Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Conch And The Drum

Chenda – cylindrical percussion instrument
Shanku – conch

“Ado, Chenda!” (“Hey you, Drum!”) C. Krishnan shouted, waving his hands in the air.
I thought we met by chance in that crowded mall in Dubai. I was surprised and flattered. His two bestsellers have won numerous awards.
“Krishnan,” I mumbled.
“CK,” he corrected, “I was CK in school too, remember?”
I vaguely recalled an attention-seeking frontbencher. I was at the opposite end of the spectrum even then, till the second term of class twelve when Madhevan Master ‘promoted’ me to the front for underperforming.
CK treated me to coffee. We talked about old times, his version of it mostly. He signed and gifted his two novels. It did not strike me as odd then. Writers carry their tomes at all times, I thought, to spread the good word and all.
A week later, he invited me for dinner at his place. I knew close encounters at short intervals meant trouble, usually a request for money or help, but I could not think of anything he might want from me. My feeble excuses were brushed aside. The night before the dinner, I tried to read his first novel. That was like cramming for an exam of an unaudited course. The foreword, by a reputed writer, explained: ‘…exquisite literary symphony transports us to a strange world of unimaginable harsh experiences treated with subtlety, brevity and sensitivity’. The first few pages were quite good, I recognized the names of flowers and trees but I lost my way through that thicket. The foreword did warn of contrasts and symbols, fertile foliage versus barren desert and whatnot.
I got to his apartment early. Once inside, I confessed I had not read his books.
He laughed. “I didn’t expect you to read it,” he said.
Dinner was good, his family too. He got to the point after dinner.     
“I want you,” he said. The dramatic pause got the shocked look from me. He smiled. “I want your story.”
I laughed. He continued to smile politely. Still laughing, I said, “No.”
He explained patiently, “Novels, and even movies, based on ‘true stories’ are the ‘in-thing’. My first was based on my life in the Gulf. For the second novel, I chose another ‘migrant worker’ like us,” including air quotes. Leaning forward, he whispered, “He made a lot.”
I surprised myself. For once, I stuck to my decision.
He bargained with percentages, told me to think about it, and finally at the door, he said, “You are still the same, Chenda.”
Back home, and for days, I thought about all that.
Maybe, I was being smart. There is a rule in gambling: when you win big twice, scoot. After two bestsellers, his third would tempt fate.
What would he have written? That follows me around, a perpetual speech-bubble over my head. A companion too pops up: Your life, Chenda? Ha!
I guess ‘my story’ would begin in the one-room thatched hut where I was born, in the corner of Madhevan Master’s land, a stone’s throw from the village railway station. Or, CK might use a non-linear timeline, proceeding to the hut with a flashback from my first residence in the Gulf, the workers’ barracks with bunk-beds crushing close, one dirty stinking toilet for twenty or more and open shower-stalls outside. I was the fourth of eight kids. Eldest sister died of pneumonia when I was six; another was never right in the head; there was the dreamer, he dreamt with others’ money and never had a worry till they found him dead in the backwaters. My parents, siblings and I helped out in Madhevan Master’s place: bathing and feeding the livestock, watering and tilling the land, cleaning lamps, utensils and such. Master made his kids do a lot too, CK might skip that detail. CK might conjecture about how my parents managed to litter in the crowded dark smoky hut. He would touch upon the wild abandon of early morning ablution in the fields or near the backwaters. It was definitely so when a dog had to be shooed away or when a creepy slithering noise was too close for comfort. People like to read ‘real’ stuff, he said. He might contrast that rustic charm with a scene of wild abandon in the workers’ camp, say, when there was a cholera scare and the whole lot suffered diarrhoea for days. We had a kerosene lamp in the hut. There was a street-lamp with a sixty-watt bulb near the railway station. The village elders had their gossip sessions there. After evening prayer at Master’s house, I studied with his kids, around the evening lamp, under a tube-light. I enjoyed Onam (a harvest festival) in Master’s house, seated with his kids in the first round of the feast, then playing kabaddi, carroms, cricket and football with them.  CK might say my family feasted in the hut, on leftovers from Master’s house, and that I stood, a lone longing outcast, watching rich kids have a life.
The evening prayers and study-time were supervised by Madhevan Master’s mother. She passed the ‘seventh-class’ in the British era, in an English-medium missionary school. One day, I was in the store-room next to the kitchen, cleaning and polishing brass items. She was sitting on the ground near the back door, preparing a betel quid and watching me work. I must have been ten years old.
Out of the blue, she demanded, “Tell me seventeen table, till twenty.”
