Nannu and Kuttapan were the owners of the only two shops at the Neyyarinkara Railway Station. The station had two platforms. Platform one had the office of the station master. The entrance to the railway station and the ticket counter was right next to the station masters office. Platform two was just a long stretch of concrete with a roof.
Nannu ’s business establishment had started as a tea shop. Over the years he started stocking sweets and snacks. With the change in the climate and the frequent droughts, he started storing bottles of mineral water. He stored them in a small cooler which was his pride and joy. The cooler had cost him a small fortune and also took up a quarter of the space in his shop. The investment paid off with the increase in business. Customers were always ready to pay a little extra for the ice creams and cola-bottles that he stocked in his cooler.
Kuttapan ’s shop was adjacent to Nannu’ s. Kuttapan stocked newspapers and magazines in his shop. He was a young man and unlike other men in the village was educated. His marks in his tenth board exams were good and could have got him into one of the better colleges. The only problem was Kuttapan did not want to continue his studies. He wanted to start a business. He argued with his parents. Kuttapan ’s point was that he did not see any merit in continuing his studies with little or no guarantee of a job in the future. Disregarding the objections of his parents he decided to set up his business. His parents never forgave him for that and cut of relations with their son. He started distributing newspapers in the village. He did that by walking door to door. From that he progressed to a small stall near the bus stand. A year later he rented the shop on the railway platform. He employed a boy whom he gave charge of the newspaper stand at the bus stop. Business was good as there was no competition. He and Nannu did not get along well. It was not business rivalry as they dealt in different commodities. It was something more than that. Nannu was Kuttapan ’s father.
For the villagers it was a funny state of affairs having a father and son as owners of adjacent shops but not on speaking terms. Nannu ‘s wife Kuttapan ’s mother agreed with her husband’s stand and had stopped talking to her son. The parents had great dreams for their son. They had wanted him to study and eventually try for a government job. The boy had inherited his stubbornness from both his parents. Now in his mid-twenties Kuttapan was living on his own and enjoyed the freedom it gave him.
“Nannu bring two glasses of tea and some sweet buns to the Station Master’s office,” said Nagappan, the licensed porter at the station.
He was Station Master Kalidasan ’s right hand. Every morning he would have a cup of tea with the station master while reading the morning newspaper. They would discuss world and local news while dipping the sweet buns in the hot cup of tea. There was a scientific principle behind the dipping of the sweet buns in hot tea. Dip it in for too long and it would turn soggy and fall into the tea. Dip it for a very short time and then it would not soak enough of the tea. The art was to get the dip-time just right. Both the Station Master and the porter had mastered the art of the dipping. They practiced it every day.
“Ask Kuttapan to bring the morning newspaper,” said the station master as Nannu the tea vendor, put the two cups and the plate of sweet buns on his table.
Nannu did not answer. As he went out of the station master’s cabin, Kuttapan the newspaper vendor stepped in. He was waiting for his father to come out of the room. He did not want to be in the same room as him.
“This morning’s paper, saar!” said Kuttapan, “I have still not received last month’s payment. Just wanted to remind you, the total was about two hundred rupees. I included the magazines and children’s books you took for that official’s visit.”
The previous month a government official and his family had come to the station. They had picked up some magazines and comics from Kuttapan ’s shop. The bills were yet to be settled.
“Yes, yes I know. I have sent a request to my boss to sanction the funds,” said the Station Master.
“It is two hundred rupees! For that you need to send a request?” said Kuttapan.
The station master detected the tone of sarcasm and cringed.
“Yes! Even if it is a rupee I have to apply to my boss for permission to spend it.”
“No wonder nothing happens in the Government!” said Kuttapan in a low tone as he walked out of the office.
“What? What did you say?”
“Nothing Saar! I was saying that it would be great if I got it by the end of this week. I need to pay the vendors.”
“Arrogant kid,” said the station master.
“Kid! He is about twenty-five!” said Nagappan.
“Does not know how to talk to elders.”
Kuttapan made his way towards his shop. As he came close he saw a young woman standing there. He smiled and the girl smiled back. Nannu, Kuttapan ’s father and owner of the tea shop, could not help peep from his shop. He noticed that the girl was wearing a scarf which covered her hair and just showed her face.
