Sunday, 10 August 2008

Short Story: NEW KID ON THE BLOCK

From his position on the terrace, Palani watched the express bus roar past and desperately wished he could be on it. Its destination was displayed in bold on the front and rear in English, Tamil and Malayalam. Madurai! The bus seemed to taunt him as it rushed by. That magic word Madurai! If only he could get to Madurai, he could be home in forty minutes flat after that. Palani watched the bus until it turned around a curve and disappeared from sight. It seemed as if he had been away from home for years and years, instead of a mere three weeks. When he first arrived at the building site, they were starting to work on the ceiling of the ground floor. And now, they had already started work on the walls of the first floor. Soon, as the walls rose around him, he would be enclosed within the house they were building and would lose his view of the road. What wouldn't he give to get away from it all? Away from the rain, the mud, the mosquitoes, the humidity, the food and most importantly, away from Surya. The mere thought of how Surya would react if he caught him staring into empty space was enough to send a chill down his spine. He dipped his trowel into the basin of mortar and continued with his task. It was almost lunchtime. He wished they had not opted to cook their own food. They had all grown to detest the food provided by the contractor. It was cooked in coconut oil and tasted of coconut gratings more than anything else, but at least it was warm and someone else cooked it for them. Ever since they started to cook their own food, they had to eat cold rice and sambhar for lunch. Sometimes they ate too much of what they cooked in the morning for breakfast and there wasn't enough rice or sambhar for lunch. The contractor was having a laugh. It was cheaper for him to provide them with a stove, kerosene, pots, pans, rice and ingredients for the sambhar than to send them food from the teashop. And to top it all, they worked twice as hard as the local Malayalees. The contractor knew that. They all knew that. They did not get paid more than the locals despite working much harder. Hundred and ten rupees a day. Though it was almost twice what he could earn in his native town. It really wasn't worth it. It was far better to live at home with his near and dear ones than to live in a faraway place, working with someone like Surya.

If he were working in his native town, he could go home for his lunch. His mother would have made some rice. The rasam or sambhar that went with the rice would not taste of coconut gratings. Instead it would have a light touch of groundnut oil. It rarely rained back home. Never more than three or four times a year. And it could get pretty hot. Back home, he used to curse the heat which sapped a man's strength faster than anything else. But now he preferred it to the miserable rain which seemed to be a perpetual feature of Simhapara and the rest of Kerala. Never again would he wish for rain as he and his folks had many times in the past. If only he could replace the wet, grass covered soil of Simhapara with some parched, dusty and bone dry land!

'Stop day dreaming and get to work!' Palani jerked back to reality. The other men stopped working and turned to stare at Palani. Anbu, who was not much older than Palani actually sniggered. Except Kandasamy, who continued to work as if he hadn't heard anything. How stupid could he be to daydream? Especially when Surya was out to get him. Palani quickly adjusted the brick he had just placed, scooped up some mortar from the basin with his trowel and slopped it into the wedges between the most recent brick and the previous one. He then picked up another brick from the pile near him and carried on. He dared not turn around, though he desperately wished he could - just to confirm that Surya was many yards away from him as his voice indicated. It was to be a two-storied house. He would go home as soon as it was complete. He would not stay on. There were six of them now. And Palani had been there for just three weeks. The five other men had been at work for three months. If in three months, they could lay the foundation and complete the first storey, in addition to building a one-room outhouse ...... Palani did the maths as he laid the bricks. Hopefully, another month would see the end of the second storey. Then maybe two more months to finish the roofing, the plastering and flooring. And then the painters would arrive and he could go home. No, he would definitely not stay on to work on another house. Even though it was clear from the men's talk that their contractor had an unending flow of work. One of the men, Kandasamy, had not gone home in many years. Since Surya was the koththanaar, he did not have to actively work all the time. He spent half the time walking around trowel in hand, supervising the work of others. He would occasionally stop someone, move him aside and use his trowel to either chip away a bit of mortar, or push aside a brick by a few millimetres. Sometimes he would dip his trowel into the basin and add a touch of mortar if he felt it necessary. He was a good workman, they all acknowledged it. Only Kandasamy came anywhere close to Surya. Which was not surprising since Kandasamy was as old as Surya, if not a bit older. But Kandasamy was no leader and he responded to Surya's whistle just like the others.

Palani sensed Surya's footsteps moved towards him. He did not turn around, though his whole body ached with the tension of wanting to sneak a peek behind. Soon he could smell Surya's presence behind him. Palani turned around. Surya's eyes bored into his. He looked down. 'Are you hungry?' Surya was just a couple of feet away as he shouted at him. Palani was silent. 'Are you?' Surya repeated. 'Too hungry to work?'

'No, I'm not hungry,' Palani managed to mutter.

'Speak louder. I can't hear you.' Surya told him. One of the men working a few feet away guffawed.

Palani wetted his parched lips and said 'I'm not hungry.'

'Well, in that case, no food for you! Keep working till evening.' Surya then turned around and told the others working at various points on the terrace. 'The boy is not hungry. He can work while we have our lunch.'

'When I was his age, I used to work non-stop without a murmur. These days, they are all spoilt rotten!' This came from a man who was in his late twenties. For good measure he added, 'in the good old days, it was perfectly acceptable for the koththanaar to give a couple of slaps to someone who was lazy.' They ganged up on him as they had done so many times in the last three weeks.

'Did you hear that Palani? A couple of slaps will do you good. Would you like a couple of slaps from me?' Surya seemed to relish every word he spoke. Palani did not dare to look at Surya. His whole body was tense and his face seemed to be on fire. Sweat poured from his body, as if the sun was shining as brightly as it did at home.