“Seventeen one seventeen, seventeen two thirty four…” I had a method for that. Till ten, I could manage in the head. After that, as I said one part, I added for the next. I was good in addition.
“Seventeen thirteen?” she interrupted.
I hesitated for too long.
“Seventeen ten?” she prompted.
“One seventy,” I said.
“Seventeen three…?”
“Fifty one…” I got her suggestion. With a broad smile, I delivered, “seventeen thirteen two twenty one.”
“Idiot…” Her light eyes never left me. “Are you in English or Malayalam medium?”
“English medium,” I said proudly.
“Recite ‘Daffodils’…”
I stared at her blankly.
The old lady recited the poem. I should have found it surreal, an old lady in a godforsaken Kerala village reciting an English poem, that too not in the staccato fashion in which we recited poetry in school, but as she was taught by an Irish teacher.
After she was through, she told me, “Learn that properly.” That became a routine. In that kitchen, I have recited ‘Daffodils’, ‘Lochinvar’, ‘The Lady of Shallot’, ‘The Highwayman’…even that did not seem surreal.
She ended that day’s lesson with, “Which monkey teaches you Math and English?”
She knew very well that it was her son. Madhevan Master was a very good teacher, the old-school type. He could make us grasp Math without too much difficulty. With English, he used to say, “Oh you good-for-nothing country…” He did not really mean it, I think. He understood our limitations. The dual task of enjoying English and also speaking it the English way was beyond us. He tried hard though. “Roll your r’s…lips, circle…woh-tur, not vaa-tter…woh-mun, not vee-men…”
It was Madhevan Master who enrolled me in school. He gave me my name. Chankunni became Shankar Unni. He called me Shanku. In the Gulf, when I started working with foreigners, that got westernized. Thanx, Shanx.
CK might skip all that but not the day I became Chenda.
It was just another day till the Math class. The students could sense there was something wrong with Madhevan Master. We kept our head down and tried hard not to be noticed. My best friend, ‘Peepee’ Philip, that rascal chose that period to show me a centrefold he had salvaged from an elder brother’s collection. How could I not look at the cleavage and the thighs? Master must have noticed my distraction. He was not interested in the source. He ordered me to approach him. “You good-for-nothing rascal, you want to be a clown instead of studying hard, is it? I will show you how to be a clown.” I do not know for how long it lasted but it went on and on. He started with the cane, on my palm, on the knuckles, on the back of my thighs, on my buttocks, I yelped, jumped and cried, the cane broke when it missed me and hit the table, he then hit me with his right hand, on the back, on my arms, then with his left, back to the right. When he stopped, there was pin-drop silence in that school. I did not know what to do, to crumble down, to cry, or to go and hold the man who looked more beaten than I was. Master walked out and left the school compound. I went back to my seat, trying not to whimper or cry. It was Peepee the rascal who christened me, “Ado Chenda!” That name stuck, though no one used it when Master was around. Peepee also gave me that centrefold as consolation prize.
My parents seemed troubled that night. I heard them talk in the dark. “Poor Master…” my father said. “That naughty girl…why does she give him so much trouble?” my mother said. They were talking about Master’s eldest daughter. She had got into some trouble, with man and money.
That night, or the next, I saw my father creep up to the dark backyard of Master’s house. He was Master’s procurer of whiskey. They sat in the dark, Master on a chair, my father on the ground, my father rolled beedi (cheroot), they smoked, had a drink or two, passed a plate of tapioca and fish curry between them, spoke little.
  I did well in school, went to college, managed a first in BA, passed the written exam for bank officers and was thrilled when I got the interview call. My father took me to Madhevan Master’s house. My father stood inside, next to Master’s wooden reclining chair. I stood outside near a window, by Master’s side.
“Shanku, you have to go abroad,” Master said.
I nodded. My elder brother could have gone instead but I was the smart one, the one with the best chance, to get my brothers and sisters married and decently settled, to find a place for my parents and also manage something for myself. I was disappointed, of course, but at that point in life, I wanted to get rich fast.
I was nearly twenty years old and the village champion, not just in studies, in the local ‘triathlon’ too. The triathlon involved: twice-digging the ground around coconut trees with a hoe (more the number of trees more the points); climbing the tree, plucking coconuts and de-husking with bare hands (one caught the coconut by the top and brought its bottom hard on the ground to make the husk come apart); and finally carrying the load of husk to the backwater, swimming across with it to the finishing line.
