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Book: Monsoon Mischief
Monsoon mischief is a book which has the capability of transporting you to a place and time that seems innocent and promises to elevate our life. And how does it achieve that. We get to see the slow evolution of a place, society and people through the life of Soorya – a protagonist who many times takes the shape of the backdrop of the story. Monsoon mischief has everything for everyone. It brings all our emotions to forefront without forcing us through any. It is a love story without an over the top romance. It is a coming of age story without one turning point but many subtle nudges that help our protagonist arrives where he, hopefully, feels at peace. It is a story of loss, without the feeling of numbness. It depicts differences in opinion without any conflict. It introduces us to strong characters but none overshadowing others. It is a story which leaves us all satisfied and yet hungry to know more.

I

The last time I had heard from Soorya was in September 2006, three months after he was forced to flee his magical Malabar village with his lady love. It is almost fourteen years now and all my attempts to trace and contact him, since, have failed.

During our Military days, it was believed that the friendship between soldiers doesn’t last beyond the guard room. However intense might be the companionship in the barracks, it abruptly ends, when one of the friends is posted out to some remote corners of this vast nation. A letter or two may be exchanged before all correspondences gradually fizzle out. But, surprisingly, our relationship outlasted our military tenure. We first met at the training centre, with our freshly shaped crew-cut, and then we were together again as fellow technicians, not once but twice, in different Airbases. So, it was a long time; long, long time together, by any service standard

Soorya was clearly a man of paradoxes. And I believe, it had something to do with his childhood; a sort of a fait accompli. He was brought up among extreme contradictions. So we need to first skim through his childhood days to appreciate the man and his character. To me, his childhood in that surrealistic Malabar village always remained a story straight out of folklore. I had indeed planned, on a number of occasions, to visit that mystical Malabar village, but as we often do with easily accessible and gettable things I kept deferring my plans each time, till one day when I suddenly realized I would never be able to take a look at it.

The dreamy village has already been wiped off this planet and it is impossible now to get a first-hand account of its rainy hills and fields. But the impressions, built on Soorya’s emotional sketches of those days, are still fresh and lively within me. I am just going to reproduce those images, as exactly as I can and, without interfering in the middle or attempting to moderate them. 

 * * *

II

The boatman’s oar splashed in a pleasing rhythm, breaking the incubating silence over the river with each swing of his arms. In the 1960s, Ambipuzha, like most other Malabar rivers, meandered clean and serene, swirling between rolling hillocks; misty in the morning, shining golden under the afternoon beams and shrouded in dark-silence when the sun dropped beyond the hills. For Soorya, crossing the Ambipuzha on that sunny evening would ever remain an unfading early memory of his life. Then seven or eight, he sat between his father Kunju and mother Parvathy on the thwart of the wooden boat. Parvathy held his shoulder tightly whenever the wooden boat rolled, groaned or creaked. A flock of green parrots with their curved red bills, parrots of the hills, larger in size and greener in colour, flew out from the drooping coconut leaves, made a semi-circle above the wide stretch of water, screeched, flew in the setting sun and disappeared into the woods. A few yards before the shore the lean boatman, with his pencil-thin legs below his folded-up dhoti, jumped into the shallow water and ran up to pull the bow to beach the boat, just like a farmer leading the bull with its nose ring. He kept holding it moored so that the boat would not float and roll over when passengers got out. There was no jetty, not even a pier. Soorya lifted his knickers thigh-high, helped by Kunju. The water was cooler than he expected and the river sand so soft under his feet, for a moment he didn’t want to move out. He felt a tickle on his toes when little fishes darted to nibble. Those ferried across hurriedly followed one behind the other, towards the trail on the mud-bank. On the shore, a red flag flapped on a tall bamboo pole. Soorya, at midstream, had seen the flag fluttering above the treetops, but he never thought it could be so high.

Chuvnna karayilekku swagatham, ‘welcome to the red shore’. Read the graffiti.

Next to the graffiti was a sketch-map, again in red, on a banner made of jute bags with bamboo frames that gave some idea of the topography of the new world. There are three villages on this side of the river and Aruvikkulam was the farthest one. 

