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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Mendicant- Avatar 3

this is a story i wrote in the 80s for Chandamama's The Heritage. noted Oriya writer Manoj Das was the editor. those days i would go and sit in the Chandamama office to edit a Rotary magazine. i met many great and interesting people in the office of Chandamama's editor and dear friend Viswanatha Reddi, Nagi Reddi's son. that also being the site of cinema's greatest triumphs, Vijaya-Vauhini studios and the breath of creativity still coating the air, it was a magical time. i wrote a couple of articles and one more story for The Heritage.

the mendicant got so many positive responses that when The Hindu and The Madras Players announced an all-India competition for plays, i wrote a play based on this old story of mine. it won first prize and got me seriously interested in writing for theatre. the play was Bow of Rama. it was directed by Noshir Ratnagar, a noble, wonderful director who passed away recently.

third time unlucky, though! when Manu Dash, editor of the Dhauli Review asked me to send him a story for its 5th edition, i sent him this one with a note about its previous avatars. he wrote back saying he has preserved all copies of The Heritage and he remembers reading this story: "30 years back. Old memories."
so i sent him an unpublished story, In The Name Of The Father.

this is the mendicant, avatar 3 as blog:

The Mendicant

A mendicant appeared in our temple one day.

He was dark and emaciated, and looked substantial only because of his long matted hair and beard. He held a trident in one hand and a begging bowl in the other. He wore a loin-cloth and his face and body were covered with ash.

I was reclining in the rickshaw waiting for the children to come out from school. It was a bright afternoon and I could hear the scream of the train passing four kilometers away. A hot breeze blew dust and bits of paper along the road. I sighed and wiped the sweat off my face. The entire village was sitting and waiting for rain.

People were commenting on the sadhu. “Now where has he come from? All sorts of people walk into our village nowadays!”

“He must be a holy man with powers. You remember that one who came two years ago?”
“All fraud! Come to fill his belly at the expense of our gullible fellows.”
“Great-uncle says he’s an avatar of Shiva.”

“Your great-uncle is like that. He thinks everyone is an avatar. That day he was showing me some large footprints behind his house saying they’re Shiva’s. Tell me, does Shiva have nowhere else to go? Does he think Shiva is a giant? I told him it’s only Kandan, that wrestler from Pandi, but will he listen?”

I lay back lazily listening to all this talk. I could hear the children playing and shouting beyond the school wall. Those two would soon be here. If they hadn’t been regulars I would have arranged another rickshaw for them. Chandran the fat one was all ready and waiting for anyone he could get. But it was a question of my daily bread.

I took out a bidi from behind my ear and lit it. My mouth was dry and the smoke felt sharp and bitter. Before I could finish the bidi there was a roar and the children were rushing out. I threw it away and sat up. Finally they came up holding their school-bags, Arun the plump little boy and his elder sister Baby who was in the fourth.

They seemed shy and slow in the midst of the noisy battalion. I helped the boy up and then we were off.

Their father Panikkar lived in a large ancestral house half a mile away. His wife’s family had lived in the village for hundreds of years and now Panikkar looked after their landed property and wealth. He was also the managing trustee of the school. As the children jumped off, their mother Revathy Amma appeared in the nalukettu. 

“Come, Chellappan, stop by and have some buttermilk,” she said and called out to a servant.

I dismounted, untied the towel from my head and wiped my arms and face. Revathy Amma disappeared inside with her children. She was a quiet gentle woman unlike her husband who had a nasty temper and a lot of power. Nobody in the village dared to cross him. His brother was the District Collector and lived fifteen miles away in Kottayam. Panikkar’s favourite threat was: “I’ll send word to my brother and then you’ve had it.” 

As a result of this the entire village looked upon the Collector as some sort of demon who could be unleashed at a word from Panikkar. Only a few had ever seen the Collector, but there grew a legend around him. “He’s six feet tall and bald-headed. His arms are like columns of iron.” Someone else said, “He has a one-foot moustache that sticks out like wings. His eyes are terrible. One look, and you’re paralysed.”

But there was one man in the village who had more contempt than fear for Panikkar. That was the timberman. I don’t know his real name, but everybody called him Mudalali, the Boss. He had a saw mill and a couple of lorries and was believed to be one of the wealthiest men in the area. The saw mill was the noisiest thing in our village and sometimes the high-pitched whine continued late into the night. Some people tried to get him to shift the site, but the only effect this had was the appearance of yet another shed next to it equipped with a similar machine.

