Monday, 28 July 2008


Anila scrutinised the grocery list once again. Pennu was about to go to Ponkunnam to purchase groceries. The red LPG cylinder connected to the gas stove was half empty and so the empty one that stood under the sink had to be exchanged for a full one. 'Where's Kuriappy?' Anila demanded of Pennu.

'He's stepped out to fetch an auto,' Pennu explained. She was quite new and not used to the way things were done in the House. Anila was irritated, but calmed down as she heard the putt, putt of the approaching auto-rickshaw. Kuriappy got out of the vehicle which came around the House and stopped near the back door to the kitchen. He clambered out of the auto quite laboriously and entered the kitchen. Kuriappy had a dirty towel around his neck which could have originally been white in colour. Sweat dripped down his face and was absorbed by the towel. What was he waiting for? Did he expect Anila to help him lift up the empty cylinder and carry it into the auto? After a minute's hesitation when nothing was said, he gripped the cylinder's circular top and tilted it to one side so that the other side lifted up by a few inches and rolled it by its edge in a semi-circular motion. When the cylinder completed a semi-circle, he tilted it to the other side, and made a semi-circular movement in the opposite direction. After a few minutes of such zigzag movements, the cylinder reached the door. Pennu followed him. When he reached the door, he stood to one side of the cylinder and looked at Pennu who, after a moment's hesitation, hurried to the other side of the cylinder. Kuriappy and Pennu jointly lifted the cylinder a little, each gripping one side of the cylinder's circular top with both hands, and carried it down the short flight of steps. Pennu was all set to carry it down in one go, but Kuriappy needed two breaks before they reached level ground. Why couldn't Kuriappy heft the cylinder on to his shoulders? Anila wondered. It was an empty one for God's sake. She noticed that Kuriappy was panting slightly. How was he going to lift the full cylinder which Pennu would bring back from Ponkunnam and bring it into the kitchen? Finally the cylinder was inside the auto, which was quite brand new. For a brief second Anila wondered why the driver had agreed to transport an LPG cylinder in his brand new rickshaw. Most probably, he was not the owner, but had only rented it. It didn't matter. Anila had more important things to worry about. The driver put the vehicle into gear and the racket became much louder. Pennu climbed in.

'Straight to Ponkunnam?' the auto driver needed confirmation, even though Kuriappy must have informed him of the destination.

'Yes, Ponkunnam,' Pennu confirmed. The auto moved off.

Kuriappy started to walk around the House to its courtyard in the front. Anila was about to remind him to be around in an hour's time when Pennu got back from Ponkunnam. She changed her mind and decided not to. She wouldn't be around when Pennu got back with the groceries and a new cylinder. She didn't care if Kuriappy wasn't around. Let Pennu wake up her mother-in-law and manage as best as she could. She went back into the kitchen, took off her black rubber slippers which she left at the entrance to the kitchen and put on her fluffy pink flip-flops. The sound of her mother-in-law snoring could be heard as she walked past her in-law's room. She grit her teeth as she climbed the stairs. She was going to do it now. It was something she had been planning for a while, yet she had not even started to pack. It was not possible to keep secrets in the House. People walked in and out of everybody's rooms. A packed suitcase would have invited a barrage of questions. Their bedroom was at the end of the corridor that led from the landing. Benson's clothes lay in a pile in a corner, smelling of sweat, liquor, spicy food and a host of other unidentified smells, accumulated most probably from the club where he spent most of his waking hours. If she were not leaving, she would be picking them all up and dumping them into the semi-automatic washing machine which had been repaired recently. But no, she would not do that this afternoon. Let Benson take care of his own laundry henceforth. He was a grown up man with too much free time at his disposal. She quickly glanced at the large clock on the wall. It was too dark in the room for her to read the time. The sun's rays filtered by the monsoon clouds and the thick blue curtains hid the peeling paint and threw dark shadows in the room. The buckets of tears which Anila had shed in that room were not visible either. She pressed a switch and two of the five bulbs lodged in ice cube shaped shades that hung from the ceiling came on. It was almost three o'clock. Benson had reminded her many times to replace the fused bulbs. It irritated him, he had said, even though the two bulbs that worked were sufficient to light up the room. The previous week, Anila had asked Kuriappy to add a few sixty-watt bulbs to his grocery list, but Kuriappy must have forgotten. And Anila had not reminded him even though Kuriappy was quite old and needed reminding. Kuriappy had been with them for a very long time, much longer than they cared to remember. Benson could buy the bulbs himself. Let him do something useful for once. If his father would let him, that is.

Should she go down and find out what Rahul was up to? No, she would first finish her packing and then find Rahul, just before they left. Most probably Rahul was playing with the dog. Her father-in-law was insistent that dogs should not be allowed into the House. The kennel itself was a short distance away from the House. Anila looked out of the window. Her father-in-law had gone off to sort out some labour trouble at the plantation and was unlikely to return anytime soon. As for Benson, one could never be sure. He might come back unexpectedly at a time of his choice. Kuriappy had disappeared. If queried, he would have an excuse. He always did. He was either out shopping or running an errand for someone who was not there in the House. For once she was grateful that Chedathi was not around. Chedathi had worked for the family for a few decades. If she were around, Anila would have found it difficult to do what she was planning to do. Chedathi had not come in for the past one week. The previous Sunday, Chedathi's eldest son had dropped by and informed them that she was ill and would not be in for a while. Anila had been so annoyed. How could Chedathi do this to us when we have guests in the House? she had wailed to her mother-in-law. And now, Chedathi's illness turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The previous week had been horrible. Benson's sister and three children had turned up at Simhapara a fortnight ago. The children had their mid-term break and even though Benson's brother-in-law could not get any leave, Benson's sister had courageously travelled on her own with the children all the way from Nasik where they lived. Their grandparents had been delighted to see them. The first week had not been too bad. Chedathi was around and Anila's mother-in-law had pitched in to do the odd chore. But after Chedathi disappeared without any warning, Anila had been forced to shoulder most of the burden, even though her mother-in-law did help a bit. The estate manager did send Pennu to help, but she was totally untrained and could not do the simplest of tasks. Anila was so irritated with Pennu that she did not even bother to find out her real name. What made it really bad was that her sister-in-law and kids expected VIP treatment all the time. They were not happy with the simple food Anila and her in-laws had on ordinary days. The cassava that was eaten for breakfast had to be accompanied with fish curry. Mashed onions and chillies would not do. Palappams required chicken stew as an accompaniment, rather than a plain potato stew. The same item could not be repeated for breakfast. Anila had prepared tubes of puttu, platters of idiappams and idlis, dozens of chappatis, palappams, dosas and pooris on various days. Lunch and dinner required a similar effort on her part. The brown rice they ate for lunch and dinner demanded three or four side dishes. Fish pappas, cabbage cooked with grated coconuts, mutton charu, carrot mezhukkupuratti, pork olathu, beetroot cooked in vinegar, chicken roast, bittergourd thoran, beef olathu, pumpkins, fish fry, lentils of various shapes and hues - Anila had made them all over the past week with very little help from Pennu. As usual her father-in-law praised her to the skies. In the initial years after her marriage to Benson, she had been delighted when her cooking was praised. She was well-trained by her mother. She was the perfect daughter-in-law. Her father-in-law had never eaten tastier food anywhere, except the food cooked by his wife of course who was now content with supervising her daughter-in-law and making her an even better cook. But after the first few years, she had become tired of the constant stream of visitors who had to be cared for and fed, even if they were not very hungry. They ranged from Benson's friends to her in-laws' third cousins to the local labour welfare officer. 'We are known for our hospitality,' her mother-in-law would boast, a boast echoed by Benson's sisters who visited them at every opportunity. Actually the sister from Nashik was not too bad. Neither was the sister from Jabalpur. The real terror was the sister who was married to an army officer, who had developed a habit of barking out military-style commands at all and sundry. She had a fussy daughter who cried constantly.

Anila flopped down on the bed and cried silently. It was so unfair. God knew that she had done her best to fit into the family she had been married off into. There were so many if onlys in her life. If only her father were alive, he would have found her a better husband. She would not have been married off to Benson who was known throughout Simhapara to be a wastrel. Her parents-in-law's intentions had been quite noble. Marriage would reform their son, they had believed. And it had. For a brief while. They had chosen a girl from an impoverished household in faraway Wayanad who knew her catechism well. Someone who could help their only son who, they had told Anila's mother with a smile, could be a bit wayward at times. It didn't matter that she was not particularly good looking. No one had called her ugly, but she did not have the sort of looks which made people look at her twice. She had spent so much time in front of the mirror at their home in Kalpetta. Small eyes and a small nose set in a large chubby face, teeth which did not protrude, but were not perfectly matched either, a neck which ought to have been longer and a little bit more slender, but wasn't. Her neighbours had congratulated her on her good fortune. Benson was a six-footer with soft wavy hair. He did have a paunch even then, but he was many shades fairer than Anila. But Anila had not been very happy. She had known that it was not going to be a great match. She wiped off her tears. There was no point in moping around. She had made up her mind many months ago. Why hadn't she left till now? She did not have the answer. There was no point in analysing things any further. Her sister-in-law and her children had gone back to Nasik the previous day. That was silly. Why did she have to worry about leaving even when her sister-in-law was around? True, it would have been difficult to walk off undetected if her sister-in-law and their three children were running around the House. For a second she thought of telling Benson and his parents that she was going to leave them and walk off with Rahul. No, it wouldn't do. The sensible thing for her was to implement her decision to leave, rather than pick a fight. Her father-in-law would not allow it if he could. The loss of face would be more than what he could bear. Also, her father-in-law dotted on Rahul. As for Benson, would he hit her again if she told him that she was going to leave him?

Anila started to pack. She took out the medium sized battered suitcase she had kept with her all those years, the one she had carried with her when she came to Simhapara as a brand new bride. Benson had teased her mercilessly about it. Where did you get this from? From your parish priest who took pity on you? She had been so embarrassed about it that she had thrown it into the storeroom where they kept their junk. But Benson had been good to her those days. He would tease her and then buy her gifts. Rag her mercilessly and then treat her with exceptional gentleness. She had been crazily in love with him. And they had made so many plans. Benson wanted to move out of his father's shadow. 'I am going to start my own business,' he had told her within a few days of being married. He wanted to set up a factory to manufacture crumb rubber. No, he did not ask his father to sell the estate, but only to mortgage it to the bank to raise some capital. The estate was not doing too well. Labour was too expensive, too much troublesome. The unions demanded too much and gave back too little in return. It would not be a bad thing to actually sell the estate, but Benson knew that his father would never do that.

The large teak wood cupboard held too many things for her to carry away with her. Anila was determined that she would not take more than what could be packed into her battered suitcase. It was made of jute and had floral prints on it. Her mother had bought it for her a few days before her wedding. And what a wedding it had been. The only son of the man who owned Simhapara estate was getting married. It seemed as if the whole world had been invited and was assembled in Simhapara. There were two state ministers, an MP and a couple of MLAs, a thousand odd relatives of both the bride and the groom, the entire population of Simhapara, workmen from the estate, a dozen priests from various parts of Kerala, around two dozen teachers from the local high school, about five thousand people in total. The wedding photographs filled eight large albums. Anila was determined not to take any of the wedding photographs with her. In any event, her mother did have a couple of albums at their home. As if she would ever look at them. Should she take their honeymoon album? They had had a good time touring the far-east, even though Anila did not like the food in any of the countries they had visited. She had been shocked to find that the Chinese food in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore could be so much different from the food she had eaten in various Chinese restaurants in Kerala. There was one photograph she really liked, both of them standing on top of the Peak in Hong Kong. Her father-in-law was not too happy with the idea of Benson spending so much money on his honeymoon. But he had not objected too much. He had sent Benson to a public school at Yercaud and Benson had his Basics. Benson's Basics, he called them. Good clothes. Expensive whiskey. The occasional visit to Bangalore or Bombay to meet with his old mates. And after he got married, it included an overseas honeymoon. They would go to Switzerland next year, he had promised. He ought to have his factory up and running by that time. It was not very complicated, the making of crumb rubber. There was a large godown on their plantation which had been used by the previous owner, an Englishman, to store procured rubber during the Second World War. It could be cleaned up. Benson wanted to buy brand new machinery for his plant. His father had violently disagreed. A factory at Pampady which had gone bust recently had what they wanted. Benson did not like the idea of buying second-hand equipment for his factory. The bickering between father and son had gone on for a couple of months. After Benson agreed to do with the second-hand equipment, his father had once again interfered. He refused to mortgage the estate. Instead, he wanted Benson to sell the few acres of land his grandfather had bequeathed to him in Mundakayam. Benson had refused. True, the land at Mundakayam was neglected and did not yield any income. But he was damned if he was to sell the only piece of land which was in his name. Mortgaging the estate was much easier. Banks were queuing up to lend them money at low-interest rates. He was sure that his factory would start making money in a year's time. But his father had not budged. Finally Benson had lost interest in his project.

