Friday, October 02, 2015

The Legend of the Rice Mother

The Legend of the Rice Mother

We, members of the Thykoot family, have all been witness to the legend of Rice Mother – Chor Ammachi – since childhood. She is the unquestioned guardian angel of our family, little known elsewhere except in the village of Kidangoor, a small rustic place in the west of district Patthinamthitta, Kerala. Our family name Thykoot, meaning “a group of saplings,” is descended from one of the Syrian Christian families of the area. Our ancestral house stood on a hilly tract, far from the village square, in a piece of verdure where there was a new meaning to silence, and a great surprise at sound. Below these hills were our rice fields, rice being our staple food. Since the house stood on a slope, against the backdrop of the hills, it had an imperious appearance because of its two peaked turrets, the imposing roof of burnt tiles, two Grecian columns at the entrance, wood-latticed verandah, and a deep well that never dried in summer. Grandfather had built the house from sturdy jackfruit wood, and around the house he had laid a big courtyard strewn with sand to discourage snakes. In a corner of the courtyard sat a well – said to be the biggest in the village – which was wide as well as deep. Almost ten acres surrounding the house belonged to us, a considerable landholding in those days, where up to five acres was the norm. Those days, houses were constructed facing the east, towards rice fields, and prosperity was measured according to how much the fields yielded every harvest season. Farming was the main occupation, and the tradition of working in organisations for a living was started by my grandfather, who was a superintendent in a tea plantation. Later, his sons followed the new tradition set by him, that is, they never worked on the fields.

The terraced plots on hard ground were cultivated for tapioca, greater yam, and malanga root and the soft marshy land was cultivated for rice. It’s not known how Chor Ammachi got her name. One explanation could be that she always asked us children if we had eaten rice. “Chor oondo makkaley? (Have you eaten rice, children?)” was her query to all of us. If we said “no” we were sent with a slap on the back, and a gentle admonition, to the kitchen. Chor Ammachi insisted that rice should be eaten hot, straight out of the boiling pot, along with the gruel, or, it lost its nutritious ingredients.

Chor Ammachi came to live in Kidangoor as a bride when she was twenty years old. “I came here as a bride forty years ago,” she would say in my childhood days, “I came when there were no no roads, no vehicles, walking the distance from my home ten miles away.” A house gecko trilled as she said this. “Hear that? The gecko says I am telling the truth.” Then marriages were conducted early. She came with a big wooden trunk that stood on four long legs, to ward off insects. We didn’t know what was in this wooden chest as she kept it locked all the time. However, we found it a convenient place to us to squat. Many times I had asked her what was in it and she gave evasive answers. We would often sit on this trunk when Ammachi cleaned rice, or, ground grain into batter on the mortar and pestle. But, as we shall see, she brought with her many talents which women of a later generation didn’t possess.

Family lore has it that five years after she came to live in Thykoot, her husband, our grandfather died. As already mentioned, my grandfather was a superintendent of a tea plantation in the Nilgiri Hills and would be absent most of the time from home. When he came home on vacation Ammachi and he would have fights over simple things like his bath not being prepared on time or the sambhar having too much salt. “I am tired of this man,” Chor Ammachi would say, in such times. But she loved grandfather. One evening when his dead body arrived unannounced in a Jeep Chor Ammachi couldn’t control herself and wept all night. There was an accident, he fell down and died when he was on his rounds in the plantation. Well, that was the explanation given by the estate management, his employers. Some people in our village – he had employed many of his cousins and nephews in the plantation – said that he was a hard taskmaster and, therefore, was murdered. Overnight, Chor Ammachi had two sons and a daughter to look after and no income except that from the fields. We had an indentured family, headed by Thiruvanchan Pulayan (called “Thiru,” in short), who did the farming for us. Pulayan was his caste name. The system of indentured labour prevalent till then, was abolished by the government, still, the family continued to serve us, perpetuating the tradition of their forefathers, owing mainly to the benefits that accrued from it.

From then on life was hard for Chor Ammachi. When grandfather was alive he would send Rs one hundred every month for the family’s expenses – a big amount at that time. If he sent less than that Chor Ammachi would return it, writing “Refused” in the communication part of the money order. Contrite, grandfather would send back the right amount. Those were the good days for our family, we had plenty to eat, and money to splurge on toys during the Maramon Convention, a Christian convention and fair at Kozencherry. After grandfather’s death the pressure of running a household began to tell on Chor Ammachi. She rose to the occasion, working hard on the rice fields and the land, keeping enough for ourselves and selling the surplus to raise money. She would often supervise the work of the rice fields, standing with Thiru and the workers, getting things like planting, weeding, and harvesting done. Her imposing figure – she was almost six-feet tall – dressed in white would dominate the field. Thiru and the workers were afraid of incurring her displeasure, as she didn’t like shoddy work and would berate them if something wasn’t to her liking.

My uncle Cheriachen, who separated from us to live independently in a neighbouring plot bought by grandfather, offered to be drafted into the Royal British Army during World War II when he was thirty-five years old. He did this without Chor Ammachi’s permission. One day she found her son packing a trunk when she returned from the rice fields and was alarmed to learn that he was going to join the army. Ammachi was furious. She felt her son should have consulted her – his only surviving parent – before he took the decision. However, she hid her disappointment. That evening he left with a friend to an army base. The image of his form disappearing into the trees, followed by Thiru carrying his trunk on his head, was the last she saw of her elder son.

He was stationed in Singapore during the halcyon days before the Japanese invasion. From there he wrote a weekly letter to Chor Ammachi detailing his life and how happy he was. She would look forward to his letters and receiving one was the high point of her day. In one letter he wrote that he was very happy he had taken the decision and he was enjoying life in Singapore. Indeed, life on the island was one long celebration – wine, women, and wantonness – before the Japanese invasion. In one letter he wrote that he wanted my father to be drafted into the army as well and sent to Singapore. “My elder son, Cheriachen, he holds his head high, he is a capable man,” Chor Ammachi would say proudly to whoever she met, “He will make a name for himself, just you see.” Compared to him my father was a layabout and, being the youngest, was spoilt by Ammachi. He didn’t take an interest in the running of the farms and went away to Bombay to work as a stenographer leaving his wife, my mother, and his three children – including me – in the care of Ammachi.

When Singapore was captured by the Japanese, Chor Ammachi stopped receiving letters from my uncle. She became distraught and cried at the second loss in her family: first her husband and then her beloved elder son, on whom she had reposed all her hope. She was inconsolable and for days she didn’t go into her rice fields. “Where is he, why isn’t he writing to us? Has he forgotten about me, his mother? I was against this army business. Look what he has done.” she would sit on the steps leading to the verandah and ask. Her grief was confirmed when a letter arrived from the Royal British Army stating that Cherian was missing in action and was presumed to be dead. In actual fact, which became clear later, he was captured and made a Prisoner of War by the invading Japanese army and made to work on the Death Railway linking Thailand to Burma. This was revealed to us by his soldier friend who had escaped and had come back to India. He said that the Japanese army was unbelievably cruel and didn’t allow any letters of the prisoners to be sent to their families, fearing that their atrocities would then be discovered. All letters were burnt. That explained the missing letters. This was grief beyond what Chor Ammachi could bear and she went into depression for months. “My son, what have I done to deserve this?” she would constantly ask.

Later on, reading about the Death Railway from novels like “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flannagan and after seeing films like “The Bridge of the River Kwai,” I learnt about the life of the prisoners who worked on this infamous railway. It was an ambitious line constructed to link India to Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia. The workers were severely starved, beaten, and made to work even when they were sick to achieve the Japanese target of completing the bridge in time to invade India. The men who had enjoyed Singaporean life with wine and local women, were now sick prisoners working days and nights in rags, their bodies emaciated to bare bones, their innards wracked by disease. My uncle is rumoured to have died of starvation, vomiting blood, and was given no medical aid, as there wasn’t any. If he had taken my father to Singapore, as he wanted, he would have been dead, too, and I would never have been born. This was the family legend before real understanding dawned on me. It was only later from reading books and seeing movies that the picture became clearer about what had happened.

I didn’t tell all this to Chor Ammachi in her final years, though I could have. She was a sentimental person and I didn’t want to disturb her equipoise. After months in depression, when she would spend days on the easy chair in the verandah staring at pictures of Cheriachen on the walls, she recouped enough strength to go into the fields. The legend of Chor Ammachi continued, though it had to be halted for some time due to depression over the loss of her son. “I want to hear my rice plants grow,” she would say, “they are like my children.” Now, she has to provide for two families with whatever she could get from the rice fields and what my father would send from Bombay. Of course, my aunt would get a pension, which wasn’t much in those days. Money was a constant worry and Chor Ammachi struggled to feed us and maintain the farm in those days. My mother was inexperienced in managing a big estate and a family.

