Paviyan turned the boat and rowed fast, and as he came around the corner of a field, a dark shadow rushed towards them, roaring. Paviyan was confident of his ability to row in the dark, and he stood at the bow of the boat, his black body indistinguishable from the darkened sky, working hard to keep the loaded boat steady in the blowing wind. Vavachan was convinced that they were lost. “I don’t think this is the way we came,” he said.
Paviyan was angry. If they were on land, he would have slapped his son across the face. This was the first time Vavachan had been to these parts while Paviyan, his father, and his father’s father knew these fields as intimately as the fields they stood watch over.
The dark shadow turned into rain, and as raindrops as big as young coconuts fell and two brilliant blades of lightning illuminated the earth, Paviyan began to think that Vavachan might be right. He could not recognise any landmarks as the darkness had rendered his surroundings monotonous. Suddenly, he remembered that he had been cutting grass where a clever chemballi fish had killed a Chovan toddy tapper.
It had happened before the time of his father’s father. Early one morning, the Chovan, from Villunni, was getting ready to go to work. But his Chovathi stopped him.
“Don’t go today,” she said.
They had been living together for only a week.
“Move out of my way,” he said. “If I don’t retrieve the sap-filled pot from the top of the tree, it will overflow and rot the crown. The tree will be infested with beetles.”
“Then promise me you’ll come back quickly. Don’t loiter. And be careful of your surroundings.”
She was aware that her Chovan had a peculiar habit. If he saw any good fish in the canal, he would stand there and watch until he worked out a plan to catch the fish.
The Chovan tried to heed his Chovathi’s warning, but as soon as he had climbed down the second coconut tree of the day, he forgot all about it. There in the canal below, in a spot where the water was low, was a group of chemballi quivering in the mud. Chemballi – people also called these dark-skinned perch kallada – was a tasty fish, skinned and cooked in a curry with chillies. Even the aroma of it being fried with chilli paste in a shallow pot was a great accompaniment to a potful of kanji.
The Chovan set his toddy pot down, stepped in and picked up a handful, and tucked them in the waist-fold of his towel. And then he saw another one, much bigger than the ones he had already picked up. Without thinking what he was doing, he put the one in his hand between his teeth, and bent forward to pick up the other.
The fish in his mouth remembered the history of its kind and of humankind, and deciding to die valiantly, it wriggled, making the Chovan inadvertently open his mouth.
It slid down his throat into his stomach. Chemballi had razor-sharp bones, far more numerous than other fish, on both sides of their bodies. Back home, the Chovathi waited in vain. From that day on, the spirit of the unfortunate Chovan played tricks on the boats and the people who passed by the spot, making them lose all sense of time and direction. Paviyan and his son had strayed into his trap. They rowed from canal to canal. Imagining that he recognised a collection of fields from its outer bund, Paviyan would row towards it, only to row back, realising that he had been misled. Several times he imagined that they were almost at their house.
Vavachan huddled in the boat with his head bowed, his body about to collapse from hunger and cold, and bailed out the water that leaked into the boat with a piece of areca spathe. He glanced at Paviyan at the bow of the boat with amazement. He was the type of person on whom hunger seemed to have very little effect. Sometimes, \he did not eat for days at a time, but if the opportunity for a meal came along, he would eat enough for two people as though preparing for the lean days ahead.
As his legs went numb in the cold water, Vavachan thought about the warm, unsalted kanji water he sometimes had. Whenever she got some paddy, Chella used it not to make kanji, but kanji water, and the children, enticed by the most pleasant aroma in the world, would drink it dry.
The boat reached a grassless spot along the canal. Vavachan shifted on the plank trying to keep his balance. The movement rocked the boat and enraged Paviyan. He raised his oar to strike his son with it, but changed his mind. The boat sat low in the water. Further ahead, Paviyan pulled up to a wheelhouse that housed a waterwheel. Pinning the boat to the shore with the long-oar, they climbed up, holding on to the thickly growing grass. It was pitch dark inside the wheelhouse, and the mud on the floor was churned as though someone had been in there during the day. There was nowhere to sit. In the flash of lightning, the waterwheel, an eighteen-leafed monster, loomed. It would have moved untold litres of water, persuaded countless fish to swim from the fields into the canals.
“No more today,” Paviyan said to himself. He turned to Vavachan:
“Why don’t we stay here for the night? We can find our way in the morning.”
This was the first time Paviyan had ever asked one of his children for their opinion.
“I think we should keep going,” Vavachan said, trying to control his teeth jittering in the cold. “Let’s get home.”
Obediently, Paviyan got back into the boat.
“Water is flowing in from the east,” he said.
In the little time they had rested in the wheelhouse, the water level in the canal had risen. Further ahead, houses with pinpricks of light came into vision.
“Christian Mappila houses,” Paviyan said. “I think we have gone all the way around, and come back to Kuttomburam.”
But he had to swallow his words immediately. A river was in front of him, larger than any canal and flowing swiftly. They inched forward sticking to the side, trying to avoid the strong currents in the middle of the river. Vavachan pushed back the branches and vines that slapped his face. They heard people calling out from the other side of the river, and Paviyan decided to cross it after all.
“Take us across,” one of the two people who had hollered to get their attention said.
The men were dressed in mundus and loose-fitting upper garments. They were thin, but seemed healthy. Vavachan had not seen a man in an upper garment until then. As they got into the boat, he noticed that their clothes were dry. It did not seem that it had rained properly in this area. The boat did not rock when they got into it, and when one of them spoke, his voice sounded as though it was coming from a hollow reed. The boat was loyal, and it never let one down regardless of the weight of the cargo in it, even when it looked like it was about to sink.
“We went out cutting grass and got late. Where would I get to if I went this way?” Paviyan asked.
“Thiruvarppu, and then into the lake. This is Kallumada. If you go west, you’ll get to Olassa and Parippu. You should go back the way you came.”
The boat reached the other bank. Hearing that there was a Pulayan dwelling nearby, Paviyan set out on foot to ask for some food. Vavachan sat on a stone, keeping an eye on the boat.
The young men began to walk away, but one of them turned back.
“My name is Narayanapillah,” he said. “And this here is Shivaramapillah.”
“Where are my masters off to?” Vavachan asked. The cold and the reverence made him huddle.
“We’re going to Malaya.”
“Is this the way to Malaya?”
“This way, we’ll get to Kottayam. From there, we have to travel for a few days, and then get on a ship and travel further for a couple of months.”
“Have you got people there?”
“We’ll find jobs. After that, there’ll be no more troubles. They pay you in British money you know, not in paddy like here.”
“So you won’t come back again?”
“We’ll be back. But soon there’s going to be terrible hunger here, and famine. There won’t be even a single grain of paddy. There’s a war coming, you know, a big war.”
Vavachan understood that they were talking to him as a reward for taking them across the river.
“We might consider joining the army.”
The moon made a sudden appearance, and in its light, Vavachan watched, with a sense of disquiet, the whiteness of the men’s upper garments retreating into the distance. Deciding to follow them, he had taken a couple of steps, when the boat swayed in the current, threatening to drift away. He turned back, and held on to it. He waited for Paviyan to return; he knew he would return empty-handed.
Excerpted with permission from Moustache, S Hareesh, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil.