Thomas Palayoor is a cancer researcher and molecular geneticist by profession. He has written short stories in the Indian language, Malayalam and received awards for his radio plays. Besides his active interest in creative writing, he also has a passion for painting; mostly abstractions in oil. His novel “A Village Under the Streetlight” is due for publication later this year by Adelaide Books.
A STREETLIGHT FOR MANOOR
The ditch road from the west adjoined the main thoroughfare of Manoor at a point not too far from Bhanu’s coffee house and the fabric store; from Aputty’s grocery, however, it was about a ten minutes’ walk. The junction was not much of a significance for the people of Manoor except that the limited number of stores were south of the junction, the customers from the north and west had to go past the intersection for shopping at these stores. On Sundays, the juncture could be thinly busy; that was the day beef was available at the butchery on the embankment, right to the crossroads. Nevertheless, the intersection was a landmark in Manoor, solely because the one and only streetlight of the village was situated at the junction. Any point or location in the village always had reference to the streetlight, or that was how the villagers invariably utilized the landmark.
The streetlight of Manoor stood on a cement pedestal, not more than two feet in height. An inscription in front read “Manoor” in Malayalam; crudely lettered, the mason might had etched it on the wet cement during construction. A six feet iron pole rose from the base, on top of which was the four-sided lamp, each side with clear glass, a pointed finial in brass on the domed top and inside, a kerosene lamp with the wick assembly. The pole, the outer framework and the dome of the lamp, all painted in dark green, blended with the verdant surroundings. During the day, the passersby did not pay much attention to the light as it stood melded into the air and environs of the junction; at night, the dark green colored light dissolved into the enveloping darkness; the oil lamp faintly flickered inside, it threw no light on to the surroundings.
Until a few years, Manoor did not have a street light; it came into being as the direct result of a democratic process the inhabitants of the village never knew before: the elections to the Panchayat. Championed and promulgated by Mahatma Gandhi, the idea of Panchayat was to decentralize government, entrust the governance of individual villages to the villagers themselves. The governing body was composed of a president and representatives elected from defined regions of the village.
Normally, the hamlet of Manoor was sleepy and docile; the village, however, stirred and woke up as the election was announced. They were elated by a vague excitement; most of them did not know what was involved, how the election would impact their lives. Two prominent citizens of the village, nevertheless, knew distinctly how they would be affected by the election and the Panchayat: Adhikari, the village officer and Hyder, the local communist party chief. Adhikari feared his power and sway over Manoor would be curtailed or ended if Panchayat was established after the election. Hyder foresaw a rare political opportunity, a long-awaited opening for his party to establish itself in the village, perhaps, even capture the nascent governing body, the Panchayat, for his own party.
Though he was known as Adhikari in the village and he demanded to be addressed as such, his real name was Gopala Kurrup. His official responsibilities were rather restricted and limited: collect land taxes, record births and deaths, arrange and make certain newborns are promptly vaccinated against smallpox. However, he considered himself representing the government in Manoor. He, somehow, had the strong conviction that he was imbued with powers and privileges far beyond he was officially afforded. He projected himself as authoritative and commanding. The villagers accepted him as the arm of the government. They always viewed anything related to government with awe and certain degree of fear.
Gopala Kurrup inherited the position of Adhikari from his father; he was the last to bear the rank in a long line of Adhikaris over the past few generations. It all started with Ayyappan. He belonged to a cast of untouchables; he was allowed only fourteen feet away from upper class homes, lest he makes the homes unclean. Nonetheless, everyone needed him and his services; he was a master of all trades, yesterday’s version of today’s handyman. He was a small-time carpenter; if one wanted some coconuts to be brought down, Ayyappan, a proficient climber of tall trees, was the one to be called; anyone needs to send an urgent errand to a neighboring village, all trusted him to do the run; he was not a mason but had enough skills to undertake small masonry jobs. He was everywhere for everybody. With a droopy mustache and a towel tied around his head, turban like, he was one of the most popular and visible characters in the village.
It was midsummer, there was a mild stirring and excitement in the village. The sub-collector, the regional administrator, was visiting the village. As his Jeep came and stopped at the village center, a number of villagers crowded around the vehicle, curious, awe stricken. Ayyappan too was among the onlookers, expectant and inquisitive as others. A clerk from the collector’s team came out and pushed back the villagers, made a circular clearing around the Jeep. Soon, the sub-collector stepped out of his vehicle; a six feet tall man with a blond mustache, in a dark blue pants and a khaki safari jacket, a leather belt tied above his waist, in his hand, a three feet cane with silver casing at the ends. Ayyappan was overwhelmed looking at the official. He had never seen a white man before. He thought the skin color of the collector was as white as the tusk of an elephant. He knew it was an exaggeration, but he let it stand because that was the closest comparison he could come up with at that moment. He stared at the official as if he was someone unreal; never before, he had come across someone that imposing and commanding. The official looked at the villagers, as if he was scrutinizing them individually. As he was viewing them in a circular fashion, Ayyappan felt his eyes, for the fraction of a second, met the piercing eyes of the collector. Ayyappan overcame with an admixture of adulation and respectful dread. As if in a reverie, he rushed to the collector, fell prostrate at his feet. It was an uncontrollable reaction to the way he perceived the white administrator. Puzzled, but clearly appreciating the reverence and the expression of willing servility by a subject of the Royal Kingdom, the official looked at Ayyappan as he was lifted and helped to his feet by a clerk.
