Sunday, January 21, 2007

The story of a story.

Linking the following:
*In September 2004, the seawater along some beaches of Kerala turned black and dead fishes were washed ashore. There was panic, and people avoided seafood. The discolouration vanished after a few days but till now, the scientists have not been able to explain the phenomenon. *The incident narrated in Komana Kadu (posted Jan. 11) *Astrology. See Three Predictions (posted Jan. 15) *Authoretative statements by my friend and advocate (late) Mr. K.Vijayakumar that horoscopes of buildings can be drawn up with great precision *Detailed discussions with Shilpi Babu (Thomas George, Architect) about Vaasthu. * Kerala government’s plan to build an express highway from one end of the State to the other. *The historical fact that the waters of the Arabian Sea receded at different times and people migrated to the newly formed coast. *Each fishermen community had a chief. *Many ancient houses are being bought and transplanted, mainly for tourism,
I wrote the following story:

TREASURES OF THE EAST
By Abraham Tharakan.

One look at the Arabian Sea in the early morning sunlight and I was unnerved. It was a dark blanket stretching to the horizon in sharp contrast to the white sands of the beach. The stench of dead fishes was just bearable because breeze had not picked up yet.

“Awful,” Maya, my colleague, said softly.

Several media persons like us were already there. The breaking news had been on from the previous day. The air along a three-kilometre stretch of beach near Cochin had suddenly filled with a severe stink around noon. A few schoolchildren vomited and fainted. Later, some adults too became afflicted. The fisher folk panicked as seawater began turning black and the waves washed ashore dead and dying sea creatures.

The locals who stood around tense and grim told us that Kadalamma, the Mother Goddess of the seas, was still angry. They didn’t know why. The people of that beach, they informed us, belonged to one clan and considered themselves superior to the other fishing communities. Their chief was traditionally respected even by rajas. They used to have special rites for Kadalamma, and for their ancestors.

“Can we meet your chief?” I asked.

“Won’t do you any good,” one of the men answered.

“Why?” Maya asked.

“He’s been mentally sick for many years. That’s why our rituals are discontinued.”

“Does he have any sons?”

“One. You’ll never find him sober.”

“See the chief anyway,” another person suggested. “Occasionally he’s normal for short spells.”

I phoned the office. The ‘sea stain’ as the media had termed the discoloration of the water, was extending further out to the west, but other beaches were not affected. The scientists had no clue about the phenomenon.

Maya was thoughtful for a while as we walked to the chief’s residence. Then she said, “Strange.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “What kind of scientists do we have?”

“May be it’s something beyond science.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you see, Ravi?” she asked. “This area is inhabited by a particular group. Their leader and his son are sick. The customary rites are disrupted. And this curious problem is confined to their fishing field only.”

“That’s a Brahmin mind at work.”

“Call it whatever you like.”

The chief’s wife received us. “We would like to pay respects to the chief,” Maya told her.

“So many people,” the lady said with feeling, “came to our beach from yesterday. No one else bothered.” She went inside and reappeared minutes later with her husband.

Maya told him that we were from Morning News and asked, “Can we take photos?”

The old man thought for a moment and nodded. “Get my baton,” he ordered his wife.

“Would you,” I asked, “care to comment on this problem?”

“This is,” he replied after a long pause, “only a warning. It’ll pass. But great calamities are coming unless –"

He was interrupted in mid-sentence as the baton arrived. It was a black, rounded wooden piece with a silver ring at the top. The chief held it in his right hand across his lap, sat back and ordered, “Take photo.”

Maya quickly clicked a few shots.

“You were,” I reminded the chief, “talking about calamities.”

The response came after a while, “Yes,” he said. “May be you can help.”

“Whatever we can, shall be done,” I assured him.

“The solution lies in the east. That’s where our treasure is. We must bring it back.”

“What treasure?” I asked quickly. “Where in the east?”

“Get a plane and -” The chief made a flight simulation with his baton. His wife was crying silently as she led him back.

