Friday, October 21, 2016


A year back, I inherited a plot of land from a grand-aunt. Her kids tried to get her certified as mad, posthumously though. One of their arguments was that she must have been crazy to give it to me who had avoided the village (and, all relatives, they emphasized) the last twenty years. The judge used that to decide I had not influenced my grand-aunt, and I could not be denied what was due to me (however crazy everyone seems to be, the judge added in a verbal note).
The gift came along with a dilapidated hut and a cranky old caretaker. The small plot does not give enough to keep a full-time caretaker and the Rent Act makes it tricky to lease out the place. I relied on Uncle Jose (called Hosappan) to evict the caretaker. Both sides tried charm, then threats. He demanded a part of the land, as per the law; we promised him space in jail. Hosappan and I had gone through the accounts, and it was clear the caretaker, and not just her kids, had fleeced my grand-aunt of her money in her last years of physically infirm existence.
Hosappan also helps me with the other headaches of landownership: paying land-tax and other dues in poky little village offices; luring lazy workers, with cash and liquor, to clear grass, tap rubber, pluck coconut, plant plantain and vegetables. I knew where my place was, in the city, enclosed within four walls an arm’s reach away.
He might not be the closest relative I have in the village, by way of genes, but Hosappan is my only contact. He used to be a doctor with a successful practice in London. He returned to the village about thirty years back, some say in a straightjacket, he must have been in his late-forties. I got to know him about ten years after his return, when my parents and sisters died. It was he who took care of me during those troubled times and advised me to leave those shores. Whenever he comes to the city, he stays with me, for a night of single malt and old English movies.
I got my rural calling one unexceptional dreary city morn, couple of weeks back. I made a phone-call to Hosappan. My decision to shift to the village received a dismissive “Bah!” The second call, a day later, got thoughtful silence and an abrupt click. I kept the third for the day before the shift.
“Are you sure you want to live in the village?” Hosappan asked. “Haven’t you seen ‘Straw Dogs’?”
“What a comparison!” I retorted. I do not have a partner to incite the bucolic worst, definitely not a Susan George, nor am I a geeky Dustin Hoffman with violence repressed within.
The first day was like any shifting day. Trade-union guys landed at my door and surrounded the moving van. They had to get their dues, they said. I bribed them to watch and let me load my own stuff. The next headache came from the moving van’s driver. He stopped midway and negotiated a revised deal. At the destination, the hut had not turned into a manor and, after cleaning and some repair, continued to look like a manor’s privy. Hosappan’s cleaning crew complained about the fish curry served for lunch. They were not satisfied with the hour-long siesta either. The gods too tested my perseverance–it rained when the bedding and baggage were being transferred within.
Around dusk, the place was ready for me. Hosappan suggested I stay at his place that night and start afresh the next day. I politely declined his offer. There’s no night like first night, I told him. He shrugged.
Some relatives, neighbours and strangers dropped in, with a great deal of backslapping, good cheer and best wishes. They came with advice about land and farming, some to register their names with me, in case I decided to sell and vamoose. They lingered for a while, inspected the place and poked at corners. Their exit was sullen and hasty. None of them invited me to their place.
“What did I do?” I asked Hosappan.
“You didn’t give them what they want,” Hosappan replied. After checking whether the coast was clear, he took out a bottle of whiskey and a tiffin-carrier from his large cloth-bag.
“But, I am the new guy here. Aren’t they supposed to give me?”
“Is that how it works in the city?” he asked.
“Sure, it’s always give and take.”
“Do you get any visitors in the city?” he asked.
“No, but the principle holds,” I argued.
He opened the bottle and I brought out my cutlery: steel plates, glasses and spoons, two of each. We sat on a floor mat and ate with our hands. He informed me he had arranged for a maid who would cook and clean. I felt like a lord in a castle, with maid, land, house and all. I nearly missed his caution, “Don’t trouble her.” He left around eight.
I was tired and sleepy. I stood outside and lit a cigarette. This is how life should be, I thought. A few lines of poetry about nature, one’s own space and peace crept in. That darted out when I felt the ground beneath slithering and the trees around tremble with unseen life. I moved inside and bolted the door. I lay down. It turned out to be a long night. A cloudburst revealed a leak. Something kept on burrowing till dawn, along with squeals to its pack to join in in the fun. The acoustics of the place made that seem as if it was from within and that too beneath my bed. There was activity on top too. The aluminium roof sounded like a war zone. Each crash and vicious battle cry coincided with those moments my eyes tried to surrender to sweet slumber. Of all the huts in all the villages in the world, all the rodents, reptiles, palm civets, bats and birds had to be in mine. Then, there was the urge to pee. I did not venture out, to the toilet outside or to the bushes. I had visions of maids emptying chamber-pots.