“It is seven and you have still not opened your shop?” said the girl.
“I reached late. Had an accident in my kitchen this morning.” Replied Kuttapan as he opened the shutters of his shop.
“Well…I was making tea. The water was boiling and I was about to pour in the milk when Shanku jumped.”
“Who is Shanku?” the girl said.
“You have named your one-eyed cat Shanku?”
Kuttapan nodded, “He reminds me of a friend from school who was a good football player.”
“I do not remember any one-eyed football players in our school?”
“He joined after you had left. He was not one eyed. It was just that most of the times when he kicked he would miss the ball and fall. It was funny to watch him play.”
“I thought you said he was a good football player.”
“Yes, he was good as a source of entertainment. We always had a good laugh when he was playing. My cat is like that. Always bumping into things. Even when he can see it with his good eye he bumps into it.”
The girl laughed and Kuttapan joined her. On the empty platform the sound carried in both directions. From the station master’s cabin Nagappan the porter who was just finished his tea, poked his head out.
“Saar! Did I not tell you that there is something going on between Kuttapan and that Muslim girl!”
“What Muslim girl?” said Station Master Kalidasan looking up from the newspaper he was reading.
“That girl, Saar!”
Now Kalidasan poked his head to look.
“Who is that girl?” said Kalidasan.
“That is Nadira, Najeeb the butcher’s daughter. She studies in a college in the city. Every day she travels by the seven thirty train to Trivandrum. In the evening she returns by bus. She is a final year B. Com student at the Women College in Trivandrum.”
“Naga, how do you know so much about that girl?”
Nagappan had to answer quickly to clear his reputation.
“Sir, I see her standing near Kuttapan ’s stall every day, talking and smiling. I thought of doing a quick ‘background check’ on her.”
“What are you two doing?” a voice from behind made both the men stand up straight.
It was Dr. Shivaraman, a retired professor who was staying in the village with his daughter. His daughter was a teacher in the village school.
“What are you two government official doing peeping out of your office? Are you not supposed to be doing your work?”
“Good morning, Doctor,” said Nagappan. He was the first to recover. Kalidasan sprinted to his table and sat down.
“I want a ticket to Trivandrum,” said the Doctor, “You did not tell me what was so interesting, that both of you had to set aside your office work and peep out of the office.”
“We were just discussing if there is something going on between Kuttapan and Nadira, Najeeb’s daughter,” said Nagappan.
“Najeeb the butcher?” said Dr. Shivaraman.
“Yes, Doctor. Her train is at seven thirty but she reaches the station at six thirty and stands near Kuttapan ’s newspaper-stand and they talk the whole time.” “Is it against the law to talk? I was not aware that there was a rule against talking on a railway platform.”
Both Kalidasan and Nagappan understood what the Doctor was trying to convey.
“You are right doctor it is none of our business,” said the station master, “here’s your ticket.”
The Doctor pocketed the ticket and walked up to platform.
“Do you know what you son is up to these days?” said Nannu, the minute he reached home that day. Seeing the blank look on his wife Janaki’s face he continued, “He is in love.”
“What?” said Janaki.
“Yes. He is playing the role of Majnu in real life.”
“Majnu. Laila-Majnu. Woman did you not go to school. Have you not read the story of Laila-Majnu the star-crossed lovers?”
“I went to school, but we were not taught romantic stories. What has that story got to do with our boy?”
“That son of your ’s is in love.”
“If I am not wrong you were also responsible for his birth. Who told you about this ‘love’ thing.”
“I see it every day. Right in front of my eyes.”
“What do you see every day? Stop speaking in riddles and tell me what is happening.”
“Well there is a girl. A Muslim girl, who come to his shop at six in the morning. She stands there and talks to him till the seven thirty train arrives.”
“What happens when the seven thirty train arrives?”
“She leaves for Trivandrum on that train.”
“She comes from Trivandrum to talk to him?”
“No! Are you even listening?” said Nannu, “She is from this village. She gets on that train and leaves. She does not come on that train.”
