Tag Archives: funny stories

Star Crossed Lovers

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.

“What accident?”

“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.

“My cat.”

“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.”

“Manjan who?”

“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?”

“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.”

“What com?”

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.

“What riots?”

“Riots sir. Between Hindus and Muslims.”

“Where?”

“Here Sir! In Neyyarinkara.”

“What?”

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.

Advertisements

The life of a statue

The beggar jumped over the low wall of the park. There was no need to jump. The wall was hardly two feet tall and was crumbling in places. He looked around. The streets were empty. The villagers in Neyyarinkara went to sleep by nine. The hands of the big clock in the park said it was ten. The roads had to be empty. As he landed inside the park the beggar winced in pain. He had landed on the sharp edge of a stone. There were chunks of cement lying around and he had chosen one of them as his landing spot. He cursed softly and hobbled his way to the bench near the clock tower. It was time for bed. The bench in the park was his bed.

The bench was made of marble and elaborately carved. Behind it was a statue, a bust of an old man. The statue was more than fifty years old. No on in the village knew whose statue it was, not that they cared. Below the bust of the old man was a cavity in the cement pillar. In the cavity was an old radio. It was an old radio with diode valves and round dials. There was a steel grill to protect the radio, from natural and human elements. Every evening the village electrician, Thangappan would unlock the grill, switch on the radio and then again lock the grill. There was only one channel on the radio. It always played a government news channel. Like clockwork, everyday Thangappan would switch it on at six p.m. and turn it off at nine p.m.

During the day, college student who bunked classes would sit in the shade of the trees in the park. In the evening young couples brought their children and watched as they ran around and played. Later the older men from the village would take over. They would come in a group, sat in a corner and listen to the news on the radio. At nine p.m. sharp, Thangappan would switch off the radio and close the grill. The last occupants of the park would walk home by nine thirty. Around ten the beggar would come, spread his dirty rag on the bench and settle down for the night. He liked to sleep on the bench. Somehow, he felt that statue behind him was protecting him and keeping him safe. Not that he had anything valuable with him.
“Who is that old man?” said Nalinakshan, he was a student of political science at the nearby government college.
“Which old man?” said Prakash his friend and class-mate.

Both of them would come daily to college. After reaching college, they would meet their friends and catch on the latest gossip. By the time classes started they would slip out. Usually they went to the local movie theatre. Today they were whiling away their time at the park.
“That old man,” said Nalinakshan pointing at the bust.
“From here he looks like your father!” said Prakash.

He got punched for that answer. Both friends laughed at the joke.

“No seriously. I think he looks familiar.”

“What do you mean he looks familiar?”

“I think his photograph is there in our political thought book,” said Nalinakshan.

“I have not opened that book, so cannot comment.”

“Go home and check it out. I bet he is the same person. I do not remember his name but he was a leader of some tribal group.”

“His name would be there on the plaque under the bust.”

They went over to check but there was no plaque there.

“I bet you five rupees that this is the person in our book.”

“Ok, I accept the bet.”

That evening Prakash realized he had lost the bet. The statue was indeed of the man whose photograph was in their books.

The next day the two friends met in college.

“I have brought the book as proof,” said Nalinakshan.

“No, it is not required. I saw that photo at home yesterday. It is the same old clown.”

“Watch out Manickam Sir is coming!” said Prakash, whispering.

The two tried to sneak away. Manickam was their Political Thought lecturer.

“Where are you two going? I have not seen you in my class for almost a month.”

“Sir! We were just coming to meet you. We had a doubt?” said Prakash.

“A doubt? What doubt?” said Manickam.

He was pleased his students were asking him doubts. It rarely happened.

Prakash grabbed the book from Nalinakshan ’s hand and opened it to the page which had the old man’s photo.

“Sir! we found this man’s statue in the Municipal Park in Neyyarinkara. We did not know he was a local.”

Nalinakshan smiled. He wanted to burst out laughing but this was not the right time to laugh. The question was something which Prakash had come up with on the spur of the moment. Prakash was smart that way.

Manickam looked at the photo and then at the boys.

“You say this man’s statue is there in the park?”

“Yes Sir!” both of the boys said together.

“Hmm. That is interesting! I will have to check up on this. I was not aware there were any statues of the talaivar.”

“The who Sir?”

“The Leader – Talaivar. That is Vellai Chami the leader of the tribal who live in the Neelamani forest region. The tribal’ s called him Talaivar which means leader in their language. He was hanged by the British government. You boys are sure it is his statue?”

“Yes Sir! We are hundred percent sure,” said Prakash and Nalinakshan nodded his agreement.

“Good work boys! Now take your book and go to your classes.”

“What was all that about? Why did Manickam get so excited about that old statue?” said Prakash.

“I have no idea. What you did was just brilliant. He forgot all about us bunking his classes. Come lets us slip away before he catches us again.”
As the two boys disappeared from the campus, Manickam was making his way to the staff room. There he went up to a phone and dialed a number.

“Neelamani Hill Range Tribal Association office,” said a voice from the other side.

“Ganesh, it is me Mani!” said Manickam whispering.

“How are you comrade Manickam? It has been some time since I have seen you at our meetings. Where are you these days?”

“Comrade Ganesh! Listen do you know there is a statue of the talivar in the Neyyarinkara Municipal Park?”

“A statue? I do not think there are any statues anywhere of the talaivar.”

“Apparently there is. Two of my student saw it and came to report about it.”

“This is great news. I will leave immediately for Neyyarinkara. I must see this status with my own eyes! Once this is confirmed, I will inform the state president also about this.” The phone was disconnected.

That evening before leaving college Manickam applied for a day’s leave. He said his mother in law was not well and he had to take her to the hospital. The principal would have been shocked had he known that Manickam’s mother in law had died five years back. Manickam ’s stories about her illness had often helped him in his leave application’s.

The next day as Manickam waited at the Neyyarinkara Bus stand he was sweating. It was a cloudy day but he was sweating. The Neelamani Hill Range Tribal Association party president Prabhu Das was coming along with Ganesh. Ganesh had come down to Neyyarinkara and confirmed on the statue being of their cherished leader. He had informed the state party president. Now both of them were coming over to Neyyarinkara. They were the top functionaries of the party and Manickam was there at the bus stop to receive them. He wiped the sweat of his brows.

“Where is this statue Manickam?” said Prabhu Das as he stepped out of the bus.

“It is in a park not far from here, Comrade” said Ganesh before Manickam could reply.

“And you were not aware of it?” said Prabhu Das.

“My students found out about it, Comrade,” said Manickam with pride.

“You were also not aware of its existence Manickam. I am surprised that senior members of the party such as you two are not aware of such an important memorial of the greatest leader our tribe has produced.”

Ganesh and Manickam remained quiet on the way to the park. It was not a good start to the visit, they did not want to spoil it further. They listened to their party president speak.

“Set up a press conference here this Sunday. I am shocked at the state of the statue. He was one of the greatest leaders the state ever produced and look at how they have kept his statue.” Thundered Prabhu Das at the park. Manickam and Ganesh his dedicated followers took notes and nodded their heads.

