Tag Archives: tales from india

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.”

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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.

The Doctor Is In

In Neyyarinkara, people did not usually fall ill. If they did fall sick, they went to the village vaidyan. The vaidyan is an ayurvedic practitioner. Govindan was the village vaidyan in Neyyarinkara. He was in his eighties. Traditionally Ayurvedic vaidyan’ s asked a lot of questions. From the minute the patient would arrive till the time they left, it would be series of questions. What did you have for breakfast? How was your sleep? Are you motions regular?  Yes… the questions could get personal. Govindan Vaidyan was an exception. He rarely asked questions. He had served three generations of the villagers. He knew the medical history of each family in the village. His consultation rules were simple. You went to him and told him the problem.  Govindan would then disappear into the inner rooms of his hut. After a few minutes he would return with a medicine. His hut was full of strange smelling herbs and decoctions. The older generation in the village had absolute faith in his healing powers. In the village they said that if you died in spite of Govindan’s medicines, well, that was just bad karma. The present generation of inhabitants in the village did not agree with this view point. They preferred Allopathic doctors and medicines. They preferred travelling twenty kilometers to Trivandrum to get healed.

The scarcely populated medical fraternity of Neyyarinkara received a boost with the arrival of its first Allopathic Doctor – Dr. Shivaraman. Technically he did not come to the village as a doctor. He came along with his daughter Rukmini. Rukmini or Rukmini teacher as the villager called her, was posted as a Malayalam teacher at the Neyyarinkara Village School. The school admitted both boys and girls. It offered classes from first to tenth standard. Neyyarinkara did not have a college. If you survived your tenth exams, you had to trvel by bus to join the colleges in Trivandrum. A bus would take an hour to make the journey. Few students from the village needed to take the bus. On paper, Rukmini was assigned to teach the students of fourth and fifth standard. As there was no other Malayalam teacher in the school, she ended up teaching all the classes.

Rukmini’s mother died years ago. Her father Dr. Shivaraman was a retired professor of the Government Medical college. After his wife’s death his dominating sister stepped in. At first, his sister tried to get him to remarry. He refused. Then his sister told him to marry off his daughter the day she turned eighteen. Again Dr. Shivaraman refused. He wanted her to be financially independent. He had hoped she would become a doctor like him. Rukmini rejected that idea. She wanted to become a school teacher. She got a job as a government school teacher. Shivaraman’ s pension was far more than what his daughter earned as her salary. He was not going to let her stay alone in some far away village. He came to Neyyarinkara along with his daughter. Dr. Shivaraman planned on spending his free time reading. He came to Neyyarinkara, armed with a truck load of reading material – old newspapers, novels and magazines. He had collected them over decades. Dr. Shivaraman had another talent a more practical talent. He was an excellent cook. In their house he would cook while Rukmini did the dishes and washed the clothes. That was the arrangement between father and daughter. Dr. Shivaraman did not believe in engaging maids and cooks. He believed in the dignity of labor. He was a socialist at heart and a follower of Gandhi.

“Rukmini how are you finding life here in Neyyarinkara?” said Raman Kutty, Head Master of the Neyyarinkara Village School. It was a month since she had joined and the school.

“Sir! The students are bright, hard-working and eager to learn. There are a few who are weak in their studies but that is because they have no one at home to guide them. This is my second posting and I am really happy I have got an opportunity to work here.”

“I am happy you feel that way. Where are you staying?”

“I have rented a house on the corner of East Street. My father lives with me.”

“Oh! that is good. Is he working or was he working before?”

“He is a retired Professor of the Medical College. Now he spends his day reading books.”

“He was a Professor in the medical college at Trivandrum?”

“Yes Sir! he retired five years back.”

“That means he is a doctor.”

“Yes Sir. He was a doctor.”

“Once a doctor always a doctor.”

A week passed since Rukmini had the conversation with the headmaster. It was ten in the morning and Dr. Sivaraman was sitting in the verandah reading a science fiction novel. In the novel the aliens had landed and were slowly making their way towards the cities. That was when the doorbell rang. Dr. Sivaraman hated it when he was interrupted while reading. All through his career he never got the time to read anything. He intended to catch up on all the lost time. He continued reading. The door-bell rang again.

