From “Madness in the story”
The road led directly to the temple. In the mornings fair and beautiful young women could be seen in the temple, where they went after their baths.
“Why is it that women take a bath before they go the temple?” A friend who had joined me for a brisk walk during a six-month period had asked me once.
“Because they go to pray.” I said.
“No. Look at them again. Why they have come dressed in their best clothes to pray? They are indirectly giving a signal that they are ready for sex.”
“Don’t talk nonsense.” I laughed.
“Otherwise why is it that they don’t go to the temple four or five days in a month? They are indicating that they are not ready for that. Especially to the priests. In the past those were the people who were experts in these things.
My friend could not cheat his body with his exercise, and he died of a heart attack. I have been walking alone since then.
Paviyan was travelling in a locally-made boat owned by a farmer who collected husk. He had been to Peruthuruth and then to Koduthuruth, in search of a job to harvest crops on the field, and was now on his way back after two weeks. That was then he came to know about the problems his son had created during his absence. He was talking to a guard in a field about the reckless life led by people engaged in harvesting in the north of Kerala when Poovan came looking for him and gave him the information. He left immediately.
To everybody’s surprise, about one and half months before this incident two men in shirts had come to Neendur. Tharayil Avarachan was the only person in the three-mile tract of land between Mudakkali and Mannanam who owned a shirt. But he put it on only on rare occasions, packing it at the bottom of his suitcase whenever he went on the long journey to Alleppey or Vaikom by the boat. Nobody, including him, believed that the shirt was an object fit for use by human beings.
But seeing the strangers in loose half-sleeved round-necked shirts, the local people began to realise how this particular attire could make them look respectable. The newcomers were pulling a cart loaded with a heavy iron box, speaking to each other and paying no attention to anything around them. A group of naked children followed them from Kaipuzha.
A few women on the fields and on the road were surprised to see that their shirts made their animal-like bodies look much more delicate. They looked closely at the men as well as the iron box before going into their kitchens to boast about what they had seen. They did not say there were only two men, however, for this would belittle them. Instead, they claimed that they had seen a group of men.
When the men reached the junction town they went directly to the excise-licensed tobacco shop owned by Chellapan Pillai, paying no heed to anyone around. One of the two was Chellapan Pillai’s handsome nephew, whom Chellapan Pillai gave a seat inside the shop. Then he wiped down the bench outside the shop with a towel and settled the other man on it.
“Why didn’t you take a boat?” Chellapan Pillai asked.
“We were afraid of the boat,” his nephew Damodaran replied. “While we were in Kodimatha I did put the box in the boat. But he refused to step into it, so we walked.”
Chellapan Pillai looked at the man sitting on the bench with astonishment. He assumed that the stranger must be at least thirty-five. The man had three worry-creases on his forehead. His arms were thin in proportion to his body, and his fingers were long. These were his unique features at first glance. His hair, which was as long as unattended grass, was blown back by the wind. His ears were pierced, but he had no ear rings on.
“What is his caste?” Chellapan Pillai asked.
“It’s a caste you don’t get hereabouts, the Ezuthachan caste.”
“Is that a Namboodiri caste?”
“No, it can be called a Kadupattan.”
Ezhuthachan moved into the upper part of the bungalow built by Chellapan Pillai’s uncle, who had died since then. The iron box was taken into a room upstairs with the help of a few people. Damodaran, his companion, spent the night at his mother’s place. Eight years after he had left home for Madras, he discovered that his old mat and the eastern half of the house, which no rain could affect, were still waiting for him. He ate some kanji and lay down on his side, encountering the same rain that he had encountered eight years ago. Looking up at the wooden ceiling, he found the rain dripping from it the same way.
It seemed to him that he had never moved to Madras, that he did not work there, that he did not see ships every day, and he had never lived with a Tamil woman. He was right here, like one of the old people in the family. Very few people here before him had travelled to Pampady in the east or Alleppey in the west, to Kottayam in the north or to Vaikom in the south. Why should I be an exception, reflected Damodaran. Why should one leave one’s own village, one’s friends, people who remind one of one’s ancestors, people who have known one since birth, and go to a different city? Even if he lived in Madras till the day he died, would anyone there know him the way villagers knew him?
The next day Ezhuthachan hung up a wooden board on the wall, saying “Malabar Musical Dance Troupe.” Several people gathered to gawk at it. But he didn’t care, staying indoors instead of going out to meet them. Chellappan Pillai sent him some kanji, which he ate two times a day. No one even saw him going out to the toilet. But every day, when Damodaran came to meet Ezhuthachan, the sounds of laughter and conversation could be heard even on the ground floor.
After a week Chellappan Pillai realised that Ezhuthachan not only feared travelling by boat, but he also feared water. Arriving earlier than usual to open his shop one day, he discovered Ezhuthachan standing in the front of the bungalow , lost in thought. Ezhuthachan smiled at his uncle. He was dressed in a dhoti and an unwrinkled shirt. It began to drizzle suddenly, whereupon Ezhuthachan ran back into his room with a shout.