Oh, why couldn't her father-in-law allow Benson to do things his way? What if he made a few mistakes? He would have come out of his father's shadow and become a man in his own right. And Anila's life might have turned out differently. Instead of planning to leave her husband for good, she would have been living happily with her husband and son. Benson would not be spending so much time in the club, if he had something to do. Anila hated her father-in-law a lot more than she hated her husband. She had no doubts on that score, even though she would never forgive Benson for having hit her.

She snapped back to the present. She would need a couple of good night gowns, Anila decided. There was no point in trying to go back with just the clothes she had brought with her from her home. Her original clothes had long since been discarded. Even if she hadn't given them away to Chedathi's daughter, they wouldn't have fitted her anymore. Anila was no longer a skinny girl. They had been good clothes, the clothes she had brought with her when she got married, many of her night gowns and churidhars stitched by herself or her mother with their Usha sewing machine. Anila wondered how her mother would react when she went back with Rahul. She was sure that she would try to send them back. A woman was supposed to put up with everything her husband and in-laws dished out to her. Well, Anila was indeed a woman but she was sick and tired of Benson. And his Basics. Which nowadays mainly consisted of a few drinks everyday at his club. Despite all that, Benson was a better human being than her father-in-law. If only.... Oh! What was the point? Anila was the youngest of three sisters. Both her sisters had been married off to small landowners in Malabar. The match with Benson had been a godsend for her mother who had practically run out of money after her second daughter's wedding. 'God has heard my prayers,' her mother had repeatedly said when their parish priest told her of the potential match. No, she could not have objected to the match even though she knew in her heart that ... No, never mind, it was too late in the day to think about. Her paternal grandparents had originally been from Pala, which was not far from Simhapara. Like many other Syrian Catholics from central Travancore, her grandfather had migrated to Wayanad with his family, appropriated some forest land, cleared it and started cultivating it. It had been a hand-to-mouth existence at first. Soon however, the rubber, cardamom, clove and pepper they cultivated started fetching good prices as a result of the government's protectionist policies. Her grandfather actually managed to send his children to school, while her own father had insisted that all his three daughters should go to college.

Anila decided to pack the honeymoon album. What if she hadn't decided to study micro-biology? They had told her that India was in for a bio-technology boom, which was going to be bigger than the software revolution. Biotechnologists would make much more money than software engineers. Instead of opting for a degree in computer science, she had stupidly decided to study micro-biology. There had been no one to advice her. Her father had died while she was in the first year of her pre-degree course. If only she had studied computer science, she would have got a job immediately after she passed out of college. She could have gone off to Bangalore or Hyderabad and got a job for herself. When Benson's father approached them through their parish priest, she would not have had to feel so grateful. She could have said No. Would her mother have allowed her to say No? It didn't matter. She knew right from day one that Benson was not right for her. Or did she? Anila sighed again. She did think Benson was good looking when she saw him first. No, she hadn't liked him all that much. But she had definitely fallen in love with him after their marriage. She was in love with him until he had hit her. Anila sighed once more. If only... She realised that she was running out of time. She had to be packed and ready to leave by four o'clock if she were to catch the last train from Kottayam. She wasn't sure if she should walk to the nearby junction where a few autorickaws waited for fares or try to catch a bus directly to Kottayam instead. She was sure that eyebrows would be raised if the daughter-in-law and grandson from the House tried to hire an auto. And it would be worse if they tried to get into a bus. They were sure to be recognised. How would Rahul behave inside a bus? He had never been inside one. Benson had driven off in their WagonR to his club and her father-in-law was using their jeep. Should she have asked her father-in-law for the jeep and their driver for the day? Essential shopping in Kottayam? He would have believed her. She could have gone to Kottayam with Rahul to do her shopping and then disappeared into the railway station. The driver would have waited for a while and then .... Too late for all that. Well, she would hire an auto. It didn't matter if they were recognised. They would get to Ponkunnam by autorickshaw, catch a bus to Kottayam from there. At Kottayam, they would take the train to Calicut. Calicut was quite far away, a journey of almost ten hours. And after reaching Calicut, she would have to catch another bus to travel the ninety odd kilometres that separated Kalpetta and Calicut. They would hopefully get there tomorrow morning. Once again she wondered how her mother would react as she and Rahul walked into the house in which her mother lived with her maternal grandparents. If only Benson hadn't hit her, she wouldn't be leaving. She had made up her mind that night almost three years ago. Benson's father had rejected his proposal to start a new business. This time Benson wanted to start a bus service. There weren't enough buses on the Kottayam-Kumuli road, he had felt. He would buy half a dozen buses, hire a few drivers and conductors and cleaners and serve the people living in the high ranges of Kerala by providing them with a decent bus service. Benson's father had rejected it out of hand. 'You must be crazy,' he had said. 'You can't handle the workers in our estate despite having seen me do it for so many years. How do you plan to control a few drivers and conductors? They will form a union after a couple of weeks and ask for a wage hike. And we will go bust!'

Benson had tried to argue. But his father would have none of it. 'Why don't you help me run this estate better? There is money to be made in this business! Why do you talk of starting a new business when we are not making much money out of this one? To run a bus service successfully, you need to have personal control over everything and everybody twenty four hours a day. Are you willing to spend all your waking hours running buses?' Why couldn't his father understand Benson's desire to be his own man? That night Anila had shouted at Benson. 'What sort of man are you? Why can't you stand up to your father?' And he had hit her with the flat of his fat palm. She had stood in stunned silence before collapsing on to the bed in a flood of tears. No one had hit her before. Not even her father. And Benson had hit her even though she had delivered Rahul just a couple of months earlier. They didn't speak to each other for a day. The next night as they went to bed, Benson had tried to apologise. He was almost in tears, upset with himself and the entire world. Anila smiled to herself. She had always had long nails. That night, she had put them to good use, raking them through Benson's face. Benson had not gone to his club for many days till the wounds healed. But still, she had decided not to forgive him. She never would.

Rahul's clothes would have to go into another suitcase. Which suitcase should she take? The one which Benson liked to carry when he went off on his jaunts. No, that was not big enough to take all of Rahul's things. There was no way Rahul would survive without at least some of his toys. He was going to be upset in any event. It would be a tremendous change for him. The almost palatial luxury of their current abode would be swapped for the sparse and slightly dinghy house in which her mother and grandparents lived. Would she be able to get a job once she went to Kalpetta? God knew that she always wanted to work. Her father-in-law had offered to arrange a teaching job for her at the local primary school. But Anila had not been too keen on the idea. Kalpetta was unlikely to throw up many job opportunities. Though it was the headquarters of Wayanad district, It was not much different from Ponkunnam. One had to be in Calicut or Cochin or Trivandrum to get a decent job in Kerala. Maybe she would go to Bangalore. Get some job, any job. Maybe as a secretary. Send Rahul to a decent school. Her father-in-law and Benson were all set to send Rahul to Pallikoodam, considered to be one of the best schools in Kottayam. Would she be able to send Rahul to a school as good as Pallikoodam if she were on her own? Anila did not really believe that public schools were all that they were hyped out to be. Look at Benson. He had been sent to an expensive public school and he had turned out to be .... what he was. She on the other hand had studied in government run schools and colleges and was in no way worse of. If she were in Benson's place, she would have done her best to impress her father-in-law before demanding to start her own business. Not that Benson would agree. 'He will never give me a chance. He wants to be the big boss all the time.' Maybe there was some truth in what Benson said. Her father-in-law seemed to be not too unhappy with the way things were. Benson did some minor errands for his father and then spent the rest of his time at his club. His father complained about Benson's behaviour occasionally, mentioned him in his evening prayers and let things drift.

Anila looked at the clock. It was a quarter to four. She had to be out of the House by four since Pennu was likely to return by four fifteen. She quickly grabbed a few sarees, churidhars and other garments and stuffed them into her suitcase. Then she ran into the adjacent room which served as Rahul's playroom. It had Rahul's toys scattered all over its floor. The chest of drawers at the far end of the room held Rahul's clothes. She pulled open the top draw, took out a few shirts and trousers, and threw them on the floor in a pile. She closed the drawer and pulled open the second one below. The television downstairs started to blare, its volume increasing in jerks. Was it Rahul? He was not yet three, but knew how to switch on the TV using the remote. Anila walked out of the room and went half way down the stairs. Yes, it was Rahul who, having managed to switch on the TV, was now examining the various buttons on the remote control in his hand. Anila went back to the playroom. She picked out some more of Rahul's clothes and added them to the pile on the floor. She needed to decide on a suitcase. No, she would take a bag. She went back to their room and took out the black leather duffel bag which was kept on top of the wooden cupboard. She then went back to Rahul's room and stuffed the pile of clothes into the duffel bag. There was lots more space in the bag. Now to collect some of Rahul's toys. Where was his Tiger? Rahul would not survive without his Tiger. Anila could not find the Tiger. She would have to ask Rahul where it was. She climbed down the stairs only to find her mother-in-law sitting on the floor with Rahul, playing with him. Rahul had both his hands on the ground and he was gazing at his grandmother, a mischievous smile on his face. She could not ask Rahul where his Tiger was. Well, he would have to do without it. She started to go back, but her mother-in-law spotted her. 'We are playing akku thikku, she happily informed her. Her mother-in-law spent most of her waking hours with Rahul. Would her mother do the same? Of course she would. No, she wouldn't. She had to run the house, take care of Anila's grandparents and did not have much free time on her hands. Anila picked up a few other toys and put them into the duffel bag. She realised with a feeling of despair that she would now have to leave in full view of her mother-in-law. How would she react? Would her mother-in-law have the presence of mind to call her father-in-law on his mobile? She might. And was her father-in-law likely to use force to stop her? Well, he might too. At that moment a brilliant idea struck her. She went downstairs.

'Rahul, you haven't had your bath today,' she announced.

Her mother-in-law smiled. 'Kuttappa, haven't you had your bath?' She fondled Rahul's hair.

'Did he wake you up?' Anila asked her mother-in-law politely.

'Yes, he did. But it does not matter.'

'Oh, please do go back to sleep. Let me give Rahul a bath.' She picked up Rahul and said, 'time to have your bath, you naughty boy.'

'Nooo,' Rahul moaned, his face twisted into a violent grimace. He held his hands out to his grandmother.

'Go on, moné. Go have your bath. We'll play after you have had your bath.'

Anila started to walk up the stairs, Rahul in her arms. 'Why don't you give him his bath downstairs here?' her mother-in-law wanted to know.

'Oh don't worry. All his things are upstairs. His soap and all that.'

Her mother-in-law happily went back to her room. Anila put Rahul down and made him walk up the stairs. Why did Benson have to take after his mother? If only Benson weren't expected to make money, he would have happily spent his life with his friends and son. Why couldn't he be like his father? Hard-working, motivated and driven. Someone who got what he wanted all the time. All his sisters had more of her father-in-law's qualities than Benson did. They all got what they wanted. Did Benson inherit his behaviour or was it shaped by his father who liked to control everything? Her mother-in-law was a doormat and her father-in-law was quite happy with it. Did he subconsciously try to make Benson a pushover as well? Was he one of those men who could not tolerate another male challenger to his throne? Even if it was his own son? It didn't matter. Anila was going to get away from all that.