Mudalali and Panikkar were always at loggerheads. There must have been some previous enmity. I have heard that they were actually brothers, Panikkar being the legitimate son, but I can’t say if this is true. Another story had it that Mudalali had been in love with Revathy Amma from the time they were children and he resented this man from outside who came and took her away. Anyway, the village was divided into three: Panikkar’s supporters, Mudalali’s supporters and those who remained neutral like me. I drove Panikkar’s children to school and back every day, and every week when the theatre on the road to Mankavu village changed shows, I took Mudalali’s wife and her sister and their children for the evening show. I suppose no-one felt I was important enough to be exclusively won over.

Seethakutty came down with the buttermilk. She laughed and said, “How’re you keeping, Chellappan?” as if she were my grandmother. Seethakutty was only fourteen and always laughing.

It was a large glass. I took my time and then handed it back to her. As I turned to go, she frowned and shook her head and said gravely, “Terrible things are going to happen here.”

“And what would they be, Madam?” I bowed my head in mock servility.
She jerked her head towards the house. “He and Mudalali are fighting in the school committee. Mudalali is also standing this year. God knows what will happen.”
“What will happen? One of them will win, that’s all.”
“Yes, but there’ll be a fight before that. Both are strong. No-one has ever opposed him before. Raghu chettan of Thekke Muttam says there’ll be a war. I’m really scared.”
“Nothing for you to be scared about. They won’t come after little girls like you! And just what are you up to with Raghu of Thekke Muttam?”

Seethakutty blushed and ran. But there was some truth in her prediction. Each side was sharpening its knives and discussing strategies and looking very important. When two members of the rival groups met, they snorted and spat contemptuously on the ground and walked away, or called each other names which, of course, was a prelude to a fight. 

Over the next two weeks tension mounted though there were no serious fights as far as I know. I didn’t bother too much about these rivalries because I like to keep sane as much as possible. There was no question of justice or rights involved here, just the whims and fancies of two stubborn men.

Two days later, I was sitting in the rickshaw waiting for the Kottayam bus to come when Chandran the fat one said, “That swami in the temple is no ordinary one, you know. He doesn’t speak or eat.”
“Doesn’t eat? Then how does he live?”
“I don’t know. Some of these holy men are like that. They come down from the Himalayas and they don’t eat at all.”
“I don’t believe it. Who told you?”
“Everybody’s talking about him. He stays in the temple all day and night.”

The swami was indeed turning out to be a mystery. As days passed, no one could get a word out of him and he would touch nothing that was offered to him. If anyone persisted in questioning him, his eyeballs vanished upwards and he made deep sounds in his throat. “He’s burping,” a young man said. “He must be filling his stomach after nightfall.”
“No, no,” said another. “He’s chanting Om, Om, Om. He’s taken a vow to say nothing else.”

I posted myself inconspicuously at the temple to test these theories. After about three hours I was thoroughly bored. He sat immobile and I heard him utter nothing more than those rumbling indecipherable sounds. I thought, perhaps these Himalayan swamis are different from our local ones.

Nothing seemed to affect him. In the evening, quite a few of the devotees who came to pray at the temple gathered around him and sang bhajans and chanted the Lord’s name. Several elderly people and women poured out their problems to him. He remained silent, staring unblinkingly at them. A retired schoolmaster said, “He doesn’t say a word, but there’s something strong and impressive about his posture.”

A sharp-tongued old lady circumambulating the sanctum caught sight of him and cried out: “It’s disgraceful, you can’t allow people to come naked into the temple!”

And in the afternoon, a crowd of young unemployed men whiled away their time making fun of him. But our sadhu might as well have been deaf. He sat like a stone statue, paying no heed to them. Only once did he falter. A young man said, “Show me your snake and the poison in your throat. Where is Ganga? Loosen your hair and let’s see! They say you’re Shiva.”

“Oh, he’s quarrelled with Ganga. That’s why he’s come down here.”
“Better be careful of him. Could be a cannibal. That’s why he refuses fruit and rice. No-one’s safe with him around!”

At that instant I noticed a pained look in his eyes, of a creature tormented beyond tolerance. Does he understand Malayalam, I thought-- or perhaps, there’s nothing he doesn’t understand.

