Tag Archives: stories for children

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.

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The Gold Coin

“I want you to finish your homework by the time I am back from my walk,” said Pankajakshan, “I send you to a good school. You have good teachers. Yet look at your marks! You have barely made passing grades in three subjects.” Deepu, Pankajakshan’ s son said nothing.

There was nothing he could say when his father was in a bad mood. Any comments and wise cracks would result in a slap. It could get worse at times.  Pankajakshan was a police constable attached to the Neyyarinkara Police Station. Life had been tough for Pankajakshan as a child.  The son of a poor farmer, there were days when he and his siblings went to sleep on an empty stomach. He wanted to avoid that kind of a life for his son. He wanted his son to be educated and get a good government job. He personally supervised Deepu ’s studies, when time permitted. Those teaching sessions would end disastrously for poor Deepu. He would get confused and end up making simple mistakes. That would annoy Pankajakshan.

Deepu ’s mother Sharadha had given up intervening. Whenever she tried it Pankajakshan would turn on her. Then mother and son would both get bruised for their efforts. The best way to handle these ‘study’ sessions would be to finish off the homework and hope for the best. This latest incident was triggered by the report card Deepu had brought home. Deepu or Deepak was in the fourth standard in the Neyyarinkara Government school. He was not dull, neither was he the top ranker in his class. Yet, Deepu loved to read. He devoured comics and magazines for children. He had read more books in that genre than any other student in his class.

Deepu knew he had to finish his homework in an hour. That was the time it took his father to finish his walk. Pankajakshan was putting on weight. Gopalan the new inspector who had taken charge at the Neyyarinkara Police Station was very particular about the fitness of his men.   Pankajakshan decided he would walk for five kilometers every day to cut the flab. It was the first day of his new exercise regimen and he was about to set out.

“What have you got for home work today Deepu?” said Sharadha who saw her husband disappearing round the bend on the road.

“Mathematics.  I have some sums on fractions and then English and Malayalam,” said Deepu.

“Finish it fast before your father comes.  Let me help you with the math sums.”

Sharada sat with her son and helped him with the fractions. They then turned to Malayalam. Half an hour later all that remained was the English.

“You have to write ten sentences on a butterfly,” said Sharada, “I know, you can easily do that. I have some work in the kitchen. Let me finish that. Call me if you need any help.”

“I can write that on my own,” said Deepu. He was good in English. Sharada knew that and reassured went to the kitchen.  Pankajakshan was very particular about the time when he got his food.  Breakfast had to be at seven in the morning.  His lunch was at the police station. Dinner was to be at nine p.m. sharp. Any delays and he would throw a fit.  It was already six in the evening and Sharada had to rush.

Deepu opened his English exercise book.  He wrote down the title of his essay, ‘The Butterfly’. Then he left a line and started.

‘I am a butterfly. I have two pairs of wings…’

Here Deepu stopped.  He started to think.

‘How many pairs of wings does a butterfly have?’

‘Is it one or two?’

He was not sure. Then he had an idea.

‘There would be butterflies in the garden. I could catch one and count its wings. That will be the correct way of doing this.’ He thought.

He put his books aside and ran out. The house had a small garden. The garden had a large number of flowering plants. Some were planted on the ground and some were in huge clay pots.  Deepu looked around for a butterfly.  He could not see any.

“Maybe they are also doing their homework!” said Deepu to himself and laughed.

He tried shaking the leaves of the plants. He had seen butterflies hiding behind the leaves. By shaking the leaves, he hoped to get some to come out of their hiding place.  Then he saw a frog.  Deepu thought he had an ugly face.  The frog was looking at him.

“What are you doing in my garden?” said Deepu. The frog did not answer but stared back at him.

Deepu looked around for a stick. This was going to be fun. He found a small twig and picking it up he went up to the frog. He was about to poke, when it jumped. Deepu exploded with laughter. He chased it around the garden. It would jump a few feet and wait. Then as Deepu came close it would jump again.

