“Kurup saar! You have to go home now. I need to lock the temple gates,” said Madhavan.
Madhavan was the guard at the Neyyarinkara Krishna Temple. He was the only guard and he was in a hurry to go home.
Madhavan’s duties started at four in the morning when he opened the temple gates. After opening the gates, he would go around the temple to ensure everything was in order. Only after his ‘all-clear’ would the priests enter the shrine. Once the priest entered and started their rituals Madhavan relaxed. His duty ended at eight in the night when he would lock the main gates. Come rain or shine the routine never changed. Madhavan took his job seriously. It was eight-fifteen and he was getting late.
“Kurup Saar! I have to close the temple gates” said Madhavan repeating his request.
Gopinathan Kurup was in his mid-forties. He looked younger for his age. Had it not been for the bald patch on his head he would not have looked a day above thirty-five. Clad in a pale white dhoti a silk shawl thrown around his bare upper body, he was seated on the ground in a corner of the temple courtyard. With his back leaning against one of the massive stone pillars.
“Saar!” Madhavan repeated.
“Yes! Yes, I am leaving. You know I like to sit here. What will I do at home? There is no one there,” he said.
Madhavan nodded his head. He had heard this from Kurup a thousand times. There was nothing he could do about it. Madhavan’s house was considerably smaller but it was full of people. His son, his daughter in law and his grand-son lived with him. Madhavan looked forward to reaching home in time. He loved to play with his grandson. If he did not reach home in time, the boy would be fast asleep.
Kurup got up, brushed the dust off his dhoti, rearranged his shawl around his shoulders and began walking. His house was less than a kilometre from the temple. He inherited the house from his father. Besides the house, he got hundreds of acres of paddy fields and coconut plantations. He was one of the richest men in the village. Unlike other men who inherited riches Kurup had taken care of his estate. His was a perfect life. Nalinakshi Amma was the perfect wife Kurup could have asked for. Everything was perfect till the cholera epidemic visited the shores of Neyyarinkara. The disease did not differentiate between rich and poor. By the time the disease was under control, it had taken the lives of fifty villagers. Nalinakshi Amma was one of the first to fall victim to the disease. They did not have any children. Kurup was left alone in the world. People who earlier envied him for his riches now sympathized on his tragedy.
“Master! The hot water for your bath is in the bathroom,” said Satyan. Satyan was Kurup’ s cook cum housekeeper. He was standing at the gate, patiently waiting for his master to return. Kurup nodded
“Once you have your bath I will serve your dinner,” Satyan said.
Satyan looked after the house with care and dedication. Besides cooking food, he ensured that the house was always neat and clean. He was assisted by his wife, Laxmi. Laxmi worked in the house during the day. She came along with Satyan at seven in the morning and left by five in the evening. Satyan remained till about nine.
Kurup finished his bath and stepped out. He could see Satyan had laid out the table and was waiting for him.
“Go home. Satya!” said Kurup, “Have food with your wife and children.”
“Saar I will leave after you have finished.”
“Do not worry about the dirty utensils. I will cover them up after I have finished. Go home.”
After Satyan left, Kurup began eating. The sound of his chewing echoed in the room. He looked at the table. It could seat eight people. Kurup sighed. He had relatives and some of them had offered to come over and stay with him. He knew they were after his money. He kept them at arm’s length. After finishing his meal, he covered the plates, washed his hands and went to sleep.
This lonely existence had become a habit now for him. It was more than five years since Nalinakshi has passed away. He was used to the silence in the house.
The next morning, as usual, Satyan woke him up with a cup of steaming hot tea. Kurup could hear Laxmi sweep the ground in front of the house. The house had a huge courtyard. In the yard, there was a huge mango tree. Every year its branches would be covered with mangoes. There were a large number of flowering plants in the yard. Every morning the ground would be littered with leaves. Laxmi spent half her day sweeping the ground clean.
Kurup was reading the morning newspaper sipping tea from a cup.
“Sir would you want to wear anything special today. Let me know so that I can iron it out for you,” said Satyan.
“Why?” said Kurup.
“Saar, I hope you have not forgotten. The festival at our temple starts today. It will be ten days of non-stop entertainment in the village.”
“Oh! I almost forgot,” said Kurup.
He has seen the preparations going on in full swing for weeks. Pandals were erected. The path leading to the temple was watered to prevent the dust from rising. Dancers and artists from all over the state would come to the village for the festival. Every day a different art form was displayed. It was the start of the harvest season. For the villagers of Neyyarinkara, it was the time of the year when they celebrated. Schools and colleges had four days of holidays while government offices were shut for two days. Everyone celebrated.
“Keep my shawls clean. The Kathakali performances will run through the night. It can be a bit cold that late in the night. “
“I will wait for you, Saar.”
“No need Satya! Just keep the food covered and leave. I may not be coming at my regular time for the next ten-day. You and Laxmi would also be attending some of these dance recitals, right?”
“Saar if you allow, can Laxmi and I sleep in the back yard during the festival days? It will be late by the time the programs finish. I do not want to travel with her in the night.”
