by Gwen Schroth
Rajuratnam was brought to the missionary in such a state of dishevelment and filth that no explanation was necessary to label him outcast and orphan. Yet, beneath the lice and cow dung there was a heartbeat, strong and clear.
As Rajuratnam grew up in the missionary's compound, his dark skin became lustrous, his black hair (now washed and heavily greased with oil) grew wavy, his face became handsome and his teeth flashed white with his frequent smiles. (The teeth he cleaned at 4:30 a.m. at the pump with a piece of charred wood.) The school girls tossed their braids at him and coyly pulled their saris over their mouths; he brought to their minds visions of whisperings in the dark, a stolen touch, driving out thoughts of the schoolmaster's sharp words and the touch of the cane.
But to the missionary, Rajuratnam was a constant source of exasperation. Completely undependable, he would rather run away than perform the minor task of chopping wood for the missionary's kitchen (returning with a contrite heart and empty belly when the job was finished, by someone else).
When asked to dig a grave for a dead baby, he balked like the oxen and in frustration the missionary would threaten him with a beating. A funny sight that was, Rajuratnam racing along the path to the graveyard, the missionary running behind, stick in hand, shouting and waving his arms.
Hating some jobs with his whole being didn't detract from his ability to pour himself enthusiastically into the occasional job that met his fancy. So, when asked to divide the chore of driving the rats from the garage so that the missionary could remove his car without fear, Rajuratnam would become sullen, pouting and grumbling until allowed to do the job alone. He drove out more rats with more enthusiasm and more noise than any other boy on the compound. He also gloated over the fact that he could keep the rats coming so fast that onlookers couldn't count them.
A passion for white shirts would bring Rajuratnam to the missionary's verandah, demanding cloth for not one but many white shirts. He would then strut about the compound in the immaculate white of the elite. In this attire he would wait on the missionary's table, practicing every grace that his agile mind could concoct, causing the missionary to grudgingly compliment his good manners and privately wish for a wife to take this boy off his hands. But who would marry an orphan?
Oh, he had friends enough. Who could resist a boy with such spark? The missionary was greatly alarmed when his daughters turned their eyes in Rajuratnam's direction. The schoolmasters found his charm irresistible and reluctantly flunked him or guiltily passed him. The missionary's wife loved him as a son and behind her husband's back gave him a handful of white rice.
But in the walled-in dormitory for the girls was a round-faced vision of loveliness whose friendship Rajuratnam prized above all others. Curls strayed from the beautiful black braid that hung down her back (he knew that her hair was longer than any other girl's because she didn't trail pieces of braided ribbon at the end). Her shyness was tantalizing and most certainly genuine (he knew, because she never raised her eyes or giggled until he had passed). She was round, soft, and as sweet-smelling as a lotus flower.
Walking down the well-worn path to the well one evening, Rajuratnam deviated ever so slightly so as to get a glimpse of the off-limits girl's dormitory. He had once been called upon to kill a snake for the screaming, hysterical girls and it was wise to be available whenever possible, or so he reasoned. It just so happened that as he was passing, a certain shy young lady, with the longest of hair flowing down her back, glanced out of a window, gave an inward cry of joy, set her mind to work at a rapid pace, and slowly drew her comb through her hair, humming a little tune; a little tune in a fairly loud tone.
Rajuratnam strolled along, swinging his koojah back and forth. Suddenly his attention was arrested by a bit of humming (in a fairly loud tone). Looking up, he saw Sugnanama sitting in the window, comb in hand, face slightly tilted in well-mannered modesty. As his mind gave rise to visions of lotus flowers, his belly lurched and his legs grew weak.
"Oh, that cursed white man's food," he thought. "Not made for an Indian's bowels."
"Come to the back wall," whispered the lotus flower. This caused such action within Rajuratnam that he cursed the missionary for deliberately making food unfit for a boy's stomach.
At the back wall appeared that beautiful head with hair that gleamed in the moonlight. "If you give me a little help over the wall, those trees and tall grass..." Her finger pointed but her eyes looked directly into his.
"Oh," he thought, growing even weaker in the knees, "this is the punishment for stealing food. There are snakes crawling inside of me." While his legs became like the water in his koojah, his hand reached up to help. She was almost over, and in his arms, when suddenly she was gone.
"Rajuratnam!" yelled the missionary.
A sullen Rajuratnam faced the missionary the next morning. The missionary, in that esoteric mode of thinking so unique to foreign missionaries, concluded, "Now, after thinking it over, as I see it, the wisest course would be for you to marry the girl and stop all this nonsense. And nothing more will be said about the whole thing," said the missionary generously. "I could give you three white shirts..."
"Four white shirts and then you could..."
Just as Rajuratnam could chase more rats than any boy on the compound, the missionary was more adamant than any other missionary found on the foreign field. He did what any guardian of peace would do; he lost his temper.
He yelled, he glowered, he seethed.
Rajuratnam stood fast.
He stomped, and waved his arms.
Rajuratnam didn't quake in the least.
So the missionary took off his belt, yelled for Rajuratnam to bend over, and sent the strap singing over the boy's buttocks.
Outside the window a flower waved in the breeze. Inside the room stood a sweating missionary. In front of him stood a very solemn Rajuratnam with assent on his lips.
Sugnanama smiled shyly at Rajuratnam as they sat in their hut, eating white rice (no longer stolen; just taken from the missionary's kitchen as any good cook would do).
"Come to me, my lotus flower," Rajuratnam demanded, holding out his arms. "The snakes are writhing in my belly and the weakness in my legs shall give you many sons." He spoke with new wisdom. With a reflective look on his face he said proudly, "I shall have more sons, I shall have stronger sons than any man ever possessed. My sons shall..."
And while his deep voice boomed on into the night, Sugnanama smiled smugly to herself.