“What is your name?”
The collector asked Ayyappan in halting Malayalam.
“From today, you are the Adhikari of Manoor”
He turned to one of the officials accompanying him, ordered something in English. Ayyappan could not comprehend what was taking place. He, however, was to know subsequently, how his life took an abrupt turn at that moment.
Ayyappan did not find it easy to slide into the government position of an Adhikari. He continued to do the odd jobs for the villagers with one important difference: ever so gradually, the upper-class village folks began to respect him owing to his new position. When he visited their homes, he was offered a chair in the front yard, but, still keeping the safe distance of fourteen feet away from their homes.
As time went by, Ayyappan stopped accepting job calls from the villagers, devoted full time being an Adhikari. Loved and respected by the people of Manoor, he held on to the position until his death at the ripe age of ninety-two. His elder son inherited the job to keep it until he expired leaving the position for his offspring, Peethamber. The name “Peethamber” was normally in the reserve of higher-class members of the society, not to be taken by untouchables. His given name was Aipu, he shed it when he was in his late twenties and took the name of Peethamber, much to the consternation of the upper class. As an Adhikari, Peethamber was disparate from his predecessors in many ways. He did not hesitate to throw his weight around; assumed that he had the authority to order, command anyone in the village. Above all, he had a propensity to amass wealth and he was very successful in the effort; within three years in his position, he grew rich, acquired properties. The villagers did not stop wondering how he achieved all his opulence. Bribes, they suspected, but they also knew opportunities for bribery were very limited for an Adhikari. Unchecked and unexplained, he prospered. Nevertheless, the nosy and inquisitives of the village noticed something lacking in his otherwise enviable life: though nearing forty, he was still a bachelor. Peethamber, however, was not conscious of the deficiency. Then, on a hot summer evening, everything changed, abruptly.
It was the opening day of the yearly festival at the Manoor temple. The golden idol of the deity was about to emerge from the temple. Enshrined on a bedecked elephant, the image was held in place by a bearded priest precariously balancing himself on the tusker, a large umbrella, ornate and colorful, stood unfurled above him and the idol. Down on the temple ground, the drummers were lined up playing with verve; along with the horn players they seemed to have lost in themselves. Two columns of young women extended all the way from the steps of the temple to its gate several feet away. They were performing the Thalappoli ritual, invoking peace and prosperity for the village. Held in their hands were brass platters, gleaming, annular; auspicious objects of rice, flowers, fruits and coconut halves arranged around the periphery of the trays; a lighted oil lamp sparkled at the center, illuminating everything on the brass plate, lighting up the visages of the young women.
Seated on a chair, Peethamber was observing and enjoying the religious pageant from a vantage point, a location slightly elevated from the ground, closer to the temple. He was rocking gently with the drumbeats. As he started to view the dual line up of women in the Thalapoli, he did not pay much attention to anyone particular in the group; however, he did look at them individually, first the women in the line on the right, then those on the left. Going down the column on the left, Peethamber’s eyes abruptly froze on a woman midway in the row. He tried to go past her but his eyes returned to her, almost instinctively. Never in his life he had this experience, being drawn to someone with such overpowering intensity. He saw her face aglow in the auburn light from the oil lamp on her brass platter. On the crown of her head, she had worn her hair in a chignon, festooned by a flower garland; her earrings flashed as her head moved. She wore the traditional attire of jerry laced mundu and a scarlet red blouse, leaving her midriff bare.
Peethamber went home that night with a ruffled mind, preoccupied by the woman in the left line of the Thalappoli. With the resources at his disposal, it did not take much time or effort for him to determine the identity of the woman: she was Meenu, hailing from a prominent family in Manoor, the niece of Paramu Kurrup, a landowner of the village. Her mother passed away during childbirth, she was brought up by Paramu Kurrup. For her, he was her father, protector and guide. In their matriarchal family system, he was only a caretaker of the household, the head of the family was Meenu’s mother. When she passed away, the mantle was inherited by Meenu along with the family estates. Paramu Kurrup took care of it all meticulously until she attained adulthood. However, it was then, he started losing his mental sharpness, bedeviled by forgetfulness. Nevertheless, Meenu trusted his acumen, continued to seek his counsel in every decision she made. Her uncle, meanwhile, was constantly troubled that Meenu had not found a mate yet, though she as past her thirties. In the matriarchal system practiced by their society, there was no marriage, but only a living arrangement, instead. When a male was found suitable by the head of the family, he was welcomed into the household as her conjugal partner with only subdued and limited privileges, no right to the family assets.
For many days, Peethamber did not know what to do with Meenu, mirthfully stuck in his heart, making him uneasy, pensive. He thought deep and hard to find ways to get closer to her. Then he took a bold decision: make a proposal, offering himself as a male partner for Meenu. He was aware of the incompatibility of their individual positions in the caste system; he, in the lower rungs, she, in the unreachable heights. Their differences notwithstanding, emboldened by his past experiences in challenging conventional taboos, he determined to go ahead with his plan. His attraction and fascination for the woman in the left line was so irrepressibly strong and powerful.
Gopu was Peethamber’s chain man. He was often seen around the village with a long metal measuring chain folded into a canvas bag. He was responsible for gauging individual land properties in the village for determining taxes; and on a personal level, he also was Peethamber’s sole confidant. Peethamber sent Gopu on a mission to present the proposal to Paramu Kurrup and with an implausible instruction to meet Meenu if he could manage it, let her know his feelings for her.
