Ouseph’s gloom was accentuated by the rustling of dry leaves in the yard of his ancestral home. It was twilight and a movement near his feet made him glance down. He froze as he saw a little chameleon, climb up onto his designer shoe. It climbed up to his right toe, and tilting its head, looked at Ouseph with one bulging eye. Ouseph kicked wildly to dislodge the creature, and panting with fright, he found his gloom had been replaced by a series of shivers down his body.
“What am I doing here?” he wondered. He had last visited his ancestral house more than ten years ago, dragged there from Bombay by his father, who was keen on his child connecting with his roots. As a young boy, he had detested the countryside and his relatives; with their rustic stories and weird humour. Now a quirk of fate and the unexpected death of his bachelor uncle, had found the ancestral property bequeathed to him.
Ouseph lived ensconced in his techie world in Bangalore, where he spent his free time playing music and reading from his surprisingly large collection of books. His inheritance had come to him with the jarring notes of a thunderclap. But his now widowed mother had been firm, “Just go down, see the place and complete the legal formalities to make the property yours. Your father was attached to it and its worth quite a lot. Be practical and we can decide what to do with it later.”
He had travelled down from Bangalore to reach the remote countryside in Kerala at dusk. Pulling himself together from the reptilian shock, he knocked on the thick wooden weather beaten front door of his ancestral home. The door had creaked open into a dimly lit room, to reveal servants seemingly as old as the house itself. They had expected their new master to be young, but their incredulity at the sight of this gangly young man with tousled hair showed in their eyes. One obligingly took his suitcase from his hands but was surprised when he refused to part with his knapsack containing his laptop. He had been led to a musty smelling room, which did nothing to improve his mood.
The next morning, the sound of a broom swishing over the yard floor woke him up. Yawning and scratching his head, he stumbled into the smoky kitchen. A wood fire was burning, and Mariamma the elderly cook gave him a kind smile, and asked if he would like tea. With mug in hand, he stepped out of the house into the still misty morning. He wandered around the compound and looked anew at his inheritance. Noises unfamiliar to a city dweller assaulted his ears. The cow’s lowing seemed like a long drawn complaint, amidst which a rooster crowed, only for it to be picked up and repeated by another some distance away.
A sudden flurry of flapping wings drew his attention to the roof. He saw a startled covey of pigeons rise from the terracotta tiled roof. His eye then caught a single short piece of wire, suspended from a rafter under the eaves of the roof. He wondered if it was the remnant of an aerial wire from the bygone days of the wireless radio. He paused as he noticed a shabby looking ball attached to the end of the wire.
“It’s a sunbird’s nest,” whispered a voice from behind. He turned to see a sweeper women looking at him with laughing eyes.
“Oh!” was all Ouseph could muster. But as he gazed up again, he was rewarded by the sight of a little purple bird with a curved beak pop out of the opening in the nest. It sat there an instant; shimmering in the morning sunlight, and then with a whirr of its wings it flew away. “Oh!” said he again.
The sweeper smiled and said, “This pair has been nesting here for years, and has raised so many chicks in it.”
He had wrangled leave from his software company on the condition of continuing to work online. But he now felt so befuddled with his bizarre inheritance in the countryside. He struggled to handle its finances and could not figure out how the place worked. “I might as well have landed on Mars,” he grumbled.
Rummaging through a list of relatives, Ouseph reached his cousin Anish, who readily offered to introduce him to his lawyer. The lawyer, a frail elderly man with an old world charm in his manners, took the proffered will and asked, “You’re Jacob’s son, aren’t you?”
“You knew my father?”
The lawyer’s eyes twinkled, and he said, “Your father and I were schoolmates here.”
This little exchange was inexplicably comforting to Ouseph. The lawyer asked for two days time to offer his legal opinion. Anish and Ouseph walked back along the narrow country road. Noting Ouseph’s anxiety, Anish said, “We’re glad you are here and the property has come to you.” They walked on under the canopy of trees over the road; Ouseph in his designer clothes and Anish in his home tailored short sleeved shirt and a cotton dhoti (a wrap-around lower garment).
They parted at the gate to Ouseph’s place. As Ouseph walked through the tree shrouded compound to the house, his phone rang. It was his mother from Bombay.
“Yes Amma, I met the lawyer. It looks like it will take a few days.”
A lunch of steaming rice, a coconut milk based chicken curry and a clutter of home grown vegetables done, Ouseph wandered out into the compound. He found a quiet place under the wood apple tree. The tall tree threw a filigreed crown of gnarled branches and tiny leaves against the blue sky. Ouseph sat down on a moss covered uprooted tree stump. The floor was thick with layers of shed leaves. Its soft cushiony feel reminded him of his boss’s carpeted office in Bangalore. But here the similarity ended. The cry of cicadas filled this place, and a crow pheasant’s ‘oop oop oop’ sounded through the thick greenery. He let the events of the past few days run through his mind.
