Many thoughts rushed to my mind when I saw this creation by the Royal Painter Raja Ravi Varma by chance yesterday. It is titled ‘The Reaper’. An untouchable woman waiting for a boat with the paddy she has harvested, gazing into the sunset.
This is a scene we shall not see again. It belongs to another age.
I grew up in a basically agricultural background in the sense that we owned large stretches of land. I have watched the great changes that came about for 70 years and more. We still cultivate paddy, but on a smaller scale, actually, more for the tradition.
I wonder whether any community has contributed as much as the Pulayas to filling the granaries of Kerala. Some time back I wrote a short story with this background. The Hindu Literary Review (May1, 2005) commented on it “…tinged with sadness. A sense of longing for something lost.”
I am republishing the story here for the benefit of those who missed it earlier.
A short Story
Morning after the storm
Morning after the storm
Chathan sensed danger the moment a clap of thunder woke him.
Clouds had been gathering from early afternoon but the old man hadn’t noticed. He had dozed off leaning against a coconut palm on the bund that protected the rice fields from waters of the Vembanad Lake. He held a fishing rod made of bamboo stick in his right hand but the bait had long been nibbled away by unseen fishes. He had not felt any tug.
It had been bright and sunny when he had come there. That was after eating noon meal at the Big House. The lady of the house had told him that he could have food there every day. She was a kind-hearted person. But he went there only some times, when there was real need. Till a few decades back a low caste Pulaya like him could not even enter the compound of the Big House, but times had changed. Now he was allowed to sit on the open veranda outside the kitchen and eat. He had a separate plate, which he washed himself and kept apart.
Today had been a particularly happy one for Chathan. As he was nearing the Eastern Gatehouse on his way out, Thampran who was standing on the front veranda had called him. He stopped and bowed. Usually Thampran would be inside the house at that hour, reading or watching TV. It was as though he was waiting for the Pulaya.
“Chathan how are you?” Thampran asked.
“I am well, Thampran,” Chathan replied.
“Why do you walk in this hot sun? Wait at the gatehouse till it cools down.”
Chathan did not respond but his eyes filled.
“You know,” Thampran went on, “you are older than me. Take care.”
That was true. Thampran had celebrated his eighty-fourth birthday the previous month. They said it meant witnessing one thousand full moons. One of Chathan’s earliest memories was of watching from a distance along with other untouchables Thampran’s mother bringing the baby to the Big House after confinement at her father’s place. She had come in a boat that had a cabin. It was rowed by twenty-two oarsmen. A bigger craft carrying many boxes, baskets and bags had arrived earlier. Some of the baggage contained cakes, sweets, fruits and other delicacies. Most of it was later distributed among the tenants and workers of the Big House.
Chathan waited on the outside steps of the gatehouse for a while because that was Thampran’s wish. He did not like to be there for long because he would have to get up every time a supervisor came by. Now there were only three of them compared to more than a dozen during his younger days. Mathappan supervisor was the only one to whom he had not shown that curtsy. He had no respect for the man. But that was long ago.
A woman who passed by smiled at him. He knew that she was a relative but could not place her. She was wearing sari and blouse. Chathan felt amused. He could remember a young Pulaya woman being tied to a coconut tree outside the gatehouse and caned for covering her breasts in public. Only high caste ladies had the privilege of wearing a jacket or wrapping the torso with a shawl those days.
Mathappan supervisor was the one who had taken the initiative in punishing the woman. After that incident the then Thampran, the present one’s father, had ordered that all women of Kadep Island who wished to do so could wear upper garments. The high caste Hindus and Christians did not like it but none dared to question Thampran’s decision.
Chathan got up from the steps of the gatehouse and picked up the fishing rod and the coconut shell containing the bait of earthworms that he had left outside when he went in for food. Ants had got inside the shell. He threw out the worms and walked on. The sand was hot under his bare feet. A cool breeze blew from the west, carrying the smell of rain.
At a respectful distance from the Big House, Chathan stepped into a canal, took the sheathed knife from his hip and held it between his teeth. Then he trapped some small shrimp by removing his loincloth and using it as a net. With sufficient stock of bait he went to the bund, cast the line and promptly dozed off.