“Why in the back yard? There are so many rooms in the house. Use one of them. You know Satyan, I consider you and Laxmi as my family members.”
The temple festival was the high point in the village calendar. For ten days the entire village would deck up and celebrate. In the temple, the day would start with special poojas. Teams of priests would conduct elaborate rituals. In the evening the activities would shift to the pandals outside the temple. Dancers who were expert in classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi would perform. Singers of classical music would sing ragas in praise of the lord. At night the Kathakali artists would take over. Their performances would continue through the night. People came prepared for the long hours with bed sheets and pillows!
On the first day of the festival, Kurup left early for the temple. He hoped to find a place to sit before the crowds came pouring in. There were a few empty seats and he grabbed one of them. It was six in the evening by the time the curtains went up. People were still coming in and occupying seats. The loudspeakers and microphones were not correctly tuned. After a few false starts the performances started.
The first dance performance of the day was a Bharatanatyam recital by an unknown dancer. Temple festivals were the place where upcoming dancers performed for the first time.
The dancer was nervous. It was her first performance in front of a live audience. She was supported by a small group of equally nervous musicians. This was a troupe from a distant village. The people noticed the ham-handed performance and hooted their displeasure. Some of the rowdier elements threw crumpled paper balls at the dancer. The performance was stopped and the curtain hastily dropped. There was chaos. Some people stood on their chairs others demanded that the performance be restarted. The organizers of the event had a tough time controlling the crowd. After half an hour of shouting, screaming, hooting and pacifying, the crowd settled down. The same dancer was given a second chance to perform. Despite some minor hiccups she completed her recital and ran off stage.
As the night progressed more seasoned artists came up. It was about ten in the night when Kurup finally decided to leave. A narrow lane led from the temple to Kurup’ s house. It was a full moon night and he was halfway home when he saw a group sitting on the road
“What are you doing here?” said Kurup as he came up to them.
They rose and stood there.
“We are from a village near Tirunelveli. We missed the last bus. The next bus leaves in the morning, “said a woman in the group.
Kurup saw that it was the dance party that performed first that evening. The girl who had been hooted off the stage was also there. Without her makeup and out of the dance costume she looked different. Kurup thought she looked more beautiful without the makeup. Her large expressive eyes were staring at Kurup. Somewhere deep inside he felt a surge of sympathy for the group.
“Come with me. There is enough room in my house for all of you. You can stay there for the night and leave in the morning.”
The group hesitated. No one in his right mind offered to share his house with a group of strangers. Kurup saw them hesitate.
“Do not worry. My house is just around the corner.”
The group of four, three women and a man followed Kurup. When they reached the house, they were stunned. It was a mansion.
“How many people live here?” one of the women in the group asked.
“I stay alone here,” said Kurup.
Satyan came running as he heard the gates open. He stopped when he saw a group of weirdly dressed people carrying musical instruments following the master of the house.
“Satya, these people are from Tirunelveli. They came here for the festival and will be returning tomorrow. Take them to the guest house and see to their needs.”
“I remember, you are the group that performed first today,” said Laxmi as Satyan opened the doors of the guest house.
The guest house was a separate construction in the compound. It was used on rare occasions when relatives from distance places used to come. Those visits happened when Kurup’ s father was alive. After his father’s death, it was opened once in a month to be cleaned.
“Who lives here?” asked a woman in the group.
“No one. This is the guest house” said Laxmi.
She had taken an immediate dislike for this group. The woman looked too aggressive and the man shifty-eyed. Satyan noticed that too.
As Laxmi prepared to leave them one of the women in the group asked, “Can we get something to eat?”
“It is ten in the night,” said Laxmi. She tried to sound sarcastic but the effect was missed on the group.
“Can you make something for us? We have not had anything since lunch.”
“Is it so?” said Laxmi. She would have something nasty but Satyan stepped in.
“I can get you some bananas.”
“That will do for now,” said the woman, “By the way my name is Vasanthi, I am this girl’s aunty. Her name is Komalam. This is her mother Anandavalli and he is our brother Sugesan.”
Neither Satyan nor Laxmi bothered to remember the names. If they were leaving in the morning there was no need to get friendly with them. Within minutes the plantains he had fetched disappeared. They still looked hungry. Laxmi had never seen anyone eat plantains and still feel hungry.
“There is a well in the house. If you are still hungry, drink as much water as you want. Don’t worry the well never dries.” said Laxmi as she went out of the room.
“Sometimes, Saar does the most irresponsible things. I don’t think we can trust these people. We should send them away, first thing in the morning,” said Satyan. Laxmi was in complete agreement with him.
The next day the husband and wife woke up early. Satyan rushed to the guest house and found it locked from inside. Their guests were still asleep. He knocked on the door but there was no response. He would have banged louder had he not been worried about waking up Kurup.
Kurup as usual woke up at six and came out of his room. He had his tea reading the mornings newspaper. Laxmi began sweeping the yard and Satyan was busy in the kitchen.
An hour later Kurup was having his breakfast when he remembered about his guests from the previous night.
“When did those people leave?” said Kurup.
