Our love overflowed with romance, burned intense and youthful. Just the way Grand’ad Basheer, the master storyteller1, imagined it to be. However, the story wasn’t without a few amendments. I wasn’t Kesavan Nair. Neither was she Saramma. Instead, she was Sindhu Nair and me, Tommy Cherian. No, I wasn’t the tenant in her house – no such luck. So we carried on as two guest lecturers in the same college – me in history, she in English.
In some rare occasions when romance threatened to turn into an inundating flood, we had fun naming our unborn, not-even-guaranteed- to-be-born kids. She called them Samuel (Johnson) and Sylvia (Plath). I chose Bhagat (Singh) and Lakshmi (Bai). Just my luck, she never demanded I stand on my head to prove my ardour! Instead, she walked into my hostel, one fine day, carrying a big bag, and ordered:
“Where is your bag? Get ready now.”
“Don’t you have any faith in me?” “Yes, ma’am, I do.”
“So come along.”
Ready did I get. She took me to the railway station. Gave me money for two sleeper tickets to Kanyakumari. And as soon as we got to the southern tip of India, she leapt into an STD booth, and pressed a lot of numbers.
“Yes, it’s me, Sindhu. I’m right now in the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula. I have a guy with me. Tommy Cherian. No, no, not just a friend. My lover. We’ve eloped. Today morning. Are we to jump off land’s end, or. Really? Alright, ok.”
“What did they say?”
“Not to jump off land’s end. We’re invited to Ottappalam.”
She gave me the receiver and I too pushed quite a few numbers.
Mariamma of Bharananganam at the other end. My mum.
“Hey, Tommy, good that you called. Was about to call you at the hostel. There’s a good proposal in the air. A permanent job at the local college and ten lakhs. The girl’s ok. Shall I say yes? The engagement can be after Easter.”
“No ammachi, I didn’t wait for the church. Got married. The girl’s called Sindhu. Sindhu Nair”. A respectable expletive went bang, and the line went dead.
Sindhu swung her bag and made for a hotel facing the seafront. I followed. Sitting there sipping coffee and gazing at the greenish sea, I put right in front of her a thought that had been in my mind for some time:
“Why was all this hurry?”
“Oh, just like that. Isn’t it fun to elope?”
“Oh, great. But isn’t this an outdated art form, of the oldies? It’s rather out of fashion. Buttering up the family is more trendy now.”
“Fashions come back too. Now look. The short-sleeved blouse my mother wore at her wedding is fashion now. That’s what we’re doing. We’re bringing old- style elopement back into fashion.”
“If you wanted to call up your folks, we could’ve done it from Thiruvananthapuram itself. Why are we here, what a waste of money?”
“Tommy dear, listen. My dad isn’t like your mom. He’s a colonel, a colonel! If he ever got suspicious, he’d zoom down to Thiruvananthapuram in a car, whisk me into it, and I’d be married off before you had an inkling to some Nair in Ottappalam. And then you’d have to hand down all your salary to liquor barons!”
The reply, “My dog will do that!” I whispered in my mind, finishing the coffee. She immediately opened her bag, took out a new Kerala handloom saree and handed it to me, asking me to put it into her hands. I followed her instructions.
“And so, we are married now,” she said. “Let’s go back.” She paid the bill and got up. I sat there, scratching my head.
“Since we’ve bothered to come all the way… why not stay on for the night?” I cautiously queried.
Shattering my Syrian Christian shrewdness, Sindhu Nair asseverated:
“No way! The first night is to be at my family home, in my room, on our chapramancha cot.”
I retreated. “I didn’t mean that. I’m not that type.. just wanted to stretch out here like this, in this breeze. ”
“We’ll take the breeze on the way back. The sea is all over. My aunt may worry if we are late.”
“Let us leave then, but tell me something before…”
“So what were these big bags for?”
“For visual effect, what else! An elopement calls for that sort of thing!”
So we returned by train, she to a relative’s house, and I to the hostel. Thus, at the end of an entirely uneventful elopement I went to sleep as usual, hugging my pillow.
Exactly a week after our elopement, she incarnated once again in the hostel, big bag and all.
“Where’s your bag? Get ready. Now.” “Where to?”
“Don’t you have any faith in me?”
“Yes, ma’am, I do. But if you tell me where we are off to, I could
apply for leave. Leaving like that last time’s created big trouble for me in the Department.”
“Look, look” she exclaimed, “how you’ve changed after marriage!
My mother was correct. Never trust these Syrian Christian men!”
I wanted to directly ask how many Syrian Christian men her mom had liaisons with, but what came out was something like this: “Ok, alright then, don’t say. Wanted to be a bit more responsible now that I’m married. No one seems to value that!”
“Ok, listen, we’re going to Ottappalam to my family home. Father called last night to ask if we weren’t going.”
The beauty of the noble chapramancha couch in the magnificent royal mansions in some movie – Manichitrattazhu, I think – flashed past my eyes. The carvings around the bed and on the legs are so exquisite! I transmogrified into a little lamb, collected my bag, and trod her heels, leaving the leave application and my job to the devil.
We got down at that fabulous crossroad in Ottappalam, which lay basking in stardom, having acted in so many Malayalam movies! As I stepped on the same soil trodden by Mammooty and Mohanlal, the radiant stars of Malayalam filmdom, an exhilarating throb came within a whisker of me. We walked for some distance, and lo and behold, before us was a pretty-painted mansion! A clean, well-kept courtyard, the gate guarded by stone lions with bougainvilleas in full bloom overflowing on both sides, a garden with a fountain within, a swing, a cement lady balancing a pitcher on her hip, a two-storied house with a pleasing porch, a veranda running all around, and a half-tile, half-concrete roof. Anyone would be tempted to burst into song, like the goggle-eyed pair in the weatherproof paint ad: “how prettily painted is this stately home. !”. No wonder, too, that the movie-fellows have camped at Ottappalam, with generator vans in tow. What’s the use of a house without a porch, with just narrow rooms witout wooden ceilings, and the courtyard asphyxiated with drab rows of rubber sheets hung out to dry! What a great disgrace not just to me, but also to Kerala, and even more, to the film makers of Kerala’s rubber heartland, the homeland of the Syrian Christians!
Father – retired colonel Somasundaran Nair. A veritable Nedumudi Venu, just the sort of dad Venu plays in the films, clad in dhoti, sleeveless vest, rudraksha beads in a golden neck-chain, and eagerly welcoming with, “var-ua, var-ua, come, come,” his talk ringing with impeccable high- class tones. No one would suspect the army connection. The colonel resembles a peaceable schoolteacher in his ways and expression. And Mother, none other than that epitome of motherliness lighting up the Malayalam movie world, Kaviyoor Ponnamma! The characteristic two- piece Kerala saree, sandal paste mark on the forehead, the honeyed tone of address, “mone, son”! As if I became a Mohanlal in the bat of an eyelid! Jesus in heaven, this is the real thing — blue- blood, the real Kerala thing! Who cares if ten lakhs and the job have gone down the drain? Haven’t I landed in a house like this? Mariamma of Bharanaganam, with her dirty dhoti, her eternal stink of rubber, how could she fathom the value of this!
“This must be your first visit to these parts, I suppose?” The colonel began chit-chatting.
“Yes,” I replied, “but the house and the place all seem so familiar…” The colonel caught on in his wonderfully aristocratic tone:
“And why not? How many films have been made here! It’s appeared so many times as Mammooty’s, Mohanlal’s, Tilakan’s, Innocent’s, KPAC Lalita’s, Nedumudi Venu’s house! There’s not a single movie person who doesn’t pay us a visit while at Ottappalam! One of those chaps. (here the colonel’s memory failed, and he mobilised his
wife). hey, Sulu, how was that chap – the one who’s got engaged
recently?.. Ah! Yes! Kunchako Bobban, the young film chap. He was here for a whole month while on a film!”
“All the news later”, interrupted Kaviyoor Ponnamma, in equally aristocratic tones, “they are not even refreshed. Come in, sit down. It’s time for lunch.”
She picked up an aristocratically-beaming bright bronze water- jug and gave it to me. 1 washed my feet and face. How awful I wasn’t wearing the dhoti, wasn’t in truly Malayalee garb! “The dhoti on your waist is a waste, son. It doesn’t hide your caste!” Bharananganam Mariamma’s proclamation rang loud and clear. Only that I paid no attention. I stepped right in.
Food was served on a fresh banana leaf: parboiled rice, vegetables, pappadam, mango pickle, sambar, buttermilk. In the middle there appeared– guess who – a Manju Warrier, the best village belle ever in the Malayalam movies, helping in the serving! Ah! The same full skirt, blouse, long, loose hair, the same as in her movie!
“She’s a distant relative,” said Mother. “My right hand.”
I bestowed a smile upon her and began to eat. Excellent food. But something seemed missing? Missing that delightfully succulent beef-fry with lots of dry coconut pieces frizzled to heavenly perfection? Horror of horrors, that would be a heinous instance of cow-slaughter!
Merely think of it, and you are struck by the thunderbolt of sin! I turned into Advani and resumed eating.
“Tommy, Tommy…!” Someone hollered. Now, that was quite like Bharananganam Mariamma! Maybe the old nag has got up here with her beef- fry? I panicked. The parboiled rice stuck in my throat, and I coughed furiously.
“What’s wrong, son?” Mother and father leapt towards me in unison.
“Give him some of that spiced water, Sulu.” The colonel. “Drink this, son.” Mother.
But the same voice rang again: “Tommy, Tommy…” “Who is calling me?”
“Oh, oh! You aren’t being called, son. The dog’s being called to be
I threw a feeble glance at Sindhu. She was eating, as if entirely
oblivious of all this. Traitor, double-dealer, you should have at least given me a warning signal! My lunch began to slow down.
“Aren’t the curries tasty? Why are you not eating well, son?”
“This is one case which will eat well only if there’s fish or meat.” Sindhu.
Well, well who told her this? And even if it is so, why does she have to unfurl it here?
“Ooh! We don’t eat fish and meat! We don’t cook such stuff. The Goddess will be offended! Our ancestors have consecrated her in the attic of this very house, you see!”
The colonel intervened: “That’s all very well, Sulu, but the times are changed. You don’t have to cook it here. But be sure to send Nanu Nair to the Muslim’s shop for a parcel of fish or meat curry for dinner. Heard that?”
“Yes, “replied Kaviyoor Ponnamma, becoming Ideal Wife at once.
I coughed once, trying to attract Sindhu’s attention. Everyone else looked up, except her.
“Oh, the cough isn’t going away”, Mother looked worried, “the bus journey must have done it. Take care not to wet your head in the evening bath. Just wash your body.”
Sindhu burst out laughing “Oh, for your information, this person bathes just once a week!”
Liar! Fibber! Utter Deceiver! Just listen to her blatant untruth! It’s your pater, the colonel, who bathes once a week, not me. This woman’s going to meet her end at my hands, I decided.
With this, I was completely full. I stopped eating and got up.
Lying down on the chapramancha couch for the afternoon siesta, I asked Sindhu:
“Tell me the truth. Didn’t you deliberately concealed this from me?” She, for once, was genuinely shocked.
“That you had given the dog in your house my name?”
“Oh, that!” She descended once again, “This is Tommy, that is Tommy too. Great, I just thought about it!”. She began to laugh aloud. I couldn’t even bring myself to grin.
“Well, that dog’s been here long before I met you. Now, Is it possible to murder it just because I got married to someone with its name? There’s just one way out. Let’s change your name through the gazette. The dog can’t do that, can he?” She began to laugh again.
All fun for her, an identity crisis for me! Come to think of it, I can’t even resolve this by giving her name to my dog, we don’t have a dog in my house! As I turned over, pretending to sleep, my mind was buzzing with the names of dogs. Exactly at that moment, as it happens in the movies, a streak of light appeared in the air. Riding on it was that venerable literary expert on dogs and their ways, good old brother Nanappan2 He sat there, dispassionately, reciting lines from his book Evolution:
“Normally, dogs are given Anglo-Indian names. During the War they were given German names – Kaiser, Hitler and so on. A few Muslim names are also given. For instance, Tipu or Haidar. It isn’t odd to call them Tommy or Joy. But such Syrian Christian names as Koshy or Pylee will not suit dogs. Hindu names such as Rani or Gita suit bitches well. They can’t be called Eliyamma or Subaida. Paying obeisance to social
observances, I called him Tommy. He turned around and looked at me.”