“Have you finished your homework?”

It was Pankajakshan and he was back from his walk.

Deepu stopped running and lied, “Yes.”

He hoped Pankajakshan would go for his bath first and then ask him to bring his homework. By then he would have completed his essay on the butterfly. That hope was dashed immediately.

“Show me your homework,” said his father.

It was the sound of Pankajakshan shouting that brought Sharada running from the kitchen. Deepu was crying.

“What happened?” said Sharadha.

“You want to know what happened?” said Pankajakshan, “Your son has not only not completed his homework he is also training to becoming a liar.”

Pankajakshan then turned towards Deepu and said, “Did I not tell you to compete your homework by the time I returned from my walk?”

Deepu nodded his head through the tears.

“Then why were you playing in the garden, if your homework was not complete?” said Pankajakshan and slapped him.

“Please do not hit him. He has already completed his Mathematics and Malayalam homework. It is just ten lines that he needs to write for English. He will do it now,” said Sharada pleading her son’s case.

“Not only has he not listened to me, he lied about it,” said Pankajakshan shouting.

“Father, I am sorry. I will not lie again,” said Deepu between sobs.

“Next time this happens I will break your bones,” said Pankajakshan. He then turned at Sharadha, “Is the water for my bath ready?”

“Yes, it is in the bathroom,” said Sharada.

As her husband went for his bath, Sharada hugged her son tightly.

“Are you alright? Does it hurt?”

Deepu did not reply. He shook his head and pushed his mother away. He went to the table and picking up his exercise book and began writing.

‘I am a butterfly. I have two pairs of wings. I can fly and go from one place to other. No one controls me. I am free to do what I want.…’

The next day, on his way back from school, Deepu saw huge tents being set up on the ground near the railway station. He saw a few of his class mates there and ran over to them.

“It is a group of gypsies. They have set up some tents where they will be holding some shows,” said one of the children in the group.

“Shows? What shows?” said Deepu.

“Circus shows, clown acts, flamethrowers, magic tricks.”

“This should be fun.” said Deepu.

“Amma, there is a circus show in the village. Will you take me there?” said Deepu.

Sharadha was washing utensils in the kitchen.

“Ask you father, Deepu. You know I do not go anywhere on my own.”

Deepu thought about it for a minute and then realized that the chances of his father taking him next to impossible.

“Amma, father never has the time. He is always either working or scolding me. Why can you not take me? I promise, I will hold your hand all the time.”

“Deepu, this is a village. Women do not go out unaccompanied. A male member of the family should be with them when they go out.”

“I am a male member of the family. I will be there with you!”

Sharadha smiled.

“Maybe after ten years you can come with me. Till then I have to go along with your father.”

Deepu thought about it some more.

“Amma, Lata aunty, the bank manager’s wife, she goes to the market alone. I have seen her buying grocery while I go to school.”

“Deepu, Lata aunty is a not from this village. She studied in a college and is from the city. She can go where she wants.”

His mother ‘s explanation did not make sense to Deepu.

The next day, on his way back he again went by the circus tents. All the arrangements were now complete. A gate had been set up and the first show was to start from that night. Deepu looked all around. There was no one in sight. He walked up to a corner of the tent, lifted the thick canvas and slipped in. Inside there were small tents everywhere. There were people running around. Everyone was busy practicing their act for the night’s performance. Deepu saw young children doing acrobatics, turning cartwheels. Some were jumping through hoops. He saw a man juggling brightly colored balls. There was a well-built man lifting weights in a corner. Deepu did not know where to look. The whole place was a treasure trove of adventure and excitement.

“Who let you in.” A voice from behind made Deepu jump.

He saw a tall, thin man with a long moustache standing. With him stood a young girl. She must have been his age. Both of them stood there staring at Deepu.

“I… I came in through the… I slipped through…,” Deepu said fumbling with his response. He was scared.

“So, you were trying to sneak in and avoid paying the entry ticket. This time I am letting you go. Come back in the evening with your parents and first buy a ticket.”

