This story does not have much of a connection to its title. I have written it here just as an adornment. John Abraham, who exists amongst us like a question mark, first living and then dying, has written a story titled “How Many Mathais Are There in Kottayam?”
The theme of that story, as indicated by its title, is an enumeration of the people named Mathai in Kottayam. The author scours telephone directories and voters lists for this purpose. Here, there is no relevance to such a quest. The question as to how many girls in Anthikkad are called Jenny is not the core of this story. (It will be of interest to the reader to know that Jenny was the name of Karl Marx’s wife. Anthikkad is traditionally a predominantly communist-dominated village.)
But in Anthikkad – a green and white countryside west of Thrissur, located between the Kole paddy fields and a river – there are several Jennys. At Kaanjaani or Peringottukara, you can ask any slim, fairly dark girl who stares at you with arching eyebrows. Whatever name she says, without any bashfulness and with a hint of insolence, you would certainly hear “Jenny”.
This is not a question of your hearing. The locals of Anthikkad have no line separating dream and reality. For an entire kilometre, you’ll find chattansevamadhams – centres of sorcery – and toddy shops. Each family owns a separate sacred grove and kalari. The worshipped deities are Karimkutty (a ferocious form of Kuttichchattan, the dwarf goblin), Teechchaamundi (the fire-dancing Devi), Muttappan (ancestor god of the Tiyyas), and Brahmarakshassu (the ghost of a Brahmin who had met a violent death). Every dawn, it was only after lighting lamps of oblation at the site of worship that the communist leaders would proceed to the party office at Thrissur.
Dark, fearsome sacred groves dedicated to serpents can be seen among the coconut groves. The paddy fields appear intensely green. The alleys and pathways are pure white. Small ponds covered in weeds lie steeped in silence. The soft sound of the wind blowing in the screw pine thickets is heard. A small house with a thatched roof made of braided coconut palm fronds and a courtyard covered in white sand. The base of the coconut tree is darkened by the ash used to scour vessels. The water collects in mud jars covered with coconut shells. This is Jenny’s house. On the front veranda, her father sits with his legs stretched out into the courtyard. He is generally known as Secretary Shankarettan. Presently, he is not the secretary of anything. He used to be a toddy tapper. Now he is too weak. Contracting jaundice multiple times has made him feeble. His eyes are yellow and his cheeks sag. His joints and feet are inflamed. He wears a small raw cotton mundu as a loincloth. He sits looking at the bright sun that has come out after the rains have stopped.
This scene is an old one – ten years old. It exists now in Sateeshan’s memories. He is the protagonist of this story. This isn’t Jenny’s tale but Sateeshan’s. In his mind, there are several old pictures with faded colours. Yet, this particular scene is fresh.
Sateeshan is standing on a street in Moscow, frozen and silent but teeming with crowds. He is a hawker. Expensive watches, pens, shoes, calculators, cameras, torches, albums, and porn video cassettes – these are his merchandise. It’s been ten years since he had arrived in Russia.
Suddenly, Sateeshan remembered having strolled along this very same street in the company of a Jenny from Anthikkad. As he tried to intertwine his fingers with hers, she said: “My palm is quite rough, Sateeshan.”
He looked at her face. She continued apologetically: “Don’t you remember we had studied about the princess who dipped her palms in the snow and made them soft?”
Sateeshan’s recollection begins in front of a store where toddy was measured out. He had got off a bus at that spot to go to Jenny’s house. The small markets of Anthikkad surround such toddy stores. He remembers seeing movie posters, flags and hoardings of political parties, a banner announcing Ashtamangalyaprashnam, and the news bulletin board of the Shastra Sahitya Parishad. Heaps of river fish for sale lined the streets. Bustling stores sold meat, vegetables, dry fish, and groceries. People had formed little groups after they measured out their toddy into the storage jars. In their hands were empty jerry cans. Inside the store, newspapers were being read aloud, and discussions were in progress. When Sateeshan had enquired about Jenny’s house, they were confused. Which Jenny’s house?
“Jenny, the daughter of Vishwambharan Mash, Jenny, the daughter of Shivaramettan, or Jenny, the sister of Karunan.”
“Shivaramettan’s daughter is not Jenny. She’s Natasha. Her younger sister is Nadia.”
Suddenly recognition dawned on one of them.
“I can say who this is. Isn’t it the girl who’s going to Russia? Secretary Shankarettan’s daughter. The girl who is studying for her MA.”
Although monsoon was over, water ran through the alley. The bottom of Sateeshan’s trouser legs were wet and muddy. Grasshoppers and the scent of maangaanaari, the mango-smelling plant, drifted from the mud bunds. Some of the screw pines had bloomed. A soft breeze swept over the ripe paddy fields.
“A guest is coming towards our house, my dear!” Shankarettan exclaimed, sitting on the veranda. He looked at the visitor intently. His vision had lost its sharpness. He was able to discern people only as shadows.
“Jenny and I study together,” Sateeshan introduced himself. By that time, she had come out to join her father. She was breathless with amazement.
“Achcha, this is Sateeshan I have told you about. He’s the one who is going to Russia with me. He is the student leader in our college.”
“Yes, yes. You told me. But it hasn’t stayed firm in my memory. My intellect and consciousness have all gone!” Shankarettan said.