The days following were consumed by visits to sleepy government offices. His cousin guided the process and taught Ouseph the art of greasing the wheels of the government machinery. But strangely, Ouseph found himself looking forward to returning to his ancestral house, and to his evening walks through the quiet of the verdant house compound. He did attend to his work online, but his metabolism seemed to have synchronised itself to the pulse of this ancient house.
For Mariamma the cook, with her plump face and grey streaked hair, her new geek master had roused all her latent mothering instincts. But she now observed him with concern. Ever pragmatic, she decided he needed tethering, and began by suggesting he visit his neighbours.
The first was the Ayurvedic apothecary and doctor. There was no response to Ouseph’s knock on the front door. But the noise of grinding and thumping drew him to the side of the house. He walked into a drying yard, where medicinal herbs of various colours and aromas were drying in the bright sunlight. He saw an old man on the side verandah, bent over a mortar and pestle. He worked at a steady pace and seemed totally absorbed in his work. Fairly certain that the old man was his neighbour Krishna Vaidyan (an Ayurvedic doctor), he volunteered a hello, and was waved to a seat on the verandah. The grinding and pounding continued for a few more minutes. The Vaidyan then stopped his work and looked up. A pair of keen eyes from between an aquiline nose and bushy white eyebrows scrutinised Ouseph, “Well?”
“Oh, I’m Ouseph, your new neighbour.”
An expression of confusion was soon replaced by a smile of comprehension and a friendly laugh, “Yes, yes, I heard you had come.” And after a pause he added, “This is your home, this is your land. I am happy you are back.”
The phone vibrated irritatingly, “Ouseph, this is your uncle Scaria. I’ll be there by eleven tomorrow. I am coming to help sell the property.” Scaria was his mother’s brother, for whom Ouseph had evinced a distaste when just an infant. He was the last person he had wanted to meet. Politeness prevented him raising any objections to his uncle’s visit.
The next day a car drew up, and his uncle Scaria stepped out in an orb of strong perfume. Furtive eyes from below a sweat speckled bald dome crawled over Ouseph, and then Scaria patted his shoulder patronisingly. Drawing himself up, Scaria looked around the compound, and nodded in approval at what he saw, “How many acres did you say this was?”
The two of them spent an hour walking around the compound. Ouseph was impressed by his uncle’s detailed scrutiny of the place. “You have quite a bit of valuable timber here,” and then he indicated he would like to see the house.
Over steamed tapioca, red fish curry and fierier chutney, Scaria delivered his seemingly implacable verdict, “You will not be able to manage this house and property. It will be a white elephant to you. Sell it at the best offer you get, and go back to your computer world, Ouseph.”
The last sentence was tinged with scorn, but Ouseph ignored it with, “The paper work is not yet complete.” He did not feel the need to elaborate. His uncle left him with a foul taste in his mouth, and Mariamma who overheard the conversation, looked anxiously at Ouseph’s face.
Ouseph began to get unsolicited enquiries for the property. He called his uncle and told him that he had not consented to sell the property. It had ended unpleasantly with implied threats and ingratiating offers from his uncle of a good price. Ouseph had complained to his mother, she merely replied, “You know your uncle. I can do nothing from Bombay. Think about It.”
His uncle’s perfidy had stunned him, and he began to feel bullied and pressured. He met and poured out the story to Anish and the lawyer. The lawyer couldn’t hide his amusement at the predicament of his innocent young client, “Your uncle is an artful crook. We will have to watch him.”
As they walked back, Anish, far more experienced in the ways of the world, threw his arm over the shoulders of his young despondent cousin, “Don’t worry, we are all here with you.”
Dusk was approaching as the two of them walked past the temple compound. There was an unusual buzz around the temple. Anish mentioned that a temple festival was on that night. Ouseph gazed at the temple with its age old banyan and peepul trees, now silhouetted against a red evening sky. The raucous cry of flocks of mynas roosting in the trees filled the air. Hundreds of lit oil lamps lined the walls and the walkway to the temple. It was all doubly lit up in the reflection of the temple pond.
“Looks like a big do Anish!”
“Yes and there will be night long performances too.”
That night, as the lights in his house were doused one after another, Ouseph lay back in his bed and listened to the night noises emanating from his compound. The drone of cicadas had become therapeutic to him now. There were screeches from the mango tree, as fruit bats squabbled over the ripe fruit, and a great Indian horned owl kept up its forlorn hooting above it all. And then, a ripple of drums carried over to him from the temple. “Must be the Kathakali dance ensemble warming up,” thought Ouseph.