As soon as she reached the landing, Anila asked him,' where's your Tiger?' Rahul assumed that his mother had given up her plans to give him a bath. He pointed towards his playroom and started to walk towards it. Anila followed him. 'No, it's not there. Where did you leave it? Didn't you play with it yesterday?' A note of panic crept into her voice as Rahul wandered all over his playroom. Never mind. They would leave with whatever toys she could take. If she packed too many toys, she would find it difficult to carry them all. What was the time? It was almost four o'clock. Well, she would leave with whatever she had packed. Should she change? No, there was no time. The crumbled saree she was wearing would have to do. No, wait, unless she was well-dressed, she would be treated with suspicion. She was not one of those beautiful women who had men jumping up to help her, irrespective of the clothes she wore. And she would need a lot of help before she managed to get to Kalpetta.

Relax, she told herself. She only had to change into a different saree. And comb her hair and apply some make up and get Rahul into a different set of clothes. Her wallet was loaded with money. That was the only item she could pack in advance without attracting anyone's curiosity. She noticed that Rahul had wandered off downstairs. Anila ran downstairs, hoping her mother-in-law would not be there. She wasn't. Rahul had the Tiger clutched in his hands. 'Where was your Tiger?’ Anila asked him as she dragged him upstairs. Why did she ask him so many questions? Rahul was a boy of very few words. 'Moné, give me the Tiger.' Rahul refused to part with the Tiger. Anila had to tug it a few times before Rahul let go. She opened the duffel bag and dropped the Tiger inside. She zipped the bag and tried to lift it. It was quite heavy. She had to carry her suitcase as well. Rahul would have to walk by himself. 'Oh God! Please let things work out,' Anila prayed silently. Anila took Rahul by his hand and they went to the bedroom. She sat Rahul on the bed and started to take off her saree. Rahul got up and started to walk towards his playroom. Anila took longer than usual to change her saree. Her hands were trembling. Now she had to change Rahul's clothes. It was ten past four. She ran into the playroom. Rahul had unzipped the duffel bag, taken the Tiger out and was playing with it. Anila snapped. 'Why did you do it?' she screamed at Rahul and tried to take away the Tiger. Rahul resisted and held back. Anila pinched him on his shoulder and Rahul started to cry. She tried to hush him. The last thing she wanted was her mother-in-law to come up and find her all packed and ready to leave. She held Rahul to her chest. 'It's okay moné. We'll have a bath now. You can play after that.'

Rahul was mollified and stopped crying. Anila realised that she wasn't going to do it. There was no way she could do it. And she woud be stupid to do it even if she could. The realisation slowly sank in. Had she known all along that she would never leave? She couldn't have travelled with fewer clothes or toys. She couldn't have travelled unless she was well dressed. Anila sat on the bed and started to sob with relief. Thankfully, Benson was unlikely to come home anytime soon.

By: Winnowed

Published earlier in Epic India Magazine

© Vinod George Joseph

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Book review: Infidels: A History of the Conflict between Christendom and Islam, by Andrew Wheatcroft

This book was released a while ago, 5 years ago to be precise. I felt the urge to re-read this book now for two reasons. The first reason is because I’ve been reading a lot of books on Islam and the West and remembered that this book contained a lot of information that makes it a good supplement to any study of Islam. The second reason, I have explained in italics in one of the paragraphs below.

In Infidels, Wheatcroft examines the initial contact between Islam and Christianity and the subsequent conflicts that have taken place over a period of time. Wheatcroft’s book starts from the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 638 and takes us through the Moorish conquest of Spain and its re-capture by the Christians, the fight between Muslims and various European powers over Jerusalem, the colonisation of the Balkans by the Ottomans etc. Wheatcroft doesn’t cover the events mentioned above in chronological order, but he explains in great detail how Christians and Muslims hated, fought and most importantly, lived with and accommodated each other. The main thrust of Wheatcroft’s book is that the enmity between Islam and Christianity caused each side to generate a number of myths and theories about the other which have grown over a period of time. Wheatcroft tells us that some battles are remembered and embellished as great victories or defeats, whist some others, of similar magnitude are forgotten.

Wheatcroft talks of perceptions and how coloured they can get. This is naturally a two way street. For Christians, Muslims are descendants of Ishmael, the illegitimate son of Abraham, crafty, vile and barbaric. Muslims consider Christians to be only good for eating, drinking and fornicating. There is no doubt that the rivalry between Islam and Christianity is one of the biggest rivalries, if not the most important rivalry of all times. Both are religions derived from the same region and both religions have a lot in common, especially their in-built zeal for proselytisation. Christian crusades are matched by Islamic jihads. Infidels and Kafirs are hated by the other side. The human tendency to demonise enemies is taken to the extreme.

An idea floated by Wheatcrof which I found very interesting is that Muslims usually refused to accept new technology till very late and instead relied on bravery and valour. According to Wheatcroft, Christians and the West were always willing to experiment with and adapt new technology, such as Greek fire, cannons etc. Wheatcroft also has an intriguing view on the relative values of Europeans and Muslims. He says that “in the West, honour was a concept that pertained only to the topmost layer of society. Most of mankind stood outside the codes of chivalric honour. It was considered absurd for anyone not bound by noble origins to adopt knightly graces.” The Muslim soldier was totally different from the western soldier according to Wheatcroft who says that even when facing armoured knights wearing chain mail etc., “the good Muslim soldier was the man who leapt into the breach or on to the deck of an enemy vessel without armour.” The little history that has stayed in my head from my NCERT school text books, reminds me that Muslim soldiers (Arabs, Turks, Afghans etc.) who invaded India were always technologically superior to India’s rulers. The Muslim armies used cannon and cavalry, whilst our chivalrous Rajputs relied on lumbering elephants and the old fashioned sword. Maybe the Muslims had learnt from their European encounters, which made them technologically advanced when compared with Indians!

Wheatcroft ends his work by examining the aftermath of 9/11 and explaining how George W. Bush’s evangelical beliefs caused him to invade Afghanistan, formulate his ‘axis-of-evil’ theory using Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and describe the ‘war on terror’ as a crusade. Interestingly Wheatcroft does not make any mention of the Israel Lobby or any other lobby influencing Bush. According to Wheatcroft, George Bush, ardent born-again Christian that he is, behaved exactly the way any born-again Christian President would behave. When George Bush used the word ‘crusade’ to describe the US reaction to 9/11, he was using terminology evangelical Christians would be familiar or even comfortable with. I don’t want to give away too much of Wheatcroft’s explanations and spoil your fun in reading this book which ends with 2002 (and hence the actual Iraq war is outside its purview).

My main grouse with Infidels is that, except towards the end of the book when Wheatcroft analyses George Bush’s actions, Infidels is more of a description of what happened rather than an explanation or analysis of why it happened. At the end of this book, one is forced to ask, is the rivalry between Islam and Christianity any different (other than in scale) from the rivalry between say, communism and capitalism? One could take the view that capitalism has vanquished communism. But has it really? Communism is thriving and well in Nepal and in the red corridor in India. Do we know for sure that communism will not make a reappearance on a grand scale in a few decades?

Infidels is a good history book and Wheatcroft is very good at describing past events. His style reminded me of Wiliam Dalrymple, past historical events are described as if Wheatcroft was a witness as the event unfolded.

On a slightly different note, I read a not-so-flattering review of this book in the Independent, which takes issue with Wheatcroft’s description of the Kabaah as "the great black stone in Mecca", which the reviewer says is simply wrong. I couldn’t find anything wrong with Wheatcroft’s description. If anyone can tell me if I’ve missed something, I’ll be grateful.

Wheatcroft is the author of two other famous books – The Ottomans and the Habsburgs.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Book review: Shinie Antony's Séance on a Sunday Afternoon

Séance on a Sunday Afternoon derives its title from one of the 22 short stories that make up this collection. If I were to be asked to name this collection in a way that describes all the stories, I would go for “Mug shots, but not in a single afternoon.” Each of the 22 stories is a mug shot of a character or a situation. However the chances of you finishing them all in a single afternoon, Sunday or otherwise, is not very high. In fact, I would positively advice you to take a day’s break or even a two-day break, after you’ve read three or four of these stories. The reason is very simple. Each story in this collection deals with ordinary human beings undergoing issues and dilemmas and facing situations which millions of human beings face daily. Shinie Antony’s language is simple, stark, rapid and at times vulgar. The stories move fast, very fast. Feelings and emotions are mercilessly dissected and laid out bare for you to examine. Sometimes Shinie examines a character from very close quarters and sometimes from a distant vantage point. The topics for the stories deal with issues ranging from breast cancer, unfaithfulness, suicide, unemployment, marriage break-ups and the like. By the time you finish a story, a minor feeling of unease settles on you, maybe a small knot in your tummy, as if you have seen and heard something which you always knew existed, but hadn’t been able to put your finger on. You’ll need a little bit of time to internalise your new knowledge and sort your feelings before you go to the next story.

Sometimes you need to take a break in between a story. For example, when Shinie tells us, ‘I must have been two when my mother died, a dead foetus stringing her thigh,’ she is not telling us anything that we haven’t heard of. Death during childbirth is a possibility everywhere, all the more so in India. However, I took a few minutes to recover and move on after I read that sentence.

As mentioned earlier, it won’t be easy to read more than a few of these stories in one go. I took a week to read this collection and I must say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. All in all, this is a wonderful collection of very unusual short stories!

Sunday, 20 July 2008


Koshy knew he was hooked as soon as he set his eyes on Beena. The photograph he had seen earlier did not do her justice. Slim and wide-eyed, Beena could have given any top-league model a run for her money. She was wearing a saree, a plain silk saree which was neither too traditional nor too modern. They were at the Mountain View restaurant in Ponkunnam, which was hardly a twenty minute drive for Koshy from his home in Simhapara. Beena's folks lived in Ponkunnam, not too far from the restaurant. Beena had a chaperone, it could not be otherwise. But Beena's sister-in-law who accompanied Beena was quite charming and not much older than Beena and hence did not spoil the atmosphere.

Previously, if anyone had told Koshy that he would be tongue-tied in front of a pretty girl, he would have hooted with laughter. But, it was true. Koshy had trouble deciding on an opening line. They had ordered some starters and Beena sat there with a smile waiting for Koshy to say something. Beena's sister-in-law came to his rescue. 'Will you be going back to Bangalore tomorrow night?'

'Yes.' Koshy was silent again.

Beena's sister-in-law was once again forced to break the silence. 'The broker told us a lot about your family. I guess they told you a lot about us as well.'

'No. Not really. Not much.'

'No? Really? What did the broker tell you?'

'He said,' Koshy hesitated again. 'He said that, well, he said that you are a respectable family and quite well-known in Ponkunnam.'

'Is that all? We got to know a lot more about you. We know that you have two sisters, that both of them are married and settled, one in Delhi and the other in the States, that your father was in a civil servant in the labour ministry, that your mother was a lawyer who stopped practising after she got married, that you have spent your childhood in various parts of Kerala, that your father retired a few years ago, that you are a software engineer in Bangalore who earns around thirty five thousand rupees a month.

'Didn't the broker tell you anything more about us?' Beena spoke for the first time. It was as if she had to say something just to make sure Koshy did not think she was mute or otherwise incapable of making conversation. Beena's voice and tone did not gel with the saree. She spoke with a lisp and sounded as if she would break into peals of laughter at the slightest provocation. But after a few seconds, they sounded perfectly natural to Koshy. Yes, a girl in a saree who resembled Beena was bound to sound the way she did.

Koshy composed himself. 'I was told that you have two elder brothers and a sister and that you have a job. In Kochi.'

'Yes I do. I work for a call centre in Kochi.' An overhead fan was whirring gently and Beena brushed back a few strands of hair from her face. Her hair was almost waist-length and quite straight.

