Mornings in June are an out of the world experience if you are in Kerala. But for a school student it was always a nightmare. The onset of monsoon strangely coincides with the school reopening date in the state. And Kerala being the fortunate first place in the country the monsoon decides to hit after its long sojourn at the sea, it gives a feeling to the onlooker that it was sadistically waiting all the while for this reopening date. For Kids spoiled by the lethargy of a two month old vacation the drenching in rains was further exacerbating the ennui of going to school.
It was such a June morning and as a kid I was reluctant to get up despite my mother’s repeated calls. She finally came shouting with that hot utensil in hand threatening to press it down on my bum. A loving mother never hurts her child and I continued sleeping, this time pulling the blanket over the head. This irritated my mother and she executed the threat. I sprang up from the bed crying at the top of my voice but still defiant to get up. My persistence prompted my mother to check up if something is genuinely wrong and she gauged my body temperature which was unreasonably high. It was decided that I should not go to school that day, though the decision was mainly due to the guilt feelings of burning my bum.
It was fun to enjoy the sympathy and care when one was ill. Chappathis used to be a delicacy in down- south those days. My mother was the only one in that joint family who knew how to make Chappathis. So she used to make Chappathis with much pride. When one was ill, the general norm was he should stay away from the staple diet of rice. Either Kanji (Boiled rice in a semi-fluid form) if one is an adult or Chappathi soaked with sugar syrup if you are a child. I used to love falling ill, since I relished this kind of Chappathis. Things though took a serious note when fever grew to Mumps and it was really painful to gulp in the food. Being the cynosure of all the eyes is enjoyable otherwise, but not when you have a painful illness. But the care and angst in my mother’s eyes is the only takeaway I still have in my mind.
Summer vacations, though the summers in Kerala are not acute enough as they may in other parts, were a mixed bag of travelling, festivals and lot of time with the Grandmas. Our courtyard were more than a few acres and my maternal grandmother was very particular of maintaining that. The cashew crops and mango trees were particularly taken care of. Coconut trees being the main crop were always on priority, but unlike other house-holds, we took care of other crops as well. It was a pleasure to follow my grandma in her criss-cross of this courtyard. Stories, raw mangoes to eat, small fights with neighbours whose kids used to trespass for mangoes and cashews; these were the benefits of hanging around with the grandma.
It was one such sunny day that she was carrying my little sister in her arms and doing this dutiful ritual. And there came a cobra hissing. It was her sheer presence of mind that saved her as well as the little girl. That Cobra was killed by my cousin, inspite of strong resistance from all of us. We had three Sarpakavus (Snake deities) in our place and killing snakes were a big no-no for us. But my communist cousin never heeded to such superstitions. Within a few years he met with an accident and had his left leg twisted and fractured badly. After a long hospitalisation, he could walk normally but the grafted skin was struggling to take shape. It somehow was scaling as if a snake would. Grandma said “Yes I had warned you not to kill that snake”. Akin to my defiant cousin, the rational boy in me also rubbished the superstition aside.
But my Grandma came back strongly with her theory when another cobra was found in our well. She said this should the mate of the killed cobra and it wanted to poison the whole well. Don’t know how few drops of snake venom would poison a whole well. Many people including the neighbours flocked around the well to see the snake with a mission. But after a couple of it was never to be seen. We as a family of communist progressives ganged up again against a conservative Grandma.
It was not much later that her health started deteriorating. Decades of struggling as a widow to bring up four children had taken a toll on her body, which she was desperately trying to downplay. The Poojas and other rituals to appease the snakes went futile when she breathed her last. The whole village came to a standstill to bid farewell to their benevolent matriarch. I could see the feeling of loss in the eyes of our cows, our pets, and even the trees who were refusing to stand up to the rising sun.
Decades passed and my mother had taken the mantle from her mother quite successfully. The trees, animals, neighbourhood, all were happy with the new matriarch. Though the partitions had substantially reduced the size of the courtyard, it was still an uphill task to sustain it.
Earth waits for nobody. Slightest apathy from human beings it fills that space in its own fashion. Flora and fauna captures what was always rightfully theirs. I could see the partitioned and henceforth forsaken land by my mother’s siblings who lived abroad. It was nothing short of a forest. The pond which as a kid we used to swim and jump around was totally filled with filth and overgrowing weeds. The beaten down paths which I used to sprint on were not visible at all. The mulberries and sapodillas were not to be seen. Above all, the white saree-clad grandma was conspicuous with her perennial absence.