One day she was really hard pressed for money – the grocery bill had mounted and had to be paid off – and the only way she could get cash was by harvesting the coconuts in our field. She sent for Thiru. However, he had gone to Kozencherry on some errand. “You won’t get him when you want him,” Chor Ammachi said, “I will have to do it myself.” Thus saying she wound her loin cloth between her legs like a man and slipping a ring of coir rope around her feet, clambered up the coconut trees with a machete tucked in the folds of cloth on her back. She felled all the coconuts, climbing up all the trees in the field, and slid down the trees with the ease of a trapeze artist. Then she sold the coconuts to a trader and counted the cash paid her creditors and was satisfied by what she had done.

When she had the time she would tell us stories about her childhood. That was when the boiled rice was laid to dry in the sun and we children would sit with her to shoo away the hungry hens, which would sneak in to usurp our grains. On any day our courtyard had two or three sizable bamboo mats laid with rice or tapioca shavings spread on them to dry. She would tell us how she was an only girl child and was brought up like a boy by her father, a doctor, teacher, and water diviner. Great grandfather could judge where to dig a well to get water, and, therefore, was called water diviner. She has a brother who now lives in their ancestral home in Kaviyoor. Great grandfather was, of course, another great man who taught her to live without fear. He taught her how to swim, fish, and climb coconut trees. Great grandfather and great grandmother were a hardy couple who had the toughness of pioneers. She had inherited their toughness and enterprise. “The boys in my neighbourhood were afraid of me.”

It was Chor Ammachi who taught me to fish. We would go to the canal across the house with our fishing net strung on a D-shaped piece of bamboo, early in the morning. She would position the mouth of the net near a small inlet so that all the fish swimming downstream would be trapped in the folds of the device. Then we would wait till the sun rose to check the contraption and it would be full of struggling snakeheads, eels, and smaller fish. The taste of fried freshly-caught fish lingers in my mouth even to this day.

In Chor Ammachi’s kitchen there would always be something to eat. Sometimes it would be tapioca sliced and dried in the sun and then boiled; other times it would be a mixture of boiled tapioca, greater yam and malanga root, to be eaten with a concoction of salt, onions, and chillies mashed in coconut oil. Yet more times there would be tapioca fried in coconut oil, or, boiled tapioca with fish curry.

Tapioca grew plentifully in our fields. All it needed was tilled soil and a piece of a stem to be inserted in the soil. Little weeding or watering was required because tapioca grew easily even without water. The morning dew was enough to dampen its roots. It grew everywhere and had only to be protected from our cows, because cows became bloated after eating tapioca leaves and then died. Over time it became the staple food of the inhabitants of Kidangoor.

Her relationship with her adiyans, indentured labourers, like Thiru and his wife Thali was also the substance of legends. Thiru and Thali were given a plot of land by Chor Ammachi where they had built a house, to the north of our field. Thiru and Thali both drank and all the money they made was lost in night-long revelries of eating and drinking. The next day they would present themselves at Ammachi’s door asking for food. She would feed them and then give them enough rice, tapioca, and greater yam to last a few days. During the harvesting of rice Thiru was given a share of the paddy which he had harvested according to a time-honoured system of sharing. It was a benevolent system and both families benefited from the arrangement. When their son Unni needed money to pay his school fees, they came to her and she undertook to pay his fees. Unni went on to become a conductor in the state transport corporation. Thiru’s family depended on Chor Ammachi for their sustenance.

Everyday there were three servants helping Ammachi in the kitchen: pickling mangoes, preparing batter for dosas and idlis, grinding curry paste in the mortar stone, and cooking food for all of us and the farm labourers. And there were, at least, five of them in the fields: pumping water to the rice fields in summer, weeding, and tending to the tapioca and other tubers in the terraced land. She was skilled in managing them and paying their salaries, accounts of which she kept in her mind as there were no books or calculators at that time. A festival atmosphere prevailed. There was singing of Malayalam folk songs by the women when they worked. They called these songs: “Vadakkan Pattu,” songs of the north. When it was pay time, usually on Saturdays, she held court in the vast rectangular yard, sitting on the highest step in the porch leading to the house, her servants sitting beside her. She remembered how much each worker had to be paid.

“Di, you had borrowed Rs five from me last Wednesday, so here’s your ten rupees for the week, and take some rice for the family,” she would say to Thali. “Di, when are your returning the hoe you borrowed from me last Friday?” She remembered everything to the last detail. She was known to be a generous lady never overpaying or underpaying her workers, and most importantly, paid on time. So, people liked to work for her.

It was late March of the year I turned ten and the exams were about to begin. My eldest sister was appearing for her degree examination and need around Rs one thousand to be kept as a deposit. It was late in the night when she told my mother that the money was needed the next day, the last day for payment. There was no money in the house and it was too late to see if anything could be sold to raise the money.

“Couldn’t you have told this earlier,” my mother shouted.

My sister began to cry.

“Don’t shout at my children. I will find a way,” Chor Ammachi hugged sister and consoled her.

“How can you find a way when the day is past? When people are already in their beds sleeping? Can we disturb somebody in their sleep for money? People are superstitious, they don’t deal in money after they have gone to sleep,” mother said. But, secretly, in my heart, I knew Chor Ammachi had a way figured out if she said so.

“You go to Thiru’s hut and see if he is awake.”

Mother went in the darkness to see if Thiru was awake and found him fully drunk and sleeping.

“No he isn’t. He is drunk and in no state to go anywhere.”

“These men! They will not be there when we need them,” Chor Ammachi grumbled.

“Okay, you make two torches of coconut fronds. I will get ready.”

“Where are you going in this pitch dark? There are no buses at this time. The land is infested with snakes and wild animals. Besides, thieves and drunken men roam outside.” Mother said.

“You do as I say and don’t ask questions.”

Mother prepared two separate torches of dried coconut fronds tied in the centre by a single leaf. I was shivering in the night from all the excitement.

Chor Ammachi dressed and took the two torches from my mother. She lit one and held the other as reserve.

“Where are you going? How do we know if you are safe?”

“I am going to my brother in Kaviyoor. I am sure he will give me the money.”

“That is ten miles away; it will take the whole night. Be careful of snakes.”

“Don’t you know snakes will not come near if they see this torch? Besides, I know a short cut that will reduce my journey to seven miles. I will be back by morning.”

Thus saying Chor Ammachi set light to one torch and disappeared into the night. She wore no shoe or sandal on her feet, as was customary in those days. Only the flame of her torch, which she swung to avoid it from being extinguished could be seen through the trees, before it disappeared altogether. Her courage in undertaking the journey amazed me. The darkness seemed particularly fearsome that night. We didn’t sleep. Mother kept praying for Ammachi, and we sang devotional songs till morning.

Chor Ammachi had to cross several hills, fields, and canals on the short cut which she was taking to Kaviyoor. In one such canal something coiled against her foot. In the wan light of her torch she saw a water snake slithering away. Luckily it had not bitten her. This shook her a little bit, so she waited a while to catch her breath. She identified it as a checkered keelback, called a “neerkoli,” which was not known to be poisonous.

Kozencherry was her first stop. It was the closest town to Kidangoor, where the shops had closed for the night, except those selling liquor. There were several drunken gangs loitering around after they had finished their drinking binges. Seeing this towering woman in white, swinging a coconut-frond torch in the night, they were more afraid, and recoiled from her. To them she must have seemed like a yakshi, a witch, out to drink blood. Some even ululated to ward off the evil eye.

She crossed hill after hill, stream after stream, familiar territory, as she had navigated them several times during the day. The hills had paths trodden by many feet, but the streams were difficult because she couldn’t gauge their depth in the dark. Those days, people were prepared to walk if there were no available buses. The final stretch included a forest named Chavakadu, deathly forest, and a hill named Mudinja Mala, meaning, cursed hill. Chavakadu and Mudinja Mala were inhabited by snakes of all types and therefore nobody dared to live there. Only this area intimidated her a little because there were stories about people who died venturing into the forest and the land was rough and there wasn’t a path she could follow. If she stepped on a snake, it would bite her and there would be nobody around to hear her cries.

At the crest of this hill she heard a voice.

“Arha?” The voice asked.

“Ningal arha chodikaan?”


Who are you to ask?

“I am somebody from this area.” The voice said.

“Truth be told, even I am from this area.”

“Aiyo! Is it Kochu Thampuran’s [little lord’s] sister Elikutty?”

“Aiyo! Is it Thevan Pulayan?” Relief flooded her.

“Uvva,” so saying her Adiyan from her father’s house emerged from the darkness and came into the misted moonlight. He was weaving as he spoke and she knew he was drunk.

