Susan Immanuel, whom her friends called the traveling restaurant, dismantled the various containers of her tiffin carrier one by one and placed them on the table. Remya Nair fished out kovakka mezhukku puratti and chilli kondattam from underdone matta rice. But all her hopes were pinned on Susan’s restaurant. In the debates on cuisine that sometimes took place at this round table, Remya’s aviyal or Sangeeta Nampoothiri’s mango pulisseri, as a rule, were not able to hold their own against Susan’s culinary flourishes.
This day Susan has presented herself on the premises of the court with pork varattiyatu, one of the delicious items from her ancestral home at Kothamangalalm. As soon as she opened a small pumpkin- shaped casserole, the pork that Susan’s grandmother had tamed into a sauté after a first rate Kottayam recipe, seemed to grunt and execute a high kick, raising its snout and throwing its hind leg. Remya Nair, lying in wait, stopped its progress peremptorily and carried a small boneless piece to her mouth and goggled. Susan laughed noisily, watching the tip of Remya’s nose slowly, very slowly, break out in a sweat and turn chilli red. At that moment, Sangeeta Nampoothiri’s message arrived on Susan’s mobile to show the ‘received’ sign.
`Look’, Susan showed Remya the mobile.
It said in English, ‘Hearing is going on, don’t finish the pork.’
`Thoughts of this pork dish keep her on tenterhooks even in the court room. What kind of Nampoothiri is she?’
`Don’t you know that her grandparents were Yogakshema people?’
`So what?’ Remya’s words did not make sense to Susan. She looked at her friend, nibbling kovakka mezhukku puratti.
Remya clutched her head, ‘My God, I should have remembered whom I was talking to, You have no sense of history at all.’
`Yogakshema people are revolutionists (sic) among Nampoothiris. They are not the tamarind curry and sacred thread type. Get it? Have you heard of V.T. Bhattathirippad?’
`Yes’ Susan nodded as a forgotten reference to him stirred in her memory.
`He was the party who told people to torch the temples and that too seventy years ago. Eating your pork varattiyatu is nothing to that.’
Susan, making no further reply to this, fished out pieces of coconut from the pork and dropped them on Remya’s rice.
Remya said, ‘Do you just add them to the curry as such or do you fry them in coconut oil?’
Susan said, `Oh, that depends on Valiyammachi’s mood.’
Remya said, while eating her lunch, ‘Didn’t she say the hearing was going on? What will happen to our Sangee’s case?’
‘I had a look at the case file.’ Susan removed the stalk of the chilli kondattam and knocking out the seeds, put it in the curd.
`Attempt to murder has been added to taking a person’s caste name. According to the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act of 99, our Nampoothiri’s client…. now, what’s the fellow’s name?’
`C.P. Gopala Menon,’ Remya added.
`Ah… Menon or whoever…he might get up to ten years’
`What happened?’ Remya said, ‘All I know is that Sangee is going to argue the case on her own.’
‘Have you have met this Menon?’
`The complainant is a person called Kappakutti who lives to the east of his property.’ Susan said, trying to recall as closely as possible the statement of the plaintiff in the case file. ‘He belongs to the caste whose members catch fish using kottals. Menon was ferrying the bricks and cement for building his new use through Kappakutti’s yard. He might have done that through his own but en he would have had to make a detour along the main road. Anyway he wanted to move the materials this way. When the to and fro movement of the curry made life impossible, Kappakutti decided to protest, Menon or no Menon.
Hey, give me some of that cabbage toran’
`And?’ the fire and smoke of the conflict swirled up in Remya’s mind.
‘Ah…. Menon didn’t relish Kappakutti’s dialogue; after all he was of a lower caste, wasn’t he? Menon caught hold of him by his nape and screamed, you son of a pulaya, I’ll kill you. Going by the case file, he then beat him over the head with an iron rod that was lying around. Attempt to murder. The Lord knows.’
