They were on the final stretch of their journey and Cherian was at the wheel. He was coming home for good. The Tata Sumo they had rented in Mumbai was quite spacious and could accommodate up to nine passengers, other than the driver. And so, even though four of the rear seats were taken up by two large steel trunks, there was plenty of space for the four of them. Harpreet sat next to Cherian in the front, having relinquished the wheel a few hours ago. Ashokan and Sengupta were in the rear. They had been travelling for almost twenty-four hours now, with just two stops on the way. The large van behind them carried the rest of Cherian's belongings. It still surprised him, how he had managed to accumulate so many things. True, he had lived in Mumbai for over thirty years and had a small flat to himself, courtesy of the Mumbai Port Trust where he worked until his recent retirement. But unlike most of his friends, he was a bachelor or to use his own words, a confirmed bachelor. Many a bet had been placed on Cherian losing his independence by the time he reached forty. But Cherian had survived various plots and intrigues by his family and friends to get him married. When he reached fifty, even his mother had given up hope of getting him to settle down.
Cherian started to open his mouth and ask Harpreet if he wanted a swig from the water bottle. But Harpreet continued to sleep, his eyes closed, his chin pressed against his chest and his long straggly beard which was partly grey touching his tummy. When they started out, they had been boisterous. The jokes had flown thick and fast. There were Malayalee jokes, Sardarji jokes and Bengali jokes. However, their energy levels had dipped quite quickly. Except for Cherian, they were all married men, men who had given up their carefree and funloving way of life and taken on a mantle of responsibility many years ago. They had known each other for a very long time, long before they had acquired families and ancillary burdens which had sapped them of their energy and spirits. Cherian had not fared much better either. He too was exhausted by the journey. The trip to Simhapara was a retreat into bachelorhood for a brief while for all of them. All except Cherian who had stayed on the sidelines and watched one friend after another succumb to the pressure to conform to norms and get married. If they had made a trip such as this when they were all bachelors, they would be swigging beer from the bottle instead of water.
They had just left Kottayam behind and were on the Kottayam-Kumuli road. God's own country was green, even though it was April, the driest time of the year. The monsoon rains were at least a couple of months away. There was a lot of dust in the air and as a result, the rays of the setting sun took on a subdued orange hue.
'Cherian. How much longer Cherian?' Sengupta wanted to know. But before Cherian could reply, Ashokan told him, 'not much longer Dada. We are on the KK Road. Another forty minutes or so.'
'A bit longer Ashoka. An hour I would say. It takes forty minutes to reach Ponkunnam from Kottayam. And Simhapara is another thirty minutes away.'
Cherian took a quick look behind. Ashokan was fiddling with his mobile phone trying to send an SMS. Why couldn't Ashokan forget his wife and children for a few days? The last break they had taken had been more than four hours ago. The landscape became more undulating. Rubber trees made their appearance. Acres of rubber trees which formed a canopy over the state highway on which they were travelling. They passed many tiny bridges fording small streams. Suddenly it started to get dark.
'Shall I wake Harpreet up?' Sengupta wondered aloud. Without waiting for a reply, Cherian nudged Harpreet with his shoulder.
'Are we there yet?' Harpreet asked groggily.
'Another twenty minutes.'
'Beautiful. Beautiful,' Harpreet started to voice his admiration for the landscape. Is your land just as beautiful?' he asked Ashokan.
'It is. But in a very different way. It's by the coast. You'll find out when you come there.'
'Dada what do you think? Isn't it beautiful? We should have come here before, shouldn't we?'
'I've been to Kerala before. Didn't I tell you? I was in college and around twenty of us toured the whole of south India. We did it in a week.'
'You lucky bastard. I've never been here before. 'I do wish it weren't so dark. We could have left Bombay a bit earlier and got here before sunset.' The grievance was addressed to Cherian.
'No, that was intentional. Thanks to Attimari, I didn't want to get here before it got dark.'
'The woods are lovely dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.' Sengupta could not resist breaking into a song.
'Dada, hold on,' Harpreett put up his hand. He then turned to Cherian and said, 'and pray tell me, what is Attimari?'