'It's very convenient isn't it? Beena's sister-in-law commented. 'If Beena had a serious job or if she were career minded, then we would have been forced to find a boy employed in Kochi.' Koshy was quick to agree. He was in fact quite happy that Beena would happily chuck her job to marry the right guy. He desperately wanted to be the right guy. In a semi state of shock, he reconfirmed his initial observation - that Beena's skin was fairer than his and did not have a single blemish.

'Do you have to work at night?'

'No, I've been lucky. I am part of a team that services Indian customers. I wouldn't have taken on this job if I had to do night shifts.'

Koshy wished he could keep silent and stare at Beena without being considered rude.

'So what else do you want to know about Beena?'

'Well, which college did you go to?'

Before Beena could reply, he sister-in-law said, 'shall we order the main course?'

Koshy cursed himself for having failing to notice that they had finished their Chinese spring rolls and their plates were empty. Koshy and Beena studied the menu for a while. Beena's sister-in-law came to their rescue once more. 'Shall I suggest something? Let's all order biriyani. Makes life simple. What do you say?'

'That's a brilliant idea.' Koshy wondered why he did not think of it. Beena's sister-in-law seemed to be quite used to meetings such as these. Koshy was sure that potential grooms would be making a beeline to Beena's house. 'Chicken biriyani for everyone?' There was no need to worry about side-dishes when one ordered the biriyani. The Mughal chefs who invented the biriyani deserved a medal.

'What do you do when you are not working?'

'I like to watch movies. I watch TV a lot. I can sing a bit.'

There was more silence. 'I like to read,' Koshy volunteered. It sounded stupid and boring. He almost wished that he too liked to spend all his free time watching movies. 'Which college did you go to?' Koshy repeated his previous question.

'St. Luke's'

Koshy was not impressed, but it didn’t really matter. Amongst the colleges of Kerala, St. Luke’s was hardly a brand name worth talking about. 'I went to the REC at Calicut,' Koshy told Beena and waited for a reaction. Beena was suitably impressed.

Realisation slowly dawn on Koshy that in all probability the broker had intentionally decided not to tell him too much about Beena. If he had been told that Beena had done a BA in history from St. Luke's, worked at a call centre and watched TV in her spare time, he would have refused to meet her. His instructions to his parents had been very clear. A career-minded girl, someone who would understand if he worked late, someone with whom he could discuss books and politics. He assumed that his parents had relayed some of that to the broker. Koshy did not bother to ask Beena if she was interested in politics. Why on earth did a girl as pretty as Beena have to be interested in politics?

'Do you have a bike? How do you get to work?' Beena asked unexpectedly.

'I have a car. I bought it second-hand. It is too dangerous to ride a bike in Bangalore. The traffic over there is quite crazy.'

When he got home, Koshy had his father call up the broker and tell him that Koshy liked Beena and all other proposals were to be put on hold, until Beena's parents got back with their feedback. The broker reminded them that his commission would be 3% of the dowry. 'Don't even try to negotiate the dowry,' Koshy warned his parents as he caught a bus to Bangalore Sunday night. 'Just accept whatever they offer us.'

Koshy did not call his parents for a few days, hoping that his father would cal him instead and give him some good news. He finally gave up and called his parents on Thursday night. 'Have they got back to us?' he demanded.

'Well, yes they have.'

'And?' Koshy steeled himself for the response. They must have told his parents that Beena did not like Koshy and they did not want to go ahead. His parents must have decided to spare him the trauma of rejection. Big deal. There were a million girls in the world.

'The girl apparently liked you a lot.'

'So why didn't you call me and tell me that?' Koshy was sure that he had made it clear to his parents that he had really liked Beena.

His father was silent for a minute. 'Moné, it is like this. The girl does not have a good reputation. She had an affair when she was at St. Luke's. And apparently she goes out with a boy who works with her in the call centre. She was once spotted in Kochi riding pillion on a bike.'

'That's ridiculous. How did you hear of this?'

'Kuruvilla Sir told me. They had considered Beena for his cousin's son and they received an anonymous letter from someone saying Beena is no good. They checked it out and found that it was true.'

'An annonymous letter!' Annonymous letters were the bane of Kerala. People who did not have the guts to say things to someone's face would send out anonymous letters.

'She might have had an affair while at college. So many people do. But I am sure she is not having an affair right now. I mean, that's cheating by any standards. To have an affair and at the same time enter the mariage market is cheating.'

'That's what Kuruvilla Sir told us. We think he is right.'

'What did you tell her parents?'

'We haven't told them anything. Sunday evening after you had left, Kuruvlla Sir came to our house and told us what his family knew about the girl. He said he hated to ruin a girl's life, but he would be doing you a great disservice if he kept quiet, knowing all that he did. And then, the broker got back to us on Monday evening saying the girl liked you. I didn't give him any feedback. He pestered us for a while, but we told him we were yet to make up our minds. We said we needed another week to decide. We were planing to call you and tell you that the girl is no good. Then we thought we would tell you when you came home next.'

At that Koshy exploded. 'You've written off the girl already! Have you ever thought that maybe someone is making a mistake?'

'Moné, in matters like this, there is rarely any smoke without fire. We feel that it would be best to abandon this proposal and look elsewhere.'

'What if I don't want to do that?' Koshy found it difficult to keep his voice calm. He was at his office, having finished his work for the day. There were a few other young men dwadling around, delaying their departures from the air-conditionned comfort of their office with broadband internet access, to their boring single lives in the humid air outside.

'Did you ask the broker? After all he introduced them to us.'

'What's the point? We will not rely on him anymore He must have known. Brokers always know.'

'So, what do you plan to tell the girl's family?'

'I am tempted to call them up and give them a piece of my mind. But I will not do that. Most probably the parents do not know anything. That is usually the case. And if you tell them otherwise, they will not believe you. And so, I will tell them that we have decided to put on hold our plans to get you married.' The time honoured way of saying No. Koshy had been 'shown' a few girls previously, and he had not fancied any of them. His father had called up each of the prospective fathers-in-law and politely told them that they had decided to put on hold their plans to get their son married.

'This is silly.'

'Just forget about this girl. We can ask Shamuel to find us a good broker at Thiruvalla. And your mother was saying we could could consider Marthomites as well.' Thiruvalla was some distance away from Simhapara, but had a lot of Jacobites and Marthomites. Simhapara was Catholic dominated and Koshy's family was one of the few Jacobite families in the area. .

'Don't do anything of that sort. I need some time to think.'

'What's there to think?'

'What if your precious Kuruvilla Sir is wrong?' Koshy's father was silent. 'Don't tell them anything, okay? Please give me a day's time to think.' Koshy hung up without even asking his father to pass the receiver to his mother, as he usually did.

The next day he called up his father and asked for Beena's telephone number. 'I don't think you should do that. What will you ask her?'

'I want to ask her if there is any truth in these allegations.'

His father was silent. 'Moné, what can I do if you are so obstinate?'

'Well if you don't get me the number, I will get it myself.'

Koshy called up Beena's home the next day morning. He father picked up the phone. 'Uncle, I am Koshy. You know Chandy Sir's son. I had met Beena last Saturday.'

Her father seemed to be nonplussed for a few moments. 'And so how are you? We were wondering why we haven't heard from you. Didn't the broker tell your parents that we wanted to take this proposal forward?'

'Can I speak to Beena?' There was silence. Was Beena's father shocked? A few seconds later, Koshy could hear him hollering for Beena.'

'How are you Beena?'

'I am fine. And youself?' Was her father still standing near her? It didn't matter.

Koshy had rehearsed himself and struck to his plan. 'Because I work for an Amercian MNC, Saturdays are officially off. But there is usually some work to be done. Sometimes I go to the office and sometimes I work from home. '

'I see.' Was Beena shocked by his phone call? She was bound to be surprised.

'I stay at this place called Laksandra. My office is on Hosur road. From my home to office should not take me more than ten minutes by car. But during peak traffic, it takes me almost an hour. So, today I am going to work from home.'

'You did tell me that traffic in Bangalore is very bad.' Was she irritated with him? No, most probably she was puzzled.

'Beena.' Koshy lost his voice for a second and then recovered. 'Beena, I liked you a lot and asked my ..'

'What?' Was Beena angry? Or was his voice not clear enough?'

'I was saying that I liked you a lot and wanted to take this proposal forward.'

'So, why didn't your parents get back to my parents after we told them that we are happy with this proposal?' Beena was now clearly puzzled.

'Can I ask you something? Did you like me?'


'Did you like me? Because if you did not, then I will not ask you the next question. It will save us all a lot of trouble. Are your parents forcing you to marry me?'

'What should anyone force me?'

'If you liked someone else, and your parents did not approve, they might want to force you to marry a boy of their choice.'

'Are you ... you're crazy,' Beena whispered.

'We heard from someone that you are having an affair with a boy who works with you. Is it true?' There was silence. He could hear Beena's father say 'Beena, molé'. He was still connected and could not hang up. After a few minutes Beena's father came on line. 'What did you tell Beena? She is upset.'

'I just asked her something.'

'What something?'

'Well, .....'

Thankfully Beena's father said 'We'll call you later,' and hung up.

Koshy tried to do some work, but could not focus on anything. He went for a movie in the afternoon, which did not solve any of his problems.

That evening, Koshy's father called him on his mobile. 'Shall I call you back?'

'Don't worry. I can afford to call you once in a while.'

'Okay. You know, today morning ..' His father cut him off. 'The girl's father called us up.' His father sounded quite angry. 'They don't want to have anything more to do with us. They have requested that you should never get in touch with the girl ever again.'

Koshy was silent. Beena was not a cheat, he was sure of that now. The rumours were just that. Rumours. 'Moné, forget about that girl. Shamuel has put us in touch with a broker in Thiruvalla. The next time you come home, he's promised to show us plenty of equally pretty girls.'

'I don't think I want to see any girls. In fact, I don't see myself coming home anytime now. I don't have anymore leave you know.' Unfortunately it was not possible to slam down his mobile phone to disconnet.

Till then, Koshy used to go home every two months or so. He called his parents every three or four days. All that changed. He started to call his parents once a week, on Sundays. He would speak to them formally, give out very little information about himself and hang up. He refused to discuss any plans to visit them. After three months or so when his father said, 'we have plans to visit you,' he asked his father, 'where do you plan to stay while you are in Bangalore?' It was another month before he told his mother, 'I will visit you next week.' Before his mother could say anything, he added, 'but I will not be seeing any girls when I am there. Do you agree?' His mother agreed. Koshy took the Monday off and travelled by the overnight bus to Kanjirapally after work on Friday. Koshy usually took an auto to Simhapara after getting off the express Volvo bus at Kanjirapally. And so he was surprised to see his father waiting for him as he got off the bus.

'We've been worried about you,' his father told him as they drove to Simhapara in his father's Maruthi Esteem.

His mother had made all his favourite dishes, but Koshy continued to brood. Saturday evening, his eldest sister called up from Delhi. Koshy gave a series of mono-syllabic replies to her questions and then handed over the phone to his mother.

All three of them went to Church on Sunday. After service when people gathered in knots outside the Church to talk and exchange gossip, Kuruvilla Sir and his wife walked up to them. 'So you are here. When did you arrive?' Koshy ignored the question. There was an embarrased silence. 'He just came yesterday. He is not too well,' his father was forced to say.

'I understand Chandy Sir. We'll see you next Sunday then.'

'No wait a minute,' Koshy's mother interjected. Aren't we all meeting this Thursday at .....' Koshy continued to maintain stoic silence.

On Monday, his bus was scheduled to leave for Bangalore at three in the evening from Kanjirapally. In the morning after they had had breakfast, his father insisted that they go fishing together. 'Come along. You can't sit around moping like this.' Koshy was silent, though he wanted to say, 'its all your fault.' He had been crazy about fishing when he was younger, but as he grew older, he had outgrown his love for that pursuit. He stood and watched as his father dug up a few earthworms from the damp soil beneath a coconut palm and put them into a polythene bag. Father and son walked towards the river, fishing rods in hand. They sat on a grassy bank, their baited lines in the water. The fishes weren't biting that day. 'You will have to get over that girl. That's part of life. Just because you found someone you liked and could not marry her doesn't mean you should pine away for the rest of your life.'

