Star Crossed Lovers

Nannu and Kuttapan were the owners of the only two shops at the Neyyarinkara Railway Station. The station had two platforms. Platform one had the office of the station master. The entrance to the railway station and the ticket counter was right next to the station masters office. Platform two was just a long stretch of concrete with a roof.

Nannu ’s business establishment had started as a tea shop. Over the years he started stocking sweets and snacks. With the change in the climate and the frequent droughts, he started storing bottles of mineral water. He stored them in a small cooler which was his pride and joy. The cooler had cost him a small fortune and also took up a quarter of the space in his shop. The investment paid off with the increase in business. Customers were always ready to pay a little extra for the ice creams and cola-bottles that he stocked in his cooler.

Kuttapan ’s shop was adjacent to Nannu’ s. Kuttapan stocked newspapers and magazines in his shop. He was a young man and unlike other men in the village was educated.   His marks in his tenth board exams were good and could have got him into one of the better colleges. The only problem was Kuttapan did not want to continue his studies. He wanted to start a business. He argued with his parents. Kuttapan ’s point was that he did not see any merit in continuing his studies with little or no guarantee of a job in the future.  Disregarding the objections of his parents he decided to set up his business. His parents never forgave him for that and cut of relations with their son. He started distributing newspapers in the village. He did that by walking door to door. From that he progressed to a small stall near the bus stand. A year later he rented the shop on the railway platform.  He employed a boy whom he gave charge of the newspaper stand at the bus stop. Business was good as there was no competition.    He and Nannu did not get along well.  It was not business rivalry as they dealt in different commodities. It was something more than that.  Nannu was Kuttapan ’s father.

For the villagers it was a funny state of affairs having a father and son as owners of adjacent shops but not on speaking terms. Nannu ‘s wife Kuttapan ’s mother agreed with her husband’s stand and had stopped talking to her son.  The parents had great dreams for their son. They had wanted him to study and eventually try for a government job. The boy had inherited his stubbornness from both his parents. Now in his mid-twenties Kuttapan was living on his own and enjoyed the freedom it gave him.

“Nannu bring two glasses of tea and some sweet buns to the Station Master’s office,” said Nagappan, the licensed porter at the station.

He was Station Master Kalidasan ’s right hand. Every morning he would have a cup of tea with the station master while reading the morning newspaper. They would discuss world and local news while dipping the sweet buns in the hot cup of tea. There was a scientific principle behind the dipping of the sweet buns in hot tea. Dip it in for too long and it would turn soggy and fall into the tea. Dip it for a very short time and then it would not soak enough of the tea. The art was to get the dip-time just right. Both the Station Master and the porter had mastered the art of the dipping. They practiced it every day.

“Ask Kuttapan to bring the morning newspaper,” said the station master as Nannu the tea vendor, put the two cups and the plate of sweet buns on his table.

Nannu did not answer. As he went out of the station master’s cabin, Kuttapan the newspaper vendor stepped in. He was waiting for his father to come out of the room. He did not want to be in the same room as him.

“This morning’s paper, saar!” said Kuttapan, “I have still not received last month’s payment. Just wanted to remind you, the total was about two hundred rupees. I included the magazines and children’s books you took for that official’s visit.”

The previous month a government official and his family had come to the station. They had picked up some magazines and comics from Kuttapan ’s shop. The bills were yet to be settled.

“Yes, yes I know. I have sent a request to my boss to sanction the funds,” said the Station Master.

“It is two hundred rupees! For that you need to send a request?” said Kuttapan.

The station master detected the tone of sarcasm and cringed.

“Yes! Even if it is a rupee I have to apply to my boss for permission to spend it.”

“No wonder nothing happens in the Government!” said Kuttapan in a low tone as he walked out of the office.

“What? What did you say?”

“Nothing Saar! I was saying that it would be great if I got it by the end of this week. I need to pay the vendors.”

“Arrogant kid,” said the station master.

“Kid! He is about twenty-five!” said Nagappan.

“Does not know how to talk to elders.”

 

Kuttapan made his way towards his shop. As he came close he saw a young woman standing there. He smiled and the girl smiled back. Nannu, Kuttapan ’s father and owner of the tea shop, could not help peep from his shop. He noticed that the girl was wearing a scarf which covered her hair and just showed her face.

“It is seven and you have still not opened your shop?” said the girl.

“I reached late. Had an accident in my kitchen this morning.” Replied Kuttapan as he opened the shutters of his shop.

“What accident?”

“Well…I was making tea. The water was boiling and I was about to pour in the milk when Shanku jumped.”

“Who is Shanku?” the girl said.

“My cat.”

“You have named your one-eyed cat Shanku?”

Kuttapan nodded, “He reminds me of a friend from school who was a good football player.”

“I do not remember any one-eyed football players in our school?”

“He joined after you had left. He was not one eyed. It was just that most of the times when he kicked he would miss the ball and fall. It was funny to watch him play.”

“I thought you said he was a good football player.”

“Yes, he was good as a source of entertainment. We always had a good laugh when he was playing. My cat is like that. Always bumping into things. Even when he can see it with his good eye he bumps into it.”

The girl laughed and Kuttapan joined her. On the empty platform the sound carried in both directions. From the station master’s cabin Nagappan the porter who was just finished his tea, poked his head out.

“Saar! Did I not tell you that there is something going on between Kuttapan and that Muslim girl!”

“What Muslim girl?” said Station Master Kalidasan looking up from the newspaper he was reading.

“That girl, Saar!”

Now Kalidasan poked his head to look.

“Who is that girl?” said Kalidasan.

“That is Nadira, Najeeb the butcher’s daughter. She studies in a college in the city. Every day she travels by the seven thirty train to Trivandrum. In the evening she returns by bus. She is a final year B. Com student at the Women College in Trivandrum.”

“Naga, how do you know so much about that girl?”

Nagappan had to answer quickly to clear his reputation.

“Sir, I see her standing near Kuttapan ’s stall every day, talking and smiling.  I thought of doing a quick ‘background check’ on her.”

“What are you two doing?”  a voice from behind made both the men stand up straight.

It was Dr. Shivaraman, a retired professor who was staying in the village with his daughter. His daughter was a teacher in the village school.

“What are you two government official doing peeping out of your office?  Are you not supposed to be doing your work?”

“Good morning, Doctor,” said Nagappan. He was the first to recover. Kalidasan sprinted to his table and sat down.

“I want a ticket to Trivandrum,” said the Doctor, “You did not tell me what was so interesting, that both of you had to set aside your office work and peep out of the office.”

“We were just discussing if there is something going on between Kuttapan and Nadira, Najeeb’s daughter,” said Nagappan.

“Najeeb the butcher?” said Dr. Shivaraman.

“Yes, Doctor. Her train is at seven thirty but she reaches the station at six thirty and stands near Kuttapan ’s newspaper-stand and they talk the whole time.”              “Is it against the law to talk? I was not aware that there was a rule against talking on a railway platform.”

Both Kalidasan and Nagappan understood what the Doctor was trying to convey.

“You are right doctor it is none of our business,” said the station master, “here’s your ticket.”

The Doctor pocketed the ticket and walked up to platform.

“Do you know what you son is up to these days?” said Nannu, the minute he reached home that day. Seeing the blank look on his wife Janaki’s face he continued, “He is in love.”

“What?” said Janaki.

“Yes. He is playing the role of Majnu in real life.”

“Manjan who?”

“Majnu. Laila-Majnu. Woman did you not go to school. Have you not read the story of Laila-Majnu the star-crossed lovers?”

“I went to school, but we were not taught romantic stories. What has that story got to do with our boy?”

“That son of your ’s is in love.”

“If I am not wrong you were also responsible for his birth. Who told you about this ‘love’ thing.”

“I see it every day. Right in front of my eyes.”

“What do you see every day? Stop speaking in riddles and tell me what is happening.”

“Well there is a girl. A Muslim girl, who come to his shop at six in the morning. She stands there and talks to him till the seven thirty train arrives.”

“What happens when the seven thirty train arrives?”

“She leaves for Trivandrum on that train.”

“She comes from Trivandrum to talk to him?”

“No! Are you even listening?” said Nannu, “She is from this village. She gets on that train and leaves. She does not come on that train.”

The next morning Kuttapan was talking to Nadira when he saw someone familiar climbing the stairs to the railway platform. It was his mother. Kuttapan had not seen his mother in months. She looked older and weaker. She had a folding umbrella tucked under one arm. From a distance Janaki could see the young woman standing near her son’s shop.

“That is your mother, isn’t she?” said Nadira.

Kuttapan nodded. He had never seen his mother come to the railway station. He wondered what had happened to trigger the visit. Nadira knew a little bit about the history between mother and son and moved away from the shop.

Janaki ignored her son all together and went up to her husband’s shop.

“Is that the woman?” said Janaki.

“Yes. That is the woman.”

Janaki walked up to Nadira who had now standing with the crowd waiting for the train.

“Are you from this village?” said Janaki.

“Yes. Aunty,” said Nadira.

“Did I say you could call me Aunty?”

“No. I just call all elders Aunty.”

“You did not tell me if you are from this village.”

“I am Najeeb Mohammad’s daughter. He has a shop near the mosque.”

“Najeeb the butcher?” said Janaki, she had meant the butcher to come out like a slur. It did come out as she had intended it to. Nadira nodded her head. She found it strange that people who had no problems eating non-vegetarian food considered the butcher’s profession as inferior to other job’s.

“Yes, Najeeb the butcher,” said Nadira stressing on the butcher.

“What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for the train, like everybody else.”

“Why?”

“Why does anyone wait for a train? To travel. I study in a college in Trivandrum.”

“What are you studying for?”

“I am doing my B. Com from Women’s college.”

“What com?”

The train had arrived at the station and people were slowly walking towards the coaches. Nadira started walking towards the nearest door.

“Are you coming aunty?”

“Keep away from my son,” said Janaki.

In the commotion on the platform Nadira did not hear that. All that she saw was that Kuttapan ’s mother was not getting on the train. She found that surprising.

 

“Nannu I hope you are aware that the girl who stands near your son’s shop and talks for hours with him, is a Muslim?” said Nagappan.

Nannu had come in with the usual two cups of tea and the sweet buns.

“What girl?” Nannu replied feigning innocence.

“The one who can be seen talking to him every morning.”

Nannu did not reply.

“Look Nannu. I know this is none of my business but you should be aware of the consequences. You son is a Hindu and that girl is a Muslim. If the villagers get a whiff of this, they will descend on this platform and set it on fire.  You should advise you son to stop this nonsense.”

“I know, Saar, but the boy does not listen to me.”

“You are his father,” said Nagappan, “You should make him listen.”

Nannu went back towards his shop. He could see Nadira standing near the shop. For a minute he contemplated going up to them and giving them a piece of his mind. Then he remembered the last time he had tried it with his son.  It had been some other problem then. Kuttapan had not held back and had shouted back at his father. There was a sizable crowd which had gathered for the train. The last thing Nannu wanted, was to create a scene.

“I will ask him mother to talk to him.”

 

The office of the Hindu Samajam was next to the temple in Neyyarinkara. It was not a part of the temple but the office bearers considered themselves as the torch bearers of the religion.

“We need to call a meeting!” said Sunil. He was the local secretary and he was addressing the local area committee president Anil.

“For what?” said Anil.

“There is a problem that has come up. There is this newspaper vendor at the railway station, Kuttapan who is love with a Muslim girl.”