Ashokan once again pre-empted Cherian. 'Attimari literally means loading and unloading of goods. The unions have a monopoly to load and unload goods. And so, once we reach Cherian's home, we need to use unionised labour to unload the van.'
'That’s bull-shit,' Sengupta burst. We don't have that even in Bengal.'
'Kerala is ahead of Bengal in many respects. Attimari is one of them.'
'But if you want to unload some stuff from a van parked in front of your house, what's their problem?' Harpreet could not believe his ears.
'Well, at our home in Kollam, once we had to unload some cement we had bought, to build an annexe to our house. When the lorry arrived and the construction workers started to unload the cement, around ten union workers barged into our courtyard and demanded that they stop unloading. They were so aggressive. And they wanted three thousand rupees to unload the cement. Which was atrocious, since it was just half an hour’s work. And so we refused. They said it was up to us. We could decide not to hire them, but no body else could unload the cement.'
'You got to be kidding,' Harpreet burst out.
'No, he's right. These things do happen.'
'And so the lorry stayed there with the cement. After they left, we unloaded the cement. Within a few minutes of the lorry driving off, the union men were back. They demanded three thousand rupees for having unloaded the cement.'
'But they hadn't unloaded it!'
No, they hadn't. But they had a monopoly right to do so. And we ended up paying them two thousand five hundred rupees.'
'You saved some money.'
'I've seen them do that to tourists who visit Simhapara. Once a Belgian tourist brought a jeep full of cameras and other equipment and they took a fortune from him.'
'Oh, it's the same all over Kerala. In Kollam, they insist on fisherwomen paying them Nokku Kooli. That's 'watching fees' in English.'
'What fees? Watching fees? For leching at fisherwomen?'
'No, for watching them unload their fish baskets. You see, the union chaps are not too keen to unload the smelly fish baskets, even though they have a monopoly to do that. And so they let the fisherwomen do that and charge them Nokku Kooli.'
Further discussion over Attimari was interrupted when Cherian announced, 'we'll be there in five minutes!'
'So, what do you plan to do? To avoid using union labour that is?' Harpreet was practical as always.
'You know, you ought to educate the labour here that they are preventing industrial growth in this beautiful state.' Sengupta liked to philosophise, whenever he got the opportunity.
'Forget educating them. How are we going to deal with them today?'
'Simple. Both my brother and brother-in-law will be waiting there. Our handyman who helps us tap rubber trees will also be there. My nephew, my brother's elder son, he's around sixteen, he'll be there. The four of them, with some help from us, will unload the van. Shouldn't take them more than twenty minutes to transfer the stuff from the van to the house.' It was not clear if Cherian expected any help from his visitors.
Ashokan scratched his head. 'Will the van be able to drive up to the front yard?' When I visited you last time, it was not possible to do that.'
'We can. We've expanded the road that leads to the house.'
'Was it after your brother bought a car?'
'How many times have you visited Cherian at his home?' Ashokan wanted to know.
'Twice. And the last time was almost five years ago'
Cherian looked in the direction of the Lion-head, but it was too dark for him to see anything. There was a full moon, but it seemed to have disappeared behind a cloud. He took a left turn from the highway. The paved road they turned into was full of potholes. Cherian drove slowly. In a few minutes, they were on the Simhapara bridge. As they drove over the bridge, Cherian could not help slowing down. Some of his happiest moments in life had been spent in the river. Now that he was back, he could go for a bath in the river everyday. A few yards after crossing the bridge, Cherian took a right and left and suddenly stopped in front of a house with a tiled roof. It was not too small because it had a verandah running around it, but the main body of the house could not have held more than four or five rooms in all. His visitors were quite glad that they did not plan to spend more than a couple of days at Simhapara.
A group of people rushed out of the house. Cherian's mother was in the group, but did not come up to them. Instead she waited a few yards behind her son, grandson and daughter who walked up to Cherian and his friends. A little girl who was not more than five, tagged along. The van followed them into the front yard. After a quick 'how was your journey', 'it was okay', 'we took turns driving', 'are you tired?, 'no, not really,' 'you must be' Cherian said, let's get our things out of the Sumo. The two large trunks were dragged out quickly, along with the small bags each of the visitors had with them.
'You ox, you've grown up. Cherian's punched his nephew on his shoulder.