“Must be supporters of some political party on a campaign to collect funds,” he said muttering to himself.

At the door he found a man standing with a young boy.

“Doctor Sivaraman?” the man said.

“Yes! What can I do for you?”

“This is my son. He has a fever. Please can you have a look at him.”

“What? No! I am not a doctor. I mean I do not practice.”

“You were a professor at the Medical College, Right Sir?”

“Yes, I was but I was the administrative head of the college and have not practiced medicine in years. Also, I am retired now.”

“I understand all that Sir. Please help us. We do not want to go to the vaidyan. He is in his eighties. He can hardly see and has trouble hearing. I do not mean any disrespect to him but I do not feel confident going to him.”

“I… I … do not have any medicines.”

“Please can you look at my son and tell us what to do. It will take an hour to reach Trivandrum by bus. I do not want to take him there in this condition.”

Dr. Sivaraman sighed and said, “Ok come in.”

He did not have a stethoscope to check the heartbeat nor did he have a thermometer to measure the temperature. Instead he used his watch to time the pulse. his palm placed on the boy’s head told him the severity of the fever. Luckily the boy had a slight fever and Dr. Sivaraman prescribed some rest and analgesics. He did not have the medicines, nor did the shops in the village stock the medicines he had prescribed. That did not matter as the boy’s father was not planning on purchasing the medicines anyway. He had come to meet a doctor. He wanted the doctor to reassure him that the boy would be fine. The boy’s grateful father told his wife she spread the word around. Within a week of the incident, Dr. Shivaram was in business. It was as if the flood gate of disease and ill health had been opened in Neyyarinkara.

Sharath Achari was one of the richest people in the village. He owned a string of jewelry shops in the village. He was thirty-eight years old and weighed a hundred kilos. He sat in the main office. Every day he would be at work by eight in the morning. He would be there till eleven at night. His job was such that he never got to leave his shop. He had a car and a driver to drive him around. It was his wife who was the patient. Compared to his wife Sharath was thin. Shalini had trouble climbing the three steps of the house and collapsed on the chair in the hall. One look at her and Dr. Shivaram knew what the problem was. Still he let his patients do the talking. Sharath’s wife Shalini was a graduate. She was the daughter of a rich business man from Trivandrum. She hated Neyyarinkara. The couple did not have any friends and hardly if ever spoke to their neighbors.

“Doctor, I cannot walk. I cannot sleep.  My knees hurt. I do not feel hungry. Please help me I think I am going to die,” said Shalini. She had to stop talking as she was having problem breathing.

Dr. Shivaram let her regain her breath.

“So why do you think that you would die?”

“Doctor, as I told you I feel uneasy. I cannot sleep at night and have to sleep during the day.  Please help me Doctor.”

“Pardon me for asking do you have any children?” said Dr. Shivaraman.

“No Doctor. I do not like children.”

“So, explain to me how your day goes by.”

“Doctor, my servant girl comes by seven in the morning…”

“You have a servant?”

“We have three. One girl sweeps the house and cleans the bathrooms, another one does the cooking and washes the clothes. There is a man who help with the purchases- vegetables and groceries.”

“Three servants and how many people are there in your house?”

“Two of us. Me and my husband. They stay with us so are available the whole day.” She said pointing at Sarath sitting next to her. Sarath smiled at the doctor and wiped the sweat from his brows.

“This is what I want you to do. To start with I want you to send your servants home by lunch every day.”

“What about the work to be done?” said Shalini.

“You can start doing some of the work at home. The problem you have is that your body does not have any exercise.”

Sharath was looking at his wife and smiling at the doctor’s comments.

“I meant both of you. You can start by reducing the working hours of your driver. There are a lot of places in the village where you can walk and reach. You do not need to travel everywhere by car.”

Now Shalini was also smiling.

Dr. Shivaraman had an unconventional way of treating his patients. He reduced the dependence on medicines and advocated more exercise and a healthy diet.

“This is the impact of modernization that people in a small village like Neyyarinkara are being affected by obesity and blood pressure.”

“Father, you always needed a place to implement your idea. Now you have got your lab and your test subjects.”

Dr. Shivaraman smiled, “After all it is for their own benefit.”