“My father does not have the time. He is a police constable and is very busy and my mother cannot come without my father,” said Deepu a sad look on his face. He turned and started walking towards the gate.

“Wait!” said the man. Deepu stopped.

The man came up to him and looked at him. His face looked considerably softer now.

“Do you want to watch the show?” said the man.

Deepu nodded his head.

“Ok! Let me see what can be done about it,” said the man, “I am assuming you do not have any money?”

Deepu shook his head.

“Then we have a problem,” said the man. He closed his eyes and stood there like a statue. Then he began waving his hands in the air. He was mumbling in some strange language. His whole body shook as if he had a fever. Swaying as if to a rhythm which only he could hear, he clapped his hands loudly.

“Check your shirt pocket,” said the man.

Deepu did not understand what was happening but he obeyed. He put his fingers into his shirt-pocket. The next moment Deepu let out a shout of surprise. He found a large gold colored coin in his pocket.

“How did that coin get in my pocket?” said Deepu. He was certain it was not there before. He had never seen that coin before.

“This is a magic coin. You have been chosen by the guardian spirits. They have decided that from now on you will be the owner of this coin. Whenever you want to come in the tent, just show this to the man at the gate and he would let you in.”

Deepu had a big smile on his face as he thanked the man and ran out. He was very happy. It was the first time in his life that he felt wanted, special.

“Have I not told you not to speak to strangers?” said Sharadha. Deepu had come home and told his mother everything that happened that day.

“Amma, they are good people. Why would they hurt me?”

“I do not want you to go there anymore.”

“Amma!” Deepu protested but it was of use.

His mother was adamant. She forbade him from going into the circus tent. His father did not have the time to take him there. He went to his room and sat there looking at the gold coin in his hand.

The circus was in the village for a week. Every day the shows would start at seven p.m. and end by nine p.m. Everyday Deepu would take out the coin and look at it for a long time. Then with a sigh he would put it back. He knew his parents well enough to know that they would not take him to the circus. All his friends at school had seen the show. Some had seen it multiple times. The whole day in class the children would talk about how the strong man had lifted a table in one hand or how the juggler had juggled five knives. Deepu would listen to them and sigh. He had seen some of them practice that day, but that was boring. He wanted to see them in full costume with the music blaring and the people clapping in the background.

Then the last day for the circus dawned. Deepu got up early. He knew what he was going to do that day. He would finish his homework early and then go and watch the circus. He knew what the end result of this ‘bravery’ would be. Not only his father it was possible even his mother would spank him for going out of the house that late, but he was determined. This was the first time in the eight years of his life, that a circus had come to his village and he was not going to miss it.

“What are you doing with your head in the books?” said Sharadha amazed to see Deepu surrounded by books. He had finished his lunch after coming home and immediately sat down to do his homework.

“I have a lot of homework today,” said Deepu.

“Are you not going out to play?” said Sharadha.

Deepu shook his head.

“Amma I will call you if I need any help.”

“I just finished washing all the dirty dishes. Now I will go and take a short nap. I will help you in the evening.”
Deepu worked feverishly. Strangely it seemed today there was more homework than normal. There was English, mathematics, general science and social studies books before him. He completed the work in one book and reached for the next. Time and again his mind would go to his plans for that night. He had planned everything down to the minute. He was targeting to finish his homework by six. That was also the time his mother would go for her bath.  After her bath, which took more than half an hour as she also washed all the dirty clothes in the bathroom, she usually came out by six forty.  Next, she went to the puja room and would sit there, chant prayers and read from the scriptures for half an hour. From the prayer room she would go straight to the kitchen and begin preparing dinner. If Deepu had any doubts in his homework he would ask her for help and she would shout out the answers while working in the kitchen.

By the time Deepu had finished and put aside the last book it was already six thirty. He   ran to the bedroom and took out a clean shirt from the cupboard. He could hear the sound of the tap running in the bathroom. He knew his mother was going to be there for at least another fifteen minutes. Deepu put on the clean shirt and slipped on the sandals he usually wore when going out.

