Author: Vinoy Thomas
Translator: Nandakumar K
Publisher: Penguin India
The sight of his brother-in-law and his own son toiling in the teashop warmed the cockles of Prasannan’s heart. Whenever Ranjit handed over a cup of tea to anyone, they would say, ‘Oh, Prasannan’s tea was far better.’
He was gladdened not because his son caused people to compare him favourably but because the level of tea and sugar in the containers remained undiminished and one bottle of milk delivered over forty to forty-five cups of tea. Since Perumpadi was devoid of other shops at that time, the public decided to accept— with the same stoicism they accepted fate—the son’s atrocities as he followed in his father’s footsteps.
Suni excelled in tossing parottas and thinning them like cloth; wet grinding the batter to such a fine froth that dosas became gossamers; slicing the bananas paper-thin to make fritters; pouring wheat flour, baking soda and sugar mixtures from such heights that undakkaya made out of it had more air bubbles than substance. His only fault was that he had to watch at least two movies a week. That was taken care of by the complimentary pass he received for pasting the movie poster on the shop wall.
The day after the vehicle of black magic was delivered, work was started on a kuzhikalari* in a plot that belonged to Chandrappura Mani to the west of Prasannan’s land. Whirlwind Manoharan was the kalari gurukkal. There were two versions on the provenance of this nickname—some said that it was because from the time he was a child, at the least provocation he would swirl like a typhoon and hit people; others said it was because he was epileptic. Epilepsy and whirlwind share the same homonym in the vernacular.
Whirlwind Manoharan had a trait of becoming an instant admirer of practitioners of traditional skills and arts—especially the ones he could not master—and then trailing those practitioners to learn from them. Although an ardent admirer, when he started to learn the skill or art, he would pick fights with his gurus. He, therefore, ended up not mastering any of the skills.
Although he tried to learn many such skills, he gave literacy a wide berth. In his view, this world needed nothing that required one to be literate. Before he started the kuzhikalari, he was attached as a helper to a stonemason.
At the house at Koothuparamba where he was working, a kalari asan had come to do therapeutic massage for the karanavar of the house. The way he carried himself and his physique turned Manoharan into a devotee. He started to believe that whatever the asan did was superhuman. One day, after the massage, when the asan was leaving, it started to rain heavily.
‘Asan, how can you leave without an umbrella?’
‘Why do I need an umbrella? I will twirl this stick and walk,’ asan bragged for a lark.
After he said that, when he stepped into the rain, asan did open the umbrella in his hand. However, Manoharan’s mind was not willing to process that sight. All he saw was asan walking under a stick spinning overhead, without a single droplet hitting his body. The apprenticeship with the stonemason ended on the same day.
Manoharan was unable to follow the vocal syllables used by the guru for guiding his disciples’ steps and movements. Though Manoharan had suggested that he slow down the recitation, asans have their own pace of doing such things. Even the small children were stepping up to that tempo. Eventually, asan separated Manoharan from other disciples and let him set his own pace. After about six months, Manoharan made an announcement that shocked asan—he was going to start his own kalari in Perumpadi. Asan asked him, ‘Eda, do you know all the movements?’
‘Oh yeah, I learnt before joining here.’
‘Let’s hear a couple of vocal syllables of the move sequences.’ ‘Eyy, gurukkal, what do you need all these vocal syllables for?
Feet forward, feet back, bend, twist, turn isn’t it enough to say
these? I know enough.’
‘You little prick, upon all the gods of kalari, I shall not allow you to start the kalari.’ The gurukkal was adamant.
‘Gurukkal, for Perumpadi even I am too good. Shouldn’t they all learn kalari? Shouldn’t I earn my livelihood?’
Considering that any further conversation would be possible only if he lowered his own station as a gurukkal, he said nothing further.
Since Whirlwind was the owner, there was no cutting corners. The ground was excavated and sunk by four feet; the kalari training arena was laid out as per the traditional dimensions of forty-two feet by twenty-one feet; one-and-a-half-feet high mud walls bordering the kalari were built and on that, using bamboos and coconut thatches, the superstructure six-feet high; and in the south-west corner, a seven-level poothara, a platform for the kalari deities.
