I had met Susanna’s son Paul a few times, but we hardly ever exchanged words as I sensed a reserve, an unwillingness on his part to talk to me. Our eyes met across the room, when I went to the house the day Susanna died, but he did not approach me. I know I should have gone to him, said something consoling, but I didn’t. So I was puzzled when he rang me up, days after Susanna’s death.
‘Paul?’ I responded, hesitantly.
In a low, mild voice, as though he could read my mind, he said, ‘Anna, I need to see you. Can I come to your place?’
The request only increased my bewilderment. ‘Anything particular?’
We’re up to our necks in
catastrophes and petty sadness
‘I need to speak to you. It’s important. Please don’t say no.’
‘Of course not, Paul. Come any time that is convenient to you.’
The first time I saw Paul was as an infant, in Susanna’s arms. I had never met him as an adult and wondered about his unexpected request.
There’s a poem by Roberto Bolano, which he wrote in honour of Efrain Huerta, the Mexican poet and journalist. Huerta was a staunch communist. His home in Mexico City was a haven for the many poets who wandered the streets in search of a home, for a place where they could gather, recite poems and sleep. When a small group of her friends gathered in Susanna’s home in Marayur, after her death, someone read a Malayalam translation of Bolano’s poem. He had translated it himself. We sat listening, holding back our tears.
I’d like to write light-hearted things for you.
We’re up to our necks in
catastrophes and petty sadness . . .
. . . I don’t know, Efrain,
what the heck to say, now that I’m thinking
of you. It wasn’t just your kindness that helped me, but
that sort of inscrutable honour; the ease with which
you leaned against the window of your apartment
to observe, in a T-shirt, the Mexican
sunset, while at your back the poets
drank tequila and spoke in whispers.
Death spreads radiance on a person’s life. The beauty that lay concealed in the mundane tangle of everyday life emerges and disperses all around. Susanna had been part of some of the most precious moments of our lives, for each one of us. She was one who bore many remarkable friendships and heartaches serenely, heard her friends’ squabbles patiently. Everyone who visited Marayur enjoyed her hospitality, multiple times. They discussed literature, music, and science, and shared their knowledge and concerns.
I was in college when I went along with a friend to his house on the banks of the Periyar River. We got down from the bus and began to walk down the path that edged the shoreline, enjoying the feel of the moisture-laden breeze against our faces. This was an evening where the only sound to be heard was that of our footsteps. The forest lay on the far side of the river. A track ran through it, up the slopes, which could take you to Anamudi. At one time it was regularly used by horse-drawn carts bound for Munnar.
I recalled reading somewhere of the singular silence that defined the nights on the Periyar shores, a silence encased by varied sounds. As night fell, myriad sounds rose from the forest and the river and filled the air. The forest held its silence amid these sounds.
Death spreads radiance on a person’s life.
I gripped my friend’s arm as I gazed into the distant shore— huge trees that stretched upward and seemed to overflow the shoreline, bamboo clusters that formed a canopy over the water; the forest track, the one that reached Anamudi, must be through those trees. We walked along the slippery footpath bordering the river, our shoulders touching. My feet were plastered with mud. And I was wearing flip-flops, which made walking a struggle. Finally, we reached the stone steps that led up to his house. Through the gaps between the trees in the yard, I watched the play of thickening shadows and light, the pathways disappearing in the gloom. Night spread across the sky above the forest carelessly, a broad splash of black. Echoes of swaying branches, of twigs cracking, the thump of things falling into the water, wing beats, intermittent growls, faint movements; I harkened to all those sounds that enveloped the silence of the forest like an armor.
Abhi was not my classmate. I saw him for the first time in the college library. He was sitting near the entrance to the reading room, resting his elbows on the table, engrossed in a write-up in The Time magazine, about a young Hollywood actor who had been caught in an avalanche. He looked up and smiled as I sat down facing him. I took a peek at the page he was reading, then began to flip through the magazines. We looked up, once in a while, acknowledging each other’s presence with a smile.
‘So handsome!’ he commented showing me a photograph.
The accident happened while they were shooting a film among the snow-clad mountains. The snowslide occurred suddenly, unexpectedly. The rest of the team managed to escape but the actor was swept away to his death. His body was recovered months later. Since it had been buried in snow, it looked pristine. Not a scar marred his face, which had retained its youthful glow.
I don’t know, Efrain,
what the heck to say, now that I’m thinking
We left the library together, walked along the veranda towards the lawn next to the canteen, and sat there chatting, watching students come down the steps. Some of them looked at us. Abhi hailed one or two. There were casual exchanges, laughter. I saw him glance at me warily, I thought. More than once I heard a sigh escape him. I mentioned a movie in which the Malayalam action hero Jayan enacted the role of a man who becomes an ascetic after suffering a disappointment in love.
Like most of his movies, there wasn’t much to like about it except the music. After the actor’s sudden death, numerous books appeared, recounting his life, his love affairs, his family and career, and, of course, his death. Among these was one titled Jayan in America. The book claimed that Jayan did not die in a helicopter crash. It described in detail how the grievously wounded actor was secretly taken to the United States, where he was undergoing treatment. According to the book the corpse that was placed on the pyre was that of an unknown person. The book’s cover displayed a plane soaring into the sky, along with a photograph of Jayan wearing sunglasses. I was in class five at that time. I remember reading it avidly, huddled with my classmates. We firmly believed that the claims made in the book were facts. Jayan would return one day, we declared solemnly. We couldn’t conceive of Jayan’s mortality.
Abhi would talk about how we never quite forget the loss of something we loved, even if we want to. We carry that baggage always. Our likes and preferences, what we retain, are not wholly determined by us. I began to narrate an old story, only to abandon it midway. We walked silently, exchanging glances occasionally. The reason for our silence and the glances was detective novelist Kottayam Pushpanath’s novel The Valley of Fear.
Excerpted with permission from Susanna’s Granthapura by Ajai P. Mangattu, translated by Catherine Thankamma
Publishing/ Penguin Random House India (2023)
You can buy your copy here.
Catherine Thankamma is a writer and translator based in Kochi, Kerala. Narayan’ Kocharethi was her first full length translation which won the Crossword Book Award (2011). She has also translated Pulayathara by Paul Chirakkarode in 2019.