Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Death will tell you if you were loved, if you were feared, if you were hated. Appu Kutty’s death took the form of a newborn baby’s strangled cry to tell us we were vile.
When Appu Kutty died, everyone in the town knew they were culpable. The security guard knew he should’ve rechecked the lock on the temple’s gates. Every employee of the electricity department took to blaming themselves for the unavailability of streetlights that night. The farmer accused himself of digging the well Appu Kutty drowned in. The mahout’s devastated face and trembling hands screamed it was my fault, it was my fault.
It was my fault too.
I watched the baby elephant trotting along the street that led to the farming lands. I should’ve thought about the deep well on the path, realized the danger it posed, and done something to save the calf. Instead I chose to continue watching the blurred cartoon, Dumbo, on the television. The screen kept glitching until it switched off with a dramatic snap. For all I know, maybe that was the moment Appu Kutty fell into the well. Maybe the glitching, the snapping, and the thunder that night was all a sign—the heavens above beseeching us to save him.
Elder Brother says it was his fault.
He had been playing cricket with his friends when they watched Appu walking down the path that led to the farming lands. He says he watched as the gloomy clouds consumed the sky and planned the fastest route back home to prevent getting drenched. His mind hadn’t flitted back to the elephant calf plodding along the soaked slushy roads. He had traversed the shortest route and reached home just moments before the downpour. Moments before Appu Kutty’s death.
Little Anjali, the youngest in our family, was not guilty at all.
Little Anjali did not know many things like the rest of us. She knew her alphabets till F but not what they meant, numbers till nine but not to count, and to cry but not the emotions she felt. She knew something else that night—Appu Kutty was in trouble. She had tugged at Mother’s clothes and babbled in the languages only she understood. I remember watching as Father tossed her into the air and caught her in his arms, a game they both loved. She didn’t laugh like she did on the other days. She kept craning her neck to the front door, walked over,and placed her chubby hands atop the jambs of the door. The golden glow transitioned into a dull black with a forest of stars splayed across. She proceeded to tap on her elephant toy repeatedly, striking it on the ground, and shoving it in front of our faces. When no resolution was made, she began to wail.
We put her to sleep and tossed the elephant into the toy box.
The next morning, we woke up to the agonizing lament of the mahout. Even with the well many meters away, his cries were louder than the customary crowing of the rooster. Elder Brother bolted out before anyone could ask him to stay at home. Father buttoned his shirt inside-out and rushed to the scene barefoot, the action of strapping his shoes deemed an unwanted delay. Mother followed, handing me a glass of milk, hoisting Anjali on my waist, and ordering me to stay home. I watched from the window as all the men and women of the village ran with their hair half-plaited, mismatched earrings, sometimes only one earring, and many still in their nightclothes.
A while later, Elder brother came running with a ragged shirt clutched in between his fingers, rotating it around and announcing ‘Appu Kutty is gone!’. He paused in front of our door, wiped his tears, and sniffled before setting his back straight and continuing his announcement. I felt myself drop to the ground, the heaviness in Elder brother’s voice making me sink to my feet. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t eat. I could only hear some wired noise in my ears all day.
In the evening, the entire village gathered for a funeral. Deceased animals received funerals but none like for Appu Kutty. The mahout conducted the ceremonies alongside a priest and they followed human customs rather than those designated for animals. Appu Kutty was someone’s son, someone’s friend, someone’s brother. As he lay there lifeless, I could see Appu somewhere behind my irises with his flailing tail, enormous ears, and the slight smile on his mouth. I could see us both playing in the tiny pool of water in the summer, smiles and water splashing everywhere.
The priest draped the muslin cloth over his face and I heard his silhouette in my head trumpet, a muffled sound that filled my ears. Through blurred eyes, I could see heads hanging, empty eyes and collapsed knees.
Everyone knew—it was our fault.