I went to sleep fuming, showering choicest curses on Bharananganam Mariamma and Cherian who had named me, a Syrian Christian, Tommy.
It was evening when I woke up. No sign of Sindhu around. Clambering off the chapramancha cot, there was Manju Warrier, right in front of me, all gay and gorgeous. Ooh! What beauty! That woke me up properly, and of course I had to ask her something:
“Gone to the temple. There’ a special pooja there, in her name”
“You didn’t go?
“Why so? Will someone stop you?”
“You’re being naughty…”, she gushed, and ran away. I was stunned. Jesus, did I say something wrong? No, I suppose. Anyway, that was great blushing! Why can’t that Sindhu blush like this once in a while? Maybe tonight, on the chapramancha cot… Well, if she manages to get it right, good for her.
I found the colonel sitting on a chair in the courtyard. He saw me but paid no attention. I went right in front so that he’d see me better. No luck. Kaviyoor Ponnamma wasn’t anywhere in sight. I sat on a railing.
Thank goodness. Maybe he was thinking hard of something before. “Yes…”, I responded, adding “…father”, with a secret shiver of pleasure. Haven’t addressed my own dad so sincerely! He was impassive. A minute later, the summoned figure appeared. A poor black skinny decrepit looking mongrel with a white patch on its tail. The colonel rubbed its head with his foot and asked:
“Who all do you have at home?”
I remained silent. He had to make clear which Tommy he was addressing.
“Who are in your family?” The colonel’s voice became firm. My doubts were of course cleared and I piped up the reply.
“Only my mother. My dad died two years back.”
“Is your job permanent?”
“No. I’m just a guest lecturer. Like Sindhu.” “Any chance of being made permanent?”
“No idea… maybe no.”
“What pay do you draw?”
“Six thousand. No, five thousand five hundred and fifty-five”
“Uh! Not like the old times! Children couldn’t play hooky then.
They’d be tossed out! People had quite a few! Now we have just one. What to do!”
There was breeze but I was sweating profusely.
“Foul creature! Have told him many times not to lick my feet. Serves me right to have a mongrel in the family!”
Tommy was felled by a kick. He picked himself us and ran away squealing. At that moment Kaviyoor Ponnamma and Sindhu entered. Sindhu was wearing the traditional saree. Jesus, what a sight! How could I fall in love with such a skeleton!
“Why are you so late, Sulu?”, the colonel asked. “He’s been up this long, and no one’s given him even a cup of coffee.”
“Oh, let me do it now”, Kaviyoor Ponnamma hurried in.
“Sindhu, ask Nanu Nair to get fish or meat from the hotel for dinner. Mon did not eat well in the afternoon.”
When Sindhu went to look for Nanu Nair, I tailed her. Can’t face colonel by myself, not brave enough.
“Dear, be sure to ask him to get some beef for Tommy. Today’s slaughter day at the market.” Colonel’s voice followed us. Didn’t a smile creep over Sindhu’s face? Is this a dad-daughter joint venture?
At night when she invited me to admire the chapramancha cot, the same question pestered me: “didn’t she smile?”
“What’s the hurry?” I asked. “Let’s do it at peace later. Tonight I have a headache.”
She murmured angrily: “Men are greedy only till they get hold of you… well, alright then.”
I was still wondering: “didn’t she smile?”
Morning again, and she took me for a walk after breakfast. No trace of rubber around in the yard. Just coconut, areca and banana trees. God, such places, in Kerala? Great. Who doesn’t love a change? Sindhu pointed her finger afar and said: “All those fields are ours. Father’s planning to sell it off, there’s no one to farm them.” Here at last, I wanted to say, is that very person. As far as farming goes, who can match us Syrian Christians? But that instant, I remembered the colonel.
“Come here, let me show you something.” Sindhu caught hold of my arm and walked ahead. At the other end of the yard was a little shed, somewhat like a coconut storehouse. She opened the door, and there was a green pond inside. “Someone was very upset at not seeing the green sea” she said. She bent down and moved the water weeds. I sat on the stone steps. What fun it’d have been to mix a couple of drinks with pond water, like Mohanlal did in his last blockbuster! My Syrian Christian desires were just blooming when I found myself in the pond! Was about to ask the colonel whether mere dreams were penalised, when I saw Sindhu clap her hands and laugh in delight at having pushed me into the pond. God, this is his offspring, no doubt! Then came the effort to redeem my ignorance of swimming. But amidst all this fun and games, the colonel’s face? Again? Such fear is no ornament to the fair name of the Syrian Christians. After all, it is the blood of a race that brought wealth to Kerala by conquering impenetrable forests and planting ginger and rubber, that runs in my veins! I must at least remember that!
It was twelve when we reached home. The colonel was at large in the courtyard in the sun, wielding a long stick. There was Tommy, yelping away to glory, on his two legs.
“What’s this, father?” Sindhu asked.
“Nothing, dear,” he said. “This fellow’s been awful. Go and change. Rub some medicine on his head. The cold shouldn’t get worse.” Sindhu stepped in.
I took a moment more. For a second there were just the Tommies and the colonel in the courtyard.
“Ok, it is the mating season, yeah, but still… What to do if people can’t look anywhere around? Let me see if I can teach this fellow a lesson. Hey, Nanu, don’t give him any meat from yesterday night, just dump it somewhere.”
“Sindhuu…” I let out a piteous wail. It was with great difficulty that I ate lunch that day, the sambar, the vegetables, the buttermilk, pappadam and mango pickles.
At night sometime we woke up hearing a great commotion. There was someone making a big racket downstairs. The colonel and Kaviyoor Ponnamma were standing at the door. “That’s the uncle next door,” Sindhu whispered in my ear.
“Mr Nair, I’ve told you many times,” he shouted. “Your Tommy’s causing me to lose thousands! Will anyone buy dogs that have no pedigree? He escaped today by a hair’s breadth. Next time if he jumps over the wall, let me tell you, I’ve no control over what I may do. This is my last warning.”
“Don’t worry”, the colonel said, “it won’t happen again. I hoped that this won’t happen now that there’s a bitch for him to mate here. I’ll take care of this henceforth.”
“Whatever training you give, mongrels behave like mongrels. Maybe this sounds cruel, but take my word, just finish him off, colonel. I’ll give you a pedigreed dog for free when Julie has her pups.”
The colonel looked at me. I slid behind Sindhu.
“Please go now. I’ll do what needs to be done. At once.”
Sorry, colonel. When you were all gone to the temple, I tried to kiss Manju Warrier. That was wrong. The mistake will not be repeated, sorry.
“Sulu, where is my gun?….Tommy…..”
While waiting for the early morning train at the railway station, I once again saw a streak of light in the sky. It wasn’t the first light of dawn, as I thought. It was Nanappan again, He sat there emotionless, saying “Son, look for the following ad in the newspapers.
Tommy, seen in this photo, has been missing since two days. He also answers when called Mone. Two feet tall, slim body, dark complexion, white mark on the tail. Responds to English and Malayalam. No leash around the neck. Those who find him may kindly report to the following address or to the nearest police station. We promise a reward of ten thousand rupees.
Col Somasundaran Nair
P. O. Box 20, Ottappalam Palakkad District
“Tommy, come back. All is forgiven. Your master is worried”.
1 The well-known Malayalam author Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, whose famous tale, ‘The love letter’ is being referred to here.
2 The affectionate refernence is to another well-known Malayalam author, M. P. Narayana Pillai, whose novel Parinamam (Evolution) had a canine character.
Translated by J. Devika.
SREEBALA K. MENON. Is a prolific writer who brought out more than twelve volumes of short stories which contain over one hundred stories. Her works were widely criticised for appealing to the intellect rather than the emotion. She is one of the earliest self-proclaimed feminists of Malayalam literature.