Vellen was a wanted man with a price on his head. In 1925, a policeman by the name of Chandu shot him dead. He was fifty-four or fifty-five years old at the time. His oldest daughter, Manikyam, was twenty-nine, and her mother, Muthamma, was forty-seven. Muthamma was not Vellen’s wife but a woman he had kidnapped, and she was the reason he had come to Theeyoor. He had seen her for the first time in Aamachal, on his way back from breaking into the house of a man named Ambunair in Kuniyankunnu.

In those days, in the month of Meenam, a party of Kodagu traders would come to Aamachal with rice, chillies and various forest produce, and camp at the inn belonging to the Valyejamanan – the feudal landlord – of Aamachal. Vellen had seen a light in the lean-to behind the inn and had gone to investigate, even though he knew that such curiosity, especially after committing a big burglary, was not advisable. But he had not been able to resist the urge. Something or someone had pulled him towards the light.

As he squatted behind some bushes, he had seen a young woman dressed in a red woollen blouse in the lean-to, sweeping up the ashes of the cooking fire. She raised her face, and Vellen’s eyes had throbbed as though witnessing something magical. He had never seen such a lovely face, not even in his fantasies.

Burglary was Vellen’s lifeblood. He knew no other way than to just take what he wanted from life. Before he realised it, he was inside the lean-to, and covering the young woman’s mouth with his hand, he had scooped her up and run out into the darkness.

He remained in hiding with her until the following night. At midnight, he brought her to Chemmaran’s hovel at the bottom of Kilimala, around twenty kilometres west of Aamachal, in Theeyoor. By then, scared and wretchedly sad, and having walked a very long way, the young woman had wilted like the tender stem of a taro leaf.

Chemmaran lived with his wife Cheeyeyi and their two children in a lonesome hovel he had built after falling out with all his relatives. He was taken aback by the unexpected arrival of his friend. They had met around two years ago at the festival in Malliyott, when a fight had broken out outside the temple and Vellen had come to Chemmaran’s rescue. Although he looked like a young boy, he had grabbed hold of Chemmaran’s hand and jumped into the field below, dodging the swinging fists of four or five hooligans. Later, as they made their acquaintance over a pot of toddy, Vellen had disclosed that he was a thief.

Here he was now, in the company of a blouse-wearing, fair-skinned woman! He looked all grown up, with a bushier moustache, broader chest and thicker forearms. As soon as he saw them, Chemmaran realised that Vellen had stolen the woman from somewhere.

Vellen left Muthamma in Chemmaran’s care, with strict instructions not to let her out or to let anyone see her. He promised to be back in about a week’s time, and as promised, he returned before daybreak on the seventh day. He was a new man, dressed in a mundu that covered his knees and a white upper garment, and he had a large amount of money in his possession. The very next day, he went to visit Rairunambiar, the overseer of Theeyoor Valyejamanan’s affairs, with a gift of a bottle of rum.

In those days, rum was a commodity known only to the white sahebs, the high-ranking officials who worked under them, the rich who lived in big towns, and other such fashionable people. Vellen introduced himself as Narayanan Nair from Thalassery who worked with the white sahebs.

He asked Rairunambiar to appeal to the Valyejamanan on his behalf to allow him to buy the four-acre coconut grove named Koneripparambu, adjacent to Chemmaran’s hovel. Rairunambiar was already enthralled by the sight of the bottle of rum, and the addition of a five-rupee note to the gift sealed his friendship with “Narayanan Nair”. Within four days, the deed for Koneripparambu changed hands.

There, in a newly constructed two-storey house, Vellen began his life with Muthamma. It would be another five years before his secrets would be revealed to some of the local people – secrets that Chemmaran, true to his word, had kept even from Cheeyeyi. But by then, all of them were indebted to Vellen in one way or another.

Vellen was home in Theeyoor only for a couple of days in a month. When he was away, he left Muthamma in the company of Cheeyeyi and a sixty-year-old woman named Njavinichi he had brought over from faraway Chengalayi. By the time they moved into their new house, Muthamma was already pregnant.

Vellen named his firstborn, a girl, Manikyam. More children followed – Madhu, Kannan, Kammaran and Kunjutti – leaving Muthamma in a continuous state of pregnancy and childbirth. Irritated by her children and listening to Cheeyeyi’s chatter and Njavinichi’s stories of ghouls and spirits, she lived within the walls of that house, barely seeing the outside world.

Memories of her home in Ponnambetta and her loved ones remained in her heart, and endured and thrived as time went by. She was never able to find a place in her affections for Vellen, who came and went as he pleased, but she hid her anger and hatred from him and from the people of Theeyoor.

With a quiet determination, she spent all the money Vellen gave her on each of his visits. She did not deny anyone who asked for her aid, never once holding back when someone needed a helping hand. She cooked elaborate meals for Cheeyeyi and her children, the workers in the coconut grove and the cowherds; sent offerings of oil, money and chicken to the temples in Chenkara, Theeyoor and Aamachal.

As time went by, the house name “Koneri” came to be used only in reference to Vellen, while his household came to be known among Theeyoorians as “Kodagatheentada” – the home of the lady from Kodagu.

Vellen, too, had yielding hands. As though to make up for his sins, he donated half of what he made from each of his burglaries to those who were in need – the poor, the destitute and the ones mired in debt. These people found that what they needed – a bundle of money, a sack of rice, a couple of mundus – would appear on their doorsteps without their having to ask, and they knew who had brought them these gifts.

When he set out on his burglaries, Vellen would become another person, with a heart as tough as a block of granite and muscles as strong as those of a wild buffalo. Once he picked the time and place of his next break-in, his eyes and ears would become as sharp as firethorn, and his mind would focus only on his mission.

The rich in the towns and villages nearby feared his name, while the poor of Theeyoor worshipped it. Few had actually seen Vellen in broad daylight, and yet they felt they knew him well, that he was one of their own. When finally, on a new-moon night, on the northern slope of Kilimala, Policeman Chandu shot him dead, they were all as shocked and grief-stricken as though they had lost their own sibling.

Vellen did not leave Theeyoorians even after his death. He received a place in the collective memory of Theeyoor with its venerable elders, right beside fearless fighters, powerful wizards, famed healers and seers. Stories grew around his name, and in time, these stories became legends.

In these stories, he shape-shifted into a bull or a cat in a split second, charmed people out of their senses, put them to sleep with a single glance. Once, at Kalikkadavu...Remember, in Pookkothunada near Thaliparamba...At a Hajiyaar’s house in Valapattanam...New lands and faraway towns entered his legends. He anointed his body with peacock oil, they said, ate the meat of a pangolin, drank the fat off a python, hid in an abandoned well, swam across a swollen river, broke free from iron shackles...

As time went by, the stories faded and lost their lustre, and there were fewer and fewer people to tell them or listen to them. Still, every once in a while, Vellen appeared on their tongues. “Who does he think he is? Vellen?” one might hear in a chai shop in Theeyoorangadi, the old market area. Or as the last word in an argument on Theeyoor beach: “Even Vellen couldn’t do this.” Or an old-timer with dimmed eyes and tired ears would start, confident that someone was listening to his reverie, “When I was a child...That is to say, when Koneri Vellen was alive...”

Theyoor Chronicles

Excerpted with permission from Theeyoor Chronicles, N Prabhakaran, translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil, HarperCollins India.