The beggar jumped over the low wall of the park. There was no need to jump. The wall was hardly two feet tall and was crumbling in places. He looked around. The streets were empty. The villagers in Neyyarinkara went to sleep by nine. The hands of the big clock in the park said it was ten. The roads had to be empty. As he landed inside the park the beggar winced in pain. He had landed on the sharp edge of a stone. There were chunks of cement lying around and he had chosen one of them as his landing spot. He cursed softly and hobbled his way to the bench near the clock tower. It was time for bed. The bench in the park was his bed.
The bench was made of marble and elaborately carved. Behind it was a statue, a bust of an old man. The statue was more than fifty years old. No one in the village knew whose statue it was, not that they cared. Below the bust of the old man was a cavity in the cement pillar. In the cavity was an old radio. It was an old radio with diode valves and round dials. There was a steel grill to protect the radio, from natural and human elements. Every evening the village electrician, Thangappan would unlock the grill, switch on the radio and then again lock the grill. There was only one channel on the radio. It always played a government news channel. Like clockwork, everyday Thangappan would switch it on at six p.m. and turn it off at nine p.m.
During the day, college students who bunked classes would sit in the shade of the trees in the park. In the evening young couples brought their children and watched as they ran around and played. Later the older men from the village would take over. They would come in a group, sat in a corner and listen to the news on the radio. At nine p.m. sharp, Thangappan would switch off the radio and close the grill. The last occupants of the park would walk home by nine-thirty. Around ten the beggar would come, spread his dirty rag on the bench and settle down for the night. He liked to sleep on the bench. Somehow, he felt that statue behind him was protecting him and keeping him safe. Not that he had anything valuable with him.
“Who is that old man?” said Nalinakshan, he was a student of political science at the nearby government college.
“Which old man?” said Prakash his friend and class-mate.
Both of them would come daily to college. After reaching college, they would meet their friends and catch on the latest gossip. By the time classes started they would slip out. Usually, they went to the local movie theatre. Today they were whiling away their time at the park.
“That old man,” said Nalinakshan pointing at the bust.
“From here he looks like your father!” said Prakash.
He got punched for that answer. Both friends laughed at the joke.
“No seriously. I think he looks familiar.”
“What do you mean he looks familiar?”
“I think his photograph is there in our political thought book,” said Nalinakshan.
“I have not opened that book, so cannot comment.”
“Go home and check it out. I bet he is the same person. I do not remember his name but he was a leader of some tribal group.”
“His name would be there on the plaque under the bust.”
They went over to check but there was no plaque there.
“I bet you five rupees that this is the person in our book.”
“Ok, I accept the bet.”
That evening Prakash realized he had lost the bet. The statue was indeed of the man whose photograph was in their books.
The next day the two friends met in college.
“I have brought the book as proof,” said Nalinakshan.
“No, it is not required. I saw that photo at home yesterday. It is the same old clown.”
“Watch out Manickam Sir is coming!” said Prakash, whispering.
The two tried to sneak away. Manickam was their Political Thought lecturer.
“Where are you two going? I have not seen you in my class for almost a month.”
“Sir! We were just coming to meet you. We had a doubt?” said Prakash.
“A doubt? What doubt?” said Manickam.
He was pleased his students were asking him doubts. It rarely happened.
Prakash grabbed the book from Nalinakshan ’s hand and opened it to the page which had the old man’s photo.
“Sir! we found this man’s statue in the Municipal Park in Neyyarinkara. We did not know he was a local.”
Nalinakshan smiled. He wanted to burst out laughing but this was not the right time to laugh. The question was something which Prakash had come up with on the spur of the moment. Prakash was smart that way.
Manickam looked at the photo and then at the boys.
“You say this man’s statue is there in the park?”
“Yes Sir!” both of the boys said together.
“Hmm. That is interesting! I will have to check up on this. I was not aware there were any statues of the talaivar.”
“The who Sir?”
“The Leader – Talaivar. That is Vellai Chami the leader of the tribal who lives in the Neelamani forest region. The tribal’ s called him Talaivar which means leader in their language. He was hanged by the British government. You boys are sure it is his statue?”
“Yes Sir! We are hundred per cent sure,” said Prakash and Nalinakshan nodded his agreement.
“Good work boys! Now take your book and go to your classes.”
“What was all that about? Why did Manickam get so excited about that old statue?” said Prakash.
“I have no idea. What you did was just brilliant. He forgot all about us bunking his classes. Come lets us slip away before he catches us again.”
As the two boys disappeared from the campus, Manickam was making his way to the staff room. There he went up to a phone and dialled a number.
“Neelamani Hill Range Tribal Association office,” said a voice from the other side.
“Ganesh, it is me Mani!” said Manickam whispering.
“How are you comrade Manickam? It has been some time since I have seen you at our meetings. Where are you these days?”
“Comrade Ganesh! Listen do you know there is a statue of the talivar in the Neyyarinkara Municipal Park?”
“A statue? I do not think there are any statues anywhere of the talaivar.”
“There are. Two of my student saw it and came to report about it.”
“This is great news. I will leave immediately for Neyyarinkara. I must see this status with my own eyes! Once this is confirmed, I will inform the state president also about this.” The phone was disconnected.
That evening before leaving college Manickam applied for a day’s leave. He said his mother in law was not well and he had to take her to the hospital. The principal would have been shocked had he known that Manickam’s mother in law had died five years back. Manickam ’s stories about her illness had often helped him in his leave application’s.