A few knives, swords, ottas,* and canes were procured and placed on the poothara. These arrangements left Whirlwind’s detractors in awe, and in spite of themselves they started to call him gurukkal. The kalari normally starts during the monsoon season. However, the location being Perumpadi and the gurukkal being Manoharan, it started in April. He managed to enrol about fifteen children as disciples.
With the opening of the kalari, Prasannan started to stock gingelly oil—until then it had no demand—in large quantities. He started to offer ready credit to Manoharan gurukkal. Receiving unwonted respect, gurukkal became a regular at Prasannan’s shop.
Two months after the inauguration of the kalari, a man came to Prasannan’s shop claiming he could stick together anything that was splintered. He was carrying a glue in a spiral, wound up like aluminium wire.
When Prasannan dismissed him with ‘Sticking, my ass, as if there is nothing else to do, scram,’ Manoharan, seated on the plank drinking tea, was immediately interested in the new gimmick and said, ‘Don’t go without showing how you stick things together,’ and made the glue-man sit beside him.
That made Prasannan recall the broken cooking pot lying behind the shop. Happy that at least one loss could be redeemed, he offered, ‘I’ll give a pot to be glued.’ He went to the rear of the shop and lifted the pot. The sight of something wrapped in the torn pall shocked him. Without showing any alarm, he took the bundle, shoved it between the banana plant stem and leaf stalk, and handed over the pot to the glue-man. By that time, using charcoal, the glue man had started an ersatz furnace in a small biscuit tin.
He ground the broken edges and made them smooth and even. Using the rod heated in the ersatz furnace, he applied the aluminium coloured glue on the broken edges and stuck them together. After that, he poured water into the pot; there were no leaks, not even seepage. The man instructed them that the pot should be used on the stove only after three hours. Prasannan paid Rs 25 for a sliver of the glue—the size of a matchstick—planning to use it in future.
After five hours, Radhamani boiled water in that pot to make fish curry. As she added Malabar tamarind and stirred the pot, it started to leak like an incontinent elder onto the stove.
When the fire in the stove was extinguished, Prasannan suddenly recalled the bundle he had found under the pot. He felt no animus towards the glue-man; nor did he believe he had been duped. All he could think was that the black magic was so malevolent that not even a breach in his pot could be repaired.
The next day, Radhamani got a low-grade fever. Before taking Radhamani to the doctor, Prasannan chose to go to a karmi* in Manathana. As he struggled to undo the knots, the karmi said, ‘This is no tyro, it’s done by an expert.’
When he opened and read the palmyra leaves, he understood it was a horoscope. However, the text added by Pittankanishan foxed him. Nevertheless, in order to vindicate his previous opinion, he said, ‘It’s a malefic thing done by including a rakshass’s† horoscope in it. Remedying it will not be easy. But we are lucky that it is not impossible.’
‘Are you able to divine who did it?’
‘They don’t belong to your place. Your enemies are from outside.’
‘Could be true. I don’t have many enemies in our place.
Whatever it maybe, please get rid of the jinx.’
On the prescribed date, for hours after midnight, all the rituals and poojas were conducted. Gritting his teeth, Prasannan had loosened his purse strings.
‘You have nothing to fear any more. Not only have I nullified it, I have built a fence of protection that none can breach,’ the karmi said with overweening self-confidence.
The next day, Prasannan observed all his customers closely; apparently, the tale of the midnight exorcism rituals had not reached them. If it had, there would have been searching questions. However, after he had swept the teashop, he was stunned by a question asked and statement made by Whirlwind, who had come in for a morning tea, ‘Prasanetta, has Radhamani chechi’s fever subsided? Be careful, she could have AIDS. We don’t know what diseases people bring into the shop. She interacts with them closely, doesn’t she?’
Whirlwind had no idea what AIDS was. He thought that it spread like common cold. However, since everyone else present there knew what it was and how it was transmitted, they laughed.
‘Your mother has AIDS.’