'Oh yes, he has,' Ashokan agreed. 'When I saw him last, he was only this tall.' Ashokan's hands went up to his chest. 'And now he's taller than me.'
At that moment a middle-aged man came out of the house.
'Aliya, how are you? How was your trip?'
Cherian quickly introduced his brother-in-law to his friends. And then, without wasting any time, he got back into the Sumo and drove it out of the front yard and parked it under a tall coconut palm which stood to one side of the house. Cherian's brother-in-law waved the van forward. The two men who had taken turns to drive the van looked quite exhausted. As soon as the van reached the front of the house, Cherian lifted his hand. The van stopped. Cherian's brother, nephew, brother-in-law and the handy man started to unload the van.
'Shall I help? Cherian volunteered.
'No, you stay behind. They will do it. His sister waved him back. Why don't you all come inside? Let them unload the van.'
'Oh no. We can't do that.' Ashokan told her Harpreet and Sengupta could not follow the exchange in Malayalam and looked bemused.
One of the van drivers went up to Cherian and said something. Cherian summoned his nephew and whispered in his ear. The man was led away to the toilet.
The men started to unload the furniture from the van and stack it up on the verandah. Cherian's sister looked with distaste at a bed with spindly legs. 'Why did you have to transport that sort of thing all the way from Bombay?'
'Well, it served me for these many years. Why shouldn't I continue to use it after retirement?'
The van driver returned and then muttered something to the other driver, who walked away in the direction pointed out to him.
The handyman came up to Cherian as if he wanted to tell him something. Cherian's brother shouted at him. 'Ousephé, let's make haste. I don't want a van standing in front of the house for long. If that Balan or one of his friends were to see it, they'll be all over us in a minute.' The handyman went back to his task. Soon the van was empty. 'Drive it forward and park it under that tree, Cherian told the van driver in Hindi. The little girl became excited on hearing her Cherian uncle speak in Hindi. She ran towards her mother giggling and then turned around to stare at Cherian.
'I need to have a bath? What about you all? Food or a bath?' Cherian asked his friends and van drivers.
'I'd like a shower first,' Harpreet said. Now the others didn't have a choice. They too declared a desire to wash up before dinner.
'It's too late to go to the river for a bath,' Cherian said wistfully. He did not relish the idea of his friends passing judgment on his small house. There was a bathroom and a toilet in the backyard. Unlike many other houses in Simhapara, none of his immediate family had made it overseas. His brother took care of the three acres of land they owned. The rubber trees on that land yielded a small income. Enough for his brother and his brother's family to get by. But not enough to expand the house by putting in a few rooms and a spanking new western-style flushable commode.
'Well gentlemen, there's only one bathroom. And so, we'll have to take turns.' The men didn't waste much time. Cherian's sister brought out towels. They all used the toilet and bathroom by turn. It took them an hour before the last man finally emerged from the bathroom. Cherian's mother had food laid out on the table. It was a simple meal of rice, buttermilk seasoned with turmeric and coconut gratings, red beans and fried chicken. After the meal, they went out to the verandah and sat there. It was not possible to sit in a group. Instead, they sat facing the front yard, their backs to the house, as if they were waiting for someone to perform a play for them in the front yard. The moon was now shinning in its full glory and the silhouette of the Lion-Head was visible. The western ghat ranges could not be seen, but they could sense it stretching out in an unending line in the far distance. A few glow worms floated around. The beauty of the place compensated for the shortcomings of his house. In any event, it was only for a day. Harpreet and Sengupta would leave for Kollam with Ashokan the day after morning. A couple of days at Kollam after which they would drive to Allepey to spend some time on a houseboat in the backwaters, before making their way back to Mumbai. He did not blame them for not wanting to spend more than a day at his house. Ashokan's folks had a bigger place at Kollam. Kollam had a beach, a clean one unlike the one at Mumbai. It had the Shasthankota lagoon. And it had the backwaters which stretched all the way to Allepey. They could catch a boat to Allepey from Kollam. Simhapara on the other hand had the Lion-Head. And it had the evergreen ghats, their peaks covered in mist. And it had a beautiful river. Even if Cherian had a choice, he would never exchange Simhapara for anything else in the world. He had wished so many times that he could afford to renovate their small house with its tiled roof and verandah running all around the house for one of those concrete monstrosities which had sprung up all over Kerala. But no, he had not done that. He could not have afforded it. But if he could have afforded it, would he have actually done it? If he had shaken off his inertia and made his way to the middle-east as so many of his friends from Kerala had done, would he have allowed his childhood home to be torn down and concrete poured over it? He would have done it. One could not run away from the demands of reality.