Soorya couldn’t really recollect how he had felt about this whole process of replanting his family. But then it hardly mattered. In those days families never sought children’s suggestions on such things. Even otherwise, who could foresee such smooth ‘sailing-in’ on that afternoon would conceal a disastrous final exit decades later!

* * *

Kunju had recently joined as a teacher in the Eka Adhyapaka School (single teacher school) at Aruvikkulam which would go on to become the Aruvikkulam Upper Primary School in later years. He thought of bringing his wife and the child; so that he doesn’t need to cook, twice a day, and also the child can study in his own school, learn Mathematics and grammar under his care. He could not manage enough funds to own a house so he remained a tenant till his death and shifted houses whenever the landlord wanted a hike in the rental. Kunju was too respected a teacher to demand a rent hike from, so the landlords occasionally requested him to vacate their houses on the pretext of one or other reasons. In those days teachers were meagrely paid though they were well revered. It was only after Soorya grew up and started working, Kunju could save some money, yet not enough to own a house.

Aruvikkulam would long remain a red bastion, electing communist local self-governments consecutively for fifty years after the country’s independence; a record for unbroken democratic communist rule anywhere in the world. The name of the little village would be recorded in the annals of history for achieving this remarkable feat. Over the years two of the Aruvikkulam comrades, sons of soil made their way to the top and became government ministers. One of them, Narayanan Nambiar who held the cooperative portfolio, had founded Aruvikkulam Service Co-operative Bank and employed a number of comrades and some communist wives as clerks. The party did not demand any ‘donation’ or deposits of money from them, as is the rule for getting the white-collar jobs of clerks. But there was a catch; the employees had to pledge their family’s lifelong bondage to the party. They would be party warriors, ever ready to execute any task, from writing graffiti on walls during election nights or attacking and maiming the enemies of communism who infested the villages across Ambipuzha. The minister’s contributions are well recognized by the people of Aruvikkulam and the number of cement plaques, later replaced with granite ones, carrying his name in large fonts are proof of the work done by this proud son of the soil.

 The other proletarian minister was Choyi, who was fondly called Choyiettan and who remained a minister till he died. Once he became a legislator (MLA), Choyi shifted his residence to the city of Kozhikode and sent his children to study abroad but, never to forget his roots, contested every election from the constituency that included Aruvikkulam village. He was so popular in Aruvikkulam that his rivals never got two-digit votes from the area. Choyi allotted government money to build the school library building with a large wooden shelf to store books. The minister himself came to inaugurate the library and Soorya was the chosen lucky one to receive the first book from the minister’s hand; not just a spontaneous privilege accorded to a teacher’s son, but a rightful claim for a student who writes little poems on rain and rivers, and received prizes for his scribbling. Soon after the dear minister died in office, in dotage, the school library was renamed ‘Choyiettan Memorial Library’. 

 Aruvikkulam never had any other political party except the Red. The sickle-hammer-star fluttered at every vantage point. The only exception was the Tricolour, the national flag hoisted at the assembly ground of the AUPS (Aruvikkulam Upper Primary School) on every Independence Day and republic day. At the small intersection, from where the main road coming from Ambipuzha split into two small narrow roads before running on to opposite hills, stood the ‘statue of martyrs’, an installation made out of clay and red granite. It was here the Malabar Special Police during British Raj shot the seven revolutionaries dead, who were the pioneers of the communist movement in Aruvikkulam. The imperial police had long marked Aruvikkulam village in ‘red’ on the wall-map at its Malabar provincial headquarters at Kozhikode, for harbouring the dangerous leaders of the peasant movement. The revolutionaries were hiding in the Machu, the large wooden garret, of a nearby house. Choyi, then in his early twenties, was the youngest member of that unfortunate underground communist team. Only Choyi survived, what communists call, the infamous Midnight Massacre. When the colonial police raided the loft of that house, of a local feudal Nair- turned-communist at midnight, Choyi was at downstairs and the lady of the house hid him under her teak cot in her bedroom. Though there were suggestive rumours about the purpose of his visit downstairs at the unearthly hours, the party ruled out such spicy gossips, absolved him and ratified that he went down to get drinking water for his fellow comrades. The middle-aged housewife was summoned by the colonial police for questioning; a number of times, but finally she was let free. Five of the revolutionaries were shot dead in sleep; and two of them ran out and fell dead on the road, at the exact location where the installation later erected.

