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.
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.
Published earlier in Epic India Magazine
© Vinod George Joseph