Ashokan walked out and opened the Tata Sumo. He brought out a large polythene bag with a dozen bottles of Kingfisher beer in it. Cherian had forgotten about it. They ought to have kept it in the fridge. Why didn't Ashokan remember to put the beer in the fridge? In a way Cherian was glad Ashokan had not tried to do so. There was unlikely to be space in their small fridge for a dozen bottles of beer. Maybe Ashokan had thought of it and had decided not to ask him. Damn Ashokan!
Harpreet was the last to leave the dining table. As soon as he sat down on the verandah, Ashokan threw him a bottle of beer. Cherian's brother sat down near him. 'What about the evening prayers?' Cherian muttered to him.
'Mama knew that once you arrived with your friends, it will not be possible to pray. And so, she cornered all of us at six o'clock and made us pray.' For some reason the thought that he would pray for thirty minutes every evening for the rest of his retired life did not unduly worry Cherian. He used to call himself an agnostic when he was young - not an atheist, but an agnostic, as he liked to explain. He had delighted in explaining the distinction between atheists and agnostics to anyone who was willing to listen to him. An atheist believes that God does not exist. As for an agnostic, he does not care if God exists. He was a lot older now and did care about God. There were so many things which he could not explain. And there were even more things which worried him, which he could not control. God had to exist. He would be in deep shit if God did not exist.
What was Ashokan asking him? Would he like a beer? Why not? Even if it was warm beer. His brother politely declined the offer of a beer. Harpreet asked him again and he accepted. His brother had never gone to college and his knowledge of both English and Hindi was practically non-existent. But he did like his drink and did not have any problem understanding what Harpreet had to say. His brother-in-law on the other hand did not bother to pretend to be polite. He accepted the offer of a beer with alacrity and started to sip it.
His nephew stood by, not sure if he was welcome amongst the grown-ups. Give him a beer, Harpreet told Ashokan, nodding in the direction of the boy. 'Of course, of course. He's a grown-up man now.' His nephew got a beer.
'Here's to Cherian Sa'ab and his post-retirement life!' Sengupta said in a solemn voice.
'Cheers!' Cherian's friends shouted.
'Arre Cherian, you are a lucky guy. To be able to spend the rest of your life in a place like this.' Harpreet's voice betrayed genuine jealousy.
'What about you Harpreet? You've got just two more years, don't you?'
'Yes. But even after retirement, I'll be in Amchi Mumbai.' They had discussed each other's post retirement plans a million times. Harpreet was planning to stay on in Mumbai, instead of going back to his native Bhatinda in Punjab. Sengupta would definitely go back to Kolkata. As for Ashokan, he was planning to retire next year, a full three years before he actually had to, and settle down in Kollam.
'Sing us a song Dada,' Harpreet begged Sengupta. Sengupta had entertained them all so many times with his singing. He had an amazing repertoire of songs in Bangla, Hindi and Marathi. And when he got really drunk, he would sing in English as well. Sengupta took a few swigs of his beer and began singing an old Bollywood song which spoke of a young man's longing for his beloved. Harpreet joined in. Cherian wisely refrained. The only serious piece of advice his father had ever given him was to never sing in public. Their handyman Ouseph who lived close by walked in with a neighbour. He must have heard them singing. The van drivers too got a bottle each from Ashokan. They had been forbidden from drinking while they were driving. One of them was in his late thirties and he sipped his beer like a seasoned drinker. The other one was in his early twenties and he gulped down his beer as if he couldn't wait to get drunk. Sengupta was soon into his second song, a hit song from a recent release. Ouseph joined in and Ashokan handed him a bottle of beer. They just had twelve bottles of beer. Would Ashokan take out the Old Monk when they ran out of beer? Soon Harpreet asked for another bottle of beer.