'Daddy, I don't see myself marrying anyone else in the near future,' Koshy told his father.

The next day morning after Koshy reached Bangalore, he did not call up his parents to tell them that he had reached safely, as he usually. His mother got tired of waiting for his call and called him up on his mobile. 'Moné, did you reach safely?'

'Oh I did. Why shouldn't I reach safely?'

'Well, then why didn't call me and tell me? Even if you are angry with your father, why should you be angry with your mother?'

'I am not angry with anyone. I was planning to call you up this Sunday. I will definitely call you up once every week. But since we've spoken now I think I will skip this Sunday. I'll definitely call you the Sunday after.' He felt even more angry towards his parents.

'Why are you punishing us for the way things turned out?'

'People sometime get punishments they don't deserve. You will have to get used to it. That's life. Innocent people may get defamed, respectable people may go around telling lies. One has to get used to all that.' Koshy hung up on his mother.

After two more weeks, Koshy's parents relented. As Koshy's father told his mother, 'it's his life. If he wants to run a risk, who are we to stop him?' He called up Beena's father. 'Please don't hang up on me. Please hear me out,' he told Beena's father. It took two more such beseeching calls before Beena's father agreed to receive him at his house. Koshy's parents drove down to Ponkunnam on a Saturday. Beena was also present. Koshy's father placed the entire blame at the door of Kuruvilla Sir's cousin.

'I really do not know what came over me, why I listened to such drivel. I have known Kuruvilla Sir for so many years and he is a fine gentleman. And so when he came to me with this information, I was forced to listen.'

'You know, the reason we did not marry Beena off to that boy was because we found out that there is a history of mental illness in his mother's side of the family.'

'I see, I see. I really don't know what came over me.'

'Tell me Chandy Sir. If I thought my daughter was having an affair with someone in her office, would I remain silent? Either I will bring her back home or if the boy is suitable, I will make her marry him.'

'You are right. If there is something awry, you are bound to know.'

'I mean, I brought her up. Even if there was a slight hitch somewhere, wouldn't I know?' Beena's father nearly choked on his words.

Beena's sister lived closeby and had come down with her husband. 'Mama stopped eating food ever since your boy called up Beena from Bangalore.'

'Even now I am tempted to ask you to leave us alone and go to hell for what you said about my daughter. The only reason I am not doing so is because Beena liked your son.' This brought a shy smile to Beena's face. Her brother and sister-in-law who stayed with her parents had stony looks on their faces. Her brother gave the impression of a soldier waiting for orders. If his father asked him to throw their guests out, he could and he would do so, his expression seemed to say.

That evening, Koshy got a call from his mother.

'Why do you call me so often? Don't you want me to call you on Sundays?'

'Moné, we have done what you wanted. Your father went down on his knees and pleaded with the girl's father and sorted out everything for you.'

It took a while for the news to sink in. And when it did, Koshy exploded with joy. "Mummeee, I am so sorry I behaved the way I did. I don't know what came over me. You know, I was so upset.'

'Well, that's exactly what your father told the girl's father. He didn't know what came over him when he listened to Kuruvilla Sir.'

It was only after the wedding had been formally fixed by both sets of parents that Koshy got the courage to call up Beena. 'I'm so sorry,' he said. 'We all made a huge blunder.'

'Why do you have to say sorry? It was not your fault. You were misled by your family friend and his cousin.'

'But still we should not have believed him.'

'Anyone else would have behaved the way you did.'

'I don't know how I can wait for three more months.' Beena gave a polite giggle. Koshy's sister who lived in Texas wanted to attend her only brother's wedding. And the earliest they could make it was in three months time.

'Next week, I am going to be home. Can we meet?'

'I don't think so. Not in Ponkunnam.'

'What if I come to Kochi on a Monday? I won't take the bus for my return journey. Instead, I'll come to Kochi, spend a couple of hours with you and take the train to Bangalore from there.'

'There's a restaurant called Patiala House near Shenoy's Theatre. Can we meet there?'

'What time?'

'I can slip out during my lunch break - say twelve thirty?'

Time seemed to drag slowly for Koshy before he could hop on to the bus from Madivala after finishing work on Friday. This time Koshy's father was not waiting to collect him from Kanjirapally. Koshy made his way home in an autorickshaw. Wedding preparations were on in full swing at his home and Koshy's mother was in a state of nervous excitement. She was yet to decide on the menu for the wedding lunch. The caterers were demanding exhorbitant rates. Two hundred rupees per head. Koshy tried to show some interest, but he did not really care. 'I'll have my suits made in Bangalore,' he promised his parents. A friend of mine used a tailor in Brigade Road, near St. Patrick's church and he was very good. I don't trust the tailors here.'

'That's fine. But let's buy the fabric from Kottayam. It'll be cheaper for sure. You can have it stiched in Bangalore.'

Koshy nodded his head.

Shouldn't he call Beena and confirm their rendezvous? What if she forgot? Or what if there was a misunderstanding regarding the date and time? Saturday evening, Koshy found a moment when his parents weren't around and dialled Beena's home number. Her father picked up the phone. 'Hello,' he said in a pleasant enough voice. Koshy was not sure if he should respond. 'Hello!' This time the voice was not too pleasant. He hung up. When he tried an hour later, Beena picked up the phone.

'It's me,' he told Beena.

'Hello there! I was planning to call you. How was your journey?' Koshy heaved a sigh of relief. He almost admitted that he had called earlier and had hung up on her father.

'I managed to sleep on the bus. Aren't we meeting on Monday for lunch?'

'Oh yes we are. I am looking forward to it.' What else was there to say? They had not yet reached a stage where they could chitchat like friends who knew each other very well.

'See you on Monday.' He hung up, even though there were a million things he could have told Beena.

He wished time to fly, but did not seem to be having much luck. His father had lists of different lengths struck on various surfaces all over the place. There seemed to be a million things his parents wanted Koshy to get involved in. Gifts had to be bought for all his grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, their hired helps and a thousand other people. The wedding hall had been booked, but they had to make sure the decorators got access to it a few days before the wedding. Koshy's father wanted to have the wedding conducted by the Primate himself, rather than their local priest. Koshy declined to get move a finger for anything. It was as if he had put on an act, which drained him of all his strength and left him in a daze.

Monday morning after having had breakfast, Koshy caught a bus for Kochi from Simhapara. The journey took him over three hours, but he reached Kaloor Bus Station by noon as he had hoped. He hopped into an auto. 'Shenoy's Theatre,' he ordered. He was not too familiar with Kochi, but Shenoy's was on the main MG Road. He could not miss it. He combed his hair while in the auto, using a small blue comb he had in his bag. The auto driver dropped him off in front of Shenoy's theatre. It took him a minute to find Patiala House. The external facade did not look very imposing, but the interior had a brand new smell to it. Beena wasn't there yet. He asked for a table for two, tucked away his bag in a corner and waited. His heart was beating fast. He cursed himself for not having asked for Beena's mobile number. What a fool he was! It was quite warm in the restaurant, which otherwise for him, was empty. The decor was very good, but the airconditioning had been switched off to save costs. The restaurant had shaded windows and dim lights. The semi darkness gave the impression of comfort and luxury. 'Please put the AC on,' he requested the waiter standing nearby. After a few minutes, the AC came on with a whirring sound. 'Would you like to order something Sir?, the waiter asked him.

'Can I have a fresh lime soda sweet?'

There was still no sign of Beena. But, it was only twelve thirty five. What was the saying, 'it's a woman's privilege to be late?' Five minutes later, Beena entered wearing a pair of jeans and a red top. Koshy felt as if his heart would burst with his emotions for Beena. She looked so innocent and fragile. And to think that they had done her such a gross injustice. Would she ever forgive him?

'How was your journey?'

'From Bangalore?'

'Nooo.' Beena laughed in a way that made him feel good and silly. 'I spoke to you after you reached Simhapara. The journey here. By bus.'

No, he had not imagined it. Beena did have a lisp.

'Would you like a drink?'

'The same as you!'

'Another fresh lime soda sweet please.' The waiter hurried away, leaving them with a long menu each.

'I skipped breakfast and I'm starving.'

'I'm hungry as well, Beena giggled.'

'Shall we order and then talk? Do you want any starters?'

'No, lets order the main course straight away. I need to be back by one thirty.'

Some music started playing - loud bollywood music - the waiter looked at Koshy for approval. Koshy frowned. The waiter disappreared and soon the volume was reduced. It sounded much better when played softly.

'Tell you what, let's order a mixed platter of rotis, some dal, some rice and some chicken kababs.'

'Ummm. Sounds good. Beena's eyes glided over the menu. And what vegetarian dish shall we have?'

'Aloo Gobi?'

'Do you really want to have that?'

'It was only a suggestion.'

'Well, I don't like cauliflowers at all.'

'Paneer tikka? Paneer mutter? Palak Paneer?'

'Paneer is the vegetarian equivalent of meat. Let's have something genuinely vegetarian.'

'Hmm, there's dum aloo.'

'Potatoes are not vegetables either. How about some Baingan bhaji? I love brinjals. Do you?'

'I do.' Koshy lied. He regretted it a moment later. They were to live together for the rest of their lives. What was the point in telling a lie? Now would he have to live with it for the rest of his life? Pretending to like brinjals when he did not?

However, except for that hiccup, the rest of the meal passed like a dream. Koshy explained to Beena that his work involved late nights. 'I know. Don't worry. I won't crib if you come home late.'

'Any job that pays well, and mine does pay well you know,' Koshy said without any attempt at modesty, 'they expect you to give your life for them. It is not the way it was for our parents, where they had public sector jobs and fixed working hours.'

'I know. And I don't see you working in the public sector. You would not find it challenging.' Koshy could not believe his ears. The pretty girl in front of him was no wet-behind-the ears lamb. She had brains and could form her own view.

'How far is your office from here?'

'It's at a place called Palarivattom. If the traffic is not bad, it won't take me more than twenty minutes by auto.'

'Have you told your colleagues about the wedding?'

'Not yet. If my boss gets to know that I am getting married to someone in Bangalore, he'll know that I will be quitting soon. I don't want to give that sort of advance notice.'

'I have told all my friends. I can't wait to introduce you to them.'

'I need to get back. My lunch break is over.' Was it all over so quickly? There were two more rotis left in the platter, both of them butter naans glistening in the dim light. They had finished off all the sukka rotis. Three more customers entered the hotel, two men and a woman. They occupied a table as far away from Koshy and Beena as possible.

'So we meet again at the engagement? Maybe your father will let me meet you before that?'

'I doubt it. If that hadn't occured, he might have. Now he doesn't really trust you. Whatever you do will be suspect. You will have to work very hard to earn his trust.'

As if he cared. 'I will do my best,' he promised.

'Are you going to take an auto to the railway station now?'

'No, my train is at five. I have lots of time left. I am planning to drop in on a friend at his office. I can drop you off at your office and then go visit my friend.'

'I'm so sorry. You see, I told a colleague that I am meeting a cousin passing by and we both came here together. My colleague is going to be waiting for me at that shopping complex over there so that we can take an auto back to our call centre.'

'And you don't want to introduce me to your friend?'

Beena giggled. 'Not this time. After I hand in my notice, you can come to my office and I'll introduce you to everyone.'

'How long do I have to wait for that? Another month?'

'Yes. One more month.'

Koshy sighed.

'Well, it's your folks who wanted to delay the wedding by three months,' Beena retorted in semi-mock anger, topped off with a smile. She was right. If only his sister did not insist on wanting to attend his wedding, he could have married Beena by now. Koshy wondered what he had done to make his sister think that he desperately wanted her to attend his wedding.

Koshy looked at the waiter and signed in the air. He came over and asked 'No desserts?'

