After a couple of weeks with my parents at Kochi, I went to Simhapara licking my wounds. I had a rough time at Kochi. My parents and my elder brother were in a vengeful mood and I suffered a lot. Do you realise how difficult it was for us to marry Sharon off? my elder brother asked me more than once. I had two more weeks left before I could catch a flight and escape from the land where I had grown up, which I still called home. My mother had three brothers and two of them – Jose Uncle and Varghese Uncle - lived at Simhapara. Jose Uncle and his wife, who did not have any children, occupied the ancestral house where my maternal grandparents had lived until their deaths. Varghese Uncle did not like the piece of land he inherited, which did not give him access to the main road. And so he had sold it and bought another piece of land adjoining the KK Road. I found Simhapara to be a relief. For some reason, my maternal uncles didn’t rub it in, though I could not have defended myself against an attack if they had tried to prove a point. My last visit had been more than five years ago. A lot of water had flowed down the river which ran behind Jose Uncle’s house since my last visit. My divorce had come through just a few months earlier. If they had tried to tell me how stupid I had been, I would have smiled at them and agreed that I had been totally wrong. No, I didn’t regret having married Kate, but I was so drained and had so litte energy left that I would not have got into an argument with any of my uncles or aunts who took it up on themselves to tell me that I ought to have listened to them in the first place. Thankfully none of them did so at Simhapara. I think I got away with it because I had a defeated look in my eyes. If I had shown the slightest hint of defiance, they would have come at me with all their guns blazing. Do you realise how difficult it was for your parents to marry off your sister? they could have asked me. And they were quite right. It had been difficult to get Sharon married. Not many people wanted to marry a girl who had an American sister-in-law. It was as if I had dishonoured the family by marrying Kate, though everyone at Kochi and Simhapara who saw the wedding snaps said that Kate looked ever so sweet in her wedding dress.
It was while I was recuperating at Simhapara that I ran into Punnoose Chettan. A day after my arrival, I had slipped out of Jose Uncle’s house at around six thirty with the express intention of not returning till the evening prayers were done. Not that I was an atheist or even an agnostic. Actually I do believe in God and look to Him to bail me out whenever I get into trouble. But after having been away from Kerala for more than seventeen years, forty odd minutes of the rosary and other repetitive prayers was too much for me. I think I gave up regular prayers from the time I started medical school in Pondicherry at the age of eighteen.
‘I’ll be back in half an hour,’ I told Jose Uncle, who had retired from his job at a government owned insurance company a few years ago. I got my timing right. If I had tried to leave too close to prayer time, Jose Uncle would have asked me to wait till the prayers were done. But by leaving at six thirty, I avoided all that especially since I expressed an honest intention to get back in time for prayers. I knocked on Varghese Uncle’s door and was welcomed inside. Varghese Uncle had two sons, both of whom were away at college. Varghese Uncle was a lecturer at St. Luke's college and believed he had the perfect solution to Kerala’s economic woes. What made it painful was that he insisted on explaining his solution to anyone who cared to listen. However, every cloud has a silver lining. Varghese Uncle’s wife Elsamma Aunty was a gem of a person. Not only did she not speak too much, but could also be relied on to produce sustenance of admirable quality at regular intervals. I had been at Varghese Uncle’s for around thirty minutes when Punnoose Chettan came in. Things were going rather well. Varghese Uncle had not spoken a word about my divorce. Better still, there were no hints being dropped regarding the need to get me hitched to a Syrian Catholic girl before I could make another silly mistake. A large plate of ethakka-bolees was in front of me. That was another good thing about Elsamma Aunty. Not only was she a good cook, but she also remembered what each person liked. I wished I could have a beer, but then that would be asking for too much. Varghese Uncle was not a teetotaller, but he disapproved of the younger generation drinking in the presence of their elders. Varghese Uncle was holding forth on the need to crush all labour unions. Unless the unions are destroyed, no one will invest in Kerala he kept saying. I didn’t disagree with him. But I was a doctor and wasn’t expected to have a clue about the economy or, even better, express a point of view. Which was fine with me. I allowed Varghese Uncle to carry on with his monologue. Elsamma Aunty entered and left the drawing room periodically on various chores. And so, when the door bell rang, Elsamma Aunty happened to be nearby and she opened the door. The visitor was evidently someone she recognised for she kept the door open and turned around to look at Varghese Uncle. ‘Punnoose Chettan,’ she announced, leaving it to Varghese Uncle to decide whether to invite him in or meet him at the door and send him away. Varghese Uncle was too lazy to get up and walk up to the door. And so he bellowed, ‘please come inside Punnoose chetta.