“Kuttapan? That tea seller’s son?”

“Yes. Do you know him?”

“Know him? He was my class mate. He was the smartest boy in our class. He always scored the highest in math’s and science subjects.”

“I am not sure about him being the brightest. If he had any brains he would not have gone and fallen in love with a Muslim girl.”

“Are you sure about this? The Kuttapan I knew, that tea seller’s son was a very practical no-nonsense type of boy.”

“I have got this information confirmed through a number of our party members. Every day they can be found talking at the railways station for hours.”

“Hmmm. The last thing we want in this village is a Hindu boy converting to Islam.”

“We will not let that happen as long as we are alive.”

 

On the other side of the village, the office of the Muslim Youth Majlis was also in session. Abdul the convener of the forum was in discussion with Sajid his youth wing leader.

“Is this true -this story about Nadira?” said Abdul.

“Yes. It is confirmed. I have seen this myself.”

“Is she out of her mind. Are all the Muslim boys in this village dead that she goes and falls in love with a Hindu boy!”

“I was wondering the same thing! We need to go and talk to Najeeb. He has to control his daughter.”

“That will be of no use. He will not listen to us. Remember what happened when we went to his shop the last time.”

Abdul thought for a moment. It was the annual fund collection drive for their Majlis. Abdul along with five of his associated, all dressed in their Sunday best and carrying receipt books were going door to door in the village. They had targeted the Muslim shopkeepers and household only. There was no point in going to the Hindu households. The Hindu Samajam members also never came to the Muslim areas to collect funds. That day, Abdul and his group had reached Najeeb’s shop while he was cleaning his chopping knife.

“Assalamualaikum Uncle,” said Abdul.

“Waalaikumsalam….” The response from Najeeb came automatically.

He knew Abdul and his friends well.

“What brings you boys to my shop today?”

“Uncle we have come to collect funds for the Majlis,” said Abdul.

Najeeb did not answer. He continued sharping the blade

“Uncle, how much should I put in as your contribution? Will be a hundred or five hundred?”

“Write zero,” Najeeb said.

“Uncle it is for the Majlis’ activities. We help poor people, children and women in this area with these funds?”

“Really do you now? Then how about helping me. I am poor. I need money for my children’s education. I will also like to get some funds to repair my house. It has started to leak in some places!”

“Uncle, are you making fun of us?”

“It is you boys who are making fun of the villagers. Why don’t you earn something and donate your money for your majlis and its activities?  You will never do that, will you?  Instead all that you want to do is to run around with these receipt books.”                By now he had finished sharpening the blade and looked ready for business.

Abdul remembered the last meeting with Najeeb quite clearly. He did not want to repeat that experience.

“Lets us go and talk to our leaders,” he said.

 

“That girl is standing there talking to him,” said Nagappan, “It is like clockwork. Every morning she is there.”

Nagappan was standing outside the station masters office.

“I hope I am transferred from this station before anything bad happens,” said the station master.

“But Sir! You told me that this is your last posting before retirement.”

“That is true. I do not want to be in the middle of a riot. I want to spend the rest of my life living comfortably off a government pension. I do not want to die in a silly riot in this village of all places.”

 

The office of the Hindu Samajam was packed to capacity. All leaders big and small had gathered. Those who had already occupied the few available seats held on to them for fear that the others might grab them. Some members who were wiser were sitting on the ground.

“This problem has to be resolved. We cannot let a Hindu boy marry a Muslim girl. Next, he will want to convert to Islam.  Then we will have more Hindu men and women wanting to convert. That cannot be allowed. I will not allow that to happen as long as I am alive,” thundered Anil the leader of the Hindu Samajam. The office of the Muslim Majlis was seeing similar activity. The leaders there fretted and fumed and instructed their members to be prepared for any eventuality.

 

Inspector Gopalan was preparing the weekly crime report summary for the Circle Inspector when constable Dhanapalan burst into the office. Inspector Gopalan hated it when his staff members disturbed him. He looked up and glared at Dhanapalan.

“Have you forgotten your manners?” said Gopalan, “Have I not instructed everyone that they should knock before entering my office?”

“Sir! we have a problem. There is a chance of riots breaking out here.” Said Dhanapalan, in his haste forgetting to salute the inspector.

“What riots?”

“Riots sir. Between Hindus and Muslims.”

“Where?”

“Here Sir! In Neyyarinkara.”

“What?”

Gopalan had always been a bit slow at grasping the crux of important matters. You had to explain things slowly to him. Which may have been the reason why all his batch mates were now his senior officers.

“Sir! there is a chance of rioting here. There is a rumor going around the village that a Hindu boy is preparing to elope with a Muslim girl. Both groups will come to blows if that happens.”

“Is this news confirmed?”

“Sir the part about both the groups preparing to hit back – that part is confirmed.”

“Who are the leaders of the groups?” said Inspector Gopalan.

The gravity of the situation, finally registered on him. He picked up the phone and dialed his boss the Circle Inspector. Two hours later two trucks packed with policemen in full riot gear stopped outside the Neyyarinkara Police Station. Gopalan called up the Neyyarinkara Village School Principal.

 

“Let me summarize what you asked. You are asking me if fifty policemen can set up tents in a corner of the school playground?” the principal said.

“Yes,” Inspector Gopalan said.

“Why?” said the Principal.

“I cannot tell the details at this point of time. It is very important that you support me on this matter. I can have the Circle Inspector call you up and make this demand.”

The principal thought for a moment.

“As long as they do not create a problem for my students, I do not have any issues.”

That night the tents came up and the riot police set up a temporary headquarter near the football goal post.

 

The next morning Inspector Gopalan looked at the line-up of his constables and began assigning tasks to them.

“You there, I want you to go to the office of the Majlis and get the names of their leaders.  Also ask their leader to come and meet me today at ten a.m. sharp.”

“You go to the Hindu Samajam! Do the same. I want their leader here by 10 a.m.”

After the two had saluted and left he called Dhanapalan, his special branch man.

“Find out what kind of weapons have been collected by each group. Be careful, this could be dangerous.”

Gopalan then called up another constable and gave him a different set of instructions.

“I want you to fetch Kuttapan ’s parents.”

With his men dispatched in different directions, Inspector Gopalan called his boss and updated him on the progress.

“Let me know in case there is any trouble. I do not want this to escalate,” his boss’s voice came over the phone. I will inform the Superintendent of Police, who will inform the District Collector.”

 

By ten a.m. Inspector Gopalan’s office resembled the Neyyarinkara Fish market on a bad, rainy day. In one corner stood the bearded, skull cap wearing members of the Majlis and on the other side stood the Hindu Samajam members dressed in saffron. In between the two groups stood Nannu and Janaki, Kuttapan ’s parents. The area around the police station was cordoned off by the riot police.

 

“Start from the beginning,” said Inspector Gopalan, “When did this romance start?”

Nannu looked at Janaki and she looked at the impressive wall clock behind the inspector’s table.

“I am asking you a question?” said Gopalan. He was losing his temper.

“How do I know. I noticed this a few days back. That girl is always standing there talking to him.”

This comment incensed the Majlis members.

“She is being forced to come to the stall every day by that vendor,” said one of the Majlis members.

“How do you know this?” said the Inspector.

“Why would anyone in her senses come to a newspaper seller at six in the morning?”

“Does she come there at six in the morning?”

“More like seven,” said someone, “The platform is closed at six. The station master unlocks the gates around six thirty.”

“Then why did you say six?” said Gopalan trying to find who had provided that wrong information. He could not spot the person.

“That girl is after our boy,” said the Samajam members.

Nannu and Janaki nodded their head vigorously.

“How do you know that?”

“He is good looking and has a steady income. She is after him for the money,” said Janaki.

“Who said he is good looking?” said a majlis member, “Our Muslim boys look better.”

“Stop this nonsense and do not speak unless I ask you to,” said Inspector Gopalan, “Does anyone here know when this romance started?”

“They were in school together,” said Abdul, the Majlis leader.

“How do you know that?” said Inspector Gopalan.

“I was in the same class. We were all in the same class till the sixth standard and then Nadira moved to the Girls high school.”

“Were they friendly in those days?” said Gopalan. All the heads in the room turned towards Abdul eager to hear his answer.

“Not that I recollect. Kuttapan was a studious boy then. He had his head in his books at all times.” said Abdul.

“That is true Saar. My boy was a good student in school. This girl has spoilt his life,” Janaki pitched in.

“Let him speak for himself,” said the Inspector, “Who is Kuttapan?”

People turned and looked around. Then someone said, “He is not here Saar!”

 

Inspector Gopalan realized his mistake. He had missed calling some key members in the episode. He called one of the constables and asked him to fetch Kuttapan.

The crowd came out of the Inspector’s room and waited on the Police Station verandah. The Muslim’s on one side the Hindu’s on the other. The riot police surrounded the station. After a long half an hour Kuttapan arrived.

“Come here, let me see the hero of our story. So, you are the boy who has created all this problem,” said Gopalan as Kuttapan stepped into his office.

Kuttapan did not understand what was happening. Then he remembered.

“Saar! I have asked the Station master to pay me the money. I remind him every day. I will pay the vendors the two hundred rupees the minute I get it.”

“What two hundred rupees?” said Gopalan.

“The money I owe the newspaper vendor… for the magazines that were taken from my shop. You called me to discuss by when I would be paying that right?”

“No. Someone please explain to him why he is here,” said Gopalan. He could feel a throbbing sensation in a corner of his head. He began massaging his forehead with his finger-tips.

“We want to know about your love affair?” said one of the leaders from the Hindu side.

“Love affair? What love-affair?” said Kuttapan.

“The one with the Muslim girl,” another voice said.

“Which Muslim girl?”

“Nadira.” About ten voices from different corner of the room said this together.

“What about her?”

“Explain your love affair with Nadira,” said the Hindu leader again.

 

Kuttapan just stood there staring at the crowd of people. The conversation did not make any sense to him. The constable who had come to his book stall had been very rude and had warned him of dire consequences in case he did not come immediately.

 

“Are you in love with Nadira?” said Inspector Gopalan, finally decided to do the interrogation himself instead of letting the villagers do it for him.

“No. What nonsense! Why would I be in love with Nadira?” said Kuttapan.

The crowd started murmuring amongst themselves.

 

“Inspector Saar, apply your third-degree methods on him. The boy is lying,” this bit of advice came from none other than Janaki.

“You are his mother are you not? You want us to beat him? What kind of a mother are you?” said Gopalan. Janaki slid away from the room.

“I am not lying.   I know her from my school days.   Whenever she comes to the station she comes over to my shop and we talk. What is wrong with that?”

No one had an answer to that question. This was a twist in the story that was not expected.

“What about your plans to convert to Islam once you got married?” the Hindu leader fought back.

“Who spreads such silly rumors? I am an active member of the communist party and an atheist. Has anyone of you ever seen me in the temple?”

Those present there thought back. There seemed to be some truth in that statement.

“Call Nadira and we can prove this,” said someone from the Muslim side.

“She would be in college now,”

“Then get her father Najeeb here,” said someone from the crowd.

 

Again, the crowd settled down to wait for Najeeb to come. They sat down in the police station verandah where ever they found space. This time the lines between the two groups were not so distinct. Kuttapan sat by himself not aligning with either of the groups or his parents.

 

“Do you know this man?” said Inspector Gopalan to Najeeb.