The next morning Kuttapan was talking to Nadira when he saw someone familiar climbing the stairs to the railway platform. It was his mother. Kuttapan had not seen his mother in months. She looked older and weaker. She had a folding umbrella tucked under one arm. From a distance Janaki could see the young woman standing near her son’s shop.
“That is your mother, isn’t she?” said Nadira.
Kuttapan nodded. He had never seen his mother come to the railway station. He wondered what had happened to trigger the visit. Nadira knew a little bit about the history between mother and son and moved away from the shop.
Janaki ignored her son all together and went up to her husband’s shop.
“Is that the woman?” said Janaki.
“Yes. That is the woman.”
Janaki walked up to Nadira who had now standing with the crowd waiting for the train.
“Are you from this village?” said Janaki.
“Yes. Aunty,” said Nadira.
“Did I say you could call me Aunty?”
“No. I just call all elders Aunty.”
“You did not tell me if you are from this village.”
“I am Najeeb Mohammad’s daughter. He has a shop near the mosque.”
“Najeeb the butcher?” said Janaki, she had meant the butcher to come out like a slur. It did come out as she had intended it to. Nadira nodded her head. She found it strange that people who had no problems eating non-vegetarian food considered the butcher’s profession as inferior to other job’s.
“Yes, Najeeb the butcher,” said Nadira stressing on the butcher.
“What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for the train, like everybody else.”
“Why does anyone wait for a train? To travel. I study in a college in Trivandrum.”
“What are you studying for?”
“I am doing my B. Com from Women’s college.”
The train had arrived at the station and people were slowly walking towards the coaches. Nadira started walking towards the nearest door.
“Are you coming aunty?”
“Keep away from my son,” said Janaki.
In the commotion on the platform Nadira did not hear that. All that she saw was that Kuttapan ’s mother was not getting on the train. She found that surprising.
“Nannu I hope you are aware that the girl who stands near your son’s shop and talks for hours with him, is a Muslim?” said Nagappan.
Nannu had come in with the usual two cups of tea and the sweet buns.
“What girl?” Nannu replied feigning innocence.
“The one who can be seen talking to him every morning.”
Nannu did not reply.
“Look Nannu. I know this is none of my business but you should be aware of the consequences. You son is a Hindu and that girl is a Muslim. If the villagers get a whiff of this, they will descend on this platform and set it on fire. You should advise you son to stop this nonsense.”
“I know, Saar, but the boy does not listen to me.”
“You are his father,” said Nagappan, “You should make him listen.”
Nannu went back towards his shop. He could see Nadira standing near the shop. For a minute he contemplated going up to them and giving them a piece of his mind. Then he remembered the last time he had tried it with his son. It had been some other problem then. Kuttapan had not held back and had shouted back at his father. There was a sizable crowd which had gathered for the train. The last thing Nannu wanted, was to create a scene.
“I will ask him mother to talk to him.”
The office of the Hindu Samajam was next to the temple in Neyyarinkara. It was not a part of the temple but the office bearers considered themselves as the torch bearers of the religion.
“We need to call a meeting!” said Sunil. He was the local secretary and he was addressing the local area committee president Anil.
“For what?” said Anil.
“There is a problem that has come up. There is this newspaper vendor at the railway station, Kuttapan who is love with a Muslim girl.”
“Kuttapan? That tea seller’s son?”
“Yes. Do you know him?”
“Know him? He was my class mate. He was the smartest boy in our class. He always scored the highest in math’s and science subjects.”
“I am not sure about him being the brightest. If he had any brains he would not have gone and fallen in love with a Muslim girl.”
“Are you sure about this? The Kuttapan I knew, that tea seller’s son was a very practical no-nonsense type of boy.”
“I have got this information confirmed through a number of our party members. Every day they can be found talking at the railways station for hours.”
“Hmmm. The last thing we want in this village is a Hindu boy converting to Islam.”
“We will not let that happen as long as we are alive.”
On the other side of the village, the office of the Muslim Youth Majlis was also in session. Abdul the convener of the forum was in discussion with Sajid his youth wing leader.
“Is this true -this story about Nadira?” said Abdul.
“Yes. It is confirmed. I have seen this myself.”
