C.S. Chellappa’s novella, Vaadivaasal, written in the 1940s, marks the first time that the traditional sport of jallikattu finds space in modern Tamil literature.
In it, Picchi and Marudan take part in the annual bull-taming contest at the Chellaiyi festival at Periyapatti hoping to subdue a ferocious Kaari bull that had defeated Picchi’s father. Picchi takes the Kaari on and what follows is a gripping account of a sport that the Supreme Court banned in 2014 for the cruelty to animals it supposedly involves but which jallikattu supporters insist is a keen contest between man and beast.
Vaadivaasal is a classic story of power play in the Tamil Nadu countryside, a tale in which the feudal social relations that underpin the local economy and ‘tame’ the subaltern castes figure implicitly even as the narrative is driven by the latter’s attempts to compete with each other and with animals in the ritual taming of bulls.
The novella beautifully captures the cultural significance of jallikattu in the life of rural Tamil Nadu, even if the ‘tradition’ is inextricably bound up with feudalism, caste hierarchies, masculinity and patriarchy. In Chellappa’s telling, the Arena produces uncertain and even fatal outcomes for its human participants but not for the bulls –though the fate that awaits them after can be unpredictable.
Anyone looking to understand the place of jallikattu in the Tamil imagination – and the passion that the ban on the sport has aroused across the state – can do no better than to read Vaadivaasal.
The Kaari stood majestically at the wicket gate. The animal’s battened, glistening black hump jutted impressively above the neck-high wooden enclosure. Springing fork-like from the edges of the mound on its forehead, its two sharply pointed horns with a small hook-like curve at each tip glittered and shone impressively. With its head lowered and eyes downcast, it stepped forward confidently and slowly, humps subtly undulating and horns swaying from side to side, it came halfway out of the wicket gate and after casting sidelong glances at the anaimarams on either side as a precaution, reached the centre of the vaadivaasal and stood there.
‘Look how it’s standing there, like a falcon!’
‘If this bull runs away too like all the other donkeys, then what …?’
‘If there is ever a bull that will stand its ground and gore the tamer, it’s this one!’
‘And that easterner is going to hold this one, is he?’
The Kaari standing there was like a challenge to everyone present to lay a hand on it. Dirt flew from the spots where its exhalations touched the ground. It bellowed once. Then it smelled the ground again.
‘Where have those easterners gone?’ Eyes were scanning the direction where they had been. However, because of the panic they felt from being directly in front of the bull, their eyes did not linger in that direction for long. Just then the bull, which had been facing the path to the river, spun around swiftly to face directly behind, waved its horns and took a step forward. It glowered and turned around so abruptly only after sensing a furtive movement along with a call of ‘durr…eee’ behind it. Panick filled the crowd in the front row; too frightened to betray any movement and not daring to make any gesture that might stoke the animal’s rage, they tried to stand completely still and upright, inert as death. A small gesture from anywhere was enough for the bull to leap in that direction. It bellowed again and again.
‘Who is that wretched fellow who shouted “durr…eee” at the bull?’ Several voices rose from the back row. ‘Murugu, was it your mischief?’ shouted the old man from somewhere. It did not take long for those present to infer that Murugu had done that in order to make the bull turn and face the spot where Picchi stood in readiness. Only Picchi and Marudan stood motionless next to each other directly in front of the bull’s horns. After making the bull’s face stop directly in front of the two men, Murugan sneaked away to the back row…
Looking as if it would pounce immediately if the figure standing before it moved even slightly, the bull lowered its face and stood glowering at Picchi and Marudan. It was not the kind of bull which would frenziedly attack innocent bystanders. It would only bother about the man who came after it. The Kaari did not move. And there was no scope, either, for the man to escape the animal’s aim and move away.
How to divert the bull’s pointed gaze was Picchi’s sole problem. He turned his face sideways and gave Marudan a sign. The next moment, both leapt suddenly in concert in opposite directions along the arc of people standing around the vaadivaasal. Confused momentarily about which man it should go after, the bull kept turning its head alternately in both directions and swung its head. Recovering quickly, it wheeled around in the same direction in which Picchi was moving, turning its horns and waving them in alignment with his movement. Picchi froze when he saw the bull take a step forward. When the Kaari saw that he was not advancing towards it, it stopped dead and took up position, glowering at Picchi.