If his father were alive, there would not have been any drinking in the house. Nor would they have sat on the verandah and sung film songs. His father had been a teetotaller, a man who believed in a frugal and spartan life. Why did his father live the way he did? He would take no risks, nor have much fun. Cherian had no right to criticise his father. He was not a risk taker either. If he were, he would not have stayed in Mumbai for over thirty years, hacking away at his mundane job at the Mumbai Port Trust. And his brother was even worse. Cherian had asked him so many times to start a small business. Taking care of three acres of land did not take a lot of time. Start a small restaurant in Ponkunnam, he had told his brother. What if it makes a loss? his brother would ask him. The banks will take away what little we have. They had never discussed partitioning the property. Cherian would get a pension and did not have a family. There was no doubt that his brother expected to inherit the entire three acres.
Ashokan was prodding him with a beer bottle. Did he want another beer? Why not? 'The last one,' Ashokan told him as he handed the bottle to Cherian. Sengupta finished his song and finished off the beer in his bottle in a couple of gulps. He looked around as if he expected Ashokan to give him another bottle. When none seemed to be forthcoming, he started singing a Bangla song, a plaintive one which sounded very sad. Ouseph could not join in. And so Sengupta abandoned the song halfway through and switched to another Hindi song. 'Hawa Hawa, eh hawa, kushboo lutate,' he sang. Ouseph joined in. A few moments later, to Cherian's surprise, his own brother joined in. He did not know his brother liked to sing Bollywood songs. He had heard him sing Malayalam film songs, but never a Hindi song. His brother sang reasonably well, his singing skills having been inherited from their mother, while Cherian had taken after his father. Ashokan got up and walked towards the Tata Sumo once more. They had drunk the beer out of their bottles. When Cherian's brother saw Ashokan open the Tata Sumo once more and bring out the Old Monk, he ran inside and brought out half a dozen glasses and three steel tumblers. He then went back once more and brought back a jug of water and two white trays with ice cubes in them. Drinks were mixed quickly. Cherian noticed that his brother-in-law had drunk only half of his beer. He was a moody guy who lived close by. Like his brother he too lived off the land his family owned, though at one time he had tried his hand at teaching. The parallel college where he had taught catered to students who could not get admission to a college, but still wanted to get a degree. He rarely spoke, had a slightly grumpy face, but could be counted on to help if there was work to be done. Everyone picked up their glasses and went back to their seats. The discarded beer bottles lay in a pile in a corner. Cherian made a mental note to pick them up and dump them elsewhere before they wound up for the night. He turned his head to see if mother and sister were around. There seemed to be some activity in the kitchen. He ought to talk to his mother and sister. He left his glass of rum on the verandah and went inside the house.
'His mother and sister-in-law were washing up the dishes. His niece was sitting on a bench, trying to draw her mother's attention to something she was saying.
'Cheriachan uncle, what have you brought me?' his niece wanted to know.
'Mole, uncle has retired. He does not have any more money,' his sister-in-law admonished her daughter. His sister-in-law had never liked him. Many years ago, when they were considering proposals for his brother's marriage, Cherian had declared that his sister-in-law was unsuitable for his brother. She came from a family which had produced too many drunkards. And her father once had a police compliant filed against him. A complaint which took many years and many bribes to be dismissed. But his brother was smitten and refused to budge. His father had sided with his brother. It's the girl that's important. We don't have to bother about her family, his father had said. The wedding had taken place and Cherian had been proved wrong. His sister-in-law was a devoted wife who got on very well with all their family members. Except Cherian. Why did his brother have to tell his wife that Cherian had objected to their wedding? It was obvious he had, though he denied it when Cherian asked him later. Why was it so difficult for him to keep a single secret from his wife?
'Don't say that,' Cherian protested. 'You will find out tomorrow,' he told his niece.
'Oh do tell me, what have you brought me?' his niece demanded once more.
'Tomorrow morning you can find out, Cherian told her and started to walk out. He nearly collided with his sister who entered the kitchen from a different door. 'Why didn't you bring your children? he asked her.
'Oh they have things to do.'
'You should have brought them, nevertheless.'
'It is quite crowded here even otherwise.'
'I know. I know.' That was the real reason. The lack of space. It didn't really matter. He was there to stay. He would meet them, sooner than later.