The man who came inside was in his late fifties. His face covered with grey stubble was good-natured and radiated goodwill. He did not look particularly intelligent, but he seemed to be the sort of guy who could share a laugh with anyone. I immediately had a feeling of kinship for him. ‘Ten,’ he told Varghese Uncle as he handed him a wad of notes.
‘Well, you’re almost there, aren’t you?’ Varghese Uncle asked him as he pocketed the money.
‘Yes, twenty thousand more.’
‘Don’t kill yourself,’ Varghese Uncle told him. ‘I can wait for a few more months.’
‘I will take me a few more months,’ Punnoose Chettan grimly admitted.
‘Varghese Uncle turned to me and introduced me to Punnoose Chettan. ‘This is my sister’s son Samson. He’s a doctor in America.’
‘Oh! Isn’t he the one who …………………’
‘Yes, I am the one.’ I admitted my guilt. I didn’t blame him for knowing my story. I am sure that every human being who lived in Simhapara and its vicinity was aware of it.
‘Which part of America are you in?’
‘At a place called Baltimore.’
‘Have you been there for long?’
‘Around seven years now.’
‘You ought to get him married soon,’ Punnoose Chettan told Varghese Uncle who smiled back at him. ‘If possible before he goes back,’ he added. He then turned to me and asked, ‘When are you going back?’
‘Another couple of weeks. Not enough time to get married,’ I added weakly.
Varghese Uncle asked him. Do you know of any nice girls who would marry a thirty five year divorcee?
‘I don’t know any nice girls myself. But I’m sure you’ll find one if you ask around. He’s a doctor after all.’ Punnoose Chettan was right. Doctors were very valuable in the marriage market. And doctors working in the US even more so. This was one reason why all my relatives got pissed off when I married Kate. They were all set to make a strategic alliance and sell me to the highest bidder. If I hadn't met Kate one snowy evening in Baltimore, I would have ended up as the son-in-law of an influential politician or businessman or bureaucrat.
Thankfully Varghese Uncle changed the subject. ‘Punnoose Chettan lives in that house.’ He pointed through the open window to a small house in the adjacent plot of land. There was an awkward silence for a while. Varghese Uncle obviously wanted him to leave. Then Punnoose Chettan said, ‘my son is also overseas.’
‘Where is he? Is he in the States as well?’ Was that why he had asked me which part of the US I lived in?
‘No, no. He is in Sharjah. He has been there for the past three years.’
All this while, Punnoose Chettan was standing. ‘Why don’t you sit down and have some tea?’ Varghese Uncle invited him. It was obvious that it was not a genuine invitation and Punnoose Chettan rightly turned it down.
‘Oh No! I need to be going. But before I go, I need to ask you something. You know, I have a computer at home. That’s the one Chandy Sir gave me, when he bought a new one for himself. When they gave me that computer, Chandy Sir's son Koshy had taught me to send emails to my son. And I did manage to send an email immediately after Koshy mon left. But when I tried to send an email a week later, I found that I had forgotten everything.’
‘That’s pretty sad. I’ve never learnt to send emails. I just call up my sons at their hostels.’ Varghese Uncle was quite apologetic.
‘But don’t you have a computer here? I thought you could give me a few tips. When Laiju called me the other day, he said he has sent me a few emails, but I haven’t managed to read any of them.’
‘We do have a computer here. The kids use it while they are here on vacation. But, I don’t have a clue how it works. Can’t you ask Chandy Sir’s son to teach you once more?’
‘I could, but I don’t know when Koshy mon will visit his parents next? Also, Koshy mon is now married,’ Punnoose Chettan added as an after thought.
‘What difference does it make if he is married?’ Elsamma Aunty asked.
‘Well, he may not want to visit me and give me another lesson,’ Punnoose Chettan said. 'Somebody else has got a better claim on his time.’
