Tuesday, March 27, 2007


It was still dark inside the house, when Kalyani opened her eyes. She groped on the window-sill next to her bed for the small table clock. It was 5:30 am. She looked around to see what had woken her up. The room she shared with her grandmother looked orderly. Everything seemed exceptionally quiet. Her grandmother, as usual, was outside on the veranda chanting her morning prayers and there was a cricket crying somewhere among the tiny bushes in the small courtyard outside, but these sounds only seemed to add to the silence. Kalyani looked out at the veranda. Everything was in shades of blue and black. The courtyard of dried cow dung looked disturbingly peaceful. She fell back on to her bed, still feeling groggy from sleep and thought about what had happened yesterday.

A cab driver from Dubai! Everyone was so excited. ‘I will see my Kalyani well settled before I close my eyes.’ Her grandmother’s voice rang in her ears. There was such a sparkle in her eyes when she said it. Mother was skeptical at first but as soon as she was told that he has never touched alcohol in his life, she was thrilled. Her own experiences had taught her enough about alcoholics. She would have chosen a pauper over an alcoholic for her daughter. Kalyani wasn’t excited about leaving her mother and grandmother alone and going to a strange country with a stranger, but then again she must get married and go someday, might as well be now with a person well capable of fending for her. Everyone said such a connection is hard to come by. The sun was up now and she must finish taking a bath and washing the clothes before 7.30. Her mother did not like it if she was late for breakfast.

She had just finished sweeping the floor and dusting the scanty furniture around the house, when she noticed a visitor at the door. ‘Radha!’ she yelled and sprinted to the door. They hugged and Kalyani pulled the visitor in to the kitchen. ‘When did you come? Has your college closed for the vacation? My god you have grown so thin. Don’t you city girls ever eat?’ Radha was the daughter of one of the richest men in the village and she had been Kalyani’s playmate since childhood, much to the disapproval of their parents. She was doing her first year of MBBS in a city down south. She stayed in the college hostel and it had been more than 6 months since she had visited Chenur in the onam vacations. They were of the same age but Kalyani had given up studies after tenth standard. Her family was neither as rich as Radha’s nor were they as enthusiastic about girls being more educated than their prospective husbands. And unlike her friend, she was hardly interested in academics, so she felt no remorse for discontinuing her studies.

‘I came in the evening yesterday. We have three days of leave because of a strike. Let that be. What am I hearing, you are getting married!’ Radha hardly sounded excited. Kalyani giggled at her shock.

‘Don’t get so excited. The wedding is not tomorrow. The proposal came through my uncle… you know the one who is a match maker? He told grandmother about it and they spoke to the other family. They are going to come and see me tomorrow.’ She went on to tell Radha all about the proposed groom.

‘Are you happy?’
‘Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘You mean you really want to get married so soon?’
‘What do you mean ‘soon’? I’m almost 17. Maalathi got married at the age of 15. She is 18 years old and a proud mother of two healthy boys. I also want to have my own family.’
‘But there is so much more to do in life before you get married.’
Kalyani laughed out loud at this. ‘Now you have started speaking like a city girl. You are studying and are going to become a doctor. What do I have to do? I’m the daughter of your house-maid.’
Before Radha could react to this, Kalyani’s mother entered the kitchen. Her face did not encourage amity. But at seeing Radha, she immediately changed her tone and graciously offered her tea or something to eat. She yelled at Kalyani for having made her sit on the rickety chair in the small kitchen. ‘I don’t know why you like to spend time inside this pile of mud and brick.’ She said to Radha. As she scanned through the kitchen, her eyes reached the sink were the vessels lay unwashed. Her mood immediately changed again and she caught Kalyani by the ear and pulled her toward the sink, ‘you haven’t even finished washing the vessels. What have you been doing? Is this how you are going to behave at your in-laws’ as well? Are you going to make me listen to insults from them? Why do you make life so difficult for me?’
Radha tried to defend Kalyani but to no avail. When the initial storm was over and her mother went out mumbling to herself, Kalyani said almost to herself, ‘May be it will be better for me to go after all.’
‘She will never get over the trauma of losing your father to that tramp.’
Kalyani let out a bitter laugh. ‘Ha! Losing my father? I never had a father. She never had a husband. He was jus a man who forced himself upon us, stole our money and went out with others like him, come home drunk and beat us as if we were pieces of iron in his workshop. The only good he ever did to us was to go away.’
Radha knew being in the house would only make Kalyani bitterer. They decided to go out and walk around in the woods. On their way, they met Maalathi with her son in her arms. They shared pleasantries and spoke for a little while and moved on.

