It all came back to Pappan in spurts; the rasp of his own laboured breathing, the sound of the runners’ bare feet slapping the wet mud pathway, and the choking sensation of fear welling up within him. The flaming torches had streamed acrid smoke and sparks, and had lit their way through their flight that night. They threw distorted shadows of the runners along the dense foliage rimming the pathway. It had been in the late 1940s, and Pappan and his communist comrades had fled the sure retribution for their uprising in Kerala.
Pappan wished he could suppress the memories of the shrieks of the landlord he had hamstrung that night. It had all gone terribly wrong, and they had fled the scene as the wails of the women of the landlord’s household reverberated into the night. The wails had stubbornly clung to him throughout his life, and had lost none of their horror.
Pappan looked up from his reverie to the visitors who sat outside his home on a wooden bench. They had come from the local communist party office to invite this old legend of a comrade to participate in the golden jubilee celebrations of the communist uprising. Pappan’s reluctance had baffled his visitors.
The group leader persisted, “Comrade Pappan, we so need your presence at the golden jubilee celebrations. You were the foundation on which this movement was built in this area.”
Pappan demurred, “All that was a very long time back. I have not been involved for some time now.”
“Many will be disappointed by your absence.”
Pappan grunted an understanding of the matter; but said nothing more. From the wooden stool he sat on, he glanced at his daughter who squatted on the riverside. With a soot-blackened clay pot next to her, she was gutting and cleaning fish for the next meal. The unwanted parts of the fish that she tossed into the flowing river were snapped up by schools of river fish. Cawing crows circled overhead and attempted to pick up the floating offal with their beaks, only to be outdone by the fish eagles gliding in to precisely grapple it up with their talons from the river’s surface. This frenzied feeding was a daily ritual, and the wheeling birds and their aerobatics never failed to hold Pappan’s attention. He wished a man’s sins could as easily be discarded as his daughter did the fish offal. His grandson played around his mother, a cat skulked nearby in the tall grass as his daughter cleaned the fish. She looked over her shoulders at her father, with eyes that understood his dilemma.
Over seventy years ago; in the very same hut, his mother had delivered him on a reed mat spread across the mud floor. His inheritance had been grinding poverty and caste discrimination. He was flung into a life of wildness and petty theft that finally drove him from home at the age of twelve. Thereafter, he had begged, pilfered and done menial work with a bunch of similar youngsters on the streets of the nearby town. The communist movement had found in these urchins the ideal storm troopers. When he turned twenty, Pappan had returned to his native hamlet; his earlier rebelliousness and acrimony now nicely shaped and directed to achieving the goals of the communist party. Pappan had come home to transform his own little world!
He had visited his parent’s hut on returning. His father’s unease with his grown son was evident. His mother smothered her mouth with her work gnarled hands, and her tears flowed freely down her wrinkled cheeks. Pappan murmured, ‘Amma,’ and then squeezed into her hands some grubby notes and coins. Nothing more was said, and Pappan after a long look at the Meenachil river flowing near the hut, had walked away.
And then subtly things began to change in the sleepy hamlet. Polite but incessant demands for higher wages came to the ears of the landlords. The customary deference to their betters suddenly seemed to be given with reluctance. And then it had all come boiling out at the time of the rice harvest, carefully crafted by the communist party to stun the landlords.
A dry wind had been blowing and it had turned the rice fields a golden brown. The paddy had bent over, heavy with ripe rice ears, and there was expectancy in the air. It was the morning of the harvest. Mathai, the landlord, had walked the short distance to his fields along with his supervisors. They were greeted by the sight of their workers lolling on the grassy banks of the field. None rose in respect, nor showed any inclination to begin harvest work. A supervisor whispered into the ear of the landlord, “There seems to be a problem!”
