Friday, 15 September 2017

Short Story 2017 Featured Gomathi Mohan

Chengadu - Lingadu

(Part One)

It was past dinner time, Lingadu and Chengadu were standing in the front yard, under the Kanuga tree, with their head towels held closely under their armpits, bowed heads and posing in total servility. Their physique told otherwise. Bare feet and a barer torso, just a dhoti tied around their waist, folded at the knees, they forebode tense tidings.

Naanaji was relaxing in the patio in his wooden reclining chair fanning himself with a palm leaf fan painted in magenta, decorated with green and yellow polka dots, as his betel nut - box rested on the arm rest in one hand. This chair had seen many a battle among us cousins, vying to take position or rather possession of seating space on it. These battles occurred in his absence, when he was away on the farms in daytime and evening visit to the town nearby. Made of Burma teak, it was enormous in size with long arm rests that had extensions of panel that could be folded from the front, giving a cozy, locked and ensconced feeling. Why the folding panels were present, we kids could never gauge. Maybe to lay ones head for a short nap, but then it was quite some distance to reach it by reclining, so it was out of question. Had seen Naanaji resting his legs on it and sometimes resting the newspaper on it to read in comfort. The battle usually ended with a truce and three of us would come to occupy it as we could be easily seated at any given time on the three sides with our legs dangling, facing away from each other like the navagrahas. After some egoistic silence, talks would ensue and in a matter of few minutes all fight forgotten and playful talk, stories, planning, plotting would commence, with our positions remaining back to back.

Naanaji cleared his throat and in his affected voice, at such times, guttural and loud, enquired,

“What brings you at this hour, Chenga? Hadn't I paid you your wages, this evening Linga. "

Scratching his head, Chenga, the elder among them, said sheepishly, “No, no master, you have never sent us home on an empty stomach or with empty hands.”

“So, come out with it," that was Naanaji, not much popular with patience.

Sensing his irritant voice, Chenga nervously began to weave a backdrop to whatever he had come for,

“It is the children in our house, Master. They have brought us here. You know it all, how we have raised them. They too have been responsible and obedient. But of late, they are causing us concern, “boomed Chena’s voice.

Upright and bold, he was one proud man full of self esteem, despite his meager circumstances and it always reflected in him. This quality of his was secretly admired by Naanaji.

“Hmm... So what is it that is worrying you both now? What have you to say Linga?" continued Naanaji, as he applied lime paste to the back of betel leaves, wrapped them with areca nut slices inside and folded them into his mouth after a light dinner. Dinner had to be served by eight, quick and light. Bedtime would be early by 9 o'clock as he was an early riser.

Picking up the threads from where Chenga left, Linga dragged on feebly with an unsure demeanor,

“It is all the doing of his eldest son Muthu, Master. I still remember the day he was born. It was just over a year on our return from Penang. He was the firstborn among our families. We kept his name after lot of deliberations and it was me who suggested Muthu Mani, a gem pearl. It was in memory of Penang, the island of Pearls where we both friends spent our youth. Now the same boy is set on spoiling our relations. The other day, he has proposed to my elder daughter,Valli. They both are the same age and studied together like brother and sister; at least we thought so. We have been like brothers and our wives like inseparable twin sisters. How can the children even think of something like that?"

Now, this was indeed a quagmire they had to come out of. Realizing the crisis at hand, Naanaji remained silent for a while and turning towards Naani, who had brought him water, asked her to serve them food. They politely declined, saying they had partaken of food before coming here. Naani went in and brought them some ripe plantains grown on the farms.

"So, what do you propose to do," he pointed at them both. Chenga, hesitantly said, “What can we do much in this Master. It is the children's happiness that matters. Have known Valli since her birth and she too likes Muthu. When both wish to get married, I think we must listen to them."