'Another ten minutes and we break for lunch. That is, all of us except this bastard.' The word bastard slipped off Surya's tongue so easily. Palani had taken more abuse in the past three weeks than he had in a whole lifetime. The sheer injustice of it all. What right did they have to behave like this to him, when he worked as hard as anyone else in their group?

Palani hoped that Surya was joking about his working without a lunch break. However, when the men put their tools away and started to walk down the stairs to eat their spartan meal, Palani did not have the nerve to join them. He hoped that one of the men would ask him to go down with them. But no one did. He thought of going down on his own, but could not gather the courage to do so. He sat on his haunches as sobs wracked his body. What really made it bad was that Surya was the sort of person he would normally have looked up to. Tall and hefty, he was a natural leader. The few scattered scars on his face did nothing to reduce his magnetism. His long hair was usually slick with oil and combed back. He was at least thirty five, which meant he was almost twice Palani's age. The rest of the men followed his lead in everything. If he criticised a person, all others rushed to add their two cents in support of what Surya had to say. If he thought that something was good, nobody dared to say otherwise. Palani would have loved to be a part of Surya's gang.

Three weeks ago, when he had got off the bus at Simhapara, he had expected support from his fellow Tamils in an alien land. But they just hadn't taken to him. The first few days were fine. They had asked him a million questions and teased him a bit about Kushboo whom he admitted to have a liking for. It was on the third day that Surya shouted at him. Palani and Anbu were asked to dig up some clay and fill a couple of dozen empty cement bags with it. They had been digging for an hour when Surya came to inspect their progress. 'What have you guys been doing? Digging the clay or playing with each other?' 'How did you guess we were playing with each other?' Palani had countered playfully. He waited for a few seconds for Surya to laugh at his joke. Instead Surya had stared at him for a few minutes and then said, 'if ever you say anything so arrogant to me ever again, I will beat you to death!'. Anbu had said nothing. Palani still did not believe that Surya was serious. It took a few minutes for reality to sink in. He had shrugged it off. Maybe Surya was just angry at something else and had decided to take it out on him. That evening Palani walked up to Surya as sat by himself and smoked a beedi. 'Annei, are you still angry at me? I was only joking. I will work even harder, I promise you.' Surely that should please Surya. For reasons he had not entirely figured out, Surya was very keen to get the work done as early as possible. He forced them to work hard even when the contractor was not around. His peace overture was ignored. Surya blew a smoke ring into his face and looked away. The ragging started in real earnest the next day. While eating the breakfast which the contractor sent them in a couple of large boxes, Palani had looked at Surya for a few seconds. 'Why do you stare at me, you bastard? Surya had demanded. Palani had looked away. Ever since then, Palani had avoided looking at Surya, unless he really had to.

Palani decided to go down and claim some lunch. He was damned if he had to work without food. He gathered up his courage along with the folds of his lungi and went down. The men were finishing their lunch. 'What do you want?' Surya demanded.

Palani's mouth seemed to be totally dry. It took a few seconds for him to mutter 'some lunch.'

'What? What did you say?'

'I would like some food.'

'Well, there's none left for you. We've finished it all, haven't we?' Palani looked around for confirmation. The men nodded, all except Kandasamy who had harassed Palani the least. Kandasamy reached out for the rice pot and peered into it. He put it down and said, 'there's a little bit of rice left. Why didn't you come down earlier?'

Palani was not sure if he would be allowed to eat what was left. He hesitated for a few seconds and then looked at Surya for confirmation. 'Why look at me? Am I holding the food in my lap?' There was a spontaneous outburst of laughter. Even Kandasamy joined in, though it was Anbu who laughed the loudest. Palani was relieved. If they laughed at him, they were unlikely to be angry with him. He picked up the pot, scraped the rice in it into a steel plate, poured out the dregs of the sambhar that remained in the pan on top of the rice and started eating. Surya ignored him. Palani felt like a fool. If he had come down with the rest, they might not have refused him food. Or maybe he should have come down a few minutes after the others did. The rest of the day passed off uneventfully, though Palani was exhausted when it was time to lay aside his trowel and wash off the fine dust that covered his body.

Towards dusk, Kandasamy and another man prepared dinner for all of them. They laid down a mat in the room destined to be a bedroom and ate the rice and rasam. 'We ought to have something other than rice for breakfast tomorrow, one of the men said.

'Let's cook something nice. We all have lots of time, don't we?' Kandasamy said.

'No, we don't. Three of us are working tomorrow.' Anbu reminded Kandasamy. The next day was a Sunday and they did not have to work, but Anbu and two others had opted to work.

'Let's buy something from the teashop,' Surya suggested. 'Maybe some parottas.' None of the men really fancied the parottas sold by the teashop which were large, flaky and dry, quite different from the smaller and deep fried parottas they had back home.

'I'll wake up in the morning and buy the parottas. Three for each person?' Palani asked Surya. It was his turn to make breakfast anyway.

Surya stared him down. 'Did anyone ask you to buy the parottas? Why on earth do you have to speak out of turn all the time? Why? When your mother delivered you, she must have forgotten to pass on any brains to you. Or maybe she did not have any brains in the first place. That's the only explanation I can think of.'

Palani's heart sank. To his dismay, all the men burst out laughing. Including Kandasamy. The food turned to bile in his mouth. He could feel the tears welling up. He forced himself to eat. Don't say anything about my mother, he wanted to tell Surya. Even if you curse me, don't you dare say anything about my mother. But his mouth had turned dry and he knew that words would not form even if he were to try.