That Sunday morning villagers in Neyyarinkara were surprised to find a crowd at the Municipal Park. There were vans full of policemen. Representatives from the state and local newspapers were there. A small dais had been hastily put up and loud speakers and microphones set up. Manickam, Ganesh along with other party members were busy arranging chairs for the members of the press.

“Talaivar Vellai Chami was a freedom fighter who dared to stand up against not only the oppression of the British but also the suppression of the upper caste Hindus. He was hanged for this,” thundered Prabhu Das, the Neelamani Hill Range Tribal Association Party President.

“Why is he shouting into a microphone?” said one of the press correspondents covering the function.

“Have you ever heard of this Talaivar before? Thousands were hanged during the British raj,” replied another.

“Do you think they will serve any food later in the day?” said another journalist.

“Look around you. Do you think there would be a decent hotel in a village like this?”

After the speeches the journalists were taken around the park. The crumbling walls, the statue with no name and the bad state of the park – everything was captured by the cameras of the press teams.

The news made it to the frontpage in the next day’s newspapers. Some of the articles supported the tribal communities and dug out stories about their struggle over the years. The newspapers with leanings towards the forward castes blasted the community. Prabhu Das the association president demanded reservation in jobs for his community. The other castes protested against this. This continued for a few days and then the issue died down and people went on with their business.

One night the beggar who was sleeping on the bench behind the statue was woken by a loud sound. For a few seconds he was not sure what had happened. Then he looked up and saw that the statue was missing. Some local boys had tied a rope to it and pulled it down. The beggar was lucky that it had not fallen on him. He picked up his rag and ran away from there.

The demolition of the statue was big news. The issue which had died down was back in the front. Protests were organized. Prabhu Das declared that he would fast before the state assembly until his demands were accepted. He was arrested within an hour of starting his fast. There were protests and strikes across the state. School and colleges were closed as the protests intensified. Finally, the government agreed to most of the demand of the protesters. Funds were released and a plan was drawn up.

In Neyyarinkara, the villagers woke up one morning to a convoy of government vehicles coming down the narrow village by-lanes. The cars converged at the park. Ministers and government officials stepped out. Hectic discussions were held. The ministers spoke and the obedient officials nodded their heads in unison. The decision was to construct a well-maintained park around the structure. Replace the radio with a television. Put up a proper fence around the entire area. Last but not the least build a life size statue of Talaivar Vellai Chami to replace the damaged statue.

It took two months for the construction to complete. Finally, the day came and the Chief Minister of the state himself came followed by a huge retinue to inaugurate the park. After the festivities were over the crowd disbanded and went away satisfied. Everyone got something in the affair. The politicians hoped to get the votes of the tribal’ s, the officials expected promotions for a job well done, Prabhu Das the leader of the tribal group was promised a seat in the local elections, the villagers got a better looking and well- maintained park and last but not the least Thangappan the village electrician got the job of switching on the television. That evening as always, he switched it off at nine and left for the day.

That night the beggar sneaked in again. He looked around the place in disbelief. The trees were all trimmed. There was a thick coating of grass on the ground. The new statue was huge and stood spot in the middle of the park almost obstructing the clock tower which also got a coat of paint.

The beggar looked around for his bench. It was not in its usual place. It was now in a corner. He went over to it and spread his rag out. The last two months due to the construction work he was not allowed in the park. He had been forced to sleep at the bus stop. There it was noisy with buses comes and people talking. He had not been able to sleep properly. He was used to the curves of his marble bench. As he prepared to sleep he noticed something lying under the bench. It was the old radio. After removing it from the cavity in the clock tower, someone had placed it under the bench and forgotten all about it. The beggar patted the radio on its cover.

“Do not worry my friend, you are just like me. No one wants us. A life-less statue is more important to them. Do not worry. This is a good bench. You are safe under it.”

The beggar was about to close his eyes when he looked at the statue. Its bronze coating gave it an eerie glow in the light from the street lamps. The beggar thought it did not have the reassuring look of the earlier bust. He turned on his side and went to sleep.

Age and Wisdom

“Is your grandfather sleeping?” said Krishnan to the boy who opened the door. He was standing outside his friend Raman’s house.

“My grandfather died ten years ago” said the boy.

“Died…Don’t you live here?” said Krishnan

“No! I live in the house across the street,” said the boy as he ran past Krishnan who entered the house.

“Grandfather is having his breakfast. He has asked you to join him,” said another boy who came running out of the house.

“No that is ok. I just had my breakfast. Who was that boy who just opened the door and ran out?”

“That was Ismail. He lives in the house across the street. Every morning he comes here and has breakfast with us.”

“Do they not make breakfast in his house?”

“They make it a bit late. He has two breakfasts in the morning. After he finishes off here, he runs over to his house and eats his second breakfast there.”

“No wonder he was in such a hurry! He must be Abdul Kadir’s grandson.”

“His father’s name is Basheer. I don’t know any Abdul Kadir in that house.”

“That is because Kadir died ten years back. That is before you were born.”

The boy shrugged his shoulders and ran back in.

Appupan says he does not want to eat. He had his breakfast.” Krishnan could hear the boy shouting inside the house.

He smiled. The old boy had addressed him as Appupan or grandfather. Krishnan had never married so had no grandchildren.

“Since Raman is having his breakfast. I might as well check the books here,” said Krishnan.

He went towards the book shelf. The wooden book shelf was six feet tall and about six feet wide. Books were stacked in neat rows on the shelf. He picked up a thick volume from the shelf. He went over to a chair near the window, sat down and began reading.

“Did you know there is a reference to the Ganges in Dante’s Divine Comedy?”

said Krishnan as he saw his friend Raman Unni come out.

“Where did you get Divine Comedy from?” said Raman.

“From your book shelf where else” said Krishnan.

“It must be one of Sumi’s old text books. She did her Masters in Literature. Most of the books on the shelf were purchased by her. After she became a lecturer she moved out of the house. Now all that remains are the books.”

“You have a great collection of books in that shelf. How many have you read?”

“Not even one. I do not like to read highbrow books. I am more of a light fiction reader.”

“These are classics my friend. You can explore the world, its history, art and culture through these books. The best part is you can do all that exploring from the comfort of your living room!”

“I hated reading in school. Now it is too late to change.”

Krishnan shook his head and said, “So what do you read these day?”

“I saw an article in the newspaper yesterday. There is a new cure for cancer. Doctors in U.K have come out with a wonder medicine. It is still being tested, but they are optimistic. They think it can detect and destroy cancerous cells in the body.”

“Maybe it can be cured if detected in the initial stages. I do not think there is a cure in the final stages.”

“This cure is going to be released commercially soon.”

“Any way who wants to live forever. You are eighty-two years old now. That makes you one year younger than me. You married early, had children, then your children married. Now you are a grandfather. If that girl, your grand-daughter marries, who knows you might even get to be a great-grand father! What more do you want from life?”

“I do not want to suffer. I do not want to end up with a disease like cancer. I want a painless death!”

“If wishes were horses … you know the rest don’t you! Let us not waste our time arguing. Remember today the panchayat library is being inaugurated.”

“Oh yes! I forgot all about that. Give me a minute I will get a shawl and come.”

