Sengodan was tending the young red banana tree as it were his own favorite child. Even when he came home at dusk, unmindful of the day’s hard work in the field, he would go to the backyard, look at the young banana plant, see whether it had enough water, and only then speak to his four children. It was with such passion that he was nurturing his red banana. As the plant grew so did his joy also keep on growing. When he watered it and dug the sand and mud around it, his eyes would glitter with pride. Kuppi was a little bit jealous because he was showing so much love and concern for the plant, more than for his first-born Karian.
“Kuppi, a bull or a cow may enter the garden and trample the banana tree. Be careful. A very good seedling, remember. A red banana is not some ordinary one. Can you picture how big a bunch it will produce? The fruit would be long and plump. And how tasty! You just look at it and you won’t be hungry anymore,” Sengodan would boast to his wife.
The four boys would follow their father’s lead. They would brag about the banana tree with the children in the huts all around. What else could a child of a farmhand speak about! Could they talk about the new motorcar bought by their father, or about their mother’s diamond earrings, or about the radio their brother had just received? For them the red banana was their motor car, radio and diamond necklace—everything! The eldest boy Karian said, “When the red banana produces its bunches of fruit, one full bunch is for me!”
“Wouldn’t you give me even one banana? Remember I have given you a mango… and roasted peanuts,” said Elleppan from the hut across from them. Karian’s sister, Kamatchi, would blink mischievously and say, “If you get one bunch, I will get two, you know that? I will get one from father and another from mother.” Counting the bunches now himself, the third boy Muthu would warn them, “Stop doing that or you’ll be disappointed later! Before they ripen, nobody knows who would get what.” He wasn’t kidding as he was determined to eat more bananas than anybody else, even if that meant stealing.
The red banana was growing as Sengodan’s favorite child. He had to work hard in the field as the farm manager was a terror. Sengodan would endure all this; when he went home to his red banana, everything would be forgotten. When children cried, he would console them by showing them the banana tree. Even when threatening to punish a mischievous child, he would distract them by showing the banana. Sengodan had a feeling that his children would enjoy eating those fruits. Children of the pannayar could eat apple and grapes. How could his Karian and Muthu afford such expensive fruit? He only intended to make his children happy by providing them with red bananas, and that pushed him to nurture the banana tree.
No matter how hard the farmhand Sengodan toiled, how could he ever hope to have so much money that he could buy his children fruit and expensive edible items? The portion of the field that he tended as his sharecropper’s wages produced just enough food to fill half their stomachs. Kuppi’s labour would help to fill the gap. This was their lot! Most of the yield from the field would go to the landlord. This red banana was the only product of his work over which he could have complete rights. Could the pannayar ask for a share of that? After working hard for his field throughout the day he spent his spare time, which included his sleep, for his red banana, nurturing it ever so fondly. And the entire fruit of his labour was his own to keep! Sengodan was happy at least in that he could reap the reward for his labour, he could have all of it, which was rightfully his. All this reasoning did not play out in his mind in a clear sequence. Occasionally such thoughts would come to his mind as a misty cloud and then disappear. That was why his joy and elation knew no bounds upon seeing his red banana. The plant grew and so did his innocent joy also increase.
The playground for Sengodan’s children was the backyard where the red banana tree was planted. Their joy was like the enchantment a maid feels for a flower, a bee has for the honey. The children grew fond of the banana.
“Will the bunch come out in a month, appa?” Karian would anxiously ask. “It will take two months, you, dear eyes of my life!” Sengodan would reply.
The red banana put out the bunch. The very gait of Sengodan’s walk changed. He would stretch his neck up to look at the bunch with pride. Paranthama Mudaliar, his pannayar, would not have looked with so much pride at the diamond necklace adorning the golden neck of his daughter-in-law, Muthuvijaya! For Sengodan, his banana bunch looked more precious than the priceless diamond necklace worn by Muthuvijaya. As the bunch of red bananas was ripening, the anxiety, quarrel and rivalry for maximum share of the bananas became amplified among Sengodan’s children.