Now, with the thunder he was fully awake and alert. He unconsciously scratched his left forearm. That was something he invariably did when tense. His eyes were on the two-week-old rice saplings in the field where the water level was much lower than that of the lake. If the mud embankment breached and outside water entered, the plants would be wiped out. Many of them would get uprooted, die and float around. Others, which had rooted would decay underwater. There would be no harvest, no celebration, and not enough to eat till the next season unless one had money or the patronage of the Big House.
Chathan looked at up at the sky. Clouds covered it like a dark blanket. The breeze had ceased. The southwest monsoon had started with a couple of rainy days earlier in the week. But this time a severe storm was definitely in the offing. Chathan could sense from decades of experience that it would strike an hour or two before midnight. Now it was the ebb. High tide would begin around sunset and peak out during the gale. That would raise the water in the lake to a dangerous level bringing tremendous pressure on the dyke. The vulnerable areas of the embankment might snap.
Actually, crabs were the major culprits in this problem. However well a dyke was made and maintained, the crustaceans bore through it, creating small channels that would keep on enlarging as water trickled through them. One had to be on constant watch and repair such inlets promptly.
Someone was approaching over the bund. For a moment Chathan thought it was his grandson Maran whom Thampran had put in charge of paddy cultivation. But it was Maran’s eldest son. The old man felt a surge of pride and satisfaction. The boy worked in the port office at Cochin. It was Sunday, the only day in a week that he could be home with his family. Still he had come out to check the fields.
“How’s the bund?” Chathan asked.
“Can't you see it is still there," the young man rebuked and walked away.
Fool, Chathan said to himself, the boy doesn’t realize that it is food that is growing in those fields. Did his grandson know that once the people nearly starved to death when the crops failed? That was during a great war in some far away land. They were saved because the granaries of the Big House were thrown open. Now Thampran was left with only this stretch of fields after the government had taken away most properties of the large landowners and distributed them among the landless. Many who were left with smaller areas had stopped growing paddy because it was no longer profitable. They either left the fields fallow or reclaimed them for other purposes. But Thampran continued cultivation to maintain the tradition.
Chathan started walking along the dyke ignoring the lightning and thunder. Of the ten coconut trees he had planted on it to mark the tenth birthday of the present Thampran, only six remained. For some reason he had been called to do that job. It was shortly after his marriage. Those days no body had trees on bunds of rice fields because the shade was considered to be bad for the crop. Later on it became a common practice because the price of coconuts increased steadily.
The young Thampran had come to watch the planting. He wore a white dhoti with a broad gold thread border. A gold chain with a cross, adorned his neck. Chathan felt that the boy was also the color of gold. The supervisor escorting the young master had ensured that he didn’t go near the Pulaya. But after he grew up Thampran used to talk to Chathan about the trees that they had planted together. Those palms symbolized a bond between the two.
The old man carried on along the embankment looking for telltale signs. But his eyes were weak and the light was poor. He could not make out small details like bubbles on the water surface of the field or tiny waves spanning out from the bund or water seeping in. The only thing to do was to go home and tell his grandson to be prepared. Dykes didn't break often but one had to be on perpetual alert.
He stopped midway, at the sluice near the pump house. It was there that the bund had caved in for the first time in his memory. He had grown into a young man two years earlier. One night he had woken up to see people shouting and running to the dyke in heavy rain. He joined them.
Those who reached first jumped into the breach to form a human barrier against the gushing waters. Others that followed dived into the lake and came up with blocks of clay held against their chests and dumped them into the opening. The mud was reinforced with the fronds, hay and small branches of trees that the women had brought, pressed in by hand and pounded down by feet. The gap was filled layer upon layer and the crop was saved. Chathan had felt grown up and proud of having been part of the effort.
That was also the night of Neeli.
Before they left, the supervisors who had come to the spot had distributed some bottles of arrack. The crowd moved into the large thatched boathouse and the men drank. Women sat separately chewing tobacco and gossiping. A few of them had a sip of liquor occasionally. Chathan knew that it would go on well into the night. He didn’t fit in and wandered off aimlessly. By then the rain had almost subsided.
Minutes later he found himself in front of Neeli’s hut. They had practically grown up together. She was two years younger to him. One call and she was with him as though she had been waiting all the while.