‘She is happily married, isn’t she? You can see it on her face.’
‘Oh, her husband is a very nice man. He is very hard working and sincere and takes care of his family. He is hardly 25 but I hear he earns quite well in the city. I hope I will be like Maalathi one day.’
‘And you are hoping a cab driver is going to keep you happy. Don’t you have any ambition in life?’
‘You don’t understand. This is life for me. This is what I have to look forward to. The only ambition I’m allowed is to hope my husband doesn’t start fancying other women. What I don’t understand is why you have to waste so many years reading and learning and racking your brains when one fine day you will also get married.’
‘Because getting married is not the end of the world for me. I will work even after marriage. I will work and have children and manage a family and a professional life together, like most women do these days.’
‘And what do you get after doing so much, money? But you already have so much.’
‘No! It’s not the money. It’s the satisfaction of having done something in life, the fact that I can be independent.’
‘You have turned in to a city girl. I always knew there will come a time when we will not understand each other. We come from different worlds. Our priorities, our goals, everything is different. To you the world is full of endless opportunities and prospects. To me the world is my mother, grandmother and this little village where everything goes according to a plan; a plan that has never changed and has hardly any scope of changing: the men will work and earn money for the family. The women will take care of the children and the house and teach her children to become men and women.’
‘May be you are just scared of trying out new avenues. The world is changing and you need to change with it. That’s the only way to survive. Or else you get out-dated.’
‘But I don’t want the kind of change I see in you. I don’t want to gain so much knowledge. I don’t want to earn a living. I don’t want to worry about the entire world and forget about my family and friends. It’s true once you become a doctor, you will only have time for your patients. You will have to beg for time with your family. And even the time you get you will be worried about your patients. I’m sure you will handle it very well but I want peace of mind. I’d like my world to remain small. It reduces worries and makes life much more meaningful.’
‘So you will accept the proposal tomorrow.’
‘I don’t know. What if he isn’t such a good person as people say he is?’
‘But if he is, you will marry him?’
‘I’m still worried about my mother and grandmother. When I go they will be left alone here.’
‘May be you should leave them here and start your own life. May be you should get married.’
Kalyani looked at her friend with a knowing smile. Radha returned the smile. Then they both stared at the mud road that lay ahead of them. A little way ahead it split. One goes on further, up a little bridge over the river to join the main road that goes to town, while the other leads to the river. The river runs parallel to the main road. The two mud roads never meet.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Ghost Within