Prasannan had regained his confidence from the knowledge that the jinx had been neutralized. That courage made him unleash a roundhouse slap on Manoharan’s face, forgetting for the nonce that he was a kalari gurukkal. Mortified, Manoharan turned and ran into the kalari.
Getting into the lotus position with much difficulty, he sat in front of the poothura for a while, pondering which weapon to use on Prasannan. Finally, he decided that it had to be the otta—not because he was an expert user, but because none of the Perumpadi residents had seen it used before. In order to give them a taste of this weapon shaped like an elephant tusk, he took it up in his hand.
As Prasannan watched Whirlwind run towards him twirling the otta overhead furiously, he felt scared. To temper his fear, he stepped out of the shop and took up a large stone. That sight scared Manoharan too.
Manoharan thought it prudent to remind him the rules of engagement, ‘Prasannetta, you should not fling stones at someone wielding the otta. You may take up an otta yourself.’ However, since Prasannan had not been trained in kalari, he was not bound by such rules.
‘Run, …, I will break your single tusk with this stone,’ said Prasannan, and aimed the stone at Manoharan’s knees. Although Manoharan tried to stop it with the otta, it did hit his leg. Manoharan did not pause for further reflection; he flung the otta towards Prasannan’s head. It hit his right leg, instead.
With the words ‘Prasannetta, didn’t I warn you not to fling stones at an otta-expert?’ Manoharan walked back to the kalari.
Prasannan, whose femur had a complete, transverse fracture, was taken to the hospital by the people who had gathered there by then. After putting the leg in the cast, the doctor informed him that he would not be able to walk for three months.
‘President, he slapped me and also flung a stone at me. Yet I did nothing. However, as a weapon with integrity, the otta did find its target. Hadn’t I warned him enough not to tangle with the otta?’ At Reformation House, standing in front of Jeremias, Manoharan mounted a spirited defence.
Nevertheless, Jeremias decreed that since Manoharan had ignited the fight by slandering Prasannan’s wife and Prasannan’s hospital expenses had stacked up to a princely sum, he should pay Prasannan some compensation. Prasannan not only rejected Manoharan’s appeal for a remission in the compensation—in consideration of his readiness to massage Prasannan’s leg, after the cast was removed, with the kalari’s traditional liniment for such injuries—but also demanded that the outstanding dues, towards teas consumed by him, be settled forthwith.
Normally, when he saw that both parties were digging in their heels or that circumstances could not be ameliorated through dialogues, Jeremias quickly wound up the mediation talks.
The Manoharan-Prasannan dispute was one such. When he was trying to think of a way to end it, Puliyelil Clara reached Reformation House. Jeremias named a figure as compensation that was mutually acceptable to the parties, asked Prasannan to give Manoharan sufficient time to pay him, and brought down the curtain on the issue.
After drinking the tea and eating the jackfruit fries that Kathrina had served, Clara presented her problem.
‘You are aware, President, that my son Robin was working in a gold jewellery shop in Kannur.’
‘Oh yeah, you said that he was paid well and all that.’
‘True, he was paid well. They cared for him too; he was well regarded. He was managing everything in the shop. They are some kind of brahmins, yet, he was invited to every function at their home. I too have been to their house a couple of times. His boss has two daughters. He has fallen in love with the older one, a college student. I swear upon the Holy Mother, I had no inkling of this. I wouldn’t allow him to marry from another religion. What to say, president, last Saturday night he turned up with that girl in tow. I asked him what kind of idiotic act he had done and scolded him harshly.
‘The girl then started to cry saying she can’t live without him. To be honest, when I saw her cry like that, I too felt bad. So, I decided to let them stay with me that night. Robin said they would sleep together. I put my foot down. After she had been baptised and they were married they could sleep together or wake up together or whatever. President, shouldn’t we abide by the Church’s dictates? The same night, I went up the valley and made the girl stay in my sister’s home there.
