NEA Literature Fellowships

Padma Viswanathan

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(2010 - Prose)

From the novel The Toss of a Lemon

Hanumarathnam opens the doors from the main hall to the pantry, from the pantry to the kitchen, from the kitchen to the back courtyard, where an extended family of monkeys screeches and leaps at his appearance. Hanumarathnam screeches and leaps back into the house. The monkeys have been eating from the fruit trees in the garden: the courtyard stinks of rotting fruit, including half-eaten mangoes and overripe bananas evidently used as missiles in monkey food fights. Several bananas are still stuck on the walls where they smashed. The monkeys must have been attracted to the courtyard by the shade afforded under the partial roof.

Hanumarathnam, like his servants, who are tucked safely behind him, stands with the tail of his jasmine-white dhoti held over his nose and mouth against the rancid smell and his horror at the colonizers' aggression. The courtyard is crawling with their clan. Fifteen, perhaps twenty, mothers, babies, adolescents. There are two dominant bull monkeys: a patriarch with a silvery thatch of hair, his muscles a bit stringy. His manner, as he bares his teeth and boxes a yearling's ears to show off, is defensive. The up-and-comer, who has probably defeated every bull but the old one, is sleek and barrel-chested. He squats, shaking his head and puffing his cheeks, inches behind the old fellow.

Now, all the monkeys are looking their way, except one, about two years old, who has caught a little bird and is absorbed in plucking it. The bird squawks ambivalently. The monkey rubs the bird's head on the courtyard bricks, then inspects it as though it might reveal the source of the protest. Hanumarathnam, to the relief of his employees, gently shuts the courtyard door and bolts it.

Seconds later, there is a pounding against the wood, a single fist, then a multitude, then the monkeys start to squabble and scrabble amongst themselves and forget the interlopers. The door from the courtyard to the garden is still locked; the monkeys have been going over the wall to get the fruit. Hanumarathnam, back in the main hall, shuts the garden doors, and sends the servants to their homes. The house cannot be cleaned without water, and the well is at the centre of the jealously guarded courtyard. The water, at least, is probably safe: the well has no bucket right now, though, and, unlike the big agricultural wells, no ladder.

Three hours before dawn, Hanumarathnam returns. He opens a garden door, straining his senses to perceive life or movement. Detecting nothing, he slowly swings a kerosene lamp out in front of him. Still nothing. With increasing boldness, he creeps, then stalks through the garden. There are no monkeys sleeping here.

He returns to the main hall, closes the door, and proceeds to the back of the house, which splits into the pantry and kitchen, to the right, and a small room, beneath the stairs, adjoining another small back room, on the left. He takes the left passage this time, and tries the bolt. It is a little sticky. He rotates it up, down, up, down, pulling steadily on the handle. It opens with a bang. He pulls it shut again just as quickly, and sets his ear against the door, his heart pounding. He can almost feel the old monkey's overdeveloped canines penetrating his soft, scholarly flesh. When Hanumarathnam himself was a child, one of the brahmin quarter children died of a monkey bite. She had been a beautiful girl; the enraged monkey tore off half her face.

There is no sound from the courtyard: as he suspected, his house is just one stop on the monkeys' circuit. They don't sleep here, cramped quarters, but rather in some forest glade, on grooved branches above leaf-padded floors.

At three the next morning, Hanumarathnam and three of his servants return. Illuminating the garden section by section with the gaseous glare of kerosene, they strip every tree of its ripe fruit. It is not a large garden, but severely overgrown, and it takes them until six before all the fruit is stacked neatly in the pantry.

As Hanumarathnam locks the garden doors, a female servant prepares several platters: two of fruit and a third heaped with cooked rice mixed with fatty yogurt, mustard seeds, curry leaves. Hanumarathnam carries the rice, two others the fruits. They place these ceremoniously at the bottom of the steps into the wasteland behind the house, just outside the courtyard door.

That day, Hanumarathnam opens the front doors of the house so neighbours from up and down the street can come and help themselves to fruits. He monitors the sounds of the monkeys over the course of the day, and hears them discover the plates. They feast, and waste food, and waste time, and then come over the walls into the courtyard and garden. Their chattering grows progressively more outraged as they discover nothing but hard green fruits. These function well as weapons, or toys, and they batter the walls and doors for a time. But they are still hungry, and soon scuffle off to other locales.

Hanumarathnam has reserved a portion of the ripe fruit. This, with a plate of yogurt rice, becomes the next morning's offering, half as large as the day previous, but still generous. It is placed four paces away from the back wall, four times farther than the day before. The next day he halves the offering again, and doubles the distance. By the end of the week, the monkeys lackadaisically lap up the token offering left by the side of the canal a furlong from the courtyard door. They have stopped coming to Hanumarathnam's garden.

Padma Viswanathan is a fiction writer, playwright, and journalist. She has published fiction in journals including New Letters, Subtropics, and The Malahat Review, and took first prize in the 2006 Boston Review Short Story Contest. Other writing awards include residencies at the Banff Playwrights' Colony, Sacatar, and The MacDowell Colony. Her first novel,The Toss of a Lemon (Harcourt, 2008), has been published in six countries and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Regional) for Best First Book and the First Novel Prize. Viswanathan lives with the poet and translator Geoffrey Brock, and their children, in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Photo by Johnathon Williams

Author's Statement

Receiving an NEA fellowship feels like a big welcome home to me. I was born and raised Canadian but naturalized after marrying an American and birthing a couple more. I'm deeply invested in this glorious, vexed country, and in the community where I live.

The award seems proof to me of this country's capaciousness. My first novel, The Toss of a Lemon, set in India, was begun in Canada and finished in the U.S. I'm now at work on a second, Losing Farther, Losing Faster, about Indians in Canada, which will have been written entirely in the U.S. (Hope I don't have to leave home to set a book here!) To have been offered a seat at the smorgasbord that is this country's literature by such an esteemed jury is a joy and an honor indeed.

More than anything, this award will permit me to take Losing Farther, Losing Faster much farther, much faster than I could otherwise have done. Thank you for freeing me of the burden to earn by other means and thank you for this vote of confidence.