“Yes Saar. He is Kuttapan. He runs a newspaper stall at the station.”

“Your daughter studies in a college in Trivandrum, does she not?”

“Yes Saar. Talking of Nadira, Last week, I finalized her marriage. It will be two months from now.   Since you have asked me to come here I thought I would bring you an invitation card as well. Please come even if for a few minutes and grace the occasion.”

“Who is she getting married to?” said Inspector Gopalan.

There was pin drop silence in the police station now.

“The boy works in Dubai in a construction company as a supervisor. He only has leave for three weeks and we have set up the marriage during that time. After the marriage, he and Nadira would fly to Dubai.”

“Has the marriage been fixed with your daughter’s approval?”

“Yes Saar! They know each other.    Saar you did not tell me why you asked me to come here.”

Inspector Gopalan did not have an immediate answer.  Nor did he have a reason to continue the questioning. Najeeb and Kuttapan were allowed to leave.

The crowd began to melt but Inspector Gopalan asked them to stay.

“So, who was the person who started this rumor?”

No one replied to the question.

“Because of you fools now I have a lot of explaining to do to my seniors. Clear out of the compound before I throw some of you into the lockup for spreading false rumors and disturbing the peace.”

Within minutes the police station was empty. An hour later the riot police, pulled out their tents, loaded them on the trucks and drove out of Neyyarinkara.

The next day morning as Nagappan finished his morning cup of tea in the Station Manager’s office he stepped out. He yawned. His last night’s sleep had not been proper. He had tossed and turned. Every time he tried closing his eyes he would see the face of Inspector Gopalan chasing him. As he looked at the two shops on the platform he saw something which stopped him in his tracks.

There was a young girl standing near Kuttapan ’s newspaper stall, talking and laughing. For a second, he thought it was Nadira, but then he looked carefully. It was not Nadira, it was someone else. The girl has a shiny cross around her neck which she was playing around with while speaking.

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Rags and Riches

The sleepy village of Neyyarinkara was shaken out of its stupor as the bogies of the Kanyakumari Express came to a grinding halt. Very few trains stopped at the station. The station was the pride and joy of Kalidasan Rajendran its Station Master.  He had put in thirty-five years of service in the Indian Railways. Rising from the lowest level possible in the organization, the posting as a station master was a dream come true for Kalidasan. He would have preferred one of the bigger, better equipped and important stations. With just one year of his service left, he got Neyyarinkara. He flagged the trains, issued the tickets and occasionally checked the tracks for damage. In this tiny railway station, he was lucky he was not expected to work as the porter too. Nagappan was the official porter at the station. He was also the un-official station master – in Kalidasan’ s absence.

Life was comparatively easy for the two as very few trains came their way. All this changed, one bright sunny morning. The station master and his assistant were aghastwhen they saw a group of men, women and children all attired in bright colored clothes, alighting on to the platform. The Kanyakumari Express was scheduled to halt for thirty seconds at Kalidasan’ s station.  The station had only two railway tracks. There was a delay in clearance from the next station and Station-Master Kalidasan could not let the express through. He was forced to halt the train for more than its scheduled thirty seconds. This extended halt gave the group an opportunity to jump off the train.

“Get back in! Get back in!” shouted Kalidasan as he saw his spotlessly clean platform filling up with a ragtag group of gypsies. No one in the group listened to him. Some of the woman were busy talking to each other while others yawned and stretched out their limbs. The men in the group began sorting huge bundles, which contained their belongings. The children in the group were busy racing each other down the length of the platform. The passengers in the other compartments, at least those who were awake, began craning their heads through the windows to see what all the noise was about.

The phone in the station master’s cabin began ringing. Kalidasan ran back to attend to it. Nagappan the porter stepped in for his boss. “Did you not hear what the station master just said?”

Kalidasan got the message that the line ahead was now clear. He came out and blew a whistle. This was a signal for passengers, that the train was about to leave.

“Get back on the train,” said Nagappan, “the train is about to leave.”

“We wanted to get down here?” said one of the women, showing a mouth full of betel-leaf stained teeth.

Nagappan could see the station master waving his green flag. The train driver blew his horn – a final warning for any passengers who had stepped out to get in and then released the brakes. The Kanyakumari Express started moving. One by one the compartments passed by. The passengers on it, those who were watching the commotion on the platform, had lost interest and were now looking ahead to their journey.

“Show me your tickets,” said Nagappan resigned to the fate that this group was now here to stay.

“Are you the boss here?” said one the women in the group.

“Saar is the Station-master,” said Nagappan, pointing at Kalidasan who was still waving the flag, “I am his assistant.”

He made it sound impressive and important.

“Are you married?” said one of the younger woman in the group, winking at him, licking her lips with her tongue.

Had Nagappan been fair skinned, people would have said he blushed. He quickly turned away from her. Something told him that she was trouble. Facing the men in the group he repeated his request.

“Ticket please?”

“I have a ticket.” One of the men in the group volunteered.

Nagappan reached for the stub the man held out. It was a ticket, but Nagappan was not sure for what. There was a message printed on it in some strange language. There was the number five and a rupee sign printed next to it. Nagappan turned it around and looked at it from all directions.

“What is this?” said Nagappan.

“Ticket,” said the man

“Ticket for what?”

“Bus ticket,” said the man.

Nagappan sighed.

“I want to see the ticket for the train journey.”

“Oh! The train tickets?” said the man.

“Yes! Show me the train ticket,” said Nagappan, “You got down from that train. You need to buy tickets to travel on a train.”

“No. We do not want to buy any train tickets. Thank you,” said the man refusing politely.

“I am not offering to sell you tickets!” said Nagappan, “You have to buy tickets, before you get on the train.”

Kalidasan, the station master saw that his un-official second in command was getting no-where in the discussions. He now stepped in.

“Do you know that travelling without a ticket on a train is an offence? You can be jailed for this!”

Kalidasan said it in a loud voice. He meant to cover the whole group in that tone.

“Do they still provide food three times a day in jail?” a man in the group asked his friend standing beside him.

“Yes, but they will make you work,” said another man in the group who had recently got out. “When I was there, I got to eat an egg once a week.”

“That is nice.” His friend replied.

“All of us cannot fit into one cell” someone in the group observed.

“They separate the men from the women,” said the recently released man.

“That must be boring,” said the young woman, the winker. She was still eyeing Nagappan and moving in.

“Saar, why do you not grow a moustache?” said the winker who had by now managed to get close to Nagappan without him noticing it, “You will look a lot better. Manlier!”

Nagappan jumped aside. He knew something had to be done about this lot before things got out of hand.

He went up to Kalidasan his boss and said, “Saar! We have to clear these people off the platform. The passengers for the Mumbai train will be arriving soon.”

Station Master Kalidasan said, “You are right. We will deal with them later.”

The two walked back to attend to the more important task at hand.

One of the few trains that stopped at the station was the Mumbai express. Twice a week, it ran from Kanyakumari and went all the way up to Mumbai. The next station after Neyyarinkara on the route was Trivandrum, which was the capital city for the state. The train came practically empty to Neyyarinkara. This was not the case at the next station. A large number of passenger would board from Trivandrum.  It was comparatively easy to book tickets and board in Neyyarinkara. This was the only reason people came to this tiny railway station.
The halt was for two minutes. In that brief period, the passengers had to find their compartments. This required running along the length of the train with the ticket in hand. The next step was to get in with all the luggage by pushing and shoving through a sea of other passengers.  Once in every member of the family was to be accounted for. Now luggage and family in tow, the walk down a narrow passage to find your seat started. All this while it was important to pray to God that no one else was occupying your seats! Thankfully, the Mumbai express only came to Neyyarinkara twice a week.

The train was scheduled to arrive at eleven thirty a.m. The train passengers started arriving by ten a.m. Mumbai was the commercial capital of the country. The city of opportunity and dreams – Mumbai attracted people like sweets attracted flies.

The Mumbai Express had air-conditioned, sleeper and general compartments. The difference between them besides the facilities was in the ticket price. This difference could also be seen in their passengers.  The AC compartment passengers wore costly clothes and dragged along designer luggage bags. The passengers of the sleeper classes came dressed more sensibly with their luggage packed in an assortment of bags, polythene covers and carry all’s. The general rule in India is that for every person travelling, five of his relative’s tag along to the railway station.

The Mumbai express was on time. Within the first minute itself most of the passengers had clambered aboard and found their seats. Kalidasan flagged off the train. He prided himself on his record of keeping trains on time. The teary-eyed relatives who had come to see off their loved ones departed. By eleven forty-five a.m. the main portion of the platform was again deserted.

The group of gypsies had gathered in a circle towards the end of the platform. The women were sitting and the men standing around them. The children were running around the group, chasing each other. The men looked at the facilities in the station. It had a strong and sturdy roof. There were water taps – which functioned and there were a lot of open space nearby. The discussed between themselves and quickly reached a decision. This was their new home.

“Saar! What do we do with these people?” said Nagappan.

“Not now, Naga! First let us have a cup of tea. Has Nannu opened his shop? Ask him to send in two cups of tea,” said Kalidasan, “and also some sweet buns.”

Nannu owned the only refreshment shop on the station. The other commercial enterprise on the platform was a newspaper stand. Nannu ’s son Kuttapan was the owner of this establishment. Father and son were not on talking terms.

“Two cups of tea and two sweet buns”, said Nagappan to Nannu, “bring it to the Station master’s cabin.”

As Nagappan walked back to the station masters cabin he saw the members of the group take out sheets and spreading them out on the platform.

“You cannot spread your things here.” Said Nagappan.

“This place is empty. We just need a little space,” said one of the men.

“No! you cannot live on a railway platform. This is government property,” said Nagappan.

“Where will we go Saar!” an old woman in the group said. Her face was full of wrinkles and she had gaps in her teeth.

“How do I know?” said Nagappan, “Go anywhere you want but you cannot stay on this platform.”

The members of the group began to grumble and discuss amongst themselves. After a few minutes they began picking up their things and started walking away from the platform. Nagappan was happy. He had made them move out. Eager to tell the station master about it he rushed back.

“I made them leave!” he said almost shouting the words out. Station master Kalidasan was sipping his tea and spilled some of it on his clean white trousers as he received this news.

“Let me see,” said the station master and went towards the door of his cabin and peeked out.

The news proved to be correct. The platform was again empty.

“Good work Naga! Now drink your tea before it gets cold.”

They drank tea occasionally dipping the sweet buns in it. They did this while reading the morning newspapers. This was their daily morning routine. The next train was a goods train that passed at twelve. Then there were no trains on the route for the rest of the day.

The weekend passed peacefully. Three trains of which two were goods passed each day through Neyyarinkara. The Kanyakumari Express came in at six a.m. The first goods train, India 10 passed at twelve and the second, India 33 passed at seven thirty p.m.  Kalidasan and Nagappan would reach the station half an hour before the scheduled time. Fifteen minutes after the last train for the day had passed and once they had received the message that it had reached the next station, they would leave locking the station doors.

Every day Nagappan came to the station on his bicycle. On his way he would pass by the house of Kalidasan. The station master would be waiting for him at the gates with his lunch box in one hand and the morning newspaper in the other. Nagappan would remove his tiffin box which was attached to the back seat and hand it to the station master. Kalidasan would take both the tiffin boxes, put them in a cloth bag, place the folded newspaper in the bag and climb on the seat behind Nagappan. Then Nagappan would cycle his boss to the office.