That vision nearly came true at the crack of dawn. I was outside, leaning against a jackfruit tree, urinating with wild abandon, when I heard a cry of disgust, “Cheee…”
I turned around, rather recklessly, to find a woman of indeterminate age, appearance and senses eyeing me suspiciously. Her face darkened with mixed emotions. I remembered Hosappan’s late warning. I tried a sweet smile. That seemed to work. Later, I learned from Hosappan that she suffers from extreme mood-swings, flitting from mania to depression. I stuck to my sweet smile, my facial muscles ached, and I was rewarded with mild mania. She treated me with non-stop chatter while cooking and cleaning, mainly village gossip, laced with news from around the world. In the same breath, without hesitation or punctuation, she talked about stupid husbands and wives, and idiotic leaders, cheating their spouses and subjects. I wondered what she would say about me at her next place of work. She is a good sort, mostly, and bossy. She insisted I have a cold-water bath before breakfast, to tame the mind, she said.
The only visitor that morning was a drunk, amazingly so even at that hour. He mistook my place for his which was two plots away. The maid showed him the way out, rather forcefully with a broom.
I walked to the village centre around mid-morning. At a tea-shop, I had a glass of tea and banana fritter. I bought a newspaper and devoted my attention to it as if my life depended on it. I need not have bothered. None trespassed into my space. Word must have gone around about my hospitality. Thousand eyes seemed to be staring but they wanted me to make the first move.
Kadalil has not changed much. Even the population is more or less the same, about eight thousand, with a male to female ratio of ninety one per cent. I used to think there were only two types of people in the village: crazies who lived and crazies who died by suicide or murder. Kadalil is not a unique village in any way. Sure the suicide rates are above the national average, depression and divorce too, but so is the per capita income, thanks to decades of migration, remittances from abroad, social reform, a self-sustaining population and a less-than-welcoming nature to outsiders. Kadalil has selectively taken the fruits of the flat and globalized world outside and guarded its own space and people. Hypocrites, one might say; or, simple village life.
From the tea-shop, I walked to the market and the two temples, around which revolve social life, and then traced my way back to my place, all the time wondering why I was back. I had to walk past my parents’ house and land. Twenty years back, after shifting to the city, the first thing I did was to sell that inheritance. In that house, my parents and two sisters died together, in a suicide-pact; out of shame, their note said. The house opposite to my parents’ has changed hands too. There, in that same dark period, the man of the house had murdered his wife and three grown-up kids before hanging himself.
Back home, I had a simple lunch of rice, buttermilk, couple of vegetable dishes and fish curry and enjoyed a long siesta. After tea, I strolled around my land of a few hectares or so. Hosappan had warned me of rat snakes and less-benevolent types. I did not see any, but like their human counterparts in the tea-shop, I felt their eye on me, probably inspected for future use. My neighbours have similar-size plots, saw a few, smiled, waved and kept to ourselves. There are muddy tracks on two sides of my plot. The one in front, with a mid-sized lorry’s width, stretches from the village centre to the paddy fields further to the north. The other is a side-road, little more than a footpath, leading to the river flowing past my land at the back. I was at the river-bank when a cloud-burst caught me unawares, and got home thoroughly drenched. It was getting dark fast. Without turning on the light, I stripped, wrapped a towel around my waist, got a glass and poured a large measure of whiskey.
A knock on the front door startled me. I turned to find a lady. In her hands was an earthen pot with a smaller steel vessel balanced on top. She studied my half-naked form from head to toe, quite clinically. She looked younger than me, not by too many years though, probably in her late thirties. Of medium height, dusky-complexioned, with dark unblinking eyes that gleamed in a not-unattractive face, full lips, wet long hair carelessly pulled back in a loose knot, a sturdy body, breasts of moderate size, wide-hipped, wearing a brown blouse and a clean but wrinkled white sari with black trim.
“Tapioca and fish curry,” she extended the pot.
I received, placed it on a table, opened and inspected; smelled delicious, perfect accompaniment to my waiting glass.
I looked up. She was already on her way out.