“When will it be ripe?” the daughter would ask.
“How long should it be on the tree?” one of the boys would ask.
Sengodan was thinking he should wait till the banana fingers became round and thick and ripe enough so that he could cut the bunch, ripen it and give it to his children. The yield of his hard work! I’m going to enjoy the entire fruit of my labour, he thought. No middleman! There is no pannayar to pluck away more than three fourths of the produce! Ours is all the work but everything is pannayar’s. He has a right to think of the red paddy harvested in the field only after the pannayar takes what he wants, is that not the way, he ruminated. But this red banana is not like that. It is his own. Labour and the product are his own. He decided to cut the bunch in two days. The children were highly excited. Their boisterous happiness sent the news across to the children of other farmhands. Many children gave Karian pounded rice or sweet potato or green mango or anything else they had as advance for a banana.
We labored and we are going to enjoy the fruit of our hard work. There is nothing like the joy it brings. How sweet it would be if we could enjoy the full yield for our work in the field too! The labour spent on my red banana would not be one hundredth of what I did for the pannayar’s field. But the work is ours and the land is his. So he enjoys the fruit of our labour. But this red banana is the product of my labour and that is in my own backyard. Suppose I have a small piece of land for me to cultivate, how sweet it will be! Will such a day ever come! Will a day come when the land belongs to those who till the soil and he who does not toil will not be a pannayar?… All these thoughts hazily passed through Sengodan’s mind.
It was only the red banana that stirred up such ideological thoughts in his mind. But children started salivating at the very sight of the banana bunch. And Sengodan also joined them.
At that very moment the pannayar Paranthamar was making elaborate preparations to celebrate his daughter-in-law Muthuvijaya’s birthday in grand style. He asked the ‘Aiyar’ to perform ‘abishekams’ for ambal in the temple. He called his accountant to prepare the list. When they were jotting down the different items to prepare, wouldn’t they think of the banana?
“Two bunches of banana,” the pannayar said.
Sundaram, the accountant, replied, “Banana? Where could I go for good bananas? We only have the green variety in the market!”
“ Get at least two of those then. But where else could we go for the good ones?” said the pannayar.
“There is a good bunch of red banana in Sengodan’s backyard, we can take those,” said Sundaram before the pannayar could conclude his sentence.
“That’s good!” said the pannayar.
Sengodan’s red banana bunch! His sweet dream! His children’s joy! Sundaram had prepared the death knell for it! How many days did the entire Sengodan’s family look at the bunch with anticipation and with elation! Sundaram became the killer of that joy. The threat to the red banana which was the source of hope, joy and pride for them came from the very street they lived in.
When Sundaram came to Sengodan and they saw them talking, the children never thought that it would be about the banana.
Sengodan’s head started spinning. He stuttered. Words choked in his mouth.
Sundaram gave, as reason for his demand, the birthday celebration of the pannaya’s daughter-in-law. What could poor Sengodan say? Could he say anything about his fondness for the banana which grew along with it or about the crazy love of his children for the banana tree, which made their mouths water? What could he say? the person who asked for it was the pannayar!
“How mean you are! You refused to give it to him when the pannayar himself had asked for it from a person like you! How ungrateful you are, a farmhand who lives on his land! Only a bunch of bananas! Do you think it is of any value to his status?” — He imagined the entire village abusing him.
“Appa, Don’t cheat us! I too watered it, protected it from being trampled by cattle. It is you who said the red banana would be very tasty, it would be like sugar candy! For my sister, the fruit is so dear. When we craned our necks to look up at the bunch, our mouth would water. You promised to give it to us and you are cheating us like this! Did we ask you to buy us grapes or oranges, spending your money? This is what we planted in our own backyard!” –his children’s complaints and his wife’s angry protest, asking him, “Is it right to disappoint our children like this?” raced through his mind.
But the man before him was the pannayar’s accountant!
Sengodan went for his sickle.