I surprised myself by saying, ‘I can show you how to send emails.’
I had expected to be showered with gratitude and was disappointed. ‘Aren’t you a doctor?‘ Punnoose Chettan asked me doubtfully.
‘I am. But you see, I have a computer at my home – at Baltimore – and I send emails to my friends. If you like, I can show you how to send emails.’ I left it at that. If Punnoose Chettan didn’t want my help, then he could find someone else to teach him how to email his son.’
‘I see. Well, in that case, why don’t you drop into my home when you have some free time and give me a lesson in sending emails?’
‘I have something planned for tomorrow. I’ll come there sometime in the evening, the day after tomorrow. Around six thirty.’ I could stretch out the lesson till eight and bunk evening prayers once more. I was really tempted to do it the next day, but that would be two days in a row and could get me into trouble with Jose Uncle. Kate would have burst into laughter if she could have seen me. I was thirty-five and still found it impossible to tell my uncle that I did not want to join the family at prayer in the evenings.
With that Punnoose Chettan took his leave. After he had left, Varghese Uncle turned to me and asked, ‘since when did you become so altruistic? Teaching an old man send emails to his son in Sharjah!’
‘So, doctor saar, do you know how to start a computer and even send emails?’ Elsamma Aunty shouted from the kitchen.
‘Well, I think I can just about manage.’
‘Why did you decide on the day after? Why not tomorrow?’ Varghese Uncle wanted to know.
I did not have a decent excuse. ‘He did not seem to have appreciated my offer all that much. I am trying to throw my weight around.’ I blustered.
‘Well, he is not a bad sort. He has some land – about four acres – at Kannimala. He does not have any other income. He tries to get friendly with me, but I keep him at arm's length. We don’t have much in common, you know.’
‘But you’ve lent him money,’ I pointed out.
‘Well yes. He borrowed fifty thousand rupees from me for his daughter’s wedding. That was almost a year ago. He is yet to finish repaying me.’
‘Doesn’t his son send him money?’
‘He does. But it is quite expensive to marry off a girl. And nowadays, workers in the Gulf do not get paid all that much. I doubt if Punnoose Chettan’s son manages to send him more than ten thousand rupees a month.
I looked at the clock. It was twenty past seven. Prayers would get over by seven forty. Jose Uncle was a stickler for doing things by the clock. If I left in another five minutes, I would get back to Jose Uncle’s place by seven thirty, which meant a mere ten minutes of prayers.
‘You ought to write a book, explaining your theory.’ I told Varghese Uncle. I would have to leave in five minutes. If I got delayed beyond that, it wouldn’t be easy to convince Jose Uncle that I had forgotten to keep track of the time.
Varghese Uncle looked at me suspiciously as if I might be pulling his leg. ‘You know, in the US, once you have a bestseller, you get invited to give lectures, go on book tours and all that.’
That convinced him. ‘I know. But India doesn’t have a market for such books. Our people stick to watching crap movies and reading film magazines! Especially in Kerala.’
‘How do you know unless you give it a shot? Someone has to do it for the first time.’
As Varghese Uncle mulled it over, I said, ‘I better get going now. I had told Jose Uncle that I would be back in half an hour.’
‘Why don’t you stay on and have dinner?’ Elsamma Aunty asked.
I was tempted. The food Varghese Uncle’s place was a lot better than at Jose Uncle’s. But I didn’t want to bug Jose Uncle who would expect me for dinner. ‘Oh No! I ought to get back. I promised Jose Uncle that I would get back in thirty minutes. Time flies when I am here.’
The day after, I went over to Punnoose Chettan’s house. I left Jose Uncle’s place at around six after making an express promise to return in an hour’s time. Jose Uncle was not particularly suspicious since I had diligently taken part in the evening prayers the previous day. Punnoose Chettan’s house was a small affair, quite old with a tiled roof and a verandah running around it. Despite the fact that it had received a recent coat of whitewash, it was obvious that the house must have been built more than sixty years ago. Now that Punnoose Chettan’s son was overseas and sending money home, would he want to tear it down and put up a concrete monstrosity in its place? The way Jose Uncle and most of my relatives in Kerala had done. The drawing room was tastefully done, without too much furniture cluttering up the room. What got my attention, however, was an unsheathed dagger that hung on the wall. It’s sheath hung next to it. Both the handle and the sheath were made of ivory with some intricate carvings in them. I tried not to stare at it for too long.