‘Is it really an animal? It is showing as much cunning as a human!’
This was the first time that people of that region had the opportunity to witness the Kaari’s traits firsthand. The way it behaved with intelligence equal to that of a human was truly awesome. Keeping its eyes trained on Picchi, the bull scratched the ground with its hooves, causing dirt to fly. After watching the bull’s temper rising, the crowd took fright, feeling that it would be better for the bull to leave that place immediately, for the contest to end. ‘Go, go,’ they called out in an attempt to calm the bull. As if it was determined to not budge even an inch until a resolution to its challenge was reached, the
Kaari stood rooted to the spot and kept thumping the ground with its hooves, snorting and waving its horns.
Picchi stood directly in front of its horns and Marudan near its tail, both of them utterly still. Marudan kept his eyes on Picchi’s face, expecting a sign. As soon as Picchi cast a glance above the bull’s head and gave Marudan a sign …
Marudan’s voice resounded, piercing through the murmurs around the vaadivaasal. Yelling as he moved forward, Marudan lightly touched the animal’s tail before he retreated to the edge of the circle. At the touch of a hand, the bull turned abruptly to pounce on Marudan. After taking its eyes off Picchi, it had only turned at a small angle when, swooping in like a cicada from one side, Picchi flung his left arm over the bull’s hump and hugged it close to his chest, glued his body to its neck and laid a hand on its right horn. Only the slapping sound was heard by the crowd. So quickly, as in a lightning flash, had Picchi become one with the animal that their eyes could not register it.
For the bull, this unexpected leap proved to be a setback right at the outset. But its innate animal character enabled recovery in the very next moment. Waving its horns furiously, the bull tried to gore Picchi in the ribs. But with Picchi’s strong hold pressing down on it, the right horn was being pushed in the opposite direction. Picchi, too, was careful to not let the horns hit him in the face or neck, no matter how haphazardly the bull’s head turned; he folded his knees back and leaned his head on the bull’s neck. As its head was being pressed down, the bull changed its strategy and leapt in the air with all four legs off the ground. Picchi, too, went up with the bull.
‘Ada, it is leaping like a snakehead!’
‘It’s trying to throw him off his back … like a horse!’
‘When he is wheeled around and thrown, he will be as good as dead!’
‘It’s going to throw him down and skin him alive!’
‘Aa aa aa aa aa! Chu chu chu chu …’
‘Don’t let go of your hold, Picchi!’ Marudan yelled. ‘Don’t let go!’ Picchi’s hands were shaking. Coming loose from the bull, his body swung in the air. Having leapt up to a man’s height, the bull contracted its back in mid-air, tucked its head inward, let its hindquarters drop, and thus suspended, came down suddenly with great force, all four hooves slamming the ground. Without losing his hold through all this, Picchi, too, came down with the bull and groped with his feet for some ground to stand on. Before he could find his footing, the bull had sprung up and leapt high again.
‘Don’t let go, don’t let go!’ Voices screamed in panic from the crowd.
‘He has survived one jump, da!’
‘It will roll him over when it jumps next!’
‘There, the easterner’s hand is tiring!’
When the bull sailed through the air again to land some distance away, Picchi’s legs struggled to unfurl his feet and plant them on the ground. Without affording any scope for the crowd to see where his face was, how the hand and horn were intertwined or how the hold on the hump had turned, the bull had jumped up for the third time.
‘Oh, he has survived the second jump too!’
‘The Vaadipuram bull is tamed at last!’
‘Picchi! Picchi! Don’t let go! Just this one more jump left.’
‘The bull is also tiring! Not much strength in the third jump!’
Even as he was struggling to plant his feet on the ground, given the strength of his hold on the horn and the hump, Picchi too had gone up with the bull for the third time. As the dust rising from the furious whirl of the bull jumping up and coming down hid the contestants, the crowd, which was mortally afraid that the bull might fall on them and therefore retreated further, could not see anything. The zameendar was watching from the stage, looking as though he might plummet down any minute. Which one would tire first – the hand or the horn? Who could predict that with certainty, given the situation?