“I’ll stay here, Ravi,” Maya said, “and talk to the lady alone. You scout the place and get some photos as well.”

I roamed around, keeping away from the waterline. The only interesting landmark in the otherwise monotonous scenery was a large grove with astonishing biodiversity. The pond beside it, a native who was there told me, contained sweet water.

The boss came on the mobile phone. “What’s happening?” he asked.

“We may be on to something,” I replied. “Reserve front page space for us.”

“Okay.”

“Can you get a historian’s comments about any migrations from the east to the coastal areas?”

“What’s this about?”

“Just a hunch,” I answered. “We’re starting in about half an hour.”

Maya briefed me on the way back. The chief had been telling his wife a story handed down the generations. His people had come to their present location from the east centuries back, leaving behind a treasure with a Brahmin family for safekeeping. When the new settlement was ready to receive the cache the incumbent chief was to collect it. This had to be done within a certain period failing which disasters would befall the community. Indications that the time was running out had been appearing frequently. The chief even attributed his sickness and his son’s aberration to the non-recovery of the treasure.

“Why doesn’t the chief,” I asked, “go to the custodians and get it back?”

“That’s the problem,” Maya replied. “Somewhere along the line, the details were lost. Today none of them know where they came from, who the trustees are, or even what the treasure is.”

“Makes a great story alright,” I said. “Do you believe it?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

The next day’s issue of Morning News was a great hit. The headline read, “SOLUTION LIES EAST, SAYS BEACH BOSS”. The chief’s picture was impressive. A brief article by an eminent historian confirmed that there had been migrations to the present coastline. The paper also carried a boxed item, offering a reward of one hundred thousand rupees for authentic information on the chief’s story.

Around noon a message came from one Vamadevan Thirumeni of Olavaip Mana claiming that he had important material on the subject. He wanted someone senior to meet him immediately. We went across straightaway since Maya had heard of this eminent Kerala Brahmin family.
Thirumeni greeted us at the front steps of his huge tile-roofed building.

“Ravi Menon,” I introduced myself, “This is Maya Dathan.”

“Maya!” the old man said, studying her. “Short form for Unnimaya. Some Brahmin ladies have that name.”

“My grandmother was one,” my colleague said.

“Maya is from Thekkanatt Mana,” I explained the background.

Thirumeni gave my colleague an affectionate smile and stated, “Devadathan’s daughter.”

“Do you know my father?”

“By sight. Never met the great lawyer.”

The old man led us inside. As soon as we sat down he said, “I’m the custodian that the chief mentioned.”

It was as simple as that.

“How do I claim the reward?” Thirumeni asked without waiting for our response.

“There’s a committee,” I answered, “to make the final decision. We can pass on the details to the members.”

“Before that, tell me why anyone should part with a treasure for one hundred thousand rupees?”

“There could be,” Maya answered, “several reasons. Fear of possible consequences?”

“At the age of eighty-nine, what retribution should I be afraid of?”

“Okay. An obligation, perhaps?”

“Precisely,” Thirumeni said. “An undertaking given centuries ago. Generations went by waiting to fulfil that commitment. This had to come up at least now because time is running out. I have only three more months in this world.”

“Horoscope?” Maya asked.

“Yes. There could be problems after that.”

“Like?”

“For one, after my death this Mana will not be here for long.”

“Again, horoscope?” I asked rather cynically.

“Of course. Horoscopes of buildings, separate from that of people who live in them, can also be drawn up with great precision. It is all based on astronomy and mathematics.”

“Okay. What are the other possible complications?”

“The question, after me who? I have no legal heirs.”

“Well,” I said. “How do we proceed?”

“I can return the treasure only if the chief requests and I am certain about the authenticity.”

“But the man,” I said, “is mentally sick.”

“In these matters there could be a divine intervention.”

We were silent for a while. Then Maya said, “The chief has appealed through us.”

Thirumeni looked at Maya thoughtfully. Then he closed his eyes and remained so for a long time. “Yes, Maya,” he said finally, “the chief has asked through you. That is sufficient. But I have to be convinced that they are ready to receive the treasure.”