At once his children started shouting excitedly, “Appa is going to cut down the bunch – the red banana bunch!” Sengodan’s eyes filled with tears. He cut down the bunch, brought it in and threw off his sickle.
“Put the bunch down, appa. Let me touch it!” said the children.
Sengodan caressed Karian’s back. “My precious! Our muthalali wants this bunch! I am going to take it. Don’t cry! In a month the suckling will grow up and we will have a new bunch. I will definitely give it to you,” he said trying to console them.
He went out with the bunch before his children’s wailing could reach him. It was like a day of mourning. By the time he was able to gather his courage to come back home, it was already late in the evening. Upon seeing his children who had cried themselves to sleep, he started weeping. Then he brushed his tears aside and tried to sleep.
A thousand thoughts raced through his mind.
What is the use of nurturing the red banana like a favorite child…! For the pannayar he can get his hands on this one as easily. If he wants he can get thousands of bunches like this! But for Sengodan? How hard did he toil to get that single bunch? How many nights did he spend dreaming about it? How many times had he tempted the children, talking about it! And the hard work he put into it! How much care! All this was shattered in a moment.
Four days later the beautiful Muthuvijaya walked like a swan to Ambikai’s temple carrying one bunch of red banana on a silver plate.
Even after consoling them for four days, the children’s grumbling did not cease. Karian was adamant and was asking for at least one banana. Kuppi took out a quarter anna and gave it to the boy asking him to buy one. He rushed to the neighborhood shop and there was a bunch hanging so prettily.
The accountant had taken for himself four bunches and sold them to the shop. And Karian stood before it with a longing look.
“You, boy, one anna for a banana! Do you think you could get it for a quarter anna. Go away,” said the shopkeeper.
How would the poor boy know that the bunch hanging in the shop was the one from his own backyard! How many days had this little boy watered the plant, expecting to get a single fruit one day? Here was the fruit, but far above his reach!
The boy returned home crestfallen munching some roasted groundnut.
Sengodan was coming out with the stem of the banana.
“Appa, is this going to the pannayar’s house too?” asked Karian.
“No, my precious. Our Parvati grandma is dead. I am taking this for the bier.”
The piece of stem from the banana plant on the decorated funeral bier! People wailing all around it! Children were following the funeral procession.
“The red banana from our house!” said Karian with pride, pointing to the bier. “We cut down the bunch in our backyard and gave it to pannayar’s house. We cut down the plant and gave the stem for the bier.”
Poor boy, Karian! How would he know that the incident of the red banana was an ordinary event in the world of workers!
pannayar – landlord
Appa – father
Ambal – goddess
Abishekam – ritual
Aiyar – here, temple priest
Anna -coinage in currency then in India; one anna is one sixteenth of a rupee
Muthalali – boss
C. N. Annadurai (1909 -1969) was an eminent Indian politician. He founded a political party named Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1967. During his tenure the name Madras Presidency was changed into Tamil Nadu. He was famous for his oratorical skills and was an acclaimed writer. He was a novelist, short story writer, dramatist, film script writer and essayist. His first published work was in 1939. He authored several novellas, short stories and plays. Many of his plays were made later into films. His famous works are Velaikari and Oor Iravu. An ardent disciple of E.V.R. Periyar, he was a social reformer and a Tamil enthusiast. He was fondly called Arignar Anna (Scholar -elder brother). The short story The Red Banana” (Sevvalai) was published in 1949.
Dr. S. Vincent is a retired professor of English. He has translated more than thirty books from English to Tamil. He has brought out many collections of essays. He translates books from Tamil to English, including contemporary Tamil poems and the short stories of Kumarananthan. With Dr. Lawrence he has translated Veeramamunivar’s Paramartha Guruvin Kathai and Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai’s Prathaba Mudaliar Charithiram (the first novel in Tamil) into English. Other important books translated by him into Tamil are Kafka’s Metamorphosis and other Stories, Paulo Coelho’s Fifth Mountain, and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.