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The Big Leap

Sa Kandasamy (translated by N Kalyan Raman)


[The author Sa. Kandasamy (1940-2020) was a noted novelist, documentary filmmaker, director, and producer. He was one of the avant-garde young writers who experimented with Tamil fiction in offbeat directions in the 1960s.


Sa. Kandasamy published seven novels and several short-story collections. The novel Sayavanam, which he penned at the age of 20, is regarded as an ecological novel with a solid sociological background. It is based on the rich natural environment of the Kaveri delta on the brink of a great change in the early decades of the 20th century. He won the Sahitya Akademi award, India's highest literary honour, in 1998, for his novel Visaranai Commission.]


There was some commotion in the street. Azhagu, who was wheeling around a pillar in the patio, craned his neck and peeped out. A few boys around his age ran past the house, raising a swirl of dust. Something must be going on, he thought, and stepped onto the street. There was a big crowd at the street corner. The melam sounded very loud. Since he was new to the village, he could not determine what was going on.


He clambered on top of a tall granite boulder at the edge of the road and looked. A little boy climbed a Portia tree and went ahead.


Azhagu got down from the boulder.


‘Azhagu.’


‘Yes, mother,’ he said with his eyes fixed on the crowd.


‘What are you gawking at without your shirt on?’


‘Nothing, mother.’


Azhagu rushed into the house. He grabbed a shirt from the washing line, put it on and came out. As he was fastening the buttons, he threw a glance down the street. The crowd was growing bigger and bigger.


He took a step forward and looked back. His mother was chatting amiably with a neighbour. Once he was certain that she had not noticed him, he started to run towards the crowd. But it proved impossible. People were arriving from all directions, blocking his way. He forged ahead, pushing and jostling, and merged into the crowd.

There were people everywhere. Legs were pressed together like a wall in front of him. He couldn’t see what was happening.


A nadaswaram and a melam were playing together. Crouching low, he tried to peek through. Like a flash of lightning, a pair of feet jumped and leapt forward. They were different from human feet, of a vague colour between green and blue. He stayed in that position, waiting for those feet to come back. Time passed slowly. His legs and back began to ache. However, those weird feet did not appear again.


Azhagu drew himself upright and moved back. The melam played to a tight rhythm. The sadangais jiggled. A loud cry rose above both. Azhagu thought his eardrums were about to split. With a hand on his throat, he looked upward.


He saw a man-sized monkey climbing down from a tree. He could scarcely believe his eyes. He wondered whether what he had seen was real.


He was used to seeing monkeys since childhood. Two monkeys came to his house as a couple. Holding on to coconut fronds, they swung from one tree to another, climbed onto the roof and pulled out the tiles. If you drove them away, they hissed in rage. Those were real monkeys. What he saw now was not a monkey. It was . . .


Suddenly he remembered Hanuman, the monkey-god. He was sure it was Hanuman, the same Hanuman who had strapped a flaming torch to his tail and set fire to ten-headed Ravanan’s Lanka. Impelled by his yearning to see Hanuman, he pushed and jostled his way into the crowd. A man shoved him back with his elbow. Paying it no heed, Azhagu wedged his body into a gap in the crowd and moved ahead.


‘Who is that poking me?’ a man said and looked back. He led Azhagu by the hand to the front.


Pleased by this gesture, Azhagu smiled at the man; then he looked for Hanuman. After jumping down from the tree, Hanuman stood with his feet together and both arms stretched sideways along a straight line. His long tail lay in the dust. The crowd’s gaze was fixed on Hanuman.


Hanuman closed his eyes. Bringing the palms of his extended hands together and looking skyward, he paid obeisance: ‘Rama!’ As other sounds faded, Hanuman’s voice rang out distinctly.


‘Rama! Rama!’ the crowd shouted along with him. Hanuman started walking, stamping the ground by turns with his right and left feet, arms swinging briskly.


Azhagu, too, followed him along with the crowd.


After a short distance, Hanuman plucked a few plantains from a bunch hanging at a roadside stall and gave one each to everyone around. Azhagu got one too. He was in two minds whether to stash the fruit in his pocket or not. Even as he was wondering, the crowd had grown into a massive throng. He moved back and stood next to the melam player.


Standing at the centre of a circle, Hanuman scanned the crowd. To make the circle bigger, a man kept pushing the crowd back. Gradually, everyone moved back. He pushed them back further and further. Hanuman nodded to indicate that the space available now was sufficient. With sadangais jiggling, he did a lap skirting the ring of people, at a pace midway between walking and running; suddenly, he pressed his palms on the ground and jumped up. The melam, nadaswaram and sadangais played in unison. Hanuman hopped and jumped inside the circle, dashing forward and across in sudden leaps. His long tail rose high in the air and hit the ground hard, raising a cloud of dust.


Azhagu could not bear the performance and the noise. He felt as though he was losing control of his body.


He folded his arms tight against his chest. He thought he himself turning into Hanuman himself. Planting his feet firmly on the ground, he stared at Hanuman.


Screeching loudly, Hanuman clutched one of the wooden poles of the pandal – large, open shelter with a rectangular thatched roof, supported by wooden poles – and climbed to the top. His tail brushed against Azhagu as it slid past. Azhagu lifted his arm to catch it. Hanuman had moved quickly to the other end of the pandal. Feeling awkward, Azhagu let his arm drop to the side and turned to Hanuman again. His tail hanging down like a rope, Hanuman perched himself on a cross beam, glared at the crowd with rolling eyes and tossed his head back. Azhagu thought that Hanuman must be angry and took a few steps back.


Without making a sound, Hanuman climbed a pole and disappeared into the pandal. Eager to see what might come next, everyone was staring at the roof. For some time, Hanuman was nowhere to be seen. Shouts and screams from the crowd rent the air.

Suddenly the melam and nadaswaram started playing at a fast tempo. Not knowing why, the startled crowd turned towards the pandal; just then Hanuman jumped down from a wooden pole with a loud cry. There was a burning torch strapped to Hanuman’s tail. The fire blazed, giving off a lot of smoke. The crowd drew back involuntarily.

Hanuman stood firm and jiggled his body once. The flame curled and surged up. Planting both hands on the ground, Hanuman turned a somersault. His tail looped through the air and dropped near Azhagu. Screaming in fright, the crowd heaved and scattered. Coming to rest, Hanuman cackled at the sight. Once he stopped, the crowd calmed down a little. He brought the tail in front, raised it above his head and swung it around. The fire turned in a circle. As the pace increased, the crowd surged forward. Azhagu, too, went closer to Hanuman.


Gradually the flame died down. After making a lap of the crowd, Hanuman leapt onto a casuarina pole and climbed to the top. Azhagu thought the pandal was going to catch fire. Hanuman vanished from sight momentarily. Even as Azhagu was wondering where he might have gone, Hanuman came sliding down the pole and reached the ground.

The long tail lay limp on the ground. Quiet until then, the melam and nadaswaram began to play again. Dancing and swaying, Hanuman did several laps in front of the crowd. With a vigorous toss of the head, he came to the centre of the circle. Then, raising loud cries of ‘Rama, Rama’, he tore his chest open with both hands. When the chest was ripped open, there appeared Raman in the middle, with Sita on one side and Lakshmanan on the other.


‘Rama! Rama!’ – the crowd was steeped in the din. Azhagu gazed at Hanuman without blinking.


‘Rama!’ Hanuman shouted and leapt in the air. Ramar, Sita and Lakshmanan vanished from sight. Hanuman started walking, accompanied by the jiggling of sadangais on his arms and legs. Azhagu followed, staying close to Hanuman. Hanuman stopped in his tracks and turned around. Afraid that Hanuman might catch him, Azhagu hung back.

After a brief turn of dancing, Hanuman started walking. Two boys around the same age as Azhagu were carrying the tail that trailed behind Hanuman. Azhagu went over to them. One of them who seemed younger than Azhagu said, ‘ Go away.’

Azhagu looked at the other boy, who smiled gently at him. Azhagu went closer to the boy. Carrying the tail for a long time must have been difficult for him. When Azhagu approached him, he handed over the tail, stretched and swung his arms freely, and said, ‘What’s your name?’


‘Azhagu.’


‘You are coming with us, aren’t you?’


Azhagu nodded.


‘Carry this for some time. I’ll be right back.’


Azhagu’s hands stroked the rough-textured tail.


The pace of Hanuman’s stride increased. Carrying the tail, Azhagu could not keep up with him. As he ran alongside Hanuman, often he had to shift the tail from his right hand to the left, lift it from his left hand to the shoulder, and bring it down after a while.

His stomach ached, and just when he thought he could not run any further, Hanuman came to a halt. Azhagu dropped the tail from his shoulder and shyly stretched his arms to ease them. He looked all around. Crowds. Men, women and children. Azhagu felt that regardless of how long Hanuman continued to dance, the crowd would stay back with him.


With his arms folded behind the back, Azhagu approached his partner and said, ‘What’s your name?”


‘Ramu.’


‘Hanuman dances well, doesn’t he?’


Without replying, Ramu continued to stare at him.