“How?” I asked.

“I will know when the sign comes.”

“What exactly,” Maya asked, “is this treasure?”

Centuries back, Thirumeni explained, the sea extended up to a sacred grove three kilometres west of the Mana. The shore was inhabited by a colony of fishermen. Suddenly, due to some geophysical occurrence the waters receded for miles and took away their means of livelihood. That forced the fisher folk to shift to the new barren coastline leaving behind the remains of their ancestors who were buried in the copse. They requested the Mana to take care of their forefathers till the new settlement was ready to receive them. The Mana was also entrusted with all their lands as compensation.

“Oral tradition?” I asked.

“It was,” Thirumeni replied. “But in 1789 the then boss of the Mana had it written down on palm leaf. The document is well preserved. Should be sufficient proof for your committee.”

“There could be legalities,” I said.

“I am an only child and a bachelor.”

“That should,” I agreed, “make it easier. How will you transfer the so called treasure?”

“It’ll be a fistful of earth from the woods sealed in a pot.”

“A symbolic act?”

“No. The spirits of those sleeping there would be drawn into the sand by thanthric power and locked.”

“Many would be disappointed,” I said, “when it is known what the treasure really is.”

“Understandable,” the old man agreed. “But if it were material wealth, fighting for share would begin immediately.”

“Would you,” Maya suddenly asked Thirumeni, “hand over the pot or deposit it somewhere?”

“Grove,” the old man answered. “That is it. There has to be a grove to bury it.”

“There is,” I said elatedly and quickly fished out a photograph of the beachside woods from my briefcase.

One look at it and Thirumeni’s face brightened. “It takes a very, very long time,” he said, “for a grove to mature. I hope that the pond beside it has sweet water.”

“It has,” I said.

“That settles it,” Thirumeni stated. “I’m about to discharge the great responsibility of this family, as written in my horoscope. But I need seven days for fasting and prayers.”

“Very well,” I said.

“The other side too may have traditional rituals to go through.”

“We’ll inform them.”

“My abstinence,” the old man stated, “starts tomorrow morning. The sea stain is only a sign. It will disappear soon.”

Before we left, Thirumeni handed over a sealed envelope saying, “Please open it when your committee takes a favourable decision. I hope there will not be any problems or delay about the reward.”

The first thing I said on the way back was, “Eighty-nine years old and the avarice hasn’t subsided.”

Maya’s response was, “The obvious needn’t always be true.”

We visited the chief before returning to the office. Fortunately his condition was normal. We told him and his wife confidentially that the custodian had been located and what the treasure was.

Tears rolled down the old man’s cheeks. “The spirits of our ancestors,” he said, “are more important to us than any amount of gold or gems.”

“They’ll come to you soon,” I said.

“So many arrangements,” the chief continued, “have to be made. Suppose my mind goes again? You know how my son is.”

“Everything will be fine,” Maya reassured him.

By the time we were back at the office the Editor had the management’s clearance to disburse the reward. They had also decided to bear the entire expense for the function.
Maya phoned Thirumeni and told him that we were opening the envelope. It contained two sheets. The first read, “The money is to be kept with the newspaper for: (1) meeting the expenses for transferring the treasure, (2) giving treatment to the chief, (3) paying the chief a reasonable monthly stipend till the fund runs out.” The second sheet gave details of the arrangements to be made.

The event was a memorable one that attracted a great deal of media attention. Two days prior to the transfer of the spirits, the sea stain had vanished. There were festivities, but immediately after the rituals were performed Thirumeni returned with Maya and me.

When we were about to leave after dropping him at the Mana the old man said, “I would be delighted to see you often. Come whenever you can and make an old man happy.”

It didn’t take long. Two weeks later we were back there in response to a call.

“The proposed super highway,” Thirumeni said as soon as we reached, “is to pass through the middle of this building.”

“No,” Maya’s reaction was sharp.

The plan to build an expressway from one end of Kerala State to the other with World Bank assistance had generated a great deal of protest but the government seemed firm on going ahead.