As I said, two weeks passed in this way, with minor quarrels which were for the most part verbal, and the swami attracted a larger crowd every day. On the day of the election more than half the village gathered in front of the school. Baby and Arun sat on one side of the verandah dispassionately licking ice-creams while Revathy Amma hid herself in a corner. On the other side sat Mudalali’s family looking triumphant and confident of a win. I heard that some of the supporters had even sought the blessings of the swami.

A six-year old boy with a cloth bag ran nimbly through the crowd selling peanuts. A stall had sprung up selling lime-juice. It was a terrible day to be locked up in a crowd. Everyone was sweating. Many were fanning themselves with sheets of paper. I hoped the heat wouldn’t trigger off anyone’s temper. An important looking man with glasses walked around peering intently at people’s faces. “That’s a reporter from Kottayam,” Chandran told me. This challenge to the long-held post in the school committee was attracting a lot of outside attention as well.

Suddenly someone shouted, “The Collector’s coming!” There was a hush and then the cry was taken up. And sure enough, a jeep tumbled down the stony path followed by an Ambassador. A uniformed policeman jumped out of the jeep and ran to open the door of the car. Everyone waited impatiently to see this man of legend, the Collector, the brother of Panikkar.

A small harmless looking man in a cotton jubba and dark glasses came out of the car and waded through the crowd without looking at anyone. The policeman followed, shaking his stick at the curious onlookers pressing in. A schoolboy’s voice rang out loudly in the silence: “This is not the Collector. They’ve sent someone else by mistake.” The crowd murmured agreement, equally disappointed, then burst into laughter to let out their tension. The Collector walked straight into the school building, nodded briefly at his sister-in-law and rushed inside. The policeman followed, shutting the door behind him.

It was a long wait for the results though there were only ten or twelve people on the committee. By five, half the crowd had melted away. I found a cool spot under a tree and spread my towel and sat down with Chandran. At 5.30, one of Panikkar’s men burst open the door and shouted, “He has won! Long live Panikkar saar!” A section of the crowd cheered robustly while others began to boo and jeer.

In the melee that followed one of Mudalali’s men approached me. “You have to take Amma and the children home. Quickly.” Mudalali’s wife, a fat lady with a grim expression, and her children were standing behind him. I hurried away to get the rickshaw.

The ride to Mudalali’s house was in utter silence. Only once did I hear a small voice: “Why did Father lose, Ammey?” This was followed by a pregnant pause and then the small voice began to whimper. I pedalled on diligently. When I got back to the school it was completely dark. The sky was growling ominously and there were flashes of lightning. There were a few people still standing around. I found Chandran. “Any trouble?”

“No, but there will be. Now they say Panikkar brought a man from somewhere to cast a spell on Mudalali. That’s why he lost. And not only that, Mudalali’s son is ill because of his evil influence.”
I laughed. “He lost because he couldn’t bribe the members as much as Panikkar did. And the boy has a running stomach because he was stuffing himself with jackfruit yesterday. I know, I saw him.”
“That’s what they say.”
“They mean the mendicant in the temple?”
“Yes, I think so,” Chandran said.
“I must see if he’s all right.” I got back into the rickshaw. I don’t think I’ve driven the rickshaw so fast in my entire life.

The rain began as I rushed into the temple. The pooja was over and the people coming out scattered for shelter. The sadhu was nowhere to be found. Even the priest couldn’t tell me anything.

Finally, after searching for nearly forty-five minutes, I came upon him under a tree not far from the school wall. He was bleeding into a puddle of water and lay as if dead. I shook him and called out. His eyes opened and from his throat there came that familiar rumbling sound, emerging from the pit of his stomach. Turning my face away from the beating rain I pulled him up and said, “Please come with me.” But he could hardly walk. I propped him up and half-dragged, half-carried him to the rickshaw. For a skinny man he weighed a lot. I took him home.

For three days and three nights he lay in a stupor. When he regained consciousness I tried to talk to him, but there was no indication that he’d ever been initiated into human conversation. I disregarded his Himalayan habits and fed him rice gruel and tapioca.

On the fifth day, as I lifted his head on to my lap and fed him steaming gruel, uttering soothing words when he moaned in pain, he suddenly looked up at me and smiled. The smile shone through all that dirty unkempt hair and lit up his eyes. It was his sole expression of gratitude and then it vanished.

But that evening when I returned home I found him gone. I never saw him again.