Velutha remembers sweet summer-rain, tendril-thin like fingers. A forest of coconut trees and Little Loves. Monsoon-summer-sweet.
The first time Velutha meets Death, he is six years old and a grandmother has died.
Her corpse is pale, her mouth gaping open like a half-shaped sigh, alone and forgotten, trudging the Universe alone. Uni-verse. One line in a song.
Yellow teeth peak out from under her gray-as-a-graveyard lips. Hi, Velutha, they say. Hi, Velutha thinks back. Hi. There are plenty of grandmothers around in Ayemenem. Everyone Velutha has ever met has had a grandmother. Plenty-to-go-around.
It’s too warm to stand around for long. People, pressing him from behind. Move forward, move forward. The air is humid and sullen with intermingled sighs and sweat-slick bodies, a church filled to the brim. The Pariah Bishop is talking, holding court for his Pariah following. His lost lambs. His Rice-Christians. A Son and a Spirit and a Man-in-the-Sky. White clouds and dewy, downy death. Swelling the church with their breaths.
Vellya Paapen has his Grown-Up hand on Velutha’s shoulder and his Grown-Up face, stitched on like a mask, the One Eye on the grandmother. It trails her interlaced fingers - fat, like bloated reeds and her open, gaping mouth, the dusting of black hair along her cupid’s bow, sweet last kiss of life - and his grip tightens. Who are you? Velutha asks in Malayalam. Who are you to the grandmother’s teeth, to her flaccid fleshy arms, to the papery folds of her eyes. He imagines that they flutter, a newspaper’s flight on the surf of a wind.
‘Velutha Mon, move forward,’ Vellya Paapen hisses. He steers Velutha away, a ship on the cresting sea, a Moses parting a red soup. Again, Velutha thinks Who are you? The teeth remain silent. The eyelids flicker-flutter. Perhaps a Last Sigh is emitted. There is a Grandmother-hole in the Universe.
Vellya Paapen has a Debt. It is a Debt that can never be repaid.
D is for dying.
E is for ending.
B is for bowing.
T is for The End.
Velutha was never supposed to be a carpenter. There is Suppose To and Not Suppose To. But things speak to Velutha. They want to be fixed, or made, or undone and remade. Like the rusty water pump and too-slow clock in the Ayemenem House. Like the little leak in the thin laterite wall. Like anything Ammukutty looks at. Things that Ammukutty Looks At want to be made.
Velutha carves a little Christ figurine out of dried palms leaves, a windmill from a tapioca stem, a face in a cashew nut. They are little treasures. Little Loves. Velutha carries them in his palms (like he would her if they could Touch, if he could be Touch-Able).
Velutha waits for her under the shade of the coconut trees, the craggily mountain that separates the Ayemenem House from the Laterite Hut. The Footprint from the Not-Footprint. The Touch Able from the Un-Touch Able.
She appears like a goddess from the gloom, half-moons under her eyes and trolls on the horizon. Behind them, the river pulses with bated breath. Ammukutty is the sky and the earth, the radio in the night, the one verse in a song. Uni-verse.
Velutha wishes they were Able-To-Touch.
‘What is that?,’ Ammukutty asks. But she doesn’t need to. She knows. There is nothing that is made that is not for her. Clouds roll in, dragging a monsoon along with them, petulant and unwilling like an angry child. Velutha can feel the lub-dub, lub-dub of his heart. A little Machine of Love knocking on a door. Waiting to be let in or thrown out.
He doesn’t say:
You are Love.
You are Madness.
You are Hope.
Once there had been a time when he couldn’t have said anything at all. A time when his breath upon her face had been a Not Suppose To, a time of Crawling Backwards Days. Velutha the White who is Black as the kohl around the Katakali man’s eyes.
‘For you, Ammukutty.’ And Ammu takes her Little Loves and gives her promises. A gift given. A Love Law broken. Naaley they say.
Perhaps it is then that a leaf lands on Velutha’s back, molds itself to his skin. A leaf carried by the rain of the monsoon.
The second time Velutha meets Death, it is simply passing by. Padding past with socked feet, it presses its mouth to Velutha’s ear, cages him in a lover’s embrace and whispers Chella.
A dewy, downy death and a Mother-shaped hole in the Universe.
Velutha has a Debt that he can never repay. It was given to him like a gift, and like all gifts - all real gifts - it is heavy and un-returnable. No receipt. No turning back.
It is spelled P A R A V A N.
The last time Velutha meets Death, he has in his nose the smell of the steel-bus rails and the bus conductor’s hands from holding them. A sour-metal smell. He has her smell somewhere too, buried deep under his skin, her kisses that fuel his machine, his lub-dub, lub-dub.
He has a face with six broken teeth. A ruptured lung. Frothy red blood on his lips. Death never looked so welcoming. It sits beside him under the yellow light, its robes billowing like a bluebottle blooming. They wait patiently together. Velutha wonders if he will have a half-formed sigh shaping his mouth, the unfinished business of a man dead-too-soon.
He wonders (for the thousandth time) if it would have been a simple thing, a Small Thing, if he had been born without the Debt. A Love without Touch Able and Un-Touch Able. Madness. Love. Hope. Infinite Joy.
The leaf on his back burns like it wants to sail away. There is a monsoon waiting somewhere and a promise in his heart. Naaley, it says.
Naaley, Naaley, Naaley.