Choyi always had a knack of being at the right place at the right time, an essential skill, an innate trait so desperately needed for surviving on slippery slopes of political games. Although like a true communist he never believed in fate, he often advised his children, in a hushed tone, looking around suspiciously as if to prevent someone overhearing the secret theory;

 “Working hard alone does not guarantee success in life; you do need the lady luck to coyly smile on you”.

 The figure of a rustic woman and a man on the installation, a proletarian couple, symbolized the wrath of the oppressed. The couple, woman a bit fairer and lusher than the dark, plain and lanky man, looked up in unison at the raised sickle in their hand. On the eve of the Worker’s Day every year, the martyrs’ column gets a fresh coat of blood-red paint.

 A few years after Soorya’s arrival at Aruvikkulam his school was upgraded with more classrooms and addition of a number of teachers. The hillside was flattened to make a playground for the children. Being the child of a teacher Soorya enjoyed a special status in the roster. He was a well-known figure in the school, among pupils and teachers as well. A slice of honour which Kunju’s gentleness generated fell on him too, and he took special care to preserve the image, even at the cost of forgetting some naughty, funny school pranks.

* * *

* * *

Soorya’s horoscope was written too late, years after his birth, just before his school-leaving examination because his father Kunju did not show much interest and paid little heed to Parvathy’s persistent appeals. At last, a few days before the school final exam she scribed the time and date of his birth in a piece of paper and once again approached her husband.

“Now the child is leaving the school, let us know where his interest lies, in science or in art subjects?”

 Kunju indifferently pushed the note into his shirt’s pocket. After a few days, when he came back from school, Kunju smiled proudly, as if fulfilling her long cherished wish, and gave her the horoscope, written on dried palm leaves, nicely folded in a piece of old newspaper. She read and re-read the little sheets, like a researcher in an ancient text, trying to read between the lines and to understand the vague meanings behind the lengthy and complex sentences.

“The child is not going to stay with us for long”. She told her husband, disappointed.

 “Why? Is he going to Persia? At such a young age!”

He did try not to sound overtly sarcastic.

“I do not know. But the horoscope repeatedly says that he does not stay at one place for long”.

Then, what else?

“He will not be getting your help and support in life”.

“Oh. That is non-sense. He is my only child”. He laughed aloud.

 “So contemptuous at scriptures?” 

“Please don’t laugh like those communists”.

 “The child will suffer from decayed and ugly toenails. But he will live long” she ended on a positive note.

 * * *

III

Aruvikkulam literarily means a plunge pool or a pool formed by a brook (aruvi). The large temple tank on the eastern slope of the village is also called Aruvikkulam; perhaps the village itself inherited its name from the temple pond. Aruvikkulam is a triangular village. The three hills – one running parallel to the eastern skyline, and the other two emerging from the opposite edges of the eastern hill and almost joining together at their western ends form a perfect triangle. The pass, a narrow escarpment between the southern and northern hills at their western edge, makes the only entrance to the village from the outside world. It is through this narrow gap in the west an unpaved spiralling road, the artery that connects Aruvikkulam to the city forty miles away, enters the village. Around five miles off the village, the road is broken at Ambipuzha, a large river, and resumes on the other side of the bank. The western sea wind, perpetually blowing in from the distant ocean, funnels though the pass making the fold between the hills eternally windy.