“Hey, thanks,” I called out, “who are you?”
“Your cousin Rajan’s Mrs,” she replied.
She disappeared into the late-dusk-light.
I sat down on my rosewood reclining chair, sipped my drink, wolfed down the gifted meal, and thought. I knew a cousin Rajan. Crossed paths in the city a few times, he visited my apartment once, without invitation. He was a small-time businessman-cum-politician when I first met him, then a devout follower of some charlatan or self-proclaimed god-man. He was pesky in that second avatar, rather sure that I too needed such salvation. I remembered then that my cousin’s transition from corporeal to spiritual fraud had been brought about by his wife’s death. I sat up in my chair and poured a larger drink. I tried but could not recall any other cousin Rajan in my rather large stable of relatives. I suspected Hosappan was up to his tricks. I decided to confront him the next day, and thank him for the lovely meal and the ghostly vision. The second night was a lot better. I managed to sleep from nine till eleven and later, a couple of hours before dawn. In between, it rained heavily. There were new leaks to attend to. When the rain stopped, the wild-life came out, had a late-night orgy with a great deal of fighting and shrieking. They were definitely following god’s will and I was not, I thought. I had a chaste dream about a lady with dark staring eyes, but when I woke up I could not be sure if that had been my cousin Rajan’s dead wife.
That morn, after packing off my garrulous maid, I walked to Hosappan’s house on the other side of the village centre. He was not in a pleasant mood. Someone had stolen a few rubber sheets left out to dry and, more importantly, he could not find his slippers.
When I extended a cheerful appreciation for the previous evening’s guest and meal, he gave me a frosty look, “Do you think I am crazy?”
“Well, not exactly,” I said.
“If I knew such a woman, do you think I will send her to you?” he asked.
He was definitely trying to hit below the belt.
“Then, who is she?” I asked. “Do I have some other cousin Rajan?”
“Screw your cousins,” he said, “now, get lost or search for my slippers.”
His mood changed for the better after we found those, close-to-disintegration, items. He invited me for lunch.
After lunch, sharing one of his treasured extra-strong cheroots, he quizzed me about the lady-in-white. His face darkened when I described her.
“Did you have any problem last night?” he asked, uncharacteristically concerned.
“No, nothing other than the usual night-sounds,” I replied. “Why?”
“That lady is not your cousin Rajan’s wife, dead or alive,” he said.
“Who…? She…?”
“She lives close to your place, further down the road, near the paddy fields,” he continued, “she lives with her old parents, she is a bit loony.”
“Who…? She…?”
“Stop parroting who-she,” he was strangely agitated, “they should lock her up.”
“Why? She looked quite sane, and hardly dangerous,” I defended her.
“A few months back, she gave a neighbour a similar gift, it was some temple sweet-offering then, she had laced it with pesticide, fortunately a diluted one,” Hosappan informed.
“Bloody hell,” I felt a twinge in my belly.
“Are you sure you are ok?” he asked.
I nodded weakly. I asked for another cheroot.
I left around three. Preoccupied with my near-death experience, I ignored the layabouts at the village centre, and curtly nodded when the tea-shop owner or one of his cronies asked, “All ok?” I was not helping my popularity rating. 
I must have been walking fast.
“Where are you racing off to?” a lady of about fifty, standing outside a gate on the way, asked.
An octogenarian with her cackled, “Forgot your morning shit, huh?”
The younger lady scolded the other.
It took me a while to recognize them. The younger one is an aunt, related via marriage and not genetically, and the other her mother.
“How is Uncle Gopalan?” I asked, I could not think of anything else to ask.
“Come in and find out.”
I had to go in. I found my uncle seated in a chair in the living room. When I was a kid, I asked my mother, “Is he glued to that chair?” I had never seen him any other way, never outside, not even for the temple-festivals.
I cannot recall her name, always referred to her as Uncle Gopalan’s wife. She told me to follow her inside, to the dining room. Her husband did not budge from his seat, and I could hear the old lady talking on the phone, somewhere in the house. She served tea along with quite a spread of savouries and sweets.
“Did you make all this?” I asked.