Meenaxi never had a dull moment; running around in her grand house, frolicking from one spacious luxurious room to another, climbing up and jumping down the narrow wooden stairs and playing catch-and-cook around the coconut trees and in the rice fields with her brothers. She was loved by everyone. There wasn’t a human in the little village of Telishery who could resist her adorable five-year-old giggles. Everyone loved to see little Meenaxi in her white petticoat with long curly jet black tresses bobbing up and down with her as she dances around the river side. And then she was lost........
“Meenu! Where are you?” It was lunch time and Meenu couldn’t be found anywhere. In and out of the numerous rooms Meenu’s mother and her two elder brothers searched frantically, but Meenu could not be found. “MEENU.....” the voice rang in the extensive grounds around their house but to no avail. Mr. Nair, Meenu’s father, who was the collector of the district, was called and told to come as soon as possible. The neighbours were asked if they had seen Meenu but nobody had. Some of them volunteered to help look for her. They went to every nook and corner of the village but in vain. Meenu was to be found nowhere.
While walking by the river side, Appu heard the men calling out to somebody. He went closer to them to find out who they were looking for. When he realized they were looking for Meenu he immediately ran towards them. Looking at the boy running towards them, the men thought he might know something. “Have you seen Meenu around here lately?” The boy nodded. He pointed to the west and said, “She was going towards the cottage in the afternoon. But after that I haven’t seen her.” This sent a chill down everyone’s spine.
“Why would she go towards the cottage.”
“There is nothing there but some trees and the cottage. She wouldn’t dare go into the cottage.”
Set amidst a bunch of mango trees which never bore any fruit, the cottage was a small structure of clay with a thatched roof a little away from all the other houses. It belonged to Ramanunni, the lunatic who had disappeared from the village many years ago. It was said he could speak to the dead and used to bring back messages for them. He would often go into a trance and tell a person that he had a message for him from the dead and for the message he would charge money. That was his living. Everyone used to be scared of Ramanunni, for he rarely brought good news. He never spoke to anyone unless he had a message for someone. He would roam around the village all day long and keep muttering to himself. Children would run away at the sight of him. And then suddenly, Ramanunni stopped coming to the village. Some said he must have taken ill and died, some said he must have abandoned his cottage and gone off to another village but nobody knew for sure what had happened to him. No one ever had the courage to go and look into his cottage. And hence his whereabouts remained a mystery.
Mr. Nair was reminded, now, about the number of times Meenu had asked him about Ramanunni. Meenu’s brothers had told her about Ramanunni one day, as a game to scare her. But instead of getting frightened she seemed to feel sorry for Ramanunni and wanted to know more and more about him. “It is quite possible that Meenu did go to the cottage”, thought Mr. Nair.
They set out immediately towards the cottage hoping to find her on the way or somewhere in the trees around the cottage. It was dusk by the time they reached the wooded area a little beyond the village. The trees hid the last rays of the sun. Although the men had carried electric torches, the atmosphere around them was eerie. The three men felt a knot of fear in their stomach, walking through the lonely path with the sounds of the cricket surrounding them. ‘Poor Meenu must be terrified all alone in this ghastly place.’ thought her father. The men proceeded slowly observing every movement, listening to every sound around them. The crunching of dried leaves under their feet, a solo whoosh of breeze that ruffled up the leaves in the bushes. Did that sound like someone’s in the bushes a little way ahead or was it just the wind? Is that moaning or just the dog howling?
Back home Mrs. Nair was in a terrible shape. She had been crying for hours together. She was sitting in the veranda and refused to move. But as the hours stretched on, there was no sign of either her husband or her daughter. The eldest son tried to persuade his mother to go in and eat something, but she refused. She refused to budge from her position. The neighbours’ wives came and tried to calm her but nothing anyone said had any effect.
In the woods, the men were quite close to the cottage. The woods had thinned down and they could see a shadowy structure ahead of them. About fifty feet away from the cottage they decided to go around it and call out to Meenu. Half an hour later there was still no sign of Meenu. “We have no other choice. We must go in.” said Meenu’s father.
“Are you insane? Go inside the house where Ramanunni lived? I will not do it.”
“Yes, you never know. This place is too scary for a man to live all alone unless he is practicing the dark arts.”
Although Mr. Nair found the idea ridiculous, he was also queasy about going inside the house. They decided to go a little nearer the house. As they walked closer and closer to the cottage they noticed a small dim light coming through the window. “He still lives there.” whispered one of them. As they got a little closer to the cottage, they heard a low moan coming from the cottage. It sounded as if someone was hurt badly. Fear gripped them. Shivers ran down their spine and spread throughout their body. What could it be? Who could it be? It was a continuous monotonous moan as if someone was chanting something incomprehensible and taking breaks in between for breath. Then suddenly the voice rose in a loud crescendo and then again went down to its regular pitch. All three men were rooted in their positions. They could not move an inch further. Sweat beads covered their faces. The electric torches now lay unattended on the ground at their owners’ feet.
Finally, Mr. Nair got back his bearings and mustering all the courage left in him, moved a little further ahead just enough to peep through the window. It was too dark inside the cottage to see anything but he could see a hooded figure resting against the wall. And next to the hooded figure he could make out a bundle covered with a white cloth. The moans seemed to be coming from the hooded figure. The source of the dim light was a candle which was almost extinguishing, kept right below the window. He could not make out anything but the hooded figure and the bundle next to it. He picked up his torch and pointed it to the window.
“Oh my God......”
Mr. Nair ran to the window to get a closer look. The small white bundle next to the hooded figure had legs emerging out of it.
“MEENU...” her father screamed and ran to the door. On hearing him scream, the other men also joined him at the door. The door was latched from inside but two hard kicks and the door gave away. The sight made all three men swear. The cottage did not have any furniture apart from a bed with a broken leg. In one corner of the room there were a few utensils lying scattered. The entire place had a dirty stench. The hooded figure lay there in the corner of the room opposite the window. And, yes, the little bundle next to the figure was Meenu, lying motionless on the floor. Her father ran to her and picked her up. “What have you done to my poor child...........?”
The hooded man lay there without a care in the world. He seemed absolutely unaffected by the whole scene. Meenu stirred as soon as her father picked her up. “I’m fine, papa. I was just sleeping.” Hearing his daughter speak, he had tears of relief in his eyes. “I must have fallen asleep. I was so tired after I came here. Please don’t be mad at me, papa. I will not ever come here again. I promise. But Ramanunni is not well, papa. He is very sick. All he does all day is moan and cough. He says he is going to die soon. What does that mean papa?”
While the child was speaking Mr. Nair had gone up to the man and taken off the blanket from his face. Ramanunni was never a healthy man. But now all that was left of him was skin and bone. The chanting they had heard were a sick man’s painful moans. “Meenu is right. He is very ill. We must take him to town as soon as possible. He needs to be hospitalized. Come. Help me pick him up.”
On their way back home, the men wondered if these were the same woods they passed just a while ago. The wind rustled to ease their fears and the leaves crunched under their feet to urge them to move on. In a sudden moment, the cottage lost all its eeriness and the woods around it looked serene.
The ghost was laid to rest.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Silver Bowl of Soup

Restless boiling turbulence,
Drawn in by the mystical fiery of the wind
Hiatus, a moment of sudden silence,
When I tear through me to find
A vast silver bowl of soup

It seems to say ‘come join me
On a trip to deep within you to feel
The warmth and love that be
The slayer of your miseries’, kneel
Before a vast silver bowl of soup

Forget existence beyond now
Let it wash every speck of doubt and let
The endless wall of orange endow
A peace in me that only the sea can set;
A vast silver bowl of soup.