Gopu was not very optimistic about the success of his assignment. As Peethamber and Meenu are mismatched in their castes, he was in serious doubts if the proposal would ever be accepted. Nevertheless, apart from the incongruity of their social ranking, he had no doubt his boss was more than a suitable match for Meenu.
It was past midday when Gopu arrived at Meenu’s house. Paramu Kurrup was relaxing on an easy chair, cooling himself with a decorated fan made of palm leaves. He thought Gopu came to measure one of the family properties. As he came to know the actual purpose of Gopu’s visit, he sat up in the chair to hear what Gopu had to say. As he was not too confident of the proposition he was to make, Gopu tried hard to make it as palatable as possible. He went on to elaborate Peethamber’s personal attributes, his wealth, his power and authority as a government official. He thought a strong and appealing picture of Peethamber would help overshadow the stigma of him belonging to an inferior caste.
Paramu Kurrup continued to pay rapt attention to Gopu, saying nothing. Gopu finished talking, waited for a response from Paramu Kurrup; but Paramu Kurrup kept his pondering silence for a while more. Then he smiled heartily to say,
“I have known Peethamber for a long time; this is something we, certainly, could consider.”
Gopu was overjoyed by the answer. His mission on behalf of his superior was successful, Peethamber, in all likelihood, would succeed in his plan. He was in a hurry to go and let Peethamber know the welcome outcome of his visit. As he was walking along the long verandah towards the exit of the house, he heard a stir and footsteps behind one of the doors. It was Meenu hiding from view, listening to his conversation with her uncle. Gopu thought it was an opportune moment for trying to accomplish the remaining part of his mission. In a hushed voice, as if addressed to no one in particular, he threw a sentence in the air,
“The Adhikari wants to come and meet you, tomorrow evening.”
Gopu saw Meenu withdrawing to the interior of the room behind her, a shy smile on her face. By announcing the impending visitation by his boss, Gopu had gone one step ahead of what Peethamber had asked him to do. He was certain, however, Peethamber would not be incensed by the minor transgression.
It was nearing ten at night. Peethamber was walking on the road leading to Meenu’s house. With a silk shawl wrapped around his torso, carrying a lighted hurricane lamp in his hand, he cut a solitary figure on the vacant road. A dog from one of the road side houses barked at him. Undeterred by the barking, he proceeded, entered the front yard of Meenu’s house. Instead of going to the front door, he walked around to the rear of the house, where the kitchen was. He located the kitchen door, knocked at it. There was no answer, by his second tap, however, the door opened. It was Meenu at the door, smiling, an oil lamp in her hand. She had her luxurious black hair untied and let loose behind her, her jerry-laced mundu tied above her chest leaving her shoulders and arms bare. She applied sandalwood paste on Peethamber’s forehead, welcomed him in and closed the door behind them.
Before day break, Peethamber was back on the road returning home. He had extinguished the hurricane lamp as there was pre-dawn light to see around, a dog barked at him again, perhaps the same dog who protested his presence the night before. The road was still vacant except a milkman at a distance, carrying the milk vessel on his head.
Peethamber, on most days of the week, came to visit Meenu, spend the night with her. His routine was to come in well after nightfall and leave before daybreak. The practice went on uninterrupted for many days. However, one early morning, when Peethamber was leaving Meenu’s house, walking towards the gate, he noticed a shadowy figure, unexpectedly, standing still a few feet away from his path. As Peethamber came closer, he recognized the person to be none other than Paramu Kurrup. Until then, Peethamber never thought Meenu’s uncle was aware of his nocturnal visits to his niece’s chambers. He was a little perturbed, thought Paramu Kurrup had planted himself in his way to confront him. But, soon he realized his concern and anxiety were misplaced. Paramu Kurrup smiled broadly and said,
“As affaires have gone this far, why don’t we make it formal.”
Peethamber was only glad to acquiesce, though he was rather surprised how he was being accepted to a higher-class family, so readily, willingly.
During the days followed, Paramu Kurrup made preparations for the ceremony, accepting Peethamber as the conjugal mate and partner for Meenu. He had invited friends and relatives of the family to witness the ritual and the celebration to follow. Most of them came for the occasion. A few, however, turned down the invitation. They were the stalwarts of orthodoxy, arching their brow, protesting the intermixing of the lower and upper castes.
Consulting an astrologer, Paramu Kurrup selected an auspicious day for the solemn ceremony of welcoming Peethamber as Meenu’s male partner. It was a sunny morning. On the open porch of the house, traditional arrangements were set and kept ready: a large brass-inlaid wooden measuring drum, filled to the brim with rice; fresh flowers, ripe bananas and other fruits on a shiny tray, a tall brass lamp with seven lighted wicks, a grass mat for the couple to sit. Peethamber was the first to come and sit facing the arrangement; Meenu came soon after, accompanied by Paramu Kurrup. Peethamber was elated to see her precisely as she appeared in the lineup of Thalappoli: her hair in a chignon on top of her head, a flower garland girdling it; the same red blouse and jerry bordered mundu, her midriff playfully exposed between the two. Gopu handed a mundu, new and neatly folded, to Peethamber. He solemnly offered it to Meenu; she accepted it ceremoniously, her eyes half closed. It was a short and simple rite, formalizing Peethamber as Meenu’s mate; less of a husband with finite privileges, Meenu having the upper hand being the head of the household.