“Kochu Thampuratti [little mistress], how come you are in this place at this time?”

Thevan, the head of the Adiyan family of her father said. He had grown old and his hair was completely white. He still called her Little Mistress though the customs had changed and indentured families were given freedom by the government.

“A family need brings me here. And you?”

“Oh, I was just passing by after the festival at the Kaviyoor temple.”

“Did you imbibe water?” Imbibing water implied whether he was drunk.

“Oh, no! Come I will escort you.”

Ammachi ignored the lie. Ammmachi’s last torch had died out and she was in total darkness. Therefore, she was glad she had her Adiyan’s company.

When they reached her ancestral house her brother Paulochen was already asleep. Hearing her voice at the door he woke up in a disoriented state. Thevan waited outside.

“You, here, at this time? Are you mad?”

“No there’s some urgency. I need some money.”

“You must be mad walking in the dark in hills, embankments, and streams. What if something had happened to you? Who would have known? Have you any idea what the world has become?” Paulochen was older than her; he had the right to scold her. He ran a hardware shop and always had money with him.

He gave her the money and asked her to wait while his wife made coffee. Chor Ammachi rested on a chair for a while before she drank coffee. She asked Paulochen to make two coconut-frond torches for her return journey.

“You are not going today.”

“No. The money is needed tomorrow morning.”

He called Thevan who was waiting outside and told him to escort his sister back to her house.

“No. It’s okay if he comes as far as Kozencherry.”

So that was settled as Chor Ammachi wanted it. Again she set out in the night. It was past midnight and the mist had lifted and the moon was brighter now. She walked in front waving the torch and Thevan walked behind her, talking the local gossip about who had become rich and who were ruined. It seemed he was an expert on the squandering of family fortunes. The rich were always the ones who went to foreign lands, they returned with their purses full. Things were always better in those distant places, which he referred generally as Persia. So speaking they crossed Chavakadu and Mudinja Mala without incident.

“But my son went to a foreign land and I didn’t even get to see his dead body, Thevan Pulayan.”

“I know. I heard.”

“Nobody knows a mother’s grieving heart,” she said.

For the rest of the journey as far was Kozencherry Chor Ammachi was silent. Thevan didn’t disturb her thoughts. Her heart and feet ached, which was compounded by her feelings for her favourite son, the one who was her first born, the one about whom she had a lot of expectations. At Kozencherry she said goodbye to Thevan and continued on her journey. When she reached back home it was 6 a.m. the first effusion of light had coloured the horizon. She handed the money to my mother and went straight to sleep, almost falling on her bed from exhaustion.

There are many more stories that make the Chor Ammachi legend, only a few of which I am narrating here. Once an ewe from our sheep pen fell into the well. There were no men around as they were all working in a rice field which was in the neighbouring village of Mezhuveli.

“I knew it. They aren’t around when you need them,” Ammachi said, as she wound her loin cloth between her legs, as a man would do. Climbing on the well’s boundary wall she lowered herself gingerly on to the first of the rings that surrounded the well. Slowly she descended, careful to watch for moss that would have made her feet slip. It was a wide and deep well, which, according to legend was called Thykoot Kinar, because of its depth and width which even expert men demurred from descending. When she reached the bottom, she called out to the women to lower a bamboo basket on a rope so that she could send the ewe up to safety. Her voice reverberated in the narrow confines of the well. The bleating ewe was pulled to safety and Ammachi then, as carefully as she had descended, ascended the treacherous rings of the well. Thereafter, in the village square, she was known as Thykoot Kinar Ammachi, because of her daring feat. Women of the village were particularly fond of recounting this incident of Chor Ammachi.

It was a time of land and labour reforms in Kerala. The state of Kerala had democratically elected the first socialist government in the world. The old system of serfdom, like that of keeping Adiyans, was proclaimed illegal by the socialist government. Of course, Ammachi didn’t know any of this. It came as a shock to her when her servants demanded government-determined wages and a bonus for Onam if she wanted to employ them. Ammachi couldn’t afford to pay them a daily wage and a bonus. Thiru’s son Unni, whose education she had funded, became a conductor in the state transport corporation. Thiru, goaded by his son, became irresponsible, absenting himself from work. Another son of his went to the Persian Gulf as a painter and sent him money, which met all of the Adiyan family’s needs. The two sons became insolent and accused the Thykoot family of having exploited them for generations.

One rainy day Thiru, drenched from a shower, came back from the field and asked for his wages for the week, though it was only Thursday. Chor Ammachi usually paid them only on Saturdays. Words were exchanged, angry and cruel words, which Ammachi had never ever heard uttered in her presence.

“I don’t want your work, I don’t want your charity,” so saying Thiru hurled the sickle in his hand into the damp soil of the courtyard. I was an interested viewer of this drama, through the window of my bedroom. The sickle wooshed, spun in the rain, and crashed on the wet earth impaling itself into the mud.

“You ingrate, you treat me thus?” Ammachi asked.

Thiru didn’t reply. I could see that he was drunk and was goaded into doing this by somebody.

“How could you forget that your house stands on land that belongs to me? Have you forgotten that I paid your son’s fees?”

That was when Thiru came to his senses.

“Forgive me Kochu Thampurati [little mistress]. I am drunk, I don’t know what I am saying,” he was weaving as he spoke.

“There’s a limit to what I will tolerate. You threaten me by flinging my sickle at me? You will leave this house, this minute,” her wrath boiled in her words.

“Kochu Thampurati, forgive me, Adiyan said those words when he was mad, drunk... and mad. I ask your forgiveness.”

“Get out of my house. Your feet should not touch this courtyard or its surroundings. You speak thus after all I have done for you?” Chor Ammachi was wild with anger and was pointing her finger towards the gate. Thiru went away and, fearing Ammachi’s wrath, never stepped into our courtyard ever again.

The work in the rice fields continued. Chor Ammachi gave her workers the government-determined wages, though she was not getting much from selling the surplus rice now. She was one to adopt customs of the times, whatever they were. The income was not even balancing the expenses on labour and fertilisers. A big frown creased her brows in those days, and her face became hard and wrinkled.

One day, on her reconnaissance trip around her rice fields, she noticed a parcel of land where the rice plants had drooped, and the paddy wasn’t growing on the stalks. She, who claimed, she could hear rice grow, couldn’t hear a sound. On enquiring with neighbours she didn’t get any leads as to the reason behind this occurrence. It was the domestic help Janaki who reported what people were saying in the village square.

“Thiru’s sons and his friends are poisoning your rice fields.”

Chor Ammachi took umbrage at these words. She marched to Thiru’s house towards the north of our field, and standing in the courtyard, delivered a homily on gratitude, loyalty, and respect, the words of which resonated in the silent air, through the trees, substance of which I don’t recall in exact detail.

That was when she stopped cultivating the rice fields. Over time, the weeds grew thick in the fields, so much so that they could not be cultivated even if she tried. She would wander around the fields, though, caressing a few rogue stalks of paddy, listening hard to hear the rice growing in their pods. But there was silence all around her. As she wasn’t making much money, the house, too, fell silent. There were no servants singing Vadakan Pattu in the kitchen, only the steady wheezing of Ammachi’s breath.

One day I saw Thiru as he circled our field and stood for a long time staring at our house. Then he went away. The next morning a great wailing erupted from his house. He had committed suicide, eating Kurdan, a fertiliser, which was also an effective poison. Thali followed him into the grave a few weeks later. Thiru’s conductor son Unni’s wife quarrelled with him and left with his children to her own home in Mezhuveli. Thiru’s other son, who had prospered in the Persian Gulf, bought a house further away and went to live there. The small hut to the north of our field stood forlorn, inhabited only by Unni, who absented from work and drank all day. He was soon dismissed by the transport corporation when a female passenger complained that he had tried to molest her.

Our house, which resounded with the talk of servants, and the singing of folk songs as women ground grain, or, winnowed paddy also became silent. There were no bamboo mats spread in the courtyard with things to dry in the sun. With no rice in cultivation we had to buy rice from the market, which seemed the only alternative. The kitchen also fell silent with my mother slaving all alone to feed the family. My father sent money, but, that seemed inadequate. Coconuts brought in some money, however, the price of coconuts had fallen. Our lands had become hard and successive monsoons leached the soil. No cultivation was possible now. It was whispered that a curse had fallen on our family.

The village also changed. There were bus services from it to Kozencherry and nearby towns. There were primary and secondary schools in the village, and a police station was rumoured to be the next addition. The farm labourers regularly attended classes where Marxism and class struggle were taught. The socialist government, when it came to power, gave farm labourers plots of land and money to build houses and toilets.