'Nope. Just the bill.

They walked out into the hot sunshine. 'And so we part here?' Koshy looked in Beena's eyes as he spoke. He thought he could see sadness in her eyes.

'We part here.'

Outside the restaurant, there was an auto waiting for a fare, its engine coughing clouds of black smoke into the warm and dusty air. 'You better take this one before somebody else hails it,' Beena told Koshy.

Koshy offered his hand to Beena. After a moment's hesitation, she took it. It was his first physical contact with Beena and Koshy knew that he would always cherish it. The auto driver was in a hurry. Koshy got in with his bag and soon he was off.

Beena waved good bye and then took out her mobile from her bag. She dialled a number and said 'yes, he's gone.' She started walking towards the shopping complex. A minute after she reached the entrance to the shopping complex, a bike roared in and stopped in front of Beena. 'We need to fill her up first,' the bike rider told Beena as she was about to clamber onboard. He took off his helmet and shook his shoulder length tresses.

Beena took a step back and looked at the bike rider in the eye. 'Why didn't you go to the petrol station while you were waiting?' Beena was annoyed.

'I'm broke. You know that.' Beena knew that. He was perpetually broke.

'I'll be paying for your petrol for just another month, I think,' Beena told the man who clamped down his helmet once again.

She clambered on to the pillion, holding to the man's nape for support. The bike roared off to the call centre where they both had an afternoon's work to do. Beena was actually glad that she would soon be moving to Bangalore.

By: Winnowed

Published earlier in Epic India Magazine

© Vinod George Joseph

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Gorilla by Shobasakthi, translated by Anushiya Sivanarayanan

There are various ways in which an author can tell his story. It can be in the first person, solely from the narrator’s point of view. It can be through an omnipresent third person who sees and knows everything. Anthony Thasan, a.k.a Shoba Sakthi, a.k.a Rocky Raj, uses a third method while narrating his own story. Most of the novel, a fictionalised autobiography described by the translator Anushiya Sivanarayanan as autofiction, is described in the third person, though the narrator is also the author and the main character. Events unfold just a few feet from the reader and you get the feeling of being trapped inside Shoba Sakthi’s head, with eyes glued to the empty sockets.

The main story is set in a dalit colony in an island near Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka. Civil war is raging between various Tamil nationalist movements and the Sri Lankan army. The LTTE is fighting and decimating other Tamil movements. On top of all this, Rocky Raj’s father is a violent goon who has earned the sobriquet Gorilla. The narrator’s unsentimental and matter-of-fact language gives the reader no respite from the all pervading violence. As I read this novel in a single four hour sitting, my head was repeatedly dunked into a cauldron of war, poverty, prejudice and cruelty. Everybody is cruel to each other. Rocky Raj’s father is cruel to him and other family members. The LTTE is cruel to its recruits. The Sri Lankan army and its Tamil supporters are cruel to Tamils who are perceived to be LTTE sympathisers. The French police are cruel to illegal immigrants. There is no quarter asked for and in any event, none is given.

Rocky Raj runs off from home and joins the LTTE. He is stripped of his individuality and brutalised. In a telling scene, as the new recruits wind up their training, they are taught how to evade the Sri Lankan army and withstand their interrogation if they are captured. I wondered what sort of tips they would get that would teach them how to withstand torture. There are no tips. Rocky Raj and other recruits are brutally beaten up as a graduation present.

Rocky Raj gives the LTTE the total dedication it demands of all its followers. But the LTTE is not only brutal, it is also internally corrupt. Rocky Raj’s honesty results in him being tortured and forced out of the LTTE.

Later the scene shifts to France, where the narrator is shown applying for asylum even though he has being rejected many times. Ex-fighters cannot get asylum and so the applicant has to come up with a plausible story that will hold water. In the midst of asylum applications and story fabrications, one starts to hear voices of moderation, tolerance and peace. The virtues of Gandhi and Mandela are extolled. We hear Anthony Thasan being told by Lokka, ‘we need to combat opinions with opinions, not with fists.’
‘What kind of opinions, Lokka? If I looked you and said that I wished to ……... ’ here Anthony Thasan says something really vulgar, something no one would put up with. But Lokka looks Anthony in the eye and says, ‘yes, that’s an opinion too.’

Does Lokka live up to the noble ideals that he extols? Or will he succumb to a fate that is not much different from the fate of many Sri Lankan Tamils? Do read this remarkable novel which has many references to facts and actual incidents that took place in northern Sri Lanka in the 80s and 90s, and find out.

The author Shobasakthi (nee Anthony Jesuthasan) is based in France. Once a LTTE child soldier, he has lived in France for over ten years. Shobasakthi works as a dishwasher at fastfood places from time to time. He has written a second novel Mmm... (describing the way Sri Lankan Tamils nod their heads at everything the Tigers say), a third one called One Way, three collections of short stories, and most recently, a collection of non-fiction pieces. I understand from various interviews given by Shobasakthi that when he initially wrote Gorilla over seven years ago, he lived in fear of LTTE and its supporters in France who tolerate no dissent. Shobasakthi is now part of a network of Tamil Diaspora writers who propose alternatives to the fascist LTTE. All the more reason to read and promote this book.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Book Review: The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt

In the fall of 2002, two academics, John Mearsheimer of Chicago University and Stephen Walt of Harvard (M & W) were commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly to write an article about the influence of the Israeli lobby on American foreign policy. M & W came up with an article that talked of a very powerful Israel lobby in the United States which placed Israeli interests ahead of US interests. After receiving comments from the editors at Atlantic Monthly and incorporating them, M & W were nonplussed to find that Atlantic Monthly no longer wanted to publish their article. Ultimately, it was published by the London Review of Books in early 2006, bringing in its wake a very bitter media row. The authors were accused of anti-semitism and faced blistering attacks from various quarters, including from prominent US commentators. A year later, the article was published in the form of a book.

In their introduction, M & W make a startling prediction which I know to have been proved true very recently. During each presidential election, M & W explain, the candidates differ on a number of points. But on one topic, they will ‘speak with one voice’, that is on Israel. Five weeks ago, Barack Obama, the Messiah of Change, he-who-is-Audacious-enough-to-Hope, addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a prominent lobbying group, and declared that Israel's security was "sacrosanct" and "non-negotiable". John McCain of course, supports Israel unconditionally. Hilary, when she was in the race, was also an ardent supporter of Israel. This accurate prediction, made almost a year ago, gave me the incentive to read the rest of the book, which is a bit heavy and leaden. However, if you like political statistics and facts being thrown at you continuously for over 350 pages, this book is definitely for you.

Three propositions form the crux of M & W’s book. That the US has placed Israel on a pedestal, giving it more support and aid than any other ally the US has. This unconditional support and aid is a result of the Israel lobby. This uncritical and unconditional support for Israel is not in the US national interest. ‘What about Cuba?’ my brain screamed as soon as I read this. Thanks to extensive lobbying by Cuban émigrés in Florida, the US continues to maintain a trade embargo against Cuba even after Fidel Castro’s retirement. I should however admit that this embargo has not affected US national interest much, unfair and unjust though it might be.

The first proposition advanced by M & W is not particularly controversial. Who can deny that the US has gone out on a limb over Israel? But is the Israel lobby the main reason why it has done so? M & W make it clear that they are not against lobbying, which is bound to happen in a democracy. They also believe in Israel’s right to exist. The US is morally obliged to help Israel if its survival is at stake, they reiterate. The only problem they have is with the unconditional and unwavering support to Israel at a heavy cost to American interests.

Approximately one third of Amercian Jewry, we are told, does not consider Israel to be a prime issue. And so, the Israel lobby consists of not only American Jews, but also Christian Zionists and various neo-conservatives. These lobbyists come in all shapes and sizes and don’t always have the same opinion on all issues. However, they are able to work in tandem, without openly appearing to do so. They are highly effective in attacking any individual or organisation which opposes Israel or US support for Israel.

The US provides military, economic and diplomatic support to Israel, This support is much more than what any other country gets. M & W explain how US aid is without any strings attached, which means that Israel is able to use US aid for any purpose whatsoever, including the construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza strip. One would get the feeling from M & W’s book that Israel is the only country which is able to divert US aid for other purposes. However, I can think of at least one other US ally which does this. Yes, Pakistan. US aid to Pakistan earmarked for development or for fighting Islamic fundamentalists is routinely used to buy conventional military hardware meant for use against India. Apologies, I digress yet again.

M & W do not comment on whether the formation of Israel itself was correct, though towards the end, they do say that it involved the violation of Palestinians’ rights. Most of the contentions made by M & W are perfectly acceptable. They say that Israel is not a reliable ally. Israel has double-crossed the US on various occasions. For example, during the Iran-Iraq war, when the US was quietly backing Saddam, Israel provided weapons to Iran. Israel has transferred US technology to China. Israel has spied on the US. The Israel lobby has been and still is pushing the US to go after Iran. This lobby prevented the US from opposing the Israel as it attacked Lebanon in 2006. M & W do make a strong case to show that the Israel lobby influences US policy towards Israel, a policy which does not make sense most of the time. Evidence that the Israel lobby has forced the US to support Israel’s short term interests at the cost of US interests and even long-term Israeli interests, is also compelling.

However, as they connect various dots, M & W make a few contentions which don’t appear to be tenable. For example, it is said that the Israel lobby influenced the US in its decision to invade Iraq. M & W do not claim that the Israel lobby was the main reason for the US decision, but they do say that without this lobby, there would have been no war. Apparently the Israel lobby has been trying to nudge the US into attacking Iraq since the days of Bill Clinton. They were unsuccessful, even though Clinton adopted the general goal of ousting Saddam. However, things became easier for them after 9/11 when stories of Iraq’s nuclear programme began to find greater acceptance. I find it difficult to believe that the Israel Lobby was the prime mover behind the Iraq war. I agree with M & W that the Iraq war was not about oil. But was it mainly to make Israel more secure? I think not. I think the Iraq invasion was the result of Dubya’s and Tony’s desire to remake the map of the middle-east. Look at it from George’s and Tony’s point of view. Both are extremely religious men who believe that God has sent them to earth for a reason. They want to bring peace and democracy to the middle-east. How do they go about it? They need to start somewhere. Where should they start? With Saudi Arabia? No. The people there are hardcore Wahhabis who will not easily accept democracy. Also, the rulers of Saudi Arabia are good friends of America. Iraq on the other hand was ripe for democracy. Its population is relatively secular. Its ruler was an enemy of the West. Its army looked formidable on paper, which was good, but was very weak after many years of western sancations. The majority of Iraqis are Shias who hate Saddam. Iraq was the perfect target, Blair and Bush believed. So they got a few intelligence reports ‘sexed’ up, whipped up public opinion and started the war.

M & W also say that the Israel lobby has forced the US to be confrontational towards Syria and seek a regime change in Syria even though the Syrian government had provided important intelligence about al-Qaida after 9/11. According to M & W, if it were not for the Israel lobby, the US would not be so antagonistic towards Syria; there would be no Syria Accountability Act; there might be a peace treaty between Israel and Syria; Syria might not be backing the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Here I ask - can’t there be an different explanation for this? Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union, the US has been in earch of new enemies. The arms lobby needs the US to have enemies in order to justify weapons sales to the US armed forces. Couldn’t this lobby have played a role in demonising Syria?

Which brings me to another point. There are various lobbies - the arms lobby, the oil lobby, and other special interests - who would be interested in skewing US policy on the middle-east. Maybe these lobbies have played as big a role as the Israel lobby in getting US foreign policy towards Israel to the point it is now.

To conclude, I would say that M & W have an interesting theory, but I was not fully convinced that the picture they formed by connecting various multi-coloured dots is not a red herring.