The demands for increased wages and a larger share of the harvested rice were made by the workers. Mathai wasn’t sure what upset him more; the unreasonableness of the demands or the sheer effrontery of the stipulations being made at the nick of harvest time. But he bit down on his irritation and merely said, “There are time-honoured ways of dealing with such matters. This approach is unacceptable.” He was met by a deadening silence from the workers. He turned back towards his home, and the workers quietly disbursed. No harvesting was done that day.
Two days later, Pappan was disturbed at his morning ablutions on the banks of the river with the hushed words; “Mathai has brought in outsiders and begun harvesting his rice.” Pappan and his comrades had walked into Mathai’s rice fields and its welcoming committee. They were outnumbered and they retreated. That night someone broke the dykes along Mathai’s fields; and the river poured in to submerge the yet to be harvested portion of the paddy. The class war was out in the open. Threats and posturing soon degenerated into brawls. The communist cadres disrupted work where they could, and strike breakers began resisting and meting out punishment clandestinely. The countryside waited with bated breath, disoriented by this strange movement that had upended long established customs.
An expedition to Mathai’s to scare and demoralise him had gone horribly wrong. The converging of flaming torches in the night had roused the landlord’s household. But to Pappan’s discomfiture, he met not a cowed downed Mathai, but one brimming with righteous indignation and contempt for Pappan. Something snapped inside Pappan; and in moment he had swung his curved razor sharp sickle to hamstring the landlord. Screams rend the air and blood squirted. The other comrades froze, stunned by Pappan’s impulsive action. Someone grabbed Pappan’s bloody hands, “Enough, enough! Let’s go.” And they left Mathai writhing on the ground and his household wailing into the night.
They ran, they hid and they scrambled from safe haven to safe haven until they reached the forest. Weeks went by. The local magistrate had issued a warrant for Pappan’s arrest. Helped by informers, they were arrested quietly by the police as they slept in their forest dwelling. Pappan disappeared into the labyrinth of the Central Prison; a place staffed with policemen drawn invariably from the upper castes and landowning classes. They needed little instruction on how to deal with communist prisoners.
Years went by, and the communists won the elections and came to power in Kerala; and with that a policy change in dealing with political prisoners would see them released from prison. Following this, a bedraggled, sick and broken Pappan had walked into his hamlet. He quietly made his way to his now dead parents’ dilapidated hut by the river. He was soon joined by a woman and a girl child. No one knew where the two had met. They repaired the hut and Pappan began the long journey to mend his body and mind, both broken by methods of torture carefully nurtured and finessed over generations by the police fraternity.
His wife took jobs where she could find them. The seasons changed. The rains came and the flooded river spread its rich loam over their small patch of land. The bananas and vegetables planted by his wife sprouted and began to grow, and Pappan began to mend too.
His wife’s people once visited and the idea to buy a boat was broached, and some money given for it. It would give Pappan a living; for there was always work for a boat and boatman on the Meenachil River. Somehow the idea trickled out to the other villagers, and their community spirit was tickled. It began to be mentioned at the tea shops, at the bathing ghats on the riverbank and even under the Peepul tree in the temple compound.
“Did you hear that a canoe is to be built for Pappan?”
“Haha! And turn a revolutionary into a boatman?”
Someone slapped his thigh and cackled, “Aiyo!! What a fate for an old communist!”
“Come on. Give a man a chance to live.” And so went the prattle in the village. But the idea of the boat took off. An old, discarded tin, with a cloth stretched over the top and a slit for coins in it began to do the rounds. The tin started to fill. Someone in a fit of impertinence carried it to Mathai the landlord’s house; to buy a boat for the man who had hamstrung him years back. They came back abashed by Mathai’s generosity. It had been the largest donation yet received.
A slipshod committee that argued much, and agreed on little was formed, and the tin with its rattle and clinking was finally carried to Pappan’s house to his embarrassment and to the delight of his wife. Opinions were gathered on how to proceed.