It was five thirty in the morning as the two railway employees arrived at the railway station. The black sky in the east was giving way to a reddish hue. The street lights were still on as they reached the station gates. Kalidasan jumped off the back of the cycle while Nagappan locked his cycle in the cycle stand.

“What is that?” said Kalidasan.

“What is what?”

“That,” said Kalidasan point in the darkness.

Nagappan looked in the direction. A couple of huts had come up on the open ground near the station.

“That was not there yesterday,” said Nagappan.

The two went up to check. As they neared they realized it was the same group that had landed at the station a few days back.

“Those people have come back. They are setting up a full-fledged colony here,” said Nagappan.

“What do you want?” a man’s voice called out from one of the huts.

“Why are you people still here?” said Kalidasan.

“This is not your railway station. This is open land. You cannot ask us to leave.” Said another voice in a tone of defiance. A few men came out. There was silence for a few minutes.

“Saar! I think they are right,” said Nagappan, “This land does not belong to the Railways. We cannot tell them to leave.”

Kalidasan nodded his head. The two walked back to the station. The Kanyakumari Express was due in ten minutes. Nagappan unlocked the station gates and they started their days work.

Days passed and the huts remained where they were. During the day the men would go through Neyyarinkara doing odd jobs in an effort to make some money. The women and children stayed behind. The group would fetch water from the taps on the platform. At first Nagappan thought of driving them away but then allowed them on humanitarian grounds. Months passed way.

Every year the rains came in June and that year was no different. The rain God worked over time and opened up his bounty on the village in the first week itself. It poured continuously. The fields turned into ponds and the rivulets into rivers. The Neyyar, the river which flowed through the village, overflowed and broke its banks.

One Tuesday morning Kalidasan was busy preparing his reports when the phone started ringing. It was the senior Station Master from Trivandrum. The airport at Trivandrum was flooded and flights had been cancelled. A senior government official who was scheduled to travel to Mumbai by air, and his family members were stuck in Neyyarinkara. The family would be travelling on the Mumbai Express. Kalidasan was tasked to make arrangements for them. He was asked to ensure that the family was not inconvenienced in any way.

Kalidasan put the report aside and ran out of his cabin. He called up Nagappan. As Nagappan came running the Station Master noticed the gypsies, huddled in a corner of the platform.

“What are they doing here?” said Kalidasan.

“It is the rain, Saar! Last night’s downpour has washed away their huts. They are waiting for the rain to stop.”

“What a time for them to them to come and occupy the platform!” said Kalidasan. He quickly summarized the message he had received. He added some instructions.

“Ask Nannu to keep a pot of tea ready. Also ask him to keep some good quality biscuits, snacks and bottles of water separately. Have him take out the cutlery and also wash it properly. It should be spotless. Naga, I want you to personally check everything. Ask Kuttapan the newspaper stand owner to keep some of the latest film magazines in my cabin. Borrow a sofa from the nearest furniture store. Tell them we would return it by twelve!”

The two went off in different directions. Nagappan went to get the cutlery, biscuits and the magazines. While Kalidasan went on to clear up the mess in his cabin. He arranged the tables, swept the floor and even wiped the windows!  By the time the arrangements were in place it was nine fifty a.m. and time for the regular passengers to arrive.

The V.I.P ’s arrived in a fleet of cars with a police escort.    The local police station had been alerted and the entire force was there blaring sirens clearing the way. As the cars came to a halt outside the station Kalidasan and Nagappan were present there to receive them. The official was accompanied by his wife and two children. Kalidasan in his enthusiasm offered the dignitary his hand to shake.

The official did not shake the hand instead he told Kalidasan, “Get the luggage.”

“Yes Sir!” said Kalidasan.

Nagappan stepped in to save his boss the indignity and went to collect the luggage. The family had a large number of suitcases and bags. The police constables in the escort party helped with the remaining pieces of the baggage.

Meanwhile, Kalidasan took them to his cabin and offered them the tea and biscuits.

“It is so stuffy in here!” said the official’s wife.

She was dressed in a silk sari and wore a sleeveless blouse. She was carrying a costly hand bag. The smell from her perfume filled up the station masters cabin. Kalidasan had never seen a woman in a sleeveless blouse before, nor for that matter had he ever seen someone carry a handbag in the village. He tried hard not to stare.

“Madam! Please take some magazines,” said Kalidasan.

“How many people are there in this office?” said the official as he looked around the tiny room now more cramped with a sofa placed on one side.

“There are only two people here Sir! I am the station master Kalidasan Rajendran.  We have a licensed porter at this station, Nagappan.

The official nodded his head. The toilet in his office was bigger than this cabin.

“What time does the train arrive?” said

“Sir! it comes in at eleven thirty a.m.” said Kalidasan. He had hardly completed his sentence when the phone rang. The train was on its way to Neyyarinkara.

“Sir! it would be reaching here in five minutes.”

Kalidasan expected the official to get up and start walking towards the platform. Instead he took up a magazine from the heap and began leafing through its pages. His wife had already started reading a movie magazine, while the children were helping themselves to the snacks on the table. Kalidasan bit his lips nervously. The train would be there in a minute.

“Sir I will have the luggage placed at the spot where the air-conditioned coaches would be stopping.” He said and rushed out of the cabin.

He ran out and instructed Nagappan to carry the luggage towards the spot where the compartments stopped. The police constables and even the inspector helped him. By the time they had set all the pieces of luggage down the train pulled in. Kalidasan looked back but the V.I.P family was nowhere in sight. He ran back to his cabin. The regular passengers had started running and scrambling in their efforts to get in.

“Sir! the train has arrived. Your luggage is in place,” said Kalidasan.

He could not ask this senior official to start walking towards the train. The official showed a total lack of concern. Minutes passed. It was time to flag off the train. Kalidasan started to sweat.

“Sir! I hope your stay here was comfortable!”

The official snorted. He got up and gestured at his wife who was absorbed in the magazine in her hand. Reluctantly she got up. She calmly collected the magazines and started walking towards the door.

“Come on children!” she said.

The children took a couple of packets of the snacks and the bottles of water and followed her. As the passengers on the train and those on the platform looked on, the official and his family members walked at a leisurely gait towards their compartment. Nagappan had by then placed all the luggage inside and was waiting for them along with the policemen. The police inspector saluted and the family got on the train. By the time Kalidasan had flagged off the Mumbai express, it was ten minutes late. It was the first time that a train had got delayed at his station.

“What is the total expense we incurred on this visit?” said Kalidasan.

“Five movie magazines, three children’s comics. Three packets of snacks were consumed. Five packets of snacks were taken. One packet of biscuits was opened and half consumed. One tea cup was dropped on the floor and has cracked. Three bottles of bottled drinking water were also taken. I will get the exact rates from Nannu and Kuttapan. My guess is, it will come to about five hundred rupees.”

Kalidasan shook his head in dismay, “I am not sure how I will show this expenditure.”

Half an hour later the phone rang again. As Kalidasan listen he felt dizzy. He collapsed at his chair.

“What happened Sir!” said Nagappan as he saw the look on the station managers face.

“The official’s wife’s hand bag is missing,” said Kalidasan, “Oh God! What will I do now?”

He had hardly finished the sentence when the police jeeps were back. Inspector Gopalan and his men rushed down and came into the cabin.

“The official’s wife clearly remembers that she had the bag with her when she left the cabin, so you do not need to worry, Kalidasan,” said the Inspector.

Kalidasan heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Then it must be somewhere on the platform.”

They all rushed out and began searching.

There was nothing on the platform. Then Inspector Gopalan saw the group of gypsies huddled in a corner.

“Were they here when the family arrived?” said Inspector Gopalan.

“Yes, they have been here since this morning. They live in huts across the station. Yesterday night’s rain washed away their huts.”

 

Gopalan signaled to his men and they swooped down on the group. Within minutes a police van came and the whole group was taken to the police station to be questioned.

“Saar! Do you think those people would have taken the hand bag? I was there near the luggage the whole time. They never came anywhere close to us. The policemen were also there with me.”

“I do not know Naga. I have no idea what happened.”

Later that night as the two were preparing to leave the phone began ringing. It was Inspector Gopalan. The bag was recovered. It was found between some bed sheets on the train. It had slipped from the official’s wife’s hand and she had panicked thinking it was lost. Gopalan said that he was letting the gypsies go. There was no need now to keep them in jail.

Kalidasan and Nagappan did not say anything as they went home that night.

The next morning as Kalidasan opened the ticket counter he saw a man from the gypsies group standing.

“Saar! Give me eight full and five half tickets for Kanyakumari.”

The man handed over the money for the tickets.

As Nagappan came in he saw the group walking towards the train. The woman the one who had winked at him, looked at him and said, “Saar, do not grow a moustache. You do not have the strength to carry it!”

 

As the train halted the men loaded their belongings.  One by one they all got in. No one turned to look at the place they were leaving. They knew they were not coming back.

“Saar, I got you some tea,” said Nagappan as he placed two cups on the table.

The two sat in the small cabin sipping tea. After some minutes of silence Nagappan said, “Saar! Do you think what happened was right? The gypsies did not steal anything and yet they were forced to leave this place. The official and his wife took away magazines and snacks worth hundreds and we end up paying for that from our pockets! It just does not make any sense.”

Kalidasan sighed.

“Naga, that is life. You still have a lot to learn. Now please can you open all the windows in this cabin. That perfume from yesterday’s visit is still floating around in this room. I want some clean air to come in.”

 

The life of a statue

The beggar jumped over the low wall of the park. There was no need to jump. The wall was hardly two feet tall and was crumbling in places. He looked around. The streets were empty. The villagers in Neyyarinkara went to sleep by nine. The hands of the big clock in the park said it was ten. The roads had to be empty. As he landed inside the park the beggar winced in pain. He had landed on the sharp edge of a stone. There were chunks of cement lying around and he had chosen one of them as his landing spot. He cursed softly and hobbled his way to the bench near the clock tower. It was time for bed. The bench in the park was his bed.

The bench was made of marble and elaborately carved. Behind it was a statue, a bust of an old man. The statue was more than fifty years old. No on in the village knew whose statue it was, not that they cared. Below the bust of the old man was a cavity in the cement pillar. In the cavity was an old radio. It was an old radio with diode valves and round dials. There was a steel grill to protect the radio, from natural and human elements. Every evening the village electrician, Thangappan would unlock the grill, switch on the radio and then again lock the grill. There was only one channel on the radio. It always played a government news channel. Like clockwork, everyday Thangappan would switch it on at six p.m. and turn it off at nine p.m.

During the day, college student who bunked classes would sit in the shade of the trees in the park. In the evening young couples brought their children and watched as they ran around and played. Later the older men from the village would take over. They would come in a group, sat in a corner and listen to the news on the radio. At nine p.m. sharp, Thangappan would switch off the radio and close the grill. The last occupants of the park would walk home by nine thirty. Around ten the beggar would come, spread his dirty rag on the bench and settle down for the night. He liked to sleep on the bench. Somehow, he felt that statue behind him was protecting him and keeping him safe. Not that he had anything valuable with him.
“Who is that old man?” said Nalinakshan, he was a student of political science at the nearby government college.
“Which old man?” said Prakash his friend and class-mate.

Both of them would come daily to college. After reaching college, they would meet their friends and catch on the latest gossip. By the time classes started they would slip out. Usually they went to the local movie theatre. Today they were whiling away their time at the park.
“That old man,” said Nalinakshan pointing at the bust.
“From here he looks like your father!” said Prakash.