‘The next morning, I found her father and relatives standing in my front yard. I started to tremble with fear. My son was also nervous. However, her father only asked him where his daughter was, and nothing else. I went and fetched the girl. The moment she saw her father, she started to weep. After asking her not to cry, her father spoke to us. Everyone already knew she had eloped. She was not going to find another alliance. They were agreeable to them getting married. I said, it’s true that we are surviving because of his salary. However, that doesn’t mean I am going to let him marry out of religion. She has to accept all our sacraments and get married in the church. He said all conditions were acceptable. It’s the first wedding in the family, he said, and that they wanted it conducted with pomp in a wedding hall. And the mangalasutra ceremony could be in some nearby church. I agreed to all that.
‘Then they said, there should be some assurance from our side. At least rings should be exchanged, then and there. We had no stock of rings at home, I said. They said that was of no matter, they’d brought the rings, and that could be deducted from the dowry. A solid ring, at least one-and-a-half sovereigns, she slipped onto Robin’s finger. He slipped another one on to her finger too. After fixing a tentative date for the wedding, they went away, taking her with them. Yesterday, Monday, when Robin went for work, the manager said he should meet the owner first. He says when he met the owner, he was not the same person he was on Sunday. The man abused him roundly and threatened that if showed up again, he would file a complaint that he had stolen the ring. He’s back home and in tears. What should I do, president?’
Jeremias kept looking at Clara as he turned things over in his mind. He then spoke, while pondering over the loss Robin had suffered.
‘Clara, every man is fated to get a particular woman. That’s whom he’ll get. Now you think about it. If this marriage had happened, what would have been your state? Would she have been a help to you? Do you think she would have stayed in this place, especially in your home? Whatever you might say, whether you consider our faith, economic status, domestic circumstances, place, or culture, only alliances that are suitable for us will sustain. If you can get Robin to meet me, I shall try to talk to him. Money, prestige, nothing matters; compatibility is the foundation of family life. We shall find such a girl for him.’
As he was ending his words, Jeremias’s mind was filled with another thought. Robin and his son Arun were of the same age. Now he too was of marriageable age; Jeremias had not been thinking of it only because Arun was away. Kathrina was concerned; she used to voice it occasionally.
‘Son, you should take care. You care for the people here; but no one will be there for you. Ours is a truncated family. A cursed family, as your father used to say. It’s been said that it will affect seven generations. We can only pray that nothing of that sort happens. However, you need to take care of Arun. He is living alone, far away from all of us, in an alien land. He has not seen a settled, happy family life. All my prayers to God are for him to have a happy family life.’
Only when his mother used to say such things would Jeremias think of his son. Was there really the curse that his father used to talk about? If indeed it were there, would prayers alone nullify it? Living as a family unit has to be learnt from doing so. Arun never had the opportunity. He should not have been sent away for his studies. Nevertheless, Jeremias could not have insisted that Arun should spend his life in this accursed Perumpadi like his previous generations. Jeremias was aware that he himself did not have an ideal family life to exemplify for Arun’s benefit. There was no point in agonizing over it. If it was in his fate to be married, he would find a bride too, as any other young man.
While returning after discussing the case of Charapadam Monichan’s daughter, Jeremias told Velu what had occurred to him, ‘Velu, kalyanam, that is wedding, means good or happy times. But, is it really that way? What have we seen in the majority of the houses in Perumpadi—complaints, disunity, tears, laments and suffering, right? If we search for the root cause, in most cases, we end up at incompatible marriages. Did Monichanchettan really have to get his mentally disturbed daughter married?’
Mental illness ran in the Charapadam family. It made finding her a suitable alliance difficult. Monichan tried his best to get her into a convent. However, the nuns in charge rejected her candidacy when they came to know of her mental illness. At that time, a proposal came from a family in Edathotty who had recently migrated to Malabar. No one knew of their provenance. Not that the Charapadam family were keen to find out about their roots.
The wedding did go through. On the first night, the girl bit off the groom’s ear. The issue eventually reached Jeremias. During the compromise talks, Jeremias said, ‘Return the gold and the almirah that you had received as dowry and drop her back home. And file a divorce petition.’
This statement put the boy’s parish priest’s back up. ‘How can that be? Whom God has joined, let no man put asunder. You should let the girl live with you. We can send her for some divine retreat. We have now retreat centres that cure things worse than this.’