My mother constantly complained that she had to do all the work and Chor Ammachi was not doing anything to help. This, I felt, was unfair to Ammachi. She was old and she needed her peace and quiet. She had breathing problems and wheezed all the time. She would spend her days lying on the easy chair in the porch, a distant look in her eyes. I begged her to come fishing with me, but she refused. She wouldn’t even tell us stories as she used to. The silence of the place had entered her heart, she began to seek out silences, away from where people congregated.

In a few years she took on the appearance of a very old hag: her flesh loose, hair uncombed, a haggard look on her face. The incision on her ears to hang her heavy gold ear ring had become big fleshy drooping loops. She would wander on the bunds of her rice fields, her brows creased, trying to recreate the sound of rice growing in their pods. Her once faultless memory was also failing and she failed to recognise father when he came on his annual holiday.  

Then she fell down. She was in her eighties and I was studying in college. She would take a bath regularly and on the way to the bathroom with pot full of hot water in her hands, she stumbled and fell. Luckily she only fractured her thigh bone, and, in spite of threats from the doctor, refused to lie in a hospital bed. She was brought home and never walked after that, though she would sit up to eat food. Her memory became progressively worse, and she failed to recognise me. I could sense an era ending, a legend coming to a close, a soul retreating into solitude.

One night, when we were sleeping, we heard her singing a devotional song she particularly liked. It went thus:

Naleyey kondu en manassil lava lesham bharamilla
Oronalum deivam enney kakkunnu,
thante kaikalil jyan dinamthorum charunnu.

My heart is not slightly heavy about tomorrow,
Each day my God guards me;
I lean on his arms every day!

This was followed by a prayer, which was full of references to her grand children.
After this she called out to my mother, who was already by her side.
She gave her the key to her secret trunk and said:
“The trunk contains the gold my father had given as dowry. I haven’t touched it. I have kept it safe for my grandchildren. Look after them well.”

My mother began weeping, hearing which my aunt and her daughter came running. When all of us were gathered around her, she lifted her arms to her chest, and a few heavy breaths issued from her. She stopped breathing after that. The woman who had walked twenty miles in the night and had descended into the deepest well in the village had departed from her body. Chor Ammachi’s soul, if there is a soul, must have forsaken her beloved rice fields, and ascended into heaven.

After the funeral my mother, father, and aunt opened her trunk with the key Ammachi had given her. It contained fifty tolas of gold, in jewellery: bangles, necklaces, ear rings, nose rings, all made in the heavy clunky style of those days. From that day we didn’t have to be poor anymore. Chor Ammachi had seen to that.

Chor Ammachi loved us, her grandchildren, as much as we loved her. Her legend will live for ever in our hearts.

Saturday, August 08, 2015


He lies down pretending to sleep but sleep will not come. He doesn’t blame anybody, but deep inside him are a great many worries about his daughter Anita. He worries a lot. At night he lies on bed, his hands stretched above his head, thinking, his eyes closed. He questions himself, "What is Anita doing now? Is she lying in the arms of her love, her husband? Is he violating her in any manner? What are they talking? Is there a future for my daughter in this world?” Fathers normally have a lot of plans for their daughters, because they love them. Now her love belongs to another man. A man he hates. When sleep comes, when his hands go slack, when his mouth opens to snore, he would awaken with a start, as if in a bad dream. Even small thoughts gravitate towards some deep depression and imagining of fearful things happening.  

In the morning he tends to the plants in the balcony and again falls asleep. He doesn’t go for a walk in the valley as he used to. He has neglected his body and it shows. Age is catching up with him since he is in his sixties. His well-toned body looks loose and slack now. Rings appear under his eyes, rings one would associate with age and disease. He doesn’t lift weights, proud possessions; or, even look at it. They lie in a corner gathering dust. He starts drinking heavily from morning and comes home every day stone drunk and falls into bed to sleep. But sleep evades him. He will not have dinner at home and would say he has eaten. His wife Maria can’t believe what her husband has become in so short a time. He had dreams for his daughter and his son, but all that is shattered now because of the unthinking act of his beloved daughter. How could she – his precious daughter – not think of him? How could she do this?

It has been going on for six months. Anita married a man of her choice six months ago. She was his first born, whom he loved deeply, as the lucky child. The second was his son, Dominic. Anita was a sweet child spoilt by him, given all the freedoms, unrestrained by barriers. Augustine, Ossie to friends, didn’t put any conditions on his love for her. According to him she is a princess and can have anything.

“You will spoil her with your love. Just you see,” Maria would say. His wife was Konkani from Goa; unlike Ossie, who was a Malayali from the southern state of Kerala. They met at a wedding and fell in love and married.

“No, no. How can I spoil the apple of my eye, the jewel in my crown, my sweetheart,” he would say kissing Anita.

The sweet child grows up to be a moody teenager. Anita goes to music classes and swimming lessons regularly but she has her stages of unpredictability.

“I won’t go for music classes, the teacher is a bad man,” she says one day. She doesn’t say why she thinks the teacher is bad. Did he make a sexual advance,

Maria thinks. Such things happen in this city. Men are increasingly preying on little girls, even infants, she has read in the papers.

When Maria raises this issue with Ossie, he dismisses it. He says the teacher is known to a friend of his, so he can do no such thing. If he did, he would have his knees broken.

But the strange behaviour of Anita doesn’t end there. Some days, she will keep to herself the entire day, either watching television or texting on her cell phone.

“I won’t go to tuition classes,” she says one day.

“How will you pass your exams if you don’t go to tuition classes,” Maria scolds her.

“If I don’t go what will you do?”

Maria is chagrined. She composes herself.

“Nothing, wait till I tell papa.”

One day when admonished for not doing household chores she says, “I will not do it. It’s not my work.”

Augustine will not entertain complaints about Anita. To him Anita is blameless, pure, and a child. Instead he scolds Maria. She burns seeing as to how much he loves his daughter, not her, even to ignore how insolent she has become.

Though she doesn’t study Anita passes the degree exams. She isn’t brilliant, but she manages to receive passing marks in all subjects.

Anita’s graduation brings great joy to Augustine. “You would surely have got a first class if you had studied,” he says.

“How will she get first class if she is watching television and texting on the phone?” Maria says.

"You keep quiet. She is my daughter, aren’t you sweetheart?”

Maria has no reply to that.

After graduating Anita goes to work in a call centre. It’s there she meets Salim, her future husband. She works at night and during the day she sleeps. When Augustine goes to work in his cargo clearing business, she is sleeping. When he comes home, she has already left for work. They don’t see each other for months. Ossie is caught up in his business, his only source of income, and can’t talk to his daughter. Insidiously, they are pulled apart, as if by some force.

They live in a flat near the intersection to a cluster of houses inside the trough of a valley formed by the Parsik Hills. To one side flows the meandering Ulhas river and on the other is the land marked for the new international airport. He hasn’t seen the beauty of the nature of the valley for many months now. He only tends to his plants and looks at them tenderly. He regrets not going for a walk but he can’t do anything about it. He is worried about the growing chasm in his relationship with his daughter. Depression has spread its tentacles deep and he keeps sinking inside.

One day Anita tells her mamma of her decision to get married. Ossie’s and Maria’s son Dominic is in the final year of college then.

“What? Are you mad?”

“No mamma.”

“Who is this person, this price of yours?”

“He is a colleague, we work together.”

“But he is not from our caste, no?”

“I don’t believe in caste and religion. You and Papa are from different castes. You also married for love, didn’t you?”

“Wait till I tell this to your papa.”

For Maria religion is caste, her understanding is such. When Maria tells Ossie about this, he feels faint and almost falls down. It’s as if a lightning has passed through him, head to foot. That night and the subsequent nights he drinks heavily. There is not a minute that he will be sober. Maria decides to take over the work of the forwarding agency and goes to work in his office, which is nearby.

“This man would ruin me, look how he drinks. No shame. What will the parishioners say?”

They attend the St. Mark’s church situated in a corner of the valley.


Maria’s sister comes from Goa for her niece’s wedding. Ossie doesn’t go. He feels it is not necessary. He sits at home and drinks the whole day.

There are only Maria, her son, her sister and her sister’s two daughters from the bride’s side in the wedding. They say it is a grand betrothal, the band plays, and people dance. All Anita’s and Salim’s colleagues from the call centre come for the wedding. Ossie isn’t sure of it; he thinks they are exaggerating to make him jealous.

On the wedding night, Anita, the girl who had grown up in her Papa’s loving care for twenty-two years, moves to a flat with Salim. Ossie cries into his drink day and night.

Anita comes home one day and Ossie is happy to see her. He gives her a cheque of half a million Rupees. He says it is the dowry he has saved for her wedding. Anita is happy. She goes and buys gold jewellery with the money.

Once, Anita brings Salim to meet her parents. He seems like a nice chap, good-looking and has good manners. Ossie is at home and is, as usual, drunk. He calls Salim aside.