‘Won’t you sit down?’ Punnoose Chettan asked me. I ignored the very comfortable looking cane chair under the dagger and sat down on a less comfortable chair on the other side of the room - which allowed me to stare at the dagger.
‘Samson is a doctor in America,’ Punnoose Chettan informed his wife, who looked almost as old as he was.
‘You did tell me,’ she replied. I wondered what else Punnoose Chettan had told her. Having disobeyed his parents and learnt a lesson, he is now trying to be a good Malayalee boy?
Thankfully, there were no questions about my divorce. They didn’t even say anything about getting remarried. I was sure that most of the gossip about me reached their ears as well.
‘Why don’t you show me your computer?’ I asked them.
‘But you should have some tea first,’ his wife protested.
I agreed. I was planning to stretch out my visit for an hour and a half and bunk evening prayers all together. Tea, milky and quite sweet, was served in tall multi-purpose glasses which bore innumerable scratch marks. I drank slowly. Punnoose Chettan had a glass of tea as well. His wife served us both and then stood there with her back to the wall and watched us sip the hot tea.
‘What does your son do in Sharjah?’
‘He works in a super market. Apparently it is very close to the stadium where they hold those cricket matches.’
‘Where does your son send his emails from? Does he have a computer where he lives?’
‘No, he doesn’t. He told me he could go to a place within the supermarket and send emails.’
‘And does he call you often?’
‘Yes, once every two or three weeks.’
‘When’s his next visit home? When did he come here last’ I spoke in English for a change. I wasn’t sure how fluent Punnoose Chettan was in English. He didn’t seem to be the guy who read books or newspapers a lot.
I was surprised by the reply I got. ‘He came here six months ago. Hopefully, he’ll be able to visit us after another six months,’ Punnoose Chettan replied in fluent English. It was not the English one associated with missionary-run schools and metropolitan cities. Instead it was the English that any diligent student growing up in a place like Simhapara would speak. Punnoose Chettan spoke with an accent that was not much different from Jose Uncle’s. I no longer doubted Punnoose Chettan’s ability to string together an email in English.
‘A visit every year is not bad, is it? Some people manage to visit only every two years.’ I switched back to Malayalam.
My eyes darted to the dagger once more. It was indeed a piece of art. No wonder it occupied the pride of place on the wall. ‘That dagger, it looks very impressive,’ I told Punnoose Chettan.
Punnoose Chettan did not reply immediately. Instead he gave me an embarrassed smile, as if the dagger was something he did not deserve to have.
‘Can I have a look?’ I asked him.
‘Why not, he said and took the dagger and its sheath off the wall. It was curiously light. I inserted the dagger into its sheath. It was indeed beautiful. I held it in hands for a few minute and gave it back to him.
‘How did you get hold of this?’ I asked Punnoose Chettan.
‘We’ve had it for a long time,’ Punnoose Chettan told me as he exchanged a meaningful look with his wife.
‘A family heirloom?’
Punnoose Chettan nodded once more.
If I were at Baltimore, I would not have behaved thus, but I was not. I was at Simhapara and so I persisted without any consideration for privacy. ‘Did you inherit it from your father?’
‘Sort of. We’ve had it ever since I can remember, Punnoose Chettan said. An idea was forming in my mind. It was obvious that Punnoose Chettan was hard up for cash. And he had something that I liked a lot. There was no reason why a bargain should not be struck. However, I decided to bide my time for the moment. By that time, the glass in my hand was empty. Shall we try to send an email to your son? I asked Punnoose Chettan.
I was taken to the bedroom, where the PC occupied a corner. The room smelt of hair oil, but it was spanking clean. A double bed covered with a clean bed-sheet stood to one corner. A comb and some cosmetics were kept on the window ledge. The PC’s monitor and keyboard were kept on a rickety wooden table and the CPU was kept under the table. Punnoose Chettan grandiosely removed a piece of cloth which covered the CPU. It was a HP with an Intel 486. No wonder Chandy Sir decided to give his antique PC to Punnoose Chettan and get himself a better one.
