The dawn had just begun to break and the sweet melody of the early birds rang through the air. Kannan inhaled the freshness of the new day and curled up again like a worm inside his blanket. He knew that any moment now Shankaran Nair would come and pull him out of the bed for their daily exercise, something Kannan disliked the most. He liked the walking part of it as it took him through the fields but the sit-ups made him run out of breath.
Today appoopan is late, he thought to himself, and slowly dragging his small body from beneath the blanket he went towards the kitchen. Seeing Saraswathi there, he ran to her and hugged her from behind.
“Oh you little devil, you startled me,” she said, catching his ear without hurting him the slightest bit.
“Where’s appoopan, he didn’t come to wake me up today?” asked Kannan without hiding his secret delight for having to forgo this tiresome routine.
“He’s gone hunting my dear, he left late in the night, he’ll be back only after a few days” replied Saraswathi.
“Oh did he go with O.G appoopan?” asked Kannan in excitement
“Yes, Govindan uncle came late in the night after you had gone to sleep.” replied Saraswathi.
“Oh! I can’t wait for him to get back, I must tell Chinnan to come and stay. It’s been so long since we heard ghost stories. This vacation is going to be fun. Amma please do ask O.G appoopan to stay longer this time.”
“I’ll try but I am not promising anything. You know that he has lots of work to get back too,” said Saraswathi smiling at her son’s excitement.
Odayathu Govindan, known to everyone as O.G, was Shankaran Nair’s bosom buddy and hunting mate. They had become friends during the Second World War where they served in the same division. After the war O.G began to visit Shankaran Nair every once in a while. Both of them would go hunting and return with their game bags filled with deer head, tiger claws and fur, crocodile hide and ghee. Kannan’s grandmother Janakiamma would be so revolted by the site that she would go without food the entire day.
O.G had no family of his own having remained a bachelor all his life; he had three sisters whose children were going to be the sole inheritors of his wealth. For them he was a money minting machine and he knew all their exhibitions of love was purely superficial, an act for their names to make a way into his will. He had found solace in visiting Shankaran Nair’s family where he felt more at home and far from the greed and artificiality of his relatives.
During his stay, O.G would entertain Kannan and Chinnan with tales of his encounters with the Germans while fighting the war, hunting wild animals, and yakshis having long sharp teeth and blood dripping lips, most of which were, without doubt, purely fictional. Kannan and Chinnan would sit with wide-open eyes that were full of wonder and appreciation, swallowing in every single word that came out of O.G appoopan’s mouth.
O.G was a welcome change in an atmosphere that was mostly filled with the cold war between Kannan’s grandparents. Kannan’s grandmother, Janakiamma, however made no effort to entertain any of Shankaran Nair’s guests’, not even O.G. It was Saraswathi who acted as the buffer in the situation by playing host and always making some excuse or the other for her mother’s demeanour. But O.G being an old family friend knew all about the state of affairs yet pretended all the same to be oblivious to the matter.
O.G’s visits were usually followed by an outburst by Janakiamma. This was mainly triggered by the fact that though O.G had no family of his own, he was well settled having property and money that was more than enough for the next two generations. He was a shrewd businessman saving every single bit he could all his life unlike Shankaran Nair who not only didn’t have any savings but also had plundered all of his inheritance through his extravagances. While O.G took up an office job after he returned from the war Shankaran Nair chose to sit idle. Shankaran Nair was very egoistic about his lineage and did not believe it was fit for the royalty to work for a living. Ironically he never saw anything wrong about borrowing money from others.
Kannan heard the murmuring in the other room and realized that his grandmother had begun her daily routine, cursing Shankaran Nair. Yes this was how the day began at Ullas villa, Janakiamma murmuring away like the buzzing of bees, slightly (and luckily) deaf Shankaran Nair chewing away on his betel nut leaf, while Saraswathi was toiling away in the kitchen. Kannan, who had become so accustomed to this menagerie, would be busy daydreaming about his ride across the river. Once in a while he would try to listen to what his grandmother was saying but then on becoming so bored hearing the same thing over and over again would return to his world of fantasy.
Today at least Shankaran Nair wasn’t around to bear her wrath.
“Oh! Why did ammooma marry appoopan if she hated him so much?” asked an exasperated Kannan
Janu, the old servant lady, who had overheard Kannan’s innocent query was more than happy to answer this query as she said “So my dear didn’t you know your grandparents had eloped to get married” she said.
“What is elope mother?” asked Kannan again
“Januechi, how many times have I told you not to talk to small children about such things,” said Saraswathi
“Don’t you have work in the garden, please tend to that.”
This warning however did not dampen Janu’s spirits. She was a funny and bold woman who talked her mind whenever she felt like it. Unlike the servants of the neighbouring household she did not fear Janakiamma who was very orthodox in her views on caste differences.
Janu had been serving the family for over fifty years now. Though sixty-five she was still as fit as a fiddle. She had often say, “The secret of my health is healthy gossip, everyone must do it, because it brings immense joy to us, which in turn is very good for the heart.”