She smiled. Even at fifty, her girlish smile and nature seemed well-preserved. She is still the same: fair, plump, modestly dressed, no-sex-siren-with-plunging-décolletage by any stretch of the imagination; but, with an allure lesser men like me find difficult to ignore. When I was just out of my teens, my mother told me, “stay away from her, she is a loose woman.” My gang observed her from far, with sighs, groans and the familiar refrain, “Man, what a woman!” At one time, there was talk of Hosappan being involved with her, which he stoutly denied, unconvincingly. The people of Kadalil could be fickle in such matters. The tongue that joked could also be malicious. They allowed some affairs. In some cases, their interference was invasive and persistent, and made families seethe with shame and rage, even self-destruct. 
We talked. She wanted to know all about life in the city. I stuffed myself with her goodies, and politely inquired about relatives. I left after an hour. Uncle Gopalan cheerfully waved from his seat.
That evening, it rained again. I stayed within, with the front door closed. I had a light dinner of porridge, dried-fish chutney and sautéed beans. Lying on my reclining chair, I read Houellebecq’s ‘Platform’, a glass of whiskey next to me. It was bliss.
Around eleven, there was a knock on the door. I ignored it till it became persistent. I got up, with a long tirade ready for the loony-or-not woman-in-white.
I opened the door. There was no one there. It was dark outside. I stepped out. The first blow came from a fist to the right side. Another pummelled my back. Someone kicked my backside and I fell forward. I kept my hands over my head. They aimed their kicks at my legs and upper body. I peeped to the side. I saw a gleaming blade. I got on all fours, scurried forward like a rat, turned around and faced them. There were three thick-set young men, two with machetes.
“What did I do?” I pleaded, nearly wailing, shedding copious tears.
“This is what you get when you go after another’s woman,” one assailant said.
At first, only because she had been the last woman on my mind, I thought they were talking about the loony one. Then, I shifted focus to my aunt. I was stunned. I had not expected Uncle Gopalan to be the type to take offense, not that I gave him reason for that.
“But I did not do anything but eat,” I told them, “and, she’s my aunt.”
They laughed at my feeble protest, “Exactly, your aunt.” They came menacingly forward, their machetes ready for my flesh and blood.
“Now, don’t make a fuss,” they said. “We won’t cut too deep if you stay still. He wants you to stay in one piece. What a pity!”
“Please, please…Uncle Gopalan has misunderstood…come on, he was there…nothing happened,” I reasoned.
“He too was there…Uncle Gopalan?” a confused voice responded.
My predicament became clear.
“Who sent you?” I demanded.
“We can’t tell you that.”
I glared and with as much authority I could muster, “Who sent you?”
“Uncle Shashi.”
“Bloody hell…” I exclaimed. “Didn’t he suffer a stroke recently?”
“She took care of him then.”
“Look, why don’t you tell Uncle Shashi that nothing happened?” I went back to pleading.
“Can’t do…goes against contract…”
“Ok, how much did he pay you?” I asked.
They mentioned the sum.
I nearly fell back. There was no way I could outbid that.
“Do you mind if I have a drink first?” I asked. I got a curt nod. I went inside. They followed me within. I finished what was left in my glass in one gulp. They watched expectantly. “Will you have a drink with me?” I asked. They collapsed to the floor, synchronized and all. They sat cross-legged, like tiny tots waiting for a favourite teacher’s first lesson of the day. I went inside, brought two bottles and the night started properly.
We cracked jokes, sang dirty songs, I danced, at one stage even took one of their machetes and pranced around. I saw myself in the shaving mirror. Lips in a snarl, eyes wild and red, shoulders bunched forward, it was not a pleasant sight. The men must have seen it too. They relieved me of the machete. They took leave, after advising me to bandage some parts, “for our contract…”
I did that before going to sleep. It must have looked convincing enough because, next morning, my maid went into a fit of hysteria and fled for the day. I stayed in bed till noon. Took bath, wore dark shades and trudged towards the tea-shop. I downed a few cups of hot sweet tea, managed to take in a banana fritter. I looked around. Gone were the suspicious looks and unfriendly sneers. They smiled, one even offered couple of tablets, “It’s perfect for this, I always carry enough,” he said. It could have been the bruises and the bandages, or the drunkard’s walk that triggered the change. Or, they knew why I got bashed up, and that I was not stingy with my liquor.
From there, I walked to Hosappan’s house, begged him for a room for a night. I slept, got up, drank water, pissed, nibbled whatever Hosappan placed in front of me and slept again. I dreamt of loony women, friendly thugs, throughout heard knocking on doors and saw a dark snarling face. Not once did I feel that that was a nightmare. Hosappan told me to stay with him for a few days. I accepted his offer.