'So tell me, why do you have to keep saying stupid things all the time?' Surya continued to goad him.

'I thought I should say that because it is my turn to cook breakfast.'

'Can you speak Malayalam?'

No he could not. He had thought that he could understand Malayalam, but that notion had been quickly dispelled after he reached Simhapara. But then, neither could Surya. At least that appeared to be the case. Whenever Surya tried to speak in Malayalam with the contractor, he got replies in Tamil. The contractor's Tamil was atrocious, with a heavy Malayalam accent, but it seemed to be better than Surya's Malayalam.

'Can you?'

No he could not. But that did not mean he could not buy a few parottas from the teashop.

'Watch us. Learn from us. And try not to be more stupid than you can help!' Surya's tone mellowed. Now it seemed as if he was once again enjoying himself.

That night, just before he went off to sleep, Palani counted his money, which he kept in the steel trunk he brought from home. They were paid at the end of every week and his earnings in the last three weeks was now a decent sum. His expenses were practically nil. Maybe he would try to send some of his money home. He was not too sure how to do it. He had heard of money orders. How did one send a money order? Through a post office, of course. Tomorrow was a Sunday. The post office would be shut!. And he had to work every other day. The money order would have to wait for a while. He wished he could sleep with his steel trunk under his head or between his legs or something. The steel trunk had all his worldly belongings for the moment. It reminded him of home. Actually it was home. However, like all the other men, Palani kept his steel trunk in the outhouse and slept inside the building.

The next day Surya went out and bought parottas for all six of them and some egg curry to go with it. As they ate, one of the men said 'We might as well ask that bastard contractor to send us breakfast. Why should we use our money to buy breakfast?'

'I was planning to do that tomorrow. Even if it is shit food, we don't have to cook it.'

'Tell him we can't stand the sight of cassava any more,' one of the men said.

'I'll tell him. But it may not work.'

'How much does this come to?' Kandasamy asked.

'Around seven rupees fifty paise per head.'

It was agreed. They would ask the contractor to send them food. It was too much to spend so much money on breakfast.

Anbu and two other men started work without much delay. They were in an alien land to earn money and what was the point in forsaking the hundred and ten rupees they would get if they were to work that day? Surya gave the men detailed instructions on what to do and then walked off. Kandasamy too disappeared immediately after breakfast. Palani had worked the previous two Sundays, but on an impulse he had decided not to work this Sunday. After Surya and Kandasamy left, Palani washed the dishes. He could hear the three men working on the floor above him. After he stowed the plates and utensils away, he decided to visit Simhapara's market place. He had been there only once before. He discarded his lungi and put on the only pair of trousers he had. It took him a good ten minutes to get to the market place, despite the fact that he walked briskly. Simhapara consisted of houses and bungalows built along the KK road. There were a few side roads, but .... oh! it was so different from his small town or the villages close by which consisted of dense human settlements surrounded by large patches of parched arid land. Kerala was so different. He had never seen a stretch of land where there was no human habitation. There were people everywhere, but none too close to each other. He was not too sure if Simhapara was a town or a village. He had heard references to a panchayat - so it had to be a village. The marketplace itself was just a stretch of the KK Road lined with shops. The traffic was noticeably heavier along that stretch. There were a few side roads which led to nowhere, which were also dotted with shops and stalls. When he reached the marketplace, many of the shops were not open. He knew that some of them would open later in the day, but most of them would remain closed on Sundays. How different it was from the marketplace in his own hometown! This market did not have the hustle and bustle which he was used to. A few shops sold vegetables, coconuts and onions. He could not see a single flower seller. Except for a man with a pushcart stacked with bananas, apples and oranges, there weren't any hawkers. Not even someone selling jackfruits which Kerala was famous for. And that was it. Not that things would be different on a week-day. Even during the week, the shops in Simhapara opened late and closed early. So unlike his hometown where the shops opened very early and stayed open quite late. Where an entire alley of shopkeepers sold vegetables. Where flower sellers with large baskets of chrysanthemums and jasmine competed with each other to get their customers' attention. Where there were so many booths which prepared fresh sweets - laddoos, jelabees, mysore-pakkus, palgovai and the like, right in front of their customers. Everyone and anyone who walked past bought something from the hawkers. Right from the boys who worked in factories making matchsticks to rich businessmen, they all spent a rupee or two on titbits. A couple of shopkeepers sold only onions or only coconuts. Palani walked around for a while. He avoided the meat shops selling meat with carcasses hanging from hooks. He did eat meat and the meat shops back home were not much different in the way they displayed the meat for sale. But they weren't so close to the vegetable shops. Similarly the fish monger displayed his wares from a small shop which was right next to a multipurpose store!

Palani had been told that there was a store selling stainless steel utensils. The men who owned it came from Sattur, which was not too far from Madurai. He walked around for a while, till he found the shop. How different it was from the other shops close by! Even from outside, Palani could see that it hummed with activity. Hesitantly, he made his way in. There weren't too many customers inside the shop, but they were four or five boys of about thirteen or fourteen walking hither and thither, putting things back or dusting the wares on display. All the employees were Tamils. Right from the incense sticks burning in front of Pillayar's framed picture to the music playing softly in the background, everything reminded Palani of home. He accosted the first boy who appeared in front of him and asked him,' where are you from?'

'Theni.' The boy was happy to see Palani.

Another boy appeared. 'And you?'

'Cumbum.' Now it was their turn. 'Where are you from?'

'Madurai.'

'Madurai?'

'No, not really.' Palani was forced to divulge the name of his small town. 'Have you heard of it?'

'Well,..' The boy frowned with concentration, determined to form an association with the town the pleasant stranger in front of him hailed from.