Every day of the week Rukmini would return from the school by one forty. The house was a ten-minute walk from the school. She would reach home, have a bath and then father and daughter would sit down for lunch. With Dr. Shivaraman ‘s ‘practice’ now flourishing that schedule looked difficult to maintain. There would be people standing outside the house when she would return. She would lay the food out on the table but the chances of Dr. Shivaraman coming to eat it was remote.

“Father are you planning on continuing the practice.”

“Do I have an option here. The people are just not ready to listen to my excuses. It has been years since I practiced medicine. At the hospital I was managing the staff, setting up the duty roster and granting leaves. That type of work done over years dims the mind. I have forgotten the names of most of the medicines! What I am doing is ethically wrong. I tried explaining all this to the villagers but they just do not seem to understand. For them I am a doctor – an allopathic doctor and that is all that matters.”

Somebody was knocking at the door.

“I am coming. Just having my lunch,” said Dr. Shivaraman shouting. He was chewing at that time and ending up coughing.

“Father you will have to set up proper consultation timings. Read up on your medicines and yes most important of all buy some basic doctor equipment – a Stethoscope, a thermometer and that thing which is used to measure blood pressure,” said Rukmini.

“Sphygmomanometer,” said Dr. Shivaraman.

“Yes, that too,” said Rukmini.

Dr. Shivaraman finished his lunch, washed his hands and came out and saw a young man waiting for him.

“Sorry Doctor. My name is Balan, I am a medical representative. Please can I have ten minutes of your time?”

Inside the hastily converted consultation room of Dr. Shivaraman the young man spread out the medicines from his bag on the table.

“Sir, this is my card. This is the list of medicines manufactured by the India Medical Pharmaceuticals company. We offer a commission of …”

After half an hour later when the young man left another man came barging in.

“Sorry sir! I need two minutes of your time. I am from Relief Pharmaceuticals. I am their area manager for sales. This is my card. When you recommend my companies medicines you get a commission of ….”

That evening the last patient left by about eight. Dr. Shivaram had a supply of medicines on his desk. He had cards, calendars, brochures and stickers from various medical companies.

“This profession has become a business,” said Dr. Shivaraman as Rukmini washed the dishes in the kitchen.

“Father does that surprise you?”

“I know, I know child but this is no way to work in the medical profession.”

“So, what are you planning to do about it?”

“I am yet to decide what needs to be done.”

Balakrishnan Pillai was the Panchayat President. The Panchayat was the local government body. He was in his sixties and had been a member of the village panchayat since his twenties. As he climbed up the steps of Rukmini’s house, she was rushing out.

“Are you late for school, teacher?” said Pillai.

“No, I have asked a few students to come early. We have organized special classes for them. Some of us teachers will be taking special classes for students who scored poorly in the last exam.”

“That is a good initiative. Please convey my regards to Raman Kutty, your head master.”

Rukmini smiled, nodded her head and ran out.

“Your daughter is hard working and sincere. Raman tells me so,” said Pillai.

Shivaraman beamed with pride. He said, “I know. So, what does the Panchayat want from me.”

“Ah yes! Let me explain why I have come here this morning,” said Pillai as he settled down in a chair in the Doctor’s room.

“Doctor! First of all, on behalf of the villagers I would like to thank you for starting your practice. Govindan Vaidyan is getting old and half the time is not very coherent. The people you have been treating have been talking and they are recommending you to their friends and family members. Now the panchayat has decided to submit a proposal to the government to start a full-fledged hospital in the village. It may not be big but about ten beds to start with but it will be a start.”

“That is a good idea. Let me know how I can help?”

“Ah yes there is something you can do. You were a professor at the Medical College. You are practicing as a Doctor. You can help us draft the letter to the government. We will need your help to come out with the proposal.”

“Definitely, I am at your service.”

With the state elections due in a year’s time, the proposal as drafted by Pillai with inputs from Dr. Shivaraman was approved. Funds released and work started on the construction of a hospital. It took two months to be completed. The local member of the legislative assembly the M.L.A was called to inaugurate the hospital. The hospital had a full time doctor a few nurses and some basic medical equipment to help with the treatment of patients. People flocked to the inauguration function. Post the function most of the villagers lined up for a checkup. Work at the hospital began in earnest.  That same week Govindan Vaidyan the village Ayurveda expert passed away. Among the few people at his funeral were Dr. Shivaraman and Rukmini.

