Ki. Rajanarayanan :: News Report

From  the Tamil--

Ki. Rajanarayanan (b. 1922, near Kovilpatti, Tamil Nadu, India), popularly known as Ki. Ra., is one of the best-known authors of Tamil fiction. His 1958 short story "Mayamaan" is often seen as marking the beginning of the golden age of modern Tamil literature. Veering away from the European influences that characterized much of the Tamil revivalist period, Ki. Ra. chose to relate tales in the spoken dialect of the karisal kaadu, the black-soil country where he was born. He currently lives in Pondicherry.


In the 1970s and 1980s, towns like Sivakasi and Kovilpatti in the southern part of Tamil Nadu were infamous for using child labour in the fireworks and match making industries. After activists, journalists, and writers like Ki. Rajanarayanan helped draw government attention to the problem, the practice is now much rarer, though safety issues persist.


                                                                                    News Report

Early morning, four o’clock.

The blaring horns from the vehicles speeding north and south drive into the ears of the sleeping villagers like the shafts of umbrellas.

There was a time when the village awoke to the chirping of birds. Today everyone has forgotten that sound; they’ve even forgotten what a rooster sounds like. The birds are still here—hawks, cuckoos, sparrows. But no one can hear them anymore.

It’s four. The bus engines grunt like a herd of buffalos in heat.

The girl children, sleeping with their palms tucked between their thighs and spittle dribbling gently from the corners of their mouths, are jolted awake as if they’ve been branded by hot iron rods. In no time at all they are boarding the buses, lined up like ants, each carrying a stainless steel lunchbox in one hand and a carton in the other.

The buses pack the girls in like matchsticks, belch out a horn blast, and take off towards the town.


Another scene.

The cattle are being driven to the dairy farm. There are no words or letters to convey the sound precisely; it has to be heard to be believed. The buffalos curse the men with such vehemence that they might be mistaken for a herd of humans. The younger cows have suckling calves, but the older ones depend on the human hand to relieve them of their milk!

At the government dairy depot, and at the private one as well, people are busy milking their cattle.  There is stiff competition among the villagers to supply milk to the faraway cities.

Now the sun begins to spread its rays. The men who used to work as traditional laborers in the village, the carpenters and the ironsmiths, now get ready to board their own buses, carrying their own lunchboxes. Alongside them are the unorganized laborers, the contract and construction workers, all waiting for the town bus to pick them up for work outside. They could never earn in the village what they could earn there. They still live in the village, but they have stopped working here long ago.


Except for the children who come out to the streets for their morning shit, the village is empty. There’s not even a single girl out playing hopscotch. Only the young women who have recently come of age remain at home, rocking their bodies forward and back as they swiftly fold cardboard matchboxes. Their skin is pale, like paddy grown inside a wax palace. It’s been ages since they have seen sunlight. They sit indoors making boxes from dawn to dusk, and then they move outside to sit under the street lamp and continue working. That is the only time light touches them.

Most of the village youth have already left for foreign regions or faraway cities, but even the ones who remain here have their hearts elsewhere. They dream constantly of Arabian beauties, winking at them and beckoning them to Dubai, Kuwait, other Middle-Eastern countries. Each one of them carries a passport ready in his pocket, eagerly awaiting a visa. It’s been a long time since any of them visited the fields.

There are still a few crazy ones who stick to their farming. They roam around the village, searching for someone to help with the field work, to weed or gather the cotton. What madness! No one’s stupid enough to get themselves fried in the sun anymore. Most of the fields have lain fallow for years. Only a few elders, unable to give up their love for the land, are still slogging away.

Perhaps in a few years this karisal kaadu, this black-soil country, will once again become a jungle, as it was a thousand years ago. Perhaps the jackals, bears, and tigers will return. And once the jungle has grown back over the cotton fields, perhaps new festivals will spring forth; perhaps there will be new deities of the forest to worship. Perhaps the new gods will bless this place with good rains. And what if the deluge goes on and on forever, and the matchbox factories are swept away? Now that’s a serious question. We’ll have to wait and see.

Enrollment in the village school has dropped; in particular, there are fewer and fewer girl students attending.

When the first children began to drop out, and the parents were questioned about it, their response was, “Well, even if they do go to school, it’s not like they’ll get jobs as clerks. So what’s the point?” If pressed harder, they would ask, “After getting her educated, are you going to take the trouble to find her work in the city as a government official?”

These days, though, the parents simply shrug off the question. “What’s the use of wasting time in school?”

Development programs have been announced for small-scale and very-small-scale farmers. All one needs is a tiny piece of land. It isn’t too difficult to own land now, either, since all the farms are lying fallow. These programs have brought truckloads of cattle and goats to the village. Before ancient man settled down to farm, he herded cattle and goats; now the village is going back to the pastoral stage again. Agriculture has practically disappeared. The hand that once held the plough is now waving a buffalo whip. Fertile fields are turning into grazing grounds.


In the same village, that evening.

Not so long ago, one would have heard the happy laughter of the children playing on the empty ground next to the Amman temple. How many different kinds of folk games they would play! Imaginative games, with invented dialogues and songs… games that had been played for generations.

How did all those games disappear?

Most of the children leave every morning to the match factories, but a few are still around—those that aren’t old enough to work, or are too feeble. Still, the natural cheerfulness that accompanies the presence of children is missing. Why aren’t they out playing?

Oh, there they are!

They’re sitting with their legs either stretched out or folded beneath them, gently rocking their bodies back and forth, making matchboxes. They sit like this for so long that their legs get permanently cramped; it’s not easy for them to stand up. What’s more, they are never heard to speak, to laugh, to tell stories, or to sing. The owner of the match factory has nailed them to the floor with his money.

All they’re able to do now is to paste the sides of the matchboxes together with sticky glue, and listen to loud film songs on Ceylon Radio on a transistor.


It’s dark now.

The elders and the children gulp down their food in a lightning flash, then move out under the street lamps to continue making matchboxes.

The buses that left at dawn tiredly return, and spit out the children like bits of chewed sugarcane.

A few of them jump out smiling, swinging their empty lunch boxes; not quite all the childishness and happiness in them has been extinguished. But now they must have a quick wash-up, eat and go to sleep. There is urgency in their every action.

The village has fallen silent. Time passes very quickly. The children lie around motionless, like dead soldiers on a battlefield. Their breathing is the only thing that marks them as alive. Any moment now, those monstrous buses from the match factory will return and wake them.

Poor souls! Let them sleep peacefully, just a little longer!

 --Translated from the Tamil by Pritham K. Chakravarthy

 (Tamil title: Oru Seydhi, originally published in Amudhasurabhi, November 1982)

Pritham K. Chakravarthy is an independent researcher, playwright, director, performer, film critic and activist from Chennai. She has translated two volumes of Ki. Rajanarayanan's work: the novel Gopallapuram (Penguin, 2011) and the collection Where Are You Going, You Monkeys? - Folktales from Tamil Nadu (Blaft, 2009). She is also the translator of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction (Blaft, 2008).