'What's the matter?' The voice which boomed across the room was not very pleasant, despite the fact that it was in Tamil.

Palani turned around to face the cashier who looked at him with disdain. 'Nothing.' he told him in Tamil. That ought to settle matter. But it didn't.

'What do you want?' the cashier was persistent.

'I am from ....,' he announced.

'What do you want?'

What did he want? How could a fellow Tamil ask him that? What was he expected to do? Clear off? 'I was just talking to this Thumbee.' Palani made it clear that he was only making polite conversation.

'They have work to do.' A customer was about to finish making a few purchases. The boy serving him nodded his head at the customer, a greying Malayalee man wearing a double mundu, gathered up the various items chosen by the customer and took them to the cashier who started to prepare the bill. Halfway through the bill, the cashier looked up and stared at Palani. Even the other serving boys were embarrassed by the cashier's rudeness. Palani wanted to walk across and slap the cashier. How dare he! But it was not his hometown and he had no real rights. He walked out in disgust.

He wandered up and down the marketplace. To his surprise, he ran into Kandasamy.

'Annei! You here?'

Kandasamy did not seem to be displeased to see him. 'I too hate working on a Sunday,' he informed Palani.

'Were you trying to buy something?' Kandasamy asked Palani.

'What's there to buy?' Palani asked dejectedly. At home, if he went out, there were a million things he could buy from the various hawkers all over the place. Peanuts, laddoos, jalebees, pakodas, murukkus, athirasams, none of which would cost more than a rupee or two.

'Come on, I'll show you.' Kandasamy led the way. Palani followed Kandasamy to the multipurpose store which was right next to the fishmonger's stall. The shelves were stocked with items ranging from soap to notebooks to bottles of cough syrup to packets of laddoos and jalebis. Ten large plastic jars with red lids held an assortment of chocolates, sweets and chips made from yellow bananas. There was a small gaggle of people inside. When it was their turn, Kandasamy pointed to the jar containing chips. 'A quarter kilogram,' he told the man serving them.

'A quarter kilogram,' the man repeated.

'A quarter kilogram,' Kandasamy confirmed.

The man picked up a newspaper from a pile of newspapers, selected a sheet and made a cone out of it. He then opened the jar containing the chips and scooped two scoopfuls of the fried yellow banana chips into the paper cone. The paper cone with its gaping mouth was then gingerly placed on a balance and weighed, the man holding on to the cone, but taking care not to add to its weight. It was a little less than two hundred and fifty grams. The man scooped out some more chips, which he dropped into the paper cone. The needle went up to two hundred and forty grams now. A few more chips and it was finally two hundred and fifty. The man picked up the paper cone and sealed its top by stuffing the paper forming the edge of the cone into the cone. A string was used to tie it securely. Kandasamy took the paper cone from the man and handed it to Palani. He then paid the man and they walked out of the store. A couple of teenage girls wearing skirts and blouses entered the store as they left it. Palani's eyes followed them into the store. He then realised that Kandasamy was staring at him. He looked away guiltily.

'How long did it take you to learn Malayalam?' he asked Kandasamy who opened the parcel and offered it to Palani. Palani helped himself to a handful and starting eating them.

'Not very long. It's not very difficult. But they always seem to know we are I am a Tamils Pandy when Iwe speak Malayalam.'

‘A Pandy?’

‘That’s what they call us Tamils.’

‘That’s fine. We have lots of nice ways of describing Malayalees, don’t we?’ Palani gave Kandasamy a conspiratorial grin.

'We can always make out when a Malayalee speaks Tamil, can't we? The moment that contractor opens his mouth, any fool can make out he is a Malayalee.'

'I think once we are born speaking a language, that language, our mother-tongue, will always stay with us. We can never hide our mother-tongue.'

'It must be true,' Palani conceded. They walked on in silence, which was broken only by munching sounds.

'Do you know where Surya Annan has gone?'

'He has a few friends who work in the estate. He'll spend the day with them, playing cards and drinking.'

'Does he drink? I didn't know that.'

'Why do you think his eyes look bloodshot so often?'

'I didn't realise....'

'He makes a lot of money. But spends most of it on cards and drink. His wife and children back home see very little of it.'

Palani did not know what to say. 'Does he get drunk?'

'Oh yes, he does. Especially when he was younger. He used to be drunk on most evenings.'

'He doesn't like me.' Palani was stating the obvious.

'Well, you haven't done anything wrong. It's just bad luck that you are struck with Surya. He is a nasty bastard.'

'But he does not harass the others.'

'I know.' Kandasamy's face betrayed no emotion. It was not clear if he sympathised with Palani.

'He makes everyone work very hard. Especially me.'

Kandasamy guffawed and Palani got a glimpse into his mouth and its contents. 'For an obvious reason. If he manages to finish the work before a particular date, not the scheduled date, but a date even before that, he'll get a bonus!' That was news to Palani. Nobody had told him that Surya stood to get a bonus if they worked really hard.

'If that's the case, why didn't Surya Annan object when I told him I would not be working today? If he is to get a bonus for getting the work done earlier than scheduled, wouldn't he want all of us to work every Sunday?

'He must be on course to get the bonus, even without making you work on a Sunday. Anyway, he can't force you to work on a Sunday if you do not want to.'

'He can't force you to work. But he can surely force me to work.' Kandasamy did not disagree. Instead he finished off the last of the banana chips and discarded the paper into a nearby bin which was overflowing with garbage.

'Tell me, what should I do to make Surya Annan less angry towards me?'