After the start of the clinic, the people coming to visit Dr. Shivaraman reduced drastically. Not that he minded it. The few who came included Sharath and Shalini. The couple had taken the doctors advise seriously.

“Doctor, we have started going on a morning walk,” said Shalini. She had lost a lot of weight but was still way above the acceptable body weight.

“Sharath you have lost some weight. So how does it feel?” said Dr. Shivaraman.

“I feel lighter doctor! Every morning we walk for about a kilometer. It is not easy but we try.”

“That is good. Being healthy is a state of mind. You do not have to take medicines to feel better. Do you still hold me responsible for reducing your driver’s duty hours?”

Both husband and wife laughed.

“Doctor, I promise you in a year’s time we will walk up to your house. That will be two and a half kilometers either way from our house, but we will do it.”

“I will be waiting at the gate to receive you.”

The Dream House

Chandran was happy. He was still in his thirties and had achieved what most people required a life time to do. He was the owner of a house. It had not been an easy buy. He took a loan plus the down payment had cleared his bank savings. Savitri his wife had pitched in with half her gold ornaments. He had registered the house in both their names as an acknowledgement of her efforts. It was not a new house. The previous owners had got a job in Dubai and was planning on settling down there. He was not returning to Neyyarinkara. The property was going cheap. Chandran was in the right place at the right time. He grabbed the opportunity.

Chandran was from Ernakulam. That was about two hundred kilometers away. He worked at the Secretariat in Trivandrum as a section officer. There was no chance of a transfer. He was sure of working for another ten years in the same office. Ten years ago, when he had joined the office he was a bachelor. He stayed at a lodge near the Trivandrum Central Railway station. The room and the food were cheap. He saved a lot during that phase of his life. His marriage with Savitri required changes in his life style. At first, he tried to get a house on rent near his office. The rent rates shocked him. Finally, he had to settle for a house twenty- kilometers away from the office. It was a village but there were regular bus services.

“What is the name of the place?” said Savitri.

“Neyyarinkara. It is more than a village and less than a city,” said Chandran.

“Twenty kilometers away?”

“Yes. It is the only thing that fits our budget.”

“I guess for now we do not have other options.”

“It does not make sense to take a house on rent. Plus, this could be an investment in the long term.”

“That is what my father always says. Real estate is the best form of investment.”

The reference to her father irritated Chandran. The old man never contributed financially but was more than generous with his wisdom. Savitri was her father’s daughter. With her it was always ‘father says this’, ‘father says that’. Chandran seldom spoke but when he did it was after considering all a lot of thinking. Savitri would partially listen and then pip in with what her father would have said or done in a similar situation. Those were the times when he felt he could punch her on the nose but he refrained from doing so. He liked his wife but her ‘my father knows best’ attitude drove him mad. He thought he would be able to cure her eventually. After all they had only been married for a year.

The couple was not enthused when the bus dropped them in sleepy Neyyarinkara. There was no one to receive them. Not that they were expecting anyone. They caught an auto rickshaw and reached the house.

“You are moving in here,” said the auto driver.

“Yes,” said Chandran.

“It is isolated. Not that you need to worry in Neyyarinkara.”

“Why is that?”

“People here are very helpful. If you walk a hundred meters from here, you will reach the temple. The river bank is in the opposite side. There is a school here. Have you got any children?”

“No not yet,” said Chandran. Savitri blushed and look away.

“Where is your luggage?” said the auto driver.

“This is all. We are newly married,” said Chandran.

The auto driver laughed and said, “Two suitcases? You now have all the time in the world to set up house now.”

They had paid of the auto driver and entered the house. The house had a rectangular hall and a room on either side. The hall led to another room, part of which was the kitchen. Outside the house was a bathroom and a toilet. The house had a well in the compound.

Chandran placing the two suitcases on the floor of the hall.

Luckily the house was partially furnished. The previous owners had lived there for two years. They had left behind beds, sofas and curtains.

“Savi, you know, we are lucky. This house is furnishing and has a small ground around it. It cost us only one lakh rupees. If I go by market rates this house should sell for a minimum of five lakhs rupees. We are indeed lucky. This is my dream house”

“Father said he could have bargained a better deal.”