Chathan pulled out a plaited frond from a pile and they lay down together in the drizzle. Afterwards Neeli cried silently, curled up against him. But Chathan was looking at the sky, at a lone star that shone through a gap in the cloud cover. Many decades later, whenever he recalled Neeli’s face he would see that star as well. Sometimes he felt that she was of that celestial body and had returned to it.
Soon Chathan and Neeli were married with permission of the Big House. Thampran allowed them to put up a hut on a plot beside the rice field. The arrangement had no permanency. Like the other tenants they too could be evicted any time without notice or giving any reason. But that rarely happened.
The first child that Neeli bore was a girl. Chathan knew that he was not the father. The day after the wedding Mathappan supervisor, a young man at that time, had called Chathan out from the hut in the evening and sent him to buy two bottles of toddy. They were to be left at the supervisor’s home. When Chathan returned a couple of hours later, no lamp was lit in the hut and Neeli was sitting on the earthen floor staring into the darkness outside. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. Chathan realized what had happened. Neeli suppressed a sob when he tried to touch her, and moved away.
There was nothing that a Pulaya could do about such things those days. It was part of their life. Chathan went outside the hut and lay on the sand. There was no star in the sky that night.
Everybody called the baby ‘White Neeli’. The whole of Kadep knew who her father was. White Neeli too grew up with the children Chathan and his wife subsequently had, and was married off in course of time. Mathappan secretly offered some money for the wedding, but Chathan refused to accept it.
Shortly after White Neeli’s birth, Chathan’s name was almost changed. A senior priest from Cochin came to the Big House with the local vicar. The present Thampran’s father summoned all his non – Christian low caste tenants and workers to assemble on the courtyard. The senior priest preached that they were all headed for eternal damnation and could be saved only if they became followers of the true God, Yesu Christhu. No one understood the sermon except the parts relating to what they would gain materially by becoming Christians and that interested many.
When the padre had finished, Thampran got up and made a brief statement to the gathering: “There’s no compulsion to convert. Each one can decide for himself.” He went inside without even looking at the cassocked men. The priest from Cochin was furious but went around pouring water on the heads of those who came forward, chanting Syriac mantras and gave them new names – Pathrose, Paulose, Mathai, Yohanan, Lukose and so on. Chathan remained Chathan and Neeli was glad of it.
After that came the much-publicized Temple Entry Proclamation by the Maharajah of Travancore permitting lower castes to enter temples and worship. Till then, they could not even walk past a temple though cats and dogs could. It hardly made any difference to Chathan who knew no gods except the elements. Neeli was happy however and began visiting the nearby temple often. But she always had to stand far behind the upper classes and wait till they finished their prayers.
Chathan’s reverie was suddenly broken by the question, “Why are you sitting here?”
He looked up. It was his grandson, the watchman of the fields.
“Bad storm’s coming,” Chathan said, “and it’s new moon tonight. The tide will be stronger too.”
“Don’t worry grandfather,” Maran reassured him. “The bund is solid. I’ve been checking regularly.”
Chathan gave him a skeptical look.
“Come, I’ve brought you some toddy,” Maran said showing the bag in his hand and walking ahead.
The old man followed slowly. His eyes roved over the field and the lake and the sky. He kept on scratching his left forearm. Paddy cultivation was still a labor of love for him. In the bygone days everyone was concerned and involved. Rice was sustenance. Growing it was a noble endeavor.
They used to have songs for every step of paddy cultivation – for sowing, for harvesting, for threshing, for winnowing and so on. There was a rhythm in the growth of a plant and a tune to the counting of the measures of grain. Those were simpler times when people lived in harmony with nature. But the music faded with the changes that came about after the big war, in more ways and forms than Chathan could understand.
The first indication came with the visit of a distant cousin who claimed that the King Emperor won the war because the workers of the world supported him. He also said that India would be a free country soon. According to him all land should belong to the tillers. He wanted to unionize labor and fight for their rights.
Chathan couldn’t fathom why anyone should be against a benevolent person like Thampran. The guest explained that Chathan’s lord could be an exception but most land owners and their people were exploiters and oppressors. Chathan thought of Mathappan. He drank heavily that night. Neeli tried to sooth him when they lay down but he pushed her away.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
There was no answer.
“Are you angry with me for some reason?”
“Not with you.”
They were silent in the darkness for a long time. Then Neeli spoke, “There is some truth in what that man said.”
