The day in our village Neyyarinkara started early. By five in the morning most of the villagers would be at the river bank. We went there for our morning bath, to brush our teeth and wash dirty clothes. As I was eight years old, I did not have to wash clothes. I could also have done the bathing and brushing at home with the water from the well in our backyard. Mother did not allow me to go near the well. The river was a kilometer from our house. The street which ran across our gate ended at the river bank. During the sun light hours of the day, I ran up and down this road a thousand times. Running off to school, returning from school, going to the market to buy groceries – I knew every bump and bend on the road but in the dark of the early morning hours, I would hold on to mother’s hand for support.
At the river bank I recognized most of the people. They were the regulars. The village policeman was there. I could also see the teachers from my school and most of the shopkeepers. Even Raghu the village thief was there, bathing at a safe distance from Gopalan the policeman. Mother took a lot of time to finish her bath. First, she would wash all the clothes she had bought along with her. Then she would brush her teeth and finally take a dip in the gentle waters of our Neyyar. I would finish everything in a couple of minutes, come out of the water and wait for her on the sandy river bank. I loved to listen to the conversations of the elder folks as they stood there preparing for their bath. It was while waiting for mother to come out of the water that I first met the Moopan.
In Malayalam, the language we spoke at home, Moopan meant old man. The man was old. To my eyes he looked as old as my grandfather if not older. He was sitting inside his shop. It was more of a big wooden box than a shop. Wooden planks held together by rusted nails on three sides. A tin sheet on the top to keep the rain away. In front the shop had an opening. A portion of the wooden planks was cut in half and was held up by hinges. The old man was inside the shop at all times. There were ledges on the walls of his shop which had jars of different shapes and sizes.
“What are you doing here all alone?” the old man said as he spotted me standing there all by myself.
My first reaction was to slide away and go back to standing near the river. One look at him and I realized he could not be dangerous.
“I am waiting for my mother to come out.”
“What is your mother’s name?”
“Kalyani,” I said.
“Oh! you are Narayanan the postman’s son?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I have never seen your father coming to the river for his bath.”
“He has his bath at home. We have a well in our house.”
“And you like coming here so early in the morning?”
I shrugged and kicked at some sand which was lying in a heap. The old man smiled.
“Don’t you go to school?” he said.
“I am in the third standard at the Government Boys High School.”
“Are you good at your studies?”
“I stood first in the under ten boys athletics competition. I got a gold medal for that.”
“Does that mean that you are not good at studies?”
I winced. It was a trick question. I hated trick questions. Adults always had this habit of trying to coax answers out of us using such trick questions.
“I got a B grade in my exams. That is not bad, but I am better at sports,” I said.
“Your grandfather was also good at sports,” the old man said.
“You knew my grandfather?”
“We were close friends during our school days. I had to stop studies after the fourth form, he continued till his sixth. He stood first in all the sports competitions.”
“I got my gold medal for coming first in the under ten boys division,” I said happy that I was being compared with my grandfather.
I loved my grandfather. He used to play with me. He would tell me a new story every day. I used to sleep in his room at night.
“Grandfather is now in heaven,” I said.
“I know,” the old man said, “most of my friends are now in heaven.”
He became silent. The light from the single wicker lamp burning in his shop, added more creases to his face.
The Moopan’s shop specifically catered to the early morning bathers. Coconut oil, ummi- kirri powdered burnt rice husk which we used to rub on our teeth, small one-inch pieces of soap different brands for bathing and washing clothes – he only stored such items. He also stocked the stalk of coconut leaves with which we used to clean our tongue. All combined these essential ingredients for morning bath cost ten paisa per person. People found it easy to bring a ten-paisa coin rather than carry all these from home.
“Is my son troubling you?” mother’s voice stopped our conversation.
“Oh no! He is a smart boy. He tells me he is good at sports,” the old man said.
“It would have been better if he had paid more attention to his studies,” said mother.
Mother was always like that. Putting me down in front of others. She firmly believed that you should not praise you children before others. It invited the ‘evil eye’. I did not believe in the concept of an evil eye. Then you could not argue with mother. I could get spanked right there on the street. Father was easier to handle. I stood there, head bowed inspecting my toes as they played with the sand.
“Come boy lets go to the temple,” said Mother.
That part of the morning program was why she dragged me along with her every day. Father did not believe in God. Mother said he was a communist. I did not understand what that was but knew that they were happy people who did not have to get up early to go to the temple. I knew that I would also grow up and become a communist – anything that could get me a few hours of extra sleep. Not that the temple was a bad place to visit.
Our village temple was small but beautiful. It was in the shape of a square. A series of square shaped structures one within the other. In the inner most square was a small roofed house where the idol of the God was kept. Mother would stand at a distance along with other people all with still wet clothes and pray. Mother had taught me how to pray. I followed her instructions to the letter every day. My prayer was always the same. I would ask God to set easy question papers in the exam. It never worked. I knew God would have only himself to blame if I eventually became a communist.
Every day after my bath I would run up to the Moopan’s shop and watch as he served his customers. After he had served them all, he would turn to me and we would resume our conversations. I told him about school. How difficult mathematics was and how confusing science could be. I told him how much I enjoyed athletics and football. The Moopan told me about the rhinoceros beetle and the red palm weevil which could destroy coconut trees. He told me about his wife who had gone to heaven when he was thirty, leaving him with a son who had eventually run away from home – never to return.