“If you give any cause for my daughter to shed tears, I will not spare you.” He warns.


Augustine Fernandes can’t sleep. The pictures of the last few days linger in his mind, his daughter’s visit, the day of the wedding when he sat alone drinking. Maria calls the church priest to come and counsel him.

“Mr. Fernandes, you can’t do this, you have to look to the future, anything else would be disastrous.”

“Father, I am a broken man, understand? How can I show my face to people in church? How can I meet friends? They all know about the wedding, still they are asking me if Anita is married.”

That is true. The whole church community has made a joke of it and is laughing at him. Maria hears sarcastic remarks during mass on Sundays. Ossie doesn’t go to church anymore, he prefers the company of his bottle.

The entire parish says, “Augustine Fernandes can’t sleep.” They repeat it so many times that it assumes the musical quality of a refrain from a hymn.

The priest visits again, with a counsellor. The counsellor speaks to Ossie in private. Nothing is known about what they speak and Ossie will not say what they discussed. They spend two hours together, murmuring to each other in the only bedroom of the flat. The door is closed and even the priest isn’t allowed inside. But that helps. Ossie starts going to office, but he doesn’t resume his daily walk.
More importantly, Maria thinks, the meeting cures his alcohol addiction, though he drinks sporadically.

“Thank God for giving me back my husband,” she prays before the Grotto that Sunday in church.


But that doesn’t last long. Ossie again hits the bottle. It seems he can’t get over his depression about Anita. He keeps imagining things till his thoughts takes on the colour of certitude. He blames himself for letting her grow apart. He imagines things happening to Anita and prepares to go to where she lives. Maria knows if he goes to his daughter’s place there will be a fight. So she physically blocks all his attempts. One day when he comes late after drinking Maria asks where he has been. He is silent. On prodding a lot he replies.

“I went to see my daughter, is it any concern of yours?”

“Did you go to her flat? How is she? Was Salim there?”

“No. I didn’t go to her flat.”


“I stood outside the building till she came back from work.”

“How many hours did you stand there?”

“None of your business. Go to sleep. I had my dinner.”

This way his obsession progresses to something of mania. One day he starts throwing all the things they keep in their bedroom. He throws down the pictures mounted on the walls, the music system, the clothes kept in the cupboard. Maria and Dominic grow alarmed and call Richie Gomes from the building next to theirs. Richie is a nice man, always cheerful and can control Ossie’s anger. He takes him on a walk around the valley, where they sit on a park bench and talk for a long time. Richie doesn’t say what they talk, but that seems to help Ossie resolve his anger and depression. His mind opens up.

The next day Ossie goes for a walk in his beloved part of the valley where he admires the trees and the sound of birds. He wonders why he hasn’t been coming here often. It is morning and the sun hasn’t risen. He stands before the majestic hills that form the valley and raises his hands towards the sky. The strong wind tousles his hair. Immediately thereafter the sun rises and bathes him in its golden light, he becomes animated and starts dancing, an uninhibited dance. He screams loudly and the noise reverberates in the green hills, and scares the birds, groups of which flies over him into the dense trees. He feels a weight lifting off him. He runs up and down a path leading into the forest.

From that day he vows never to drink and goes for work and returns at his usual time. He also starts sleeping normally. Anita comes on Sundays when she has a holiday and he talks to her. The next Sunday Maria stands before the Grotto in St. Mark’s church and offers another prayer.

"Lord, don’t rob him of his sleep," she implores.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Artist of Artists' Village


Rajendra is an ambitious man. He is also an artist, the only artist I know in Artist Village where I live. I knew it from his talk when we met on walks in morning in the hills surrounding Artist Village. He was always talking of big things, a little beyond his ken. He talked of making movies, holding grand art exhibitions, and being invited to chair huge literary festivals. His achievements were considerably less than his dreams. An intensely spiritual man with long hair and a beard, he looked like an ascetic who would be found in the forests around Himalaya, wearing saffron robes, foreheads smeared with ash. He had a small business taking up landscaping contracts, employed a few people, and he was doing well. What happened in his life seemed disastrous enough to make me want to write this story.

“I want to leave something for the world. I want to be known to have lived as an artist, not just a man who is greedy for money,” he told me once.

In the year 1975 and 1980 two children were born to him and his wife Rajni. The boy who was older he named Chandra and the girl was named Chandrika. He had high hopes for both of them wanting to make them excel in some artistic field. Both his children were given much love and much freedom in their childhood. Rajendra believed this to be essential to artistic expression. They could go anywhere, choose their friends, eat anything, and say anything, without much rebuke from Rajni and Rajendra. However, contrary to what he had imagined, they cultivated bad friends and grew up to be specimens of uncontrolled aggression and needless insistence. Instead of being artistic like him they turned out to be uncontrollable teenagers who existed only to torment their parents.
By the time Rajendra realised this, it was too late. Rajendra wrote and produced plays and acted in them. He also wrote poetry. His aim was to engage enough people in his artistic endeavours and thereby get ahead in life. He was too preoccupied to know what changes had happened to his own wife and children. His much coveted aim was to be a sought-after literary star, an icon of the young, a leading literary personality of the nation.

His house, whenever I would visit him, was filled with knick-knacks of his theatrical profession, sculptures, paintings, et cetera. The house looked the part of an artists’ residence, artistically cluttered with books, brushes, and paint cans. One day he invited Rajni and his children to his play being shown at the local theatre. During the play he was totally immersed in his role and, even afterwards, he had a discussion with his actor friends about what had gone wrong and what had gone right with their performance. Rajni and the children didn’t understand his talk and felt ignored.

“Why is baba speaking to that girl?” Chandra asked.

“Why is baba not coming to us and speaking to us?” Chandrika asked.
Rajni had no answers to these questions, so she took the children home, a bit chagrined at her husband’s behaviour.

At home she confronted him.

“Aho, last night you were busy talking to that girl Manisha. You didn’t even glance towards us.”

“But, aho, the profession itself is like that. It’s like that in the theatre world. When you are acting you have to talk about theatrical nuances. Otherwise the play would be a disaster.”

“The children didn’t like it. They were complaining.”

“I will make them understand, you don’t worry. These are simple matters they should not worry about. Can’t they see how hard I am working for them?”

Unfortunately, no occasion arose in which Rajendra could apologise to the children or to explain things. Slowly the distance between them grew into silence, and then blossomed into an unexpressed hostility. Seeing the children so upset and uncommunicative, Rajni also started ignoring Rajendra. To some extent the children poisoned her mind against their father. She became jealous. When Rajendra came home late she imagined he was with the other girl, Manisha, and wouldn’t give him dinner. When he left early in the morning she supposed that he had gone to pick up Manisha, so she didn’t ask him if he wanted tea. These things snowballed into a serious situation that Rajendra couldn’t understand or set right. The poison of hatred had entered his wife’s and his children’s minds and there was nothing he could do about it.

It was January and the cold had not receded. Artist Village shuddered and slept late, as it was colder in the valley surrounded by the Parsik Hills. The birds sang in the trees, there was dew on leaves in the garden of their modest house in the village. It was also the month Chandra got a job in a call centre nearby. The income was good and he rented a flat close to the Village. He decided that his mother and sister should leave his father and come and live with him.

One day Chandra hired a truck and, without asking his father, shifted all the accessories of their life in Artist Village to his new flat. This included the refrigerator, cooking utensils, and the furniture. That day when Rajendra came home, he unlocked the door to find the house empty. There wasn’t even a bed he could sleep on. Chandra and Rajni had taken everything with them.

“How? How can they do this to me, after all I have done for them?” Rajendra cried. This was something he couldn’t understand. I tried to pacify him as best as I could.

Slowly days passed. The wounds dried and became scabrous. Rajendra was living alone now. He felt a new kind of loneliness. By some strange coincidence, the neighbours stopped speaking to him in the moment of crisis. This pained him. I realised he was a wronged man and was sympathetic. I would visit him and talk to him and would tell him that things would be alright. I could see that he had bought the essential utensils and furniture needed for his survival. The theatre props were gathering dust in the corners of his rooms. I could see his misery. Except for commiserating with his plight I could do nothing. I didn’t want to see him disintegrate like this. We had come to live in Artist Village at the same time. An earlier batch of residents had died. We had joined hands in fighting for water, electricity, and transport for our Village. And now in a cruel twist of fate his life became knotted and it wasn’t easy undoing it. All Rajendra’s ambitions lay in tatters as he watched is personal life turn into a tragic drama that he couldn’t even imagine directing in one of his own, often tragic, plays. He was distraught at the thought that fate would be so cruel to him. His life was spinning in an orbit he had never imagined. He stopped writing plays and poetry. He would spend his days singing bhajans and praying. It seemed the artist in him had died.