Monday, 14 July 2008


The fast passenger bus to Kottayam made an exceptional racket as it rumbled past Baby's house at eight in the morning and woke him up. After waking up, Baby lay on his back and tried to shut out all his problems. He seemed to have exhausted all options, all avenues. Never mind, he told himself. There's always a way. He rolled up his mattress and propped it in a corner of the verandah where he had spent the night. He adjusted his mundu, tied it a little more tightly and walked around his house towards the jack-fruit tree which dominated their back-yard. He peed under the tree, parting his mundu to do so. He then walked back into the house, sat on the rickety bench in the kitchen with his hands propped up on a table that was black with dirt and grime and bellowed, ‘coffee.’ His mother was nowhere to be seen. He raised his voice by a notch and shouted once more, ‘coffee.’ ‘Where has this old woman gone to?’ he muttered into his stubble. Baby needed some coffee, the stronger the better, to get himself started in the morning. After the first cup of coffee however, he preferred to drink tea. He sat in the kitchen for a few minutes, his head in his hands and then slowly considered his options. He could shout a bit louder for his coffee. Or he could get up and walk a few feet towards the hearth and pour out the coffee from the small black coffee pot. He never understood why his mother could not make it a point to be around every morning when he woke up and serve him some coffee. He realised that he did not have the energy to raise his voice. And so he got up and dragged himself towards the hearth. His picked up one of the three glasses kept inverted on a stainless steel plate near the stove, lifted up the pot and realised that he had been let down. Just to be sure, he peered into the pot with eyes, which still had sleep in them and wiggled the pot. He was right. There was no slapping sound of fluid inside the pot. The betrayal gave him the energy he needed. He slammed the pot down and shouted ‘Old Woman! Where's my coffee?’ His voice was barely loud enough for him to hear. He opened his mouth yet again, but did not shout. Instead, he went back to his bench and waited for his mother to arrive.

The sound of approaching footsteps warned him of his mother’s arrival. He lifted up his head from his hands and gave his mother a disappointed look as she walked in with a bundle of firewood. His mother was in her early fifties, but looked a lot older. He waited for her to make her excuses and was even more disappointed. Without bothering to explain why there was no coffee in the pot, she dumped the firewood in a corner and said, ‘why don’t you hurry up and go to Eesho Sir’s house before he leaves for work. He has asked for you four or five times already.’

Baby decided to conserve his energy and not reply to something as demeaning as that. Plucking pepper berries for Eesho Sir could hardly be a priority so early in the morning. He waited for his mother’s excuse for not having brewed some coffee in the morning. When none seemed to be forthcoming, he bellowed at her, ‘make me some coffee!’ She ignored him for a few seconds and then said, ‘there’s no milk in the house.’ She pulled out a few roots of cassava from a large brown sack, sat herself down on the floor in a corner of the kitchen and started to peel and chop them.

‘Never mind,’ Baby told her in an exasperated voice. ‘Make me some black coffee.’ His mother ignored him for a few more minutes, but then she abandoned the cassava roots, got up and started to boil some water for the coffee. ‘It took the old woman so long to come to her senses,’ Baby muttered once more.

His mother gave him a dark look. ‘I have written a letter to Bincy. You can post it on your way to Eesho Sir’s house.’

‘You do it yourself. Can’t you post a letter to your own daughter?’

His mother took out some coffee beans from an old tin, ground them for a minute or so with a pestle so that they broke down into tiny molecules, scooped the tiny pieces into her hand and sprinkled them into the boiling water. She then opened a rickety wooden cupboard in a corner and took out an aluminium container and poured some milk into the pot, which continued to boil. After sometime she used a rag to grip the pot by its brim and poured some coffee into a glass. She took out a green plastic box that was quite dirty, pulled out its white top, which was equally encrusted with dirt and used the small spoon permanently kept in the box to scoop some sugar into the coffee. She then picked up the coffee glass and kept it in front of Baby. As the steam arose from the coffee, Baby lifted up his head, picked up the glass and took a sip. 'The sugar hasn't dissolved,' he angrily accused his mother, who had gone back to peeling the cassava. She gave him a dark look, but got up nevertheless, took a large spoon which was too big for the glass and used its handle to stir Baby's coffee. As soon as she was through, Baby gulped down the fluid, as if his life depended on it. 'Give me some more,' he demanded of his mother, holding up his glass in her direction.

'No. You will have to survive with just one glass.'

Baby wiggled his glass up and down once.

'Your father will be coming home soon. There's just enough coffee for him.'

Baby gave up. His mother was an obstinate old hag who did not care for his welfare. 'Can you give me hundred rupees?' he asked his mother. There was no reply. Baby did not actually expect her to give him any money. Not after she had asked him to hurry to Eesho Sir's house.

'I might as well get going then.' Baby prepared to leave. He had no wish to run into his father who always got up before dawn and went off to assist a neighbouring landlord tap his rubber trees. His father would soon be home for breakfast, after which he would go off once more to collect latex from the tappings. No, he was not scared of his father who used to be a strong man with a job that involved carrying heavy weights. But one day his father had hurt his back pretty badly while lifting a heavy sack. Ever since then, he had been forced to give up his unionised job that had paid quite well and take up rubber tapping, which was less strenuous on his back. Baby entered the room where his parents slept. He picked up the orange comb that was balanced on top of the small mirror mounted on the wall and started to comb his hair. He was due for a haircut and his long wavy hair almost touched his shoulders. He put the comb back, retied his mundu and put on his shirt which was hanging on a clothesline that ran from one end of the room to the other end. He then strapped on his old HMT watch which was kept on the ledge by the window and walked out of the house.

As soon as he stepped into the road, he realised that he had not picked up the letter for Bincy. He walked back to the house. His mother was still in the kitchen. 'Where's the letter?' Baby asked her.

'Over there. On the window ledge. Where you keep your watch. Didn't you see it?'

'No, I did not.' Baby noticed that the cassava was almost done. His mother was now mashing a few onions and chillies into a paste, to be eaten with the boiled cassava. The blue inland letter had fallen down from the ledge, which was why Baby hadn't seen it. Baby picked it up. His mother had filled in the address, but had not sealed the edges. His mother's scribble filled most of the blue sheet, which when folded, had three sides. There was space for a few lines at the bottom of the third side. Baby walked off, the letter in his hand. 'I hope you are going to Eesho Sir's house,' his mother shouted after him.

As he walked off, Baby was all too aware that his pocket was empty. But he patted it nevertheless. Yesterday night he had spent the last rupee in his pocket to pay for the movie they had all gone to. He was a Mohanlal fan and never missed a single one of Mohanlal's new releases. Yesterday's movie was not as good as the average Mohanlal movie, but Baby forgave his superstar. He would support his hero in good times and bad. His best friend Achuthan had then bought a few bottles of toddy and some cassava from an arrack shop - Achuthan's wife was pregnant and he was celebrating - and three of them had climbed the Lion Head. They had finished off the toddy and cassava, which had pieces of beef in it, on top of the rock. They had had a good time. But that was yesterday and he was penniless for the moment. As he walked towards the teashop, Baby nurtured the forlorn hope that he would find some of his friends there. Someone who would happily lend him hundred rupees, knowing that Baby not only always paid back his debts, but did not hesitate to lend money when he had some cash to spare. He was disappointed. There were only two others in the shop, two teachers from the neighbouring primary school, noisily downing a cup of tea each before commencing what was for them yet another working day.

'Give me a glass of tea,' he ordered Paappy who ran the teashop. Paappy looked at his wife who was mixing dough in a plastic basin. She abandoned the dough, washed her hands, picked up a dog eared note book from its niche between two beams which supported the roof and started to turn its pages.

'Why do we have to do that now? I will pay you back another day,' Baby protested. Paappy's wife ignored Baby's protests and continued to turn the pages. Baby grew angry. 'Haven't I always paid you back?' He slammed his fists on the table.

'Give him a glass of tea,' Paappy told his wife. Paappy's wife gave Baby the darkest look possible. But nevertheless she put the notebook back in its place and obligingly picked up a dirty glass, washed it under a tap and poured milky sweet tea into it from the large brass vessel covered with an aluminium lid. The tea was piping hot since the brass vessel was kept on top of a gas stove and was frequently reboiled. Baby started to read the letter his mother had written to Bincy, sipping his tea at the same time. Once he was through, he picked up the day's Malayala Manorama and started to turn its pages. He wished there was someone close by with whom he could share the day's news. Local news did not interest Baby. It did not really matter which party was in power. The congress party and the communists had alternately captured power every five years ever since Baby could remember. Baby turned to the international news section. He wished some of his friends were around. The pleasure of sipping from a glass of piping hot tea and debating a newspaper article with a friend was something to die for. Baby and Achuthan held divergent views on most topics. For example, Baby supported the US invasion of Iraq, though he did not particularly like the United States of America. What if Bush knew that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction? It was still as good an excuse as any to have democracy in the middle-east. First Iraq whose population was largely secular, then countries like Oman, UAE and Bahrain which were not too fundamentalist and finally Saudi Arabia and Iran, the most fundamentalist countries in that region. Achuthan did not agree. Just an excuse to grab the oil in that region, he said. Which was silly. Saudi Arabia was supplying the US with all the oil that it required. And the Saud family depended on the US for their survival. They would not dare to hike oil prices once more. If the US were to stop supporting them, would they be able to carry on with their decadent lifestyles in the Wahhabi heartland?

Dileep walked in. Dileep was not a friend, but only an acquaintance. Baby waited till Dileep ordered some palappam and chicken stew and some coffee to go with it. He then put aside the newspaper and asked 'Ah Dileep! How are things with you?'

'Not too bad. I had a bad flu and could not work for a week. And you?' Dileep had a smirk on his face. Baby ignored the smirk. If any of his friends were around, Baby would have shown him. If only Achuthan were around. 'I am fine. I am off to Eesho Sir's house. They have been begging me for many days to pluck their pepper berries. I have been too busy to do their work.'

'What have you been busy with?

That stumped Baby for a second. Then he said, 'I've been mending a few things in my house. The cupboard in the kitchen was creaking and the back door needed to be fixed.'

'Oh yes, I forgot. You are an experienced carpenter aren't you?' There was some emphasis on the word 'experienced'. However Baby decided to let it go. He took out Bincy's letter from his pocket. 'I nearly forgot. I need to post this letter. Do you have a pen?'

'Why do you need a pen to post a letter?' Dileep could see that the address had been filled in.

'I need to add a few sentences to what my mother has written.' He raised his voice. 'Paappacha! Give me a pen for a second.' Paappy dropped what he was doing and brought Baby a pen. Having done so, he sat down beside him and asked, 'so how is your sister doing? Does she like Bangalore?'

Baby took the proffered pen and started to write where his mother's letter ended, reading out aloud what he was writing. 'I hope you are taking care of yourself. Make sure you eat well. Don't worry about the visa. All that will happen in good time.' There was no more space at the bottom of the page, but Baby turned the letter to one side and started to write on the margin on the left. 'We are praying for you daily. Affectionately. Your brother Baby.'

'Give me some rice,' he demanded of Paappy. Having heard Baby read out his writing, Paappy could hardly deny such a simple request. He got up and returned in a few seconds with a few grains of boiled rice held in his fingers. Baby folded the letter, took the rice from Paappy, smeared it on the flap, squashing the rice in the process and sealed the letter with a flourish. Baby then turned to Paappy. 'Yes, Bincy is okay. She is having a tough time with her hospital in Bangalore. They make her work very hard and pay her very little. But she will be able to leave for England anytime now. Her papers are all in order.'

'And once she goes to England, Baby will become King out here, won't you Baby?' Paappy raised his voice and turned to his wife who was busy making Parottas on a dosakal. 'Listen to this,' he told his wife. 'Bincy is all set to leave for England.' He got up and walked to a corner where a long banana stem with a bunch of bananas on top was hanging from the rafters. He used a knife to chop off the lower end of the stem from where the bananas had been peeled off. Paappy's wife looked up from the stove and said, 'you don't have to wait till your sister goes overseas to pay us, you know.' Paappy wife had always been his enemy. She was really daft, to refuse him credit after knowing that Bincy would land a nurse's job in the UK anytime.