Indeed Janu found great pleasure in telling tales about other families, especially family feuds, wives who were committing adultery, husbands who were murdering the lovers, etc etc. Of course there were no grounds to believe these stories but she told them anyway. She knew each and every bit about Kannan’s family and when his mother wasn’t around Kannan would often run to Janu to hear titbits of his family history.
A very curious Kannan now wondered when he would be able to hear all about this thing called elope from Janu. He made a mental note to ask her all about it when his amma would be off to the temple in the evening.
Thinking however he would be able to have some fun at his grandmother’s expense, anyway, Kannan naughtily went and asked her,
“You eloped with appoopan?”
Hearing this, an already irritated Janaki amma began to shake with fury and wriggling her finger at Kannan said,
“Who told you such nonsense, get out of my sight you naughty child, yes it must be the old man who told you this, useless man, hmmmm, elope… it was better to have been kidnapped by a chandala, he destroyed me, may that man burn in hell………..”
There goes that, thought Kannan, seeing his grandmother convulse in fury, he though it looked ugly as if she was being bitten by ants. At the same time he felt sorry for having irritated her. She was not so bad always, but only when one mentioned about his grandfather and his only aunt Lakshmi. At other times she would let him sit on her lap and tell him stories about Lord Rama and Lord Krishna while she ran her hands through his hair.
Slowly slipping out of the ugly situation he had created, he ran to the bathroom for his daily ablutions. Till a few months ago he had to go to the river to take a bath. He preferred it to this new arrangement, as he loved playing in the water. During the holidays he and Chinnan, along with the local kids would spend a long time in the river bathing and playing games. They would catch the ends of their towels and dip it in the water waiting for the small fish to swim above it. They would then trap small fish and put them in a bottle filled with water and take it home (only to have Janu put them back into the river later). They also loved competing with each other to see who could stay under the water the longest.
After the bath they would come and sit on the bank and throw stones into the river, each trying to throw his farther away than the other. Janu would often scare them with old wives’ tale of how throwing stones into the river brought unluck.
“You mustn’t throw stones into the river my dear children, it will curse you. You’ll have to pick up each of them back from the river before you die.” They however didn’t believe Janu in spite of the morbidity she had brought to the tone while warning them. For them the river was their friend and it could never hurt them.
Kannan thought of how much he missed bathing in the river as he stood now before the washbasin brushing his teeth. He didn’t like this sophisticated way of taking bath with walls covering all the sides and shutting out the sun. The bathroom was a new addition that was supposed to be made two years ago with the money sent by Kannan’s father. He had specifically insisted that the bathroom be made before he came down for the summer leave. Not only was the bathroom not made that year but also the money was completely spent by Shankaran Nair, some for charity and some for entertaining his friends. Luckily for him, Kannan’s father could not come down that year due to some official problems. In the end Saraswathi had to sell her gold chain to get the work done and as usual she was expecting her husband to get a leave at least this year. It had been five years since he last came to India.
Oh! This summer leave is just going to be great thought Kannan. Why not, his father was coming, he would get chocolates, new dresses, he could play in the water with Chinnan, yes he had to give a few chocolates to Chinnan too after all he was his best friend, but most of all he was going to see his mother happy. He knew that beneath that pleasant calmness was an aching heart and he had seen the mask of serenity come off all those times when his father had promised to come and eventually broken her heart.
“Kanna, what’s taking you so long,” called out Saraswathi from the kitchen,
“You are getting late for school,” she continued to say,
“Do you want to get punished again by Pisharadi master?”
The name of his class teacher was itself enough for Kannan to snap out of his thoughts. He rushed through his daily routines and jumped out of the bathroom scarcely drying his wet hair. Dressing up in the shirt and trousers that had been neatly laid down on the bed by his mother he ran to the kitchen to have his breakfast. It was his favourite food, puttu and kadala, but without time in his hands he had to gulp it down with the milk.
He hoped he would not miss the first boat across the river, if he did he would have to wait at least 10 minutes for the next trip, which meant definite punishment from Pisharadi master. When he reached the riverbank the boat was just about to leave seeing which he called out,
“Ayappan chetta wait for me”. Ayappan turned around to see a gasping Kannan waving to him. He stalled the boat till Kannan could get in.
“Late again,” asked Ayappan to which Kannan smiled in reply.
Kannan made sure he sat nearer to Ayappan than anyone. It somehow gave him a sense of safety. Also he enjoyed a good conversation with him. Ayappan had been an oarsman all his life and it was the job that ran in his family for generations. His father had handled the oar for 50 years and so had his grandfather and great grandfathers; the chain just went on and on, it was as if they had been born to do this job and none other.
“How is your son chetta? When shall he come back to school? Tell him Soman master has taught us a new Malayalam poem, I think no one would be able to sing it better than Chelappan,” said Kannan.
Chelappan was Ayappan’s only son; he had been missing school for the past two months due to a sudden attack of a fever that was failing to subside. The boy had been a talented singer and Ayappan was hoping that at least by educating him he would be able to make a difference by not having to follow the family trade.