He went back to the verandah to find his brother and Ouseph singing an old Malayalam film song. His brother-in-law still nursed his beer, though it was too dark for Cherian to see how much beer was left in the bottle. He picked up his glass of Old Monk and went up to Harpreet.
'Harpreet Sa'ab, how is everything?'
'How is everything? How is everything? Everything is so beautiful. I can't still believe a place could be so damn beautiful.'
'I know Sa'ab. But I do apologise for the lack of facilities. I do wish we had more than one bathroom. If it were not so late, we could have had a bath in the river, you know.'
'Sahib! Please don't say things like that. Things like that don't really matter. We have known each other for so long. I wish I had come to visit you and your family earlier. And definitely, we shall go to the river for a bath tomorrow!'
Cherian's brother-in-law moved from his perch on the verandah and came up to them. 'How are you liking it here Mr. Harpreet Singh?' He spoke formally in English, in a stiff manner as if he had rehearsed what he had to say.
'It's amazing,' Harpreet responded in English. He hesitated for a moment, as if he were trying to decide if he should try his Hindi on Cherian's brother-in-law. How's your beer? Why haven't you finished it yet?'
'I like to drink slowly.' Cherian's brother-in-law showed a faint trace of embarrassment.
'Which is very good. I hate it when people finish their drink too fast. You know, in our office, we have these occasional parties. We go to a restaurant in Colaba called Mondegar. Some people you know, gulp down their beers and try to leave in thirty minutes. And I hate that sort of behaviour. I tell them, if you want to enjoy your drink, you ought to stay back and drink slowly. That way, you won't even get drunk, because your blood stream will be able to absorb all that alcohol.' Cherian's brother-in-law nodded his head as if he agreed with everything Harpreet had said.
Cherian saw a few shadowy figures standing near the gate listening to their singing. 'Any idea who they are?' he asked Ouseph.
'They are the fellows who live on Markos's land.' When the land reforms kicked in, a chunk of Markos's large landholding had been taken away from him and distributed among the labourers who lived on that land and worked for him. Like Ouseph, they too worked for the larger landowners since their holdings where not big enough to sustain them.
'Cherian Saab, who are those fellows?' Harpreet asked.
'Our neighbours. Sort of.'
'Call them in. The more, the merrier.' For good measure, Harpreet waved them into the courtyard. The labourers did not hesitate any further. They came in and stood in a group near Cherian.
'Ousephé, we heard you singing and decided it will be a shame if you people sing on your own.' One of the labourers had two large bottles of toddy with him. The men immediately picked up the threads of the song Ouseph and Cherian's brother were singing. Harpreet was delighted to see them. He did not know a word of Malayalam, but his face conveyed his happiness. The old film song came to an end and the men took up a song traditionally sung during Onam.
'Thith thi thara, thith thith thai, thith thai, thaka thai thai thom', they sang. Harpreet got up, walked a few yards till he was in the middle of the courtyard and started to dance. His glass of Old Monk in one hand, he started dancing a Bhangra to the beat of the Malayalam song. The men who sang were delighted. They sang louder, making a caricature of the lyrics at pertinent junctions, so that it was more suitable for a bhangra. The men sang louder. '.. pudava venam! Oh! 'Thith thi thara, thith thith thai, thith thai, thaka thai thai thom'
One of the labourers joined Harpreet. Cherian recognised him as a man who worked for his immediate neighbour. Harpreet was almost twice that man's age, but his movements were a lot more energetic. He spilled some rum from his glass, but did not realise it immediately. When he did, he downed his Old Monk rum in a gulp, went up to the verandah to hand over his glass to Ashokan and started dancing again. The other labourers were standing in a huddle. One of them left the group, went out to the main road and shouted, 'we are all gathered here. Why don't you join us?' Soon a trickle of people started to come in, many of them with bottles of toddy or country liquor with them. The songs were a mix of Malayalam, Bangla and Hindi, depending on who was singing.
A lone figure could be seen standing outside the gate.
Soon a cry went up. 'Balan is here!' It was Balan himself, the man who headed the most powerful union in Simhapara.
'Cherian Sa'ab, one more neighbour has arrived!' Harpreet chuckled at Cherian. For good measure, he waved at Balan.