'I don't really know. You see, I have known Surya for many years. He is moody and unpredictable. Hopefully his anger will pass.' Kandasamy then added as an afterthought, 'but you don't have to call him Annan when there's no one else around.'

Palani was uncomfortable with that. He was used to treating all elders with respect. Anyone older than him would have to be called Annan, even if he did not like him. It was obvious Kandasamy did not like Surya. The thought cheered him.

'Have you known Surya for long?' he asked Kandasamy. He found it pleasurable to omit the Annan.

'For a very long time. He is a total bastard. But he is all bark and no bite, believe me.'

There were a million questions swimming in Palani's head and he wanted to ask all of them at once. Before he could do so, Kandasamy asked him, 'do you want to go for a movie?' Kandasamy seemed to be keen to change the topic.

Is there a cinema theatre in Simhapara?'

No, not here. But there is one at Ponkunnam. Or we could go to Mundakayam.'

'Will they have a Tamil movie?'

'They might. We'll have to go and find out.'

No Annei, I don't want to watch a movie.' He had already spent a lot of money that day. At this rate, he would not be sending any money home.

'What do you plan to do for lunch?'

'I was thinking of buying some lunch at that teashop. They provide lunch as well, don't they?'

'Yes they do. You'll spend all your money eating out. Try not to start drinking as well.'

Oh I won't.

'Everyone says that. And then ....' Kandasamy did not complete what he was saying as his voice trailed off. Palani was amused. Why on earth did Kandasamy think he would start drinking?

'What's the best way to send money home?'

'A money order, of course.'

'I've never sent one!'

'I could do it for you. Give me your money and I'll send it for you.'

'Thank you very much.' Palani was very grateful. That was a huge weight off his back. Sending a money order would mean filling up some form or the other. Palani had gone to school until he was ten, but he was not too confident of his ability to write. It was even possible they would expect him to write in Malayalam.

'Are you sure you don't want to watch a movie with me?' Kandasamy asked Palani.

'I'm sure. I don't feel up to it today.'

'Tell you what. You carry on. I am going to catch a bus to Mundakayam and watch a movie at the Galaxy.'

'Galaxy! What a name!'

As he walked back, Palani wondered what he could do to better his relations with Surya. It started to rain once again. Everyone said that it would rain continuously till the middle of August. Right now it was only the beginning of July. The wet earth squelched around his rubber slippers as he walked. He did not have an umbrella and soon he was quite wet. How he hated the rain! If only he had wings. He would fly over the mountains looming in the east and reach home in a few minutes. For the first time he noticed that the hillock which rose up in the near distance had a curiously shaped top. It resembled a very large animal waiting to charge down the hill. It was quite funny. He was quite sure that no one else had noticed it. He wished he were friendly with the men working with him. He could have shared titbits such as these with them. Thinking of work, he wished he were working today. That was one hundred and ten rupees down the drain!

When he reached the building site, which was home for the moment, he saw a white car parked by the entrance. Through a gaping hole which would at some stage be plugged by a window, Palani could see the contractor and an elderly couple inside the unfinished building. Must be the owners, Palani thought. They were walking from one room to the other on the ground floor. They ignored Palani's presence. Palani went to the outhouse and picked up his towel. He started to towel his hair. It had stopped raining by then. His three colleagues did not seem to be working very hard. The contractor started to ascend the stairs, with the owners right behind him. On hearing their footsteps, his colleagues increased the pace of their work. Palani wanted to go near the contractor and the couple in order to listen to what they were saying, but did not do so. It would have been rude and in any event, they would be speaking in Malayalam. He decided to go to the river and wash his clothes. He might as well do it now, when it was not raining. He would wash both his lungis and shirts. The trousers he was wearing now, there was no need to wash it since he had worn it only a few times. No, he might as well wash it. He had worn it on the bus while travelling from home and it was bound to have become dirty. Since it was black in colour, it was not possible to see any dirt, except at the bottom which had flakes of mud sticking to it.

When Palani came back from the river, the owners were leaving in their car. The contractor was not leaving with them. After he waved them goodbye, he saw Palani. 'Why didn't you want to work today?'

What could he say? That he wanted a day off? 'I was too tired today. I did work the last two Sundays and will be working the next Sunday as well.'

'Oh it's up to you. Entirely up to you, whether you want to take the day off or make some money.'

Palani had never been alone with the contractor. He seemed to be in his late forties. He always wore a white shirt and a white double mundu. There was no doubt that the thick gold chain around his neck was twenty four carat gold.

The contractor seemed to be in a talkative mood. 'Where's Surya?' he asked.

'I don't know.' Palani was tempted to say that Surya was out drinking and gambling somewhere, but held his tongue.

'How are you liking it here? Very different from your place, isn't it?'

'Yes it is.'

'I used to live in Tamil Nadu. I studied at a printing technology institute at Sivakasi for two years. After that I stayed on for a few years and worked in a printing press, which was also in Sivakasi. Have you been to Sivakasi?'

'I've passed through it many times. It is very close to my town. But I've never stopped there.'

'When you go home next time, if you have any friend who wants to work here, bring him with you, okay?'

'I will do that. Definitely.'

Hah! So that was why the Contractor wanted to talk to him. To get him to bring more workmen to Simhapara. Well, in that case, it was Palani's turn to ask him questions.

'How much will this building cost?'

'Almost twenty-five lakhs to build it. That does not include the cost of the land which has belonged to the owner for many years.'

'The owner must be very rich!'

'No, not really. All three of his children are overseas. One son in Kuwait. Another son in Muscat. And a third daughter is a nurse in Switzerland.'

'They must be sending him money.'