And in a while, the distinctive percussion music of the Kathakali dance began to pulsate through the night. It was mesmerising. Ouseph knew only a little about this traditional dance of Kerala. But he knew that it portrayed archetypal characters and situations from Indian mythology and folk lore. The stories were told through the medium of dance and music. The archetypal characters portrayed were always dressed typically, to make identification easy for the audience. A green painted face signified divinity, shining makeup purity, and black demonic and so on.
Ouseph wondered at the enduring appeal of this art form among the local populace. He thought of his own problem with his uncle Scaria, and fantasised dressing him up as a Kathakali artiste, “Maybe I’ll give him the demon’s black face. Or maybe the red beard of a villain would be more suitable.” Ouseph in his fantasy finally picked the black bearded villain, for that signified a scheming villain.
He put his hands behind his head and listened to the distant drum beats. He fancied his uncle Scaria gyrating and dancing with theatrical gestures of a slimy schemer. Ouseph had to admit his phantasm danced well; and at this he began to giggle. Ouseph’s giggling increased and he thought he was becoming hysterical. His giggles became guffaws and he rolled over and buried his face in his pillow to smother them. His paroxysm abated and he drifted into a peaceful slumber. His pillow was wet with the tears of his laughter.
Ouseph leapt out of bed in the morning with the thought that Benji and Maya would be there that day. They arrived to voluble greetings and back thumping. In the lazy afternoon, the three of them sat on the tree stump under the shade of the wood apple tree. Ouseph took his friends through the details of his difficulties with his conniving uncle, and of how he struggled with his unexpected inheritance. He said his mother too, was not sure he could manage the property.
Benji said, “Ouseph, this place is most unusual. Think well before you do anything.”
Maya agreed too, “This place has great bones for a resort.”
Ouseph knew he too was falling under the spell of the place. But he needed to make a pragmatic decision. As they walked back to the house, he showed them the sunbird’s nest. He got them to be silent long enough to hear the cry of chicks from within the nest.
Ouseph had come prepared to handle the legal aspects of his unexpected inheritance. But as he stayed on, the house and its world, began to appeal subtly to his imagination and emotions in ways unexpected. The old house, with its moss grown tiled roof sat amidst the trees. The smell of some blossom or other invariably lingered in the air. The cry of birds and farm noises seeped through the rich vegetation. An irresistible, palpable primal energy seemed to flow from the compound. And all of this seemed to exist within an intense quietness; like the brooding silence of a sacred grove. And within this nestled the ancient house, an inseparable part of it all.
The place whispered to any that cared to listen. The house built in the distinctive wood architecture style of Kerala, nevertheless showed Chinese and Arabic influences too; influences that had permeated because of the ancient maritime spice routes. Inside, paintings and fading photos of ancestors stared from their frozen frames.
The compound also had traces of the more recent past. A curious seeker would find here, growing cheek by jowl with indigenous trees, breadfruit from the Pacific islands, nutmeg and mangosteen from Southeast Asia, clove trees from the Molaccas and so on. It was a reminder of colonialism’s great botanical transplants of the past centuries. The heritage of his ancestral house was etched on it in myriad ways.
“Gosh!” exclaimed Maya, “it’s as if the house will always be here, and we are just passing through.”
It was then that Ouseph had this surrealistic feeling; the inkling that in the end, the decision would not be his. It seemed to have already been made in some strange way. This ancestral house seemed to be claiming him as one of its own, and every circumstance seemed to prod him to stake his claim and fight for things that he had earlier been indifferent to.
If some power grew this new symbiotic relationship between Ouseph and his heritage, then it seemed that events came cascading down to rivet it firmly together. It came on a morning as Ouseph was on the front verandah speaking with one of the servants. A white car drove up. The rapid opening of all its doors and the climbing out of several men set off alarm bells in Ouseph’s head. But he waited quietly for the people to approach him.
The leader smirked, “We have come to see a certain Ouseph.”
“I’m Ouseph; and what do you want?”
They climbed onto the verandah uninvited and sat down. “Scaria, your uncle sent us to look at the timber here. We understand it is for sale.”
Ouseph flushed and his voice rose, “Uncle Scaria has nothing to do with this property, and I have no timber to sell.”
The leader chuckled, rolled his eyes and tugging at the ends of his long mustache said, “We were warned that you would play games.”