'Let me tell you something. After I start receiving money from England, I will come here, repay you and never enter you shop after that. Baby grew more and more angry as he spoke. Dileep looked amused. 'Why do you get so angry? Did she say that you will not repay her?'

'But she talks as if I am trying to cheat her. You can't get much lower than that, can you?'

'Oh let her be. She is only trying to run a business,' Dileep tried to calm Baby.

'Now you are taking her side!' Baby accused Dileep. Dileep had a perplexed look on his face as he finished off his palappam and stew. Baby waited till Dileep washed his hands with water kept in a basin, wiped his hands on a dirty blue towel which had not been changed for a day, paid Paappy and walked out. Baby followed him. 'Dileep!' He shouted after Dileep. Dileep stopped and waited for Baby to catch up. Baby ran towards Dileep with an earnest look on his face. 'Tell me, do you have any cash to spare?'

'What if I do?'

'Can you spare hundred rupees? I will pay you back by the end of this week.'

'No I can't. Not for you!'

'Can't you lend me hundred rupees? That's hardly a day's wage for you?'

'So what prevents you from getting a job somewhere and earning a daily wage?' Dileep sternly demanded. Baby's hope of borrowing some money from someone to tide over the next couple of days evaporated. .

'Well, never mind. I'll manage somehow.' If there was anything Baby hated more than being refused a loan, it was being lectured to.

'But tell me seriously, what's your problem? Why can't you do some work like the rest of us? Come with me to the estate. I'll get you a job. They'll pay you hundred and ten rupees a day!'

Baby seriously considered the offer. 'Do they pay you hundred and ten rupees at the end of each day?'

'No they pay you at the end of every week! Saturday is pay day. Six hundred and sixty rupees every Saturday.'

Never mind. I have other things to do. I've been looking for a place to start a restaurant. Not a teashop like the one Paappy runs. But a proper restaurant'

'Stop day dreaming and find some work. The other day we were talking about you. Chankunni carpenter was also there.'

'And what did the old bastard have to say?'

'He did not say anything negative about you. He only said that he has always wished all his apprentices well. Even the ones who do not complete their apprenticeships.' Dileep spoke with a smirk and it was obvious that Baby had not been spoken of in flattering terms.

'Get lost, the lot of you. Once I start my restaurant, I won't have to even talk to people like you.'

'You've been making plans like this even when your sister was in high school. Poor girl, she has to slave away to feed a lazy fool like you.'

Baby wanted to punch Dileep, but Dileep was much bigger and stronger than him. He would pay him back at a convenient time. He was bound to run into Dileep when he had his close friends around him. If only Achuthan were around!

Baby walked towards the main market and posted the letter. He realised that he was quite hungry. He looked at his watch. It was quarter to ten. He father would go back to work at ten. If he went home after that, he could eat some cassava. Or, if there was nothing left, if his father and mother had finished everything off, he could get his mother to make some rice for him. Seeing that he had fifteen minutes to kill, he decided to go to Eesho Sir's house. Eesho Sir would have gone to work and his wife would be at home. Baby actually preferred to deal with Eesho Sir rather than his wife who was a terror. He walked for a while and reached Eesho Sir's house. Eesho Sir's father had five sons and after his death each of them inherited half an acre of land. One brother had bought out three others and had a holding of two acres. However, Eesho sir had decided to build a house on his miserable half an acre. He planted twenty Murikku trees in a garland around his house and trailed pepper vines on them. Baby reached the outer gate and shouted, 'Chechee! Chechee!' Eesho Sir's wife opened the door and poked her head out. Baby was planning to say something civil. Something like 'has Eesho Sir gone to the bank?' even though it was common knowledge that Eesho Sir caught a bus to Ponkunnam every morning, where he worked as a clerk for the State Bank of Travancore. But Baby did not get a chance. 'Where have you been for so many days?' Eesho Sir's wife snapped at him. 'Sir must have asked your mother a dozen times for you.' As if Baby was obliged to work for them. He was tempted to walk off. They had a few miserable vines of pepper but behaved like Bill Gates!'

'Well, I am here now. What did you want me for?' Baby decided to go through the motions.

'Can you pluck the pepper berries from all the vines?'

'How much will you pay me for that?'

'Hundred and ten rupees'

Baby's face had a serious look, as if he were seriously considering the offer. 'How many vines do you have?' he asked, though everyone in Simhapara knew that Eesho Sir had twenty vines.

'Only twenty.'

Baby had an amused look on his face. Do you actually expect me pluck berries from twenty vines for hundred and ten rupees?'

'What do you expect? A thousand rupees? It is not even a day's work. Even labourers in the Simhapara estate get paid only hundred and ten rupees a day!'

'So what? They get regular work! People like me who work on an irregular basis, we deserve more.'

'Has anyone prevented you from working regularly?'

Baby noticed that quite a few berries had started to turn red on the vine closest to him. Which meant that they had no time to lose. The berries had to be plucked just before they started to ripen. 'I may as well leave now.' Baby started to walk off. 'Okay how much do you want?' Eesho Sir's wife shouted after him.

'Hundred and sixty rupees.'

'I'll pay you hundred and fifteen and that's final.'

'Why don't you ask me to work for you for nothing? There ought to be a limit to the exploitation of the working class!'

Eesho Sir's wife was silent for a while. 'Okay hundred and twenty then.'

Baby agreed. He was tired of arguing. He was tempted to ask Eesho Sir's wife if she would pay him hundred rupees for plucking pepper from just seventeen of the pepper vines, but decided not to. The woman was so unreasonable.

'I'll have breakfast and return in say half and hour.'

'Oh no. If you leave now, you will not return. 'I'll give you breakfast.'

'What do you have?

'Quite choosy aren't you? We had dosas for breakfast. I have a few left. Why don't you sit there?'

There were three chairs around a round table on the verandah. Baby sat on a chair. The dosas arrived with some green chammandi on top. Baby ate with the air of a man who considers food to be a distraction that prevented him from doing serious work.

'Do you have a good ladder?' Baby asked with his mouth full.

'Yes we do. There is one in the shed behind the house.'

'These vines are quite high.'

'No they are not. What do you think they are? Pepper vines or coffee plants?'

'You ought to cut these down and plant teak trees. That way you do not have to worry about plucking the pepper or selling it in the market every year. After ten years or so, you just have to cut down the trees and sell the logs.'

'Sir is actually thinking of switching to vanilla.'

'Didn't you have cocoa at one point?'

'Don't remind me of that experiment. We did not make a single paisé out of our cocoa cultivation.'

After eating the dosas, Baby started to pluck the pepper berries. He first plucked the berries that were within arm's reach from a vine, after which he would prop the ladder against the Murikku tree on which the pepper vines trailed and pluck the berries that had eluded him earlier. Eesho Sir's wife disappeared into the house within a few minutes of Baby getting down to work.

The fishmonger came by, a basket of fish on her head. 'Chechee! Do you need any fish today?'

Eesho Sir's wife reappeared on the verandah. 'No, not today. I still have some sardines in the fridge. Come back the day after.'

'So, you've got Baby to work for you?' Baby ignored the fishmonger. 'Why don't you pluck the berries that are within reach from all the vines and then use the ladder to pluck the ones that are out of reach?'

'Do you really mind if I do it this way?'

'Let Baby do it his way,' Eesho Sir's wife supported Baby. The fishmonger left.

Soon it was time for lunch and Eesho Sir's wife gave him a decent lunch of rice, lentils, red beans and two fried sardines. Baby continued to work. By six o'clock he had stripped seventeen vines of all their berries, which filled a couple of medium sized baskets.

'Chechee! Chechee! I'm done.'

Eesho Sir's wife came out once more. 'Have you finished all twenty?'

'No, I haven't. I've finished seventeen.'

'Well, finish the other three. There's a lot of daylight left. Its only six o'clock.'

'I finish work at six. Isn't that what everyone here does?'

'But that's when you start work at nine in the morning. You started after ten. Anyway, you agree to pluck the berries from all twenty vines.'

'I am sorry chechee, but I need to leave now. I'll pluck the berries from the remaining three tomorrow.'

'No!' Eesho Sir's wife wailed.’ You promised to do all twenty today.'

'I made no such promise. What's the harm if I do it tomorrow?'

'You are unlikely to come tomorrow!'

'Well, if you don't trust me, what can I do? You don’t have to pay me hundred and twenty rupees. Just pay me hundred rupees.'

'Why hundred rupees?'

'Aren't you people much more educated than I am? I have not even passed my SSLC.'

'Well, wait for Eesho Sir. You can discuss accounts with him. He'll be here any minute now.'

'Why should I wait for Eesho Sir? I have finished for the day and should be paid.'

'I won't pay you. Why should I? I agreed to pay you hundred and twenty rupees after you finish all twenty vines.' This was gross injustice, a blatant exploitation of a human being who had no financial capital, someone unable to live off his own wealth 'How unfair can you get Chechee?' he screamed at Eesho Sir's wife. 'I must be paid right away. Right this minute!'

'Get lost, I won't pay you anything!' On hearing the commotion, a neighbour came out of her house. 'What's the matter?' she asked Eesho Sir's wife in a voice loud enough to be heard and started walking towards the barbed wire fence which separated the properties.

'Baby agreed to pluck all the pepper berries for hundred and twenty rupees. He had done seventeen of the vines and does not want to finish the remaining three today. And he wants to be paid now for what he has done.'

'Don't pay him till he does what he promised,' the neighbour agitatedly said. 'If he does not turn up tomorrow, you won't be able to get someone to pluck berries from just three vines.' For good measure she told Baby, 'you are so unreliable.'

'Please don't interfere. This has nothing to do with you.' Baby spoke in a solemn tone. There was some more silence.

'This is ridiculous. I am not going to work after six. It is as simple as that. Tell you what, I'll take one of these two baskets with me. You can keep the other one. I'll sell this green pepper and give you the balance after keeping hundred rupees for myself!' 'What else can I do when I am forced to deal with human beings like this?' The last bit was not addressed to Eesho Sir's wife, but was said in a voice loud enough for her to hear.

Eesho Sir's wife did not respond to the threat to carry away a basket of pepper. They stared at each other for a while. Baby lost his patience and repeated. 'Pay me my money!'

At that moment Eesho Sir arrived. Even as he opened the outer gate, his wife shouted, 'see what's happening here. Baby agreed to pluck berries from all twenty vines for hundred and twenty rupees. He has finished seventeen and does not want to finish the other three today.'

'Give me my money. I need to leave.'

'There's still an hour's daylight left.' Eesho Sir's wife was adamant that Baby should fulfil his part of the bargain.

'Tell you what, you only have to string up a few bulbs on these vines and I can work till midnight!'

'How much did you promise to pay him? Eesho Sir asked his wife.

'Hundred and twenty rupees,' Baby told him before his wife could speak. 'And I have finished seventeen of the vines. All I am asking for is hundred rupees.'

Eesho Sir took out his wallet. 'I am so glad you came Eesho Sir,' Baby told him with genuine gratitude.

'Don't you pay him,' Eesho Sir's wife screamed at her husband. 'Who will pluck the berries from the remaining three vines?'

'Haven't I promised to turn up tomorrow morning at nine?'

Eesho Sir pulled out a hundred rupee note from his wallet and handed it to Baby. Baby pocketed the money and started to turn away. 'Hold on,' Eesho Sir said as fished out a two-rupee coin from his trousers. ‘Keep these two rupees as well,' he told Baby. 'One hundred and two rupees for plucking berries from seventeen berries! Now you can't claim that I've cheated you, can you? And please don't bother to turn up tomorrow morning' He then turned to his wife. 'I'll pluck them tomorrow morning before I go to work. It won't take me more than an hour,' he told his wife in a quiet voice and walked into the house.

'As you please Eesho Sir,' Baby told him and hurried off to the teashop. He looked at his watch. It was six fifteen. He hoped that some of his friends would be there. It would be grand if Achuthan were around. On his way he passed a beggar. He took out the two-rupee coin he had and dropped it into the beggar's bowl.

By: Winnowed

Published earlier in Epic India Magazine

© Vinod George Joseph