“The engineers,” Thirumeni continued, “showed me the alignment sketch yesterday. They said altering the route would escalate the cost considerably and displace many more people.”

“But this,” Maya’s tone was still edgy, “is part of our heritage, a place of history. We must fight the move.”

“The local people also say the same things. But we should not obstruct development.”

“The first time we came here,” I addressed the host, “you mentioned about the Mana’s horoscope. Is that why this is happening?”

“Nothing happens because of what some astrologer wrote. Horoscope is a statement of what is likely to take place on the basis of planetary positions. Of course, there are superior forces that can change the readings.”

“Then,” Maya’s response was immediate, “we shall create or invoke such force.”

I got the impression that she would want to rush back. But instead, she asked Thirumeni, “Can I see inside of the Mana?”

“Of course my girl,” the old man promptly agreed. “Call a servant from the kitchen to show you around.”

Maya proceeded with an easy assurance. For some time Thirumeni sat looking at the door through which she went. Then he turned to me and said, “It is amazing how human destinies get entangled sometimes. Now this girl is inside the empty building. It should have been full of people but for the treasure and the astrologers.”

“What’s the connection?” I asked, rather baffled.

Years ago, Thirumeni said, he was in love with the sister of his closest friend. They were working together in a progressive group dedicated to social welfare, and met often. Since the families belonged to the same community and were of equal status there were no apparent impediments to their marriage. But at the last minute, the girl’s family astrologer brought up an argument that even though Thirumeni’s horoscope showed a possible life span of eighty-nine years, the core was that it depended on him discharging a family obligation, soon after which he would die. There was no indication when that call to duty would come. The bride could become a widow any time. The girl’s family backed out. Within days she was quietly married to a rich and powerful elderly widower who was known to be keen on the alliance.

“We did consider eloping,” Thirumeni said, “But there was this treasure and my inherited obligation. I had to remain here.”

“Was the astrologer,” I asked, “influenced?”

“That was one of the rumours those days.”

“What were the others?”

Thirumani didn’t answer, but continued a few moments later, “I don’t know how the horoscopes of that couple were matched. A month after the wedding the husband was totally paralysed.”

“Fate,” he added and lay back on the easy chair. “She was so beautiful,” he whispered and closed his eyes. He opened them only after Maya returned.

“I’m all the more determined,” Maya said. “We have to save the Mana. It would be criminal to demolish it.”

Thirumeni nodded.

“The lamp,” my colleague went on, “the servant said it’s called ‘Perpetual Lamp’, is beautiful.”

“Its flame,” Thirumeni mentioned, “is believed to be burning uninterrupted for five centuries and more.”

“Amazing,” I commented.

Maya’s story on the Mana was a masterpiece. The headline ran ‘Disputed Super Highway Project – BLOW OUT THE PERPETUAL LAMP?’ When I congratulated her she said, “There’s something I want you to clear,” and handed over Thirumeni’s obituary ready for press. I looked at her questioningly.

“His Karma,” she said, “is over. The end is near according to what he said.”

The write-up contained several details that I was not aware of. Thirumeni was a multifaceted personality. Maya said she obtained some of the information from an old lady who had come with her grandmother as bride’s maid and stayed on. She knew of almost all the old Kerala Brahmin families. Maya had also contacted some of the community organisations, referred to old publications, and talked to elders.

“We must,” I said, “visit Thirumeni soon and get an auspicious date marked for our wedding.”

Surprisingly, Maya did not respond. I felt uneasy about her silence, but decided not to pursue the matter at that moment.

Our next trip to the Mana was for the funeral, which was attended by many people from all walks of life. A group under the leadership of the chief’s son who looked well groomed represented ‘The Beach’. His father couldn’t come because of physical ailment. He said that before leaving, they planned to visit the grove where their ancestors had rested for centuries. Maya deputed one of our people to cover that gesture.

Suddenly we saw Maya’s father. He was about to leave when we caught up with him.