Remya, who found it difficult to believe the story, moved a glass of cumin tea towards Susan. The Menon of her imagination, after abusing Kappakutti, didn’t stay around for anything and backing up the lorry, drove away along the main road to his property. She spoke,
`It is impossible for a Menon to be so cruel.’
`You will say that.’ Susan slammed her glass down on the table. ‘You Nairs and Menons belong to the same category, don’t you?’
Suddenly a bat flew in through the door of the bar association hall and pounced on the pork.
`Hi, Sangee . Remya croaked at the bat. While the hearing was on, Susan’s pork had intruded into the court and sauntered along the back yards of Sangeeta’s greed, twitching its nose. As soon as the hearing was over, she had flown to the bar association hall, not even waiting to exchange pleasantries with Menon who had come down from the witness stand sweating profusely. Flinging aside her tie and gown, Sangeeta opened the box containing her lunch. Handing over kadumanga and kalan to Susan she gratefully received the sautéed pork in return.
This day too, Sangeeta repeated certain pronouncements about the role of pork in reducing the social difference between two major religions that she was in the habit of making on days on which the Kothamangalam dish was served.
‘Sangee, be serious.’ Susan said, sliding, along with her glasses, her seniority of two years also up from the tip of her nose, and moved a bit closer to Sangeeta. ‘This is the first case that you are going to argue on your own. You have to be a bit more careful. I read the FIR. It’s very strong. If you don’t influence the witnesses, Menon’s goose would be cooked.’
As soon as she heard Susan’s warning, Sangeeta, who had till then been dallying with the sautéed pork, raised herself slowly from the plate and sat, rubbing her finger tips along the edge of the tiffin carrier as though she had finished her lunch. A fish belonging to the noble species of Chorinchath Palat House swimming with the grace of an opera dancer unwittingly into Kappakutti’s ottal: C.P. Gopala Menon. Which protective mantra from the Cr.P.C. do I chant to swerve it? `I didn’t mean to upset you.’ Remya slapped her on the back and reminded her of the possible outcome of the case.
‘I know,’ Sangeeta Nampoothiri’s voice faltered. She kept turning the glass, making the reflected light of the mercury lamp dissolve in the cumin tea in the glass.
`I had sent Menon along to Moolekadavu yesterday to influence the witnesses. No use at all.’
Sangeeta said. ‘All the witnesses are people who set their ottals with Kappakutti. Offering a bottle or two and money Menon tried every trick in the book. Nothing worked. They are determined that whoever took the caste name should go to jail. As for Kappakutti, he presents himself everyday at the office of the public prosecutor to learn the case. Prosecutor Rukmini is a distant relative of his. And she used to be something of a fire brand in the university, don’t you remember?’
`As if we didn’t know it!’ Remya said. ‘In addition to that she also suffered from dalit-ism and feminism and every other damn ism that was knocking around. What with her being newly appointed by the new government and all, she is sure to be full of the beginner’s vim. Give me some more kadumanga …Ah… excellent.’
`Is this from last year’s?’
Sangeeta nodded in assent.
`And what’s more, Rukmini has some personal grudge towards us savarnas.’ Susan added.
`Well, what was that you said? Us savarnas?’ Remya interrupted. Savarnas are we Nairs and Nampoothiris. Since when did Syrians become savarnas?’
‘Ah, come on, my grandma Pothencode Annakutty also knows a little bit of local history. We were real Nampoothiris before we converted to Christianity. What do you say to that?’
Remya laughed. ‘So you also know enough local history to survive.’
`Leave it. If Rukmini were to put her mind to it, could she pull something off?’ Susan enquired.
`In fact, only she can find a way out.’ Remya said.
‘But she wouldn’t’, Sangeeta spoke despondently. ‘Do you think she would pass up an opportunity to get the better of us upper caste people?’