‘Where’s your modem?’ I asked Punnoose Chettan.
‘I don’t have a clue. What is a modem?’
I did not reply. Instead I had a quick look around and found the modem hidden away behind the monitor. ‘That’s your modem,’ I told Punnoose Chettan. I abandoned my initial plan to run a check and see if all the necessary connections were in place. I was not a technician and I was not going to pretend to be one. Chandy Sir’s son who taught Punnoose Chettan to send emails was an IT professional. He was bound to have fixed everything right. Otherwise, Punnoose Chettan would not have been able to send his first email.
I switched the power on and pressed the CPU’s button. The monitor had not been switched off and came on as well. ‘Why don’t we sit down?’ I asked Punnoose Chettan. I didn’t want to sit on the flimsy chair which stood next to the table. It looked very uncomfortable and looked as if it was meant to give its occupant a backache. Punnoose Chettan went out and came back dragging a sturdy looking stool. ‘This is very convenient, I told him as I took the stool from him, placed the stool to the side of the chair and sat on it. Punnoose Chettan sat on the flimsy chair. His wife continued to stand. Since Punnoose Chettan had not bothered to get her a chair, I assumed that she was not keen on emails. By this time, Windows had loaded. I began my lesson.
‘Once you’ve switched every thing on – the power switch and this button here,’ I indicated the CPU, ‘you need to connect to the internet. For that, we need to click on…’ I searched for an appropriate icon on the desktop. ‘On this,’ I said as I located and clicked on one which said ‘VSNL dialup’ Soon there was a whirring sound and – to be honest, I felt relieved. The password was automatically entered. It wouldn’t have looked too good if I couldn’t connect to the internet.
‘How much did you pay for this connection?’ I asked Punnoose Chettan who looked blank for a few seconds.
‘I was told that I can use Chandy Sir’s account. Apparently they have paid for a thousand hours of internet time and don’t use most of it.’ It made sense. Chandy Sir’s son must have set the modem to dial up using the same user name and password as Chandy Sir did. Quite altruistic of them, I remember thinking.
‘I remember this much – till here,’ Punnoose Chettan said. ‘After this, what do I do? Punnoose Chettan turned around quickly to see if his wife was paying attention. ‘You too make sure you understand what Samson mon is saying. You should also be able to send emails when I am not around,’ Punnoose Chettan told his wife who moved a few feet forward so that she almost touched her husband.
‘Oh! Don’t bother with me. I’ll never remember all this,’ she said.
Punnoose Chettan gave his wife a look which conveyed a mixture of fondness and exasperation.
‘Once you are connected to the internet, you need to open the internet explorer. Google had been set as the default homepage. And once your webpage is open, you can go to your emails. ‘Do you remember your email address?’ I asked Punnoose Chettan.
‘I have it written down in ……’ ‘Rose-ammé, get me my diary,’ Punnoose Chettan ordered his wife who went out and came back with a diary. Punnoose Chettan flipped the pages and said ‘It’s Punnoose2006 at yahoo dot co dot in.’
‘So, it’s a yahoo ID. Great, you go to the yahoo website. Do you know how to do that?’
‘Just type www.yahoo.com’ and you’ll be in Yahoo,’ I told him. The internet connection was quite slow and it took a few minutes to open yahoo. ‘And once you are at yahoo, you need click on mail …. and now you can sign in.’
‘Aaah! Now I remember this. Okay.’
‘punnoose2006,’ that’s your yahoo sign-in name. Enter it here. I typed it in. ‘Your login name is not case sensitive, but your password is.’ Punnoose Chettan had a blank look on his face. ‘Didn’t Chandy Sir’s son tell you what password he set for you?’
‘Oh yes, he did. It is in the diary.’ Punnoose Chettan consulted this diary and said ‘its 123abc’
I was tempted to tell him that he ought to have a password which could not be easily broken. But, what did it matter? Who would want to break into Punnoose Chettan’s email account? I kept mum and clicked on login. Soon we were transported to punnoose2006’s mailbox.