It was in January of the next year that Chandrika got married to her long-time boyfriend, Arun, a Malayali, from South India. Before the wedding Arun’s parents approached Rajendra for a dowry, saying it was a custom among Malayalis. Rajendra sold a farm house he had in Khopoli and gave rupees two million as dowry to Arun’s father in a cloth bag he bought for the purpose. It was spring when the wedding was conducted by a priest in the local Malayali temple. Rajendra didn’t attend it to bless his daughter whom he dearly loved. His heart had hardened by now and he began seeing Manisha more often and, sometimes, brought her home.

This relationship, too, was doomed to fail. For some time Rajendra, being depressed, didn’t write any more plays. It seemed as if the creative juices had dried, and he couldn’t create characters and plots. Manisha, his lover, who was an actress wasn’t getting enough roles outside the ones she did in his plays. Her foray into television was also unsuccessful. The only role she got had two lines of dialogue. Thereby, the distance between the lovers grew. Manisha also realized the age gap between them and, egged on by her mother, started seeing less of Rajendra.

Rajendra had bought a car with a little financial help from Manisha. She had willingly contributed a few thousand rupees. One night Manisha came with her brothers and drove away in the car. Rajendra woke up the next morning to find his car gone.

“How can she do this to me? Everybody is out to humiliate me,” he told me on our morning walk, fingering his long beard. “When a man is down fate hits him harder; take it; take it; is it fair?” I had no answer. I could see that the separation from Manisha was a big blow Rajendra couldn’t handle. Sometimes he didn’t come for walks and spent several hours worshipping in a special room he had created for the purpose. When his art should have come to his aid, he couldn’t think about doing anything artistic. His ambitions of becoming a big literary star lay in tatters.

Arun’s father, who lived close by, dropped in one day. He said it was a courtesy call, but of his actual purpose Rajendra became aware. Arun wanted to buy a flat and was falling short by a million Rupees. Rajendra was categorical in his stand that he didn’t have any money and had paid them all he had.

This didn’t satisfy Arun’s father. He and his wife started harassing Chandrika saying her father was unkind to them. Arun didn’t intercede on behalf of his wife. This led to a fight between Chandrika and Arun.

“This is not good. You should speak up against them and support me.”

“But Chandrika, they are my parents, I have my responsibility towards them.”

“I knew this. You will always side with your parents. I knew this,” she cried.
“What can I do?”

So one December night in 2005 when the cold had settled over the Village in a cloud-like miasma, when the dogs were loudly fighting their nocturnal battles, she came back to Rajendra’s house. Rajendra was at home when she knocked. He opened the door and found his daughter standing on the threshold. He said he had no place for her and told her to go to her mother.

“But I want to live with you, here,” Chandrika said and Rajendra’s heart melted. After all, she was his daughter and he forgave her.
Days passed. When Rajendra was away Rajni would come to meet Chandrika. They would be a happy pair washing vegetables and cooking meals for him. Though she didn’t say it to her daughter, Rajni was repentant and wanted to come back to her husband. Children say cruel things because they are innocent which should not be taken seriously. Chandra was a good boy but he had his own life, his own friends, and a girl friend. Lately, he spent very little time at home and Rajni was feeling lonely.

I could detect a marked improvement in Rajendra’s life after Chandrika moved in. His life improved under the care of his beloved daughter. He started writing plays again and his play, “Bindast Bol” (say with courage) was a big hit with the people of the surrogate city of New Bombay that lay on the outskirts of the great city. His ambition also had returned. A critic had called the story, “A comeback vehicle for the talented Rajendra Phadke.”

Chandra meanwhile announced to his mother that he was going to marry his girlfriend Swati. Chandra invited Rajendra for the wedding, which he attended. Here Rajendra blessed Chandra.

It was Diwali season then, the year after Chandrika had returned to Rajendra’s home. The festival of lights was going on in all its splendour and glory and Rajendra had hung a multicoloured lantern above his house. Chandrika made sweets to be exchanged with neighbours and Rajni also came to help her. It was then that mother and daughter hatched the plot to melt the coldness that had come into their relationship with Rajendra.

Rajni brought her son and his wife Swati to Rajendra’s house. Rajendra was at home, dressed in his trademark kurta and churidar and spread around the house were the props of the play Bindast Bol.

“What made you come back? You had decided to leave me.”

“I am sorry about what I have done,” Rajni said.

“Now you realize what the truth is? Say with courage, what you feel.”

“Yes. Forgive me. Children are children, they can make mistakes because they are innocent.”

“Aai, don’t say that, remember that day, the day of the play, he had completely ignored us?”

Rajni remembered but could do nothing about it. She had forgotten the artistic nature of her husband. Perhaps, she realised it was cruel to ignore him and not serve him food.

“There were mistakes from both our parts. I realise I, too, made mistakes. I am willing to take back all of you. I have no hard feelings.”

“No I will not be a part of this compromise,” Chandra said and walked out of the house.

That day on Rajni started living in her house, the one belonging to her husband. Chandra lived with Swati in their rented home. It was nearby and Swati would drop in, once in a while, to help Rajni and Chandrika.
Rajendra was not troubled by his son’s behaviour. He became determined to enjoy his Diwali. He bought Rajni and Chandrika gifts and saris. He bought a sari for Swati also. But Chandra didn’t come to wish his father and take his blessing during the worship of the Goddess of wealth, an important event during Diwali. He couldn’t be mollified by what his mother and sister said.

“He is young and hot blooded. He will return to me some time. Let’s give him a chance. I know him, he is my son.”

That was a great Diwali for the entire neighbourhood. The whole place had a look of gaiety and crackers were burst in plenty. I was happy to see peace returning to Rajendra’s family. I knew he was a good man and would overcome his problems with forbearance and patience. The artist of Artist Village had made his comeback.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Luke was Sri Lankan. He loved to drink, because of which he is no more. That was the general impression. People said he died of a heart attack, fell on the road and died. Like a dog, or, cat, or, a furry gutter rat. The place he lived was Artist Village tucked in a corner of the great city of New Bombay, where he was well know as a craftsman who could do any repair work. No job could beat him and he did everything with finesse. He put a premium on his work and was a good businessman. However, he didn’t put his business interest over honesty and was therefore well liked.

Luke came to Artist village through Matilda auntie or “Matchstick Auntie” as people called her. Fact was nobody in Artist Village could pronounce Matilda and called her the next best euphemism that came to mind. That’s because her legs, peeping under her skirt, were like matchsticks: etiolated, thin, and white as a matchstick. Luke called Matilda sister. Of course, everybody knew she wasn’t his real sister. How can she be, as he was Sri Lankan and she was Goan. But they shared one thing. That was language. Luke’s English was euphemistically called Polkudu language in Sri Lanka and Matilda spoke the Indian Mack English, both marked by their brokenness and social unacceptability.

Luke re-built Matilda’s house in Artist Village. He used his skills to erect a proud structure, one among the first to raise it head over the row of nearby houses built resembling those of an Indian village. So Matilda and her Muslim husband Mustaq, who was a shippie – he worked in a ship –, were grateful to him and gave Luke place to live. The room was on the terrace and was small and wide enough for one cot. Luke was happy, though. Thereafter Luke became a part of the house, a provider in times of trouble, a repairer of broken things, and of broken hearts.

He became Matchstick Auntie’s fetcher and help in the kitchen. He could fix tea or coffee or dinner when Auntie was having a terrible day and needed rest. She would lie in the living room rattan couch and order him around and poor Luke would do as she said. He would also help her substantially from his earnings.

When Matilda’s eldest son Javed married a Muslim girl who used to work as a maid in his house Luke was in the thick of the brawl that followed. It became known that the girl was pregnant before young Javed married her.

Mustaq had a standard response, “Get out of my house, you haramzada.”

“How could you do it to a servant girl, men, when you deserve the best, my baba? You have brought us all down, baba, too bad. All our standing in society is now gone. Who will speak to us after church now? Nobody. Who will invite us for first holy communions and weddings?”

It was a scandal that had the neighbours jabbering for hours and which marked Mustaq as an outcaste in the neighbourhood of straight-laced Maharashtrian families. Matilda was similarly ostracised from church activities and not invited to games of raffles and potluck lunch the women organised. The scandal faded swiftly from memory and the social consequence was swifter.


As I said earlier Luke liked to drink. He had only one meal a day after he finished work and that was when he called all his friends from the neighbourhood into the bar and ate, drank, and partied till late. Usually Luke ended up paying the bill. Matilda told him to change his ways if he lived with her but he couldn’t.

“Your change your wayward habits if you want to live here. This is not Sri Lanka, but India. Here people go yak, yak, yak, every bleddy time. All they know is to flap their lips.”