Benji and Maya heard the altercation. Benji wondered if he should intervene, but Maya was out in a flash. She walked up to the chair besides Ouseph, sat down, crossed her legs and looked the apparent hoodlum in the face. Benji joined them too, and the sudden appearance of strangers, particularly of a determined young woman momentarily threw the visitors off balance. The leader began to say something, and then thought the better of it.
Ouseph saw one of his servants make a dash for the gate, but was too preoccupied to wonder why. He heard a shuffle behind him and turned to see the wide girth of Mariamma his cook behind him. She carried a wooden ladle in her hand.
“Who are you?” asked Ouseph.
“I am Chellapan.” The speaker then leaned back, as if awaiting a reaction. The name didn’t mean anything to Ouseph, but he heard Mariamma behind him draw in a sharp breath.
By ones and twos the servants and neighbours began to congregate. They stood quietly listening, but their faces glowered. Ouseph saw Krishna Vaidyan approach slowly. He was using a walking stick. Without a word, he climbed the steps to the verandah, and seated himself on Ouseph’s side. There was no mistaking his intention.
Chellapan made another attempt, “I know that you have made a commitment to Scaria, and I have paid him an advance for the timber here.”
Ouseph was surprised by the change in the tone of his own voice as he answered, “For the last time I tell you, Scaria has nothing to do with this property. If you have given him money, then take up the matter with him.” Then Ouseph heard himself distinctly say, “This property came to me through my ancestors, and I will not sell it during my lifetime. I will not violate it. I will pass it on as it is, to those that follow me.”
The visitors rose threateningly, but seemed unsure for the first time.
“And what is going on here?” It was a voice that was used to being obeyed. It was Lakshmiamma, the matriarch of the nearby Nair household. She was accompanied by two young men and she was sweating profusely from her barefooted walk to the house. All rose as she climbed the steps with difficulty. She lumbered across the verandah to the chair that Benji had vacated for her. She reached out and took hold of Ouseph’s wrist, and drawing him close to her asked the visitors, “Who are you?”
Mariamma sidled up to Lakshmiamma and whispered, “Its Chellapan.”
Lakshmiamma let out a short derisive laugh. Her snow white hair and the large vermillion dot on her forehead, set off her blazing mascara lined jet black eyes. She pointed at Chellapan and said, “I have heard of you. But before we drive you out, I want you to know something. We are here not just for our Ouseph. We are here because your conduct is a threat to us all. We will not permit such lawlessness in our area. So, when you go back to your rat hole, tell your bandicoot friends there, that we will break the legs of anyone attempting any such thing in future here… Now get out.”
Chellapan was quivering with rage and humiliation. But he looked around at the gathering of neighbours and servants. They reminded him of a wild elephant herd gathering around a vulnerable elephant calf. He was smart enough to know the game was up. Lakshmiamma had been explicit. But it was the unexpressed, simmering outrage of the gathering that really unnerved him. He turned his ire elsewhere and spat out, “We were set up by Scaria. Come on,” he roared, “Let’s go see Scaria.”
He strode out muttering obscenities under his breath. The crowd silently parted to let him and his lackeys through. And as Ouseph watched the retreat, somewhere in his own fevered imaginings; a Kathakali chant began. The accompanying drums and cymbals rose in throbbing waves to a crescendo. It was building up for the climax of Uncle Scaria’s final dance.
The storm broke at midnight with a crackle of thunder. It was followed by a wind that whistled through the many chinks in the old house and lashed at the trees in the compound; ruffling and driving their dry leaves in a stream. And then the rain came in as a steady downpour; and it lulled the household back to sleep.
Ouseph awoke to a pristine rain washed morning. He found his friends awaiting their morning cuppa in the dining room. Mariamma fondly served the kids, and just as Ouseph lifted his cup to his lips; Maya tremulously asked, “Would the sunbird’s nest have survived the storm?”
Leaving their tea steaming on the table, the trio scrambled out. They reached the nest and looked up anxiously. The nest, tucked under the eaves of the roof showed no damage. Amidst relieved laughter, Benji murmured, “Well, it seems that millions of years of evolution have taught the sunbird to build its nest in safe places.” Shining faces and gleaming eyes concurred.
Ouseph gave a little gasp and pointed up to a nearby windowsill. On it sat the brown and yellow mother sunbird, and next to her sat a chick. The chick was a male, and white downy feathers stuck out irregularly through his purple plumage. He was moulting. The mother bird signalled some anxiety at the chick’s first outing with little flutters of her wings. But the chick sat there calmly, as if he knew, that all he needed to do was to be true to that instinct within him; and then he would grow to be a perfect little purple sunbird.
 Maluku islands of Indonesia
PG Thomas lives in Kerala and loves writing stories inspired by his memories of life in the countryside of Kerala.
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