There were two emails from Laiju Punnoose and a host of spam mail. ‘Why don’t you click on your son’s emails and read them?’ I told Punnoose Chettan. ‘You just have to click on them to open them.’
‘I remember this very clearly now,’ Punnoose Chettan told me. I left him to read his son’s emails and walked out of the bedroom. I went back to the dagger. It was indeed a fine piece of art. I was surprised that it was so light. I would have thought that an ancient dagger would be a heavy. I went back to the bedroom after a few minutes. Punnoose Chettan was still reading the second email. It was just a line long. Have you received my first email? Laiju.
‘Why don’t you send your son a reply?’ I asked Punnoose Chettan. ‘Do you know how to do that?’
Punnoose Chettan looked blank. ‘You can either open your son’s email and click on ‘reply’ – like this and yes, you click here, or you can ..’
‘No, please don’t teach me too many ways to send an email. I’ll get confused. I’ll stick with this. Can you please repeat what you just said?’
I reversed the procedure and started afresh, ‘once you’ve read your son’s email, you just go to the top of the email and click on reply.’
Punnoose Chettan stared at the screen for a while and then nodded his head. ‘Why don’t you now send your son an email?’ I suggested.
Punnoose Chettan started to type out an email. I won’t bore my readers with details of what he wrote, except to say that he took a long time to write it. His written English had a few grammatical mistakes and spelling errors, but on the whole it was just a long boring letter from a father to his son. Punnoose Chettan’s wife patiently stood nearby and watched the whole thing, though I doubt if she understood much. I felt sorry for the poor couple, desperately trying to send an email to their son.
It was eight thirty by the time it was all over. They insisted that I stay for dinner. I refused, but promised to come back in a couple of days time – to have dinner with them and to see if the emailing was going on smoothly. The next day was a Sunday and I went to church with Varghese Uncle and Elsamma Aunty. Jose Uncle and his wife preferred to attend the six am mass. As soon as mass was over, I tried to slip off and wait in the car which was parked outside the main gate. People stood around chatting and gossiping. I hoped that no one would recognise me to call me over and ask a few questions about my divorce. I thought I had made good my escape when Punnoose Chettan hailed me in a very loud voice. He was standing with a few men around him. I had no choice, but to walk over to him. Thankfully for me, he broke off from his group and walked towards me. I was relieved that I would not be introduced to his friends.
‘I have had a stroke of luck,’ he told me. ‘All thanks to you!’
‘What happened?’ I asked ‘What did I do?’
‘You got my email working and now I have received a fantastic offer from a man in Africa!’
I was about to tell him that I did not fix his emails when something clicked in my head. ‘What is this offer that you have received?’ I asked him.
‘I can’t tell you yet. I’ve been asked to maintain strict confidentiality. But I will get a million dollars in a few months’ time.’
‘Is it an email from Nigeria?’ I asked him.
‘Maybe. Maybe. I’ll tell you all about it when you come home next.’
‘Have you heard of Nigerian scams?’ I asked him in a pitying voice.
‘You’ll get an email or a letter from someone in Nigeria saying that need your help to recover a few million dollars and if you help them, they’ll pay you a huge percentage of the money. Some people fall for it and agree to help. Some of them actually travel to Nigeria to meet their new business partners. They are met at the airport, taken somewhere, robbed and sent back. Or else, they are asked to pay some money upfront as a processing charge. In any event, it is a con job.
Punnoose Chettan’s face fell. It was obvious that he had set great store by the email he had received. ‘Have you replied to the email?’ I asked him.
‘‘No. Not yet. I was planning to send a reply this afternoon.’
‘Tell you what, don’t do anything. I’ll come there this afternoon, at around three o’clock. Let me have a look at it.’
I felt even more sorry for him. Not only did aged people living alone have to worry about their physical security, they also had to be protected against such attacks from cyber space.
That afternoon, I went to Punnoose Chettan’s house. I had only one objective. I wanted to buy that dagger which I coveted. I would pay for it. Punnoose Chettan dialled up and connected to the internet like a veteran and opened the email from Lagos. It was no different from the hundreds of such mail which clog most people’s inboxes. This time it was the legal heir of a deceased minister who had acquired vast wealth. Ever since the last coup in Nigeria, they were in hiding, in fear for their lives. The money was now in a Swiss bank account. If the recipient, who had been carefully selected, agreed to help, he would be suitably rewarded with thirty percent of the loot. Could the recipient quickly email across his full address, bank account details etc.?