He got punched for that answer. Both friends laughed at the joke.

“No seriously. I think he looks familiar.”

“What do you mean he looks familiar?”

“I think his photograph is there in our political thought book,” said Nalinakshan.

“I have not opened that book, so cannot comment.”

“Go home and check it out. I bet he is the same person. I do not remember his name but he was a leader of some tribal group.”

“His name would be there on the plaque under the bust.”

They went over to check but there was no plaque there.

“I bet you five rupees that this is the person in our book.”

“Ok, I accept the bet.”

That evening Prakash realized he had lost the bet. The statue was indeed of the man whose photograph was in their books.

The next day the two friends met in college.

“I have brought the book as proof,” said Nalinakshan.

“No, it is not required. I saw that photo at home yesterday. It is the same old clown.”

“Watch out Manickam Sir is coming!” said Prakash, whispering.

The two tried to sneak away. Manickam was their Political Thought lecturer.

“Where are you two going? I have not seen you in my class for almost a month.”

“Sir! We were just coming to meet you. We had a doubt?” said Prakash.

“A doubt? What doubt?” said Manickam.

He was pleased his students were asking him doubts. It rarely happened.

Prakash grabbed the book from Nalinakshan ’s hand and opened it to the page which had the old man’s photo.

“Sir! we found this man’s statue in the Municipal Park in Neyyarinkara. We did not know he was a local.”

Nalinakshan smiled. He wanted to burst out laughing but this was not the right time to laugh. The question was something which Prakash had come up with on the spur of the moment. Prakash was smart that way.

Manickam looked at the photo and then at the boys.

“You say this man’s statue is there in the park?”

“Yes Sir!” both of the boys said together.

“Hmm. That is interesting! I will have to check up on this. I was not aware there were any statues of the talaivar.”

“The who Sir?”

“The Leader – Talaivar. That is Vellai Chami the leader of the tribal who live in the Neelamani forest region. The tribal’ s called him Talaivar which means leader in their language. He was hanged by the British government. You boys are sure it is his statue?”

“Yes Sir! We are hundred percent sure,” said Prakash and Nalinakshan nodded his agreement.

“Good work boys! Now take your book and go to your classes.”

“What was all that about? Why did Manickam get so excited about that old statue?” said Prakash.

“I have no idea. What you did was just brilliant. He forgot all about us bunking his classes. Come lets us slip away before he catches us again.”
As the two boys disappeared from the campus, Manickam was making his way to the staff room. There he went up to a phone and dialed a number.

“Neelamani Hill Range Tribal Association office,” said a voice from the other side.

“Ganesh, it is me Mani!” said Manickam whispering.

“How are you comrade Manickam? It has been some time since I have seen you at our meetings. Where are you these days?”

“Comrade Ganesh! Listen do you know there is a statue of the talivar in the Neyyarinkara Municipal Park?”

“A statue? I do not think there are any statues anywhere of the talaivar.”

“Apparently there is. Two of my student saw it and came to report about it.”

“This is great news. I will leave immediately for Neyyarinkara. I must see this status with my own eyes! Once this is confirmed, I will inform the state president also about this.” The phone was disconnected.

That evening before leaving college Manickam applied for a day’s leave. He said his mother in law was not well and he had to take her to the hospital. The principal would have been shocked had he known that Manickam’s mother in law had died five years back. Manickam ’s stories about her illness had often helped him in his leave application’s.

The next day as Manickam waited at the Neyyarinkara Bus stand he was sweating. It was a cloudy day but he was sweating. The Neelamani Hill Range Tribal Association party president Prabhu Das was coming along with Ganesh. Ganesh had come down to Neyyarinkara and confirmed on the statue being of their cherished leader. He had informed the state party president. Now both of them were coming over to Neyyarinkara. They were the top functionaries of the party and Manickam was there at the bus stop to receive them. He wiped the sweat of his brows.

“Where is this statue Manickam?” said Prabhu Das as he stepped out of the bus.

“It is in a park not far from here, Comrade” said Ganesh before Manickam could reply.

“And you were not aware of it?” said Prabhu Das.

“My students found out about it, Comrade,” said Manickam with pride.

“You were also not aware of its existence Manickam. I am surprised that senior members of the party such as you two are not aware of such an important memorial of the greatest leader our tribe has produced.”

Ganesh and Manickam remained quiet on the way to the park. It was not a good start to the visit, they did not want to spoil it further. They listened to their party president speak.

“Set up a press conference here this Sunday. I am shocked at the state of the statue. He was one of the greatest leaders the state ever produced and look at how they have kept his statue.” Thundered Prabhu Das at the park. Manickam and Ganesh his dedicated followers took notes and nodded their heads.

That Sunday morning villagers in Neyyarinkara were surprised to find a crowd at the Municipal Park. There were vans full of policemen. Representatives from the state and local newspapers were there. A small dais had been hastily put up and loud speakers and microphones set up. Manickam, Ganesh along with other party members were busy arranging chairs for the members of the press.

“Talaivar Vellai Chami was a freedom fighter who dared to stand up against not only the oppression of the British but also the suppression of the upper caste Hindus. He was hanged for this,” thundered Prabhu Das, the Neelamani Hill Range Tribal Association Party President.

“Why is he shouting into a microphone?” said one of the press correspondents covering the function.

“Have you ever heard of this Talaivar before? Thousands were hanged during the British raj,” replied another.

“Do you think they will serve any food later in the day?” said another journalist.

“Look around you. Do you think there would be a decent hotel in a village like this?”

After the speeches the journalists were taken around the park. The crumbling walls, the statue with no name and the bad state of the park – everything was captured by the cameras of the press teams.

The news made it to the frontpage in the next day’s newspapers. Some of the articles supported the tribal communities and dug out stories about their struggle over the years. The newspapers with leanings towards the forward castes blasted the community. Prabhu Das the association president demanded reservation in jobs for his community. The other castes protested against this. This continued for a few days and then the issue died down and people went on with their business.

One night the beggar who was sleeping on the bench behind the statue was woken by a loud sound. For a few seconds he was not sure what had happened. Then he looked up and saw that the statue was missing. Some local boys had tied a rope to it and pulled it down. The beggar was lucky that it had not fallen on him. He picked up his rag and ran away from there.

The demolition of the statue was big news. The issue which had died down was back in the front. Protests were organized. Prabhu Das declared that he would fast before the state assembly until his demands were accepted. He was arrested within an hour of starting his fast. There were protests and strikes across the state. School and colleges were closed as the protests intensified. Finally, the government agreed to most of the demand of the protesters. Funds were released and a plan was drawn up.

In Neyyarinkara, the villagers woke up one morning to a convoy of government vehicles coming down the narrow village by-lanes. The cars converged at the park. Ministers and government officials stepped out. Hectic discussions were held. The ministers spoke and the obedient officials nodded their heads in unison. The decision was to construct a well-maintained park around the structure. Replace the radio with a television. Put up a proper fence around the entire area. Last but not the least build a life size statue of Talaivar Vellai Chami to replace the damaged statue.

It took two months for the construction to complete. Finally, the day came and the Chief Minister of the state himself came followed by a huge retinue to inaugurate the park. After the festivities were over the crowd disbanded and went away satisfied. Everyone got something in the affair. The politicians hoped to get the votes of the tribal’ s, the officials expected promotions for a job well done, Prabhu Das the leader of the tribal group was promised a seat in the local elections, the villagers got a better looking and well- maintained park and last but not the least Thangappan the village electrician got the job of switching on the television. That evening as always, he switched it off at nine and left for the day.

That night the beggar sneaked in again. He looked around the place in disbelief. The trees were all trimmed. There was a thick coating of grass on the ground. The new statue was huge and stood spot in the middle of the park almost obstructing the clock tower which also got a coat of paint.

The beggar looked around for his bench. It was not in its usual place. It was now in a corner. He went over to it and spread his rag out. The last two months due to the construction work he was not allowed in the park. He had been forced to sleep at the bus stop. There it was noisy with buses comes and people talking. He had not been able to sleep properly. He was used to the curves of his marble bench. As he prepared to sleep he noticed something lying under the bench. It was the old radio. After removing it from the cavity in the clock tower, someone had placed it under the bench and forgotten all about it. The beggar patted the radio on its cover.

“Do not worry my friend, you are just like me. No one wants us. A life-less statue is more important to them. Do not worry. This is a good bench. You are safe under it.”

The beggar was about to close his eyes when he looked at the statue. Its bronze coating gave it an eerie glow in the light from the street lamps. The beggar thought it did not have the reassuring look of the earlier bust. He turned on his side and went to sleep.

The Gold Coin

“I want you to finish your homework by the time I am back from my walk,” said Pankajakshan, “I send you to a good school. You have good teachers. Yet look at your marks! You have barely made passing grades in three subjects.” Deepu, Pankajakshan’ s son said nothing.

There was nothing he could say when his father was in a bad mood. Any comments and wise cracks would result in a slap. It could get worse at times.  Pankajakshan was a police constable attached to the Neyyarinkara Police Station. Life had been tough for Pankajakshan as a child.  The son of a poor farmer, there were days when he and his siblings went to sleep on an empty stomach. He wanted to avoid that kind of a life for his son. He wanted his son to be educated and get a good government job. He personally supervised Deepu ’s studies, when time permitted. Those teaching sessions would end disastrously for poor Deepu. He would get confused and end up making simple mistakes. That would annoy Pankajakshan.

 

Deepu ’s mother Sharadha had given up intervening. Whenever she tried it Pankajakshan would turn on her. Then mother and son would both get bruised for their efforts. The best way to handle these ‘study’ sessions would be to finish off the homework and hope for the best. This latest incident was triggered by the report card Deepu had brought home. Deepu or Deepak was in the fourth standard in the Neyyarinkara Government school. He was not dull, neither was he the top ranker in his class. Yet, Deepu loved to read. He devoured comics and magazines for children. He had read more books in that genre than any other student in his class.

 

Deepu knew he had to finish his homework in an hour. That was the time it took his father to finish his walk. Pankajakshan was putting on weight. Gopalan the new inspector who had taken charge at the Neyyarinkara Police Station was very particular about the fitness of his men.   Pankajakshan decided he would walk for five kilometers every day to cut the flab. It was the first day of his new exercise regimen and he was about to set out.

“What have you got for home work today Deepu?” said Sharadha who saw her husband disappearing round the bend on the road.

“Mathematics.  I have some sums on fractions and then English and Malayalam,” said Deepu.

“Finish it fast before your father comes.  Let me help you with the math sums.”

Sharada sat with her son and helped him with the fractions. They then turned to Malayalam. Half an hour later all that remained was the English.

 

“You have to write ten sentences on a butterfly,” said Sharada, “I know, you can easily do that. I have some work in the kitchen. Let me finish that. Call me if you need any help.”

“I can write that on my own,” said Deepu. He was good in English. Sharada knew that and reassured went to the kitchen.  Pankajakshan was very particular about the time when he got his food.  Breakfast had to be at seven in the morning.  His lunch was at the police station. Dinner was to be at nine p.m. sharp. Any delays and he would throw a fit.  It was already six in the evening and Sharada had to rush.

Deepu opened his English exercise book.  He wrote down the title of his essay, ‘The Butterfly’. Then he left a line and started.

 

‘I am a butterfly. I have two pairs of wings…’

 

Here Deepu stopped.  He started to think.