After being welcomed into the family, Peethamber began to spend more time at Meenu’s house. Paramu Kurrup often sought his help in the day-to-day affairs of the household. Working closely with Meenu’s uncle, Peethamber realized a disturbing fact: Paramu Kurrup was uncertain about what he was doing, most of the time. He could not remember the names of the farmers who had leased land from the family or other details. Often, he vacantly looked at the books for several minutes, finally pushing the books to Peethamber to take over. After a while, he withdrew, almost entirely, from dealing with the family accounts to relax in in his favorite easy chair, only to respond vaguely to Peethamber’s occasional queries.
As a couple of years went by, Paramu Kurrup was a changed man. He would sit in his favored chair for hours at a time, looking at the sky, vacuously, emotionless. Meenu was exceedingly saddened and in tears as she realized to her horror that she was not being recognized by her beloved uncle. Repeated and concerted prompting and prodding did not make any difference. Paramu Kurrup had gone mad, a loud rumor went around Manoor.
Under the changed circumstances at Meenu’s home, many responsibilities of the family were thrusted upon Peethamber. He, however, was only happy with the turn of events. He eased into the role effortlessly, Meenu approving him complacently. Before long, beyond being the less of a husband to Meenu, he became an integral part of her family, literally surrogating the living absence Paramu Kurrup. He shrewdly assumed the power and authority of the elder man, complemented them to the sway and attributes of an Adhikari. Peethamber felt he was unquestionable in the village. To augment and consolidate his status further, he appended the suffix, “Kurrup” to his name, cleverly, stealthily. No one dared to question or challenge him usurping to the upper echelons of the society by adopting a higher cast designation. Nonetheless, in the caverns, there was rage and grinding of teeth among the old guards of conformity.
Over the years, Peethamber, to all intentions and purposes, became the head of Meenu’s family, she, withdrawing into being a wife and mother. Peethamber fathered five children, four girls and a boy named Thambi. Thambi was ambitious, always in a hurry. When he was only thirty-two, by constant squabble and bickering, he wrested the position of Adhikari from his ninety-year-old father. Gopala Kurrup was the only son of Thambi. He inherited the office of Adhikari and cast epithet, “Kurrup” from his father. No one was aware or cared to investigate how the highly-respected designation of “Kurrup” sneaked into the lineage of the lower cast Ayyappan. The transition was seamless and ever so gradual, though it took years to take root.
Gopala Kurrup was very perturbed by the impending election to the Panchayat, he was afraid, the office of Adhikari, bestowed upon his family for generations, would be stripped away. He went to the district headquarters a few times to plead his case but came back empty handed. As the date for the ballot came nearer, he spent many sleepless nights.
Hyder, on the other hand, was irrepressibly enthusiastic about the forthcoming election. He felt it presented a feasible opportunity to propel his party and its causes to political heights. He was a committed soldier of the party. He had been a resident of Manoor only for a few years, not making much headway with objectives for which he came to the village. Originally, he was from the coastal city of Kolazhi, far away in the North. Youngest son of a wealthy timber merchant, Abdutty Haji. Besides owning two lumber yards and three sawmills in the suburbs of the city, Abdutty also had year-round logging operations in the forests on the slopes and valleys of the Western Ghats. Abdutty, a tall and robust man with a carefully trimmed beard, tiny but sparkling slit like eyes, thick lips, brightly white teeth partially showing in between. He always wore a chequered mundu of taffeta like material, secured around his waist with a green belt, small leather wallets on either side of the buckle, his half sleeve shirt tucked in under the belt. Abdutty loved luxury, as he could afford it. He owned a Bentley, the only one in existence, not only in the entire city of Kolazhi, but also in the whole of the southern province. He had never driven the car; he preferred to sit next to the uniformed chauffeur, feeling that he not only owned the opulent automobile, but also the man at the wheel. His morning drives were, usually, to one of the lumber yards. Sitting in the tiny office there, he would watch the elephants lifting and stacking logs. Among the elephants, he was very fond of one in particular, a tusker named, Chief, a towering and imposing animal: long powerful tusks, the trunk grazing the ground, the expansive earlobes fanning gently, the massive body, dark as monsoon clouds. The Chief was the only animal that could respond to the mahout’s command to salute Abdutty as his car entered the yard in the mornings. The tusker would raise his trunk way above his head, trumpet a few times before moving to the next log to hoist. Abdutty loved the gesture and the Chief. Nonetheless, he knew that he treasured the Bentley even more.
Abdutty was very proud of his youngest son, Hyder, especially, when he brought home prizes he won during the annual celebrations at his school, trophies for winning elocution competition, essay writing and debates. When he graduated from the school at the top of his class, Abdutty foresaw a very bright future for his son. He wanted to plan and provide everything needed for his ascension to stardom. Sending him to the right college, he thought, was of prime importance for Hyder to achieve his full potential.
It was late one morning when Abdutty knocked at Hyder’s door upstairs at home. Seeing the door unlocked, he pushed open the door. Hyder was in his bed, sitting leaned against the headboard, reading. On a table next to his bed was a heap of magazines and newspapers haphazardly strewn around; against the wall close to a picture window was a book case laden with volumes, mostly in Malayalam with a sprinkling of books in English as well. Hyder raised his eyes for a moment to look at his father, and then went back to the book. Abdutty was enraged by his son’s casual indifference to his presence in the room.