“Is she out of her mind. Are all the Muslim boys in this village dead that she goes and falls in love with a Hindu boy!”
“I was wondering the same thing! We need to go and talk to Najeeb. He has to control his daughter.”
“That will be of no use. He will not listen to us. Remember what happened when we went to his shop the last time.”
Abdul thought for a moment. It was the annual fund collection drive for their Majlis. Abdul along with five of his associated, all dressed in their Sunday best and carrying receipt books were going door to door in the village. They had targeted the Muslim shopkeepers and household only. There was no point in going to the Hindu households. The Hindu Samajam members also never came to the Muslim areas to collect funds. That day, Abdul and his group had reached Najeeb’s shop while he was cleaning his chopping knife.
“Assalamualaikum Uncle,” said Abdul.
“Waalaikumsalam….” The response from Najeeb came automatically.
He knew Abdul and his friends well.
“What brings you boys to my shop today?”
“Uncle we have come to collect funds for the Majlis,” said Abdul.
Najeeb did not answer. He continued sharping the blade
“Uncle, how much should I put in as your contribution? Will be a hundred or five hundred?”
“Write zero,” Najeeb said.
“Uncle it is for the Majlis’ activities. We help poor people, children and women in this area with these funds?”
“Really do you now? Then how about helping me. I am poor. I need money for my children’s education. I will also like to get some funds to repair my house. It has started to leak in some places!”
“Uncle, are you making fun of us?”
“It is you boys who are making fun of the villagers. Why don’t you earn something and donate your money for your majlis and its activities? You will never do that, will you? Instead all that you want to do is to run around with these receipt books.” By now he had finished sharpening the blade and looked ready for business.
Abdul remembered the last meeting with Najeeb quite clearly. He did not want to repeat that experience.
“Lets us go and talk to our leaders,” he said.
“That girl is standing there talking to him,” said Nagappan, “It is like clockwork. Every morning she is there.”
Nagappan was standing outside the station masters office.
“I hope I am transferred from this station before anything bad happens,” said the station master.
“But Sir! You told me that this is your last posting before retirement.”
“That is true. I do not want to be in the middle of a riot. I want to spend the rest of my life living comfortably off a government pension. I do not want to die in a silly riot in this village of all places.”
The office of the Hindu Samajam was packed to capacity. All leaders big and small had gathered. Those who had already occupied the few available seats held on to them for fear that the others might grab them. Some members who were wiser were sitting on the ground.
“This problem has to be resolved. We cannot let a Hindu boy marry a Muslim girl. Next, he will want to convert to Islam. Then we will have more Hindu men and women wanting to convert. That cannot be allowed. I will not allow that to happen as long as I am alive,” thundered Anil the leader of the Hindu Samajam. The office of the Muslim Majlis was seeing similar activity. The leaders there fretted and fumed and instructed their members to be prepared for any eventuality.
Inspector Gopalan was preparing the weekly crime report summary for the Circle Inspector when constable Dhanapalan burst into the office. Inspector Gopalan hated it when his staff members disturbed him. He looked up and glared at Dhanapalan.
“Have you forgotten your manners?” said Gopalan, “Have I not instructed everyone that they should knock before entering my office?”
“Sir! we have a problem. There is a chance of riots breaking out here.” Said Dhanapalan, in his haste forgetting to salute the inspector.
“Riots sir. Between Hindus and Muslims.”
“Here Sir! In Neyyarinkara.”
Gopalan had always been a bit slow at grasping the crux of important matters. You had to explain things slowly to him. Which may have been the reason why all his batch mates were now his senior officers.
“Sir! there is a chance of rioting here. There is a rumor going around the village that a Hindu boy is preparing to elope with a Muslim girl. Both groups will come to blows if that happens.”
“Is this news confirmed?”
“Sir the part about both the groups preparing to hit back – that part is confirmed.”
“Who are the leaders of the groups?” said Inspector Gopalan.
The gravity of the situation, finally registered on him. He picked up the phone and dialed his boss the Circle Inspector. Two hours later two trucks packed with policemen in full riot gear stopped outside the Neyyarinkara Police Station. Gopalan called up the Neyyarinkara Village School Principal.