To which Lingadu, till now subdued, raised his voice and pounced, “How can he even talk like this. Doesn't he know it is sacrilege, Master? They have been raised together like siblings. Children will want anything they fancy but isn't it our duty to see and do what is good for them. Moreover, my wife has promised Valli to her youngest brother, a gumaasta (accountant) in the local rice-mill. He has done his SSLC and he will take care of her well. How can we let her toil like us? She needs to be settled with some better prospects."

Chenga guffawed, hearing this, "Who, that lanky Chandran, who reeks of toddy all the time. My son may not be well read but he relies on his hard work and I can assure you, he will work his way up and take better care of your daughter. And also, he neither drinks nor smokes. Don't listen to that ambitious wife of yours. She is ill advised by that vagabond, spoilt brother of hers."

Lingadu protested, “Don’t you drag Ponni into this. How can I trust my daughter with your son, didn't you hear how he threatened to tie her taali by force, if we did not get them married. He and his swollen head full of pride and arrogance, just like his father. Had I known then that he would grow up so fiery I would have suggested Boggu Mani instead?"

Chenga too didn't seem to back out, he retaliated, "Oh, com'on! Names never define anybody. Why that brother in law of yours too carries such a moony, dreamlike name but he is a nightmare, every inch. And all you want is that spineless boot licker for a son-in-law. My son works for wages but leads a life in dignity. He can never be made to bow low like your prospective groom, a slimy little fellow, warming up to men and money."

Rebuking them to stop bickering Naanaji became pensive and asked, why he was never appraised before. Both said, they thought it would get settled amicably over time by sitting together and talking sense into their children. But since neither of them was budging, the impasse stayed and hence they had come to him, seeking help. Maybe, if he spoke to Muthu and convinced him otherwise, he might relent.

After unburdening their hearts onto Naanaji's, they left, one after the other minding gap between them, now that their paths seemed to be crossing too close for comfort.

As Naanaji lay on the cot outside, under the starlit sky, he was full of thought. Naani came and sat down near his head and slowly began,

“I had been listening to their talk. Even Naagi had told me the other day when she came to help me with the pickle. She was keen to taken in Valli as her daughter in law. Also her son was her greatest pride. His happiness was hers. But Ponni was playing spoilsport. She had her brother Chandran's interests at heart and would not listen to any suggestions otherwise. She was very adamant in this and stood her ground. “My daughter will live like a maharani, in a pucca house. How can I get her married to someone so hot headed, laboring away for survival just like his elders. " That's how her mind is working. I stopped myself from further advice." wound up Naani. Naanaji's thoughts were elsewhere.

An hour of resting out and Naanaji would retire inside to sleep on his wooden cot. But today, he stayed awake for a long time.

(Part Two)

Chengalvarayan and Lingaswamy, Naanaji's two farm helps who doubled up as his Man Friday's, were always seen together, working in tandem. They were an integral part of our annual summer vacations at our village in childhood and we have some fond and cool memories of them. Had always perceived them to be brothers and only later on, after a score of summers, came to know that they were thick friends who had journeyed together from teen hood. Lack of livelihood in homeland forced them to migrate to Penang in the late 1930's, Malaya being a British colony then and laborers from India were in great demand to work in farms there. Coming from a family of Eendravalu tall and hefty, with chiseled bodies from all that climbing ever since their limbs learnt became locomotive, they were a natural choice of the landlords. In the aftermath of the Second World War when the end of British imperialism was imminent, the Straits Settlements were dissolved and Penang became a part of the Malay Union. Workers in Betel nut, areca nut plantations started to either leave for their natives or settled down there itself. But unlike many of their kin, they did not settle down in Penang. After saving enough money, they returned to their homelands in the early 1950's, bought tiny pieces of land and started their family. They still went to work at other farms even though their lands were cultivated, as it was not enough for survival. With many mouths to feed and a taste for good things over the years, left them with a barely hand to mouth existence. Yet one thing they always prided in was in their progeny. Brought up well disciplined and hardworking, they were fully devoted to the family and took on responsibilities at an early age.