'They do indeed. Though it's been so long since any of them visited their parents.' The Contractor lapsed into silence. 'Its so silly. I don't think the children have any plans to come back to Simhapara and settle here. They visit their parents once every two years or so. That’s it! Their parents will have to live all by themselves in a large empty house. Why couldn't the children visit them more often, rather than send money to build such a huge house?'

What's your problem? Palani wanted to ask the Contractor. If the owner's children wanted to send money instead of visiting their parents, it was entirely up to them. Instead he said, 'Maybe they will come here after they retire.'

'They might. But then, their parents may not be alive.' Palani did not reply.

The Contractor looked at the sky and declared, 'we'll have more rain tonight.' With that, he was off, his rubber slippers throwing up a steady stream of mud upwards.

The next day morning, just before they started work, Palani took out his entire savings and gave it to Kandasamy. It came to one thousand nine hundred rupees.

'What address should I send it to? You need an address to send a money order, you know.'

Palani had actually thought of that. Rather than send the money order to his mother, he had decided to send it to his cousin who lived in Madurai. His mother worked in the fields for most of the day and might not be around when the postman arrived. More importantly, the postman might cheat his mother and not pay her the full amount. His cousin on the other hand could not be cheated. He was a mechanic's assistant and knew the ways of the world. Palani gave Kandasamy a piece of paper on which he had written his cousin's work address. He even had a phone number for his cousin, but no, it was not necessary to provide the phone number to Kandasamy.

'This is not your mother's address. Why don't you send the money to your mother?'

'I'd rather send it to my cousin. What if the postman cheats my mother?'

'That's very unlikely,' Kandasamy told him. 'Postmen are generally quite trustworthy. There is a greater chance of your cousin cheating your mother.'

That was quite silly. Of course, Kandasamy did not know his cousin or his mother. 'No no, I want to send it to my cousin, not my mother.'

Kandasamy seemed to be ready to argue, but they saw that Anbu and another man were walking towards them. And so, since there was no time to say anything more. Kandasamy pocketed the money and the piece of paper with the address written on it. They soon started work.

Things continued to go badly for Palani. He got shouted at by Surya for being lazy and lethargic, even though he was working at his normal pace. Laugh away all insults, his father had told him when he was alive. He could still remember his father, a stocky and cheerful man who never lost his smile. The first time Surya had shouted at him for being lazy, Palani had tried to smile away the insult. That had made Surya mad. 'How dare you smile?' he had screamed at Palani. And so, this time when Surya shouted at him, he not only increased his pace of work, but also did his best to keep a poker face. He wished he could scream. He wished he could throw a brick at Surya. He wished he could plunge his trowel into Anbu's throat.

That night after they finished dinner, Palani managed to corner Kandasamy for a moment. 'Don't worry. Your money has been sent,' Kandasamy assured him. Palani found himself wishing that Kandasamy were the Koththanaar How different Kandasamy was from Surya! As different as a sweet laddoo from a hot fish curry that had gone bad. Kandasamy minded his own business, never made comments on other's behaviour, and did not laugh at other's misery. That night Palani found himself sleeping in the same room as Anbu. It had never happened before. It was as if Anbu wanted to be in the same room as him. He ignored Anbu and pretended to be asleep.

'Dei Palani,' Anbu called out. Palani ignored him.

'Are you asleep?' Anbu asked in a low whisper. Palani continued to ignore him.

'Well, you are spending too much time with that Kandasamy. If I were you, I wouldn't trust him. I know quite a lot about him.'

Palani was tempted to ask Anbu what he knew about Kandasamy. No, it didn't matter. Kandasamy was million times better than Surya or Anbu. He continued to remain silent. After a while he heard Anbu snoring. However, Palani could not fall asleep. He could hear the sound of crickets outside. And the drip drip of rain falling. Soon the rain became more intense. Palani was not sure if he hated Surya or Simhapara more. It took him a couple of hours to fall asleep. The next day morning, he caught Anbu staring at him intensely, but gave no evidence of having heard him the previous night. 'Some people will learn only if they get hurt badly,' Anbu told one of the men.

'What are you getting at?' the man asked Anbu.

'Oh no no no Annei. Please don't misunderstand me. I am talking about certain worms who are so arrogant, even if we tell them something for their own good, they will not listen to you. Even if they are younger than you and have just arrived in a new place.'

'Such vermin should be beaten to death.' The man had no doubt as to the treatment worm-like human beings merited.

They both looked at Palani and then looked away laughing. Palani's ostracisation was soon complete. Until then, he was scared of only Surya. Now everyone else seemed to be nasty to him. The rest of the week passed in agony. Palani did his best to be polite and nice to everyone. But it did not seem to have any effect. Saturday evening, he decided to call up his cousin. He desperately wanted to listen to a friendly voice. Also, he could find out if his money order had been received. After finishing the day's work, he went to the marketplace. Most of the shops were about to close. He found an STD booth which was still open and called up the number his cousin had given him when he visited him last. It was his neighbour's phone number. The neighbour did not seem to mind receiving Palani's call. Call back in five minutes, he was told. When he called back, his cousin answered his call. How was Palani doing? He was doing fine. Did he get good food to eat? Yes. enough food. He was not hungry. But did he like the food he got. No, he did not. Did his cousin receive the money order? No, so did Palani send a money order? His cousin could not believe it. Palani, a little boy till not so long ago, was now sending money home. When did he send it? It was sent on Monday. He ought to have received it by now. His cousin would check with his postman. Could Palani call back in a few days? Of course, he would.