Cherian had no choice, but to invite Balan inside.
Balan came in, but he seemed to have no intention other than to have fun with the rest of them. He sat down on the verandah, without asking anyone's permission. Seeing him sit on the verandah, one of the labourers found a gap between Ashokan and Sengupta and sat down. The rest of them continued to stand in a group. Harpreet and Sengupta did not seem to have realised the significance of Balan's presence. Ashokan was frowning, but Cherian was not sure if it was a result of drinking or on account of Balan's presence. Cherian was slightly worried. The van could not be seen from the front yard and the drivers would drive away early in the morning the next day. However, the furniture they had brought from Mumbai was still stacked up on a corner of the verandah. They started singing a Malayalam movie song which had been a hit over a decade ago.
'Sundaree, sundaree, onnorungi vaa. Naala aanu thali mangalam.' Harpreet waved at the men. Two of them joined the fray, but they could not keep up with Harpreet who was a lot older than them. Another man took up the challenge on behalf of Simhapara, but Harpreet was in his element. They could not match his energy and his rhythm. Was this going to be a one-nil defeat for Simhapara? Was the bearded greying Lion from Mumbai going to beat the cream of Simhapara's manhood? The song got over. The men started to sing the onam song once more. 'Thith thi thara, thith thith thai, thith thai, thaka thai thai thom.'
Balan got up and walked towards the dancing men. Soon Harpreet found his match. Balan was not only much fitter than Harpreet, but could also match his rhythm. And Harpreet was looking exhausted. There could be no doubt as to who was King. Balan reigned supreme and the other labourers, many of whom belonged to his union were quite vocal in their support. When the song got over, Harpreet retired to the verandah and sat down exhausted. Balan sat next to him. Ashokan came up to them. 'Would you like a drink,' he asked Balan.
'Sure, why not?' Ashokan filled up a glass and gave it to him.
'Harpreet Sa'ab!' he shook Harpreet by his shoulders. 'Would you like a refill? Harpreet was too exhausted to reply. Ashokan found the glass which Harpreet had been drinking out of, filled it with the last dregs in the bottle, added some melted water from the ice tray which did not have any more ice cubes and gave it to Harpreet.
'You danced very well, Balan complimented Harpreet in Malayalam. Cherian translated it for Harpreet.
'So did you.' Harpreet returned the compliment.
'But you are much older. And I do physical work for a living. I am sure you work in an office.' Harpreet conceded that his bread winning activities did not involve much physical labour.
'How do you like Simhapara?'
'Oh I like it a lot. Very beautiful.'
'Tell him it is fantastic,' Sengupata who was feeling left out, told Cherian. Before Cherian could translate it, Ashokan did it for him.
'Tell him, he should sing and dance simultaneously, just as in the movies' Balan told Cherian. Before Cherian could translate it, the men standing around burst into laughter. It was quite obvious that the wisecrack was targeted at Harpreet. In order to change the topic, Cherian told Balan, 'these gentlemen work in Mumbai for the Port Trust where I also worked. They accompanied me when I came back home for good.
'Why does he wear that turban?' one of the men wanted to know. The others shhhhed him. Cherian did not even bother to translate that question. Does he have children? Do they also wear turbans?' Another wanted to know. There was a muffled burst of laughter. Ashokan translated the first question and ignored the second one.
'Yes, I have two children. Two sons.' Harpreet told the men.
'I have two as well,' Balan said. 'A son and a daughter.'
'And you?' Harpreet asked the man who had first started dancing with him.
'Three daughters,' he said. The man standing next to him smirked. 'I have two sons,' he volunteered.
'Ask him what his children are called,' Cherian told Harpreet. Harpreet hesitated. 'Ask him what his children are called,' Cherian repeated urgently. Instead of addressing the question to Cherian or Ashokan to be translated, Harpreet asked Balan the question directly. He kept his palm at knee level to indicate a child and then showed the cup of his upturned palm to Balan to ask their names. Balan seemed to understand.
'Stalin and Tereshkova,' he told them. The men waited for a reaction.
'What?' Harpreet did not seem to understand.
'Stalin and Tereshkova,' Balan replied. He was as much proud of their names as he was of them.