‘How could you fall for something like this?’ I asked Punnoose Chettan. He was suitably contrite.
‘Now that you explain it, it makes sense,’ He said.
‘Do you know you can play them at their own game? You can reply to them as if you believe what they have told you and ….’
‘Oh no. I do not have the stomach for it. I have enough problems of my own. I’m sure you know that I have lots of debts. I am yet to repay your uncle. And I have many other creditors as well.’
‘Punnoose Chettaa, I need to ask you something,’ I began. It was not an auspicious start. It was exactly the way I had asked Kate to marry me. At that time, I did not think of it, but later on I did. ‘Would you like to sell me that dagger you have? The one on the wall?’
‘How can I do that?’ Punnoose Chettan exclaimed. ‘We’ve always had this in the house. I think my grandfather got it from somewhere. I can’t part with something like that.’
‘How much do you want for it, Punnoose Chettaa? I asked him once more. I could see his defences crumble. Clearly he was in need of money.
‘Why don’t you think it over and tell me tomorrow morning? I leave on Tuesday for Kochi.’
‘Fine. I will tell you tomorrow evening. But you must promise not to tell anyone here in Simhapara.
‘I won’t tell anyone here.’
‘Not even your uncles.’
‘Especially not my uncles. Tell you what, I will not tell anyone in India. Only my friends in Baltimore will get to know about it.’
I walked home with a thumping heart. I knew that what I was doing was morally wrong. I was depriving a man of his family heirloom. There was no doubt that Punnoose Chettan would not be selling that dagger if he were financially sound. But weren’t most art pieces bought from their owners in similar circumstances? I was not much different from a connoisseur who travelled far and wide looking for art pieces owned by people willing to part with them.
The next day morning, I told Jose Uncle that I wanted to buy some shaving blades from the market. Jose offered to give me a blade, but I told him that I would rather go and get some myself. I needed the exercise anyway. I reached KK Road and walked towards the main market for a brief while. Soon I reached the right turn which led me towards Punnoose Chettan’s house. To get there, I had to pass by in front of Varghese Uncle’s house. I hoped that Varghese Uncle would be busy getting ready to go to his college. I was lucky. I managed to reach Punnoose Chettan’s house without being spotted. It was actually no big deal. Even if I were spotted, I could have told them that Punnoose Chettan needed some more help with his email.
Punnoose Chettan greeted me with a smile.
‘Any more trouble with emails?’ I asked him.
‘None at all,’ he told me with a preoccupied look. It was obvious that his mind was elsewhere.
His wife served me some milky coffee in one of their tall multi-purpose glasses. Punnoose Chettan sat opposite me and waited for me to finish my coffee, his eyes quite melancholic and sad. Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought his wife looked as if she were angry with me. Which meant Punnoose Chettan had decided to sell me their family heirloom despite his wife’s objections. I was right. When my coffee was over, he told me, ‘I’ve talked it over with my wife. And we’ve decided we need the money. If you can pay me ten thousand rupees, you can have the dagger.’
‘And the sheath,’ I added.
‘And the sheath. Of course.’
I took a deep breath. I had indeed won! I had the money with me. To be honest, I had been willing to pay up to fifteen thousand rupees for the dagger.
Punnoose Chettan brought out the dagger and gave it to me. I accepted it and laid it on the table. As I started to take out my wallet. Punnoose Chettan said ‘you can pay me later if you are not carrying cash on you right now.’
‘But I did bring the money,’ I told them. I counted twenty notes of five hundred rupees each and handed them to Punnoose Chettan. I picked up the dagger once more from the table. I am sure that my eyes had a look of triumph. Punnoose Chettan’s wife gave me a disgusted look.
‘And how did your grandfather come by this dagger? Did he get it from someone?’ I was just curious. Maybe a travelling prince from the Travancore royal family had given it to them as a token of appreciation for their hospitality.
‘We’ve always had it. I’m not sure of this – but I don’t want to say something I am not too sure of, but …..’ Punnoose Chettan hesitated.