The two old men walked towards the library. There was no hurry. The function was at ten. It was only eight thirty. As they passed the gates of the Neyyarinkara Shree Krishna Temple, Raman stopped.

“Wait here. I have to pray. I will not take long,” said Raman and entered the temple gates.

“But you came here in the morning!”

“It does not hurt to say a quick prayer. Wait for me here.”

Krishnan moved over to a shady place and looked around for a place to sit.

“Uncle, come and sit in my shop,” said Unni who was the owner of a tailor shop nearby.

“Thanks, Unni. How is your father Gangadharan now? The last time I heard he had slipped and fractured his leg.”

“He is recovering. He is in his seventies… so you know… recovery is a bit slow.”

“I know. I am eighty-three. At my age there is no recovery! Did he slip in your house?”

“No uncle. He had gone to stay with my sister in Trivandrum. She has built a new house near Pattom. It is a huge house with lots of rooms. The floor was made of polished granite. It was slippery and Father slippedin.”

“My son Mohan, also wanted to convert all the flooring in my house to marble. I told him the rough cement floor we have at present is good enough for me. After my death, he is free to do whatever he wants. He can change it to marble, wood, concrete whatever…”

They could see Raman returning from the temple, his forehead adorned with a sandal wood paste tilak.

“‘Religion is the opium of the masses’ do you know who said that?” said Krishnan.

“Karl Marx,” said Unni.

“Right. See what it does to old people Unni! Stay away from religion and opium!”

Unni laughed as the two friends walked away.

“You are an atheist by choice. That does not give you the right to convert others to communism,” said Raman.

“Tell me my friend, what has religion done for you?” said Krishnan.

“It gives me a sense of reassurance. A feeling that someone is there looking out for me,” said Raman.

“Does that make you happy -safe?”

“Yes. I get a handsome pension. In fact, today I am earning more money as pension than what I got as salary when I was working!”

“That is your definition of being happy- making money?”

“Yes! What else is there in life. If you have money you have everything.”

They had reached the Panchayat Library inauguration venue. The show organizers were still arranging the chairs, setting up the microphones and adjusting the loudspeakers. About fifty chairs had been arranged in neat rows. Raman and Krishnan occupied two chairs in front.

“I have a cough since yesterday night,” said Raman, “Do you think it could be something serious?”

“What?”

“Are you not listening? I said I have a cough since last night.”

“What cough? I have not heard you cough even once in the last two hours.”

“It comes all of a sudden,” said Raman. He tried coughing a couple of times.

“Do not make it up if it is not there.  For now, keep quiet and listen to what these people have to say.”

Two hours later the two friends were on their way back home.

“You know sometimes I wonder who will take care of me when I fall ill,” said Raman.

“Our village library should have better quality books. Something like what Kurup has at his house. I wonder if Kurup would lend some of his books to the panchayat library,” said Krishnan.

“I wonder if my children would take care of me if I were to fall seriously ill,” said Raman.

“Maybe we should ask him. Let us go to his house and talk to him,” said Krishnan.

“Do you think that is a good idea to talk to only one of them?” said Raman.

“One of them?” said Krishnan.

“Only Devan stays with me here in Neyyarinkara.  Sunil and Suma are in Trivandrum,” said Raman.

“What are you talking about? I am talking about going to meet Kurup.”

“Kurup?”

“Gopinathan Kurup.

“Why are we talking about him?”

“We should go and meet him.” Said Krishnan.

“I am talking about who will take care of me when I fall ill.”

“I am talking about us asking Kurup to loan some books for the Panchayat Library.”

“Why do we need more books in the library?”

Krishnan shook his head. “Are you coming or not?”

“You know Kurup remarried recently?”

“Yes, I heard, he married some woman he met at the festival in the temple.”

Everyone knew Kurup in the village. He lived in a huge house near the temple. He never refused any request for help. People with financial problems went to his house, told him about their problems and he helped them with small sums of money. They were free to return the money whenever they had it. He never charged any interest for this ‘help’.

`               “During the morning hours he can always be seen in the verandah reading a newspaper,” said Raman.

“I know, I have come here a couple of times to talk to him, “said Krishnan.

“Kurup!” said Raman.

There was no response.

“Kurup!” said Raman now almost shouting the name out.

Still there was no response. They looked around.

“That is strange. What was the name of that boy who worked for Kurup?”

“Satyan,” said Krishnan.

“Satya!  Satya!” said Raman.

There was no response.

“May be there is no one here,” said Krishnan, “Let us go.”

They turned and made their way towards the gates.

“What do you want?” they heard a woman’s voice from inside the house.

“We came to meet Kurup,” said Krishnan as the woman came out.

“What do you want from him? If it is money then forget it. You villagers are a bunch of free-loaders. Everyone is trying to get some money out of him.”

“Now look here,” said Krishnan, his voice tinged with anger, “We came to meet Kurup. Not everyone in this village lives on hand-outs.”

“I know your type very well,” said the woman.

“He will be in the temple,” another woman’s voice from inside the house called out. A young woman came out of the house. She said, “He must be in the temple. He can be usually found there.”

The two old men walked out of the house.

“What an arrogant woman,” said Raman, “I heard after his marriage Kurup has lost all control over his property. The woman who came out first must be his new mother in law. The other one is younger. That must be his wife.”

“Now you know why I did not marry,” said Krishnan, “I could never stand such arrogant women.”

“You never married because no one in the village was ready to marry his daughter to you. You were the fire-brand communist youth leader -in and out of jail. Who would want to marry you?”

“Ha. Well I know you meant that sarcastically but yes, that was a reason why I never thought about marriage.”

The two men had reached the temple gate.

“Can you go in and look for him?” said Krishnan.

“You want to meet him. Not me. It is you who wants to discuss about books with him.”

“Come with me, Raman. I do not know my way around a temple.”

As they walked through the gates of the temple, Krishnan said, “You know this is the first time in my life that I am entering the gates of a temple!”

“It is never too late to convert. Communism is dead. Eastern Europe, USSR all have thrown communism out. China has something that is a mix of capitalism and dictatorship.  You should start thinking about turning to religion.”

“I am impressed. For a change you are talking about issues which are not about health and medicines.” Said Krishnan.

“Is that Kurup?” said Raman.

A man was huddled in a corner of the temple. As the two men went up to him they realized it was indeed Kurup. The once handsome, well-built landlord of the village was now a thin, unkempt shadow of his former self.

“We came to talk to you about the Panchayat Library,” said Krishnan.

“The Panchayat Library?” said Kurup.

“Yes. There are very few books there. We were wondering if you would lend us a few books from your collection.”

“From my collection?” said Kurup.

“Yes! If possible. You have one of the best collection of books in the village, if not in the whole district,” said Krishnan.

Kurup did not speak for a few minutes. His eyes screwed shut he was a picture of concentration.

“I think I will donate my entire collection to the library,” said Kurup.

Krishnan almost fainted.

“All your books?”

“Yes, no body read’s them anymore. This way they will benefit the entire village. Please have someone come and take them tomorrow itself.”

“Thank you, Kurup. This village and its people will forever remember this contribution of yours,” said Krishnan.

The two friends walked back a few steps when Krishnan stopped and went back to Kurup.