One day as mother and I reached the river bank we found a crowd of people gathered near the Moopan’s shop. The shop was closed. It was the first time I had seen the shop closed. In fact, it was the first time any one in the village had seen the shop closed.
“Why has the Moopan not opened his shop?” someone asked.
“I don’t know. Why are you asking me?” someone else replied.
“I cannot have a bath without coconut oil in my hair,” said another person. I looked at the man and saw that he had about a hundred and fifty strands of hair on his head. There was not much that the moopan’s hair oil could have done for him.
The next day the scene was repeated but this time the number of people standing were far less. Some had come expecting this to be the case with their hair already greasy and small pouches of ummi-kirri. When the shop remained closed on the third day, people stopped asking questions about the moopan.
“Why is the moopan not opening his shop?” I asked mother on our way back home.
“I don’t know Kittu,” Mother called me Kittu, “maybe he has gone to heaven like your grandfather?”
I did not like her reply. It made me sad. I said nothing on the way back home.
That day after school on the way back home I took a different route. During my conversations with the Moopan he had told me where he stayed. It was a place behind the temple. Normally nobody used that road. Our temple had a paved street right outside its main gate. The other three sides were full of shrubs and wild overgrowth. I had to walk carefully to avoid getting cut by the thorny bushes. In a distance I could see a small thatched hut.
“Any one at home?” I said.
There was no reply.
“Is there anyone living here?” I asked again this time almost shouting the words out.
There was a faint cough from somewhere inside. Cautiously I went in the hut. It was dark inside and it took my eyes a few minutes to get accustomed to the light. The smell inside the hut reminded me of my grandfather during the last days of his life. Grandfather was always in bed during those days. He did not have the energy to walk around and sometimes soiled his clothes. The hut had that same smell. In the dim light I could make out the Moopan lying on a cot in a corner of the room.
“Don’t worry grandpa,” I said, “I will get someone who can help.”
I ran towards my house, half way through I changed direction and ran towards the post office. I knew that in a situation like this it was father who could be able to help better.
“Father….father, come quick. The moopan needs your help,” I said as I entered the post office.
It was a week day and there were people standing in queue at the counter.
“What are you doing here?” said father his head popping up from behind the counter.
“Father the old man needs help. He is not well,” I said.
“Which old man?”
“The Moopan. The old man who runs the shop near the river bank.” I said.
“How do you know that?” father asked.
“I went to his house. I saw him lying there in bed. He cannot get up. Hurry he needs help.”
“How do you know where the old man lives?” one of the men standing in the queue asked me.
“He told me,” I said, “Father please can you come now? He needs help.”
“I need the stamps and the envelopes,” said another man standing in the queue.
“My money order is urgent. My son needs the money for his college fees. He is staying in a hostel.” said a woman standing behind him.
Father looked at the clock on the wall behind us. It was two thirty in the afternoon. The post office was open till four in the evening.
“Today we will close early,” said father and the queue moved closer to the counter.
I waiting at the door. I could never understand adults. A man was suffering and all they could think of was stamps and money.
“Kittu go home or your mother will be worried,” said father. He also called me Kittu at home.
“I want to come with you,” I said.
“No. Go home take my tiffin box with you and give it to your mother,” said father this time his voice was firm. I obeyed.
“Where were you?” mother was at the door step.
I told her everything.
“Why did you go inside that old man’s house?”
“Amma, he is not well,” I said.
“Have I not told you not to trust strangers?”
“Amma he is old and sick.”
“Kittu he could have hurt you,”
“Amma, he reminded me of Appupan,” I said. I could not stop the tears as they poured down my cheeks. I repeated, “He reminded me of Appupan.”
Mother smiled and bent down and lifted me up.
“Such a big boy and you still cry. Don’t worry your father will take care of him. He will take care of the Moopan. See! you are so tall when I carry you your feet touch the ground!”
I laughed in spite of my tears as I saw that she was right. My feet were touching the ground.
The shop remained closed after that. Every morning I would stand near it as I waited for mother to return after her bath. Somewhere in my mind I hoped the old man would come and open the shop. I knew that it was not possible. Father along with a few villagers took the old man to the hospital. He sat there besides the old man for a few days, coming late at night. Every day he would tell us what the doctors had said about the old man’s condition.
One day father came home early from the post office. I was playing in our courtyard. As I ran in father caught hold of me and picked me up. He kissed me on both cheeks. I was embarrassed. Father never behaved like this. It was mother who hugged and kissed me and I hated it.
Father handed me a package wrapped in an old newspaper. He asked me to open it. I tore open the paper. Inside was an old photograph of two boys.
“Do you know who that is?” said father pointing at one of the boys.
I looked carefully but did not recognize the face.
“That is your appupan – my father. And this is the Moopan standing with him,” he said, “this is a photo of them from their school days. In fact, this is the only photo of my father from his school days that I have seen. The Moopan wanted you to have this picture. The Moopan died today in the hospital.”
Father choked as he said it. Mother was standing there listening to him. I could see tears rolling down her cheeks. I felt sad too. Then I looked at the photo. A photo of two boys holding hands, laughing at the camera, not a care in the world and then I felt happy again.
I knew that my Appupan and his best friend were together again.