When the bull came down for the third time, Picchi’s hold on the horn had slackened. As the bull was groping to land its feet on the ground, Picchi’s hand had also slipped and was feeling around blindly in the air for the horn. It was only on the strength of his hold on the hump through those few seconds that he even came down with the bull.
‘Picchi, Picchi!’ The old man screamed aloud.
‘Aiyo! He is going to get killed!’
‘He has withstood three jumps!’
‘Something terrible is surely going to happen!’
Jumping up three times with its heavy, barrel-like torso had tired the bull too. Straightening its folded legs and planting its feet on the ground, it tottered a bit. Recovering first, Picchi had stabilized himself. To avoid being spun around and thrown off, he also flung his left arm over the hump and held it in a tight hug, as though trying to squeeze and wring it dry. Since the bull’s head was lowered, its horns were a few inches beyond the reach of his fingers; there was no possibility of landing a hold on the horns. Picchi knew what the bull would do once it recovered from the loss of balance due to its fall and realized that it could use its horns again.
If he had stood his ground through three jumps, it was beyond question that he had tamed the bull. But there was one thing left – the gold medal on the animal’s forehead.
After straightening its legs, the bull stood firm. Sensing that its horn was free and the hold on its hump was even tighter, the animal bent its neck and brought its horns to the right side. In a swift move, Picchi took his right hand away from the hump and caught hold of the right horn. Unable to turn further to gore the intestines that lay beyond the hand that held its horn, the bull, moving its feet sideways in a circle and bending its body, spun around very fast in the same spot. Picchi, too, pushed his legs back, and with the hold on the hump tightening and the hold on the horn pushing in the opposite direction, wheeled around along with the animal.
The bull spun around giddily.
‘It’s spinning like a merry-go-round!’
‘It’s trying to shake him off – like shaking the fruit off a tamarind tree!’
‘Must have been a human in its previous birth!’
‘Picchi, don’t let go. The bull is tiring!’ Marudan shouted. The speed of the bull’s wheel-like rotation kept decreasing. As though it had realized that the entire force of its brute nature was not enough to free its horns and hump, it was momentarily stunned, and then it came to a stop. Standing still, it lifted its head and sighed noisily. The beast too was fed up. As if it had decided that it couldn’t go any further, it raised its head and snorted.
When the head went up, its left horn moved closer to the hump. The time was right. Picchi reached out and grabbed the horn together with the hump. Feeling the new pressure, the beast tilted its head down and pulled forward. With his body glued to the neck, Picchi jerked the right horn downwards once and then, holding his breath, pressed it down with all his strength. The pressure forced the Kaari to raise its head; its snout turned up to snort towards the sky. Picchi pressed the left horn back, gluing it together with the hump. Making a square with its four feet, the animal contracted its hump, looked up and opened its mouth slightly, struggling to breathe through its mouth.
Although they knew that the last act of the drama remained to be played out, the crowd, in its uncontrollable frenzy of joy, jumped up again and again, shouting:
‘The Vaadipuram bull’s mouth is gaping wide!’
‘The easterner has won!’
‘Look at the way it’s standing, with its tail between its legs, like a scavenger dog!’
Releasing his hold on the right horn, Picchi laid his hand on the bull’s raised forehead, shoved his palm under the strip of scarf that was wound back and forth several times between the two horns and tugged hard once. The silk fabric, along with the chain strung with small pieces of gold jewellery, came away with his hand in a bunch. He held them together between his teeth. Pressing down his feet which had touched the ground by then, he held his breath and gave the bull along with its hump a mighty push towards the opposite side, and leapt backwards.
It was not really a manoeuvre that was impossible to manage. However, in that final stage, his backward leap turned out to be a little higher than necessary, so his legs foundered. Unable to steady himself, Picchi had fallen flat on his back. His head slid down at the feet of the crowd in the front row at the edge of the vaadivaasal circle. His teeth’s hold on the booty had come loose. The gold and the scarf lay scattered on the ground.
‘Aiyo, the bull has turned around, da!’
‘He is finished! Drive the bull away!’
‘It’s all over! That bull is going to tear him apart!’
The crowd screamed aloud.
Now free, the bull snorted and turned around, intent on revenge. As though its animal frenzy had gained fresh impetus, it leapt towards Picchi, who lay prostrate on the ground, face to the sky, fully aware that there was no time to get up on his feet.