“We need to find a mature Anjillee tree (Wild Jack) to make the canoe from,” quipped someone. A haphazard and desultory search began. Such a tree was soon found. The owner was paid and the tree felled. An elephant was hired to carry the tree trunk to Pappan’s house. And this communal project soon became the most exciting happening in the village in years.
A slightly rowdy crowd, along with the elephant carrying the tree trunk wound its way across the countryside. Someone brought a battered drum and the whole began to take on the look of a procession. Women and children gathered along the way and giggled at the funny procession, and as it passed the village toddy shop, part of the procession melted away for a drink. But they were soon replaced by some from within the toddy shop; tipsy and more suited to the occasion.
By late afternoon they reached Pappan’s house. The mahout shouted and prodded the elephant into dropping the Anjillee tree trunk at an appropriate place to be worked on. Pappan’s wife with folded hands thanked the jubilant crowd, and gave the elephant a parting gift of ripe bananas.
The axe thudded, the wood chips flew and loafers congregated at the site to offer unsolicited advice to the canoe builders. The yellow Anjillee log was hollowed out, and it began to take on the shape of a sleek canoe, and hope began to course through the veins of Pappan and his family. The summer months dried out the canoe wood, and it was finished with layers of stinking fish oil to waterproof it.
And on an auspicious day, when the river flowed low, a crowd gathered to witness the launch of the canoe. A collective holding of breaths accompanied the canoe, as it slid through the mud into the river. Built with no modern measuring instruments, but only on the principles of Thatchu Sastra, the traditional craft of carpentry, the canoe wobbled into the water and then paused; to float perfectly, with no tilt whatsoever. A cheer went up, and even Pappan’s normally stony lips quivered into a smile. Someone slung a marigold garland on the bow of the canoe, and Pappan’s transformation from a revolutionary to a Meenachil river boatman was sanctified.
Pappan often left with the rising sun glinting off the river surface. He paddled swiftly to pick up his boat load. It varied from pilgrims during temple festivals, to bags of rice, hay or mounds of freshly harvested coconut at other times. He rarely argued about the fare; but his quiet demeanour somehow ensured a fair settlement of his dues.
He grew familiar with the changing seasons and moods of the river. His boatman’s skills were often tested by a rapidly flowing flooded Meenachil river, where the swirling waters inundated its mud banks or its silt built up banks anew. The colour of the foliage along the banks changed from lush green during the monsoons, to duller shades of green and yellow during the simmering summer months. He watched the migrating birds visit and disappear; to come calling again as nature’s invisible wand directed them. He too grew sinewy and grizzled, but a sense of purpose and belonging imbued his life.
Work done, he would paddle home in the late hours, through the buzz of night insects and the occasional splash of a fish breaking the river surface. His riverine path was lit by moonlight or starlight, until he reached his bit of the river front. The last bit would be guided in by a lit lantern unfailingly left at the landing by his wife or at other times, by the soft singing of evening prayers by his wife and child in their hut.
Pappan remembered, but his visitors stirred impatiently at Pappan’s inscrutable silence. His grandchild sensing the tension in the air sidled up to Pappan and climbed into his lap. The oldest of the visitors rose and walked deliberately to Pappan’s daughter by the river. He earnestly appealed to her to persuade her father to come to the 50th celebration of the communist uprising. She remained silent for a moment, and then turning to him said: “Has he not done enough for the movement? Please let him be. He’s old and carries a heavy burden.”
The visitor reasoned, “Yes, things were done during the uprising. But it was for a cause, and comrade Pappan need not feel so burdened about those things.”
She sighed and said, “Would that not be for the man carrying the burden to decide?”
The crestfallen communist visitors slowly trooped out. They paused at the gate and looked back at Pappan. He had not stirred. He sat there quietly with his grandchild in his lap, gazing into the dusk that slowly enveloped the river.
P.G.Thomas, hailing from Kerala, India; has been intrigued by the changing phases of his land, its people and their way of life. He draws on a lifetime of actual experience to write about it.
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