When he went to Chellapan Pillai’s shop for tobacco the next morning, it began to rain once more. Ezhuthachan waited in the veranda for the rain to stop completely before stepping out on the road. With gusts of rain coming into the veranda, he ran back inside the shop. To onlookers it appeared that he would treat the rain coming in through the holes in the roof like red-hot drops of oil.
“Does he even clean his ass after a shit?”
Chellapan Pillai spat on the ground and he told the story to everyone who came to his shop. His listeners felt uneasy, but there was no odour that Ezhuthachan gave off. He rubbed his body with sandalwood oil brought from Mysore twice a day, morning and evening. That wasn’t all. He also put some incense in a mud pot and burnt it, standing in its fumes fully dressed. And so there was always a trail of fragrance wherever he went, with humans and animals alike stopping to breathe it in.
Sixteen-year-old Thiyamma was at the goldsmith with her mother to get an ornament repaired. She asked Krishnan the goldsmith, “Where is this fragrance from?”
“There’s a person in a shirt who stays on the top floor. That’s where it’s from,” answered Krishnan, separating the husk in the pot with a blow pipe.
“I have never seen a man wearing a shirt.”
Having sought her mother’s permission, Thaiyamma climbed to the second floor and knocked on the door. Fingering the edge of Ezhuthachan’s shirt, she tried to gauge the quality of the fabric.
“It is so soft,” she exclaimed. “Does it have a fragrance of its own?”
“Yes, it is made with cotton from a tree which was watered with perfume,” Ezhuthachan said.
Thaiyamma was hearing the word perfume for the first time. Unable to believe what her sense of smell was telling her, she put her nose against Ezhuthachan’s chest and sniffed. Though he had been with many Tamil women, Ezhuthachan could not control himself when the plump and fair-skinned Thaiyamma’s chatta brushed against him.
But she wasn’t one to yield to anyone. Laughing, Thaiyamma jumped and hurried back downstairs. Ezhuthachan, who normally remained indoors, began to loiter around Thaiyamma’s house, even offering a bundle of beedi to her father. But still he got no opportunity to meet her.
Ezhuthachan and Damodaran visited the field where sesame was being cultivated. Ezhuthachan decided that the southern part of the field was suitable for staging the play. They met Mapilla, who owned the land, gave him some tobacco, and sought his permission. It was agreed that Mapilla would get seats in the front row on all the three days.
“I have never seen a play,” said Mapilla.
“Have you not seen the Kurathiyattam in the temples during the Ettumanoor festival?” Damodaran asked. “This will be similar. There will be songs. While the Kurathiyattam is performed in front of the temple, here we’ll build a stage.”
“Is the story the same?”
“No, the story of this play is about the masses.”
Damodaran said the play, titled Kudiyan, was written and directed by Ezhuthachan, who would also act in an important role. It was not only about the masses. Ezhuthachan had been in Madras for ten long years with a Tamil theatre company as painter and make-up man. Those plays were about the gods and Tamil kings. His wish had been to direct and perform a similar play. But then he had met a few people from the Congress party who had made his brain blow a fuse.
Ezhuthachan didn’t know how to bring his new, changed perspective into his play. His script had bhakti, dance, traditional Tamil characters, socialism, and so on. It was like a curry made with curd. He had tried to tell the story of a temple in Malabar, the beliefs practised in it, and the life of a lower caste person. But he could not avoid melodrama and songs, nor he could add anything new. The result was hilarious.
One scene featured a dance starring the goddess Devasthree. The very next one had a singer singing revolutionary songs. No one could tell what this play was really about. Those among the audience who were regular theatre-goers were completely confused. The progressive people among them heckled the playwright. But like all other artists, Ezhuthachan thought that people did not understand his play. Maybe it would have been better if he had written the script along with someone more socially aware than him. Kudiyan could have become famous as political theatre.
On the tenth day of the month of Kumbh, a boat arrived with three iron boxes for Ezhuthachan. People carried them in a procession to the bungalow. This was confirmation that the play was going to be staged. That same day Ezhuthachan scrawled the date of the performance on the wooden board: the tenth day of the month of Meenam. Every evening people gathered in front of the bungalow, outside the goldsmith’s shop. But Ezhuthachan paid no attention to any of them. Damodaran used to visit him late in the evening. Neither of them said very much.
“Will the male actors come?” One of the people in the crowd asked.
“They may,” someone replied.
“Will they come soon?”
“They will come.”
One day Krishnan the goldsmith said, “Ten of them will come. I overheard them talking.”
As he was going home that night along a trail between two hillocks with a burning torch to light the way, someone who was walking along with him said, “An actress is coming too. She is from Kozhikode.”
When the theatre company’s boat arrived the next day, people gathered immediately, assuming the actress would be coming on another boat. They sat down in a group in the shade of the coconut trees, cleaning up the area and playing games of dice to while away the time. A fair-skinned woman arrived in a big boat. People mistook her for the actress and began to follow her.
Excerpted with the author’s permission from Meesha, S Hareesh, published by DC Books, and translated from the Malayalam by Santosh Alex.
Dr Santosh Alex is a bilingual poet, multilingual translator and a poetry curator. He has published 33 books, including poetry, translations and criticism.