hasn’t brought home a penny in days and I have nothing more to take to the pawn broker.”
Esakki smiled and rode on. Mangalam turned with excitement to see Mari looking sombre as ever.
“Nothing to worry at least for a fortnight. I can retrieve the necklace I have pledged and buy our son the dress he has been pestering us to buy for so long,” she went on with her endless list of wants. Mari smiled at her.
“Why only a smile? You should be dancing now,” Mangalam taunted Mari.
“Death is not so new to elate me anymore. Besides, the chieftain is a good man who is respected by everyone in the cluster of villages. He has been generous towards us on several occasions, remember. I am not entirely sure if his death is one I should be looking forward to,” Mari said solemnly.
“This man has gone mad,” Mangalam wailed in agony. “Just when it appeared that the God of fortune had decided to take mercy on us, this man utters every inauspicious word under the sun,” she now went on and on with her laments that included everything from how none but her would’ve married him to how Mari had grown disinterested with her after she had become rotund with age. Mari, used to her histrionics, started to walk away.
“Don’t you want to make any money?” Mangalam tugged at Mari’s shirt.
“I will, I will. But I won’t get excited about money before I feel it with my hands,” Mari reasoned and walked inside with mixed feelings. On the one hand, he knew the death of the chieftain meant hefty wages, while on the other he knew a warm leader of men would be consigned to history. He did not know which of these was bleaker. “Let me get ready, just in case,” he told himself, and started a small fire at the backyard to warm his tambourine.
“Let’s go to the temple,” Mangalam pestered Mari as evening set in. “Our son’s birthday is in a week and for once, it appears we will be able to get him what he wants. I will also get my necklace back. I want to thank God.”
“I am asking you once again; why are you counting your chickens before they hatch?” Mari asked, irritated.
“There you go. Why do you speak as though misfortune will befall us once again? Will you now come or shall I leave for my mother’s place once and for all?” It was a barrage of questions this time.
The high pitched rants of Mangalam, Mari felt, were far more deafening than the sound from high-decibel crackers and hand drums that were integral to funeral processions. He and his men would dance as if there would be no tomorrow – their alcohol moistened tongues sticking out, one edge of their lungi lifted over their waist and at times, clenched between their teeth. They would dance, their silhouettes visible through the grey smoke billowing from crackers bursting endlessly to the rhythm of the hand drums that would be played deftly by seasoned hands. The scene of men dancing and playing drums passionately in a sea of colourful flowers strewn around after being sheared from the wreaths and garlands and the billows of grey smoke, would appear otherworldly to the uninformed. Some would even wonder if the dancing men led the procession or if it was the corpse that followed them in awe. Such was the grandeur that Mari and his men could bring to an otherwise miserable scene.
“Are you coming or shall I leave?” Mangalam’s poser brought Mari back to the present. “Let’s go,” he said, obliging meekly as always. Mangalam tied her untied hair into a bun, having triumphed in another little battle of the spouses.
The road to the temple wasn’t what it usually was. The temple, the only noteworthy one in the cluster of villages in the vicinity always sported a festive atmosphere. Loud hawkers, flower sellers with their colourful bundles of flowers, sellers of divine paraphernalia, excited children and devotees breaking coconuts and singing in groups gave the place a divine vibrancy. Today though, it was deserted with the priest seated outside the sanctum, looking forlorn and waving his palm leaf fan. His eyes went bleak at the sight of Mari.
“Mari! What have you come to seek today?” The priest sounded uncharacteristically hostile. Mari cringed and shied away, knowing very well that the priest thought he had come to pray for the death of the chieftain. “I am a funeral dancer, not a killer,” he thought. “I would rather remain silent and leave God to judge me, than tell the priest what I am here for. He wouldn’t believe me anyway.”
Mangalam was unperturbed. “We have come to thank God for the good fortune that has eluded us for a long time,” she told the priest unapologetically who glared at her, before walking into the sanctum mumbling something to himself. Mari’s subtle hints for her to keep her enthusiasm in check fell on deaf ears.
“Most people have gone to check on the chieftain at the hospital. There was a huge crowd this morning here, praying for his recovery. Some have offered to tonsure their heads and others to sacrifice prize goats if the chieftain returns alive,” the priest said as he handed Mangalam some vermillion and a short length of flowers. Mari stayed away, not wanting to be embarrassed.
“In my opinion, good people should die without suffering even a little,” Mangalam told the priest even as she applied the vermillion at the top of her forehead and tucked the flower into her braids. “For all the good he has done for the people, the last thing we want is to see him suffer due to prolonged illness.”
“It is sad that the elderly woman that we all regard as our own mother won’t be able to sport the vermillion like you just did,” the priest said, trying to evoke some sympathy.
“One can get over that. It is less painful than to see one’s spouse suffer for long,” Mangalam shot back.
The priest smiled knowingly. “May God’s will be done,” he said and walked away, not wanting to engage her any further. He knew she was blinded by the bad times.
“What did you pray for?” Mangalam jabbed at Mari on the way back.
“Oh! Nothing. I am not the one to pray for anything. You know that,” Mari evaded the question.
“Your hands were clasped momentarily,” Managalam probed.
“Oh! People do that in temples. That doesn’t mean I asked God for something. I am not one to ask anything of anyone,” Mari stuck to his guns.
“All right. Stop sounding inauspicious. This is the third time today. I prayed that we get enough money to buy our son his favourite shirt,” she said. Mari remained silent and thankfully, that was the last conversation for the day on the subject.
At the crack of dawn, a shrill voice at a distance awakened the villagers, who promptly dashed out of their homes and onto the street. Most of them had stayed up late, telling each other how they yearned for their chieftain to return hale and healthy. This wasn’t a privilege Mari could enjoy as Mangalam had imposed a curfew that night. She had forced Mari to turn in early as she wanted him to be at his very best the next day. Esakki, on his rickety bicycle as ever, ploughed through the anxious people dotting the street, gave out the news even as he rang the bell incessantly for them to stay clear of his path.
“The chieftain is showing signs of recovery. All our prayers have been answered. He is out of danger,” he said and disappeared in a flash, to spread the news to the other gullies and villages. The crowd erupted in rapturous celebration, their earnest prayers having been answered. Mari was a relieved man himself.
Mangalam froze. The ground seemed to cave beneath her feet. The prospects of her getting her necklace back from the pawnbroker and of her son getting his favourite shirt, she knew, were bleak.
“Burn that devil Esakki’s tongue,” she screamed and chased after him, even as the entire street stood perplexed, not knowing what had come over her.
Meanwhile, in the backyard of his house, Mari performed a silent victory dance, his tongue clenched and his hands cupped behind his head. As much as the noise of funeral marches didn’t deter him from giving his best, the cacophony of the celebrating people and his yelling wife too didn’t. Only, he didn’t play his hand drum for fear that Mangalam might just come back in and smash it over his head.