“When you say all the books, you meant your copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica as well, didn’t you?”

“Yes. Take that as well,” said Kurup.

“Thank You, Kurup. Thank you very much.”

As they walked out of the temple Krishnan was charged with excitement.

“I cannot believe what just happened. Imagine we just added about five thousand books to the panchayat library. We also got the only copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica in the whole district!”

“See that is how God helps you. Remember I prayed at the temple when we started in the morning,” said Raman.

“God has nothing to do with this. Do not spoil my day by saying this was a miracle. Now I have to get someone to cart the books out of his house first thing in the morning tomorrow. We need to move fast before he changes his mind!”

A week later it was Raman who came to Krishnan’s house in the morning.

“What happened? Why are you here this early? Said Krishnan.

“Come let us go to the library. I want to read up about a few of my medical problems. The Encyclopedia is supposed to be the ultimate authority on all definitions so let me check-up some of my problems.”

“I should have known better. Why can you not go to Dr. Shivaraman and have him look at you? He retired as a Professor from the medical college. He would know what your problem is.”

“I went to him and he said it is age related. He asked me to walk regularly, eat light food and get plenty of sun light.”

“There you have it. Now why do you want to go to the library.”

“I want a second opinion.”

An hour later Raman was more confused. The explanation given to his problems only made matters worse.

“I think I have cancer,” said Raman.

“How did you arrive at that conclusion genius!” said Krishnan.

“I know. The book does not say that but I know. Cancer of the throat can start with a cough. Do you remember Dewaki? The girl who used to come to our house to sweep?”

“No, I do not remember girls who come to sweep your house.”

“Well, she had a cough for a few months. Then she went for a checkup and it was diagnosed as final- stage cancer. She died four months later.”

“There could have been a number of other reasons as well. Do not jump to conclusions. I am not a medical expert. Even then I know that one should never self-diagnose oneself. We have a small hospital in the village now. There is Dr. Shivaraman as well who can advise you.”

“I do not trust these people. This is a small village. Why would a good doctor come here? I will go to the Regional Cancer Center in Trivandrum and have this tested. Will you come with me?”

“I am not going to waste my time on such silly issues.”

“You think it is silly to treat cancer?” said Raman.

“You clown! You do not have cancer. Why are you assuming things?” said Krishnan.

“Have I ever asked you for a favor? This is the first time I am asking you to help me and you refuse?” said Raman. His voice choking with emotion.

“Ok… Ok I will come with you. Ask Dr. Shivaraman if he has any contacts in the hospital. That way it would be faster,” said Krishnan.

A week later the two friends, got on a bus which took them to Trivandrum. From the bus stop an autorickshaw dropped them at the Cancer Center. Raman had not informed his children about the trip as he did not want them to worry.

“This is a super specialty hospital. I hope you understand what you are doing. This is a place where actual cancer patients come. We are coming here just because you have a doubt in your mind. The doctors here are super-busy with patients. The last thing they want is some old man coming here just to confirm his doubts,” said Krishnan.

Raman did not answer. He was not even listening. His heart was beating rapidly. He was sure that the doctor was going to confirm his worst nightmare. He would be diagnosed with cancer and then be told that he had the most malignant form. He knew he had just a few days left to live. Raman was worried about how his wife Parukutti would live without him.

“My children will take care of her after I am gone,” Raman thought, “but I do not want to go so soon. I want to live to see Sumi’s children grow up.”

Raman began to sweat. There was a ceiling fan just above him but he still sweated. The fear of the unknown was enough to make him feel uncomfortable.

“You sit here. I will go and book an appointment,” said Krishnan and went with Raman’s documents to the reception. There was a row of chairs and Raman occupied one of the few empty seats and looked as Krishnan went and stood in a long line of people waiting at the appointment counter.

“Is anyone sitting here?”

Raman looked up and saw a middle-aged woman standing there. She held the hand of a young girl.

“No. You can sit there,” said Raman.

“Sit down Jessy. I will go to the counter and book an appointment with the doctor. Do not wander,” said the woman. The young girl sat down next to Raman. Before the woman walked away she turned at Raman and said, “Sir, please look after her. I will be back in a minute. We have come here a couple of times so I only need to check if the doctor is available.”

Raman nodded and the woman disappeared into the crowd. Raman looked at the crowd. He tried to find Krishnan in it but was not able to find him.

“Are you a patient here?” said the girl.

“What?” said Raman.

“Do you also have cancer?” said the girl.

“I do not know,” said Raman.

“I have cancer. Blood cancer. I am undergoing treatment under Dr. Swaminathan for six months now.”

Raman looked closely. Then he noticed the spots on her head where the hair had started to fall. The girl saw him look closely at her hair.

“Mother says it is because of the treatment I am getting.”

“How old are you?” said Raman.

“I am eight years old,” said the girl, “How old are you Sir?”

“I will be eighty-two this September.”

The girl thought for a minute and then said, “You are seventy fours years older than me. That is a lot of years.”

“Yes, it is a lot of years. I have children and grandchildren. My oldest grandchild is four years old.”

“I do not know if I will reach nine,” said the girl, “My mother says I will get well, but I know she just says that to keep me happy.”

“You will get well, child!” said Raman.

“How do you know? Are you a doctor?” said the girl.

“God will heal you,” said Raman.

“Mother also says that,” said the girl, “My mother is coming back.”

“Come child, lets go and see the doctor,” said the girl’s mother and lead the girl away.

“Good bye Sir!” the girl said and waved at Raman with her thin hands, “You will also get well.”

Raman got up and went towards the queue in front of the appointment counter. After a minute of searching he found Krishnan standing.

“Come let us go home,” said Raman.

“What do you mean, go home? I stood here for half an hour and now I will reach the counter in five minutes.”

“Krishna, I am perfectly alright. Let us not waste the time of the doctors here. They have more important things to do that treat an old man at the fag end of his life.”

Raman grabbed Krishnan’s arm and pulled him out of the line.

“You are a fool. First you make me stand in that line and now you say you are fine. What is the matter with you?”

“I am fine Krishnan. Come lets us go home. I am perfectly fine.”

The Theory of Nirvana

The municipal park in Neyyarinkara was frequented by young and old alike. A man dressed in saffron robes sat under a banyan tree in a corner of the park. He arranged the pleats of his robe and closed his eyes and began to meditate.

For a few minutes his mind was blank. Then he began to think.

“What if people think I am mad?”

That was a distinct possibility. People in Neyyarinkara were not much interested in religion or ascetics.

“Damn the communists,” he thought “They are spreading everywhere like a disease. What happened yesterday, may not happen here.”

The previous day he was in Kanyakumari. He was there to attend a yoga training camp. After the camp he was waiting for the bus to take him back home. There he had tried the same trick he was trying out now in the park. There he sat under a tree in a meditative pose. He had hardly closed his eyes when a foreign tourist had come up to him.

“Namaste Swami,” the man said. For a second the man did not respond. He realized that his flowing beard and saffron robes must have made the tourist think that he was a swami. He did not correct him. The tourist had a lot of questions. Question about life, death and karma. The ‘Swami’ answered all his questions. The tourist was happy. The man was also happy. He saw a lot of scope in becoming a swami. After all he knew the theory part.