‘How many pairs of wings does a butterfly have?’

‘Is it one or two?’

He was not sure. Then he had an idea.

‘There would be butterflies in the garden. I could catch one and count its wings. That will be the correct way of doing this.’ He thought.

He put his books aside and ran out. The house had a small garden. The garden had a large number of flowering plants. Some were planted on the ground and some were in huge clay pots.  Deepu looked around for a butterfly.  He could not see any.

 

“Maybe they are also doing their homework!” said Deepu to himself and laughed.

He tried shaking the leaves of the plants. He had seen butterflies hiding behind the leaves. By shaking the leaves, he hoped to get some to come out of their hiding place.  Then he saw a frog.  Deepu thought he had an ugly face.  The frog was looking at him.

“What are you doing in my garden?” said Deepu. The frog did not answer but stared back at him.

Deepu looked around for a stick. This was going to be fun. He found a small twig and picking it up he went up to the frog. He was about to poke, when it jumped. Deepu exploded with laughter. He chased it around the garden. It would jump a few feet and wait. Then as Deepu came close it would jump again.

“Have you finished your homework?”

It was Pankajakshan and he was back from his walk.

Deepu stopped running and lied, “Yes.”

He hoped Pankajakshan would go for his bath first and then ask him to bring his homework. By then he would have completed his essay on the butterfly. That hope was dashed immediately.

“Show me your homework,” said his father.

 

It was the sound of Pankajakshan shouting that brought Sharada running from the kitchen. Deepu was crying.

“What happened?” said Sharadha.

“You want to know what happened?” said Pankajakshan, “Your son has not only not completed his homework he is also training to becoming a liar.”

Pankajakshan then turned towards Deepu and said, “Did I not tell you to compete your homework by the time I returned from my walk?”

Deepu nodded his head through the tears.

“Then why were you playing in the garden, if your homework was not complete?” said Pankajakshan and slapped him.

“Please do not hit him. He has already completed his Mathematics and Malayalam homework. It is just ten lines that he needs to write for English. He will do it now,” said Sharada pleading her son’s case.

“Not only has he not listened to me, he lied about it,” said Pankajakshan shouting.

“Father, I am sorry. I will not lie again,” said Deepu between sobs.

“Next time this happens I will break your bones,” said Pankajakshan. He then turned at Sharadha, “Is the water for my bath ready?”

“Yes, it is in the bathroom,” said Sharada.

As her husband went for his bath, Sharada hugged her son tightly.

“Are you alright? Does it hurt?”

Deepu did not reply. He shook his head and pushed his mother away. He went to the table and picking up his exercise book and began writing.

 

‘I am a butterfly. I have two pairs of wings. I can fly and go from one place to other. No one controls me. I am free to do what I want.…’

 

The next day, on his way back from school, Deepu saw huge tents being set up on the ground near the railway station. He saw a few of his class mates there and ran over to them.

“It is a group of gypsies. They have set up some tents where they will be holding some shows,” said one of the children in the group.

“Shows? What shows?” said Deepu.

“Circus shows, clown acts, flamethrowers, magic tricks.”

“This should be fun.” said Deepu.

 

 

“Amma, there is a circus show in the village. Will you take me there?” said Deepu.

Sharadha was washing utensils in the kitchen.

“Ask you father, Deepu. You know I do not go anywhere on my own.”

Deepu thought about it for a minute and then realized that the chances of his father taking him next to impossible.

“Amma, father never has the time. He is always either working or scolding me. Why can you not take me? I promise, I will hold your hand all the time.”

“Deepu, this is a village. Women do not go out unaccompanied. A male member of the family should be with them when they go out.”

“I am a male member of the family. I will be there with you!”

Sharadha smiled.

“Maybe after ten years you can come with me. Till then I have to go along with your father.”

Deepu thought about it some more.

“Amma, Lata aunty, the bank manager’s wife, she goes to the market alone. I have seen her buying grocery while I go to school.”

“Deepu, Lata aunty is a not from this village. She studied in a college and is from the city. She can go where she wants.”

His mother ‘s explanation did not make sense to Deepu.

 

The next day, on his way back he again went by the circus tents. All the arrangements were now complete. A gate had been set up and the first show was to start from that night. Deepu looked all around. There was no one in sight. He walked up to a corner of the tent, lifted the thick canvas and slipped in. Inside there were small tents everywhere. There were people running around. Everyone was busy practicing their act for the night’s performance. Deepu saw young children doing acrobatics, turning cartwheels. Some were jumping through hoops. He saw a man juggling brightly colored balls. There was a well-built man lifting weights in a corner. Deepu did not know where to look. The whole place was a treasure trove of adventure and excitement.

 

“Who let you in.” A voice from behind made Deepu jump.

He saw a tall, thin man with a long moustache standing. With him stood a young girl. She must have been his age. Both of them stood there staring at Deepu.

“I… I came in through the… I slipped through…,” Deepu said fumbling with his response. He was scared.

“So, you were trying to sneak in and avoid paying the entry ticket. This time I am letting you go. Come back in the evening with your parents and first buy a ticket.”

“My father does not have the time. He is a police constable and is very busy and my mother cannot come without my father,” said Deepu a sad look on his face. He turned and started walking towards the gate.

“Wait!” said the man. Deepu stopped.

The man came up to him and looked at him. His face looked considerably softer now.

“Do you want to watch the show?” said the man.

Deepu nodded his head.

“Ok! Let me see what can be done about it,” said the man, “I am assuming you do not have any money?”

Deepu shook his head.

“Then we have a problem,” said the man. He closed his eyes and stood there like a statue. Then he began waving his hands in the air. He was mumbling in some strange language. His whole body shook as if he had a fever. Swaying as if to a rhythm which only he could hear, he clapped his hands loudly.

“Check your shirt pocket,” said the man.

Deepu did not understand what was happening but he obeyed. He put his fingers into his shirt-pocket. The next moment Deepu let out a shout of surprise. He found a large gold colored coin in his pocket.

“How did that coin get in my pocket?” said Deepu. He was certain it was not there before. He had never seen that coin before.

“This is a magic coin. You have been chosen by the guardian spirits. They have decided that from now on you will be the owner of this coin. Whenever you want to come in the tent, just show this to the man at the gate and he would let you in.”

Deepu had a big smile on his face as he thanked the man and ran out. He was very happy. It was the first time in his life that he felt wanted, special.

 

“Have I not told you not to speak to strangers?” said Sharadha. Deepu had come home and told his mother everything that happened that day.

“Amma, they are good people. Why would they hurt me?”

“I do not want you to go there anymore.”

“Amma!” Deepu protested but it was of use.

His mother was adamant. She forbade him from going into the circus tent. His father did not have the time to take him there. He went to his room and sat there looking at the gold coin in his hand.

 

The circus was in the village for a week. Every day the shows would start at seven p.m. and end by nine p.m. Everyday Deepu would take out the coin and look at it for a long time. Then with a sigh he would put it back. He knew his parents well enough to know that they would not take him to the circus. All his friends at school had seen the show. Some had seen it multiple times. The whole day in class the children would talk about how the strong man had lifted a table in one hand or how the juggler had juggled five knives. Deepu would listen to them and sigh. He had seen some of them practice that day, but that was boring. He wanted to see them in full costume with the music blaring and the people clapping in the background.

 

Then the last day for the circus dawned. Deepu got up early. He knew what he was going to do that day. He would finish his homework early and then go and watch the circus. He knew what the end result of this ‘bravery’ would be. Not only his father it was possible even his mother would spank him for going out of the house that late, but he was determined. This was the first time in the eight years of his life, that a circus had come to his village and he was not going to miss it.

 

“What are you doing with your head in the books?” said Sharadha amazed to see Deepu surrounded by books. He had finished his lunch after coming home and immediately sat down to do his homework.

“I have a lot of homework today,” said Deepu.

“Are you not going out to play?” said Sharadha.

Deepu shook his head.

“Amma I will call you if I need any help.”

“I just finished washing all the dirty dishes. Now I will go and take a short nap. I will help you in the evening.”
Deepu worked feverishly. Strangely it seemed today there was more homework than normal. There was English, mathematics, general science and social studies books before him. He completed the work in one book and reached for the next. Time and again his mind would go to his plans for that night. He had planned everything down to the minute. He was targeting to finish his homework by six. That was also the time his mother would go for her bath.  After her bath, which took more than half an hour as she also washed all the dirty clothes in the bathroom, she usually came out by six forty.  Next, she went to the puja room and would sit there, chant prayers and read from the scriptures for half an hour. From the prayer room she would go straight to the kitchen and begin preparing dinner. If Deepu had any doubts in his homework he would ask her for help and she would shout out the answers while working in the kitchen.

 

By the time Deepu had finished and put aside the last book it was already six thirty. He   ran to the bedroom and took out a clean shirt from the cupboard. He could hear the sound of the tap running in the bathroom. He knew his mother was going to be there for at least another fifteen minutes. Deepu put on the clean shirt and slipped on the sandals he usually wore when going out.

“Amma, I would be in my room. I have finished all my homework and kept it on the table – if you want to check. I am reading a story book and do not want to be disturbed.”

 

Deepu went up to his room and shut the door from outside. He occasionally used to shut the door to his room when Sharadha switched on the radio or when she and Pankajakshan were having an argument. It kept the voices out of the room. Deepu used the same tactic now. His mother usually did not disturb him when he was reading. Deepu ran out of the house. Pankajakshan would be back from the police-station by eight. The evening walk had lasted one day only.  Life in a police station was hectic. Deepu was counting on that.

It took about ten minutes to walk from his home to the   ground where the circus tents had been setup. Deepu made it in five. He ran as fast as he could. As he neared the gates of the camp site he saw a huge crowd had already gathered.  People were lining up to buy tickets.  He saw some of his class mates holding on to the hands of their parents. They saw him and called his name. He did not respond. He went straight towards the gates.

“We start at seven. The ticket sale has not yet started. Buy a ticket first and then come here.” said the man at the gate in a mechanical tone. He said this daily to those who tried to get in early.

Deepu showed him the gold coin.

The man looked at it and then smiled at Deepu.

“I see you are the lucky child in this village! Go right in. The rules do not apply to you now.”

The man opened the gates partially and Deepu slid in. Deepu was inside a huge circular tent. He ran up and occupied a seat in the first row. He could not contain his excitement as he looked all around the enclosure. The tent was covered in a colorful canvas. There was a ring in the middle and the seats were all arranged around the ring. Huge electrical lights hung from bamboo poles and shone down at the ring. One by one the people started coming in. He had got in for free. It was the magic of his gold coin. He checked and reassured himself that the coin was still in his pocket.

 

Pankajakshan came home around eight in the evening. Sharadha had a glass of water ready for him by the time he had taken off his shoes.

“Where is Deepu?” said Pankajakshan.

“In his room. Reading some comic. He said he did not want to be disturbed,” said Sharadha, “he has finished all his homework. I checked his books.” She added that part quickly knowing how her husband’s mind worked.

“The boy does poorly in his exams and yet reads so many books.”

“He is smart. He puts in a lot of hard work,” said Sharadha.

“I hope for his sake all that hard work will reflect in his marks. Is the hot water for my bath ready?”

“Yes! I have put it in the bathroom.”

 

Pankajakshan had his bath and after a quick bow before the pictures of the Gods, he was ready to meet his son.

“Where is Deepu?” said Pankajakshan.

“In his room.”