“Let me summarize what you asked. You are asking me if fifty policemen can set up tents in a corner of the school playground?” the principal said.
“Yes,” Inspector Gopalan said.
“Why?” said the Principal.
“I cannot tell the details at this point of time. It is very important that you support me on this matter. I can have the Circle Inspector call you up and make this demand.”
The principal thought for a moment.
“As long as they do not create a problem for my students, I do not have any issues.”
That night the tents came up and the riot police set up a temporary headquarter near the football goal post.
The next morning Inspector Gopalan looked at the line-up of his constables and began assigning tasks to them.
“You there, I want you to go to the office of the Majlis and get the names of their leaders. Also ask their leader to come and meet me today at ten a.m. sharp.”
“You go to the Hindu Samajam! Do the same. I want their leader here by 10 a.m.”
After the two had saluted and left he called Dhanapalan, his special branch man.
“Find out what kind of weapons have been collected by each group. Be careful, this could be dangerous.”
Gopalan then called up another constable and gave him a different set of instructions.
“I want you to fetch Kuttapan ’s parents.”
With his men dispatched in different directions, Inspector Gopalan called his boss and updated him on the progress.
“Let me know in case there is any trouble. I do not want this to escalate,” his boss’s voice came over the phone. I will inform the Superintendent of Police, who will inform the District Collector.”
By ten a.m. Inspector Gopalan’s office resembled the Neyyarinkara Fish market on a bad, rainy day. In one corner stood the bearded, skull cap wearing members of the Majlis and on the other side stood the Hindu Samajam members dressed in saffron. In between the two groups stood Nannu and Janaki, Kuttapan ’s parents. The area around the police station was cordoned off by the riot police.
“Start from the beginning,” said Inspector Gopalan, “When did this romance start?”
Nannu looked at Janaki and she looked at the impressive wall clock behind the inspector’s table.
“I am asking you a question?” said Gopalan. He was losing his temper.
“How do I know. I noticed this a few days back. That girl is always standing there talking to him.”
This comment incensed the Majlis members.
“She is being forced to come to the stall every day by that vendor,” said one of the Majlis members.
“How do you know this?” said the Inspector.
“Why would anyone in her senses come to a newspaper seller at six in the morning?”
“Does she come there at six in the morning?”
“More like seven,” said someone, “The platform is closed at six. The station master unlocks the gates around six thirty.”
“Then why did you say six?” said Gopalan trying to find who had provided that wrong information. He could not spot the person.
“That girl is after our boy,” said the Samajam members.
Nannu and Janaki nodded their head vigorously.
“How do you know that?”
“He is good looking and has a steady income. She is after him for the money,” said Janaki.
“Who said he is good looking?” said a majlis member, “Our Muslim boys look better.”
“Stop this nonsense and do not speak unless I ask you to,” said Inspector Gopalan, “Does anyone here know when this romance started?”
“They were in school together,” said Abdul, the Majlis leader.
“How do you know that?” said Inspector Gopalan.
“I was in the same class. We were all in the same class till the sixth standard and then Nadira moved to the Girls high school.”
“Were they friendly in those days?” said Gopalan. All the heads in the room turned towards Abdul eager to hear his answer.
“Not that I recollect. Kuttapan was a studious boy then. He had his head in his books at all times.” said Abdul.
“That is true Saar. My boy was a good student in school. This girl has spoilt his life,” Janaki pitched in.
“Let him speak for himself,” said the Inspector, “Who is Kuttapan?”
People turned and looked around. Then someone said, “He is not here Saar!”
Inspector Gopalan realized his mistake. He had missed calling some key members in the episode. He called one of the constables and asked him to fetch Kuttapan.
The crowd came out of the Inspector’s room and waited on the Police Station verandah. The Muslim’s on one side the Hindu’s on the other. The riot police surrounded the station. After a long half an hour Kuttapan arrived.
“Come here, let me see the hero of our story. So, you are the boy who has created all this problem,” said Gopalan as Kuttapan stepped into his office.
Kuttapan did not understand what was happening. Then he remembered.
“Saar! I have asked the Station master to pay me the money. I remind him every day. I will pay the vendors the two hundred rupees the minute I get it.”