After she returned from the retreat, the next organ that she chose to chew up was dearer and more useful to the husband than his ear. When the boy’s party reached Monichan’s house, Monichan told Jeremias, ‘I shall handle this now, president. You had given him a way out, hadn’t you?’
Jeremias remained silent. Taking his silence for acquiescence, Monichan filed a case against the boy, his sister and his father, alleging sexual assault. The complaint stated that the boy had affairs with other women and had attempted to murder Monichan’s daughter so that he could marry another woman. The police arrested the whole family and bundled them into the lock-up.
On that occasion, the vicar said, ‘That is not God’s law; it’s the land’s law. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’
As soon as the boy’s family was released from the jail, at the first opportunity, they sold their property in Edathotty and left for some unknown destination.
‘We call that most disastrous event of that boy’s life also kalyanam. God’s laws and man’s laws are together screwing our lives.’ Jeremias concluded the topic he had opened with Velu.
Months later, an example substantiating Jeremias’s view that marriages happen unplanned did show up in Perumpadi. Following Prasannan’s leg fracture, Suni had assumed part control of the teashop. That pleased Ranjit too. Prasannan had said he would maintain the cashbox. However, insisting that his brother-in-law should take complete rest, Suni arranged all amenities for him in the bedroom behind the teashop. Every evening he showed him the account books too.
‘He’s smart. He’ll manage everything well.’ Radhamani gave her testimonial on behalf of her brother. Suni started the practice of closing the shop on Sunday afternoons. Every Sunday, as soon as they closed the shop, Ranjit and Suni headed for the movie theatre. They would return late in the night. One Sunday, they left for the movies and were not back even the next morning. Radhamani had to open the shop and serve tea. Prasannan let out a string of invectives and, aided by a stick, limped his way to the table that served as the cash counter. In the afternoon, Suni and Ranjit arrived in a taxi. A girl was with them.
‘Aiyyo, isn’t this Appam Mary’s daughter?’ The words of a customer seated inside the shop could be heard outside.
‘Yes, it is, sonny, do you have any doubts?’ the girl turned on him.
‘A slight one. That’s now removed.’ He retreated.
‘What’s all this shouting in front of the shop?’ Leaning on the stick, as soon as Prasannan stood up with these words, the girl bowed down towards his broken leg saying, ‘Acha, bless me.’
‘You misbegotten…, what is all this?’ Prasannan directed his query at his son.
‘Father, I was suckered.’
Those few words from an overwrought Ranjit were the précis of the story that spread through Perumpadi thereafter. After the advent of Suni at the shop, uncle and son used to sleep on the same mat, and uncle used to narrate titillating stories to his nephew to put him to sleep.
Stories such as squeezing lemon juice over a woman’s private parts to check if she had sexually transmitted disease when she was his and his friends’ co-passenger on a truck on their hitchhiking trip to Bangalore; gifting a piece of jaggery to suck on and a children’s magazine to read to seduce young girls in the slums; during visits to a relative’s house in the Wayanad hills, since the neighbourhood’s only wet-grinding stone was in that home, how he took the friendly neighbourhood women who were using the grinding stone from behind, and with his rhythmic thrusts helped them grind everything to a fine paste. Inspired by those stories, Ranjit requested for an opportunity to be the character in such a story so that he could gloat among his friends. Suni said that if there was money such stories wrote themselves.
All Ranjit had to do was dip his sticky fingers in the shop’s cash-box. The rest—finding the girl, vehicle, place, everything— fell on Suni. Every Sunday their purported visits to the cinema were to create stories for Ranjit to narrate in his old age.
Suni was late in realizing that Appam Mary’s daughter, Preetha, had started earning independently. In Suni’s opinion, it was all for the good, for in the initial days her rates would be sky-high. That Sunday with her in the car, they had used the Periya Pass to enter Wayanad. At the twenty-eighth milestone, they were stopped for a police check.
‘They’re my nephew and niece. We are going to Thirunelli temple to worship.’