When he got back to the building site, the men were sitting down for dinner. Palani grabbed a plate and joined them. He tried to make contact with Kandasamy's eyes. Was it his imagination or was Kandasamy avoiding his enquiring eyes? To be honest, Palani had no idea how long a money order would take to reach Madurai from Simhapara. Why didn't he ask his cousin how long it would take? His cousin was familiar with money orders. Or was he? If it would take a couple of weeks, his cousin would surely have told him so. He did not have a choice, but wait for a few more days. After dinner, all of them sat around and talked shop. Surya was making fun of Anbu's attempt at growing a moustache. 'He shaved off whatever he had in the hope that it would all grow back soon. But then, nothing happened. His parents wanted to marry him off, but they have been forced to wait - till his moustache grows back.' There were howls of laughter all around.

'Now we know why Anbu is frustrated. He doesn't have a moustache. And he cannot get married till he sprouts something on his upper lip.'

'A double whammy!'

Palani tried not to laugh out aloud. Instead he gave a polite smile. The last time he had joined in the general laughter over one of the men, he had been badly snubbed.

'Even he is smiling,' Surya pointed out Palani's smile to the others.

'Just because you have a moustache, does not mean you can get married. Look at Palani. He's had a moustache ever since God knows when and he is still not married.' Palani continued to smile. He wished he could make fun of someone else, but did not dare. He would have given anything to be part of the gang, to crack jokes and to be mocked at.

'So, when are you getting married?' Anbu wanted to know. 'You might as well do it right away since you have a moustache.'

To Palani's surprise, Kandasamy said, 'he ought to be married off soon. Else he will get into trouble. Last Sunday, I ran into him at the marketplace. And our little boy was leching at every woman passing by.' Palani's heart skipped a beat. It was not true. He had stared at a couple of women, but that did not amount to leching at every woman passing by.

Surya rounded up on Palani. 'Is that true? Is that what you did last Sunday when you decided to take a day off?'

'No, I did not do anything of that sort. He is making it all up!' Palani was indignant.

'He's calling you a liar,' Surya informed Kandasamy who refused to respond. The other men were curious about the new development. Kandasamy was the only man Palani was on good terms with. And now they seemed to have quarrelled.

'Are you working tomorrow?' Surya wanted to know.

'Oh yes, I am.' That satisfied Surya.

'You ought to be careful. We are away from home. There will be no one to look out for you if you get into trouble.' One of the men told Palani, who continued to look embarrassed.

'Don't worry about it,' Surya told the group. 'He shows the slightest sign of trying anything funny, and I'll cut him down to size.'

'He does need some pruning,' Kandasamy told Surya. 'The boy has been getting too smart for his own good.' Even Surya was surprised by that statement. Kandasamy normally never spoke to Surya.

'What has he been up to?' one of the men asked Kandasamy.

'Oh! he is a smart guy. Too smart for all of us. One ought to be careful in dealing with him. Did you know that he hates to call elders Annan?'

'Is that true Palani?' Surya asked him. For some reason Surya did not seem to be offended.

'No, it's not true.' His words rang hollow even to himself. It was only his word against Kandasamy's.

One of the men got up. It was his turn to do the washing up. As he gathered up the plates and left, the men got up. Palani tried to follow Kandasamy, only to get an irritated look from him. But he would have to ask him about the money order. Kandasamy had told him that he had sent the money, didn't he? He would have to tell Kandasamy that the money had not been received. He ran after Kandasamy. 'Annei, my cousin has not received the money you sent him.'

'What can I do? Maybe he has received it and is unwilling to pass it on to your mother. Didn't I ask you to send the money to your mother directly? Don't blame me now if your cousin cheats you of your money!' Palani realised that Kandasamy had not sent the money. It was Kandasamy who was cheating him!

'You did not send the money, did you?' Palani tearfully asked Kandasamy.

'Listen you, your cousin has cheated you. Don't blame me for that.'

There seemed to be very little he could do. It was theft, but nobody had seen him give the money to Kandasamy. Who would believe him if he said he had given one thousand nine hundred rupees to Kandasamy?

That night, sleep eluded Palani. As he lay on his mattress, he tossed and turned and softly sobbed to himself. A million wild thoughts ran through his brain. He would choke Kandasamy to death. He would bash him on the head with a large stone. He would push him off the scaffolding. But he knew that he would not be able to do any of these things, which made him sob all the more harder. It was a good thing there was no one else sleeping near him.

The next day Anbu came up to him as he was preparing breakfast and asked him, 'what's the matter with you? You were crying in your sleep yesterday.'

'Nothing. I was not crying.'

'Well, I could hear you from the next room. Tell me, what is wrong? Is everything alright at home?'

'Yes, everything is fine.'

He would survive. Palani told himself. He had lost some money, but he would earn more. Then he thought of his mother slaving away at home. Kandasamy did not just cheat him. He had cheated his mother who was waiting for her son to send her money. The thought nearly broke Palani's heart. Things wouldn't be so bad, if his father were alive. Palani did not cry in front of the other men, but the moment he lay down to sleep at night, he started sobbing again.

The next day Anbu asked him the same question once more. They were mixing some mortar and there was no one else nearby. 'What's wrong?' Anbu asked again. This time Palani told him the whole story. Anbu listened to him sympathetically. 'You ought to tell Surya Annan.'

'Why would he help me? He does not like me!'

'Surya Annan is a gem of a person. It is your fault for making him angry.'

'This was news to Palani. 'What did I do?' he asked

'Surya Annan is the boss. You should treat him like the boss.'

Palani was silent. He thought he had treated Surya with respect. Had he unwittingly said something offensive?

'Anbu, tell me when did I ever say anything rude?'