Hanuman clambered swiftly up an electricity pole and jumped down on the roof of a bus that was parked next to it. The crowd clapped their hands and laughed. Hanuman stuck his neck out and hissed in fury. Faced with the intensity of his rage, the crowd’s clamour and laughter died down. As though he had lost himself in the ensuing stillness, Hanuman cried ‘Kodandarama!’ and jumped down from the bus.


A car came down the road sounding its horn. A man stretched his arms wide and blocked the car’s passage. As though annoyed, Hanuman threw his tail like a lasso at the man and pulled him back. Those around him whistled and clapped. In his excitement, Azhagu jumped up again and again. Of all the exploits of Hanuman, this was the most appealing and pleasurable.


When the car reduced its speed and crept forward, Hanuman stepped back. The person in the car took some money and held it out in Hanuman’s direction. Hanuman glanced at the melam player. He rushed to the car, collected the money and secured it at his waist. The car drove away, the crowd dispersed, and Hanuman started walking southward. Azhagu ran up to him, picked up the tail and placed it on his shoulder.


Hanuman walked down the entire length of Raja Street without dancing. Hanuman looked exhausted. It seemed that even Hanuman got tired sometimes.


As Hanuman walked at a normal pace, the crowd that followed him began to thin out gradually. Azhagu could count the number people who were walking with them. Hanuman came to a halt. Wondering whether they should drop the tail, Azhagu turned towards Ramu. Ramu, who had already let go of the tail, was scratching his arm. Azhagu felt that he should not drop the tail; so he lifted it to his shoulder and kept his eyes on Hanuman.


Out of the blue, Hanuman jumped up and lunged forward. The tail slid from Azhagu’s shoulder and fell on the ground. He bent down to get hold of it. Hanuman made another leap and started dancing energetically. In no time, the dance shifted to a fast tempo. Hanuman swayed and leapt high while dancing. As the dance went on, a swirl of dust rose like smoke from the ground. The bell around Hanuman’s neck broke its string and fell on the ground. Oblivious of everything, Hanuman danced as if he had lost himself in the performance. The melam and nadaswaram could not keep pace with his movements. Their rhythm faltered. Gasping for breath, Hanuman abruptly stopped dancing. The melam and nadaswaram fell silent.


Exhausted by now, the melam player removed the strap from his neck and kept the instrument down. As if it was obvious that the performance was over, the remaining crowd, too, began to disperse quickly.


Breathing through his mouth, Hanuman sat leaning against the trunk of a banyan tree. The melam player sat down on one of the tree’s roots. He counted and divided the money that was collected during the performance. He held out Hanuman’s share to him. Hanuman motioned him to give it to Ramu. The melam player counted the money again and handed it to Ramu.


‘I’ll take your leave, anné,’ he said, addressing Hanuman.


‘See you around.’


‘I’ll also take your leave, anné,’ the nadaswaram player said.


‘See you around.’


They turned and walked southward. Two or three boys in their troupe started walking along with them. Hanuman was gazing at the street. Ramu picked up the bell which had fallen on the ground and put it in his pocket.


Hanuman, who was reclining against the banyan tree, got up and started walking. Ramu went over calmly and picked up the tail lying in the dirt . He tripped and nearly fell. Azhagu, who was sitting on the culvert bridge, saw that Hanuman was leaving and jumped down quickly, He went over, picked up the tail and kept it on his shoulder.


Hanuman walked slowly past the market fair and reached the bank of the Kaveri river. There was abundant water in the river. Fresh water. Oblivious to everything, Hanuman walked across the bridge and reached the other bank.


There was a small temple adjoining the riverbank. Azhagu didn’t know what temple it was. Hanuman sat leaning against a pillar in the temple. Along with Ramu, Azhagu dropped the tail and flapped both hands vigorously to relax them. Hanuman stretched his legs and leaned back comfortably against the stone pillar and gave a wide yawn.

Feeling stranded, Azhagu looked all around. River, cane field, temple – his gaze settled again on Hanuman.


Sitting up straight, Hanuman detached his tail and dropped it on the ground. Mouth, waist, sash around the chest, portrait of Ramar, sadangais from arms and legs – Hanuman seemed to cast off every item with disdain.


What has happened to Hanuman, Azhagu wondered.


Pleased at having rid himself of all burden, Hanuman stretched and swung his limbs to ease them. Then he lit a beedi and took a deep drag. As he blew the smoke with his head tilted upward and eyes closed, he was seized by a racking cough. He kept coughing fitfully for a few minutes; then he hawked and spat.