Sangeeta was aware that Rukmini suffered generally from an inferiority complex stemming from her caste. Last year during just such an afternoon, a conversation about the casteist nature of different dishes had taken place around this very table. Apart from Sangeeta and her friends, Advocate Unni Raja’s junior Satish Verma had also been present. Sangeeta had initiated the discussion. She had said that just as you added salt and cumin to various dishes it was natural for you to add the flavour of the creator’s particular caste also. She argued with specific examples that just as you could always tell a Mongol by the fat deposits in his eyelids, it was possible to categorize a curry at sight.
Nampoothiri = mampazha pulisseri, olan
Nair = koottukari, mezhukku puratti, molooshiyam, aviyal
Ezhava = mutira kari, kadala kari
Christian = Duck mappas, pork varattiyatu
Muslim = beef biriyani, chicken biriyani
Satish Verma had supported Sangeeta, observing that each curry, along with its taste and color, also carried, like aji -no- moto, its creator’s heredity. It was then that the conversation had turned to Rukrnini.
Sangeeta had let it slip that no matter whether she acquired the LLB degree or even a doctorate after passing the LLM, the pungent reek of brackish water fish that rose out of Rukmini ‘s tiffin-box wouldn’t go and that was part of the afore -said heredity.
Who would have known that in a year Rukrnini would hook Satish? The dark-skinned girl had trapped the bona fide Thrippunithura thampuran in her ottal of love.
In a moment of love, when faced with a paucity of topics, Thampuran let slip the remark about brackish water fish that Sangeeta had made about his beloved. After that Rukmini had not even glanced her way. She evaded chance meetings on the court verandah by lowering her head or thumbing aimlessly through files till Sangeeta moved away.
When the civil station teemed with scheduled caste men of different kinds why did a dalit activist like Rukmini have to choose a thampuran? Satish’s answer to the question was that love had no caste. Remya, who took this to be a stock response that lovers made when unable to counter criticism, scoffed at it.
`That’s not the reason. Economic and educational progress tempt the backward classes to ally with the savarnas.’
Sangeeta had sensed certain promising changes in Satish when they met last month. In the court library, he opened upto her for a short while.
`I made a mistake in Rukku’s case. I might even say I was trapped. I’m wondering how to get out of this. You cannot wish your caste away. Better stick to your caste when it comes to marriage. If you don’t, you will get into trouble later on. It’s wiser not to change whatever your elders and betters have laid down.’
`What are you mulling over lunch?’ Remya tapped on Sangeeta’s cheek.
‘I have a trump card up my sleeve. I was wondering whether I should play it before I fall at Rukmini ‘s feet,’ Sangeeta spoke.
`What’s it?’ Susan licked her fingers clean and rose to her feet after stacking the containers one by one.
`You see, I’ll prove that `pulaya’s son’ has nothing to do with caste.’
Sangeeta’s eyes burned in excitement. `Do you know what `pulam’ means?’ Susan had never heard the word before. She looked at Remya. She too didn’t know.
‘ ‘Pulam’ means field, that is, a paddy field,’ Sangeeta explained. ‘One who works in a pulam is a pulayan. Menon didn’t call him by his caste name but only called him the son of a person who worked in a paddy field. What do you say?’
Susan thought for a while. It didn’t seem possible to reap a convincing point of law from the paddy field of Sangeeta’s contrivance. One might try. But then the court might not even take it seriously.
`Don’t even risk it’, Susan opined.
`It makes better sense to get Rukmini to talk the fellow into a compromise. Kappakutti wouldn’t dream of saying no to her.’
`But, how?’ Sangeeta wondered.
`Well, there’s a way,’ Remya said.
The phone rang just when Sangeeta had sat down under the fan in the parlour to dry her face after having spread a mixture of ripe papaya and lime juice on her cheeks, It was Remya.
`Did you meet Rukmini?’ Sangeeta said.
`I’ll tell you about that later. This has to do with something else. When you come tomorrow, you must positively bring mampazha pulisseri. And kadumanga too. I’m serious. It’s an order. Okay? Goodnight.’
Remya Nair cut her off before she could ask further questions.
