“Wake up, rascals. See who is here,” trills our aunt Sivamathi.
Her high-pitched shrill vibrates off her tongue against her palate and pierces through our sleep.
“It must be Muttu, that rickety idiot, come to torture us with puzzles,” I guess.
With sunshine trembling on our eyelashes and seeping into our bodies, we two brothers continue to stretch ourselves lazily.
Abandoned at four by our mother, who chose a city life with our father, my elder brother Selvan and I continue to live in Madurai, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, under Sivamathi’s foul-mouthed, uncompromising yet loving care.
No one argues with Sivamathi in our Mellur district. Least of all us. A law unto herself, she does as she pleases, when she pleases and how she pleases.
On a daily basis, she upturns our idea of family to make odd people and creatures relatives.
“Should I fetch my cane, boys?” Sivamathi’s voice thunders.
Selvan and I jump out of our skins, bed and room.
“Meet Moradu,” our aunt exclaims joyfully, when she sees us.
Our introduction to her newly acquired ebony-black bull, tied under a thatched shed and watching us with baleful eyes, is through his extremities.
His four big, heavy, strong, restless cloven hoofs that hold up his sullen, stocky, hairless frame. His muscular neck with a huge, huge hump. And his long, marvellously straight, spear-like horns.
“He is just like his name,” I cry, in delight, “wild, rugged and hot-tempered.”
Our days, thenceforth, begin, ever-so happily, at five a.m., at the first dazzle of light.
Over months, we watch as he devours red rice and cotton seeds. Husk of Bengal gram and wheat with milk. Broken pulses with raw eggs. And dates, treats we are seldom given.
Moradu adores Sivamathi, her large food quantities. He pays little heed to us, his first-day wariness intact.
Yet we spent endless hours with him. As Sivamathi walks him. Takes him for a swim in the village pond. And for mannu kutthardhu toflick sand off the ground with his horns and fend-off potential human tamers just as jallikattu bulls do.
“When will Moradu enter the jallikattu? On the first day of Pongal or later during our three-day-long harvest festival in January?” I ask in excited anticipation. In the hope of us brothers being seen and hailed in our village.
“He will never be part of that blood sport,” says my aunt severely.
Stamping down her words, she seethes, “Imagine releasing him into an arena where people try to grab the pouch tied to his horns by catching hold of his hump.”
“What use is he to us then?” I am as dispirited as Selvan.
Our excitement over Moradu and his routines collapses.
Months later, when Sivamathi orders us to feed him vegetable scraps with his pulse diet, Selvan indifferently picks up a basket from the kitchen, empties the bulk of wet vegetable peels into it and with an elder brother’s bossiness instructs me to dump the soggy mess into Moradu’s feeding trough.
As I absent-mindedly watch Moradu, I see him chomp objects gold in hue. I see my aunt’s chain dangling from his lips, his slurping of it, almost like we do our noodle strands, a newfound food craze among us village boys.
“Sivamathi will kill us,” I tell Selvan. My voice echoes my panic.
“Yes, she will,” he says, unhelpfully.
“It’s all your fault,” I accuse.
“How could I know she is foolish enough to hide her jewels in a kitchen basket?” he counters. And then with zest, says, “Let’s get him to shit. His stomach is of cast iron. The jewels will emerge intact in his dung.”
Playing the big brother card yet again and with wily intent this time, he gets me to poke Moradu with a fat stick from the front while he uses another one from behind.
As we poke Moradu this way and that, urge him to do his kaka, Moradu stands still at first.
Then in a deliberate move, he places his hind foot in exactly the mark left by his front foot. It is as if his eyes, despite their protective ridges, measure the ground with exactness, in centimetres and inches, and test our bravado while at it.
A sudden movement follows. Moradu paws with his forefeet. Mountains of dirt fly over his back and behind. We hear the fierce jangle of his copper nose-ring, one that hangs through a pierced hole in his nose.
And then he bucks. Lowers his large, bony head, raises his hindquarters into the air, kicks with his hind legs and bellows in a most frightening and outrageous manner.
“Don’t we often want to do just this?” says Selvan in complete wonderment.
At this terrifying moment, the rope that anchors him to his post comes undone leaving an irate, perverse and homicidal brute on the run.
Moradu’s sprint into the village is a whir of vigorous masculinity, a show of strength, a threat of spite. It is complete with sound. Of his hooves and our heartbeats in our heads. And fury. Of flying sand and his enragement.
A million rumpuses follow.
We collect the villagers’ glimpses.
Moradu’s dash through the temple scattering devotees. Its flag between his horns. His trampling of flower and incense stalls. Smashing through a tea-stall. Breaking its large cooper water boiler, benches, glasses and milk and sugar containers. And finally, the explosion of the gas cylinder and a raging fire.
“He did, however, take time to eat three whole clusters of bananas that fell from the tea-stall perches before he returned home,” one amused villager says to us.
Hope forms layers within us both.
“Sixty bananas!!! Our tied-down Moradu will definitely shit now. Sivamathi will never need to know how Moradu escaped. Or of her missing gold,” Selvan says with conviction.
“I think it is his way of smiling, agreeing. He pretends to dislike us but sees us as his family. Our brother will do as we want,” I say happily.