Azhagu was gazing steadily at Hanuman. This man, who had performed wonderful feats with the strength of a demon, was smoking a beedi now and coughing from fatigue. Azhagu felt like crying.


‘Elei, Ramu.’


Ramu stepped forward.


‘Ask your mother to prepare hot water for my bath.’


‘Yes, mama.’


‘Is the money safe?’


‘Yes, mama.’


‘Right. Go on ahead to the house.’


As he picked up and lit another beedi, Hanuman turned to look at Azhagu. Azhagu smiled at Hanuman. Hanuman gestured for him to come closer. Slowly, Azhagu went to Hanuman. Taking his hand, Hanuman said, ‘Did you see all the dancing I did?’


‘Yes, I saw. It was wonderful.’


‘Um.’ A small cough followed.


‘When you leapt high and jumped, people were scared.’


‘Really?’ Hanuman said.


‘When there was a flame on your tail, I thought the whole village was going to burn down.’


Hanuman slapped the ground hard and broke into a loud guffaw. The laughter turned quickly into something else. As he kept coughing, his eyes welled up.


‘This happens whenever I cough,’ he complained as if to himself.


‘I want badly to dance like you.’


‘Really? Why don’t you dance for a bit? Let me see if you are up to it.’


Azhagu stood up, picked up the tail and fastened it at his waist. Then he picked up the sadangai. Hanuman stood up and laughed so hard that Azhagu became frightened. When the sadangai slipped from his hand, Azhagu looked at Hanuman.

Leaning on the pillar, Hanuman said, ‘Never mind. You can wear it and dance.’


After tying the sadangai around his ankle and putting on the Hanuman face, Azhagu summoned to his mind all that he had witnessed that day and started dancing. That his dancing matched the tempo of the beat pleased Hanuman. ‘Um, um,’ he nodded his approval. But as the dance went on, Azhagu’s steps faltered, and he started dancing as he pleased.


Hanuman winced. He found Azhagu’s dancing unbearable.


‘Look here.’ Hanuman came forward with a skip and a jump, and in step with a gentle rhythm, he began to dance. Slow to begin with, the dance shifted to a frenzied rhythm in just a few seconds. Azhagu watched him dance with rapt attention.

Hanuman, who had danced earlier that day with leaps, lunges, and screams loud enough to make the whole town tremble, realised suddenly that he was dancing in a deserted spot in front of a small boy. He stopped dancing as though he was ashamed of it and said, ‘So, you’ve seen me, right?’


Noticing the change in Hanuman’s tone, Azhagu nodded.


‘Let’s see you dance, then.’


Azhagu started dancing in a slow and controlled manner.

Overcome with joy, Hanuman said, ‘Besh, besh. You’ve grasped it right away.’

‘Do the dance with a burning torch tied to the tail.’


Azhagu stepped back, picked up the tail and draped it around his waist. He looked at Hanuman. Leaning back on a pillar, Hanuman had stretched his legs in front of him. Azhagu wrapped the dyed veshti around the tip of the tail and lighted it. The dyed veshti was charred black and the flame nearly went out. Azhagu made the fire catch by blowing on it, and lunged towards Hanuman with a loud cry.


Hanuman was breathing through his mouth with his eyes closed. He opened his eyes as though taken aback. Azhagu stretched his hands in front of him and laughed. His laughter irritated Hanuman.


‘Um. Dance, boy.’


With a smile on his lips, Azhagu danced, leaping and jumping, with fluid and harmonious movements of the limbs. Hanuman peered at him intently. His mind had lost its moorings. He slapped the ground hard with his palm. Azhagu leapt forward and glided back, as though he was floating on air.


Hanuman could not sit still. He got up and shot forward like an arrow. After pausing for an instant, Azhagu jumped through the gap between Hanuman’s arm and waist, and got away. Hanuman, who was about to fall from the momentum of the boy’s leap, recovered his balance by planting his palms on the ground and stood up. With a heart full of emptiness, he turned and looked at Azhagu.


Laughing loudly and displaying all his teeth, waving his hands, jumping and leaping, Azhagu came forward as if he was gliding effortlessly through the air.

Hanuman was gazing at him steadily. Moving closer, Azhagu tossed his head elegantly and stepped back.


‘What’s wrong with you, da? Are you trying to dodge me?’ Screaming, Hanuman lunged forward to catch him. As Azhagu ducked down to evade Hanuman’s hold and slipped away, the old man got his legs into a tangle and fell on the ground.


Scarcely noticing Hanuman’s fall, Azhagu, who was engrossed in his own performance, kept dancing spiritedly, brimming with joy and verve.


A version of this story was published in Sahitya Akademi's Indian Literature, November-December 2020 issue

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