Read time: 22 mins

When the moon floats on the road

by Perumal Murugan
29 April 2021

I decided to leave the house.

The thought struck me abruptly at that moment, at twilight, when the sun was burying itself in the sky in the west. The resolve to leave the house had previously sprung up on several occasions. But had never been possible. A little finger would pointedly appear in my mind and grow big enough to shred my resolve into pieces. But this time it was not to be so. Nothing could stop me. This house was never a home, merely walls that would close in on me and suffocate me. Sometimes, I could not look upwards. The ceiling was always ready to hurt my nose. Was it necessary to live between these walls, even after light and air had stopped visiting it?

I have spent several nights and days in the heat of self-pity, resigned to my fate. But it was not so now. The walls exerted more pressure and pushed me out. It was now impossible to force me inside, rebuild the walls and make it a house again. The moment this thought struck me, I stepped out and began to walk. I kept walking for a long while, aimlessly. When I suddenly came to my senses, I realized that I was familiar with every road that I had walked on; they were paths I had often crossed. My legs had acted like a trained dog. I now entered a new road, an uncharted territory. Everything appeared predetermined, like in a toyland—full of people, houses and shops. It opened onto a large endless road. I walked on resolutely. I could still feel the house hooked on to the collar of my shirt.

I needed to escape from it. The road clashed with another and became one. The place turned out to be a bus stand. There, people walked in various directions, carrying their luggage in their hands. I was probably the only man without any luggage. Five or six people, carrying a lot of luggage, rushed towards a bus as soon as it arrived. One hoisted the luggage inside, while another loaded it onto the steps of the bus. On the microphone, an impatient driver told them to hurry up, while the conductor screamed. Yet the bus waited till all the luggage was on board. How heavy it all looked. Would they have to guard it throughout the journey, load and offload it until they reached their destination? Would the luggage leave them in peace even after that? I felt a sense of pity for them. How many more people were in that bus stand? I couldn’t stand the sight of the people roaming around with their luggage. I was desperate to get onto a bus, one that was less crowded, with enough empty seats on it.

The movements on the road were frightening. Wanting to avoid them, I looked up to the sky. A cloud floated by like a huge monster. The sun had set, yet it was still light. I prayed for an empty bus before the streetlights began to hurt my eyes. In response to my prayer, God sent an empty bus. Nobody got on, even though the conductor stood on the steps calling for passengers. I sauntered towards the bus. ‘How far?’ the conductor asked officiously.

At that moment, it appeared to be the most difficult question in the world to respond to. I avoided looking at his face and stepped in. I expected him to be angry and insist on knowing my destination. I had decided to get off the bus if he did. But he did not speak a word, and the bus pulled away. Though the bus looked empty from the outside, it was not as empty as I had thought it to be. Importantly, there were no vacant window seats. I was not really happy, but I chose a seat and closed my eyes.

The conductor gently tapped me on my shoulders and asked the same question: ‘How far?’ I reached into my shirt pocket and felt the money there. I asked him instead, ‘How far does this bus go?’ He mentioned a destination, and I bought a ticket to the final stop of the bus. But somehow, I suddenly felt unsettled in my mind. The bus felt like the house. I thought it would have been better not to have had any money in my shirt pocket. The lights were switched on inside the bus, and the tape recorder started playing songs. Everything reminded me of the house. When the bus turned and shook, I was afraid of a wall crashing in on me. On many nights, my roof had fallen on me with a huge crash. I had somehow managed to escape each time. On several nights, I had remained awake worrying that the roof would collapse if I slept. I was afraid that the bus would take me back to the house.

I closed my eyes tight. It seemed as if a window seat would have solved all my problems. But there was no trace of either the bus stopping anywhere or anyone getting off the bus. The bus was travelling at a moderate speed, and the air flowed freely inside. I dozed off. A good, unperturbed sleep. Suddenly, I was engulfed by a loud noise and awoke to find the bus parked and a large crowd getting on. A crowd so large it would have taken two or three buses to carry them; instead, they were getting into this one. Tense, I wondered if I should get down here. But it was impossible to find my way out through the crowd. I curled my feet and shrank back into the seat. The bus started with the crowd packed in.