“Amma, I would be in my room. I have finished all my homework and kept it on the table – if you want to check. I am reading a story book and do not want to be disturbed.”

Deepu went up to his room and shut the door from outside. He occasionally used to shut the door to his room when Sharadha switched on the radio or when she and Pankajakshan were having an argument. It kept the voices out of the room. Deepu used the same tactic now. His mother usually did not disturb him when he was reading. Deepu ran out of the house. Pankajakshan would be back from the police-station by eight. The evening walk had lasted one day only.  Life in a police station was hectic. Deepu was counting on that.

It took about ten minutes to walk from his home to the   ground where the circus tents had been setup. Deepu made it in five. He ran as fast as he could. As he neared the gates of the camp site he saw a huge crowd had already gathered.  People were lining up to buy tickets.  He saw some of his class mates holding on to the hands of their parents. They saw him and called his name. He did not respond. He went straight towards the gates.

“We start at seven. The ticket sale has not yet started. Buy a ticket first and then come here.” said the man at the gate in a mechanical tone. He said this daily to those who tried to get in early.

Deepu showed him the gold coin.

The man looked at it and then smiled at Deepu.

“I see you are the lucky child in this village! Go right in. The rules do not apply to you now.”

The man opened the gates partially and Deepu slid in. Deepu was inside a huge circular tent. He ran up and occupied a seat in the first row. He could not contain his excitement as he looked all around the enclosure. The tent was covered in a colorful canvas. There was a ring in the middle and the seats were all arranged around the ring. Huge electrical lights hung from bamboo poles and shone down at the ring. One by one the people started coming in. He had got in for free. It was the magic of his gold coin. He checked and reassured himself that the coin was still in his pocket.

Pankajakshan came home around eight in the evening. Sharadha had a glass of water ready for him by the time he had taken off his shoes.

“Where is Deepu?” said Pankajakshan.

“In his room. Reading some comic. He said he did not want to be disturbed,” said Sharadha, “he has finished all his homework. I checked his books.” She added that part quickly knowing how her husband’s mind worked.

“The boy does poorly in his exams and yet reads so many books.”

“He is smart. He puts in a lot of hard work,” said Sharadha.

“I hope for his sake all that hard work will reflect in his marks. Is the hot water for my bath ready?”

“Yes! I have put it in the bathroom.”

Pankajakshan had his bath and after a quick bow before the pictures of the Gods, he was ready to meet his son.

“Where is Deepu?” said Pankajakshan.

“In his room.”

“No! he is not there. I just checked.”

“He said he would be in his room,” said Sharadha.

She went to check Deepu ’s room.

“I told you I have already checked there.”

Sharadha came out. She was worried. She ran out and checked the compound around the house. Deepu was not there. She came in again.

“Where is he?” said Pankajakshan.

“He is not there in the house,” said Sharadha.

She was feeling slightly dizzy and held on to a chair for support. Suddenly her legs were feeling week.

“Have you checked the loft?” said Pankajakshan.

“No. I am worried. Where can he be. He was here when I went to have a bath.”

Pankajakshan took a torch and climbed up the stairs, which led to the loft. There he shone the light in all the corners. Except for the cob webs and the dust there was nothing there. He climbed down. Now Pankajakshan was worried.

“Did he say anything about going to his friend’s house?” he said.

“At this time of the night. He knows better than that,” said Sharadha and then thought that it was an idea worth checking. “Can you go and see if he is there.”

“I do not know who his friends are,” said Pankajakshan. Realizing for the first time how little he knew about his son.

“I will come with you,” said Sharadha.

She went to the kitchen and shut off the stove and covered all the food. They rushed out of the house in their haste forgetting to lock the doors. Suddenly all that seemed unimportant.

They went from one friend ’s house to another. Most of the houses were locked.

“Where is everybody,” said Pankajakshan.

“I do not know. I want my son. Oh God please I will never scold him again in my life. Please, please help me find my son.”