“How can a big guy who does heavy-heavy work, lift and carry big big things during day change his habit?”

“Someday it’s going to kill you, that’s all I say, for your own welfare, no?”

“That leave it to me. Nothing will happen. You’ll see.”

But what happened was just like Matilda had predicted. He fell down and died. A big man, he fell like a tree trunk, with a thud.

It was during such a drinking binge that Luke lost it. Usually, cool and calm, he lost it completely when a boy drinking with him called him an outsider.

“Luke is Sri Lankan. He is an outsider.”

Luke loved India and he considered himself Indian and this upset him. He punched the boy and threw him out of his group. He never talked to the boy again. After that nobody would enter into argument with the big man with large hands of wiry muscles.


Luke was born in Negombo, a small town to the north of Colombo, Sri Lanka. I had in my international peregrinations strayed into this territory. He was surprised to learn this. It was beautiful country, just like my native Kerala in south India. There were swaying coconut palms, whisper waves in the blue waters of the Indian Ocean and plenty of sunshine. I knew about the booming tourist industry in Negombo. I stayed there in Hotel Golden Sands with a lot of Dutch tourists and played beach volleyball with them. It was December and they were there to escape the bitter European cold and bask in the sun. They spent the whole day in the sun: reading, swimming, and getting their bodies massaged. I noticed the trinket sellers, exotic precious stone sellers, the panhandlers, the massage parlours, the discotheques that stayed open till late.

He said he had done much work in the hotel and its environments and that his brothers – three of them – were well settled and prosperous. He was the only one who had gone to the Persian Gulf and then came to India on a visit because he loved India. On this visit he met Matilda and decided to make India his home. He never wrote to his family about his whereabouts, but they came to know. They wrote long letters about how much they loved him and wanted him back. His dad was dead but mom was alive and she was asking for him virtually every day.

His brothers didn’t take kindly to the decision. They came to extradite him, bought him a ticket and took him as far as the airport. They said he belonged to Sri Lanka and that they wanted him back. But Luke thought otherwise. At the airport he ran away. He ran away, boarded a train to New Bombay, and was back in Matchstick Auntie’s home in Artist Village in hours.


Luke was catholic and religious. He would go to mass every Sunday and in addition to Wednesday and Saturday Novenas. He would stand in the last pews in his trade-mark short pants and round-necked tee-shirt. He would pray for everyone he knew including his mother in Sri Lanka. He would then spend a long period in quietness at the grotto in front of an image of Mary and child Jesus. What he thought about nobody knew. Was he missing his mother? Was he homesick?

When Javed went to live with his Muslim wife to a nearby slum Matilda was pained. She didn’t eat for two days. Mushtaq had asked him to get out after an argument and he had taken all his clothes and moved to a rented hut in a slum nearby, on the slope of a hill. Luke went and brought him back along with his wife.

“Your place in your home only, they love you, whatever you did. Cos of you they be in pain, no, must understand, no? Don’t you think? And you their only son doing suchlike. You supposed to look after them when old,” Luke reasoned.

“Then why dad taunting me all the time?”

“That only for your good. Cos he loves you.”

“I feel so insulted in front of my wife, and all.”

“When difficulties come you face it like man. Not run away like coward.”

This would have applied to Luke much more than Javed.

“Okay, then I will come home. But the taunting has to stop.”

“That I no guarantee-guarantee. I only help, in your family matters, cos you like my son, no?”

Javed returned. Matchstick Auntie breathed easy and began eating again.

So went life in the Mustaq household.


I remember the last job Luke did for me. It was a door leading to my terrace. The wood had rotted and the ply had come loose, leaving a gaping hole in the centre. He supervised the entire job for me, standing with the carpenter the whole day. It is a smooth and professional piece of work which I admire often. I painted it a dark green and it blended nicely with the surrounding greenery. The craftsmanship was evident; the focus was constantly on getting the work done with excellence. I guess it is something in the work ethics and sincerity to one’s profession. These are attributes one rarely finds in local craftsmen, who are wayward, vacillating and distracted by addiction, which reflects perversely on their work.

But not so with Luke. He could be trusted to do a job with a high degree of competence. Which led me to ask people about why he was reluctant to go back to Sri Lanka. Then I heard from our maid that he was in love with a neighbour’s daughter in Negombo. Her parents were against the match and she was married to another man when he was in the Persian Gulf. This made him hate going back to Sri Lanka. He was so sensitive that he couldn’t stand the prospect of meeting his former lover again.
So, after all, it was that imposter love that made him hate Sri Lanka and love India.

Luke may your soul rest in peace. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sabrina: the Bangladeshi


In the valley Sabrina is known as the Bangladeshi. She doesn’t know why. She has been called that since she was born. Perhaps because she speaks Bangla with her parents and people here assume everyone who speaks the language is Bangladeshi. But then she can’t write the language. She only speaks it. Haltingly. Why are people teasing me always? She would ask in a petulant voice. She is as Indian as anyone living in the valley, as she was born in India, owns an Indian birth certificate, and has her name in an Indian ration card.

She also has a voter’s card, and an Adhaar card, too. Wasn’t this enough to certify her as a bonafide Indian? Still people continue to call her a Bangladeshi because her parents were illegal immigrants from Bangla Desh, the beautiful country of rivers and estuaries to the East of India. What’s their problem? Why are they so cruel? She would ask in frustration.

Her parents had come to the valley thirty years ago when it was a barren piece of land. The Artist Village had not even been built at that time. Her Abba, a mason and an odd-job man, had erected a hut from a few bamboos and plastic sheets. He had found work in a housing complex being built to the east of the valley. Though he could build neat brick walls, lay tiles, and do a decent layer of plaster; his home remained the crudest of structures. This was always the case with artisans: tell an artist to paint something for his wall and he would create the worst painting of his life. Tell him to do something for a sum of money and he would unravel his best work so far. He considered this – his hut – comfortable enough because in his country most poor people lived in such structures. The hut had enough space for three people to sleep in the night. There was a small kitchen area and a small verandah. All their belongings were stacked against the walls of corrugated iron sheets. There weren’t many huts in the slum colony and one could appropriate any space one wanted.

During the day when Abba was away at work Ammi found work as a maid in the nearby houses in a housing complex to the east of the valley. Sabrina grew up without proper education. She was sent to school, studies up to fourth standard, but that was for the free mid-day meal. She was rather attractive, with a shapely plump face, thick hair, which was why Abba didn’t want her to go to school. Suppose some boy abducted her? These things happen in the strange country he had made home for thirty years. Abba told her that she only had to learn a bit of reading and writing and a little arithmetic to get along in life. Sabrina could read and write Hindi and a bit of English.

He told her that henceforward she would help Ammi to do the housework of the colony to the east of the valley. There was work in plenty and therefore Sabrina learnt to sweep, swab, wash clothes, cook, dust, and generally do all work in a household. She did it with speed also. The housewives complained that she was like a toofan, a whirlwind, when she did her work: she would move furniture around, fold the carpets and forget to return them to their space, forget to return utensils to their places, left swabs of dirt in the toilet floor unscrubbed, and was out of the house in a few minutes.

“I am there to help with their work. They also should do some work, not leave it entirely to me. What if I didn’t show up?” She would complain. In fact, complaining came easily to her.

When Sabrina was around ten the Artist Village came up in the middle of the valley. Though meant as an exclusive residential area for artists and writers, the houses made of rough jungle wood rafters and tiled roofs found no takers in the said community. Then the authorities relaxed the ownership to include people who weren’t artists. The new residents tore up the one-storeyed houses and built ugly concrete structures to suit their living requirements.

Sabrina worked for a musician and a writer in this community. The bald musician would play the guitar everyday and his wife – gifted with a good voice - would sing. They had a band that played old Hindi film songs in a show which they named “Surtaal.” The man, who used to sell medicines, was laid off and spent the whole day sleeping or playing the guitar while his wife was away working in a bank. Since the woman was tired when she came from work Sabrina had to cook two meals, in addition to sweeping, swabbing, and washing of clothes. They had two children.

The writer’s story was indeed sad. Hailed as the next great writer in Marathi, her latest novel was panned by all who read it. They said it contained gratuitous sex and therefore didn’t suit their sensibilities. Disappointment led to depression and she was unable to even cook food for herself and her husband. It was rumoured that she had run away from home to marry the man who is now her husband. He, a government employee, who dabbled in writing film scripts, had also left his wife to marry the writer. None of his scripts had been converted into a movie, at least, not yet. The two writers lived a life of unfulfilled dreams, unwashed clothes, and unclean living quarters until Sabrina swept, swabbed, and cooked for them. The writer spent her days locked up in her room, looking out of the window, hardly speaking to her husband. The husband had retired from a government corporation, and having failed in script writing, spent most of his time fetching whatever Sabrina asked to be bought for the kitchen.