An old woman stood by my side holding a heavy bag. She would let go of the bus strap when holding the bag and let go of the bag when holding the strap. In the process, she kept hitting the seats on both sides of the aisle. The bag was probably very heavy. The woman was also heavy, and she found it difficult to balance herself to the movement of the bus. It was difficult to hold the bag or keep it between her legs. The woman was clearly distressed. At first, I felt like laughing. Why should she carry such heavy luggage at her age, in a crowded bus? Did she even realize that the bag could be the reason for her sorrow? The woman would be nothing without this luggage. Perhaps it gave meaning to her life. Those around her were irked and picked fights with her. The woman couldn’t find her balance after a good ten minutes. All eyes in the bus were on her.

Almost spontaneously, I took the bag from her and kept it between my legs. It was indeed very heavy. It had things that moved around in it and wouldn’t fit between my legs. However hard I held on to the bag, it slid to the other side of the bus. I tried to balance it on a rack, but it continued to slide down. The woman would be distressed if something fell out of the bag. I tried to tie the straps together but failed. I struggled with the bag for a long time before finally managing to hold it securely in my hands.

I now looked at the woman. She was resting her head on the handle of a seat and had her eyes closed. She was probably sleeping, relieved that her luggage was now entirely with me. The struggle was now mine. I was agitated by her composure. My mind raced back to the house despite my efforts to control my thoughts. The house was sitting heavy on my shoulders, so heavy it could break my bones. A heaviness I couldn’t carry even if I bent my back and girded my legs. The house would load all its weight onto me. I had thought leaving it would lessen the weight, but that was not the case. The house tightened its hold until it began to strangle me. The old woman’s bag rose like the heaviness of the house. The crisis was not over yet. How far will the mesh of an open net stretch?

I thought of handing the bag back to the old lady, yet something stopped me. What would she think of me? What would I become in the eyes of the other passengers? These thoughts stopped me. How many irritants thwarted my desires and wishes? The bag had turned into a wall which grew and expanded, seeking to drown me. While I was struggling for breath, the woman asked for her bag. The bus had stopped at the entrance of a city. The crowd that boarded the bus at the previous stop was getting down. Several other passengers were leaving too. Some window seats were now vacant, and I moved to a two-seater by a window. The window opened onto a new world. I looked down and saw a long wall covered with posters. I shivered and looked up. The sky was vast and empty. Its serenity gave me a moment of happiness, until I feared that the clouds would fill the bus. The fear never subsided. Even when there were no clouds, the fear that they were close by and could enter anytime persisted. My body curled up. I vehemently considered the idea of jumping out of the bus.

With effort, I looked out onto the road again and saw another wall. I saw the faces of those leaving the bus. Bodies carrying luggage. Amidst the sea of faces, there was one strikingly different. My eyes stopped at that face. What kind of a face was it? A face with a charismatic appeal? A dark, thick moustache stood out in that bright face. A soft, devouring smile on the lips. The smile was inviting. The invitation became more intense with every passing moment. An invitation that wouldn’t allow the possibility of rejecting it. My body felt as if it would involuntarily jump out of the bus. I ran towards the steps just as the bus started to move, and I got down. I focused on the face, and I walked towards it. That inviting smile remained unchanged.

A face that made judging its age difficult. A face that cannot be defined by any characteristics. A face that carried the purity of fresh rain and which promised to remove all my pains. Who could it be? I have never come across such a moment in all my life. My house, the road and my friends alone made up my limited world. But I had never come across this face before. If only I had, my path would have been fertile with blooming flowers. Where had this face been all this time?

The brightness of the face struck me hard, and I looked down. The hands that belonged to the face hugged my shoulders. I could feel the warmth of a deep friendship and bliss. He walked before me; I followed in all earnestness. He walked through crowded spaces at a steady pace, making it easy for me to follow. A friendship which was not disturbing. Sometimes, I could walk parallel to him. When I did, his profile appeared very familiar. He could have walked long distances, he could have roamed aimlessly, and yet I had no hesitation or pain in following him. It was the only thing I could do. The purpose of leaving the house was now achieved. I could feel a sense of unusual calm enveloping my body. My body and mind were aligned towards him. Something happened within me. A heavy and tight rock residing in my heart was now giving way.

I could now see his profile clearly. It made me shy. Embarrassed, I looked away. Yet the face wouldn’t spare me. It demanded my attention. I gathered my courage and looked at the face. It gave me a friendly smile. It was a face that had remained in front of my eyes for years. That moment everything dissolved, a vacuous obstinacy broke, and a madness came over me. I gave my approval with a hearty smile. I was keen to catch up on all that we had missed; the face invited me to do so.