In the middle of the street, on the pitch – dark street she started to cry. Pankajakshan did not cry but he was worried. Thoughts raced through his mind. He remembered how he had felt when he had seen Deepu for the first time at the hospital, the day he was born. He remembered how happy he had felt when he had taken his first step. He remembered when he had fallen asleep on his chest. Then he remembered how he had trashed the boy the last time he had come home with a bad report card.

‘Has he left the house because of me?’ thought Pankajakshan, ‘Why would he want to stay in the house. All that I do is beat him.’

Then his eyes feel on a poster stuck to the wall of a house. It was an announcement of the circus show in the village. Sharadha saw it at the same time.

“Can he have gone there?” they both said together.

The circus show was in full swing.  The jugglers, the strong man and the acrobats had all finished their acts. The last act of the day the magic show was underway. Deepu sitting in the front rows had enjoyed himself all through the evening. He had gasped with surprise when the magic show had started. It was the same man who had given him the coin. His hands were hurting with clapping but that did not stop him from clapping.

“There he is!” said Sharada as her keen eyes spotted her son on the other side of the ring.

“Thank God!” said Pankajakshan. He started walking towards his son.

“Now for the last act of my performance I will make a boy disappear. I want a volunteer from the audience,” said the magician to the crowd.

Deepu raised both his arms and began jumping around. There were a lot of children who had their arms raised. The magician spotted Deepu. He recognized the child immediately.

“Now for this act I will ask a boy who is the bravest and most intelligent child in this village to step forward,” said the Magician and pointed at Deepu.

Deepu could not contain his joy and jumped into the ring. As Sharadha and Pankajakshan gasped Deepu ran straight towards the Magician.

“Deepu, Deepu!” Pankajakshan said and was about to jump into the ring when he heard someone calling his name. He knew that voice.

“Pankajakshan, what are you trying to do?” said Inspector Gopalan. He was in the audience and was along with his wife and two children.

“Sir! that is my boy.”

“That is not what I asked. What are you trying to do in the ring?”

“Sir I want to stop him from going there.”

“Pankajakshan! It is a magic show. The children are enjoying it. The whole village is here. Do not spoil their fun.”

Pankajakshan stepped back. He stood there on the sidelines along with Sharadha.

“I am going to hypnotize this boy,” said the magician. He waved his arms around Deepu and made strange signs with his fingers all around Deepu ’s face.  Deepu who was standing there closed his eyes and then as if asleep, fell into the arms of the Magician’s assistant.

The magician’s assistant placed Deepu in a big black box. Then he proceeded to dramatically closed each door of the box.  The magician then put a large black cloth over the box and began waving his arms around. He was mumbling in a strange language as he started walking around the box.  There was pin drop silence in the tent.

“Watch closely,” he said in a stage whisper.

He pulled of the cloth covering the box and slowly opened the box.  It was empty. The audience clapped and some of the rowdy boys even whistled their appreciation.

The lights were switched off and the show ended.

Sharadha and Pankajakshan gasped in horror. Deepu was nowhere to be seen. Husband and wife ran outside the tent. The people who had come to watch the show started to leave and were crowding all the gates. In the sea of faces they were not able to spot Deepu.

“Where is my son?” said Sharadha, “Oh God, have I lost him again, twice in the same day!”

“Wait here, said Pankajakshan, “I am going to beat the truth out of that magician.”

He walked towards the place where the circus folks were all standing. The show in the village had ended. They were discussing when to dismantle the tents.

“Where is my son?” said Pankajakshan as he spotted the magician. He was smoking a cigarette in a corner.

“Your son?”

“The boy you put in the box.”

“Oh! you mean the sad boy. He ran away when he saw you two.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your son saw the two of you trying to catch him in between the show. He was so scared that as soon as he came out of the box he ran away. I think by now he would have reached your house.”

Pankajakshan and Sharadha turned and ran back home.