My main problem then was that I was a virgin in love, and Peepee the self-proclaimed ladies’ man was giving me hell. I met Shailaja at a temple utsavam (festival) in a nearby village. Her family was in Madhevan Master’s class and I dreamt of being good enough for her. She was a year or two junior to me, gorgeous, her bewitching flirtatious eyes had me drooling. Peepee introduced me to her. She said, “You don’t have to introduce him, who doesn’t know the champion.” I treated her, and Peepee, to Rasna and cake. That cost me two rupees, the money for the bus back home. Peepee lost his at a street-gambler’s stall. We walked home that night. During the fireworks at the temple, I stood behind Shailaja. More than once, our legs and hands touched. I held her waist. I felt her derriere. She did not move away. She had a naughty smile. I could have walked all night. I cannot share that with CK, never even bragged to Peepee. It is possible they knew more about my life than I did.
Life went in a blur. CK might expand on this part. The recruitment agent sent me to Singapore, with the praise, “best for your high skills”. Till date, I have not figured out if I was legally or illegally employed there. I was in food services, then sanitation and finally construction; lived in a cramped dormitory with forty, the unseen underbelly of a glittering city. It was my ‘high skills’ that got me into trouble. My colleagues there got to know that I know English. They had no clue about the documents and contracts they signed, not even the blank payslips which must have been fudged by the contractors. They were not interested in workers’ rights or in raising a complaint. They were just curious. I explained the documents they were signing. That led to a bit of unrest. The government rounded up all the workers with illegal permits. I was labelled as the ‘chief instigator’. I got fifty lashes of the rattan. On the flight out of Singapore, I was seated next to a fourteen-year-old boy from Kerala. He had gone on a tourist visa to while away his two-month school vacation with family friends. Two weeks into his vacation, he had been told to leave the country within two days, with the rest of us illegal migrants. He did not blame me for that spoiled vacation. He was more worried about what he would do in Madras if no one turned up to receive him. He stuck by me till he saw a friend waiting for him at Madras airport. Unlike him, I could not go home. For months, I stayed in Madras and Bombay, did odd-jobs, acquaintances from my Singapore days gave me space to sleep. My agent was not the worst sort. He finally got me a job in the Gulf, in construction. By then, I had been away from home for twenty months, and my saving was zero. I went to Gulf swearing that I would speak any language but English. The conditions there were worse than that in Singapore but I managed to save and send money home, and after three years I got leave to go home. I was about twenty five.
My family had shifted from the hut to a small house on a small plot. My two younger sisters had got married, each with fifteen sovereigns of gold and twenty thousand rupees. One younger brother was a driver, another in politics.
I got married to Shailaja during that break. Peepee played the broker’s role. Her family, to my surprise, was happy with my proposal. My parents did not say anything for or against it. They must have thought I decided everything in the house. Madhevan Master was against the alliance. That was the only time I defied him. I returned to Gulf after the three-month stay. My first child was born about nine months after the wedding.
English once again changed the course of my life. I worked for a company with interests in construction, real estate development, gold, shops, entertainment business, well, a whole lot of stuff. The workers rarely saw the rich sheikhs or even the next level of managers. Our life revolved around overseers, engineers and labour contractors. Big foreign companies got interested in the company. There were rumours of big bankers from America doing backroom deals in gold like how we bought pirated stuff in the bazaar. One day, the sheikhs and the top managers gave some Americans a guided tour of the construction site. It was a huge residential and commercial project on reclaimed land, an artificial oasis possible only with billions of money and thousands of cheap migrants. The pyramids were built the same way. The tour was stage-managed well and even the workers looked good that day. Two days later, the Americans turned up for a surprise check, without the sheikh and his managers in tow. Even the engineers were not on site when they arrived. The security guards were too scared to stop them from roaming around. One of the Americans speculated about the costs, another who sounded like a technical expert surveyed the progress, the third was more interested in the human resources. They tried to get details from the overseer. They could have got more from a camel instead. I heard one say, “How do we trust this lot?” I looked around at my lot, the grimy faces on tired bodies with ingratiating smiles for the foreigners. I approached the foreigners and offered to get chairs and cool drinks for them. They politely declined the offer and ignored me. I focused on my work. It was like fishing in the backwaters back home. One finally bit the bait. He moved towards me and enquired about the workers. Another quizzed about the work culture. I gave a good sales pitch. I did not talk about how we lived. I told them about our good work, the speed with which the project was proceeding, even gave a glowing report about the overseers, engineers and other experts. The overseer kept staring at me. I do not know how the Americans took it. I do not think it changed any of their decisions. Two months later, I was shifted from the construction site. I worked in shops and sales, the pay almost the same, with as much backbreaking work in the sun. It was not a rags-to-riches story, CK might say it differently. I met some of the top-level guys. One of the owners, a middle-aged sheikh, was fond of me and took me to Eastern Europe on his frequent trips there. I learned Arabic and German. He had a mansion and a wife there, and lots of business concerns. On the first trip itself, he warned me not to fool around with girls. I told him I was married with a kid. Does that help, he wondered aloud with a smile.