“Yes, I know. If he had bargained we might have got the house for free!”

“Why do you always have to criticize my father? He only means good for us.”

“I know. He thinks I am an idiot.”

“No! he does not. He always says that Chandran is a smart boy. He will do well in life.”

“I do not need anyone’s certificate to prove my worth.”

The argument was interrupted by a knocking at the door.

“You must be the new family which has moved in,” said a middle-aged woman standing outside the door.

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

“We are your neighbors. My name is Lata. This is my husband Suvarnan 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.”

That evening it was ten by the time Chandran and Savitri walked back to their house. It was a moon lit night. The road on either side was empty and Chandran and Savitri held hands as they walked back home.

“If this was a movie, I would have been singing a song right now,” said Chandran.

“Talking of movies is there a movie theatre here?” said Savitri.

“Yes, I saw one near the Bus stand. It even plays fairly new movies.”

“That is good. At least we will not be bored here.”

“Bored? Why should we be bored?”

“Do you think I should ask my parents to come and stay with us?”

Chandran let go of her hand.

“Why do you have to spoil a night as romantic as this by bringing in your parents?”

“They could help us settle down here.”

“I can all my parents over. They can also give us equally worthless advice on how to settle down.”

That comment put the whole issue in the right perspective.  Savitri was not comfortable with Chandran’s parents.

“For now, let us not call anyone,” said Savitri.

“Good idea. Have you ever thought about having a baby?” said Chandran and again clasped her hand.

“I know what you are thinking,” said Savitri and ran inside.

Savitri and Lata became good friends and soon enough were making trips to the market together. They went shopping at the local market. The options were limited but the prices were cheap.

“Have you two gone to the movie theatre here?” said Savitri.

The two friends were on their way back from the market.

“Yes, we go there every week. The theatre in the village is quite good. Cushion seats and ceiling fans all over. Why do you ask?”

“Chandran and I have not seen a movie in months. Before our marriage I never missed a single movie at home. My father is a huge fan of Sarath Babu the superstar.”

“Sarath Babu is my favorite as well. Suvi my husband is jealous of him and avoids taking me to his movies!”

Both laughed at this.

“Chandran is not interested in movies. The last movie we saw a week after our marriage. Then we were in my home town.”

“There is a new movie coming up this Friday. Get Chandran to come. All four of us can go as group.”

The two families had a great time at the theatre. Soon this became a regular part of their lives. Every fortnight they would plan on going out for a movie. At times they even got on a bus and travelled all the way to Trivandrum to watch the latest releases in the theatres there.

Then Suvi was posted from the village. He was a bank officer and had a transferable job. It was a tearful farewell that Lata and Savitri had. Savitri was now alone. Chandran tried his best to comfort her. There was not much he could do about the hours of the day when he would be in office, while she would be all alone at home. Then one day Savitri told him that he was going to be a father. Chandran was extremely happy and scared at the same time. He had no idea how to take care of his pregnant wife. With no other options left he had to call her parents over. He could have called his own parents but Savitri vetoed the idea. She said she wanted her mother with her and that was it.

Savitri’s father Chellapan was a retired school teacher. Chandran’s relationship with his father in law was never good. They treated each other with utmost courtesy. Chandran preferred to put in extra hours in office while his in laws were at home. He would leave by seven in the morning and return by nine at night. That way there was minimum scope for interaction between him and his in laws.

One evening Chandran was returning from office. At a distance he saw someone standing at the gate. As he neared he saw that it was his father in law Chellapan.

“Is Savitri ok? What happened?” said Chandran. He was worried.

“Savitri? She is ok. Guess what happened today?” said Chellapan.

Chandran stood there with a confused look on his face. He could see that Chellapan was excited.

“Let me tell you what happened. Today a movie producer came to our house.”

Chandran still did not understand what was happening.

“They are planning to shoot a movie in our house. Guess who the hero will be?” said Chellapan and without waiting for Chandran to guess, he blurted out, “Sharath Babu!”

Chandran rarely watched movies before his marriage. He liked reading books. His movie watching had increased exponentially after marriage. There were many point about his in laws that he could not understand. He never understood how a man in his seventies could behave like a teenager whenever this film star’s name came up. The man was a hard-core fan of Sharath Babu. He never missed his movies. He even dragged his wife and children to these movies. It was through him that Savitri had acquired a fascination for movies.