“Get up, you scoundrel; don’t you know how to respect elders!”
Abdutty raised his voice. It was considered highly impolite for youngsters to be seated in front of seniors. Hyder reluctantly alighted from the bed, stood leaning against the bed, a disparate expression of fear, dissent and dismay on his face.
“Have you completed the application for admission to the college?”
“No, I don’t want to go to college.”
“Why. Tell me”
Abdutty was roaring.
“They are not going to teach me anything beyond what I could from these books.”
Pointing to the books on the bookcase, Hyder said under his breath. Abdutty was astounded by his son’s impertinent response; however, decided not to have a dialogue with him, he was convinced it would have been futile with a juvenile like Hyder. An iron hand would bring forth much better results, he thought.
“Don’t be an imbecile, start working on it right away, I want to see it done by the time I return from the yard in the evening.”
It was an order, shouted, resolute. Hyder knew his father would be persistent and obstinate until he gets his way; there was no way he could have been dissuaded.
With much reluctance and total lack of enthusiasm, Hyder enrolled at the college of his father’s choice. It was a college on a hilltop in the suburbs of Kolazhi, run by Carmelite fathers, a prestigious institution. Admission to the college was highly competitive. Nevertheless, Abdutty managed it for his son with his name recognition and the social standing in the city.
For Hyder, the first week at the college was uneventful. The mandatory classes he attended were mere drudgery, he felt. However, on Monday, the following week, there was an abrupt turn of events. When he came to his classroom, he found it difficult to find a seat for himself. The room as overflowing with students, he saw a few of them outside the windows, looking in. There was an air of anticipation in the room. Then, the whole class fell silent. The professor walked in: a slender man in his mid-forties, attired entirely in white. His mundu was of rough fabric woven on hand looms, so was his long tunic reaching all the way down to his knees. The hand-woven fabric was preferred by most followers of Gandhi. The Mahatma had advocated wearing clothing produced by village weavers to promote self-reliance, encourage rural industries. Hyder felt the professor was frail and weak. Nevertheless, when he started speaking, his voice was powerful and projectile, reverberating within the walls of the classroom. He was to lecture on a work by a well-known poet in Malayalam. He detailed the points one should look for in a poem to realize the aesthetic vision of the poet. Hyder was amazed at the ease with which he forayed into the Indian classics, Greek mythology, Shakespearian verses and Latin American literature to illustrate and illuminate his arguments.
As he was returning home after the day’s classes, Hyder was preoccupied with the class he attended on Malayalam literature. The professor who taught the class had made an enormous impression on him. He had found out the name of the teacher: Vijay Kumar, popularly known among the students as ViKu. Socially he was soft spoken and taciturn; once on the platform of the classroom, however, he transformed himself into an intellectual fountainhead, forcefully driving forth his ideas and arguments. In his talks, he restricted himself to literature and its ramifications, consciously trying not to slide into social or political themes. It was doubtful if all his students fully grasped the dimensions of the concepts he presented; they were, rather, enthralled by his torrential eloquence. They thronged to his classroom, often spilling into the hallways.
Hyder looked forward to the Monday lectures of ViKu. Indeed, he loved the professor’s talks, but they also had generated many questions and comments in his mind. Nonetheless, he did not have the audacity to address them to the teacher. On a Monday, the students of ViKu’ class were intrigued as he entered the class with a large reproduction of a post-impressionist painting by Paul Cezanne. He displayed the painting entitled, Mont Sainte-Victoire on the chalkboard behind him, then he started to recite a new poem he was to present and deliberate in the class that day. As soon as he finished rendering the concluding stanza, he quickly went back to the painting, started to address the class:
“When you look at this work of art, you see the colors, lines and forms; nevertheless, in order to experience this painting, you have to go beyond the pigments, brush strokes and structural forms; a sensation, engendered by the material attributes of the painting, has to evolve in your inner self, the consciousness thus generated is unique and highly individualistic; it is true of poetry as well.”
ViKu went on,
“So as to realize the aesthetic beauty of a poem, one should go beyond the written words and the imagery conjured up by the poet. However, these elements should be allowed to give rise to a perception in your responsive mind; then you might even be able ascend to the aesthetic heights of the poet himself. Though highly unlikely to be achieved, one could aspire for it without a shadow of guilt”.
ViKu had a playful smile on the corners of his lips as he finished the sentence.
Hyder was inspired as his teacher continued to talk, but ViKu’s lecture, as usual, was spawning many questions and comments in his mind. At one point, he could not contain himself; he stood up, asked a question to the professor concerning the last few minutes of his talk. The whole class turned to Hyder, alarmed, amazed. It had never happened before, a student daring to ask a question to one of the most scholarly professors on the campus. They thought, Hyder was challenging ViKu. The teacher, however, spent the next ten minutes, expounding further the concepts he already talked about, enlightening, answering every aspect of Hider’s query. For Hyder, it was a rite of passage in literary dialogue during every ViKu’s classes that followed, Hyder stood up to ask questions, offer his comments. The overflowing class waited to witness the exchange between the professor and his favorite student.