“No! he is not there. I just checked.”

“He said he would be in his room,” said Sharadha.

She went to check Deepu ’s room.

“I told you I have already checked there.”

Sharadha came out. She was worried. She ran out and checked the compound around the house. Deepu was not there. She came in again.

“Where is he?” said Pankajakshan.

“He is not there in the house,” said Sharadha.

She was feeling slightly dizzy and held on to a chair for support. Suddenly her legs were feeling week.

“Have you checked the loft?” said Pankajakshan.

“No. I am worried. Where can he be. He was here when I went to have a bath.”

Pankajakshan took a torch and climbed up the stairs, which led to the loft. There he shone the light in all the corners. Except for the cob webs and the dust there was nothing there. He climbed down. Now Pankajakshan was worried.

“Did he say anything about going to his friend’s house?” he said.

“At this time of the night. He knows better than that,” said Sharadha and then thought that it was an idea worth checking. “Can you go and see if he is there.”

“I do not know who his friends are,” said Pankajakshan. Realizing for the first time how little he knew about his son.

“I will come with you,” said Sharadha.

She went to the kitchen and shut off the stove and covered all the food. They rushed out of the house in their haste forgetting to lock the doors. Suddenly all that seemed unimportant.

 

They went from one friend ’s house to another. Most of the houses were locked.

“Where is everybody,” said Pankajakshan.

“I do not know. I want my son. Oh God please I will never scold him again in my life. Please, please help me find my son.”

In the middle of the street, on the pitch – dark street she started to cry. Pankajakshan did not cry but he was worried. Thoughts raced through his mind. He remembered how he had felt when he had seen Deepu for the first time at the hospital, the day he was born. He remembered how happy he had felt when he had taken his first step. He remembered when he had fallen asleep on his chest. Then he remembered how he had trashed the boy the last time he had come home with a bad report card.

‘Has he left the house because of me?’ thought Pankajakshan, ‘Why would he want to stay in the house. All that I do is beat him.’

 

Then his eyes feel on a poster stuck to the wall of a house. It was an announcement of the circus show in the village. Sharadha saw it at the same time.

“Can he have gone there?” they both said together.

 

The circus show was in full swing.  The jugglers, the strong man and the acrobats had all finished their acts. The last act of the day the magic show was underway. Deepu sitting in the front rows had enjoyed himself all through the evening. He had gasped with surprise when the magic show had started. It was the same man who had given him the coin. His hands were hurting with clapping but that did not stop him from clapping.

“There he is!” said Sharada as her keen eyes spotted her son on the other side of the ring.

“Thank God!” said Pankajakshan. He started walking towards his son.

“Now for the last act of my performance I will make a boy disappear. I want a volunteer from the audience,” said the magician to the crowd.

Deepu raised both his arms and began jumping around. There were a lot of children who had their arms raised. The magician spotted Deepu. He recognized the child immediately.

“Now for this act I will ask a boy who is the bravest and most intelligent child in this village to step forward,” said the Magician and pointed at Deepu.

Deepu could not contain his joy and jumped into the ring. As Sharadha and Pankajakshan gasped Deepu ran straight towards the Magician.

“Deepu, Deepu!” Pankajakshan said and was about to jump into the ring when he heard someone calling his name. He knew that voice.

“Pankajakshan, what are you trying to do?” said Inspector Gopalan. He was in the audience and was along with his wife and two children.

“Sir! that is my boy.”

“That is not what I asked. What are you trying to do in the ring?”

“Sir I want to stop him from going there.”

“Pankajakshan! It is a magic show. The children are enjoying it. The whole village is here. Do not spoil their fun.”

 

Pankajakshan stepped back. He stood there on the sidelines along with Sharadha.

“I am going to hypnotize this boy,” said the magician. He waved his arms around Deepu and made strange signs with his fingers all around Deepu ’s face.  Deepu who was standing there closed his eyes and then as if asleep, fell into the arms of the Magician’s assistant.

The magician’s assistant placed Deepu in a big black box. Then he proceeded to dramatically closed each door of the box.  The magician then put a large black cloth over the box and began waving his arms around. He was mumbling in a strange language as he started walking around the box.  There was pin drop silence in the tent.

“Watch closely,” he said in a stage whisper.

He pulled of the cloth covering the box and slowly opened the box.  It was empty. The audience clapped and some of the rowdy boys even whistled their appreciation.

The lights were switched off and the show ended.

 

 

Sharadha and Pankajakshan gasped in horror. Deepu was nowhere to be seen. Husband and wife ran outside the tent. The people who had come to watch the show started to leave and were crowding all the gates. In the sea of faces they were not able to spot Deepu.

“Where is my son?” said Sharadha, “Oh God, have I lost him again, twice in the same day!”

“Wait here, said Pankajakshan, “I am going to beat the truth out of that magician.”

He walked towards the place where the circus folks were all standing. The show in the village had ended. They were discussing when to dismantle the tents.

“Where is my son?” said Pankajakshan as he spotted the magician. He was smoking a cigarette in a corner.

“Your son?”

“The boy you put in the box.”

“Oh! you mean the sad boy. He ran away when he saw you two.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your son saw the two of you trying to catch him in between the show. He was so scared that as soon as he came out of the box he ran away. I think by now he would have reached your house.”

Pankajakshan and Sharadha turned and ran back home.

As the magician saw them leave he turned to the young girl by his side and said, “So these are the bad parents who would not let their only child see a magic show. I wish I had used these two for my ‘saw-in-half’ trick!” the girl laughed and the magician joined her in the laughter.

 

Pankajakshan and Sharadha saw the doors of their house wide open. They rushed in and went straight towards Deepu’ s room. The door was closed. As they pushed it open, both of them let out a sigh of relief. Deepu was sleeping in his bed. They tiptoed to his bed and sat on either side.

Deepu was not asleep, he had just reached home a few minutes back. He was lying there with his eyes closed. He felt his father’s hand on his back. Pankajakshan patted his son for a long time while Sharadha sat there with tears in her eyes. They realized how precious the boy was to them. Neither of them said a word, but both knew that there would be changes in the house. Changes in the way they looked after their son. It was only when they came close to losing him that they realized how important he was in their lives.

As they went out of the room, Deepu opened his eyes. He knew something had happened in the room. Neither of them had scolded him. He had expected a thrashing from his father at the least. That did not happen. Instead his father was patting his back. Something told Deepu that things were going to change. Change for the better. Deepu smiled in the dark. He opened his fist and in it he had the gold coin. The magical gold coin that changed his life. With a smile on his face Deepu fell asleep.

 

Age and Wisdom

“Is your grandfather sleeping?” said Krishnan to the boy who opened the door. He was standing outside his friend Raman’s house.

“My grandfather died ten years ago” said the boy.

“Died…Don’t you live here?” said Krishnan

“No! I live in the house across the street,” said the boy as he ran past Krishnan who entered the house.

“Grandfather is having his breakfast. He has asked you to join him,” said another boy who came running out of the house.

“No that is ok. I just had my breakfast. Who was that boy who just opened the door and ran out?”

“That was Ismail. He lives in the house across the street. Every morning he comes here and has breakfast with us.”

“Do they not make breakfast in his house?”

“They make it a bit late. He has two breakfasts in the morning. After he finishes off here, he runs over to his house and eats his second breakfast there.”

“No wonder he was in such a hurry! He must be Abdul Kadir’s grandson.”

“His father’s name is Basheer. I don’t know any Abdul Kadir in that house.”

“That is because Kadir died ten years back. That is before you were born.”

The boy shrugged his shoulders and ran back in.

Appupan says he does not want to eat. He had his breakfast.” Krishnan could hear the boy shouting inside the house.

He smiled. The old boy had addressed him as Appupan or grandfather. Krishnan had never married so had no grandchildren.

“Since Raman is having his breakfast. I might as well check the books here,” said Krishnan.

He went towards the book shelf. The wooden book shelf was six feet tall and about six feet wide. Books were stacked in neat rows on the shelf. He picked up a thick volume from the shelf. He went over to a chair near the window, sat down and began reading.

“Did you know there is a reference to the Ganges in Dante’s Divine Comedy?”

said Krishnan as he saw his friend Raman Unni come out.

“Where did you get Divine Comedy from?” said Raman.

“From your book shelf where else” said Krishnan.

“It must be one of Sumi’s old text books. She did her Masters in Literature. Most of the books on the shelf were purchased by her. After she became a lecturer she moved out of the house. Now all that remains are the books.”

“You have a great collection of books in that shelf. How many have you read?”

“Not even one. I do not like to read highbrow books. I am more of a light fiction reader.”

“These are classics my friend. You can explore the world, its history, art and culture through these books. The best part is you can do all that exploring from the comfort of your living room!”

“I hated reading in school. Now it is too late to change.”

Krishnan shook his head and said, “So what do you read these day?”

“I saw an article in the newspaper yesterday. There is a new cure for cancer. Doctors in U.K have come out with a wonder medicine. It is still being tested, but they are optimistic. They think it can detect and destroy cancerous cells in the body.”

“Maybe it can be cured if detected in the initial stages. I do not think there is a cure in the final stages.”

“This cure is going to be released commercially soon.”

“Any way who wants to live forever. You are eighty-two years old now. That makes you one year younger than me. You married early, had children, then your children married. Now you are a grandfather. If that girl, your grand-daughter marries, who knows you might even get to be a great-grand father! What more do you want from life?”

“I do not want to suffer. I do not want to end up with a disease like cancer. I want a painless death!”

“If wishes were horses … you know the rest don’t you! Let us not waste our time arguing. Remember today the panchayat library is being inaugurated.”

“Oh yes! I forgot all about that. Give me a minute I will get a shawl and come.”

The two old men walked towards the library. There was no hurry. The function was at ten. It was only eight thirty. As they passed the gates of the Neyyarinkara Shree Krishna Temple, Raman stopped.

“Wait here. I have to pray. I will not take long,” said Raman and entered the temple gates.

“But you came here in the morning!”

“It does not hurt to say a quick prayer. Wait for me here.”

Krishnan moved over to a shady place and looked around for a place to sit.

“Uncle, come and sit in my shop,” said Unni who was the owner of a tailor shop nearby.

“Thanks, Unni. How is your father Gangadharan now? The last time I heard he had slipped and fractured his leg.”

“He is recovering. He is in his seventies… so you know… recovery is a bit slow.”

“I know. I am eighty-three. At my age there is no recovery! Did he slip in your house?”

“No uncle. He had gone to stay with my sister in Trivandrum. She has built a new house near Pattom. It is a huge house with lots of rooms. The floor was made of polished granite. It was slippery and Father slippedin.”

“My son Mohan, also wanted to convert all the flooring in my house to marble. I told him the rough cement floor we have at present is good enough for me. After my death, he is free to do whatever he wants. He can change it to marble, wood, concrete whatever…”

 

They could see Raman returning from the temple, his forehead adorned with a sandal wood paste tilak.

“‘Religion is the opium of the masses’ do you know who said that?” said Krishnan.

“Karl Marx,” said Unni.

“Right. See what it does to old people Unni! Stay away from religion and opium!”

Unni laughed as the two friends walked away.

“You are an atheist by choice. That does not give you the right to convert others to communism,” said Raman.

“Tell me my friend, what has religion done for you?” said Krishnan.

“It gives me a sense of reassurance. A feeling that someone is there looking out for me,” said Raman.

“Does that make you happy -safe?”