Three hills forming a perfect triangle is said to be a geographical wonder and its glory even reached Europe, when foreign geologists visited the mountains, during the British era. The villagers have their houses built on the slopes of Aruvikkulam hills and they cultivate paddy in the isosceles farm in the centre of the hills. The wetland in the middle, when flooded during the rains becomes a perfect triangle reservoir. It is believed that Lord Parasuram came here just after carving Keralam (the land of Kerala) out of the sea by throwing his holy axe towards the wilderness of blue waters of the ocean. The myth says the sea receded till the spot where the holy axe landed, forming a narrow curved land between the Western Ghats and the ocean. Lord Parasuram reached the eastern slope of Aruvikkulam soon after the divine recovery, built a temple for Varuna, the Sea God. Then Lord Parasuram pressed his right thumb to make a depression on the hill, instantaneously digging out a freshwater pond, purest of the waters in the world, in an exact shape of a human thumb. Cupping the water in his palms, he offered it to Varuna in gratitude. Aruvikkulam, the pond, and the surrounding hills carved out of the sea by the divine enchantment, naturally had magic in its veins. During the course of its existence, things would happen, out of the blue and sometimes contrary to common beliefs and sensible reasons. It has been reported that colony of an ancient tribe inhabited Aruvikkulam. Aruvikkulam has many caves on its three slopes; speleologists and archaeologists came from distant places to study and investigate, took away its ancient residents’ tools and weapons to place them in their museums. In spite of years of research, they could not explain why only Aruvikkulam attracted early settlers while the neighbouring places did not have any trace of them. It is believed that the monsoon rains, otherwise the elixir of life, inundated the ancient men’s cave shelters for half of the year, forcing them away to the remote eastern rain shadow mountains of Deccan. Only the brave remained here, catching the frogs and freshwater fishes for survival.

* * *

 Centuries later, frog catchers would come, after the nightfall, with their Petromax (a bright lantern run on kerosene), trekking the fields.

 Soorya, watching the mobile illumination in the inundated field, as he prepared for sleep would say;

 ‘Yes, the frog catchers have arrived again’.

No one knew where they came from, regularly at that time of the year when the fields were submerged after the rains and when those little shapeless creatures started croaking using their balloon cheeks, in the dead of the night. It is said that the frog hookers have a wooden rod with a loop on it in one hand, the high-intensity lamp in the other, and a sack on their back. Soorya had never seen a frog catcher clearly but only their shadows, moving with the lamps, from a distance. The lights moved slowly on the narrow varampu (the farm bunds), dark monsoon waters reflecting the illumination, till the time he slept and when he woke up in the morning he could see no traces of them, till the next night deepened when those moving lights in the fields appeared again. During the day, sometimes, the duck chaser would come with his long stick, chasing a raft of ducks and ducklings or feeding them. The ducks in hundreds moved in an immaculate dynamic order making wavering circles and curves around the duck-chaser. Like others, he too comes from an unknown land, for at Aruvikkulam they only grow chickens and hate the smell of boiled duck eggs.

The seasonal visitors to the village never stop. They appear at a particular point in the cycle of seasons and fade away when the next arrives. They don’t seem to age, for one found similar folks appear year after year; like the large grey herons that fly in from faraway lands to wade in the field and one could not be sure if it was a different or the same bird that was seen last time. The palm reading black women in small groups, with their heavy undulating bottom and dark oily belly with attractive folds, carrying caged parrots and cards would come when the rains stopped. They criss-cross the neighbourhood, trespassing over the trimmed hibiscus hedges, forecasting good times. They come from beyond the hills and they speak Chentamil, (a local variety of Tamil), and smile lusciously, lavishly exposing their betel chewing teeth. The children gather around them and watch the parrot walking out of its cage through the small door with the little iron grills. The cards with pictures of gods and goddesses are stacked neatly in the tiny upper chamber of the wooden enclosure. The fortune teller then opens the chamber and spreads the cards on the mat and prompts the parrot with her left wrist moving in a circular motion to pick one that foretells the future of the housewife sitting in front of her. The forecast foretells – the bright prospect of her boy child getting a job as a government clerk, coming of a rich groom asking for the hand of their little girl in marriage, the time when her lazy husband would stop drinking the stinking Arrack and go for work again and the prospect of having good harvest next year.

 “Amma, the times will definitely change for good, before next harvesting season”, she predicts.

She can read her palm too for a special fee that may include one more unit of paddy or a whole coconut.

 When the chill in the air and wind deepens in the Malayalam month of Vrischikam, gaudily dressed gypsies sporting a long greying moustache and colourful turban on their head descend in the dusty market. Their bottles contain greasy black peacock-oil that the nomadic ‘Latans’ (quacks) claimed a panacea for all ailments and arthritic pains.