“So, what do you say?” said Chellapan.

Chandran had not responded at the gate but had walked in. It was half an hour since he had come in. Chandran was at the dinner table and Chellapan could not hold it any longer.

“About what?”

“About letting them shoot the movie here. In this house,” said Chellapan.

“No!” said Chandran and continued eating.

“Why?” said Chellapan. He could not imagine anyone saying no to an opportunity to see Sharath Babu at close range.

“What do you mean why?”

“Why do you not want them to shoot the movie here?”

Savitri was six months pregnant and showed it clearly. She came in slowly with some water for Chandran. Chandran pointed at her growing stomach and said, “That is why. Where would we stay if they are shooting here?”

“We were planning on taking Savitri to our house next month. That way there will be no problem for Savitri.”

“What about the inconvenience I would be facing? Where will I stay with a hundred-people roaming around the house.”

“They are ready to pay you twenty thousand for a week’s shooting,” said Chellapan.

He said that in a low voice but it still had an effect on Chandran. He swallowed without chewing and had to cough to clear his throat.

“Twenty thousand per week!”

“Yes, and the shooting will go on for a minimum period of a month.”

Chandran calculated rapidly in his mind. That would mean that he could clear his bank loan in a month’s time. If Savitri was not going to be there, he could stay for a month at his old lodge.

“Plus, if there were any damages to the house during the shooting the studio will pay the complete repair cost. They are ready to give this in writing.”

For the first time in his married life Chandran agreed with his father in law. This was a sound financial proposal. He could be near his office. Savitri would be with her parents during the crucial stages of her pregnancy. As if all that was not enough he stood to make a lakh on this deal. He agreed immediately.

A week later the deal was signed.   It was a legal document so Chandran was not worried. He agreed to hand over his house to the movie studio for the duration of the shooting. The rates were as Chellapan had mentioned – ten thousand rupees per week for a minimum of four weeks. The deal became sweeter after that. Any additional week would be charged at fifteen thousand per week.   There was a clause of payment for damages caused to the structure.  Chandran read the document four times. He ensured the numbers and the number of zeros were correct and then signed it.  Savitri left along with her mother the same day. Chandran went with them.  Chellapan stayed back in the house. He said it was to keep a watch over the house. He was not fooling anyone for they knew he wanted to watch his favorite star in action.

The movie shoot got extended. The team stayed for two months. After a week they asked Chellapan to leave as he had become a nuisance on the set.  Chandran stayed in his old lodge for the duration of the shoot. The charges at his lodge had increased but the standards remained the same.  After two months Chandran got the news that the movie studio was done with the shooting. He could now return to his house.  The first thing he did was he went to his bank and checked his account. The balance was substantial.   Savitri was not due for a month so Chandran was alone in the house.  The first day itself he wrote a letter and informed the bank that he would be making a prepayment of the loan.   The number he had seen on his bank account was more than enough for him to write off his loan and still have a decent balance.  He was happy.  For once Chellapan had come with a good suggestion. Now he waited for Savitri and his child to come home.

Two months passed.   Chandran lived alone in the house.   He perfected his cooking skills. He knew Savitri would need some time to get back in the kitchen.  He found a girl who could help with the cooking and washing.  For the first three months it would be important to have someone full time in the house. Chandran had the money and could afford a full-time maid.    Savitri had a boy. It was a momentous occasion for both the families. The boy was the first grandchild for both the grandparents.  After two weeks Savitri returned to her house. Her parents came with her.

The boy was named Arjun. On his sixteenth day of birth Chandran’s father whispered the name in the baby’s ear and formalized the naming. Chandran and Savitri had named him Arjun after the hero from the Mahabharata.   Chellapan   had his own reasons for being happy with the naming.

“In the movie ‘Inspector’ Sharath Babu was named Arjun!”

Chandran had a strong desire to change the boy’s name there and then but with a supreme effort controlled himself.