Friday, March 9, 2007


“Come on Menakachechi, come fast. If we reach there before our mothers do, we will get to play in the water for longer.” I was being dragged along the same old dirt road again by my 5 year old cousin, Smriti. We crossed the little broken gate that divides our land from the others and trundled on barefooted on the soft mud and the tiny pebbles seemed to roll around in joy, as if at our arrival. The smell that tickled my nostrils was much too familiar. It was a mixture of mud, dried dung that was used to level the verandas of the houses and herbs. Everything looked green. A few leaves sported droplets of water which sparkled in the sun light. It had been raining sometime ago. . The same old houses with thatched roofs peppered the undiluted greenery around me. I had missed it all so much.
“Is that Menaka I see with little Smriti?” An old lady stepped out in to her verandah to greet us. It was Padmavatiamma, one of our neighbours, speaking in the very colloquial malayalam, i sometimes fail to understand. “I did not know you had arrived.”
“We landed just a few hours ago. Little Smriti here could not wait to go to the river for a bath. So I decided to take her before she gets too cranky.”
“That is nice. It is always good to take a dip in the river and go pray in the temple. And you will be just in time for the evening aarti. It is very nice to see you children again. How long are you here this time?”
“Hopefully for a fortnight.” By now Smriti had started to pull my hand forcing me to come along. Giving into her pressure I waved out at Padmavatiamma. “We really must be off now or else we will get late. I promise we will come visit you before we leave.”
“Yes, yes you must go. But keep good your promise. I will have some sweets made for you.”
And so we walked on until we reached the end of the road. Here there were huge boulders arranged to resemble steps so we could reach the riverbed below. The temple stood a few feet away from the ‘steps’. It was a small structure that housed the idols of three different deities.
“Menakachechi, tell me the story about this temple again.” Said little Smriti as we started descending the huge boulders. Although I have told this story to her over and over again, I did not hesitate.
“Well, legend has it that Lord Shiva sent his army of spirits, on his behalf, to build a temple on the banks of this river. Lord Vishnu, jealous of Shiva’s growing popularity did not want this to happen. ‘I cannot let this happen. ’ he said. ‘I must stop them and build a temple for myself.’
The army of spirits did not like to work in the daylight. They worked during the night and brought huge boulders to build the temple. Lord Vishnu came down to earth, hid under a tree and in the middle of the night and crowed like a rooster. When the spirits heard the rooster crow they thought it is dawn and in their hurry to go back to heaven dropped the huge boulders to be used for the temple on their way. These are the same boulders.” She pointed to the boulders they were climbing down.
“And what happened to Lord Vishnu’s temple?”
“Lord Vishnu attempted to build his own temple on the other side of the river. But when the spirits heard that it was He who had tricked them, they were so angry and cursed his temple to forever be in ruins. Till today, that temple remains in ruins. People have tried to repair it a lot of times but they never succeed.”
By now we had reached the riverbed. As soon as we stepped on to the sand Smriti took off her frock and dashed into the water. I was left to pick up her clothes. “Don’t go too far, Smriti. Stay close to where I’m sitting.” She waved back in agreement. So I settled myself on the sand and looked around me. The soft sand under my feet eased all the tension in my body. All the weariness of traveling in a train a very long distance was forgotten as I turned my head from left to right taking in the simple breath-taking landscape and filling my senses with it. The river flowed with a playful grace and let little Smriti enjoy splashing its water. A little distance away women took a minute off from their washing to watch the little girl take the real pleasure of swimming in the river, something they themselves had forgotten since their childhood. The light cool breeze brought their laughter to my ears. It sounded like a melodious tune to go with the atmosphere. Beyond the river, tall coconut trees and other bushes stretched as far as eye could see. And beyond that the clear blue sky, little puffs of white clouds were sprinkled here and there. The two words that sprang in to mind for the surroundings – magnificent and tranquil.
Suddenly I heard the whistle of a train from far away and its muted chug ensued. I tore my eyes from the sky to the trees below. And there it was, a train passing by. I could only catch small glimpses of it through the trees but I followed it till the end of my vision. Then the chugging got softer and softer until I could hear nothing else. I felt a tiny tingling run up my spine. I saw Smriti jumping up and down in the water, clapping her hands in joy at seeing the train. I let out a hearty laugh and felt the last of the tight muscle in my body relaxing.
I was in gods own country. And I felt his presence in every inch of the spectacle splayed around me. This was his creation. I was grateful to be a part of it. This place never failed to rejuvenate me, after a year long tension of the monotonous routines of city life. I was back in my hometown - Kerala.