“What two hundred rupees?” said Gopalan.
“The money I owe the newspaper vendor… for the magazines that were taken from my shop. You called me to discuss by when I would be paying that right?”
“No. Someone please explain to him why he is here,” said Gopalan. He could feel a throbbing sensation in a corner of his head. He began massaging his forehead with his finger-tips.
“We want to know about your love affair?” said one of the leaders from the Hindu side.
“Love affair? What love-affair?” said Kuttapan.
“The one with the Muslim girl,” another voice said.
“Which Muslim girl?”
“Nadira.” About ten voices from different corner of the room said this together.
“What about her?”
“Explain your love affair with Nadira,” said the Hindu leader again.
Kuttapan just stood there staring at the crowd of people. The conversation did not make any sense to him. The constable who had come to his book stall had been very rude and had warned him of dire consequences in case he did not come immediately.
“Are you in love with Nadira?” said Inspector Gopalan, finally decided to do the interrogation himself instead of letting the villagers do it for him.
“No. What nonsense! Why would I be in love with Nadira?” said Kuttapan.
The crowd started murmuring amongst themselves.
“Inspector Saar, apply your third-degree methods on him. The boy is lying,” this bit of advice came from none other than Janaki.
“You are his mother are you not? You want us to beat him? What kind of a mother are you?” said Gopalan. Janaki slid away from the room.
“I am not lying. I know her from my school days. Whenever she comes to the station she comes over to my shop and we talk. What is wrong with that?”
No one had an answer to that question. This was a twist in the story that was not expected.
“What about your plans to convert to Islam once you got married?” the Hindu leader fought back.
“Who spreads such silly rumors? I am an active member of the communist party and an atheist. Has anyone of you ever seen me in the temple?”
Those present there thought back. There seemed to be some truth in that statement.
“Call Nadira and we can prove this,” said someone from the Muslim side.
“She would be in college now,”
“Then get her father Najeeb here,” said someone from the crowd.
Again, the crowd settled down to wait for Najeeb to come. They sat down in the police station verandah where ever they found space. This time the lines between the two groups were not so distinct. Kuttapan sat by himself not aligning with either of the groups or his parents.
“Do you know this man?” said Inspector Gopalan to Najeeb.
“Yes Saar. He is Kuttapan. He runs a newspaper stall at the station.”
“Your daughter studies in a college in Trivandrum, does she not?”
“Yes Saar. Talking of Nadira, Last week, I finalized her marriage. It will be two months from now. Since you have asked me to come here I thought I would bring you an invitation card as well. Please come even if for a few minutes and grace the occasion.”
“Who is she getting married to?” said Inspector Gopalan.
There was pin drop silence in the police station now.
“The boy works in Dubai in a construction company as a supervisor. He only has leave for three weeks and we have set up the marriage during that time. After the marriage, he and Nadira would fly to Dubai.”
“Has the marriage been fixed with your daughter’s approval?”
“Yes Saar! They know each other. Saar you did not tell me why you asked me to come here.”
Inspector Gopalan did not have an immediate answer. Nor did he have a reason to continue the questioning. Najeeb and Kuttapan were allowed to leave.
The crowd began to melt but Inspector Gopalan asked them to stay.
“So, who was the person who started this rumor?”
No one replied to the question.
“Because of you fools now I have a lot of explaining to do to my seniors. Clear out of the compound before I throw some of you into the lockup for spreading false rumors and disturbing the peace.”
Within minutes the police station was empty. An hour later the riot police, pulled out their tents, loaded them on the trucks and drove out of Neyyarinkara.
The next day morning as Nagappan finished his morning cup of tea in the Station Manager’s office he stepped out. He yawned. His last night’s sleep had not been proper. He had tossed and turned. Every time he tried closing his eyes he would see the face of Inspector Gopalan chasing him. As he looked at the two shops on the platform he saw something which stopped him in his tracks.
There was a young girl standing near Kuttapan ’s newspaper stall, talking and laughing. For a second, he thought it was Nadira, but then he looked carefully. It was not Nadira, it was someone else. The girl has a shiny cross around her neck which she was playing around with while speaking.