“That man at least showed the courtesy of listening to me. The people in this village are hopeless.  This swami business might not work here.” The swami thought.

He had a feeling that he was being watched. He opened his eyes.

He saw a group of children staring at him. They were from the village. Summer vacations had started. Everywhere you looked you could see children running around and playing. The sight of a man with a long beard sitting with his eyes closed under a tree was too much for the children to pass. They crowded around the swami.

“Why are you sleeping under the tree?” said one of the children.

“Why are you sitting and sleeping at the same time?” said another child from the group.

“Go away. Do not disturb me,” said the swami.

“My father says all swamis are cheats,” said a child who thought he was safe as he was standing in the center of the group.

“He says that does he? You want to know what I think about your father?”

The children ran away from there laughing.

“My father is a police constable. Wait till I tell him,” the boy said as he ran away.

For a few minutes the Swami was worried. Then he relaxed. He had not said anything about the boy’s father. So, he had nothing to worry about he thought.

He resumed his posture of meditation.

Five minutes later his concentration was again disturbed when two young men came and sat next to him.

“Have you decided which movie to go to?” said one of the men.

“No. I do not have the money. I can come if you are sponsoring,” said his friend.

“Forget it. I sponsored last week’s movie as well. One of these day my father is going to beat me to death. He has not realized that I steal from his wallet. It has all been small amounts. Five rupees, ten rupees. All small notes!”

Both the friends laughed.

This disturbed the swami’s concentration.

“Can you two not make so much noise? You are disturbing me,” the swami said.

The two friends had not noticed the man sitting next to them. They both turned to face him.

“Pisharody uncle! What are you doing in this fancy dress?” said one of them and both the boys laughed.

Pisharody cringed. He preferred to be addressed as Swami ji now.

“I have become a sanyasi. Show some respect.”

This reply made them laugh all the more.

“When did you become a sanyasi? I must have missed that in the newspapers,” one of the boys asked.

Pisharody had had enough. These boys had no respect for ascetics. He got up and started walking.

“Uncle sing a bhajan or some devotional song. At least chant Hare Rama, Hare Krishna. Otherwise people would think that you are dressed for a fancy-dress contest.”

With the sound of the boy’s shrill laughter ringing in his ears, an angry Pisharody reached home.

Seetharaman Pisharody was a retired college professor. He had settled down in Neyyarinkara, the village of his ancestors. His last posting was as a professor in the University College in Trivandrum. His subject was philosophy. Early Indian Philosophy and Vedic studies were his specialty in college. He knew the scriptures and could quote and speak for hours on them. Years of repeating the same subject had imprinted all the text into his brain. It had been easy for him to answer the questions of the tourist because that is what he had done all his life as a lecturer – answer the queries of his students. He could speak for hours on religious subjects. At home though the situation was a bit different. His wife Bhavani and his two children avoided him like plague. Anyone who knew the family closely would agree that Bhavani his wife, Suma, his daughter and Vinith his son did the right thing by avoiding Pisharody.

“Why is there so much dust on the dining table,” said Pisharody as he came into the kitchen.

“I cleaned it this morning. The windows are open, the wind must be blowing in the dust,” said Bhavani his wife, trying to explain.

“You people do not value what I have done for you. All my life I struggled as a teacher earning money. Now you and your children are wasting it.”

Bhavani sighed. It looked like a long day ahead. She was sure someone must have ticked him off on the way home. That would put him in a bad mood. In a bad mood Pisharody loved to crib. Once Pisharody started cribbing it was difficult to reign him in. The trick was to let him vent. Once all the anger and frustration went out of his system, he would cool down and go to sleep. If you tried to argue with him he would explode. He was in his sixties. During the early days of their marriage he would get violent. Throw things, beat up Bhavani and the children. Age had stopped the violence. Now he cribbed. Bhavani sighed and continued washing the dirty utensils in the kitchen.

“Pisharody saar! Saar!” someone was shouting.

It was three in the afternoon and Pisharody was asleep. Bhavani went out to check.

Two young boys were standing there. With them there was a group of tourists with back packs and rucksacks on their back.

“These people wanted to talk about Indian religion and we thought Pisharody saar would be able to guide them. Also, there is no one in this village who can speak in English for more than two minutes!”

“Why did you bring them here?” said Bhavani.

“We met saar at the park today he said he had become a sanyasi. These people wanted to discuss religion so we thought it best to bring them here.”

“Become a sanyasi? When did that happen? Said Bhavani, “Wait here, he is sleeping. I will let him know.”

Pisharody was sleeping when Bhavani had come to call him. He had quickly sized up the situation and dressed accordingly. He put on his saffron robes, threw a string of prayer beads around his neck, adjusted his reading glasses and stepped out. By the time Pisharody came out, the group had arranged itself on the ground outside the house. There were about ten men and women in the group. Most of them just out of their teens.  Some of them were smoking. They had colorful beads around their necks and were wearing loose flowing dresses.

The effect was instant. The group of foreigners got up and bowed to him.

“Namaste Swami ji!” the words felt like magic to Pisharody’ s ears.

For the next two hours as Bhavani cooked in the kitchen, Pisharody espoused on the theory of Vedanta. He spoke about Karma and reincarnation. He discoursed on how religion taught us to respect others, not discriminate on the basis of gender, caste, religion or creed. The listeners were spell bound. By the time they left they had taken his photos and got his phone and address details. Seetharaman Pisharody’ s journey towards becoming Swami ji had started.

Over the months Pisharody made changes in his house. He added a large hall in front of the house. This was designated as a meditation cum visitor’s room. He added a bathroom to the hall as he spent most of his time there. He added a ceiling fan and put in a carpet on the floor. People who came in were now able to sit with ease. He arranged for drinking water in the hall. He asked Bhavani if she could serve tea to the visitors but she put her foot down.

“Why are you wasting so much money on the hall?” said Bhavani.

“What do you mean by wasting? The people who come here are from distant countries – America, England. You want me to make them sit on the ground?”

“Remember you have a daughter. She is twenty-two years old now. We have to find a good proposal for her. We will need to spend at least five lakhs on her marriage. Gold is so costly these days.”

“What did your father give me when I married you?” said Pisharody.

“You got this house. What more do you want?”

“You call this a house? This old, crumbling piece of dirt?”

“If it is crumbling and old you should have built a new one. You have also been staying in this old, crumbling house all these years.”

“I am not going to waste my money on this house.”

“Yet you do not mind spending lakhs on this hall to seat these drug addicts!”

“It is my money. The money I earned slogging all those years as a lecturer. Plus, now I have my pension money. I do not need to give you an explanation of how I spend my money.”

The door-bell rang. It was a group of three Americans. They wanted to discuss with the swami ji about meditation and peace of mind.

“Meditation is like exercise for the brain cells. Just like lifting weights builds muscles, by meditating you exercise your mind. Let me explain this with a practical demonstration. I do not want this to be a one-way session. I want you to do what I am going to demonstrate. Sit comfortably on the floor….”

Pisharody’ s voice could be heard from the hall.

“Mother, I want to discuss something important with you,” said Suma.