Outside the classroom, Vijay Kumar appeared aloof and austere to a degree. Whenever Hyder happened to meet him on the college corridors, their mutual recognition was restricted to a gentle nod of the head. One day, however, their formality and distance dissipated, seemingly unexpected. The life of Hyder also took a different turn that day. It was lunchtime at the college, Hyder was at the dining hall sitting at a table, alone. He had just opened the lunch his mother had packed for him. She had wrapped up everything first in heat-softened banana leaf, then again in a grey plastic wrap. In the pack was a whole flat fish fried in coconut oil, garnished with spices, basmati rice steamed in clarified butter, a teaspoonful of red hot mango pickle; the grains of rice at the periphery of the patch of pickle already having turned crimson red. The spicy aroma of Hyder’s lunch had wafted in the air around. Even before he took the first morsel, Hyder saw ViKu emerging from the enclosure reserved for the faculty in the dining hall. He was puzzled as he saw the teacher walking towards his table. ViKu joined Hyder at his table, settling down on a chair across from Hyder.
“Your lunch smells very good, inviting.”
ViKu said, a broad smile on his face, gone were the reticence, the diffidence. Without indulging in further niceties, ViKu asked his student,
“What are you usually busy with in the evenings?”
Caught unaware, Hyder was searching for an appropriate answer; but even before he could respond, not even waiting for his reply, ViKu said with a trace of urgency
“A few of us meet every night at a place near my home for discussions, explore new ideas; would you like to join us?”
Hyder was thrilled. He was being invited to join a group led by the teacher he admired most at the college, the one who never fails to inspires him by his depth of knowledge and oratory. Hyder did not have to ponder much to accept ViKu’s invite.
When Hyder arrived at the address given him by ViKu, he saw a dilapidated building, no sign of light emanating from any of its openings. He had to grope in darkness to locate the entrance to the building. He entered a space he thought was a corridor, started to walk forward. In the darkness, he could hardly make out what was on either side of the passageway, but he moved on looking for the room ViKu had specified. Take a left after entering the hallway, turn right, then two turns again to the left, knock at the third door on the right, he had said. Hyder arrived at his destination in total darkness. He fumbled and felt the door, it was locked from inside. He knocked at the door. Someone opened the door. In the pale auburn light of a kerosene lamp, Hyder could see a group of six young men, their hair disheveled, cloths shabby. ViKu was talking, perched on a desk. Without interrupting his talk, he waved Hyder in. ViKu was not in the hand-woven white as Hyder had always seen him in. He wore only a multicolored mundu and a sleeveless undershirt. He was talking in a low voice; nonetheless, the eloquence and potency of his words were just the same as they were in the classroom. Before the day’s session ended, Hyder realized ViKu was taking a class on Marxism-Leninism, an antithesis to Gandhian philosophy, the pacifist’s non-violent approaches to struggle. Hyder attended every session that followed. He was, soon, beguiled by the Marxist ideology. He was convinced of the leftist credo, conceivably fostered by the powerful presentations by ViKu and Hyder’s considerable admiration for his teacher. As the study class progressed, however, ViKu, started to talk about armed struggle to overthrow governments, he had enlivened his words with added vigor and urgency. That was a turning point for Hyder in his exploration of Marxism. By nature, he was averse to violence, perhaps influenced by the residual effects of his early exposure to the pacifist literature by Emerson, Thoreau and others. He challenged many of ViKu’s assertions in the class, questioned the tenets he expounded on the exigency of violent conflicts. Their contentious arguments and counter arguments made the sessions tense, unpredictable. ViKu grew more and more uncomfortable, intolerant of Hyder’s interjections. Sensing the snowballing discomfiture between the teacher and himself, Hyder became increasingly infrequent to the nightly study classes before finally exiting the sessions altogether.
Hyder continued to see Vijay Kumar during his classes at the college; the same hand woven white attire, the same cogent rhetoric. Hyder, however, could see through ViKu’s pretentions. The rough ivory clothing, his occasional references to pacifist ideas in his lectures, they were all part of a concerted effort to conceal his membership in a wing of the Marxist party, advocating armed insurgency as a mean to capture political power. ViKu knew the college authorities would not tolerate him to be among the faculty with the genre of party affiliations he had. The police, if they get the scent of his political persuasions, would chase him to his hidden away night classes. Hyder wondered if ViKu felt exposed in his presence. ViKu’s conduct in the class, however, did not betray any self-consciousness. The dialogues between Hyder and his teacher were unaffected by their falling apart at the study class. Hyder strongly disagreed with ViKu’s advocacy for armed conflicts; nonetheless, admired his analytical competence, his incisive arguments when the subject matter was literature.
Even before attending the study classes by ViKu, Hyder was a sympathizer of leftist ideology, mainly resulted from his widespread reading. The compelling presentations by ViKu, however, consolidated the socialistic thoughts in his mind, helping him to embrace Marxism as an effective means for societal change, though he had rejected the view that armed struggle is indispensable component of the transformation.
On a Friday afternoon, as he was returning from college, Hyder decided to visit the local communist party office. At the mouth of a narrow pathway between two buildings, a hoard of small signboards hung together haphazardly. They seemed to be jostling for dominance, but helplessly clung to each other, swinging gently in the wind. Among them were signs for a tailoring shop, a document writer, a teashop, a used bookseller and stuck amongst the cache was a deep red sign heralding the Communist Party of India. All the businesses were strung along the two sides of the constricted alleyway; the party office was at the very end of the lane. As Hyder entered the office, it had a deserted look, no one at the solitary front desk, but he heard footsteps in an adjacent room. Soon, someone came to the front office, he did not say much in a way of greeting but looked at the visitor askance. Hyder, instantly, recognized the face; he recollected him as one of the six young men at ViKu’s night classes; the one who, from time to time, nodded his head in agreement when Hyder put forward some of his views contradicting ViKu’s arguments. His name was Pratap, the local secretary of the party. Pratap, cautious and guarded, took some time before admitting his association with the night classes. Hyder spent a few hours with Pratap discussing Marxism, politics and ViKu’s extremist thinking.
