Numbers – A translation of Ashokamithran’s ‘எண்கள்’

eNgaL - translated

This is my attempt at translating Ashokamithran’s ranting, fun-to-read, short piece எண்கள் (pronounced yeNgaL) into English. One of my goals for the summer is to start reading more Tamil and get comfortable enough to read some larger works I’ve heard so much about. And while I’m at it, I hope to post a few translations here on my blog.

For those of you interested in the original, read it here on this wonderful blog: Azhiya Sudargal (thanks to Karthik  for suggesting this site to me for my summer reading).  In particular look for எண்கள் in the site search results for Ashokamithran.

Without further ado then, I begin.


When will this man finish? This happens every single day. Every day you think you’ll come here just a little earlier, read the paper fully for five minutes and go but everyday at least four people would have beaten you to it. Maybe these people all live close by. And this man, he must live very close by. Very, very close by. On both sides of this street are only banks and shops. The banks and shops open only at eight o’clock. It’s just this one place that opens at seven. If I came here at seven, it would take me barely five minutes to browse through all the two-three papers they get at this place, and then I could leave. At least tomorrow, I must come at seven. If I came at seven, I wouldn’t be able to fetch water for the house. Living in the midst of eight other families, I wouldn’t even be able to properly finish my morning ablutions in the backyard. I wouldn’t have the time before seven to gobble up yesterday’s rice before leaving. And there wouldn’t be enough time after I finished reading the paper to go back home, take bath and eat. How am I to stay on an empty stomach till a quarter to ten? You are only let into the canteen after a quarter to ten. Or else, I could simply skip the paper altogether. Only on the days you don’t read the paper, they’d have printed something new about the sugar ration cards. Or else they’ll tell you that milk cards won’t be issued for the next four days. If you didn’t know this, you would take a half-day’s leave and go to the milk office only to have the peon at the milk office admonish you, “Go and come back on Monday, even all you educated people have started coming here like this? It was printed in the papers, you know…” I could buy the paper right at home and avoid all of this trouble. This paper that doesn’t have enough in it to read even for five full minutes.

I have to fuss over paying eight-nine rupees a month. You could do so much with nine rupees. But these days does anything at all get done with nine rupees? It isn’t possible to properly get even two padis of rice. You get two padis of rice and it doesn’t last two days. After days of having no kerosene oil at home, the other day I had to pay the street vendor who went by, all the money that I had to get three bottles of oil. His measures were all wrong. And if you told him that, he would give you even lesser oil. That day he refused to take that five-rupee note even after I pleaded with him for so long. The note they gave at the post office. The post office. They made me run around here and there to get change and then gave me that note. If you didn’t hold it properly, pieces of it would just fly out of your hand. If that piece of paper hadn’t been a currency note, no one would have gone anywhere near that piece of garbage. But these days every last scrap of paper-waste in the streets is picked up and taken away.
The eyes of the rag-pickers who do this job always turn weird. The rag-picker has absolutely no other thoughts – the rake and the sack on his shoulders, and then the garbage- that’s all, nothing else. The people who go by, come by, the vehicles, the cycles, the cows, the houses – nothing is visible to him, nothing can be visible to him. But you couldn’t really say that nothing is actually visible to him, could you? Otherwise all of those car-accident deaths must involve these rag-pickers. Maybe that is true, who knows. With so many of these rag-pickers dead, and from the fact that there are still so many on the streets even a child would be able to deduce that the easiest job that anyone could get in this city is rag-picking. Thank God for these good times in which these masses of rag-pickers haven’t all turned into thieves and robbers. How much do you think they make out of rag-picking all day for a day? One rupee? Two rupees? What can a person do with two rupees these days? And if he used all of that for his own food, what about his kids? What now, a rag-picker can’t have kids? Maybe he doesn’t have a proper house or clothes but do you think he won’t have kids? Maybe his kids go off to pick garbage too, just like him. What is all this garbage? Half of all this garbage is baby-shit wiped clean and thrown out on the streets. Do those little kids carry this shit on their shoulders? Is it to carry shit like this that children are born here? Shit. Shit. Shit. Everything is shit, this paper that this man is religiously reading will also be on the streets tomorrow with the shit. And a man will come along, put it in his sack without even noticing that it is shit and keep right on going…

He held one end of the sheet that the old man was reading.

