In a poor and remote village in rural Malaysia, a young boy Anil witnesses a murder by the Headman of the village. He confronts the Headman and is then sent away to go to school to stop him from speaking. Anil's departure effectively means that the Headman has got away with murder.
Characters - Anil
In many ways Anil is a typical 7 year old boy: afraid of the dark, believes fanciful stories and rumours spread around the village concerning the tree and its powers to eat children; he is frightened of his father and doesnt want to wak him in order to go to the toilet; he attempts to wake his mother knowing he will get a more sympathetic response, but is unsuccessful. He has little idea of his future - he doesn't know at the start of the story that he is destined to become servant to the headman just as his father and mother are. But in other ways he is very different from the rest of the villagers. We are told early in the story that the villagers are asleep "dreaming their dreams that rarely amounted to anything."
These are mundane, everyday dreams - despite their importance in the poverty of the developing world. By contrast, Anil is different. His gazing at the star through the hole in the roof of his parents' hut is given significance by Noor (lines 17-20).
The events of the story prove Anil is slightly naive about the magical wonders of life, but his departure at the end of the story can be seen to represent one dream - the dream of escape from this poverty stricken and corrupt village.
Characters - Ragunathan
Anils father and servant to headman. Has no dreams like Anil's and is completely subservient to the wishes of his master. Physically abuses his wife as Anil sees the bruise on his mothers arm from when his father hit her when drunk. Anil doesn't dare waken his father to accompany him outside to urinate which also suggests, a distance in their relationship: Anil reflects, "He did not need a walloping at this time of the night" (40) which suggests that he frequently hits Anil. More insidiously, Ragunathan is always ready to support the headman without question. Noor describes him as "a burly man, a bully to his family and a timid mouse to the headman". When the headman decides what has happened and the authorities do not need to be called, Anil's father agreed.
However, Noor allows him to redeem himself when he says farewell to his son on the train. At this point Noor reveals that he has been ashamed to "hide the truth about Marimuthu's wife's death" (199), despite having been such a bully to Anil, he has acted in his son's interests, but still feels a sense of guilt for doing so (line 201-202).
Interesting development by writer, shows a moral sensitivity that we wouldn't have guessed Ragunathan has and it encapsulates the moral dilemma he's faced.
Characters - The headman
Plays an important role in plot: he controls it, just as he controls what happens in the village, but he is not portrayed with any detail. He is simply an authority figure who is used to getting his way through power, influence and intimidation. In a sense he is allowed to do this as no one in the village is prepared to stand up to him. Noor is surely commenting on the way village politics are corrupt and allow those in power to cover up crimes like murder and do exactly as they wish. We never find out why Marimuthu has murdered his wife: what is important in the story is that he is allowed to get away with it.
Structure and language
Noor tells the story as a third person omniscient narrator, but the narrative viewpoint is that of Anil until the final two paragraphs of the story where we see things from the point of view of the headman and his brother. This change of focus seems to suggest that nothing will change in the village in the future and that Anil and his knowledge of the truth of the murder are safely out of the way. The story is divided into two sections: a long section which describes the events of the night and the following day when the body is discovered; and a much shorter one which describes Anil's departure and the burning of the dead woman's body. The crucial meeting in the headman's hut between the headman, Anil's father and Anil is left undescribed, but we can work out exactly what happened at that meeting from the ending of the story: Anil has been offered the opportunity to have an education in a city school provided he keeps quiet about the truth of what he has seen.
The opening of the story sounds almost like the opening of a fairy story - "On a hot, sweltering night...there was a little village" although the mosquitoes' "reign of terrorism" could be said to introduce a slightly sinister note.
Structure and language (2)
Story ends in irony because Anil is the only one who knows truth about murder, but is benefitting from it. Irony is double edged too: something good is happening to Anil - escaping poverty and bullying of village (exemplified by his father and the headman), but this good thing is happening because another human being has died and, even worse, the politics of the village have ensured that her murderers will escape any punishment. Something moving about his departure: father = bully, but being sent to city for years and being torn away from everything he knows is still a disturbing experience and Anil is upset: "Anil looked up at his father and nodded, tears swimming on the rims of his eyes." Ironically his father chides him: "Men don't cry. You're going into a mans world, you must act like a man now." Ironic because Dad has been described as a mouse throughout: does not stand up to the headman like a real man would. Father shows real emotion as train picks up speed and Anil saw "his father fall to his knees, a bent, despaired figure that had just let go of his only son". Anil's last thought as he watches his village recede in the distance is "I will never forget this town and the sin it buries today" (216-217). Perhaps we may see some hope for the future: if he becomes a lawyer (one idea his father has urged him to think of) then maybe one day he can bring justice.
Themes - Dreams and Imagination
Opening paragraph draws attention to mundane dreams of villagers and Noor develops this idea when he describes, as a contrast to the villages, Anil's heightened sensitivity in looking at the star. The star itself might be seen as a symbol of ambition, given Anil's destiny at the end of the story: we talk about reaching for the stars to describe ambition and aspiration. However, Anil's childish imagination is also able to summon up images of horror. He believes, as do all the children of the village, that the tree regularly eats children. This imagined horror becomes ironic since the tree is used to hang Marimuthu's wife and therefore becomes a real source of horror, not imagined childish fantasy.
Themes - Women and the power of patriarchal societ
Women in this story are the victims of the men and have no power whatsoever. Indeed, they are the passive objects of male violence. Marimuthu (with the help of another man - is it the headman himself?) murders his wife; Ragunathan regularly beats his wife. Both the main male adult characters are presented as bullies. The headman arrogantly believes he can get what he wishes and, in a sense, the story shows that he can. Anil and his father can be bought off and their silence ensured because of the headman's power and wealth.
Themes - Brutality and violence
The murder, its cover up and the domestic abuse that Anil and his mother suffer are typical of a patriarchal and corrupt society which uses violence to get its own way. The mosquitoes' "reign of terrorism" in the opening sentence which introduced a sinister note turns out to be justified in the light of events in the story. Indeed, given such a violent atmosphere, the reader might wonder at Anil's fate when he is first led off to the headman's hut: what might happen to him in this violent village where the headman's power is unquestioned.
Themes - Poverty
The story draws attention to the appalling poverty in remote parts of developing countries and implies as well that the village's apparent remoteness and poverty means that the headman is able to exercise justice as he likes because of his power over the other villagers, power that is based on his position and his wealth.