“He’s alright but the daaktar says he probably might not be able to walk again. The fever has affected his legs,” said Ayappan his face growing more and more morose as he uttered each word.
“Don’t worry Ayappan chetta, take him to the Moose; amma says there is no disease he cannot cure. Chelappan will be just fine. Tell him my father is coming next week and he’ll be bringing lots of chocolates. I and Chinnan will come visit him after the school closes and bring him chocolates too” said Kannan with such enthusiasm that his very tone helped in alleviating Ayappan’s mood.
“Well run off, we’ve reached the opposite bank. I’ll see you in the evening.” said Ayappan as he bade Kannan off.
Until then Kannan had not felt the panic as he had got lost in the conversation with Ayappan. But now as he looked at his watch he knew he was done for today.
Oh! I wonder how he’s going to punish me. Maybe he’ll use the cane or maybe he’ll twist my ears he thought to himself.
Pisharadi master was nicknamed Hitler due to the strict military discipline he tried to implement in his class. He however did have a soft corner for Kannan who fared well in his subject mathematics, but this did not prevent him from punishing him for his mistakes.
The school was actually an old mansion having a long front veranda, with the rooms along it having been converted into classrooms. The headmaster’s room was in a wing that jutted out from one end of the veranda. As Kannan neared the gate of the school he could hear the bell ringing. Oh no, thought Kannan and gathering up his guts went to his class that was at one end of the veranda. Pisharadi master had already made a couple of children stand up for not having done their homework. And it dawned upon Kannan that he too had forgotten to do it. He apparently had fallen asleep early on his mother’s lap listening to some story that he now failed to recall even the slightest bit. Great, double trouble, he thought.
“May I come in master?” asked Kannan in a stuttering and low voice. Pisharadi master turned around and on seeing Kannan wrinkled his forehead and said in a sarcastic tone,
“Ah! The early bird. Come in, I’ll deal with you soon, have you done your homework?”
Kannan found himself involuntarily lying to Pisharadi master, “Yes master” he said immediately realizing his folly. If there was something Pisharadi master disliked the most, it was lies.
Oh! Now no one can save me, thought Kannan. He got in and went to his desk and sat down without lifting his head. He was too afraid to look at Pisharadi master. Meanwhile Pisharadi master was punishing the defaulters who had forgotten to do their homework.
“And why is that you haven’t done your homework Ramu,” he asked a small thin boy who was now shivering like a tuning fork.
“Master I got confused with the difference between directly proportional and inversely proportional,” he replied.
“Now, now,” said Pisharadi master mockingly, “I will help you, even though it is obvious that you didn’t pay attention in class. Here is an example which will never let you forget the difference,” saying which he caught hold of Ramu’s right ear. He twisted it slightly and slowly increased the intensity till Ramu's cry became louder and louder,
“See the more I twist your ear the more you will cry, that is directly proportional,” saying which he let go off Ramu's ear.
“Next, how many questions have you attempted out of the ten I gave yesterday?” asked Pisharadi master,
“Two,” said a sobbing Ramu. “Well stretch out your hand,” ordered Pisharadi master, and Ramu reluctantly stretched his small hand, the palms facing up and closing his eyes afraid to see the violent onslaught about to take place.
Pisharadi master caned Ramu till he winced in pain after which he said, “The lesser questions you attempt the more caned you get; now that is inversely proportional, so will you ever forget the difference Ramu?”
“No,” said Ramu, slouching down on his desk, his reply sounding more like a whimper.
So continued Pisharadi master’s process of terror until he reached Kannan.
“Open your book,” he said and Kannan slowly began to turn the pages of his book trying to buy time, and as he neared the last written page he closed his eyes waiting for the tempest to blow over. Just then the bell rang indicating Pisharadi master’s class was over.
“Well that will be enough for today, I shall be sending in your assignments for the holidays in the afternoon. I want you all to do them 3 times and submit it when the school reopens,” said Pisharadi master and left the class. Kannan thanked his lucky stars; it was almost as if he had walked on razor’s edge.
He immediately got up and ran to Ramu who was now crying without a stop. He was surrounded by all his classmates who were trying to console him.
Seeing his bruised palms, Kannan got so enraged that he said, “Ramu don’t cry. I think it’s high time we taught Hitler a lesson. Let’s gather in the Bomanchery fields today evening and plan something. What do you say guys?” asked Kannan.
“Yes,” echoed everyone in unanimity.
The rest of the day flew before Kannan as he was finding it difficult to concentrate even in Soman master’s class, which happened to be his favourite. He was devising a plan to teach Pisharadi master a lesson and the random ideas were getting shuffled in his little head in order to formulate the perfect plan.
Suddenly he found himself saying aloud, “Yes, that’s it.” The entire class turned around to stare at the backbench where he was seated. It was then he realized that he had not been paying any attention in the science class. So he didn’t complain when he was made to stand outside the class by Shylaja madam, the science teacher, for disturbing the entire class with his antics.
“Great,” he thought to himself, “Now I can plan peacefully,” and smiled to himself mischievously. He had indeed come up with a fool proof plan.