“Not now. I am busy. Once he is done advising the world on peace and harmony he will come barging in and start shouting and yelling if he finds lunch is not ready.”

“Have you noticed that Father has two distinct personalities. One that he displays at home and the other in public.”

“I had a problem the first few years after my marriage, but now I have grown used to it.”

“Mother, I wanted to speak to you about something important.”

“Not now. Here cut these vegetables up. Dice them up properly. You know how your father likes to have them all in small pieces. He does not like big chunks of vegetables in his food,”

The Swami liked it when there was a crowd in the hall. He has put up photos of saints and philosophers on the walls. On one side he built an altar. There he placed photos and icons representing different religions. The message being conveyed was of universal brotherhood. The idea was popular. It attracted the crowds. On days when no one came he would be grumpy. He would wait and when nobody turned up he would take it out on Bhavani. He noticed that there was a pattern. The numbers swelled and ebbed with the tourist season. It was during the summer months that the tourists poured in. Once the rains set in the numbers would drop. The swami hated the rains.

The summer was at its peak. There was a sizable crowd in the hall and the swami was in his element.

“All humans are equal. No one should discriminate on the basis of religion, caste and creed. What the hindu called jal, the muslim called pani while the Christian would call water. They are all the same…”

The audience nodded their head in agreement. The swami had memorized phrases and anecdotes which were guaranteed to put the audience in head nodding mode.  As he was speaking he saw his son Vinith rush into the house. The boy was in his twenties. He was an average student and with his grades the chances of getting a job were almost next to zero.

Pisharody thought that he was not putting in any effort to find a job instead he was wasting his hard-earned money. For a moment the Swami felt an urge to shout at him, but he controlled his anger. In his swami avatar he had to be benevolent and understanding. He would deal with that good for nothing boy later.

Vinith, Pisharody’ s son stopped for a moment. He thought he would go and talk to his father. Then he realized the consequence of the action and ran inside and went straight to his mother.

“Mother, where is Suma?” Vinith said.

“How do I know? She must be in her room,” said Bhavani.

Vinith ran towards his sister’s room. A little later he came back.

“No! She is not there. Did she tell you that she was going out anywhere?”

“No. She must have gone to her friend’s house, but she never does that without telling me first.”

“My friends told me that they saw Suma leave on a bus. She was carrying a large bag. There was boy along with her. Do you remember a tall boy in her friend’s circle? Joseph …something. I do not remember his last name.  He was with her on the bus. My friends said Suma has eloped with Joseph.”

Bhavani dropped the vessel she had in her hand. She ran towards her daughter’s room. Suma’s clothes were missing. So was a carry bag. On the table there, they found a note.

Dear Mother, Father,

I tried to talk to both of you but you were busy. I have decided to marry Joseph. He was my class mate and we have known each other since the fifth standard. He was not in favor of us eloping and suggested the we discuss with father about getting us married off. I know father. That would never happen. I am sorry this is the only way out for me.

Your daughter,

Suma.

The Swami finished his lecture and the group that had assembled left. Pisharody was hungry. He was thinking about areas in his talks that he could improve. He noticed the attention of the audience flagging when he discussed certain points. At times he noticed them concentrate with full interest. He tried to discern a pattern here, areas of interest against the age of the listener. It would be better he figured, if he stuck to points that people wanted to hear. He was deep in thought as he came into the house. He found Bhavani sitting at the dinner table. There were no plates in sight. Vinith was standing with his back against the wall. Pisharody saw an opportunity to shout at his son.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to burst into the house like a mad dog? The hall is full of visitors. At least try to act like a gentleman when we have company.”

Vinith did not answer.

“Before you start off with him read this,” said Bhavani handing Pisharody the letter.

“What is this?” said Pisharody.

“It is a letter from your daughter,” said Bhavani, with tears in her eyes.

Pisharody read the letter. Then he read it again and then all hell broke loose.

“This is all your fault. You gave her complete freedom. Of all the people in the world she runs away with a Christian. That too a low-caste Hindu covert! Has she taken any money?”

Pisharody went to his room to check the money in his wallet. There was nothing missing.

“Did she take anything from you? Did you give her any money?” said Pisharody shouting at Bhavani.

“My daughter is missing and all that you are worried about is money. All this money is anyways meant for the children. What if she took some of it?”

“So, she did take my money to elope with some low-caste boy. We are Pisharody’ s – high caste Hindu’s and she runs away with a low-caste Christian convert.”

“Joseph’s father is one of the richest men in this village. They have two saw mills and a small hotel,” said Vinith.

“I knew it. You are also in with her,” said Pisharody and saw Vinith.

“I am not in this. I came to know only an hour back. Someone told me he had seen them get on a bus and leave, ” said Vinith before his father could start with him.

“At least go to the police station and submit a complaint,” said Bhavani.

Pisharody paused and began thinking.

After sometime he said, “No we cannot give a complaint.”

“Why not?” said Bhavani.

“I cannot afford to go to the police station at this time. It is the peak of the tourist season. About twenty tourists come here to listen to my discourses any given day. It will look bad for my image if this news spreads.”

“Image. All that you are worried about is your image. Your daughter is missing and you are worried about money and image?”

“Good thing you mentioned about money. From today onwards no one from this family will talk or get in touch with Suma. She will not enter this house again. I will remove her name from the will. For me she is dead. I forbid both of you from ever interacting with her.”

Bhavani looked down and shook her head in disgust.

“At least take the saffron robes and prayer beads off when you talk like this,” she said and went into the kitchen.

Months passed. Pisharody never spoke about his daughter. Bhavani and Vinith would occasionally talk about her but only when they were sure Pisharody was not there.

“There is a parcel for Pisharody saar.”

It was Narayanan the village post man at the gate.

Pisharody was not at home. He was attending a yoga camp.

“Narayanan, how is Kittu your son?” said Bhavani as she signed for the parcel.

“He is fine,” said Narayanan.

“I heard he got some award in a sports competition,” said Bhavani.

Narayanan beamed with pride.

“Tell your wife Kalyani to bring Kittu here. I have not seen the boy in ages.”

As the postman left, Bhavani looked at the parcel. It was addressed to Pisharody. It was sent from Bombay. There was a letter along with the parcel. The letter was addressed to both Bhavani and her husband. Bhavani opened and read it. It was from Suma.

My dear Mother and Father,

I know both of you are still angry with me. I am writing this to tell you I am now living in Bombay. Joseph works as a manager in a big company here. He takes good care of me and I am very happy I chose to marry him. I am sending father a present. It is a Rolex watch. I remember how much father wanted to buy one but was not able to do so because of the cost. This is our gift for father.

I hope one day you will both pardon me and accept Joseph as your son in law.

Your daughter

Suma.

 Two days later Pisharody returned from the yoga camp.

“There is something that came in while you were away. Promise me that you will not start yelling,” said Bhavani.

“Tell me what it is and then I will decide if I should yell or not.”

“There is a letter from Suma and a parcel. Read it and then decide what is to be done with the parcel.”

Pisharody’ s face became tense. He grabbed the letter from Bhavani’s hands and read the letter.

“You do not have to shout. I have not opened the parcel. We can throw it away if you do not want it.”