“This is genuine peacock oil”.

They show the fresh peacock feathers kept aside, as proof.

“We don’t practice quackery, but just disseminate and popularise the knowledge, gifted to us by our forefathers”.

When the gypsies depart and the summer sets in and when the children shoot themselves off the school to enjoy the great summer vacation, it is the turn of bicycle acrobats to enliven the nights of Aruvikkulam. A smoking generator kept at the makeshift circuit spited kerosene fumes to light up the tubes tied on coconut trees. Villagers said the cyclists ride their cycles nonstop, day and night, for days, and sometimes for weeks; but Kunju didn’t buy their claim, though he spared Soorya to allow him to witness the show once or twice.

“They play tricks on the villagers and make money”, he told casually, disappointing Soorya.

“No one has seen the acrobat riding the cycle eats or sleep, and no one knows how he passes urine and relieves himself. He only stopped for a while keeping his right foot over the front wheel of the bicycle without a braking system or a bell to ring”, Soorya countered.

 Next it is the turn of the tall, bearded perfume seller to make his annual appearance at Aruvikkulam. He comes before the fasting season begins. Unlike other seasonal visitors, he lets known his place of origin, as he claims he belongs to the land of Urdu speaking Sufis in the northern desert. His drooping salt-and-pepper beard gives his face an acute oval shape but fits well on his lean and flowing middle-aged trunk. He wore a green sleeveless jacket with silver embroidery over his white Kurta and a pair of hooked half shoes that resembled a couple of starved one-horned rhinos, thanks to their rough overuse. But the most striking item of his possessions was the attractive glass perfume box with glowing steel frames and rows of little bottles of ‘Athar’ and colourful incense tubes. When the long school bell rings children run out and curiously follow his fragile figure, carrying the divine fragrance around him like a halo, along the long stretch of the curly village road. He had fixed routine and regular customers who waited for his yearly visitations. When he opens his precious glass casket in front of the mosque, the children huddle around carefully scrutinizing his every action. It is a moment to watch. He slowly takes out the heavenly coloured little bottles, wipe them in a small velvet towel and, as meticulous as possible, just like handling a precious gemstone, places them carefully in the palm of prospective buyers. 

 * * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IV

A year after Soorya joined the high school on the other side of Ambipuzha (at the end of his education at Aruvikkulam upper primary school), government engineers from Kozhikode visited Ambipuzha with a proposal to construct a bridge over the river. The students were thrilled, because when the bridge would become a reality, they could walk over the river instead of depending on the ferry twice a day.

The news of river inspection soon turned crazy, going berserk like disturbed yellow wasps on the hills. Villagers were excited and the discussions, pro and against, continued for weeks.

“It will take two years to build a concrete bridge over Ambipuzha”.

 “The bridge will bring buses on our road. Our children will cross the river and study in town schools”.

“Don’t be foolish. A bridge is not a one-way gate. Outsiders will invade our peace and tranquillity”.

“When the bridge is completed, jeeps and Ambassadors (taxi) carrying homecoming Gulf returnees would reach their yards”.

“The roads of Aruvikkulam will have to be made wider for buses to run; and remember the government will acquire our land and coconut gardens for widening the road”.

“Don’t be so selfish; Gandhiji did not visit Aruvikkulam in 1937 just because there was no bridge. He left after speaking to the people on the other side of the river”, Kesava Kurup, an octogenarian and an odd Gandhian of Aruvikkulam, said supporting the need for a bridge across Ambipuzha.

“We all had gathered on this side of the river and I still remember Gandhiji standing among the crowd, draped in his simple robes, waving us from the far side. Although his face was not very clear I believed he was smiling”.

Then more than Gandhi, the left movement had impacted Aruvikkulam; Apart from the white Khadi, in which the politicians hide behind, and the photograph of the father of the nation hanging in the headmaster’s room of the primary school, Gandhi’s influence on the common people of Aruvikkulam was negligible. The outcasts and the oppressed easily jumped onto the leftist bandwagon and the left leaders created an image for themselves as victims and the hunted, even by Gandhi followers. The local leftist leaders, in those days, teasingly called Gandhi, “Mottakkanti” meaning ‘Gandhi with the tonsured head’. The lower castes united under the left banner and some upper caste people and zamindars joined them and immediately became their leaders. Some others hated the leftists but faked support so that their interests and wealth were not harmed.