I returned to my house after two days. I kept my head down on the way back. I acknowledged the shouts of the old familiars near the tea-shop. I did not want to stir any antagonism. I did not run into any aunt or uncle. My fatalism must have been on fifth gear. Back home, I tried to rest but could not, waited for a knock on the door.
By evening, I had calmed down considerably. I speed-walked around the land, a neighbour raised his eyebrow but did not approach. I went to the river-bank, sat on a rock and watched the rapids in the fading dusk light.
“Where were you?”
I jumped up. It was the lady-in-white. I stepped back.
“Watch out,” she said. I was tottering on the edge of the rock. She moved towards me. “Where were you?”
There was no way out, with the killer depths behind me, and the loony before me.
She continued, “I saw them beat you. I brought a knife from home. But, you all were inside by then.”
I remained silent.
“What was all that about?” she asked.
“Just a misunderstanding,” I replied.
“Oh, that happens so often,” she said, cheerfully. “I knew a guy who got beaten up really badly.” She lowered her voice, “People thought he was in love with me. I loved him too. Families did not like it. You know how it is like out here, right? How will you know, you are a city-boy, aren’t you?” She smiled.
I smiled back, “I am a village-boy too.” What made me say that? Maybe, because she had talked so much, I blurted out again, “Hope that ended without too much pain.”
“He died,” she still smiled.
I smiled back foolishly. I made a move forward, gesturing that I was going back home. She stepped off the rock and moved aside. Half-way back, I turned, she was still on the rock, close to where I sat, staring at the dark rapids.
For a week, nearly every day, we met there. We sat on the rock, threw pebbles at a slant, watched them bounce, like kids, laughing, staring, we did not talk much. I could have told her the story of my life. Most probably, she knows all that, like the rest of the village. One day, we hopped from one rock to the next, till we reached the steps leading up to a temple. Further ahead, some bathers and sand-miners on boats watched us with a frown. We ignored them and hopped back to our rock. The next day, we stood near the edge of the rock, just a step away from sure crushing death. We laughed and inched forward, fingers barely touching, high on something, I thought of going down with her, losing grasp, still laughing while sinking.
Someone on the opposite shore shouted at us, “You two step back!” A crowd gathered there, staring at us. “Crazy idiots!” another shouted.
 Maybe, that shout triggered it.
 She stepped back, laughed at that crowd, at me too. She took our hopping route to the temple steps. I went after her, more carefully. I saw her race up the steps to the temple. At the top, beneath the old hovering banyan tree and in front of the temple, on the cool sandy ground, she fell, trembled and shook. People watched, me too, unsure what to do. An elderly lady came to the temple after a while, I later learned that was her mother, someone must have gone to get her. She slapped the younger lady and then hit her with a thick stick. The frenzied fit reduced to a whimper.
Later that day, close to bedtime, Hosappan visited me. He did not come within.
“Stay away from her,” he snarled and left abruptly.
I followed his order, but he should have spoken to her too. Three days later, around midnight, she was at my door. She stepped inside. I closed the door.
We held each other roughly and kissed harshly, everywhere. When I took out a condom from my backpack, she asked, “Can’t I have your baby?” I did not reply. “Better not,” she answered her own question.
We were crazy that night, the sex was rough and gentle in equal measure, we scratched and bit, demanded, overpowered, took what we desired. I brought out twenty years of suppressed passion, hers seemed no less.
I am not sure when she left.
Around dawn, she must have gone to the river, not to our rock, but to the ladies’ area close to the temple. She must have gone to the temple after taking bath. Was she wearing the same old clothes, torn a little the previous night? People must have seen the scratches and the other marks on her body. Did she seem tired and heavy on her feet?
Someone threw stones at my house around eight in the morning. My maid did not turn up that morning. I stayed within, this time really shivering with fright. I could hear loud shouts and curses. Someone called me a bastard and dared me to step out. Hosappan came in a taxi. My watch said half past eight but it seemed a lot later.
I opened the door only when Hosappan ordered me to do so. He stepped in quickly.
Again, he stared at me angrily, contemptuously. He told me not to bother packing, that he would take care of it and send it all to me.
He walked me to the taxi, he sat beside me. The crowd snarled at me, someone tried to open the door on my side. Hosappan told them that I was leaving for good.
He did not say a word till we reached my apartment in the city. He did not step out of the car. He went back in that taxi to the village.
Before leaving, he too snarled at me, “Why did you have to do that again?”