“Our Thampran’s good though.”
“Yes,” Chathan agreed. But Thampran wasn’t aware of all the details. Most of the supervisors took advantage o their position and made money on the side. Mathappan was mean. He took sadistic pleasure in tormenting workers in several ways. And Chathan again heard Neeli’s sobs in the darkness of that night long ago.
“I’ll kill him,” Chathan said to himself.
Within a year there were Communist led uprisings at two places south of Kadep by agrarian workers wielding crude weapons. The army of Travancore Government cracked down on them with machine guns. No one knew how many died. Most of the victims were low caste workmen who were later hailed as martyrs of India's freedom struggle. The bodies were bulldozed into the several ponds in those areas and sand was dumped over them. People fled form the trouble spots. Leaders went underground. Chathan was an active member of the squad organized by the Big House to prevent runaways and Communists from entering Kadep.
The same year Thampran had a major problem. A large coconut grove belonging to him on a nearby island was involved in an ownership dispute. The contender was also a powerful person who claimed to be connected to the Maharaja. He came with the police to forcibly take possession. Mathappan who led the defenders was arrested. On hearing that Thampran went to the spot.
He asked Chathan to stand right in front of the police officer in charge and told him, “You knock down the person I tell you to.”
Then he turned to the law keeper and ordered, “Take off the handcuffs.”
The policeman looked at the commanding face of the six feet tall Thampran, the broad-shouldered Chathan ready to strike, and the crowd. He released the supervisor.
That night too, Chathan hit the bottle. Neeli sat opposite him quietly for some time. Finally she asked, “Would you have really hit the police boss?”
“I would’ve killed him if Thampran ordered.”
As the drinking continued, Neeli asked, “What’s the problem?”
Chathan didn’t answer.
"Is it about Mathappan supervisor?”
“Yes,” the man grunted. “Thampran could have used someone else instead of me to protect that man.”
Neeli put her arm on her husband’s shoulder. “You don’t understand,” she said. “Thampran purposely humiliated that leech Mathappan. You were made his savior.”
When Mathappan died a few months later, neither Chathan nor Neeli attended the funeral. That was against convention, an offense in fact, but Thampran took no notice.
Thunder had stopped, but the clouds remained. Chathan reached the end of the embankment and turned towards his house. It was no longer a hut. There were four small tile roofed brick buildings on that plot. The first one was his. It had a tiny outhouse in which he stayed. Maran occupied the main portion. Two belonged to his older sons who were both dead. There was another son, the youngest, who had left home in his teens and was never herd of again. Chathan kept hoping that the boy was still alive and would return some day perhaps as a rich man.
Looking at the last building, the old man thought of his third daughter, a simple and loving person who was the prettiest among all his girls. Many young men were keen on marrying her. Then a middle-aged person from the south, who was said to be an expert in building bunds, came to visit an ailing relative in Kadep. He stayed on. Everybody liked the polite and well-behaved Pulaya convert who went to church regularly. Thampran deputed him to check all the bunds in the fields of the Big House and give a report.
Those were the days when the Communist Party’s theater group was performing to packed houses all over the State. Their dramas and songs were very popular. The themes, the tunes and the lyrics focused on the travails of agricultural workers. They appealed to the masses.
After a month at Kadep the bund builder took permission from Thampran and started an amateur troupe to perform a different type of play at the next Onam, the harvest festival. Chathan’s third daughter was chosen as the heroine. The artists met at nights and rehearsed at the house of the visitor’s relative.
The play was never staged. Two months into the practice, the hero who had a real life interest in the heroine leaked out information that the drama master was actually conducting study classes for the Communist party. The visitor disappeared as soon as the news was out, leaving behind Chathan’s daughter pregnant.
In due course she was delivered of a baby boy.
One afternoon she dropped the infant while feeding, stripped off her clothes and ran out. Thampran arranged treatment for her at Cochin by a specialist. With medication she seemed to be normal but a new trend developed. She started sleeping with every man who was interested. One day she was found hanging from a mango tree. It was rumored that she had contacted some horrible disease. Chathan and Neeli brought up her son and it was for him that the fourth house was built.
