“Is this seat taken?” asked the stranger.
“What?” asked Kannan, turning his face towards the voice.
“Is this seat taken?” repeated the young man with a smile.
“No, no. Its not.” Kannan replied reluctantly, having wanted to have a lonesome journey towards his final destination.
“I hope I didn’t startle you. Travelling to Nellur I presume” said the stranger.
“Yes, Nellur. What about you?”
“I’ll get down at Kumbam, the stop just 5 minutes before Nellur.”
“My native place happens to be Nellur. What about you? Haven’t seen you before, though you look very familiar” said the stranger.
Kannan had been trying to avoid the question and now he needed to think of an appropriate answer.
As if heaven sent, the young man had to excuse himself before Kannan could even attempt to make a reply; one of his friends had turned up to meet him.
“Please hold this seat for me till I return” requested the young man before he left.
Kannan nodded in reply and as the man left he thought, Good Riddance.
The unexpected delay in the journey was making him feel more and more uncomfortable. He took out the letter his mother had sent him the previous week, the reason why he had decided to make this journey. He read it over and over again, in search of some clue, the clue he had been pursuing for years now. But all the letter conveyed was a shameless character so superficial in its bearing and presentation, a horrible attempt to unsee all that had occurred.
Like the popular cliché, “Water under the bridge”
But it was not and will never be.
He remembered how difficult it had been for him and Chinnan to get over the Pisharadi episode but the cousins chose to stick by each other throughout, each giving strength and support to the other. Perhaps it was the guilt they shared or perhaps it was fate…….
As for the girl Sheela, it was as if she had disappeared into thin air. Some said she was taken away by her distant relative while some said she ran away but mostly no one seemed to care. Her existence to the people of Nellur had ceased to exist along with the demise of Pisharadi master.
That unfortunate evening after Pisharadi passed away, the boys came back to Ullas Villa and shutting themselves in Kannan’s room, broke down clutching each other. Even O.G their only confidante was not around to console them. But time is a healer, in a week’s time everything was forgotten. Even Kannan’s gang members who had accused them earlier had stopped blaming them and Kannan once again became an active member at the Bomanchery fields. Chinnan was proclaimed as a new entry along with two other kids but only after fulfilling the initiation ritual of eating five chillies without drinking water, riding the village donkey and providing a treat of one boiled egg to each of the senior members.
As part of the vacation program the group of boys formed a drama club and decided to practice and stage a detective thriller in the upcoming temple festival.
The rest of the time the boys spent at Ullas Villa, playing games or feeding the cows, pestering Janu for some delicious gossip etc. Their favourite past time was however playing hide and seek and with lots of space to move about within the house, the catcher usually had a difficult time finding his prey. Kannan’s favourite hideout became the attic above the kitchen where lots of antiques, old boxes and bundles of hay were stored. It would have been difficult to find anyone or for that matter anything inside it. On one such occasion when Kannan had hid himself in the attic, he happened to notice holes on the floor of the attic through which one could peep into the kitchen and store below. He would have considered it nothing of importance had he not heard a sound from the store, which aroused his curiosity. He crouched close to the floor of the attic and peeped through the hole into the store. Below Janu was stealthily pouring milk into a big steel glass, looking around every now and then to make sure she was unnoticed, and confident that no one was around she poured the milk down her throat in one single gulp. Talk about gluttony along with thievery thought Kannan and so much for the supernatural. However Kannan was not going to let Janu go scot free just like that. If it was the supernatural she had allegedly blamed, it was the so called supernatural that would teach her a lesson. Taking the kerchief from his pocket and covering his mouth, Kannan spoke into the hole with a heavily faked voice,
“Janu, I see all that you do. It is not right to steal from the very house that feeds you. Stop your shameless act henceforth or bear the unfortunate consequences.”
Janu who was caught unawares became pale as a ghost and sank to her knees immediately and began to plead “Oh! Almighty forgive me for my sin. I shall not do it ever again.”
Kannan, who was watching the melodrama that he had effected, was in splits. After having a hearty laugh, he sat up trying to regain his composure. He had been hiding in the attic for a while now and realizing that Chinnan had perhaps given up his search, he decided to come out of his hideout. As he got up his foot bumped against something that clearly was metal. Under the heaps of hay he found a metal trunk that had completely become rusted. He wondered if it contained precious stones and gold coins as he had often heard about in the Arabian tales. He managed to get it open after a few attempts but the contents disappointed him. They were mostly old certificates of proficiency that belonged to his late uncle and some old family photos. He could make out his grandfather, grandmother, mother and a boy he guessed to be his late uncle Mahendran. Somehow the face of the boy seemed to remind him of someone. After putting the contents back into the trunk he closed it. As he got up he noticed a ray of light seeping into the otherwise dark attic. It was from a small window that had been completely covered by a cardboard piece. The cardboard had begun to come off at the corners thereby permitting light to enter. Kannan tore off the cardboard lighting up the attic with the rays of the afternoon sun. Looking out through the window he could clearly see the front veranda and even the door from outside to his mother’s room. This was an interesting discovery that he immediately shared with his cousin. Soon it became the night watchman space for the cousins, from where they could monitor the house pretending to be spies on a secret mission.
Thus the cousins spend a lot of time together, their friendship and brotherhood undeniably becoming stronger and deeper by each passing day. Even Janakiamma seemed not to complain about Chinnan’s presence in the house. It was a surprise and a welcome change that she did not curse or comment even if Chinnan came in her direct sight.
Nothing could prevent the boys from becoming each other’s shadow and support. For Kannan it was a blessing as well as a dire necessity with the growing distance between himself and his mother. The last time Kannan remembered spending quality time with his mother was at the circus. Saraswathi began to behave indifferently day after day and he began to see very less of her. She would get up early in the morning, do the household chores quickly and then dress elegantly and go to meet her friends- the thampurattis, people whom she earlier despised. With her so called new company she would go for bhajans, skits and festivals in nearby towns. She would return at sunset, freshen up and go to the temple and return only after the final pooja. She would not speak a word nor give prasad to anyone but silently enter her room from the veranda and go to sleep immediately. All that one could get out of her were sarcastic smiles in reply to Janakiamma’s taunting remarks and the sticky grass from Bomanchery fields that caught onto her sari every time she journeyed to and from the temple. Shankaran Nair said nothing of course for he himself was a wanderer and more because he felt no good could come of it, after all his daughter was an adult. Kannan initially was upset but with time he got used to it. Besides with Chinnan around, he was sufficiently distracted and less lonely. It also became the reason for the foundation of their friendship to grow. The cousins were literally becoming inseparable. Everyone envied the cousins so much that one would have cast a black eye.