Pisharody opened the parcel. The watch was a beautiful gold colored piece. One look at it and anyone could make out that it was costly. Bhavani stepped back. She knew Pisharody’ s temper. He could throw things and when he was in that mood it was better to be out of harm’s way. Instead of throwing it away he saw Pisharody slipping the watch on to his wrist. It was a good fit. He turned his hand this way and that admiring the watch. Without a word he walked away to his room wearing the new watch. Over the next couple of months more expensive gifts came in. A parker pen, a pure cashmere shawl. Pisharody had no problems taking these gifts.

“Suma is smarter than me,” said Bhavani to Vinith.

“Your sister understands your father better than me. Look at him. How happy he is wearing all these expensive gifts that she is sending. Every day as he steps out for his lectures he decks up like a movie star. Gold watch on his wrist, cashmere shawl draped around his shoulder. Why do you need a shawl in this hot sultry climate?”

“He carries that pen in his pocket,” said Vinith.

Both mother and son laughed.

“Karma is the sum total of what you do. In this life and in your previous lives the actions that you have performed all adds up to our Karma’s. Hindu philosophy believes in reincarnation, as does Buddhism. That is where we see a difference between Christianity and ….”

Mother and son could hear Pisharody’ s voice from the hall. A group of tourists were listening to him in rapt attention. Some of them were taking notes. While others were recording videos of the talks.

“He does not have any of these qualities he lectures about. Don’t these people deserve to know the truth about him?” said Vinith.

“I realized long ago that you do not have to run around to find God. God is a presence, which is there within each one of us. If these fools do not know that then they deserve such a teacher. They day these people will understand that they will stop coming. That is the day they will realize God.”

The Perfect Couple

Neyyarinkara was a small village with none of the trappings of the big cities. The arrival of Lata and her husband Suvarnan changed all that. Suvarnan came to the village after his appointment as the Manager of the State Bank’s local branch. He was an important man in the village hierarchy. He came in a taxi along with this wife Lata. Behind them came a truck with their belongings. Traditionally the Manager of the bank lived in a rented two-storied house which belonged to Kurup one of the richest men in the village. Suvarnan continued that tradition. It was a big house and it took two days for the Manager and his wife to settle down.

Suvarnan or Suvi as his wife called him was ambitious and hard working. He was the third-generation ‘banker’ in his family. His father had retired as a bank clerk. Suvi’ s grandfather also worked in a bank at the turn of the century. Suvi was the first in his family to became a manager. He had a few other firsts to his name. He was the first graduate and Post graduate in his family. He was also the first in his family to travel outside the state.  He set that record when he travelled to Madras to receive the best employee award for the southern region. He got the award twice. Suvarnan was ambitious. With his track record he saw himself reaching the level of a General Manager in the fifteen years.

Suvi married into a rich family. Lata’s father was a rich business man. His business interests ranged from the export of sea-foods to owning timber mills in remote hill ranges.

Suvarnan first met his father law as part of the processing of a business loan application. Lata Exporters had applied for a loan for a couple of lakh rupees. The government had rules in place to ensure that no business loan could be sanctioned without multiple levels of approval. Multiple level of approval in business meant multiple people to be taken care of.  Suvarnan knew that if he was honest and diligent he would retire as a clerk – like his father. He bent the rules a bit and the loans got sanctioned. A grateful owner of Lata Exporters was indebted to this young bank official. They became friends. That friendship developed into a relationship. Suvarnan married the only daughter of the owner of Lata Exporter’s, who was also named Lata.

Lata was a graduate, a student of the Trivandrum St. Xavier college for women. The daughter of a multi-millionaire she never had to jump on buses or walk. She had a car and a driver at her disposal throughout her school and later college years. She and the brat pack friends from the college haunted the shopping malls and theatres of Trivandrum. All that stopped or at least came to a pause with marriage. Her father arranged for three full time servants to accompany her wherever Suvarnan went. Lata would have preferred to stay with her parents but for once Suvarnan stood firm. Reluctantly she agreed to come to Neyyarinkara.

“Suvi, it is a village,” said Lata.

She has shortened Suvarnan to Suvi on the first day of their married life.

“Not exactly. More like a town. After some years it could even become a revenue district.”

“But it is still not Trivandrum!”

“Trivandrum is just twenty kilometers away. You can visit it all days of the week.”

“I do not want to visit Trivandrum. I want to live there. All my college friends are there. There are movie theatres, parks there. Places you can visit with your friends. Shops where you can buy things worth buying. This place is a village.”

“There is a cinema theatre here,” said Suvi.

“And what do they show there? Silent movies from the previous century!”

“Come on Lata! It is not that bad.”

“Not bad? This is horrible. This is my worst nightmare. The only difference is it does not end when I open my eyes!”

“We could stay in Trivandrum and I could commute daily but I do not want to spend half my day on the bus. I will remain here. If you have made up your mind then you can stay with your parents.”

Lata thought about that option for a moment. She saw that the plan had some inherent demerits. First of all, there were the neighbors.

‘Why is she staying away from her husband?’

‘Has she separated from her husband? But she was married for less than a year’

‘That girl was always aggressive, even as a child. No wonder she does not get along with her husband.’

No, that idea would not work.

“Our neighbors would make my life miserable.”

“There is another option. Stay here in Neyyarinkara. I will apply for a transfer on medical grounds. I should be able to move out in about six months.”

Lata liked this idea better.

“Six months? I want you to promise me it will be six months and not a day more.”

“I promise.”

Suvi agreed with Lata on Neyyarinkara not being a very hospitable place. Especially for someone who was born and brought up in a big city. He had promised to get her out in six months but he knew that was not a good idea. He could make up a story about not finding the climate suitable. But if he said that there was a difference of just twenty kilometers between Neyyarinkara and Trivandrum. A person who had a medical problem in Neyyarinkara would have the same problem in Trivandrum as well!

Then there was another even bigger issue. If he mentioned medical problems as a reason that would impact his career as well. Someone who was medically unfit at an age of thirty- two could have serious problems later. That could seriously impact his promotion prospects. Requesting for a transfer after just six months in an office would definitely show up as a red flag on his resume.

Suvi decided to drop the idea of applying for a transfer. That decision was easy. The difficult part was to let Lata know about it. He decided he would make her stay in Neyyarinkara as enjoyable as it would have been had she stayed in Trivandrum.

One week into their stay Suvi has an idea.

“Remember the time we had lunch at that hotel in Trivandrum. Let’s go out and have lunch in a hotel here,” said Suvarnan. He knew of a hotel which was close by. It was a place where some of the staff members in his bank usually had lunch.

Hotel Krishna was not more than a hundred meters from their house. Lata was excited about the visit. It was the first time she would be leaving her home after coming to the village. She wore her finest silk saree for the occasion. The walk up to the hotel should have given them a hint of what to expect. People on both sides of the street stopped to watch them. Lata felt like she was a movie star and lapped up the attention.

The hotel sign had a few words missing and said ‘Hote K ishn ’.