Both Chengadu and Lingadu were in their fifties and had been with Naanaji since their return from Penang, twenty years back. They settled down in the tiny hamlet called Eendrapalayam, exclusively for families of tree climbing community. It lay across the mango orchard overlooking the river on the outskirts of Sampangi Mitta, a village on the right bank of river Kushasthali where our Naanaji lived.

Blessed with half a dozen kids between them, they remained close as ever and their wives, Nagi and Ponni too acknowledged and respected their bond.

Climbing tall Palmyra and coconut trees was their forte being Eendras and their children too followed suit. Young grown up adults by now, the boys lent a hand on farms as the girls looked after household work. Schooling for the girls stopped at elementary level in nearby village and the boys too, not showing much inclination, dropped out one after the other, the most well read among them had passed SSLC . But a robust physique came to their advantage and like their fathers, they too were most sought after for heavy work on the farms and tree climbing, at the time of harvesting coconuts and palm fruits, why, even for tapping toddy. This feat bore them an edge over other laborers.

During our many a summer vacations to our Naanaji’s house in Sampangi Mitta ( Lily Highlands) , hot sultry summer noons would transform to balmy, sweet and cool by virtue of their services, bringing in sacks laden with green coconuts and loads of palm fruit clusters .

Palm fruits resembling mammoth sized mango stein, covered in thick black husk with a green cap on top, were adored by us children. We got to have them only on our visits to the village and the fruits too lasted just for a month or two during May and June, timed appropriately; nature's way of tackling the scorching summers.

Forming a large circle around the booty in anticipation, clothed in light linen home wear to safeguard against the stubborn stains they left behind, we waited in glee, watching them skillfully chopping off the capped tops with sickle to reveal three sweet jelly seed sockets that looked like lychee, albeit bigger minus the pit.

The fleshy white part of the kernel covered in a thin ivory skin, contained sweet liquid inside. These nungus as they were called were then carefully carved out and for the tinier lot with feeble thumbs, the kernels would be served in a civilized manner in the green cap-cups, with another cap torn midway to serve as a spoon.

As for us, bigger cousins being many in number and limited patience, we preferred to have them handed over soon after the tops were chopped off the fruit to have them in the most rustic yet taste yielding manner.

Our thumb would mould into a spoon for the next half hour, as it made a tiny opening in the centre of the nungu to spurt the sweet juice which would be sipped directly from the rim and then it would delve deeper along the edges to collect a bite of this cool, soft, sweet and luscious kernel, balanced on the curved thumb and slid into our waiting mouths. It tasted cosmically divine ! All their attempts to make us curved cups from the green caps were thwarted ; nothing could come between our thumb and the nungu. It was a race till the last sip and bite.

This was the best way to have them. In half an hour, the courtyard would be filled with the empty husks, which would be dried and used up as firewood. And so, the mere sight of Chengadu and Lingadu floated images of tender coconut water and luscious palm kernels.

Their wives too worked in unison and helped Naani on occasions when, rice had to be pounded, the cow to be milked in the absence of the regular cowboy, flowers to be stringed at festive times, palm mats to be knitted or green coconut leaves to be plaited as mats to serve as shields from the hot sun and prying eyes. Dry coconut leaves would be handled with deft, midriffs would be peeled off, arranged into neat little bundles, the edges snipped off equally and then tied up tightly resulting into long sturdy brooms. Sometimes cow dung cakes would have to be made for fuel purpose and many other such errands that required their presence on and off. Regular household helps were tied down with their routine chores that didn't allow them to undertake odd end jobs. So a word put into Chengadu's ear or for that matter, even Lingadu would suffice to see the prompt presence of their wives, Naagi and Ponni.