The face belonged to my childhood friend. We had walked to and from school together and always played together. He had lived in the next street. At school we sat together. Ours was an unconditional friendship and had run smoothly until we reached class eight. Then the friendship fell like a tree in the wind. It was the day the school reopened after the half-yearly exam vacation. I received a call from the headmaster. He was standing in front of another classroom. He dragged me by my ears to a bench in the room and commanded me to read the lines written on the corner of the desk. The names of the male and female private organs and a symbol to bring them together. The terms for such a union. Beneath those words was my name and my class. Tears filling my eyes, I pleaded with the headmaster: ‘Sir, it was not me… I did not do it…’ I repeated and vigorously shook my head. He possibly thought that I was putting on an act. I had written the exam in that classroom, but I was not sure if I had sat on that bench. The benches were now closely arranged to suit a class. He took my name written there as proof. I kept pleading with him, crying that it was not me. The headmaster would not relent. The class teacher came to my rescue.

He raised a very valid doubt in my favour. Would someone who wrote such words also leave his name? The headmaster now relented and asked to check the others’ handwriting in my class. My classmates had taken the exam there too. Initially, I had not paid attention to the handwriting, but when I looked at it again, it was evident. The handwriting belonged to my friend. My heart palpitated, my tongue was parched, and I couldn’t utter a word. I somehow muttered that I did not know who it was. But they managed to find the culprit. From then on, he turned into my enemy. Till this day, we have not spoken to each other. He was a very shy person and chose to express his fondness for bad words on a bench. But why would he put my name on it? It still beats me.

Even after we grew into moustache-sporting adults, I still simmered with anger whenever our paths collided. I often attempted to make peace with the incident, citing its juvenility—did it deserve an animosity of this serious kind? But my attempts always failed. The incident resided in me as a deep agony.

I walked with my friend and held his hand. I spoke to him about many things. We chased the darkness away and walked through the bright lights. We were blissfully unaware of the time. We reached a crossroads and entered another street. The profile slowly changed, and my friend disappeared.

Yet, I felt a surging joy about bonding with my friend again. My long-nurtured desire had finally been realized. The self-pity which had fossilized within me fell apart. I had walked long distances with that serene face. I felt no trace of fatigue. Once, when I walked parallel to the face, it was transformed into the face of a child that was familiar to me. I did not have to dig deep into my soul to know who it was. It was a face that had undermined and humiliated me. A young face bearing no mark of taint. I could not muster enough courage to look at it. But the face is in front of me, laughing at me. The sound of its laughter enters my ears, cracking my nerves. I slowly look up. It had a countenance so clear it betrayed no trace of confusion. I hang my head in remorse, ashamed that I hadn’t seen it as a child. I recoil at the idea of having to relive the incident. I have often tried to show myself off as being straightforward, in the process charging others with many accusations. This face made all that valid.

She was a dark-skinned child. Shiny, attractive, oily black. It happened when I was in my teens, when I was trying to understand my private parts. Everything about my private parts was mysterious. Every movement in my body raised a new sound. I looked at the world through a new lens. During dark nights and lonely days, my private parts grew big and taught me about my body. The things I hadn’t understood or known about were heaped as mysteries in front of me. Eager to unravel one of those mysteries, I got the child home. She was young, so young that she had not yet learnt to speak properly. She was familiar to me because she visited my home frequently with a neighbour. She had once visited when I was alone during the day. I lured her in with the offer of a chocolate. She went back in fear and shock, tears streaming down. In my thirst to unravel the mystery of my body, I hadn’t even looked at her as a child. The incident remains etched as a deep scar.

The incident would appear and laugh at me whenever I was happy or excited. The walls of my room were a witness to the incident and started chasing me away. The room became coldly strange; I would never be at home there again. If I stepped in to pick something up, the room would appear like an open-mouthed cave ready to devour me. I would escape and run away. I was never at peace in that room. I believed it was a secret buried between us. The child grew up and got married. I have often told myself that she would have forgotten it, but every time I came across her, anxiety made me sweat profusely. I would look for a place to cower. Today, I feel content, as though I have made an amendment.

I gathered courage and looked up at her face. Her smile—so warm that it appeared she had either forgiven me or forgotten the incident—filled my soul. I played with the child. I

spoke gibberish to her. I felt again the joy of the world of children. I stayed in that world for a long time without being judged. The moon appeared bright in the sky, and the streetlights began to blink. We turned a corner, and the child’s face disappeared. It was replaced by his face. A face lit by confusions over identity. Yet, a happy face that would embrace, support and offer me refuge.