'Well, the day you started working, you started eating lunch without waiting for any of us. You just walked across to the stove, picked up a plate, served yourself and started eating!'

'Well, I was ...' He was hungry, but that was hardly an excuse.

'And then you made that joke about playing with each other, when Surya Annan asked you what you were doing!'

'I apologised to Surya Annan that evening.'

'Oh did you? Well. I did not hear you apologise!'

'There was no one else around when I asked him for his apology.'

'Is that right? Were any of us around when you cracked that stupid joke? Or were you and Surya alone?'

Palani was silent.

'Tell me, were you two alone? If you could make that silly joke in public, you ought to be able to apologise in public as well.'

Palani sighed aloud. Anbu was right. But then the others did crack jokes in the presence of Surya. And some of the jokes were about Surya. Anbu seemed to sense his thoughts. 'You ought to be polite and respectful to Surya Annan. After a while, after a few months, Surya Annan will allow you to treat him almost as an equal. But not right away. Not from day one.'

It made sense. He would apologise to Surya as soon as he could, in public if possible. Kandasamy was scared of Surya. If only Surya would believe him, he would get his money back. Palani felt a lot better. That night after they finished dinner, Palani ran after Surya and said, 'Annei, forgive me. I did not realise that I was being so rude to you!'

'What's the matter? What did you do? Have you killed someone?' Surya looked a bit nonplussed. He also seemed to be mocking Palani. Palani fell at Surya's feet. 'No Annei, I have all along been rude to you. I did not know how to behave. I was ignorant. Please forgive me.'

'Why ask me forgiveness now, all of a sudden?' Again, Surya seemed to have a mocking smile.

'Kandasamy Annan has cheated me.'

'And how did he cheat you?' Surya had a very polite tone. Palani realised that Anbu and two others had joined them. Kandasamy was not to be seen.

'I gave him one thousand nine hundred rupees to send a money order to my cousin and Kandasamy Annan did not send it.'

'So, you get into trouble with Kandasamy and you come running to me, isn't that right?' Surya now sounded irritated.

Oh no! Of course not. Of course yes. It was what he was doing. If Kandasamy had not cheated him, would he be grovelling in front of Surya? Surya was right in not being impressed with his apology.

'You are a dirty and arrogant dog. But let's hear what Kandasamy has to say. Where's Kandasamy? Hey Kandasamy! Kandasamy!'

Kandasamy appeared from nowhere. All the men were standing around them. 'Did Palani give you some money to send a money order to his cousin?'

'No he did not.' Kandasamy looked shocked. How could Kandasamy lie so blatantly? Palani wondered.

'What do you want me to do now?' Surya appeared to be irritated with both of them.

'Let me tell you,' Kandasamy told Surya. 'This bastard asked me if I would send a money order on his behalf. I refused. Now he has misplaced his money somewhere and blames me.'

'Why don't you go to the police station and file a complaint against Kandasamy. These Kerala Policemen are a sincere lot. They will listen to you very patiently and retrieve your money within a few hours.' Surya's voice dripped with sarcasm.

Palani stood like a school boy who had made an unreasonable demand, while Kandasamy looked furious. He gave the impression that if Surya were not around, he would beat up Palani.

'So what do you want me to do?' Surya asked Palani, a mix of exasperation, irritation and anger in his voice. 'Beat him up? Pay you out of my own pocket?' Palani was at a loss for words.

'I don't want to get involved in this. You sort it out among yourselves. Or you can go to the police. Your choice.' With that Surya walked off. Palani could not disagree with Surya's logic. How could Surya force Kandasamy to return his money if he had not seen Palani pay the money to Kandasami? He however had learnt his lesson. He would henceforth show proper respect to Surya. And he would send his money orders himself. Most probably Kandasamy himself could not read and write. How could he have trusted Kandasamy?

Surya walked to the outhouse. Anbu followed him. 'Annei, I think Palani is speaking the truth.'

'I think so too. But he had to learn a lesson.'

'I had no idea Kandasamy Annan could be so nasty. Haven't you known him for long?'

'Oh yes. He is not so bad. He likes to drink a bit and gamble as well. Sometimes he does both - get tipsy and then gamble.'

'Who does he go drinking with?'

'Oh! He used to have a few friends who work in the Simhapara estate. But not any more.'

'Oh! And why is that?

'You bastard, you are so curious about everybody. I'm sure you will pass on all this information to the others.' Surya looked at Anbu with affection.

'Oh no. Of course not. You know me. But please tell me. Why did Kandasamy Annan lose his friends?'

'Around a year ago, Kandasamy lost a lot of money gambling. He is yet to pay up the money he lost. He lost twenty thousand rupees!'

'My God!' Anbu was shocked beyond words. 'How can anyone lose so much money?'

'Well, he was slightly drunk. And it has happened before.'

'Has he lost a lot of money before?'

'Oh yes. But not this much. He usually takes a few years to repay his debts. And then he starts all over again.'

'Do you have any friends in common?'

'No. Not anymore. There was a time when we both belonged to the same group of friends.'

'I wonder how long he will take to repay this money? Doesn't he have five children back home?'

'Oh yes he does. He is not a bad father. He does manage to send some money home occasionally.'

'Does he still drink?'

'Yes, he cannot do with the occasional tipple or a movie every week-end.'

'Well, in that case, his friends will never see that twenty thousand rupees.'

'He will repay it. He may take some time to do that though. I heard that last Monday afternoon he paid them a chunky amount.'

'Oh did he?'

'Indeed he did.' A sly smile played on Surya's lips. 'Apparently he coughed up one thousand nine hundred rupees.'

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