As the magician saw them leave he turned to the young girl by his side and said, “So these are the bad parents who would not let their only child see a magic show. I wish I had used these two for my ‘saw-in-half’ trick!” the girl laughed and the magician joined her in the laughter.

Pankajakshan and Sharadha saw the doors of their house wide open. They rushed in and went straight towards Deepu’ s room. The door was closed. As they pushed it open, both of them let out a sigh of relief. Deepu was sleeping in his bed. They tiptoed to his bed and sat on either side.

Deepu was not asleep, he had just reached home a few minutes back. He was lying there with his eyes closed. He felt his father’s hand on his back. Pankajakshan patted his son for a long time while Sharadha sat there with tears in her eyes. They realized how precious the boy was to them. Neither of them said a word, but both knew that there would be changes in the house. Changes in the way they looked after their son. It was only when they came close to losing him that they realized how important he was in their lives.

As they went out of the room, Deepu opened his eyes. He knew something had happened in the room. Neither of them had scolded him. He had expected a thrashing from his father at the least. That did not happen. Instead his father was patting his back. Something told Deepu that things were going to change. Change for the better. Deepu smiled in the dark. He opened his fist and in it he had the gold coin. The magical gold coin that changed his life. With a smile on his face Deepu fell asleep.

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 Old Man

The day in our village Neyyarinkara started early. By five in the morning most of the villagers would be at the river bank. We went there for our morning bath, to brush our teeth and wash dirty clothes. As I was eight years old, I did not have to wash clothes. I could also have done the bathing and brushing at home with the water from the well in our backyard. Mother did not allow me to go near the well. The river was a kilometer from our house. The street which ran across our gate ended at the river bank. During the sun light hours of the day, I ran up and down this road a thousand times. Running off to school, returning from school, going to the market to buy groceries – I knew every bump and bend on the road but in the dark of the early morning hours, I would hold on to mother’s hand for support.

At the river bank I recognized most of the people. They were the regulars. The village policeman was there. I could also see the teachers from my school and most of the shopkeepers. Even Raghu the village thief was there, bathing at a safe distance from Gopalan the policeman. Mother took a lot of time to finish her bath. First, she would wash all the clothes she had bought along with her. Then she would brush her teeth and finally take a dip in the gentle waters of our Neyyar. I would finish everything in a couple of minutes, come out of the water and wait for her on the sandy river bank. I loved to listen to the conversations of the elder folks as they stood there preparing for their bath. It was while waiting for mother to come out of the water that I first met the Moopan.

In Malayalam, the language we spoke at home, Moopan meant old man. The man was old. To my eyes he looked as old as my grandfather if not older. He was sitting inside his shop. It was more of a big wooden box than a shop. Wooden planks held together by rusted nails on three sides. A tin sheet on the top to keep the rain away. In front the shop had an opening. A portion of the wooden planks was cut in half and was held up by hinges. The old man was inside the shop at all times. There were ledges on the walls of his shop which had jars of different shapes and sizes.

“What are you doing here all alone?” the old man said as he spotted me standing there all by myself.

My first reaction was to slide away and go back to standing near the river. One look at him and I realized he could not be dangerous.

“I am waiting for my mother to come out.”

“What is your mother’s name?”

“Kalyani,” I said.

“Oh! you are Narayanan the postman’s son?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I have never seen your father coming to the river for his bath.”

“He has his bath at home. We have a well in our house.”

“And you like coming here so early in the morning?”

I shrugged and kicked at some sand which was lying in a heap. The old man smiled.

“Don’t you go to school?” he said.

“I am in the third standard at the Government Boys High School.”

“Are you good at your studies?”

“I stood first in the under ten boys athletics competition. I got a gold medal for that.”

“Does that mean that you are not good at studies?”

I winced. It was a trick question. I hated trick questions. Adults always had this habit of trying to coax answers out of us using such trick questions.

“I got a B grade in my exams. That is not bad, but I am better at sports,” I said.

“Your grandfather was also good at sports,” the old man said.

“You knew my grandfather?”