(Part Three)

Waking up earlier than usual, as he was leaving for a stroll around his fields on the outskirts of the village, across the hamlet, a daily ritual at dawn, Naani took the coffee tumbler from his hands and blew in some unsolicited advice, " Please don't enter into their family crisis. Let them sort it out by themselves. I feel, one should not meddle in such affairs. Let destiny decide."

" You don't teach me what to do and what not to do. I can handle this myself, " snapped Naanaji, at her sudden streak of boldness that inadvertently advising good sense to prevail over his chauvinist tendencies. His ego never entertained her thoughts and this alluding him to acting akin to God, irked him all the more. Swishing his towel and throwing it on his shoulder, he walked briskly with purpose, his pet dog Ramu toeing him.

As Naanaji made his way on the kuchcha bund bordering the village towards his farm, it was dark outside and a bit chill. Lighting up the narrow rugged path with his torch, a half awake Ramu panting behind, he paced swiftly. Leaving the village behind, across the mango orchard, as he was nearing the coconut grove that shielded Eendrapalayam, he heard voices and movement of people. Ramu raced up with his 'woof woof' and caught up with Chenga, standing outside his hut, his head bowed, something unseen. The others had surrounded and pointing towards him. Linga and his wife were talking in angered voices. Seeing Ramu, they hushed up realizing Master would not be much behind. On reaching, Naanaji asked what the early morning commotion was.

He got to learn that Muthu Mani had gone up to the rice-mill in the nearby small town and beaten up Chandran last night threatening him with dire consequences if he did not back out.Valli was his and he should drop any thought of marrying her.

A bruised Chandran had come lamenting to his sister to keep his case and request her to intervene and stop Muthu from his plans. The fight had continued from midnight and it was nearing daybreak.

Naanaji asked them to stop threatening and counter accusations. Calling out to Muthu, he warned him to stop with his muscle power and bullying. Advising him to listen to the elders and respect the views of the girl's parents and see sense. What was wrong in expecting to settle their eldest daughter in a better home, with brighter propositions. It made no good to go against the wishes of one's parents.

Until then, maintaining silence, Muthu Mani spoke for the first time. "But, Master, my parents are not against it. I have their consent. Since childhood, I had always wanted to marry her and now, her greedy mother is going after money. Ask and see Valli, she too will vouch for the same. Even I can give her a better life once I get this job at Ashok Leyland, loading machinery and driving. Got my license in heavy vehicles last month and have applied for the same. Who wants to live in penury forever? " His words were coming out fast, tinged with repressed anger.

What right did Master have to speak in their family affairs, he had questioned his father, the previous night when they sat discussing and his father had told him to behave himself if Master ever spoke to him on the issue.

"Orey! nilapandi chaalu mee panchaayattu", shouting above him, Naanaji asked the men to stop settling their scores and be done with their Panchayat and follow him to the farms, work awaited them and day was starting to break. “Did they plan to take the day off or were they too planning to join Leyland Co.” he guffawed.



Look at the chit of a boy, raised up on our farms, sent to school and now he talks of leaving and working for the Co. If all migrate to the town, who will work at the farms for us, he pondered as he measured his giant footsteps, a very tall and healthy man who walked erect which added two more inches to him, vertically.

The men folk quietly lined up and followed Naanaji.

It was mid morning and time to get back home for bath and breakfast. Asking them to go home and be back by midday, he walked swiftly towards home.

Things were quiet and everything went fine. By now all had reconciled to the fact, that the girl would be wedded to her maternal uncle, a norm in practice and no more argument on that. When Nani heard this, she tried to convince a tenacious Naanaji to let things take their turn and not play destiny but then he would not have her say more on this and she too quietened her thoughts. All her plans to negotiate between Naagi and Ponni were aborted and she went about her work in dismissal.

It was nearing a month since that day and as usual, Naanaji was on his way back home, mid morning with others in toe, discussing about the approaching harvest and other mundane farm talk. They were nearing Eendrapalayam and Lingadu's house, the first one from the farms, approached. Chengadu’s was two houses away. Turning to leave instructions to Lingadu for the day before his scheduled visit to the town to collect monthly rental from few odd shops and row houses, he had let out in his buildings.