The next day at noon Sangeeta appeared at the dining table of the Bar Association Hall with mampazha pulisseri made from first rate Chandrakaran angoes and three-year old special kadumanga cadged from her grandmother’s custody. In a short while, the non-vegetarian restaurant arrived in a large casserole and a taller than normal tiffin carrier. When the casserole was opened, steam redolent of coconut milk from duck mappas hit Sangeeta squarely on the face. The traditional dish of Christians.
`We have two guests’, Susan said.
`Who are they?,’ Sangeeta, closing the lid on the duck in the casserole, turned towards Susan.
`That dalit-wali, your opponent, Rukkumani. You see, you arc going to conduct the peace talks here. This mixed caste multi-cuisine spread has been got up here to add spice to them. My mappas, .. There’s more to come. Even Rukkumani’s brackish water fish will reach the table soon. It was by falling at Satish Verma’s feet that we just about tamed the public prosecutor’.
Then lowering her voice, and bringing her face just below Sangeeta’s ear, Susan raised her neck like a duck. ‘Sangee, would you like to know something? We got to know her mind only when we got closer. Rukmini would like to join our company and talk to us. Though Kappakutti is her relative she really doesn’t like him one bit. Then being the P.P., she cannot really refuse to argue his case. Would you like to know something else? For heaven’s sake, don’t tell anyone. Once this compromise is brought about, Varmaji is going to ditch her. He’s giving up law to go to Canada….’
Sangeeta stared at Susan in disbelief. Susan placed her hand on her head and intoned solemnly, ‘I swear by St. Anthony.’
In half an hour, myriad dishes filled the table in the Bar Association Hall. Remya Nair inaugurated the peace talks by serving her aviyal to the others. They didn’t have to elaborate since lover boy himself had already put Rukmini in possession of facts. Taking the cue from her friends, Sangeeta herself ladled the mampazha pulisseri on to Rukmini’s rice. On her part, Rukmini caught a. brackish water fish swimming in the chilli sauce and transferred it to the Antharjanam’s plate. Their hands, impelled by a magnetic force beyond all considerations of caste, met each other over the round table to cling together. A steaming hand—shake!
This court acquits Chorinehat Veettil Gopala Menon.
After receiving Susan’s mappas, Remya doled out a little bit of history along with her koottukari.
`A lunch like this had taken place in Chrerai in 1917.’
Everybody looked at Remya. `
In Sahodaran Ayyappan’s front yard.’ Remya laughed. ‘A historical meal seating about a hundred or twd hundred others with two of Rukmini’s caste. With that, Ayyappan was ex-communicated. To tell you the truth, Satish Verma plays the Ayyappan here this day.’
She winked at Susan with a suppressed chuckle. ‘In comparison with that this is not just a lunch but a social revolution, isn’t that so?’
Rukmini nodded approval at Remya’s suggestion. Everyone laughed. Sangeeta opined ‘very tasty’ chewing the head of the brackish water fish.
After lunch, as they were coming out, soaking in the sweetness of pazha prathaman served by Satish Verma, Susan helped Rukmini to wipe the sticky sweetness from her lips with her handkerchief. Just as Rukmini bid goodbye clinging to Thampuran’s fingers, Remya heard the sound of Sangeeta retching all over the toilet. She looked at Susan. They made for the toilet.
Brackish water fish gasping for breath in the washbasin.
Remya massaged Sangeeta’s back.
`You must have eaten something that didn’t agree with you.’ Remya said. `Wash your face and mouth and take rest. I have to appear in court in the afternoon.’
As soon as Remya left, Sangeeta wiped her face looking at the mirror. Then she started to clear away the fish floating dead in the washbasin.
Translated from Malayalam by R.K. Jayasree.
V.T. Bhattathirippad :Social reformer, one of the founding fathers of the Yogakshema Sabha
Kottayam : The Christian heartland of Kerala.
Thrippunithura : Stronghold of the erstwhile royal family of Cochin.