When my first child was about three, I got a call from Madhevan Master. My father must have been standing next to him. Master told me to return home urgently. I did not ask why. International calls were exorbitant. My boss sanctioned a two-month leave. Shailaja was three months pregnant. She was still with my parents. Her brother was there when I got home. In front of me, in the living room of my parents’ small house, he thrashed Shailaja, slapped her face, hit her back and arms, and at the same time begged me to forgive his family for giving me such a wife. I asked him, and my parents, to give me some time with Shailaja. I took her to our bedroom, closed the door. I heard my mother say, “Monay (son), don’t do anything.” Shailaja stood in front of me, wide-eyed, looking miserable. She reminded me of the day I became Chenda. I must have looked like her.
I did not know what to do. We stood staring at each other for a long while.
“Do you still want to be my wife?” I asked her.
“I have always been your wife,” she said, “only yours.”  
What could I say to that? That was true. She took care of the house, the kid, my parents and the money. She took care of me when I was around. I should not have left her alone for so long. She held back her tears till I held her.
That leave was tough. Even Madhevan Master found it difficult to talk to me. Peepee admitted that the whole village knew I had been cuckolded.
“I swear, I didn’t know about the first one,” he said. CK might know about all this.
For the first time, I felt relief when that leave got over. I do not know if the news reached the Gulf. Just as in the village, no one asked, no one poked. The situation would have been a lot different if I had been jobless. I had lots of friends, lost quite a few too. People borrowed money, some returned. I focused on my work and made my subordinates work as much. I did not hunger for promotion or recognition and never challenged my bosses. When the market went bust, I survived. CK might be interested in that. My pay was cut. It was a miserable time. I had to decide the fate of some friends. One had a heart attack, another committed suicide with family. We were crops grown in the harshest sun, on the worst soil. Business recovered, pay increased. I got more of office work. I could go home for couple of weeks every year. I was there when my third child was born.
At the hospital, soon after delivery, the head nurse took me inside to be with the mother and baby.
I stared at Shailaja, she looked tired but those naughty eyes looked at me and then the baby. She blurted out, “This little monkey is definitely yours.”
What could I do other than laugh and hug the mother and child? I went out and hugged my two older kids and my parents too.
My relationship with Madhevan Master remained more or less the same through the years. Master and his wife Lakshmiamma never got along with Shailaja. I used to take my wife and kids when I went to visit Master. I remember one visit when my eldest was about six. He refused to go near Master and started bawling when Master approached him to give a five-rupee coin.
Lakshmiamma commented, “He must have heard about the beatings his father got.”
Master did not say anything. He returned to his armchair. I found the five-rupee coin where my kid had dropped it and kept it for myself. When we were kids, Master gave each kid a one-rupee coin on the day of the Onam feast. When I did well in the school-leaving exams, he gave me a two-rupee coin and a pen. I lost that pen when I had to leave Singapore in a hurry but I still have all the coins.
During that visit, there was another awkward incident. Master’s wife wanted to give us a jackfruit. I stripped to my undershorts, climbed a tree and brought down a few jackfruits in a jiffy. My kids were rather thrilled to see me climb. Master and Lakshmiamma looked terribly embarrassed when Shailaja expressed her displeasure with a fat face. Shailaja did not allow me to touch her for a few days. That was the last time I took my wife and kids to Master’s house.
Whenever I go there, I carry some gifts for them. I also carry a towel, shorts, kayli (sarong) and t-shirt in a bag. That is for outside work. I also help Lakshmiamma in the kitchen, polish old brass items. I have lunch with them. Master asks about my work and current affairs. Lakshmiamma always laughs at the way I sit next to him like a nervous schoolboy.