“Yes. I get a handsome pension. In fact, today I am earning more money as pension than what I got as salary when I was working!”

“That is your definition of being happy- making money?”

“Yes! What else is there in life. If you have money you have everything.”

 

They had reached the Panchayat Library inauguration venue. The show organizers were still arranging the chairs, setting up the microphones and adjusting the loudspeakers. About fifty chairs had been arranged in neat rows. Raman and Krishnan occupied two chairs in front.

“I have a cough since yesterday night,” said Raman, “Do you think it could be something serious?”

“What?”

“Are you not listening? I said I have a cough since last night.”

“What cough? I have not heard you cough even once in the last two hours.”

“It comes all of a sudden,” said Raman. He tried coughing a couple of times.

“Do not make it up if it is not there.  For now, keep quiet and listen to what these people have to say.”

Two hours later the two friends were on their way back home.

“You know sometimes I wonder who will take care of me when I fall ill,” said Raman.

“Our village library should have better quality books. Something like what Kurup has at his house. I wonder if Kurup would lend some of his books to the panchayat library,” said Krishnan.

“I wonder if my children would take care of me if I were to fall seriously ill,” said Raman.

“Maybe we should ask him. Let us go to his house and talk to him,” said Krishnan.

“Do you think that is a good idea to talk to only one of them?” said Raman.

“One of them?” said Krishnan.

“Only Devan stays with me here in Neyyarinkara.  Sunil and Suma are in Trivandrum,” said Raman.

“What are you talking about? I am talking about going to meet Kurup.”

“Kurup?”

“Gopinathan Kurup.

“Why are we talking about him?”

“We should go and meet him.” Said Krishnan.

“I am talking about who will take care of me when I fall ill.”

“I am talking about us asking Kurup to loan some books for the Panchayat Library.”

“Why do we need more books in the library?”

Krishnan shook his head. “Are you coming or not?”

“You know Kurup remarried recently?”

“Yes, I heard, he married some woman he met at the festival in the temple.”

Everyone knew Kurup in the village. He lived in a huge house near the temple. He never refused any request for help. People with financial problems went to his house, told him about their problems and he helped them with small sums of money. They were free to return the money whenever they had it. He never charged any interest for this ‘help’.

`               “During the morning hours he can always be seen in the verandah reading a newspaper,” said Raman.

“I know, I have come here a couple of times to talk to him, “said Krishnan.

“Kurup!” said Raman.

There was no response.

“Kurup!” said Raman now almost shouting the name out.

Still there was no response. They looked around.

“That is strange. What was the name of that boy who worked for Kurup?”

“Satyan,” said Krishnan.

“Satya!  Satya!” said Raman.

There was no response.

“May be there is no one here,” said Krishnan, “Let us go.”

They turned and made their way towards the gates.

“What do you want?” they heard a woman’s voice from inside the house.

“We came to meet Kurup,” said Krishnan as the woman came out.

“What do you want from him? If it is money then forget it. You villagers are a bunch of free-loaders. Everyone is trying to get some money out of him.”

“Now look here,” said Krishnan, his voice tinged with anger, “We came to meet Kurup. Not everyone in this village lives on hand-outs.”

“I know your type very well,” said the woman.

“He will be in the temple,” another woman’s voice from inside the house called out. A young woman came out of the house. She said, “He must be in the temple. He can be usually found there.”

The two old men walked out of the house.

“What an arrogant woman,” said Raman, “I heard after his marriage Kurup has lost all control over his property. The woman who came out first must be his new mother in law. The other one is younger. That must be his wife.”

“Now you know why I did not marry,” said Krishnan, “I could never stand such arrogant women.”

“You never married because no one in the village was ready to marry his daughter to you. You were the fire-brand communist youth leader -in and out of jail. Who would want to marry you?”

“Ha. Well I know you meant that sarcastically but yes, that was a reason why I never thought about marriage.”

The two men had reached the temple gate.

“Can you go in and look for him?” said Krishnan.

“You want to meet him. Not me. It is you who wants to discuss about books with him.”

“Come with me, Raman. I do not know my way around a temple.”

 

As they walked through the gates of the temple, Krishnan said, “You know this is the first time in my life that I am entering the gates of a temple!”

“It is never too late to convert. Communism is dead. Eastern Europe, USSR all have thrown communism out. China has something that is a mix of capitalism and dictatorship.  You should start thinking about turning to religion.”

“I am impressed. For a change you are talking about issues which are not about health and medicines.” Said Krishnan.

“Is that Kurup?” said Raman.

A man was huddled in a corner of the temple. As the two men went up to him they realized it was indeed Kurup. The once handsome, well-built landlord of the village was now a thin, unkempt shadow of his former self.

“We came to talk to you about the Panchayat Library,” said Krishnan.

“The Panchayat Library?” said Kurup.

“Yes. There are very few books there. We were wondering if you would lend us a few books from your collection.”

“From my collection?” said Kurup.

“Yes! If possible. You have one of the best collection of books in the village, if not in the whole district,” said Krishnan.

Kurup did not speak for a few minutes. His eyes screwed shut he was a picture of concentration.

“I think I will donate my entire collection to the library,” said Kurup.

Krishnan almost fainted.

“All your books?”

“Yes, no body read’s them anymore. This way they will benefit the entire village. Please have someone come and take them tomorrow itself.”

“Thank you, Kurup. This village and its people will forever remember this contribution of yours,” said Krishnan.

The two friends walked back a few steps when Krishnan stopped and went back to Kurup.

“When you say all the books, you meant your copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica as well, didn’t you?”

“Yes. Take that as well,” said Kurup.

“Thank You, Kurup. Thank you very much.”

As they walked out of the temple Krishnan was charged with excitement.

“I cannot believe what just happened. Imagine we just added about five thousand books to the panchayat library. We also got the only copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the whole district!”

“See that is how God helps you. Remember I prayed at the temple when we started in the morning,” said Raman.

“God has nothing to do with this. Do not spoil my day by saying this was a miracle. Now I have to get someone to cart the books out of his house first thing in the morning tomorrow. We need to move fast before he changes his mind!”

A week later it was Raman who came to Krishnan’s house in the morning.

“What happened? Why are you here this early? Said Krishnan.

“Come let us go to the library. I want to read up about a few of my medical problems. The Encyclopedia is supposed to be the ultimate authority on all definitions so let me check-up some of my problems.”

“I should have known better. Why can you not go to Dr. Shivaraman and have him look at you? He retired as a Professor from the medical college. He would know what your problem is.”

“I went to him and he said it is age related. He asked me to walk regularly, eat light food and get plenty of sun light.”

“There you have it. Now why do you want to go to the library.”

“I want a second opinion.”

An hour later Raman was more confused. The explanation given to his problems only made matters worse.

“I think I have cancer,” said Raman.

“How did you arrive at that conclusion genius!” said Krishnan.

“I know. The book does not say that but I know. Cancer of the throat can start with a cough. Do you remember Dewaki? The girl who used to come to our house to sweep?”

“No, I do not remember girls who come to sweep your house.”

“Well, she had a cough for a few months. Then she went for a checkup and it was diagnosed as final- stage cancer. She died four months later.”

“There could have been a number of other reasons as well. Do not jump to conclusions. I am not a medical expert. Even then I know that one should never self-diagnose oneself. We have a small hospital in the village now. There is Dr. Shivaraman as well who can advise you.”

“I do not trust these people. This is a small village. Why would a good doctor come here? I will go to the Regional Cancer Center in Trivandrum and have this tested. Will you come with me?”

“I am not going to waste my time on such silly issues.”

“You think it is silly to treat cancer?” said Raman.

“You clown! You do not have cancer. Why are you assuming things?” said Krishnan.

“Have I ever asked you for a favor? This is the first time I am asking you to help me and you refuse?” said Raman. His voice choking with emotion.

“Ok… Ok I will come with you. Ask Dr. Shivaraman if he has any contacts in the hospital. That way it would be faster,” said Krishnan.

A week later the two friends, got on a bus which took them to Trivandrum. From the bus stop an autorickshaw dropped them at the Cancer Center. Raman had not informed his children about the trip as he did not want them to worry.

“This is a super specialty hospital. I hope you understand what you are doing. This is a place where actual cancer patients come. We are coming here just because you have a doubt in your mind. The doctors here are super-busy with patients. The last thing they want is some old man coming here just to confirm his doubts,” said Krishnan.

Raman did not answer. He was not even listening. His heart was beating rapidly. He was sure that the doctor was going to confirm his worst nightmare. He would be diagnosed with cancer and then be told that he had the most malignant form. He knew he had just a few days left to live. Raman was worried about how his wife Parukutti would live without him.

“My children will take care of her after I am gone,” Raman thought, “but I do not want to go so soon. I want to live to see Sumi’s children grow up.”

Raman began to sweat. There was a ceiling fan just above him but he still sweated. The fear of the unknown was enough to make him feel uncomfortable.

“You sit here. I will go and book an appointment,” said Krishnan and went with Raman’s documents to the reception. There was a row of chairs and Raman occupied one of the few empty seats and looked as Krishnan went and stood in a long line of people waiting at the appointment counter.

“Is anyone sitting here?”

Raman looked up and saw a middle-aged woman standing there. She held the hand of a young girl.

“No. You can sit there,” said Raman.

“Sit down Jessy. I will go to the counter and book an appointment with the doctor. Do not wander,” said the woman. The young girl sat down next to Raman. Before the woman walked away she turned at Raman and said, “Sir, please look after her. I will be back in a minute. We have come here a couple of times so I only need to check if the doctor is available.”

Raman nodded and the woman disappeared into the crowd. Raman looked at the crowd. He tried to find Krishnan in it but was not able to find him.

“Are you a patient here?” said the girl.

“What?” said Raman.

“Do you also have cancer?” said the girl.

“I do not know,” said Raman.

“I have cancer. Blood cancer. I am undergoing treatment under Dr. Swaminathan for six months now.”

Raman looked closely. Then he noticed the spots on her head where the hair had started to fall. The girl saw him look closely at her hair.

“Mother says it is because of the treatment I am getting.”

“How old are you?” said Raman.

“I am eight years old,” said the girl, “How old are you Sir?”

“I will be eighty-two this September.”

The girl thought for a minute and then said, “You are seventy fours years older than me. That is a lot of years.”

“Yes, it is a lot of years. I have children and grandchildren. My oldest grandchild is four years old.”

“I do not know if I will reach nine,” said the girl, “My mother says I will get well, but I know she just says that to keep me happy.”

“You will get well, child!” said Raman.

“How do you know? Are you a doctor?” said the girl.

“God will heal you,” said Raman.

“Mother also says that,” said the girl, “My mother is coming back.”

“Come child, lets go and see the doctor,” said the girl’s mother and lead the girl away.

“Good bye Sir!” the girl said and waved at Raman with her thin hands, “You will also get well.”

Raman got up and went towards the queue in front of the appointment counter. After a minute of searching he found Krishnan standing.

“Come let us go home,” said Raman.

“What do you mean, go home? I stood here for half an hour and now I will reach the counter in five minutes.”

“Krishna, I am perfectly alright. Let us not waste the time of the doctors here. They have more important things to do that treat an old man at the fag end of his life.”

Raman grabbed Krishnan’s arm and pulled him out of the line.

“You are a fool. First you make me stand in that line and now you say you are fine. What is the matter with you?”

“I am fine Krishnan. Come lets us go home. I am perfectly fine.”