“I’m rushing to the airport,” Mr. Devadathan said. “Have an appearance before the Supreme Court tomorrow.”

“You knew Thirumeni?” Maya asked.

The lawyer nodded. “Great man,” he said and added while getting into his Mercedes, “He was very fond of you.”

Maya seemed to be thoughtful and waved feebly as the car moved forward.

Life was routine till an NRI businessman from Hong Kong called on us a week later. He congratulated Maya on her article about the Mana.

“Within couple of days after seeing it on the Internet,” he said, “I flew down and bought the Mana.”

Maya and I looked at each other.

“Thirumeni,” the visitor continued, “wanted it kept secret till his death.”

After a pause the man went on, “I’m having the building shifted stone by stone next to the grove. Experts are working out the details. The highway may or may not come but we can’t risk our heritage landmarks being lost.”

I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the stranger but it was Maya who expressed the feeling. “That’s very noble of you,” she told him.

“I don’t know what to do with the building after transplanting it. May be a research centre. There are so many ancient records there. And antiques. Your suggestions are welcome.”

Thank God it’s not another tourism project, I said to myself.

“Part of the purchase consideration,” the visitor explained, “is to be distributed among the staff and a couple of Brahmin social and charitable organisations. The balance is to be held in trust for the benefit of the fisher folk. Thirumeni wanted the two of you and Mr. Devadathan, the lawyer, to be the trustees. You’ll be receiving the documentation soon.”

“Mr. Devadathan is Maya’s father,” I said.

“Really?” the NRI asked. “A perfect gentleman. I engaged him for this transaction and introduced him to Thirumeni. We stayed there for three days.”

“You mean,” Maya asked, “my father stayed at the Mana?”

“Yes. Thirumeni and he got on famously – chess, classical music, and discussions on the epics! Even shared the same room.”
Maya shook her head gently.

“Well, coming back to business,” our visitor continued, “there is the matter of the Perpetual Lamp. I was very keen on buying it, but Thirumeni said it was for you, Maya. Let me know where you want it delivered.”

Maya nodded silently.

“Thirumeni also mentioned,” the visitor added, “about your marriage. He has entrusted with me a wedding gift for you. Do inform me the date.”

After the visitor left, Maya was unusually quiet and I couldn’t fathom the expression on her face.

“I would also like to know the date,” I said.

“After the customary mourning period,” she whispered.

“What do you mean?”

Maya turned to me slowly. “He was,” she said trying hard to be calm, “my paternal grandfather. I could feel a bond right from the beginning. But grandma’s old maid told me too late.”

My God, I said silently.

“The sea stain,” Maya continued with a quivering voice, “brought us together briefly and gave me a few moments to treasure.”

Suddenly she put her face on my shoulder and broke down.

ENDS.

P.S. After three of my knowledgeable friends including a published author rated the story high, I entered it in a short story competition. It was thrown out in the first round. I suppose that too many facts in fiction make the fiction lack credibility!
Critique would be appreciated.

8 comments:

Treesare said...

Very good reading! ENjoyed it. But the comment link is too far down for most readers to locate.
Happy writing!

- Teresa

Ashvin said...

Pearls before swine, Mr. Tharakan. Hope I didn't start a communal issue with that remark. I see you included your family names into the story....

Abraham Tharakan said...

Ashvin, I couldn't find appropriate fictitious names for the 'manas' in the story. Therefore I used 'Thekkanatt' and 'Olavipe'. Nothing more.

Ashvin said...

Appropriate enough....

Term Papers said...

I have been visiting various blogs for my Term Papers research. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information... Regards

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you, Term Papers.

bkartha2006@yahoo.com said...

It is a wonderful,touching
story. A few tears dropped out of my eyes, calling back the simplicity, honesty and trust which characterized Malayali Nampoothiri Thirumenis, the Chief and the Clan members who dwelled on the sea-shore --- gone for ever and ever. Thanks to Maya, her companion etc.

Abraham Tharakan said...

bkartha2006@yahoo.com, Thank you for the comment. Pardon the delay in responding.