 Nothing had ever influenced the people of Aruvikkulam, as the communist movement did. In the beginning, the comrade leaders came crossing the river. Like evangelists, the group trooped down, with side bags filled with notices, pamphlets and black and white images of revolutions from around the world. Sometimes they stayed at Aruvikkulam for weeks, hosted by well-off party sympathizers. They took night classes and spoke about the proletarian wars in which kings were deprived of their sovereignty, princes became paupers and plebeians became the rulers. The party office cum library stood at the dusty intersection where the road splits before heading to the hills. Every evening, gramophone blared out revolutionary drama songs, heralding a new dawn for the downtrodden. At the end of a hard day, the workers drank toddy to relax and listened to poet Vayalar Ramavarma’s blood rousing song ‘Balikuteerangale’ meaning Oh’ Martyr’s columns..! Comrades’ eyes filled with utter contempt towards the enemies. Martyrs were eulogized and the rivals were demonized. Red Flags were raised in the fields to signal workers to start working, and in the evening when the flag came down they would stop and leave.

 

 “The truth is that the Communist land reforms put an abrupt end to the bonhomie between the farmers and peasants”, landowners secretly murmured.

 

 “We promised you land reforms and its implementation marks the beginning of the end of slavery endured by the poor and the downtrodden for centuries”, asserted the evangelists, with euphoria.

 

“Farming and feudalism are twin sides of a coin. You destroy one the other would follow suit”, warned the farmers. 

 

“Land reforms have stopped the exploitation of the poor lower caste people”, declared the minister who had come, crossing the river in a motorized boat to address the villagers. He spoke about the necessity of workers to join the innumerable trade organizations.

“There are trade unions for government employees, teachers, students, toddy workers, priests, tailors, carpenters, tree-climbers, taxi drivers, artisans, and farm-workers. And if anyone is still left out we can develop new outfits for them or else they can be co-opted in the existing ones. Anyhow, all of you must join at least one of the wings”.

“The bridge will open up the world before you. The communist world, the proletarian world; Do you know how quickly our world is expanding? From the Soviet Union to China to Cuba to Vietnam! The colonialists will soon surrender and vanish. We all are waiting for a new spring to usher in; the communist spring. When the bridge is ready, comrades from the town will visit you more frequently. Rains and winds will not stop them. Their boats will not sink in storms. The news and images of revolutions from the communist world will reach you more regularly”.

 

At Aruvikkulam, neighbourhood meetings for the communist families were a routine and the attendance compulsory. Each of the three hills had separate neighbourhood committees for men as well as women and a few members from hill committees got promoted to the Aruvikkulam area committee. Donations to the party, even if meagre, were obligatory because the leaders believed when the workers donate a part of their hard-earned money, it is easy for them to identify themselves with the party. When you donate, you give away a chunk of your mind too. Three Granthashalas (small reading rooms), one each on the three hill slopes, were started, and the literate few read the party newspaper aloud and others listened. Books in Malayalam with hard-covers and smooth pages published by Prabhath Book House and Progress Publishers, Moscow, were supplied free of cost. Though hardly read, these thick books were revered as symbols of knowledge and power. Communist evangelists with voluminous books in their hands generated instant respect.

Kunju did not reveal his political affiliations after reaching Aruvikkulam. He had great respect for Gandhiji and he tried to inculcate ‘Ahimsa’ in his students by telling stories of the freedom movement. He disgusted violence and revolutions but he was well aware of his limitations too so he took special care not to reveal himself too much instead built a friendship with everyone.

The bridge was completed on time. Huddles erected, and notices displayed on both sides of the bridge to prevent bicycles on the bridge before the formal opening. Only pedestrians (no animals like cows and bullocks) were allowed to walk over the bridge awaiting inauguration. And finally, the minister came again, cut the ribbon, and walked across the length of the bridge, with his entourage. The whole Aruvikkulam gathered on the riverside. Children skipped schools and farmers postponed the harvest.

 * * *


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