Chellapan and his wife returned to their house after six months. It was the longest six months of Chandran’s life. Had it not been for the baby he would have preferred to return to the single room in the lodge.  Arjun, his son was a bright spot in his day. Every day he would look forward to the time he got to spend with the child. After Chellapan and his wife left, Chandran set about making the house safe for Arjun.  He had started crawling and that increased his range of activities.  The girl whom he had hired was now working full time in the house. Savitri had returned to the kitchen and Chandran’s life was slowly getting back to normal.

One day Chandran was on his way back from office when he saw a movie poster. It was a new movie.  There was the photo of a house on the poster. Chandran thought the house looked familiar. He had walked a few steps when he realized that it was a photo of his house.  The movie was the same one which was shot in his house.  He hurried home to tell Savitri.

“Let’s go to see that movie. It has been more than a year since I saw a movie.  The last time was when Lata and her husband were here.”

“What about Aju?” said Chandran. They called the boy Aju at home.

“He will come with us. do not worry about him. He will be fast asleep by the time the movie starts so would not be a problem in the theatre.”

Chandran did not want to refuse Savitri’s wish. Besides he wanted to see how his house looked in the movie.  The Movie theatre was packed.  The villagers of Neyyarinkara flocked to see the movie shot in their village.

As they returned home that night the couple was silent. It was not because they did not want to wake up Arjun. They boy had slept through the movie as predicted by Savitri. He preferred waking up at night and also keeping his parents awake. His parents were quiet because of what they had seen in the movie. The story was different from the usual Sharath Babu ‘thrillers’ where he played the handsome cop who wooed the beautiful heroine with songs and dance. This was a horror movie. The story was about a family involving a husband, his wife and their child. They live in a small house in a desolate area. The house was haunted. The ghost mercilessly kills first the baby, then the wife and finally the hero! The audience loved it. They were clapping and whistling when the movie ended. Critics had claimed it as an award-winning performance by the hero. Everyone was applauding except for the family which now made its way home.

It was ten in the night as they walked down the street. Savitri had walked down this road a thousand times before. Earlier she had not noticed the long shadows that the tall coconut trees cast on the road in the moon light. In the stillness of the night she could hear the sound of their slippers on the tarred road. She heard the jingle of anklets and for a moment froze. Then she realized it was the sound of the anklets on her feet. Never before had she heard the sound of her anklets so clearly.

“Walk a little faster,” said Savitri. Chandran was holding Arjun and a few steps behind her.  It was not Arjun that was slowing Chandran. He was deep in thought.  The movie had disturbed him.

“Close the gates and lock it,” said Savitri as she rushed in.

“Lock? We do not have a lock,” said Chandran.

“We will have to buy one then.”

Normally Chandran would have argued the point but instead he thought she had a point.

“I will get one first thing tomorrow. Here take Ajju.  Let me take a bath.”

“I will never understand this habit of yours of taking a bath whenever you come back home. It is ten in the night. You might catch a cold if you take a bath at this time.”

“I have this habit since I was a child.   Too late to change the habit.”

The bathroom was outside the house. As Chandran walked up to it he noticed the massive banyan tree behind. He had never noticed it before.  It had huge roots which hung from its branches. In the movie the banyan tree was where the body of the heroine was strung by the evil spirit. The blood from the body had dripped on to the bathroom below. Chandran wondered how the movie escaped with those gory murder scenes. As he turned on the tap he noticed a stain on the floor.

“Is that blood?” said Chandran. He touched the spot with his feet and poured some water over it. He looked again and now there was nothing there!

“I must have imagined it” he said to himself and turned on the shower.

Inside the house Savitri hugged Arjun close to her. The ceiling in the house was made of huge logs of teak. The logs had a deep coat of varnish which made them look dark brown in the light from the electric bulb.  Coconut wood planks were arranged across the teak logs. The tiles in the roof were arranged on the planks in neat rows. The house was hardly three years old but the effect of these planks and tiles made it look a hundred years old. Savitri stood in the middle of the room with Arjun in her arms.  She looked all around the room.  She felt as if she was seeing the room for the first time. In the movie in the last scene the hero’s body was found hanging in this room.  Savitri looked at the ceiling.    For a brief moment she could see the body dangling, swinging gently in the breeze blowing in through the open window. At the moment there was a power failure.