Their kids have shifted to the city. The old couple still does as much as they can on their land. On one visit, my eldest must have been in high school then, I found banana samplings stored in the outhouse. Grass had grown wild on the land. Master told me that the workers had been playing truant, even after being offered good pay and a daily quota of liquor. I changed into my work-clothes, went to the field with a hoe and a bottle of water. I had put on weight in those years in air-conditioned offices. I was surprised when I sweated profusely and my chest pounded wildly. I felt light in the head. Phlegm filled my airways. I coughed and spat. It took an hour of that to get into the old rhythm; bent a little at the waist, the hoe falling on its own weight, a pull, over and over. I tilled the land, it started to look like how it was when my father and I used to work in those fields, I planted the samplings, caressed the old trees, I could have cried and spoken to them. My father used to work even when he was sick. He spat blood once. It is tough to be a romantic on such soil. I heard my father say, not to me, of the plants and the crops, “These kids, fickle and stubborn, they can disappoint or give you good cheer, the careless seed gives more at times.” I never really understood that.
We worked all day. Master helped me plant and spread manure. Lakshmiamma brought porridge water for us. They stayed close, doing whatever they could.  We had a worker’s lunch of rice, fish curry and vegetables out in the field. They did not take their customary siesta. We rested for a while and got back to work. By half past five, it was done. I had a quick bath, poured pails of water over me at the well, dressed. Lakshmiamma brought tea and vayanaela appam (a sweet made of jaggery and flour steamed in a leaf wrapping). I sat on the steps near the front door. Master smoked a beedi. He offered me one. That was a first. I saved it for later.
“Do you remember Heaney’s ‘Digging’?” he asked. I nodded. “Recite it,” he said.
All those years in the desert heat, burning and sweating, mumbling words to myself and the memory of a boy reciting poetry to an old woman helped me stay alive. My colleagues said I was being lordly. I recited ‘Digging’. Master leaned back in his armchair. Lakshmiamma sat on the chair next to him.
When I finished, he said, “I like your take, sounds like the father’s reading the son’s poem.”
I did not tell him that his mother had once remarked that I recited ‘Lochinvar’ from the viewpoint of the bridegroom.
That day, on the way back home, I stopped at Peepee’s place for a quick peg and to finish off Master’s beedi. I got home around half past seven. The kids were bemused by my tired but jubilant self. Shailaja was in the kitchen. She curled her nose, “You stink of sweat, beedi and liquor. Go and shower before dinner.” I nodded with a stupid smile. She said, “Once a chenda always a chenda.”
I wonder if CK would have written about all that from my viewpoint.
On my most recent visit, Master asked me to accompany him to his eldest daughter’s house in the city for some function. Lakshmiamma had already gone the previous day. His eldest daughter was married to a senior bureaucrat, the second to a doctor in the US, the sons too were abroad. It was the eldest daughter Saraswathi who got me the beating of my life long back. I drove Master’s car. We got there around eleven. Master held on to me till the front door but I managed to slink away. I went by the side of the house to the back. A maid was washing utensils. Another was cooking. Lakshmiamma was supervising. She saw me and smiled. I asked her if I could help. She told me to go to the front and sit like a good boy. Saraswathi came into the kitchen and shooed her mother off to meet the guests. Lakshmiamma went reluctantly. Saraswathi saw me and said, “Ah Chankunni, God sent you at the right moment. We are short of coconuts.” I removed my shirt and changed into my work clothes. I de-husked and grated coconuts, and cleaned a few lamps. I took over the washing of vessels. Around half past two, the maids and I sat down to eat. I sat near the back door, the steel plate on the floor. I was tired and hungry. I had had only coffee and a few biscuits at home that morning. I leaned forward to eat.
“Shanku!” Master shouted at me.
Master stared at me angrily, at my seating place and the plate on the floor. He kicked my plate of food. I stood up.
Lakshmiamma came to the kitchen. She pleaded softly to Master to calm down, told him that the guests should not hear.
“Did you serve him there?” Master asked his wife.
“I was with you in front,” she said apologetically.
Master turned to me and said, “Get ready. I want to go home.” His wife tried to stop him but he had made up his mind.
We did not go straight home. He told me to drive to the beach. It was hot there, even with the promise of rain in the air. Master bought two packets of groundnuts. I had thought of going to a restaurant, I was famished, but if Master insisted on paying for my meal, it would not have seemed right. I did not want to see Master hand out anything more than his two- and five-rupee coins, not that I thought he had only that. We sat in the car, stared at the sea. His right hand rested on my shoulder. His fingers played a beat on my muscles.
“Ado, Chenda!”
He said it softly, with a laugh rumbling deep within. I laughed. Till then, I had not known he knew that nickname. Later that night, lying next to Shailaja, my hands on her derriere, I laughed again.

I guess CK would have written about my poverty, my struggles and all the ups and downs. But how does one write about the madness of working or the feel of those drumming fingers or that of my wife’s derriere?