One day Sabrina’s Abba fell down from the scaffolding of the housing project and had to be hospitalised. Luckily, he broke only a leg and had a few scratches on the other. The hospital put his broken leg in a cast and sent him home, asking him to come for periodic checkups. He would spend his days at home complaining about not having enough space and it being hot. He would talk about going back to Bangladesh, his golden land. “Amar Sonar Bangla,” he would say often, revealing the mind of a frustrated poet hidden inside his hard exterior.

To this Ammi would say, “What will Sabrina do there? She can neither speak Bangla well, nor write.”

“She will live like us, in that golden land of ours.”

“She can go on living here. She is a citizen of this country.”

“You mean she will live here all alone?” He loved his only child.

“You find her a good man, who will take care of her and then go wherever you want.”

So the search began for a man for Sabrina. Many came through Abba’s friends but were rejected by Ammi as being too short, too dark, too silent, or, too voluble.

“You are being too choosy, all men aren’t as virtuous as they once were,” Abba teased.

“I will find her a good man, unlike the one I got.”

“Then you will have to wait for eternity, woman?” Abba would yell in anger from the cot, the only piece of furniture in the house.

“Fate has destined a man for her. Let it decide.”

So the days went. Till Abdul came into their lives. He said he was a mason by profession and an Indian from Hyderabad. He wasn’t too tall or too short; he didn’t talk too much or too little. Most importantly, he wasn’t too dark. He wore his shirt inside his trousers, held together by a belt. His hair was a bit long but was well combed and maintained. His feet were well shod with expensive-looking leather. He carried himself well, imitating the mannerisms of movie star Shahrukh Khan, whom he liked. Come to think of it, his features, too, resembled the star’s.

The wedding was quick and uneventful. Sabrina wore a red sari with lot of gold filigree and lot of glass bangles. Abdul had no family in the city, so nobody came except a few friends, whom he introduced as roommates. Abba and Ammi had very few friends who came including the Bengali housewife. The musician and the writer didn’t come. They gave Sabrina a cash bonus for the wedding. The Nikah was conducted by the Kazi of the nearby mosque and the reception was held in a hall hired for the occasion. There was no pomp, celebration, dancing, or music. Just eating the food, taking a few pictures, and then going home. Abdul slept in Sabrina’s hut, Abba slept in a neighbour’s hut, which was empty, and Ammi slept on the floor of the musician’s living room for a few days. It was then Sabrina realised the trauma of being married to a man whom she barely knew and for which she was least prepared. Nobody had told her about sex, and she found it too crude and repulsive: the touching of bodies, the smell, the stickiness, the feeling of being violated. When Ammi came home in the morning she wept on her shoulder. “Everything will be alright, everything will be alright,” Ammi said. Abba pretended not to notice, as he talked to Abdul.

A few days later Abba told Sabrina that Ammi and he were going back to Bangladesh. They had enough of living in a foreign country and wanted to rest in their own golden land. They bundled whatever they had into two wooden trunks that Abba had had made by a carpenter friend. They carried some essential utensils with them in a plastic bucket. The day they were to leave, Sabrina and Abdul went with them in a taxi to Kurla Terminus. It was a sad day for Sabrina as she said goodbye on a platform that smelled of urine, orange peels, and the strange smell of distances.

“How can I live without you?” she sobbed on Ammi’s shoulder, her wrap covering her face.

“Abdul is a good man, he will take care of you,” Ammi said.

“How do you know he will?” She blew her nose.
“Trust Allah!”

When the train left, as she watched the last bogie disappear into the distance and become small lines and dots, she hadn’t removed the wrap, and kept sobbing. The next day Abba’s call came on her cell phone informing her that they had reached Silguri from where they would be transported illegally to Bangla Desh by an agent. The voice crackled, buzzed, and then grew silent.

Sabrina was now working in homes Ammi had worked before, so her work load had increased. The money also came which she kept in a bundle, in a plastic bag, under the mattress. Marriage and work had changed her and she was no longer a young and attractive girl. The glow had gone from her face. She became fat and her face looked puffy. Abdul would go somewhere on the pretext of finding work and would come early saying nobody had hired him. Some days he came home smelling of alcohol, didn’t eat, dropped on the bed and went to sleep. Some days he wouldn’t go at all.

One day when Sabrina came back from work she found the door unlocked. She looked around but Abdul was not to be seen in the neighbourhood of the slum. His wallet, his watch, the few coins he kept on the bed were gone. Tremulously she raised the mattress. Blood pounded in her head, her heart seemed to thud against her jaws, her breathing grew heavy. The plastic bag was there! Relief flooded her. When she lifted it to examine the contents, she discovered most of her savings were gone. Flown! Out of the ten thousand rupees she had, she had only a thousand left.

“Unfaithful man, cheat, why didn’t you take that also?” she wailed as she told the Bengali housewife what happened, “He didn’t even speak a few dozen words to me.”

“Why don’t you complain to the police?” The Bengali housewife asked.

“They will say I am a Bangladeshi. Besides, I don’t want to go to the station. I have seen it once when Abba was arrested for being an alien. I don’t want to stare into their cruel eyes.”

“But you are an Indian, born in India; you have a ration card, a voter’s card to prove it.”

“What’s the use now?”

After Abdul left her, the harassment began. It was as if the world had turned against her. She was stared at wherever she went. Small pebbles began landing on her corrugated roof with a thud. At night she couldn’t sleep because of the noise. It seemed everyone considered throwing pebbles on her roof as the new hobby. She would cower on the cot, apprehensive, waiting for the next “thud” sound. Nights became unbearable.

Neighbours started saying all kinds of things about her, now that there was no man in the house. They started calling her a “Bangladeshi” more often. They threw their garbage and litter in the small verandah in front of her house when she was away working. They started finding ways of humiliating her.

Then the police came. They frightened her with their guns and supercilious attitude. They said they were checking for illegal Bangladeshis. She protested that she was born in India and had a ration card, a voter’s card, and an Adhaar card. They wouldn’t listen. The only alternative was to buy their silence. She knew they could be bought and paid them all the cash she had with her.

Now all her money was gone. She ate at the musician’s house and pruned her expenses to the bare minimum. She was able to maintain herself till the next pay day when the money came. Meanwhile the pebbles didn’t stop dropping on her hut. Her nights became tormented. She would cover her head with her blanket and try to sleep. But the “thud”, “thud”, “thud”, wouldn’t stop.

“I will report you to the police,” one night she came out and shouted at them when she could bear it no longer.

“Have you no shame behaving with a woman thus?”

They laughed. In the darkness she couldn’t see who they were. The stones rained. It rained through the night. Stones and intermittent sounds of laughter. Inside the hut she trembled in terror. It was worse than being attacked by a wild animal. She thought she would become sick, or, go mad.

She asked for permission to sleep on the floor of the musician’s bungalow in Artist Village. They were kind people and allowed her to sleep in their house.

Then one day Abba called on her cell phone. She wept and told him about Abdul and the harassment from neighbours. She said she couldn’t bear it any longer. Then Ammi came on the phone.

“Ammi you said Abdul will take care of me. Where is he?” She said between sobs.

“Allah’s wish! What can I say? I didn’t know he was a scoundrel, a thief.”

Abba came back on the line. He was crying, a grown man’s tears. His voice was broken, deliberate, and full of concern. He told her she doesn’t have to live like that anymore.

“Sell the hut. You will get a good price for it, at least fifty thousand rupees. Then come to Siliguri, I will come there to get you.”

When she reached her hut that night, a neighbour told her the police had come again. They wanted her to come to the station. She didn’t go. She took some clothes and went to sleep at the musician’s house.

Before going she told the neighbour the hut was for sale. Word spread very fast. People started coming to her with offers.

“Twenty thousand,” “thirty thousand,” “forty thousand,” they said.

“Nothing less than fifty thousand,” her voice was firm.

A man came with a big bundle of notes, “here’s fifty thousand,” he said. She didn’t know a hut in a slum would fetch so much money. He said the hut must be empty by the next morning. She said she will empty it just then and he could consider the hut as his. She gathered all her belongings in an iron trunk, even her bridal sari. She left the cot and utensils for the new owner. By then a crowd had gathered. She didn’t say goodbye to any of them. Inside she burned with anger and disgust at their behaviour.

Carrying the trunk on her head and with the money safe inside her blouse she went to the musician’s house. She ate and slept there for a few days. The musician helped her buy a railway ticket to Silguri. On the day of departure he dropped her to the Kurla Terminus in his car. Sabrina didn’t cry when she waved at them from the departing train. She only smiled.

That was the last the valley saw of the Bangladeshi.