Sahodaran Ayyappan : A social reformer instrumental in breaching the caste barrier in Kerala. Sahodaran’ means ‘brother’
In this story of multi-layered signification, Santhosh Echikanam’s encounter With the postmodern is refreshing in the sense that it is not pretentious at all, This is not to say that he takes no ideological positions. For all his irreverence he is, or rather his ‘stories are, deadly serious. They abound in texts and sub texts and work on different levels, allowing you to peel off layer after layer in wonderment and marvel at the possibilities of signification that reveal themselves to you. Most of his stories are often take-offs on contemporary events which prove to be re-readings of the past at the same time. For instance, in ‘Koalala’, suicide, a theme replete with philosophical and existential possibilities to the modernist, provides a platform for discussing a host of issues, all of them very real in the third world context. ‘Ubhaya Jeevitam’ is the reworking of an old fable in which the prey engages the hunter in metaphysical discussions about the meaning of life.
The present story is a skilfully crafted one. Like Janus it has two faces: one turned towards the past and one to the future and like Janus again, is firmly rooted in the present. It seeks to bring out the insidious influence of the caste system and how it haunts the minds and thought processes of the average Malayalee. It also reveals how fragile a hold the much-vaunted ideals of enlightenment have on the psyche of the Malayalee. The original Panthibhojanam’, an event which sought to ensure a human existence for the dalits and which its organiser, Sahodaran Ayyappan carried out in the face of threats to ostracise or even kill him and which earned him the rather dubious sobriquet of `Pulayan Ayyappan’, is trivialised in the present time where it degenerates into a conspiracy to ensure that the dalits remain in their caste-ordained place. The caste is something that as a people Indians would like to banish from their collective consciousness and which, like an unwelcome guest will not go away.
Taboos on food with proscriptions on what one may eat and with whom, are quite common to cultures in different parts of the world. But in India, especially in Kerala, where as part of what may be described as a theocratic feudalism, they became entrenched to such an extent that even adherents of Judaic religions which preach the brotherhood of man cater to them. By zeroing in on food, which is intimately connected with the mundane and quotidian business of living, the author may perhaps be seeking to imply the utter futility of fighting something so pervasive as the influence of caste with the high flown rhetoric of reform movements. The Yogakeshema Sabha seems to have succeeded only in breaking the taboo on food so that its latter day descendant, Sangeeta eats meat with impunity but her caste identity remains intact to the extent that she blithely attributes caste to culinary items.
Two meals are described in the story. One in which Rukmini does not take part and another in which she does. Apart from these two there is another one; a historical one in fact, to which a passing reference is made in the story. This meal in the past casts its shadow on the ones in the present; especially so on the meal at which Rukmini is present. In fact it determines the whole historical context of the story. Echikanam has planted a number of subtle and at times even mischievous, pointers in the story to emphasise the protean nature of caste in Kerala. For instance he very carefully bestows an upper caste surname on Salish Verma’s senior advocate hinting at the exclusivity which is so much a part of the caste system. Again, Susan, though ignorant of other it details of history, is sure her ancestors were Namputhiri converts to Christianity. The so- called Brahmin ancestry of Syrian Christians is a myth to which the community clings in do the face of strong evidence to the contrary. All this goes to prove the subversive nature g of the caste system. The reform movements of late 19th and early 20th centuries have only succeeded in driving it underground and never quite managed to stamp it out.
Appropriately enough, Rukmini remains a mute presence in the story. We learn of her views at second hand. The other characters, for instance, makes a number of it statements whose veracity we have no means of ascertaining. We are left to surmise the sequence of events that turns an alleged firebrand like Rukmini into a spent force who is brought to the board to share the spurious bonhomie of the died in the wool casteists. This consummation is particularly symptomatic of the dalit situation in India where dalit movements, unable to fight the invidious methods being employed to undermine their resurgence, are in danger of being appropriated in just such a manner as described in the story.
SANTOSH ECHIKANAM. Has to his credit four collections of stories and a clutch of literary awards. Hailed as an important voice among the new crop of writers who started writing in the wake of the weakening hold of modernism on Malayalam fiction.