Those buildings were their own homes on land that now belonged to them. A new law stipulated that landowners had to sell homesteads to the tenants at prices stipulated by the government. Chathan and his two elder sons were entitled to ten cents each, but Thampran had given the entire fifty-one cent plot. People said that Thampran was en-cashing what would have been a useless twenty-one cents bit of land. They didn’t know that it had been a free grant.
The houses were built with government subsidy and loans. Thampran also helped. Before the construction was over, Neeli passed away in her sleep. How many full moons had she seen? Chathan had no idea. Not that it mattered. She had come when he called, and they had been happy together. And suddenly she was gone. Birds died, dogs died, Pulayas too died. That was the end. There was nothing beyond. Chathan felt no emotion as he watched Neeli’s body being engulfed by flames. There was only numbness inside.
It was different later, in the darkness of the night. Lying sleepless on a single mat spread on the floor, he remembered Neeli saying the previous night that her major regret in life was that she could bear him only three sons out of the twelve children they had. Those words turned out to be her last. He felt sad and lonely. He had never stayed away from his wife for more than a couple of days at a stretch except when he had to live in a coffin for months together.
Electric lights were burning bright in all the buildings. Power was free for the Pulayas. The big TV of Maran’s son who worked in the port blared out loud music. Maran’s grandson sat on the front steps with a book. Chathan wondered how many direct descendants he had. He couldn’t recall. But he knew that the land in his name would be partitioned into tiny bits after he died. Now even a Pulaya had to worry about such matters. One good thing was that the newer generations had fewer children.
Chathan approached his great-great grandson and asked, “What are you reading?”
“English,” the boy said without looking up.
The old man felt proud. Pulayas too were learning the sahibs’ language. They enjoyed concessions and job reservations. But what was the use? Apart from a few exceptions like Maran’s son, most of them dropped out half way through school. They neither knew the work on land, nor were they qualified for any other job, and often ended up as trouble makers.
Chathan went to the outhouse and sat on the bed Maran had bought him. Initially he was frightened of falling off, but soon got used to the comfort. A bottle of toddy and a glass were kept in a corner of the room. In the olden days the opaque juice tapped from coconut trees and naturally fermented, was served in earthen pots and drank from coconut shells.
Maran’s wife came in. She looked younger than her age. “Here’s some hot shrimp and coconut chutney,” she said. “It’s nice.”
“Good,” Chathan said.
“I’ll bring dinner after some time,” the woman said and withdrew.
Chathan turned to the toddy. He drank slowly, savoring the flavor. It was good, not the adulterated version that was widely sold.
For decades Chathan used to visit the local toddy shop every evening. His usual quota was two bottles. But once he drank nine at a sitting. That was at an unplanned competition with a visiting Pulaya who bragged about his drinking prowess. The fellow slumped to the floor as round nine started. Chathan finished his bottle to the applause of the onlookers. Two of them had to help him home later. Chathan laughed aloud thinking of that scene and how angry Neeli had been.
When Maran’s wife brought dinner, Chathan asked her to call her husband. After the eighty-fourth birthday celebration Thampran had given him a bottle of brandy with a warning that it should be drank only a little at a time and slowly. Chathan had buried it near the front steps. When his grandson came, the old man asked him to dig out the bottle.
“I’ve rum,” Maran said, “which my son gave. Shall I get some of that?”
“No, I want Thampran’s.”
Maran brought the bottle. “Don’t drink too much, grandfather,” he cautioned.
Chathan laughed loudly. “During my coffin days,” he said, “I used to down a bottle of arrack a day.”
‘You were young then,” the grandson reminded him.
I was young of course, Chathan said to himself. He clearly remembered being summoned to the Big House one night during the tenure of the first Communist government in Kerala State. Thampran had received news that Party activists planned to take over a hundred-acre paddy field of his the next day claiming that he had no proper title.
The area was enclosed by a bund that had been raised from the lake decades earlier. A causeway connected it to the mainland, which was also owned by the Big House. Chathan remembered hearing at that time the Maharaja had complimented the then Thampran on his endeavor and exhorted people to emulate him to increase rice production.
The supervisor who was responsible for protecting the field took only four people including Chathan with him. They reached the place before sunrise and took their positions where the land-bridge joined.
By mid-day the aggressive, slogan shouting procession by the Leftists over the causeway began. Women had sickles in their hands. Several of the men carried red flags tied to short clubs. When the demonstration passed the halfway mark, the defenders released their surprise weapon – mouse rockets, the type that was hand launched during festival processions as part of fireworks.