I keenly followed him. It did not matter to me who he was. He had the gravitational force to excavate my deeply buried, ash-laden thoughts. His compassion burnt away my faults. I slowly assumed a new form. The room in my house can no longer threaten me. I hold his hands.

I yearned to walk, clinging to his shoulders. He did not refuse me. I now felt that I was in the centre of a city. It was a marketplace. There were constant voices calling our different names and people crowding the place like bees. It was difficult to walk through them. But his face stood out brightly amidst the crowd. I had no difficulty in following him. I felt light, all the burdens in my heart removed. I couldn’t guess what his face would become next. I searched within. Which image would he choose among the many roaming within me? I grew more curious.

I scrambled to walk next to him. His eyes were closed. When he suddenly opened them, they were a sheet of white. I could now fully see the face I had only previously seen in profile. Isn’t this face a witness to my ruthless bestiality? I took a long look at him, knowing full well that his eyes could not see me. It was a face seeking sympathy. When my association with that face ended, a room was added to my house. It was a secret room that I was the only one to know of. How many such rooms did I have floating in a mythical space, inside my house? The room would appear when things were disorganised. The room does not close in on me like the other rooms. Its intention is not to threaten me. It merely stands as a visual testimony. I can handle rooms that put pressure onto and suffocate me. But this is a silent room that multiplies my guilt and then drives it away.

Some time ago, I was working as an assistant to a visually challenged college student. I would have to spend a few hours every day with him. He was supported by a patron, and the support included my salary. My job was relatively easy. I had to read out passages from books to him. Sometimes, I had to take notes for him. Sometimes, my work also involved visiting the library to take notes from a particular passage in a particular book. On some occasions, I had to read out the passages aloud and record them on a tape recorder. I was very excited about doing all these jobs. In my overwhelming excitement, I failed to notice any tension.

But a few days later, things turned sour. He was upset if I was delayed by a few minutes or had to leave early. I felt afraid when he kept a stern face and rolled his white eyes when he talked to me. He was constantly worried that I would shirk my responsibility. If I was assigned a writing job, he would ask me about its progress every few minutes. He was suspicious that I would spend my time whiling it away. He wouldn’t allow me to work independently. When I was sent to the libraries, he would be there moments later. In his mind, he was the boss paying a salary, and I was the deceiving servant. He would often pick fault with my work—for example, how my voice was not clear on the recording, how my pronunciation was not right, etc. He probably thought I would work more diligently if he constantly found fault with me. I could not leave his room before the stipulated time. Even if I did, to answer nature’s call, he would complain about how I had wasted ten minutes. On some occasions, I would work for an extra ten minutes and inform him before leaving. He would then give a sheepish smile.

One day, he gave me a book from which to record some passages and left. Before leaving, he generously spread rose powder on his dark face. ‘How does it look?’ he asked me. It was horrible, yet I told him he looked good. He was probably off to see a woman. I had never discussed anything with him beyond work. With his dark glasses on, he walked off tapping his stick. On that day, I felt a sense of freedom working on the job. I drank water at intervals. I took a leak. When overwhelmed with work, I listened to a few songs. I felt I had been more productive than usual and waited for him to return.

He was flabbergasted when he came back. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked me, repeatedly. He sounded unhappy when I said that I was waiting for him. I realized he was expecting to hear my voice on his return, recording passages. ‘Is that all you’ve done?’ he remarked, unsatisfied, when I told him the work I completed during the day. For the next five minutes, he waxed eloquent about the salary I was paid and my laziness at work. I remained silent. He changed into casual clothes and went to the restroom. By now, I was determined to stop working there. My agitated mind was not ready to leave the room as it was. Pushed by extreme anger, I plundered the room. Within moments, everything was in disarray. I broke the tape recorder. I imagined him struggling in the ransacked space. I felt an eerie sense of satisfaction and left.

Later, on several occasions, I have felt that it was a criminal act. I had behaved like a ruthless moron. Is there anything more barbaric than revenge? If my room became cluttered, that spare room would appear. I soon became adept at taking utmost care of my room.

However meticulous I was, that room appeared at least once every day. Today, I was liberated from it. Just now, I felt a surge of empathy for this visually challenged face. I knelt before the face and begged for forgiveness. I had finally been freed from the mystery that had haunted me. All this had been made possible by this saviour, who had not identified himself yet. On this road, I grew closer to him. The old face that I had first spotted at the bus stand was now back. The heat from his body was comforting. I put my hand around his waist and continued to walk. I lived in the moment.