Preetha, seated in the rear of the car with Ranjit, did some quick thinking. She had started to hate her present life. She thought of her mother, who with no one to help her, was forced to push her too into the profession. Why should she not have a family life? To have that one needs to marry a loaded guy. In her present circumstances, that was a distant dream. This was a do-or- die situation, where the right decision could make her life.
‘Sir, that’s not true. Ranjitettan took me from my home promising to marry me. I came because he assured me this uncle seated in front too was aware of it. We are Christians, sir. I won’t be allowed into my home now.’
‘Aiyyo, I never promised to marry her, sir,’ Ranjit blurted out. ‘Then what did you promise to do, man?’ the policeman pulled open the door and demanded.
The police accompanied them to Thirunelli. The brilliant idea that there was no need to inform his folks and that later they could get rid of her by offering her some money was that of Suni. With his uncle as witness, Ranjit signed an undertaking in the police station that he would marry Preetha and take care of her. The police, on their part, gave their word to Preetha that if it did not happen, they would file charges against Ranjit for sexual harassment.
After mouthing a volley of the choicest abuses at his daughter- in-law prostrated now at his feet, Prasannan hobbled into his house. When he pondered over it at leisure, he realized no one among them was to be blamed for all that had happened. It was the black magic at its malevolent best. Who is a more powerful shaman than the one in Manathana? Or perhaps, what was happening in his family was beyond the powers of any shaman.
The next morning, Prasannan woke up at 3 a.m., as was his wont. Everyone else was asleep. Leaning on the stick, he walked around the shop that his father had started and he himself had nurtured without rest for four decades.
From an open sack, rice grains were on the verge of falling down. He rolled up the hem of the sack and turned it into a ridge to hedge in the grains. He picked up a potato that had rolled off another sack and put it back. He selected chillies that had started to rot and threw them into the bin meant for cattle feed. He closed firmly the sliding door of the almirah in which savouries were kept. He looked towards the room in which his son and his bride were sleeping. He then went out and started to walk as fast as his broken leg could carry him to a destination he himself did not know.
About the Book
Anthill centres around the people of Perumpadi, a remote village that has hidden itself from the world. Bounded by dense Kodagu forests on the south and west, and rivers on the north and east, and situated at the border between Kerala and Karnataka, Perumpadi’s very isolation attracted varied settlers from south Kerala over the years. The first settler on this land, Kunjuvarkey, was fleeing the opprobrium of getting his own daughter pregnant. Those who followed had similar shameful secrets. In a land of sinners, where no one pried into the other’s past, they were able to live and build a community without being tied down by society’s interdictions. Anthill, the exquisite translation of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi-winning novel Puttu, tells the story of a people who have tried to shed the shackles of family, religion and other restraining institutions, but eventually also struggle to conform to the needs of a cultured society. .
About the Author and Translator
Vinoy Thomas hails from Nellikkampoyil, Iritty, in north Kerala. A school teacher by profession, he is one of the most promising young writers in Malayalam. His short story collections include Ramachi, Mullaranjanam and Adiyormisiha Enna Novel. His maiden novel, Karikkottakkary (English translation soon to be published by Penguin Random House), was selected as one of the best five novels in the DC Books competition. His second novel, Puttu (Anthill), won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award for the Best Malayalam Novel of 2021. In 2019, Ramachi had won the same award for short stories. Vinoy has also authored a children’s book, Anatham Piriyatham. His short stories have been made into movies. He is also a gifted scriptwriter and has to his credit a few acclaimed movies.
Nandakumar K is a Dubai based translator.His co-translation of M. Mukundan’s Delhi Ghadaka(Delhi: A Soliloquy) won the 2021 JCB Prize for literature. His other translations include A Thousand Cuts, the autobiography of T.J. Joseph, which won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award; The Lesbian Cow and other Stories by Indu Menon; and In the Name of the Lord, the autobiography of Sr Lucy Kalapura. Nandakumar is the grandson of Mahakavi Vallathol Narayana Menon.
* Where kalaripayattu, Kerala’s martial arts, is taught in the traditional manner.
* A thick, curved truncheon made of wood used in kalaripayattu.
† A rakshass (short for Brahmarakshass) is an evil spirit that is born when a brahmin is murdered.
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