In the last six years, in fact, the 52-year-old has aged fast. The premature lines on this cobbler’s leathery face speak of a harsh tryst with both debt and injustice. The traditional career of this man has come to an abrupt halt and though he was recently appointed as village waterman, the paltry Rs 700 salary does not assure two square meals. The walls of 176/4, his squalid house in Adi Dravida colony in rural Dindigul, seem to be crumbling, as if tired of bearing his burdens.
It started in May 2005 when his elder daughter Jyotimani was brutally killed by her husband Sounderaj. The painter, who used cigarette butts to torture her before the murder, was sentenced for life in 2006 but was freed three months later. Following this, the Poothampatti Panchayat Office offered the family Rs. 10,000 but only if they produced the murderer’s signature. “We returned without the money.” Subramani has since been looking after the grandchildren, 13-year-old Indira and Masandichelvan, 8.
Times were happier two decades ago, when he moved into the colony with his “love marriage wife” Karthumani and two children, Jyotimani and Jayaram. A third child, Veeramani, was born in the settlement built by the government for backward communities. “Our daughters were our ‘manis’ (gems),” he says, breaking down at the sight of old photographs. They are black and white, just like his hair now.
Subramani wishes he had defeated poverty in his youth because “to be heard you have to be rich or educated.” Instead, he made peace with a Class 10 education and the cobbling business which he has now given up as his calloused feet do not allow him to sit for long hours. The panchayat then gave him the waterman’s post. Four times a year, he sings with a folk theatre troupe for an added income of Rs 400. Karthumani earns 80 rupees for each gruelling day of labour in a field near Vedasandur.
Last year, Subramani gave away his younger daughter in marriage along with a tedious dowry. He has managed to pay the first instalment of 1500 out of the 70,000 rupees he had borrowed. But a burgeoning cloud of debt still stands adamantly above him.
His grandchildren, who learn at a government school in Devanaikanpatti, are now the carriers of his dreams and their education is top priority. He has not stopped blaming himself for Indira’s poor scores in a Science test. “I could not afford one of the workbooks she needed,” Subramani rues, adding that he has now saved enough for a trip to the Dindigul bookstore. “Usually, they stand among the top 5 in their class,” he observes, the guilt in his eyes replaced by pride. Accepting money from his son Jayaram, an agricultural labourer, is out of the question because “he has his own family to support.”
Despite attempts to give them a protected life, the children are growing angry and curious as time passes. The aging couple’s will was tested when they found Jyotimani’s photo tucked neatly in the siblings’ notes. “They said she helps them through tough exams,” Karthumani recalls. “And sometimes I catch them crying quietly.”
Subramani has not fully let go of memories either. The carefully preserved ration card with his daughter’s name and newspaper clippings about his son-in-law’s arrest are testimony. But he will not pursue the court case. “We cannot afford it,” he declares, adding, “Let natural justice take place. My only aim is to not let that animal anywhere near my family.”
Music has helped him tide over difficult moments. After breaking into a Tamil ‘karuthu’ (moral) song, he stops to explain, “A meal can give you the will to live. At other times, it can drive you to take a life. The difference is in the decisions we make.”
As he walks towards the water tank with determined strides and purposeful hands folded behind his back, he seems like a man with a plan.