It was then that the first rumours of people having seen her in the courtyard started. Initially we pooh-poohed it saying that, it were the old people after being accustomed of seeing her for such a long time, still had her in their minds. But the instances of seeing her kept on increasing and it became difficult for us to trivialise it any more. My mother had no other option but to call up her sibling from abroad to seek her permission to clean up her part of the yard. After lot of tussles she finally agreed to bear the cost and gave the nod to erase everything on the ground and pave tiles, eventually to sell if off.
As the work progressed there was a black board tree which needed to be brought down. As the first axe fell on the stem, it was blood which oozed out of the crack. The workers ran away from there since black board tree was always linked with the ghosts. A bunch of villagers came to us asking us to stop the work. They said blood coming out of the tree is a bad omen for the whole village and we should first make arrangements to contain the free-roaming spirit. Our vehement opposition was to no avail. Free-spirits and the related stories always looked humbug to us. Seeing our opposition the villagers brought in the local politicians and threatened us. But that only made our resolve stronger. It was then that my elder brother donned the hat of an investigator.
The burgeoning gulf-money that was flowing seamlessly from the Arabian-gulf had already made Kerala a real estate hotspot. The real estate prices were unaffordable to most of the ordinary citizens. Only those who had some of the family members working in the desert could hope of buying land. Others were all on the selling side. It was some months before that one real estate agency had approached us to know our willingness to sell the land. But when we told that the land belonged to our relatives settled abroad, he wanted to speak to them. But we discouraged him saying that we could get him a response later.
My brother’s sharp mind suddenly joined the dotted lines. All these stories of ghosts had started floating around only after that enquiry. We came to the conclusion that all these were orchestrated meticulously by vested interests to bring down the land prices. And the hullaballoo by the villagers would catalyse the land owner’s decision to sell it off and finish off their headache. Now the task was to catch the culprits red-handed, yes literally red-handed.
It was a lunar eclipse day. The sky was unusually cloudy. I and my brother were out to try our luck to see the eclipse. But the clouds were playing spoilsport. We waited for some time and decided to call it a day. It was then suddenly some noises were heard from near the black board tree. We decided to inch forward like leopards and waited with bated breath. We could hear the murmurs from below the ground adjacent to the tree. It was pitch dark. We assumed that the eclipse is at its peak. The ground aside the tree was opening up and the dragging sound of wooden planks broke the surrounding silence. A silhouette walked towards the opening and said “hand me over the mannequin, we should dispose this off in the river before dawn’. The voice sounded familiar.
Earth’s shadow must have shifted away from the moon, we assumed seeing the gradual picking up of visibility. But it was heavily overcast forcing us to assume things. But suddenly the through the big gap between two clouds a highly handsome full moon gave us an eyeful. Two men were carrying a white saree clad mannequin. My brother who was a Kalari expert and martial arts teacher pounced on them like a panther. Before I could make out what was happening both the culprits were down on the ground. A Kalari expert knows where to strike to instantaneously ground a person. He shouted out to get him two ropes, which I fetched running.
The next day morning was a feast for the whole village. We had called the police beforehand to avoid any controversy and manhandling. The two guys admitted their crime and expectedly had done that to scare away people and bring down the land value. In fact their hands were red with the beetroot juice they were injecting into the stems of black board tree. The mastermind was the person who came to our house as real estate agent. They had bosses who were builders who were planning big residential towers at the spot mainly targeting non-resident Indians. The incident was celebrated by the local media.
Today again a couple more decades have passed. Time never waits for anyone. As part of a great social disturbance driven by political changes and the subsequent lack of jobs, my family migrated outside. The courtyard once a lush green space is a concrete jungle today, housing many well-to-do families. There nobody sees a white-saree draped woman trying to pluck the mangoes and cashew nuts, but I see her in my dreams offering me those freshly fallen mangoes. I don’t know what happened to those squirrels, rabbits and snakes, but I’m sure if they were around, they also, like me, should be missing my Grandma.
I wish there were a world, where children remained as children, mothers remained as mothers and grandmas remained as grandmas. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop.