Sunday, January 08, 2006

Periyar Calling

This story is backed by someone's real life, but events are absolute fiction.

The periyar river in Kerala, at the location I write about, is fast moving, gurgling. Unlike this pic. Just out of the hills/dam. And its rather hilly and cold about the place I write..

They were 5 brothers, two sisters, one father and a mother. And as was the case here, they were very different people each. But the difference was only for me and you to see. For, when there father was away burning himself and his wealth into liquor the entire family slept together, cuddled away as one. And then when their father passed away they slept even closer.

The family that sleeps together sticks together?

Of course the place they resided was rather cold in winters, in the high ranges of Kerala lined up with winding hills and rivers flowing through them. And below them, below their house, rolled the mighty Periyar river – though at this point it was more a powerful stream which would grow into a deep river as you went past the hills. The make-shift home in which the brothers lived in, was not always able to protect them from the cold, neither could it stop the gurgling sound of the river beating about the rocks while it sought a passage on its long journey ahead – all night, all day. The river soon would become their sweet lullaby and the cold – the reason for the family to come together.

Now, even though they slept together they grew different. The very eldest, born of the first mother, was an independent one – tough, ready and hardworking. The eldest would turn out a healthy, fair man with very good social skills. The youngest, and the darkest, was rather emancipated and fragile, but still the one who had the sweetest face, that all wanted to keep protected. The middle one was equally fragile looking, but with bones that seem they could crack any skull with just one hit. The 4th one from top, the one whose story we will hear, was the one, who tapped a little from all the rest. Strong, bold, hardworking, sweet looking. The only difference for him lay in the fact that he was restless and his heart melted just as quick as it became hard. He was Tomy. And he would have 2 sisters one elder, one younger.

Of course the toughest of them all, was his mother.

Tomy was a restless soul.

As is often the result among children of some families who ‘once were doing well’, this son of theirs could but not help but continuously try to understand what is that drives the world up there – where its rich, seemingly comfortable, & down here - where some families he met had never seen or considered life beyond there little patch of land. As for his family, as described by his mothers, they belonged to some other place, in some other time. Sometimes, when he would think of his father he would feel a sense of raging anger and at the same time a deep sense of loss and loneliness and sometimes when he looked at his reflection in the Periyar river, he knew he must be going somewhere soon… and it must happen fast. Just like these waters, they are always rushing somewhere… but where?

And then one day, when he was around 14 and when returned after spending a whole day playing at a neighbour’s house, he found an angry mother & brother waiting for him at the door. ‘You do not mix with that ‘wood-cutting’ family!’ she shouted. He knew already. Gentle suggestions were provided to him often. He had seen this statement in the sweet smile his mother gave to the neighbour’s wife – a smile, which said ‘ here is some food for us to share with you, but here, see, is also the line of my door step which you may never cross’. He knew, just as his brothers & sisters knew.

But while sometimes he hated the neighbour’s life of simplicity, he also was not able to resist the ease and freedom he saw in them – to live just as they were, to learn skills early, to know who they were and of course the ladies who seem to call you from every direction of their bodies.

His mother admonishing him, built his first sense of anger towards his own family. But of course not enough to shake any foundation. Not until the next week when he was found playing with the elder relatives of his neighbour family in a Toddy shop, among some very heavy bottom ladies.

He had ended up there while playing with friends in the river and after deciding that they must venture onto the other side of the bank, into the thick forest where some mysterious Toddy shop existed, serving the almighty coconut liquor – Toddy. Where tribal ladies and men also visited and where women happily mixed with men. Walking through the thick coconut plantations, climbing a hill laced with cocoa plants and a host of other spices, was really exciting. He loved his homeland. Especially, when it offers so much mystery to fuel his restless heart.

And that’s when while walking with his fiends, he met Prasad, the star in the village who was known for not only his strength and skills but the ability to attract anyone. No one knew how and where his earnings came from. The world was watching him as to where he would settle down – with whom and how. For centuries, people like him would create drama, pain, pleasure and sometimes big success stories. I am talking of the world that spanned a few square kms.

Prasad was quick to watch these boys and immediately felt that its time for him to express his abilities. “ Hey Tomy. What are you doing here?.” he giggled. “You know your mother will burn this forest if she saw you around here, at this hour?”