“We were close friends during our school days. I had to stop studies after the fourth form, he continued till his sixth. He stood first in all the sports competitions.”

“I got my gold medal for coming first in the under ten boys division,” I said happy that I was being compared with my grandfather.

I loved my grandfather. He used to play with me. He would tell me a new story every day. I used to sleep in his room at night.

“Grandfather is now in heaven,” I said.

“I know,” the old man said, “most of my friends are now in heaven.”

He became silent. The light from the single wicker lamp burning in his shop, added more creases to his face.

The Moopan’s shop specifically catered to the early morning bathers. Coconut oil, ummi- kirri powdered burnt rice husk which we used to rub on our teeth, small one-inch pieces of soap different brands for bathing and washing clothes – he only stored such items. He also stocked the stalk of coconut leaves with which we used to clean our tongue. All combined these essential ingredients for morning bath cost ten paisa per person. People found it easy to bring a ten-paisa coin rather than carry all these from home.

“Is my son troubling you?” mother’s voice stopped our conversation.

“Oh no! He is a smart boy. He tells me he is good at sports,” the old man said.

“It would have been better if he had paid more attention to his studies,” said mother.

Mother was always like that. Putting me down in front of others. She firmly believed that you should not praise you children before others. It invited the ‘evil eye’. I did not believe in the concept of an evil eye. Then you could not argue with mother. I could get spanked right there on the street. Father was easier to handle. I stood there, head bowed inspecting my toes as they played with the sand.

“Come boy lets go to the temple,” said Mother.

That part of the morning program was why she dragged me along with her every day. Father did not believe in God. Mother said he was a communist. I did not understand what that was but knew that they were happy people who did not have to get up early to go to the temple. I knew that I would also grow up and become a communist – anything that could get me a few hours of extra sleep. Not that the temple was a bad place to visit.

Our village temple was small but beautiful. It was in the shape of a square. A series of square shaped structures one within the other. In the inner most square was a small roofed house where the idol of the God was kept. Mother would stand at a distance along with other people all with still wet clothes and pray. Mother had taught me how to pray. I followed her instructions to the letter every day. My prayer was always the same. I would ask God to set easy question papers in the exam. It never worked. I knew God would have only himself to blame if I eventually became a communist.

Every day after my bath I would run up to the Moopan’s shop and watch as he served his customers. After he had served them all, he would turn to me and we would resume our conversations. I told him about school. How difficult mathematics was and how confusing science could be. I told him how much I enjoyed athletics and football. The Moopan told me about the rhinoceros beetle and the red palm weevil which could destroy coconut trees. He told me about his wife who had gone to heaven when he was thirty, leaving him with a son who had eventually run away from home – never to return.

One day as mother and I reached the river bank we found a crowd of people gathered near the Moopan’s shop. The shop was closed. It was the first time I had seen the shop closed. In fact, it was the first time any one in the village had seen the shop closed.

“Why has the Moopan not opened his shop?” someone asked.

“I don’t know.  Why are you asking me?” someone else replied.

“I cannot have a bath without coconut oil in my hair,” said another person. I looked at the man and saw that he had about a hundred and fifty strands of hair on his head. There was not much that the moopan’s hair oil could have done for him.

The next day the scene was repeated but this time the number of people standing were far less. Some had come expecting this to be the case with their hair already greasy and small pouches of ummi-kirri.  When the shop remained closed on the third day, people stopped asking questions about the moopan.

“Why is the moopan not opening his shop?” I asked mother on our way back home.

“I don’t know Kittu,” Mother called me Kittu, “maybe he has gone to heaven like your grandfather?”

I did not like her reply. It made me sad. I said nothing on the way back home.

That day after school on the way back home I took a different route. During my conversations with the Moopan he had told me where he stayed. It was a place behind the temple. Normally nobody used that road. Our temple had a paved street right outside its main gate.  The other three sides were full of shrubs and wild overgrowth. I had to walk carefully to avoid getting cut by the thorny bushes. In a distance I could see a small thatched hut.