This gentleman has been reading this sheet for five minutes now. Bah, what need for politeness now – this fellow has been reading. This fellow hasn’t looked up once since he started reading. There is no other paper in this reading room. It is a free reading room after all. How many papers will they buy here for us to read for free? The branch library opens only at eight-thirty. If I did not even have this small underpaid job that I have now, I could have gone there. Who knows, maybe they run that place only for jobless people. This place is a reading room only till eight-thirty. After that, it is a kindergarten school. Every nail on the walls has a picture hanging off it. Or else, a plaque carrying some wise saying. Love and God are one. Work is Worship. A stitch in time saves nine. Honesty is the best policy. Do not make noise. Ha, it is our noiselessness that has brought us to this state. This man has been reading noiselessly all this while. And he keeps on reading. And I keep on waiting. On one half of the side of the page he is reading is a bank balance sheet. Not one of the numbers on it has fewer than eight digits. Eight, nine, ten, even eleven digit numbers may be on that sheet. I can’t even begin to think of a eleven-digit sum of rupees. This might just be the budget sheet. Still, ten, eleven and twelve-digits – these are huge numbers. For me, it doesn’t even make a difference if a number has ten digits or twenty digits. They’re all unimaginably big. There must surely be people who actually know about such large sums of money. How would such people be? Not like me, for sure. And not like this man either. People who go running after free newspapers can be expected to understand no larger than three-digit numbers, if at all. That is a pittance, a beggarly sum of money. Then again, beggars will only know of beggarly sums of money. We all need to know lakhs and crores just enough to be able to pass the school exams. And that is all we ever know. How many exams would this man here have passed? Not many, I’d guess. He hasn’t shaved for five-six days. Of all the hair on that head you could pick out the black hairs and count them out easily. One, two, three, four… chee, is it for this hair-counting that I have come here? But then what else can I do, really? All three sheets of the paper are now with three different people. Those other two, I don’t even have to see. Sports doesn’t concern me, nor cinema, nor Bala Krishna Sastry’s summary of the Kaalakshepam. Why won’t this man turn this damned page! He’s reading every line and every number of the bank balance sheet. Maybe he is employed in a bank. But then these days aren’t all bank employees always immaculately turned out? Truly, I tell you, I’m ashamed to even go and tell them to put my five rupees and ten rupees into my savings account. And when I went to withdraw ten rupees from that account, I had to wait at the cash counter for half an hour. Because the saree storekeeper next door who uses a generator for the lights in his store had brought bundles and bundles of notes to the bank. And the immaculate bank employee was counting that out for half an hour, no less. They say that storekeeper brings a whole one lakh rupees to the bank every day. Do my five-ten rupees count for anything at all to the bank then? Shame. Disgrace. That’s what it is. This shame of having to come to this free reading room is nothing compared to that. But this man is still on the bank balance sheet. Maybe these numbers actually mean something to him. Couldn’t he read the damned thing a little faster! Even if I start at seven-fifty, I could reach the timekeeper’s gate by eight-thirteen. I should just have skipped this damned newspaper. If I wanted to skip the newspaper, I should have gone right at the beginning. Then I wouldn’t have had to invest all this time into sitting next to this fellow and holding this sheet and reading all the lines on the walls. Let the kids read all these great, great lines. Only they can read it and not feel all riled up. You really wish these charitable people would stop trying to instruct you. But a man does charitable work only to have the opportunity to counsel and instruct you, don’t you think?

Now he strengthened his hold on the sheet of paper that the old man was reading.