Tomy, our 4th son, bowed his head shyly, while his other friends went jumping around Prasad. Anyways, he knew he would be guided further now. This person ruled this place

“ Come, let me help you meet some life here! Will you have Toddy? No… your brothers will kill me. Maybe I can serve you some fresh, non-toxic stuff. No? “ Prasad picked Tomy’s hand an guided him into the Toddy shop resting at the top of the hill overlooking the Periyar river…

Toddy is a soft liquor made out of coconut. There are ways to make it harder! Anyways its very tasty and fun.

It was all wood - the construction. Inside there were long wooden benches and tables. Drums lay around. The smell of fermented coconut, pickles and fried fish hanging strong. It was hard to find who was the owner as everyone seem to own the place. The tables were wet with spilt toddy, sometimes dried out by a lady who was serving. Men were sitting with their Mundus drawn tight, chatting away in a non-stop chatter, gulping their toddy mugs, pickling their fish and frequently thumping their hands hard on each other whenever something extremely profound or dirty was spoken.

Once in a while an old man and old woman who did not have much to speak (having learnt life by now and so nothing more to say or hear) would pass by, enter the restaurant, fill a huge jug and gulp it down in one go and off they were one their way to their homes.

And then sometimes, a group of young and old ladies would settle down and there would be some really dirty jokes exchanged with the men.

Toddy tapper

So they were seated when Tomy entered with his friends and guided by Prasad. Very quickly Tomy was adopted by the old lady and pushed between the younger womens, who did nothing but tease him. Tomy was excited and at the same time humiliated. He must go the men;s corner and live up to his image and not be cajoled by these fickle though sexy ladies. And that’s when one of his friend’s made a big mistake by joining in the teasing – giving Tomy the chance to establish his manhood.

Tomy did not even know when it happened. All he remembers was flying over the table and landing squarely on the neck of his friend, throwing him down to the floor and then flying a flurry of punches. Its only when he saw the bloody face that he stopped, not able to fully understand what really happened. The elder men were rather amused by this young duel, but the old woman not.

People from Kerala are tough and cultured. The best thing is that they are rarely aware of it.

“Go back home now” she exclaimed. And blasted Prasad for bringing the kids here. But one of the young ladies were rather pleased with this young man’s strength and gave him a brief giggling look. “You cannot wait to become a man. No?”

Prasad came and held the two boys. “You guys are going to put me into real trouble. I don’t want your brother’s hounding me ok? Just keep quiet about all this and return home.”

Suddenly, fear ran through Tomy’s vein, thinking of what it would mean to his mother and brothers if they found about where he has been or what he has been upto. More blood seemed to evaporate from his head, than he could see running down his friend’s nose. And he quickly clasped the hand of his victim and pleaded “ Let’s go please” and they ran.

Unfortunately for him, the man who supplied wood to his house was silently present at the shop and it would not be very late before his mother found out the details made more juicy by the hour.

“ You can decide if you want to spend you life cutting wood and fishing with them and drinking your days away?” she shouted like she wanted to blow open the fragile roof of the house.

That day Tomy slept six bodies away from his families. . For a moment this distance seemed like a long rein given to him to fly away into a new land. He slept next to the wall, where the wooden panels had cracked and he could see through at the few distant lights that burnt in the houses that spotted their hill. Once in a while he would hear a few crunching sounds of foot steps as people walked by the trail besides his house, as the climbed up the hill or went down - torches in hand. People chatting distantly, puffing or sometimes chanting so as to avoid the night spirits. And then he looked at the rest of his family sleeping & it seemed that he saw the sad soul of his father resting among them. “ Will we ever do better than this?” he wondered.

For the first time he wondered what would it mean if he left them all for his own world. Maybe life could be different? Better? Maybe he could earn so much that he can bring them back enough, to make them happy and release them from the sad soul of their father? Maybe he could shorten this unknown, winding road they were taking in their lives? He knew young guys who were traveling out of the village often and returning with news of how they have seen the film stars, about the big buildings and vehicles and the big opportunities to make more money in one day than he ever would see in this place. Could he find friends? He would surely come back, because he loved his family very much… but if only he was successful…

As he dreamt all this… he soon went into an irrational world of dreams, where he saw the Toddy shop all lit up, the laughter inside and the young girl inside shining through the bangles on her hand. “Hey Tomy, come in” she shouted out. ‘You are a grown man now… “And as Tomy heard the words he saw the shop become smaller and smaller and his body started getting bigger and bigger… like the giants he saw in the movies in his village theatre…

And that’s when his mother came and placed another layer of sheet on her restless boy’s shaking cold body.

to be continued... I hope...


Blogger JD said...

Looking forward to the next installment!

7:47 AM  

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