Sateeshan took some time to untie his shoelaces and then sat on a bench.
“I never expected you’d take the trouble to come here, Sateeshan. Leaping across these paddy fields and streams. It’s such a hassle for you!”
“I loved taking the trouble.”
“I heard that you were not well,” Sateeshan asked Shankarettan.
“I have become too weak. I was admitted to the Thrissur civil hospital for a month. Between life and death. Now I live as if I am dead. I can’t work any more. I don’t think I can climb coconut trees. I have given away the tapping business to someone for half the returns. It was when I returned from the hospital that I got to know about her trip to Russia. Oh, when I think of her going to Russia, my heart shudders.”
“Why should you be worried? Aren’t we all with her? Isn’t it to Russia that we are going? What difficulty will anyone face there?”
“Of that, I am confident. Isn’t she going to Russia? Lenin’s Russia?” Shankarettan’s dark face immediately lit up Jenny invited him inside, “Come, Sateeshan. Don’t you want to see our home? Be careful, mind your head so it does not hit the door frame. Aren’t you really tall?”
Inside the house, the walls were only half the normal height. The floor had been polished with cow dung and charcoal. Sateeshan descended into a small lean-on adjacent to the kitchen. Jenny’s mother was busy arranging food – tea, ada (stuffed rice cake), and Avalos (a powder made from rice flour and coconut scraps). She had a pallid complexion and seemed anxious – it was her second nature.
“Have you been to Russia before, son?” she asked.
“No. This is my first time.”
“Don’t you have to change many planes to reach there? I am scared even to think about it. I have made an offering of five ladles of oil to Muttappan. That’s my only solace....”
“What all do you get to eat there? Jenny absolutely refuses to eat her meals unless she gets fish curry in which kokum is added,” Shankarettan said.
“Sateeshan is a Namboodiri, achcha! In olden days, Vedic yagnas were organised in their illam.”
“Is he? That’s very good! My only Namboodiri acquaintance is Eeshan. You’d have heard. He would be positioned at the base of the coconut tree when I was tapping toddy at the riverside above the terrace. He would wait there, eager to make me join the union. We gave him the slip and scuttled away whenever we spotted him. But when Eeshan found out about our tactics to avoid him, he employed a special ruse. How could we escape if he waited for us at the base of the coconut tree we were tapping toddy from?”
Sateeshan burst out laughing.
“Then what happened? I joined the union. If one joins the union, it should look one has really joined it. I was the secretary at number 14. The police vehicle came with a whoosh and first caught hold of me. Their kick landed in the centre of my belly. Can’t describe what happened later.”
“Oh, all that’s just fine,” Shankarettan continued. “Though I got kicked around by the police, the times have changed. Look. Now my daughter is studying for her MA, and she is about to go to Russia in a plane. Isn’t it true that Lenin’s dead body is still preserved there?”
“Yes. It is kept embalmed. We will go and visit the mausoleum.”
“Oh, my gods!”
Shankarettan looked heavenwards, joined his palms together and wept, overwhelmed.
Let me describe another scene which is not in Sateeshan’s memory. The next day, Jenny was walking towards the toddy store bus stop to catch a bus to college.
PR Kumaran, popularly known as PR, said to her: “We were waiting for you, dear!”
“What’s special, Kumaretta?”
PR laughed. There were others with him – Bhaskaran Mash and Sardar Narayanan. Bhaskaran Mash was a CPI member, while Sardar Narayanan was the branch secretary of CPI (M). PR didn’t belong to any party. He had withdrawn from political activities since the Communist Party split in 1964.
Bhaskaran Mash began talking:
“We heard you are going to Russia next week. We are proud of that. It’s for the first time that a girl from a family of us toddy tappers in Anthikkad is going to Russia. This is a big event.”
PR continued: “My dear! Maybe you are not aware of the gravity of this occasion. When a girl from Anthikkad goes to Russia, they don’t consider it as an extraordinary matter. But this is our great dream come true. The people of Anthikkad had gone through such ordeals of fire, only with the constant thought, ‘There’s a country called Soviet’.”
“I am aware of this, Kumaretta. I will tell the Russians, in whatever language possible, about how Anthikkad and its people are steadfast in their Soviet dream.”
Sardar Narayanan did not say anything. He was as usual twirling his grey, upturned moustache. But his eyes were shining with tears.
Bhaskaran Mash said: “We have arranged a farewell meeting for you at the Gurusamajam on Sunday. Our people will all be there. You must speak a few words!”
Sateeshan recollected how just like that, Jenny had refused to hold his hands and they strolled along this very street ten years ago. He had never met her after that. She went back along with the other members of the delegation after spending a month in Russia.
Sateeshan joined a course in medicine in Moscow. The story of his life began from there. I don’t intend to record it here. Sateeshan was wearing a woollen overcoat, trousers, and a cap to escape the cold. Yet, the cold made him tremble. He sauntered up and down the footpath, thrusting his hands in his pockets to keep them warm. This street in Moscow has become very famous. Lots of tourists roam about.
Sateeshan quietly approached an African-American who was standing apparently aimless, and asked softly: “Can I help you?”
Excerpted with permission from “How Many Jennys Are There in Anthikkad?” by Asokan Charuvil in The Greatest Malayalam Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by AJ Thomas, Aleph Book Company.