The next day as Manickam waited at the Neyyarinkara Bus stand he was sweating. It was a cloudy day but he was sweating. The Neelamani Hill Range Tribal Association party president Prabhu Das was coming along with Ganesh. Ganesh had come down to Neyyarinkara and confirmed on the statue being of their cherished leader. He had informed the state party president. Now both of them were coming over to Neyyarinkara. They were the top functionaries of the party and Manickam was there at the bus stop to receive them. He wiped the sweat of his brows.
“Where is this statue Manickam?” said Prabhu Das as he stepped out of the bus.
“It is in a park not far from here, Comrade,” said Ganesh before Manickam could reply.
“And you were not aware of it?” said Prabhu Das.
“My students found out about it, Comrade,” said Manickam with pride.
“You were also not aware of its existence Manickam. I am surprised that senior members of the party such as you two are not aware of such an important memorial of the greatest leader our tribe has produced.”
Ganesh and Manickam remained quiet on the way to the park. It was not a good start to the visit, they did not want to spoil it further. They listened to their party president speak.
“Set up a press conference here this Sunday. I am shocked at the state of the statue. He was one of the greatest leaders the state ever produced and look at how they have kept his statue.” Thundered Prabhu Das at the park. Manickam and Ganesh his dedicated followers took notes and nodded their heads.
That Sunday morning villagers in Neyyarinkara were surprised to find a crowd at the Municipal Park. There were vans full of policemen. Representatives from the state and local newspapers were there. A small dais had been hastily put up and loudspeakers and microphones set up. Manickam, Ganesh along with other party members were busy arranging chairs for the members of the press.
“Talaivar Vellai Chami was a freedom fighter who dared to stand up against not only the oppression of the British but also the suppression of the upper caste Hindus. He was hanged for this,” thundered Prabhu Das, the Neelamani Hill Range Tribal Association Party President.
“Why is he shouting into a microphone?” said one of the press correspondents covering the function.
“Have you ever heard of this Talaivar before? Thousands were hanged during the British raj,” replied another.
“Do you think they will serve any food later in the day?” said another journalist.
“Look around you. Do you think there would be a decent hotel in a village like this?”
After the speeches, the journalists were taken around the park. The crumbling walls, the statue with no name and the bad state of the park – everything was captured by the cameras of the press teams.
The news made it to the front page in the next day’s newspapers. Some of the articles supported the tribal communities and dug out stories about their struggle over the years. The newspapers with leanings towards the forward castes blasted the community. Prabhu Das the association president demanded reservation in jobs for his community. The other castes protested against this. This continued for a few days and then the issue died down and people went on with their business.
One night the beggar who was sleeping on the bench behind the statue was woken by a loud sound. For a few seconds, he was not sure what had happened. Then he looked up and saw that the statue was missing. Some local boys had tied a rope to it and pulled it down. The beggar was lucky that it had not fallen on him. He picked up his rag and ran away from there.
The demolition of the statue was big news. The issue which had died down was back in the front. Protests were organized. Prabhu Das declared that he would fast before the state assembly until his demands were accepted. He was arrested within an hour of starting his fast. There were protests and strikes across the state. School and colleges were closed as the protests intensified. Finally, the government agreed to most of the demand of the protesters. Funds were released and a plan was drawn up.
In Neyyarinkara, the villagers woke up one morning to a convoy of government vehicles coming down the narrow village by-lanes. The cars converged at the park. Ministers and government officials stepped out. Hectic discussions were held. The ministers spoke and the obedient officials nodded their heads in unison. The decision was to construct a well-maintained park around the structure. Replace the radio with a television. Put up a proper fence around the entire area. Last but not the least build a life-size statue of Talaivar Vellai Chami to replace the damaged statue.
It took two months for the construction to complete. Finally, the day came and the Chief Minister of the state himself came followed by a huge retinue to inaugurate the park. After the festivities were over the crowd disbanded and went away satisfied. Everyone got something in the affair. The politicians hoped to get the votes of the tribal’ s, the officials expected promotions for a job well done, Prabhu Das the leader of the tribal group was promised a seat in the local elections, the villagers got a better looking and well- maintained park and last but not the least Thangappan the village electrician got the job of switching on the television. That evening as always, he switched it off at nine and left for the day.
That night the beggar sneaked in again. He looked around the place in disbelief. The trees were all trimmed. There was a thick coating of grass on the ground. The new statue was huge and stood spot in the middle of the park almost obstructing the clock tower which also got a coat of paint.
The beggar looked around for his bench. It was not in its usual place. It was now in a corner. He went over to it and spread his rag. The last two months due to the construction work he was not allowed in the park. He had been forced to sleep at the bus stop. There it was noisy and he had not been able to sleep properly. He was used to the curves of his marble bench. As he prepared to sleep he noticed something lying under the bench. It was an old radio. After removing it from the cavity in the clock tower, someone had placed it under the bench and forgotten all about it. The beggar patted the radio on its cover.
“Do not worry my friend, you are just like me. No one wants us. A life-less statue is more important to them. Do not worry. This is a good bench. You are safe under it.”
The beggar was about to close his eyes when he looked at the statue. Its bronze coating gave it an eerie glow in the light from the streetlamps. The beggar felt it did not have the reassuring look of the earlier bust. He turned on his side and went to sleep.