Even before anyone could blink, Muthu Mani broke free from the troop and rushed towards Lingadu's house. Sensing trouble all followed in quick pursuit and caught up in time to see him at the well trying to tie a taali around an unsuspecting Valli's neck, as she was drawing water.

Naanaji, a sporty man who was well versed in the martial arts of those times, malyutham and silambattam deftly secured Muthu Mani from behind and stopped him from tying. All hell broke loose. Amidst his wild protests and argument that he had sought her hand and proposed to her only after the parent's consent and now, with Chandran entering the scene, they had changed their minds. He would not adhere to their wishes anymore and would take Valli as his wife by all means.

With others joining in, Naanaji had to arbitrate and in the end, amongst Valli's parent's adamant refusal, it was decided to get her engaged to Chandran immediately, followed by marriage within a month. No chances could be taken with things trying to get out of hands. As they went about deciding her future for her, a despondent Valli watched mutely.

(Part Four)

I had come to my Nanihaal after three years, having joined an engineering college in a neighboring state. Studies and travel had taken me away and had made it to a few family functions but the visits were very brief.

This time around, it was one whole week of stay and with time on my side was soaking in all around me. Sitting on the terrace with Naanaji, having hot vadas that Naani had made to go with coffee. Cool sea breeze blowing and coconut leaves giving shade, it was a lazy evening. Naani made herself free to join us. Standing at the parapet, overlooking the scene around with coconut leaves brushing past, they had grown up really tall since last time, I saw a dark and skinny young woman in a plain white sari, watering the kitchen garden adjacent to the small flower patch. A small baby was crawling in the courtyard, playing with mud as a tiny little girl ran around her, trying to imitate the woman by taking a mug full of water and watering the jasmine bushes. The lady was scolding her to mind the baby but the girl was in no mood to listen and went about scampering here and there, spilling water.

I asked Naani who she was, had never seen her in the house before. This small query led to Nani pouring out this story that had happened a few years back. Naanaji finished his coffee in haste and left to survey the farms before it got dark, asking me to relax and join him on his morning stroll. Nani glaring daggers at him while seeing him off, didn't go unnoticed by me.

Joining me, she continued, "If not for your Naanaji, she would have not had to see such times. I pleaded with him not to intervene, it was a question of someone's life. But no, he would not heed. "Baavilo kappa.. Neeku yemi telusu ", ( A frog in the well , what do you know) that is how he describes me; he went ahead and played God. You know how much he gloats at such times. All my advice to leave that to NT Rama Rao fell on deaf ears."

Seeing my puzzled look, she gave one of those bitter short laughs, reserved for such occasions; when she was reduced to submit to Naanaji's idiosyncrasy despite knowing very well the not so flattering outcome.

Had read somewhere, 'Sunsets are proof that there can be beautiful endings too.' Wishing for one, I prodded her further.

In an unwilling tone she proceeded to quench my curiosity.

" What's there, a month later, Valli left for her husband's house in the nearby town and a heartbroken Muthu Mani left his work at the farms, to try his luck at the Co. which was recruiting fit and able bodied youth for the punishing schedule ahead, in the heavy vehicles sector.

Muthu Mani got employed in Ashok Leyland after six months of Valli's marriage. He has proved his mettle since then by sheer hard work and physical endurance. Now he is a driver there. Working in shifts and overtime, he is earning handsomely. Has built a pucca house in the hamlet where he stays with his beautiful bride, a baby boy, parents and siblings. The wife is decked in fine clothes, and has a handsome collection of gold ornaments, all provided by her doting husband. The dowry she brought along was returned by him, a proud man that he is. Seen his wife on a few occasions, during the village festival. She never comes to work outside and now her mother in law too stays in the house, with her dutiful son providing well. Chengadu continues with your Naanaji for old times’ sake." She wound up.