Hyder had a feeling he had found an ally in Pratap; in a number of conceptual areas, he recognized, their views were congruent. One can strive for workers’ rights, remedy their grievances through democratic means, they both believed. Pratap had been active in the party for a few years. The long discussions with him prompted Hyder to be more involved in the party ventures. After the college classes every day, Hyder found himself at the party office, before returning home late at night. Motivated by Pratap, he visited small businesses in town, talking to the workers trying to make them aware of their rights, draw them to the party fold. He even participated in a few demonstrations in front of factories.
Abdutty and his wife had not missed noticing Hyder coming home very late at night, frequently missing at the family dinner. Hyder, however, had a convincing alibi: group study with classmates. Nevertheless, on a Monday morning, everything he had been striving to conceal from his father laid bare right in front of Abdutty. His Bentley was about to reach the front gate of one of his sawmills. He saw a group of men in a perfectly disciplined line, ferociously throwing their clenched fists into the air, shouting slogans. As he drove along the line of demonstrators, he could recognize many of them as his own workers, their slogans targeted at him and the managerial staff, admonishing, demanding pay hikes, benefits. As his car reached the head of the march, he could not believe what he saw, he was out of himself at the sight: Hyder abreast with two others in front of the rally, holding aloft a red flag, the insignia of sickle and hammer on the flag playing hide and seek in the wind.
That night when Hyder came home, it was very late; when he went up to his room to rest, he found the bedroom locked from outside. His collection of books thrown in a heap in one corner of the passage, his cloths and other possessions in another heap next to the books. He was very tired and exhausted, he did not try to figure out what might have happened; he badly needed to sleep. He laid himself on a long wooden bench in the passage, untied his mundu, with it covered himself head to toe. He fell asleep, almost instantly.
It was nearing eight in the morning. Hyder felt someone harshly shaking him up by his left shoulder, yelling,
“Get up, you, Scoundrel.”
Hyder opened his eyes. His father, face aflame, eyes raging red, was staring down at him.
“How could you do this to your own father, to your own family!”
Abdutty was shouting at the top of his voice. Hyder sat up, collected and tied up his mundu, he silently looked at his father, not even trying to answer him.
“Someone trying to bring down his own family has no place under my roof, I don’t want to see you in this house by the time I return in the evening.”
Abdutty bellowed up his judgement.
“If I do” he continued,
“I would finish you up, mark my word.”
Abdutty stormed down the stairs, stomping down every step. Hyder took a bath, had breakfast served by his mother. By midday he left the front door of his house, a plastic bag of books in his right hand, a bag of clothes in the left. He did not look at his mother at one of the windows, watching him moving away, tears in her eyes.
Hyder had no place except the party office to go for a shelter. Pratap was disturbed to hear what had taken place at Hyder’s home, but was not surprised, as if it was already anticipated. He offered the small room behind the front office for Hyder to occupy.
Hyder had to quit the college; he did not have the money for paying the fees. Living at the party office, he participated in every activity of the party with fervor and total dedication. He was always at the forefront of demonstrations, very active in fieldwork, talking to workers propagating the party, organizing strikes to wrestle workers’ rights from factory management. Once he was sent to his former college to mobilize the students to form a union under the aegis of the party. He did not succeed in the effort; the students were totally refractive to him; the college administration barred him from setting foot again in the campus. Hyder, however, knew he was going to be back. When pursuing a goal, he was always doggedly persistent, almost to the point of obstinacy. This desirable quality in him had not escaped the notice of the higher ups in the party. They also knew of his total dedication to the party and his organizational skills. The party quickly recognized a role Hyder could effectively fill in. It was a time when the party was making efforts to foray into the remote areas of the state. The party had identified Manoor and the neighboring villages as a virtual political vacuum, a fertile ground for new concepts to take root. Hyder was sent on a mission to awaken the populace of these villages to the socialist ideology. Hyder arrived at Manoor with pent up energy, verve.
On a warm cloudy morning, Manoor woke up hearing loud drumbeats. It was a skinny man with a chenda, a large drum, hanging on the left side of his waist. He was striking the drum as he walked; after a few steps, he halted to read aloud a note in his hand. Villagers could hardly discern what was he reading, they rushed to the roadside to hear a little better. It was an announcement about the forthcoming Panchayat election: there are five members in the Panchayat council, the villagers are invited to nominate members to the council, the nominations should be submitted within a specified time period: fifteen days before the election. The drummer concluded the reading, resumed beating his drum. He moved along the road, repeating the announcement intermittently, limping a bit balancing the heavy drum.