‘Please go on. I know that you cannot have proof in these matters, but please do tell me what you remember.’ I was quite keen to know the pedigree of the dagger. Once I exhibited it in my Baltimore flat, my friends would be keen to not only know how I came across it, but also the origin of the dagger.
‘I remember my father telling me that his father – that’s my grandfather – used to gamble a lot. Apparently he won it in a game of dice.’
Now I could easily understand why Punnoose Chettan was embarrassed. I was sure that he never gambled. ‘Please don’t tell anyone here that I sold this to you.’ It was a reasonable request. I agreed to it quite happily. I was quite sure that neither Jose Uncle nor Varghese Uncle would approve of me spending ten grand to buy a dagger.
Punnoose Chettan’s wife continued to stay in the background, without saying a word. She looked embarrassed and – unhappy. I could understand her unhappiness. I told myself that, I was paying them a decent price for the dagger. Converted into dollars – it was not much – around two hundred dollars. But then, this was how the art market operated. I had no reason to feel ashamed.
‘I’ll send Laiju an email and tell him what we’ve done. He’ll understand,’ Punnoose Chettan told me.
I could understand if Laiju exploded in anger as he read his father’s email. I would have felt the same if my father sold a family heirloom. Hopefully I would never have to meet Laiju.
With mixed feelings, I bid farewell to the couple, tucked the dagger under my shirt and walked towards the market place where I managed to buy a packet of shaving blades before going back to Jose Uncle’s house.
I went for a swim in the river just before lunch. In the evening, I planned to go for a long walk up to the Lion-Head. Once while I was in college, my brother and I had climbed the top of the Lion-Head. But towards evening, Jose Uncle suggested that we go to Kottayam to watch a movie. And so, the evening walk didn’t materialise. Instead I watched a Malayalam movie which starred a few actors and actresses I’d never heard off, with both my uncles and my aunts. Just before going to bed, I took out the dagger from my suitcase and looked at it once more. I could feel the pain of my divorce ebbing away. Kate could go to hell. I went to sleep like a baby.
The next day morning I went over to Varghese Uncle’s house to say goodbye before he left for his college. Later in the day, Jose Uncle was to drive me to Kottayam from where I would catch a train to Kochi. To my astonishment, both Varghese Uncle and Elsamma Aunty launched into a litany of advice. I had to get married as soon as possible. I also had to seriously think of coming back to India for good. What was the point of staying in the US when my parents were in India? Look at us all. Living out our old age without our children around us, Varghese Uncle told me impassionedly. You are a doctor with so much experience. You could get a good job in any of the hospitals in Kerala. Money wasn’t everything. It was not as if I was like Laiju, Punnoose Chettan’s son who had no option but to work overseas.
‘Why should a different standard be applied to Punnoose Chettan’s son?’ I objected.
‘Because, if Laiju were to live in Kerala, he would have to work as a manual labourer. He is good for nothing else,’ Varghese Uncle spoke heatedly.
‘Don’t say that,’ Elsamma Aunty chided him gently.
‘Why not?’ Varghese Uncle retorted. ‘He was a good for nothing. He always got into trouble. Finally he went to Bombay where he used to sell fake antiques on the pavement.’
At that my ears perked up. ‘What did he sell?’ I asked Varghese Uncle.
‘Fake antiques. You know the sort of things tourists like to buy. Anything that looks antique. Apparently they churn out tens of thousands of such things in China. Antique looking idols, daggers etc.’
I don’t remember what else Varghese Uncle told me. I kept my promise to Punnoose Chettan and didn’t tell anyone at Simhapara that I had purchased an antique dagger from him. I took the dagger to my home in Baltimore, where I kept it on display. I tell my friends that while on vacation in Kerala, I taught an old man and his wife to send emails to their only son who lived far, far away from them. This old couple gave me the dagger as a token of their gratitude. I couldn’t insult them by asking too many questions. For all I know the dagger is quite old. I joke that one day I will take it to an antiques dealer to find out how valuable it is. Some of my friends are sure that it is indeed a valuable antique, while a few others, especially the ones who have travelled to places like India, Egypt and China where tourists are routinely cheated, conned and fleeced, give me a sceptical grin.