It was the sound of Savitri’s shrieking in horror that made Chandran rush out of the bathroom. He had just finished his bath and was wiping himself dry. He wrapped the towel around him and ran out.   For a few seconds he could not see in the dark.  He could hear Savitri screaming. He could hear Arjun crying as well.

“I am coming… I am coming,” said Chandran as he stumbled towards the door.  He feet struck the stone steps in the dark and he winced in pain. He stumbled in the house. In the dark he could dimly make out the shape of a woman standing. The sound of screams was coming from her. In the movie there was a similar scene where the hero mistook the evil ghost for his wife in a dark room.  For a moment Chandran hesitated. Then he heard Arjun wailing and he forgot all about fear and dashed in.  At that moment the electricity supply was restored.

“Where were you?  You left us alone,” said Savitri tears pouring down her cheeks. Arjun was crying.  Chandran reached out to take him in his arms. Then realized his towel was slipping and tied it firmly. He took Arjun in his arms. The child was reassured to see familiar faces around him and stopped crying.  He reached out for Chandran’s face and said, “da, da.”

For a few minutes there was silence in the room.

Then both husband and wife said, “He spoke his first words!”

Arjun’s first spoken words was the top news item for the next week.  Savitri ‘s parent came over and a day after they left Chandran’s parents came over to celebrate the achievement.   After they left, the house was back to its normal occupancy of three.  The servant girl would come in the morning. She would stay during the day and leave at five in the evening.

Chandran returned from office by six.

“Can you come in a bit early. The girl leaves by five. I asked her to stay a little late but she says she has to catch a bus which leaves by five fifteen.”

“You know that is not possible. The buses are jam packed between five and seven.”

“Can you at least try to come early? It is a bit difficult to be alone in this house after dark.”

A week later Arjun had a fever.  The child was shivering and coughing.   Chandran took a day off from office to take care of his child.  They took Arjun to the nearest doctor in Neyyarinkara, Dr. Shivaraman.

“You do not have to worry.  He has a chest congestion.    Have him inhale some steam. Do you take him out after dark? Be careful while you do it. It is a bit chilly after dark.  Have the child wear some warm clothes. A woolen cap if possible.”

“I do not trust this doctor.  Let’s take Arjun to the city and have a proper Doctor examine him.”

“Do you know he retired as a professor at the Medical College in Trivandrum?”

“That is why I want to go to a doctor who is still practicing. Not someone who is retired.”

Chandran did not argue and they went to Trivandrum. There after waiting for three hours in the reception of a pediatrician they got a similar diagnosis.

“Did you notice that the Pediatrician told us exactly the same things what Dr. Shivaraman had said. Only he charged us a hundred rupees more.”

“You are counting money when you son is suffering?” said Savitri.

“I was just mentioning that. You know I would not compromise on Ajju’s health.”

Then Chandran feel silent. After a few minutes he turned towards Savitri and said,

“Do you remember in the movie the child had a fever. The fever subsided when the snake came into the house.”

“Do you have to remind me of the movie?”

“I just remembered that scene.”

That evening Chandran was on his way to the bathroom when he saw something glow in the dark. At first, he thought it was a log. He shone his torch in that direction. It was a long, dark colored snake.

“I will not stay in this house with my child,” said Savitri, “buy me a train ticket I will leave for my parent’s house first thing in the morning tomorrow.”

Chandran did not try to hold her back. The circumstances were such. He called Chellapan and sent Savitri and Arjun along with him.  He had his office to attend. After a few days alone in the house Chandran decided to stay at the lodge. He locked up his house and return to his own haunts.  Days passed.  Whenever the subject of returning to the house came up Savitri would reject all suggestions.

“What are you doing?” said a man passing by the house as he saw Chandran nailing a board at the gate.

“This house is for sale. I am putting up a board.”

“This is the haunted house from that movie, right?” the man said. “the house where three people were brutally murdered.”

Chandran did not reply.

“Good luck with your attempts.  I would like to meet the person who has the guts to buy a haunted house.”

The man laughed and went on his way. Chandran checked all the windows and locked all the door’s. Then he nailed the ‘For Sale’ at the gate and walked away.

It is said that Chandran or Savitri never returned to that house. The house remains locked with a fading ‘For Sale’ sign dangling on the front door. To this day no one dares enter the haunted house.

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.