'Stalin and Tereshkova,' Sengupta repeated as if he were in a state of shock.
'Do you know who they are?' Harpreet wanted to know. Cherian translated.
'Of course, I do. Stalin was a great leader who worked for the cause of the revolution and Tereshkova was the first woman to fly to outer space.'
'Ask him if he knows how many people Stalin murdered in the Soviet Union? Sengupta was getting agitated.
'I don't care. They were enemies of the revolution.'
'Doesn't he know that communism is dead? Sengupta was persistent.
'I don't care. It is not dead in Kerala.'
'Tell him that I am a Bengali and I know something about communism and marxism.'
'What does he know?' Balan was not much impressed by Sengupta's declaration of his marxist credentials.
'Tell him that because of communism, there has been no industrial growth in Kerala and West Bengal. Because of communism, people like you and me were forced to migrate out of Kerala and Bengal.'
'In that case, why did this Sikh gentleman have to go to Bombay,' one of the workmen wanted to know. Balan adopted the question as his own. Everyone knew that Sikhs were from the Punjab. If so, why did the Sikh gentleman sitting on the verandah have to work in Mumbai, just like Cherian?
'Well, very few Punjabis are forced to migrate. That they do so voluntarily in large numbers is besides the point. On the other hand, Mayalalees and Bengalis are forced to migrate. Thanks to labour unions in Kerala and Bengal.'
'What do I care?' Balan countered. 'Thanks to the labour movement, we had land reforms here. We all own a bit of land. Our children go to school. Both my son and daughter go to school. That's all I care about.'
'But when they grow up, they will not find employment in your Kerala. They will have to migrate elsewhere.'
'So what? Let them migrate. I would rather they be educated and working elsewhere, rather than remain uneducated and living in Kerala.'
'Let's not argue any more,' Cherian told them all. He was exhausted and wanted to go to bed. 'It's been a long day for us all. We have been travelling for the last twenty four hours and need to sleep,' he told the men.
The van drivers had remained quiet through out the conversation. 'Are they also your colleagues? Balan wanted to know.
'Yes, they are,' Cherian lied. Balan did not look very convinced. The van drivers looked very much like the proletariat to which he belonged.
Balan and the other men prepared to walk away. There was an air of camaraderie in the air. 'If only you union people did not agitate every other day, you would have industries here. There will be jobs for everyone. What's the point of having such a high literacy rate if you cannot create jobs?' Sengupta's diatribe was in high pitched Hindi and demanded to be translated. Balan turned around and asked, 'what's he saying?' Cherian was forced to say something. 'He says that it will be nice if there are jobs for everyone in both our states. In Kerala and Bengal.'
'Is that what he is saying?' At that moment, Balan noticed the furniture stacked up on a corner of the verandah. 'What's that furniture over there?' he demanded to the group at large.
There was total silence. He repeated the question.
Cherian remained silent. After a few moments, his brother said, 'nothing, we were only cleaning some of our furniture.'
Balan smelled something fishy. 'On the day of your brother's arrival?'
'Who are these men?' Balan demanded of the van drivers. One of the labourers who had lived in Delhi for a few years could manage a smattering of Hindi. 'where do you people come from? he demanded of the van drivers. The van drivers were looking terrified. 'We are going back tomorrow. With our van of course, they promptly replied.
'Van? Which van?'
They pointed to the direction where the van was parked. Balan walked over and saw the van and the Tata Sumo. 'So, this is what you were up to? Cheating us of our livelihood!'
'Tell him that if he did not behave like this, he would have work to do everyday, instead of once a week,' Sengupta prompted Cherian. Cherian ignored him.
'Tell you what, its late in the night. Pay us thousand rupees and we'll leave,' Balan told Cherian.
Cherian started at his feet for a few seconds. He then took a deep breath and went inside. When he came back, he had two five hundred rupee notes in his hand.
Balan took the money as if he were entitled to it. The men walked off.
Ashokan consoled Cherian. 'Look at it this way, thanks to the labour movement, we have one of the least polluted states in India. If these chaps were sensible, we would have factories all around us. Factories that fill our rivers with sewage and pump tons of pollutants into the air. Would we then be able to bathe in our rivers? Or see stars in a clear sky?'