Adhikari was the first to rush and submit his nomination papers; but he was rejected for a technical reason: disqualified as he was already on government payroll. One of the candidates was Manu, the elder son of the Nambi Vaidya; the entire village knew he was standing in for his father, the Vaidya, widely respected and needed by all. Manu was unopposed; so was the three other candidates. No one wanted to challenge them, they too were liked and well regarded in the village for various reasons. The fifth candidate drawing everyone’s attention and curiosity was Hyder. He was the only one representing a political party, a party most in the village did not particularly like or knew about. Hyder, however, was very enthusiastic, energetic. He campaigned hard as he had an opponent: the parish sexton’s second son, Andrew. It was ideology that drove Andrew to oppose Hyder, he had had stood up to him in every way he could ever since Hyder appeared on the village scene. He wanted to prevent the imported ideology of socialism contaminating Manoor.
Hyder held campaign rallies and meetings almost every day. The locations were those already familiar to him: the vacant space with a rundown masonry wall across from Aputty’s grocery and the open meadow next to the temple pond. He did not have an overflowing audience, nevertheless, a few people did come in to listen, mostly drawn in by his gravel voice. They were mesmerized by the fire in his words, his interlinked sentences flowing effortlessly, concluding in a crescendo. Many of them hardly grasped fully the ideas he presented, his admonitions, invectives and war cries. They, however, relished the dramatics of his speeches.
Andrew was challenged by the frequent campaign speeches by Hyder. He, however, was not adept at public speaking. Shy and introverted, he dreaded the exercise. But it became a necessity, he had to plunge into it to make an impression upon the voters; his friends and supporters encouraged him, prompted him. The first gathering he addressed was at the open space adjacent to the temple pond. He sounded inspired, he had passion, had strings of anti-Marxist arguments. Nevertheless, he stumbled upon them, stammered as he expressed them uncontrolled, gushing. A few among the listeners, in the back of the assembly, jeered. It did not take too long before the audience to disperse and go home, leaving Andrew mortified on the podium, closeted by his ardent supporters.
Not cowed down by his first experience with public speaking, Andrew and his cadre of backers held a campaign rally, again at the meadow next to the temple pond. This time, he was better prepared, well-practiced. His sentences were unhampered, flowing effortlessly with a certain degree of rhythm. Andrew seemed to engage his audience. Suddenly, there was commotion at the far-left periphery of the gathering. A dog, medium sized, brown body mottled with white blotches, rushed into the crowd, sprinted through the throng. Two or three men pursued the dog, throwing stones at it shouting, “Mad Dog! Mad Dog!”. A stone hit someone among the spectators. The people panicked, scattered, dissipated, running away from the scene as quickly as they could. Andrew was left again at the rostrum dismayed, viewing the meadow in front of him devoid of a single living soul. His followers huddled around him. It was a crude election devilry played on them by Hyder and his comrades, they quickly concluded.
The election results were as predicted by many. The one who generated the loudest din and stir prevailed. Hyder won the contest with a slight edge over the number of votes Andrew garnered. Though he was vanquished, Andrew found a reason to be gratified: the number of votes he received was very close to the number his communist opponent netted; it was also a clear indication that a substantial segment of the Manoor villagers held anti-soialist views.
The newly constituted Panchayat did not have a space to assemble. In the evenings, when classes were over, they made use of the village elementary school for the purpose. During the first meeting, most of the time was spent selecting the president of the Panchayat. The majority of the council, nominated Manu for the position. Hyder, however, bitterly opposed the proposal, claiming the presidency for himself. He was the only one truly elected by the people of the village, he argued. Nonetheless, the rest of the council did not relent; they proposed a vote among themselves: Manu verses Hyder. Manu received the majority of the votes. Hyder had no other recourse than to accept the majority decision.
During the next few meetings of the Panchayat, the members discussed the various developmental projects to be undertaken in Manoor. However, they stumbled and woke up to a disturbing reality: The Panchayat has no funds to carry out the planned projects. The body had not started collecting taxes; they were yet to formulate a framework for the purpose. However, there was someone who had been collecting taxes year after year: Adhikari. The Panchayat, Manu suggested, could demand the taxes collected so far that year, to be transferred to the new governing body of the village, the Panchayat. Everyone knew it was a difficult proposition to put into practice. Adhikari angrily refused to comply. The nascent village body wrangled with him for many days without making any headway. Finally, the Revenue Officer from the district headquarters had to intervene. Adhikari relented, handed over the funds to the Panchayat.
The money extracted from Adhikari was not anything substantial; not enough to finance a major project like the road repair. The members of the Panchayat discussed at length, how the finite amount of money could be utilized, but could not come to an agreement. Then, Manu got up and gave a short pep talk,
“We established a Panchayat; but, how many in the village know about this body that sprang up among them in the village, do they know we are here for their benefit. We are working in isolation; we have to do something to make our presence felt in the village, however symbolic it might be, everyone in the village should recognize we are here for the village”
He concluded his speech inviting suggestions from the five-member council. Everyone put forward their individual ideas including one from Hyder to provide free lunch for school children. Nevertheless, none could secure unanimous approval. Varkey was a member nominated from the eastern region of Manoor, an unassuming middle-aged man sitting uncomfortably on a short bench originally meant for tiny tots; silent most of the time, but closely following the proceedings of the Panchayat. He got up, proffered his suggestion: install a street light at the junction of the main road and the ditch road at Manoor; the name of Manoor Panchayat could be inscribed at the pedestal of the light; no one could miss the streetlight and the etching at the base, he added. The proposal gained universal acceptance among the Panchayat members, especially Manu, the president.
Before long, the solitary streetlight of Manoor came into existence at the junction where the ditch road met the main road.