On asking what happened to Linga's family, she had a faraway look and a sadness crept over those worried brows." As if a curse befell upon them. The maternal uncle, Valli had got married to, could never get over the fact that she was his reluctant bride and used to beat her up and torture her with suspicion. Half the time she stayed with her parents. Ponni remained silent, torn between her brother and daughter. Two years later, Chandran was found dead after a drunken brawl during Diwali. His body lay in the ditch running along the rice-mill. The mill owner refused to make any settlement for his wayward employee. As for the young widowed Valli, she returned to her father's place for good, eight months pregnant with a toddler in toe. A younger sister to be married off and a little brother, learning farm work, hmm*** a long way to go before dawn."

"Knowing him well, an unyielding fighter, Muthu Mani has settled here, if only to affront and make the Lingadu's relive their decision and die a death each day, as he drives proudly ensconced on his bullet to work. Their aged eyes cannot escape the sighed looks of their widowed daughter, dressed in white, devoid of bindi, sindoor, bangles, flowers and hair tied up in a knot. A stark contrast to Muthu’s wife. The fact that poor Valli too deeply nurtured to be his wife, makes things all the more bitter and difficult for them .

It tears me up to look at her in a widow's attire at such a tender age with two little bundles of burden. Wish her destiny was not disrupted. Muthu Mani would have treasured her. His parents always knew their son's grit but were tongue tied in the assembly of elders, amidst vehement opposition. "

" If only, your Naanaji had not stopped Muthu from tying her the taali that day, she would have been a Sumangali today " muttering wistfully, Naani got up clutching her knees and hobbled down the stairs to give Valli and her kids some vadas before they left.

I was left midway, unable to swallow mine. A sip of bitter sweet coffee didn't help either.

Glossary of words and phrases:

1. Baavilo kappa neeku yemi telusu -- a frog in the well, what do you know.

2. Boggu-Mani -- coal-gem

3. Dhoti - traditional men's garment in Indian subcontinent. A long white unstitched cloth wrapped around the waist and legs and knotted at the waist.

4. Eendra-Palayam -- Eendra means tree - climbers and Palayam means place or area of dwelling.

5. Kaccha bund -- outer bank of the river running along, separating the village and made of mud.

6. Kanuga tree -- beech tree

7. Maharani -- Empress, Her Majesty the Queen.

8. Malyutham -- combat wrestling

9. Naanaji -- Maternal grandfather; ji is a mark of respect.

10. Naani -- Maternal grandmother

11. Nanihal -- Maternal grandparent's house

12. Navagrahas -- Nine planets worshipped in Hindu temples. They are arranged on a pedestal in a square of three in each row with each idol facing away from each other, showing their backs or their sides.

13. NT Rama Rao -- a cine idol of 1950's in Southern Indian cinema. Gained popularity by playing Hindu Gods like Krishna, Rama and other historical legends. Became a Messiah of the masses.

14. Nungu -- ice apple, palm kernels

15. Orey ! Nilapandi chaalu, mee Panchyatu --

Hey fellows! Enough, now stop your panchayat ( a village council of elders who settle disputes, a form of local self governance.)

16. Padaneer -- palm nectar. Sap extracted from the inflorescence of toddy palms. High in nutrition, quenches thirst.

17. Pucca house -- permanent house made of wood, bricks cement, iron rods and steel.

18. Silambattam -- stick fighting in which the primary weapon is a bamboo staff

19. SSLC -- equivalent of tenth standard or Matric

20. Sumangali -- married woman who wears ornaments and keeps red vermillion dot on forehead and adorns hair with flowers to symbolise her marital status.

21. Taali -- an auspicious yellow thread with a gold pendant tied around a bride's neck by the groom in marriage which identifies her being married to him

22. Vadas -- Indian fritters made from black lentil in doughnut shape, crispy on outside but soft on the inside.

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