The first salvo, which was aimed just above the heads of the marchers burst about the middle of the column. Slogans turned to screams. The second round was directed at the leaders. In a matter of minutes the attack was in shambles. No one was seriously injured.
Megaphones blared from the mainland, “Victory to the revolution. We shall take revenge.”
Chathan happened to be their first target.
Three men attacked him one night while he was returning from a temple feast. Chathan stabbed one of them to death and escaped, running straight to the supervisor’s house. He was immediately taken to the vicarage where the supervisor’s brother was the cook.
The siblings decided to hide Chathan in an unused broken coffin on the mezzanine floor of the large cemetery chapel, which was some distance away from the church. Every night the high caste cook carried food, water and arrack to the Pulaya.
Chathan had no idea how long it lasted but one day he was brought out of hiding. He was told that the President in Delhi had dismissed the Communist government and the Big House had taken care of the police.
The thunder was back suddenly. Chathan had a gulp of brandy and started his dinner of boiled rice and fish curry made the way he loved. He ate slowly, relishing every mouthful, and drank more.
His mind began wandering. What would happen to the Big House after Thampran died? Both his sons were in America. They were unlikely to return permanently. Anyway, the relevance of the Big House was fading. New moneyed classes and power centers had emerged, but no Pulaya was among them. Would his people ever become rich and powerful? Pulaya Christians were still without any real position in the Church though decades had passed since their conversion. Even the Communist Party was dominated by the high castes.
Suddenly the skies opened up. Rain came pouring down, lashed by strong winds. Repeated thunder and lightning rocked the earth. Chathan pulled around him an old blanket that the lady of the Big House had given, and took another swig from the bottle.
He saw a figure approaching, flashing a torch. It was Maran. Standing at the door wearing a plastic raincoat with the hood pulled over his head. He shouted to be heard over the din, “Water is only about nine inches below the top of the bund.”
“That’s bad,” Chathan said. “There’s risk till the tide turns.”
“Yes,” Maran agreed. “I’ll check again after some time.”
“Raise alarm if the level goes up by another three inches.”
Maran was silent for a while. “Who will come, grandfather?” he asked as he was leaving.
The realization sank in brutally. The boy is right, Chathan thought. Nobody would come. No one was bothered. The bund and the crop were at the mercy of the elements. There was nothing that the old man or his grandson could do about it.
Chathan drank more. Does it matter now, he asked himself. Even if the crop were wiped out, Maran would ensure that the old man had enough food to eat. Or he could always go to the Big House as long as Thampran or the Lady was there. He had spent his life for them.
Many events of the past came to his mind – Mathappan’s tyranny, squaring off with the police officer, defense of reclaimed field, the man who fell dead from the tip of his knife, his days in the coffin. Did all that have any meaning? Or, was his too a dog’s life to be lived through?
The storm raged on.
Where was Thampran? Chathan had a sudden urge to see him. But Thampran would be asleep in the comfort of the Big House. He wouldn’t come to check the bund. He was not expected to. That was the job for a Pulaya.
Nothing mattered now. It was the end of the world, the deluge. Drink and get knocked out. The floods would come and take him away.
He lay down with the bottle in one hand. After a while he heard the harvest song. It came from a distance but with great clarity. The music was back, carrying the pulse of nature with it. People cared after all. The granaries would fill. Haystacks would rise towards the sky. There would be dancing and games and merrymaking. “Hurry, Neeli, we’re late,” he called out and sat up.
There was no response. A gust of wind rushed through the room.
Where was Neeli? The curly haired, big-eyed girl that he had loved for so long? Oh, yes, she had died, Chathan remembered. He tried hard to recall her face but could only see the star, bright and shining – the star that gave life, the star that took it back. Yes, it was all in the stars. Written down. Fate.
The harvest song still kept playing in Chathan’s mind above the unabated fury outside.
The storm blew over some time in the night and the morning was clear without any trace of clouds. The rice fields looked like an extension of the lake. Two of the palms on the dyke were uprooted and their heads that once swayed proudly against the sky were now under water.
Chathan was found on the bund, lying near the breach. His lips were touching the wet clay as though kissing the earth goodbye.
A crow perched close by staring curiously at the body.