Inside the hotel the seating arrangement consisted of cracked benches and wobbly stools. The floor was plastered mud. The roof was cracked in places and sunlight streaked through those holes. Husband and wife tried to find a clean table. There were none. A radio was playing old movie songs in a corner. There were some patrons, all of them men a few of them shirtless, were having lunch in the hotel. They all stopped eating and looked at this couple dressed in fine clothes standing awkwardly in the middle of the room.

“Saar! What happened? Are you lost?” a man came running from behind the counter.

“We came to have lunch here,” said Suvarnan.

“You want to have lunch here?” said the man unable to decide if what he had heard the bank manager correctly.

“Yes.” Said Suvarnan still hoping to salvage something out of this disaster.

The man stood there looking at them, he looked at their fine clothes and then at the benches in his hotel.

“Sit here Saar,” the man said.

He wiped a bench and chair in the corner of the room with a piece of cloth.

Lata collapsed on one of the wooden stools. She had not recovered from the shock of seeing the hotel. She forgot all about the expensive silk saree she was wearing and just sat there too shaken to say a word.

Suvi saw her expression and he tried to act normal.

“What is on the menu?”

“Menu?” said the man.

No one had ever asked for a menu in his hotel since the time his grandfather had started the business.

“What can we eat here?” said Suvi changing the question to suit the environment.

“Saar. You can have rice and fish. We only have that.”

“Can you get us a cup of tea?” said Suvi.

The man placed two small glass cups of tea before the couple.

As if in a dream Lata reached for her glass. It had a crack on the side. Something was floating in it.

“There is something in the tea,” said Lata her voice cracking.

The hotel owner peered into her tea cup and saw an ant floating in it.

“It is only an ant. Must have been in the sugar. Here let me take it out,” he said and put his finger in the cup and after a few attempts was able to successfully take the now dead ant out.

“Let us go home,” said Lata whispering.

Suvi has seen some of these people who were eating in the hotel in his bank. He knew he could not just leave the place without at least drinking the tea. They would feel offended. He took a few sips of the tea.

“Do not drink the tea,” said Lata whispering again.

The tone was slightly different now. Suvi realized it was time he paid for the tea. The couple got up and made their way out. Lata did not speak on the way back home. Suvi did not insist. They did not speak for a week.

“Do you think I am putting on weight?” said Lata. The episode at the ‘Hotel’ was forgotten and the warring factions were back on talking terms.

Suvi knew this was a trick question. Whatever the answer she would get angry. He chose to be diplomatic. He asked her a question back.

“What makes you think you are putting on weight?” said Suvi.

“I am filling out my clothes. Look at this blouse. It is now tight around the sleeves. It was loose at the time of my marriage,” said Lata.

“I think you look just the same.”

“No! I know I am putting on weight. I think I should start doing exercise.”

“Exercise? What exercise?”

“I will go jogging. During my school days I used to be good at sports. Wake me up at six in the morning. I am going for a jog. I have my old track suit. I will wear that. The road outside out house is just perfect. There is never any traffic on the road. Good thing I bought my jogging shoes along.”

“You bought your jogging shoes with you. I did not know you were an athlete while in school,”

“You do not know a lot about me, mister. Wake me up at six tomorrow.”

The next morning at six sharp Bank Manager Suvarnan’ s house was a scene of hectic activity. Lata squeezed into a track suit and put on her jogging shoes and as the clock struck six fifteen she was on her way. The road before her house was usually empty.

She had run about ten meters when she started panting. She slowed. The panting did not stop but increased. She started walking. A group of women were coming from the other side of the road. They had baskets full of vegetables balanced on their heads. The women were on their way to the village market. The sight of a woman in figure-hugging clothes stopped the women in their tracks. The women had seen such dresses in movies. They stood there with their mouth wide open. One of the women was so shocked she lost control of her basket. All the contents of the basket spilled on the street.

Dineshan, a young man who milked cows was coming from the opposite site. Dineshan forgot he was riding a bicycle as Lata went past him and crashed into a lamp post. He fell flat on one side of the street while his bicycle rolled over and fell on the other side.

Lata continued, un-concerned with the events unfolding behind her. She jogged for about ten more meters and then stopped. Her knees and ankles were hurting. Her breathing could be heard at a distance of a hundred meters. She turned and started back. She passed Dineshan again. This time he stopped his cycle and looked at her. Lata walked on. By now the women had gathered all the vegetables scattered on the road and had placed them in the basket. They were smarter than Dineshan and did not place the baskets on their heads. They stood there and watched Lata as she slowly hobbled past them and disappeared around the bend.

“So how was your morning run?” said Suvi as he saw Lata stagger back ten minutes later.

“Not bad,” said Lata. She did not elaborate further.

“You said you were good at sports when in school. Which sport were you good at?”

“Carroms!” said Lata, “I am tired now. Tomorrow I will run for an hour at least.”
That tomorrow never came. The next day Lata woke up with an intense pain in her legs muscles. The pain was such she was unable to walk properly for a week. By the time the pain subsided the track pants and jogging shoes were back in the box.

“Why don’t we go for a movie?” said Suvi one day.

“Have you seen the theatre in this village?” said Lata.

“From the outside? Yes. It would not be all that bad. Let us go there once. There is a new movie showing there this week.”

That Sunday Lata was more careful with her dress. After the experience with the ‘hotel’ she had packed all her silk sarees away. Instead she selected a plain churidar. That decision proved to be unwise. In sleepy Neyyarinkara where wearing a silk saree was a novelty donning a churidar was a revolution.

Lata was the cynosure of all eyes.

“Is she a Muslim?” she heard some say.

“Must be. She wearing a Muslim dress. Maybe she is a Punjabi!”

Lata thought she would correct them, but Suvi restrained her.

“Let them say what they want. They are villagers. They have not seen this dress before.”

The theatre was a large rectangular hall with chairs. The roof was corrugated iron sheets. Ceiling fans provided the cooling effect inside the theatre, but once the doors were shut it was like being slow-roasted inside an oven.  The crowd was boisterous. Cat calls, whistles and witty comments flowed in all direction throughout the movie. By the time the movie ended Lata and Suvi were drenched in sweat. They rushed out of the theatre both sure that they would not be returning any time soon. This time there was silence in the house for two weeks.

“Why don’t we call-on our neighbor’s?” said Suvi.

“We do not know them,” said Lata.

“Exactly. That is why we should go and meet them. That way we can, you can make some friends here and may be then life would not be so boring in this village.”

This time Lata wore a simple cotton saree. Not exactly the type that women wore at home but also not the kind that dazzled and stunned.  A few hundred meters from their house there was a beautiful cottage. A family had moved in that house and Suvi thought this was a good opportunity to get to know them.

“This man bought this house with a loan from our bank. I think his name is Chandran,” said Suvi as they neared the house.

As Lata and Suvi walked up to the door the door opened and a man stepped out.

“You must be the new family which has moved in,” said Lata.

“Yes. My name is Chandran and this is my wife Savitri.”

“We are your neighbors. My name is Lata. This is my husband Suvarnan. He works in a bank. I call him Suvi. He said you took a loan from his bank.”

“Yes, we needed a loan to buy this house,” said Chandran.

Lata clasped Savitri’s hand and said, “I am happy that you came in here. Now I will not be bored. I came to invite both of you for dinner at our place.”

Lata now had a friend in the village.