Raising a rumble from behind the bull, Marudan tried to divert the animal’s attention. But the bull, frenzied with hurt pride at having been held down, ignored the sounds from behind; lowering its horns and swinging them back and forth, it was set on pushing them into that body lying prone on the ground. As the bull leapt in a direction perpendicular to his prone state, its horns were directly aimed at his intestines. Picchi raised his head slightly to have a look and he realized the danger. Like a circus artiste, he rotated his body by ninety degrees using his back as a pivot; when the bull was directly in front of his feet, he brought them together and kicked twice exactly at the lower part of its snout, and then spread his legs flat on the ground. The bull, after retreating slightly from the force of the kick, moved forward between his legs, now splayed wide in a fork, and stabbed downward with its horns. As they approached directly in front of his chest, Picchi held both horns in his hands and pushed them back. But the bull, attacking from the stable position of standing firmly on its four legs, had the upper hand. As Picchi’s position grew weaker and the hands which held the horns were folded back, the horns were approaching the base of his throat.
‘Drive the bull away!’ The zameendar shouted tensely from the stage.
‘Marudaa! Marudaa!’ the old man screamed.
Marudan was descended from a lineage which followed the rule of one man against one bull. So he knew that he could not enter the arena in his capacity as an assistant who helped to tame the bull; that the right moment to do so could only be to save another man’s life. He knew that the moment had arrived, and he was ready for the consequences, whatever they might be.
In a flash, he jumped from the front row, held the bull’s tail above the tassel tied at the end, wound it around the back of his palm and tugged hard. Leaving its prey, the bull raised its head in order to turn towards its tail. With the force of this move, Picchi, who was holding on to the horns, was also raised from the ground. He had no time to abandon the firm hold and lie prone on the ground. As the bull turned abruptly, a ‘chathak’ sound – of flesh being stabbed – was heard. Somehow, during the awkward movement, a horn had gored him in his upper thigh. As the bull turned around fully, Picchi’s thigh rose along with the horn. With his thigh torn, Picchi swung through the air and fell to the ground.
After turning, the bull spun around in an attempt to toss and gore Marudan, the man who held its tail. As the bull spun around, Marudan spun along with it, still holding on to its tail. Both he and the bull had spun around like a top five or six times. As the bull looked for an opportunity to gore him, Marudan intended to escape by releasing his hold at the right moment and moving away. Marudan glanced around once and noted that Picchi has been removed from the vaadivaasal; then, after twisting the tail and tugging hard at it with a jerk, he neatly shook his hands free and stepped back to become one with the crowd.
With its first prey lost and the second prey having escaped, the bull, in agony from the pain in its tail, snorted fiercely and waved its horns aimlessly in every direction as it turned, scraping the ground with its hooves, digging up and throwing chunks of dirt as it swayed back and forth on unsteady legs, a picture of untamed fury. The path which lay directly in front, the one that it was used to, did not catch its eye. The crowd, which had sensed its frenzied state, was now scattering rapidly in all directions.
Nobody knew in which direction it would leap next.
All of a sudden, the bull leapt ferociously into the crowd and plunged ahead, attacking everyone who crossed its path. Chathak! Chathak! The beast’s horns were being soaked in fresh blood as it rushed forward.
‘Lift him up! Let’s take him to the hospital!’ Voices babbled in panic around Picchi. To stanch the flow of blood that was gushing from his ripped thigh, they held it together and tied up the breach with a cloth. As four hands held him up, Picchi gritted his teeth and whimpered, unable to bear the pain. Then he raised his head. It appeared as though he was looking for someone.
‘Here I am Picchi!’ Marudan bent low and spoke in his ear, overcome with emotion. ‘You have avenged yourself, Picchi! You’ve redeemed your father’s honour!’
‘Yes, Appa’s heart would have been pleased,’ mumbled Picchi through throbbing pain. ‘Born of a demon, that bull was! Spun me around like a top.’
‘As one devil against another, you also made it drop dung in the arena!’
‘This one fight is enough for your whole life, thambi!’
‘Your name will stand for generations to come!’
Extracted with permission from C.S. Chellappa, Vaadivaasal (The Arena), Translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman. (Oxford University Press, 2013)