I wanted to let him know that I had offered myself to him completely, that I was willing to become what he wanted me to be. He smiled like a wise ascetic. I wondered how his face would change at the next corner. I was not too keen to reach the corner. So much of me had already melted in his presence. What would become of me if this game continued? Even now, everything was about him. My desires were now about him, with him and on him. He held my hands as though he understood my state of mind and took me to a shop.

It was a large liquor shop. From the appearance of the crowd and the tables, it looked like a posh restaurant. The lobby had different kinds of lights. I was thrilled that he chose a place to suit my mood. I did not know when he had placed the order, but the table was instantly full. The people who served the food appeared good. Mouth-watering dishes were spread on the table. He opened a superior quality, honey-coloured liquor bottle and filled our glasses. The brand he chose was my favourite. It was a smooth drink that gave a slow buzz. I gulped the drink. It was a habit of mine to empty the glass in one go. I did not snack, preferring food to go with my drink. And there was food on the table. Everything as I liked it. I was suddenly hungry. I ate and drank happily.

My hunger was somewhat satiated. After two or three rounds, I started crying. How could I ever repay him? He had come as God across my path. My heart ached to hold his feet and weep. I turned towards him. His glass was still full. Hadn’t he finished the first round yet? I was not sure if he had had one gulp yet. For a long time, I had only seen him in profile. Now I looked at him, hoping to see his entire face. When I looked at his face through my teary eyes, it appeared in bubbles. I shook my head and wiped the tears away. I was not even intoxicated; I could easily handle another two to three rounds. However drunk I became, I always had my wits about me.

His face was clear now. No, it was not his face. I realized my house was sitting in front of me. This was my father’s face. Why should my father’s face appear now?

Once, not able to stand the physical abuses my mother had to suffer on a daily basis, I had visited the place where my father had been drinking and knocked the glass away from his mouth. Was this a ploy to remind me of such incidents and make me surrender? He was changing me slowly to fit into the house. Now he had brought the entire house before me. I emptied another glass. Now I did not require any food to go with my drink. I was haunted by the question: Who was he? He had not spoken a word till now. He would drop a single smile, a standard smile. He was conniving enough to achieve everything with that smile. I rose and caught hold of his shirt.

‘Who are you?’ I asked him, repeatedly. I could sense the indignation rising in my voice. I was outraged that he had played games with me, making me an accomplice all along. ‘Are you fucking honest?’ I asked him. I continued to swear. Had he come to redeem me from my sins, the bastard? ‘Who sent you?’ I asked him. We were sitting opposite each other, and it was difficult to physically assault him. This chameleon used different masks to unravel secrets from me in order to use them to enslave me. What a traitor he was, sitting in front of me without touching his drink and paying close attention to me? How unequal is it that I languish in pain while he laughs at me? I do not need such a friend. I do not need such a saviour. I do not need such a God. All of them are traitors. He is the traitor sent by my house without my knowledge.

I let go of his shirt and poured another glass down my throat. I had no intention of sparing him. I wanted to break his hands and legs and paralyse him. ‘Who are you?’ I screamed again. He was no longer in front of me. The crowd around me looked at me for a moment, wondering if I was speaking in the void, before returning to their activities. I looked for him. He was leaving the shop. ‘Dei*!’ I shouted and followed him. He wouldn’t have expected me to change so quickly. He would have hoped that I would lick his feet.

He quickly made his way through the crowds. I could not determine if he was walking or running. But I was running. I could not let him go. He crisscrossed many roads, maintaining a steady distance from me. I gathered all my strength and followed him. He suddenly entered a less crowded road, devoid of any streetlight. The road was flanked by trees and bushes on both sides. He probably wanted to distract me and escape. I could see him clearly in the moonlight.

I felt a murderous rage as he kept running. I should have brought the leftover bottle with me. It would have given me added strength. He walked on the road where the moon was floating. I realized, immediately, that he was leaving me and going far away. But I wouldn’t let him go. He shrank into a tiny dot and, in time, disappeared into the light. What now? I would not let him go. I passed through the light that spread on the road.

Dei* (disrespectful way to address a man)

Illustration by Rohini Mani

About the Author

Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan is an Indian author, scholar and literary chronicler who writes in  Tamil. Several of his novels, such as One Part Woman and Poonachi or the Story of a Black Goat, have been translated into English. Trial by Silence and A Lonely Harvest, translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan (Penguin Random House India, 2018), have been shortlisted […]