This doesn’t look like it will end any time soon. How many more times will I keep reading the stuff printed above the balance sheet? Four tender notices. Two advertisements for the sangeeta sabhas. And in the middle of all this, a fourth of a column of news. What news? ‘NATO does not believe that Russia will launch war’. Right next to that, ‘Russia ready to use MIRVS missiles’. What is this MIRVS? Where is the time to learn about all this? Maybe this man knows. He comes here every day that I come. Reasonable assumption then that he must come on all the other days too. Probably comes and reads every line and letter of the newspaper just like this. This is his fate – the writing upon his head condemns him to this destiny. All the hair on his head has turned white. And lots of hair has sprouted out of his ears. Black hair. How would his eyebrow hair look? I can’t see his eyes at all; he’s bent his head to read the newspaper. His cheeks are hollow and sunken. Who knows, maybe he skipped last night’s meal. Cheeks only sink in like that if you haven’t had a meal in days. Or else, it might be that he has some horrid disease. Or maybe both. What disease might this man have? Fever, cold, hernia, diabetes, high blood pressure, faintness. Last night, his disease must have aggravated a little, so he must have skipped dinner and gone to bed. His empty stomach wouldn’t have let him sleep in peace. And so, right at dawn, here he is, every day. What of me? What do I do? Surely he must think the same things of me that I think of him. And in the one thousand reading rooms in this city, thousands of people must have thought the same things and drawn the same conclusions about thousands of other people. But is there any time to think of other people at all these days? I don’t think so. You need a certain inner calm just to be able to think of another person. A certain amount of joy in your heart. In here, does even one man’s face look joyous? I only see weariness and longing in their faces. Frustration, irritation and pain caused by various things all through the day mix together in the melting pot of sleep to form a thick syrup of discontent that sets into their faces and backs. Not one of their faces has clarity. Not one of their backs is straight. These are all people who know the ways of the world. Not one man who really knows this world can stand up straight, without hunching his back and shrinking away from it all. This hunching and shrinking is observable even among those pompous people who come and go on cars and scooters. It persists even after seeing this huge balance sheet printed on half the newspaper page. This is due either to disease or to wickedness. There are only two kinds of people today in the world – the diseased and the wicked. This bhaarata punya bhoomi – this great land of India – ah, there on that nail hangs a cardboard with a whole song about it written for the kids – bhaarata punya bhoomi. Bhaarathiyaar wrote it and left it to us all. D K Pattammaal recorded the song. And now kids sing it. At least I think they do. Right here in this room, after half an hour the kids will sing. Bhaarata punya bhoomi. Truly, this reading room is part of the great land of India. Just like outside, there is a lot of garbage lying around in here too. Here the kids recite the numbers ‘one, two, three ..’ and the old men read ten and eleven-digit numbers. Lots of teachings on the walls. I might as well go bang my head against the wall rather than wait for this old man to finish reading this sheet. And then if I did bang my head against the wall, you never know, the walls might all start singing. What song? Bhaarata punya bhoomi. Chee, such bitterness locked up within me all along! Poor India, poor land, where is their fault in all this… But why all this bitterness? Am I the only bitter person? Aren’t there lakhs and crores of bitter people? Ah, how do lakhs and crores suddenly start making sense now?! Because I’m talking about people? Is it right to think of all people as being just like me? Is that why I can’t get myself to yell at this man and snatch this sheet of paper, one with a huge bank balance sheet on it too, that this man has been reading for fifteen minutes now? His shirt probably hasn’t been washed for weeks. There is what seems like a truckload of dirt around his collar. Does he have no family, no wife? He’d have to spend hours if he ever hopes to wash that shirt. And I doubt he’d be able to do much about the collar even then. That snuff powder stain isn’t going anywhere soon. If he shaves well, this man might actually look handsome. Must have been very handsome in his time. In thirty-forty years after learning the ways of the world, he’s suffered, been forced to plead with so many people, beg for so many things, cried, fought, bottled up his anger, been pushed down to the depths, contracted illnesses and lived without help, without company, without someone to look after him, without proper food, without any certainty in life, and due to that very uncertainty – with a constant fear, a constant apprehension, hatred, bitterness, and finally, unable to tolerate the sights that greet his eyes when he opens them – the hunger, the sadness, horrors, cruelty, rot, disease, wickedness and the injustice of little children having to pick up shit-paper from the roads to get one quarter of a decent meal, unable to do anything to help, and unable to muster the courage to die, and without enough money to drown his thoughts and memories in liquor, he comes here, here to this reading room to see and keep count of the money that someone else has put up for display, for the intoxication that he gets when this money in amounts he cannot imagine, rises up through his eyes and into his brain. Leave him to his intoxication. Sure, let him be, let him be. This intoxication is the only thing that is left for him and for crores of other people today. Perhaps it is for this intoxication that I too come here.

When it was seven fifty-five, he could take it no longer and tugged firmly at the sheet of paper in the hunched old man’s hands. That man who must have skipped last night’s meal, who had maybe not had a meal in days, the man who had not shaved in days, the man who must have had no choice but to wear that shirt with truckloads of dirt on it, the man who must be suffering from fever, cold, high blood pressure and diabetes, the man who must have come here to drown the miseries and horrors of his long life in the intoxication of large numbers must have, maybe just a while back, or maybe quite a long time back, fallen sleep. The sheet of paper came away easily out of his hands.

If you liked this translation, you might also want to see my translation of Sujatha’s இரண்டணா here: Thank you for reading, and please feel free to comment!

2 Responses to “Numbers – A translation of Ashokamithran’s ‘எண்கள்’”
  1. Smruthi says:

    Interesting. I particularly liked the way you translated to the ‘damned’ and the ‘fellow’.
    Does the saree shop owner use or did he use? (check tense)

    • Thanks Smruthi.

      Clearly, you’ve done more than just read the translation! Much appreciated!

      And you’re right, “uses” would probably fit in better than “used”. Now edited out. Thanks again!

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