“Any one at home?” I said.

There was no reply.

“Is there anyone living here?” I asked again this time almost shouting the words out.

There was a faint cough from somewhere inside. Cautiously I went in the hut. It was dark inside and it took my eyes a few minutes to get accustomed to the light. The smell inside the hut reminded me of my grandfather during the last days of his life. Grandfather was always in bed during those days. He did not have the energy to walk around and sometimes soiled his clothes. The hut had that same smell. In the dim light I could make out the Moopan lying on a cot in a corner of the room.

“Don’t worry grandpa,” I said, “I will get someone who can help.”

I ran towards my house, half way through I changed direction and ran towards the post office. I knew that in a situation like this it was father who could be able to help better.

“Father….father, come quick. The moopan needs your help,” I said as I entered the post office.

It was a week day and there were people standing in queue at the counter.

“What are you doing here?” said father his head popping up from behind the counter.

“Father the old man needs help. He is not well,” I said.

“Which old man?”

“The Moopan. The old man who runs the shop near the river bank.” I said.

“How do you know that?” father asked.

“I went to his house. I saw him lying there in bed. He cannot get up. Hurry he needs help.”

“How do you know where the old man lives?” one of the men standing in the queue asked me.

“He told me,” I said, “Father please can you come now? He needs help.”

“I need the stamps and the envelopes,” said another man standing in the queue.

“My money order is urgent. My son needs the money for his college fees. He is staying in a hostel.” said a woman standing behind him.

Father looked at the clock on the wall behind us. It was two thirty in the afternoon. The post office was open till four in the evening.

“Today we will close early,” said father and the queue moved closer to the counter.

I waiting at the door. I could never understand adults. A man was suffering and all they could think of was stamps and money.

“Kittu go home or your mother will be worried,” said father. He also called me Kittu at home.

“I want to come with you,” I said.

“No. Go home take my tiffin box with you and give it to your mother,” said father this time his voice was firm. I obeyed.

“Where were you?” mother was at the door step.

I told her everything.

“Why did you go inside that old man’s house?”

“Amma, he is not well,” I said.

“Have I not told you not to trust strangers?”

“Amma he is old and sick.”

“Kittu he could have hurt you,”

“Amma, he reminded me of Appupan,” I said. I could not stop the tears as they poured down my cheeks. I repeated, “He reminded me of Appupan.”

Mother smiled and bent down and lifted me up.

“Such a big boy and you still cry. Don’t worry your father will take care of him. He will take care of the Moopan. See! you are so tall when I carry you your feet touch the ground!”

I laughed in spite of my tears as I saw that she was right. My feet were touching the ground.

The shop remained closed after that. Every morning I would stand near it as I waited for mother to return after her bath. Somewhere in my mind I hoped the old man would come and open the shop. I knew that it was not possible. Father along with a few villagers took the old man to the hospital. He sat there besides the old man for a few days, coming late at night. Every day he would tell us what the doctors had said about the old man’s condition.

One day father came home early from the post office. I was playing in our courtyard.  As I ran in father caught hold of me and picked me up. He kissed me on both cheeks. I was embarrassed. Father never behaved like this. It was mother who hugged and kissed me and I hated it.

Father handed me a package wrapped in an old newspaper. He asked me to open it. I tore open the paper. Inside was an old photograph of two boys.

“Do you know who that is?” said father pointing at one of the boys.

I looked carefully but did not recognize the face.

“That is your appupan – my father. And this is the Moopan standing with him,” he said, “this is a photo of them from their school days. In fact, this is the only photo of my father from his school days that I have seen. The Moopan wanted you to have this picture. The Moopan died today in the hospital.”

Father choked as he said it. Mother was standing there listening to him. I could see tears rolling down her cheeks. I felt sad too. Then I looked at the photo. A photo of two boys holding hands, laughing at the camera, not a care in the world and then I felt happy again.

I knew that my Appupan and his best friend were together again.