“No saar! They are still sleeping!” said Satyan.
“Sleeping? Who sleeps till seven in the morning?”
Then he recalled something and added, “They must be tired after all that travelling. Let them rest.”
His guests woke up around ten. One by one they came out of the guesthouse. The women first and then the man. They sat there outside in the courtyard basking in the sun.
“You missed the morning bus. The next bus to Tirunelveli leaves in half an hour,” said Satyan.
“Can we get something to eat?” said one of the women.
“There are several hotels near the Bus stop. You can order whatever you like,” said Laxmi.
Kurup came out of the house. Seeing him they rose and did an elaborate namaste. He smiled back.
“I thought you had left. I hope you found the guest house comfortable?”
“It was ok. Just that we were hungry after all our travelling.”
“Oh! that is not a problem. You can have something here. Laxmi will cook something for you.”
It was rare that Laxmi and Satyan disagreed with Kurup. This was one time both of them had an urge to argue with their master.
“You know how to make dosas. Here help yourself,” said Laxmi.
“Can you make it for us? We are your guests. In our village guests are not allowed to cook. It is the host who cooks.”
Laxmi controlled herself with a lot of effort.
“We do not have any such customs here. Also, you are not guests here. The master allowed you to stay for the night out of sympathy. Now either you make your dosas or you remain hungry. Your choice.”
Laxmi stormed out of the kitchen.
Kurup spent a good part of the morning hours in a wooden easy chair. Seated comfortably on it, he would read newspapers, books and periodicals from his collection. He loved to read. He had a room full of books in his house. Neatly arrange and catalogued, it was the only ‘library’ in the whole of Neyyarinkara. He even had a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica in his collection. School teachers from afar used to come to his library to read and refer books from his collection.
Kurup was seated in his favourite easy chair reading a novel when he heard the sound of water being splashed. He looked up and saw a sight that took his breath away. Komalam, the young girl, the dancer from the previous night was taking a bath, next to the well. She was in her early twenties and not exactly a girl. Kurup noticed this. She was barely clothed and whatever was covering her was all wet with the water from the well. Kurup forgot the rules of gentlemanliness and stared. A few buckets of water later she realized that Kurup was watching her. She stopped abruptly, looked at him and smiled. Kurup immediately looked elsewhere. He covered his face with the novel and pretended he was reading.
It had been years since Nalinakshi had passed away. Kurup had lived a saintly life ever since. The sight of this young woman bathing in such proximity brought back long-forgotten emotions in him. Kurup struggled to continue reading.
“What is that woman doing?”
Laxmi’s indignant voice brought him back to reality.
“There is a bathroom outside the house. You do not have to bath in public. This is not the river bank and for God’s sake wear some clothes!” Laxmi shouted out the words, hoping to drive some sense into the girl. Laxmi understood what these people were up to. A man living alone in a huge house, a man who had lost his wife.
Laxmi went up to the girl and exchanged some more words which Kurup could not hear. He could see that the words were not having much of an effect on the girl. She turned towards Kurup and smiled again.
Lunchtime came and the group was still there. By now both Satyan and Laxmi were desperate to get them out.
“There is a bus for Tirunelveli every half an hour from the bus stand. The last bus leaves at five,” said Satyan dropping hints which he hoped his master would catch. His attempts were in vain. He saw the four come up to Kurup.
It was one of the women who spoke, “Saar you have been very kind. Not many people are so kind and helpful towards those who are in need.”
“So, you are leaving?” said Kurup.
She smiled but said nothing.
“It was always our wish to come to this temple. Now I feel bad that I have to leave in a day,” she said.
Then pointing at the young girl, the woman continued, “She wanted to see the dance performances of the experts. She is young but keen to learn. Sadly, we are not able to spend more time here.”
The girl looked at Kurup with her large eyes. Kurup had his limits. The big round eyes, her beautiful smile and somewhere in the back of his mind the images of her bathing that morning – all helped Kurup reach a quick decision.
“All of you can stay in the guest house till the end of the festival,” he said.
The last day of the festival was set aside for a grand procession. On that day the idol of the lord was carried on a richly decorated temple elephant and went around the village. The streets would be packed with people. Floats in the shape of animals and birds, decked with flowers were carried. It all ended with a massive display of fireworks. As the sound of the crackers faded in the distance, the people, artists and priests who had come for the festival would return to their homes.
One house where no goodbyes were being said was the Kurup mansion. Overruling Satyan and Laxmi’s protests Kurup had opened his house and heart to the family. From the fifth day of the festival, Kurup and Komalam started attending the dance recitals together. It did not take much time for the villagers to notice this. Some of his friends and well-wishers tried to dissuade him but love, as the saying goes, is blind.
“They are jealous of your happiness,” said Komalam, fluttering her eyelids. The eyelids distracted Kurup. He readily agreed.
Vasanthi and Anandavalli the two women took over the administration of the house. Sugesan the uncle began visiting Kurup’ s fields and coconut plantations.
“An extra pair of eyes never hurt anyone. My uncle is good with workers. He knows how to handle farmhands. Mother and Aunty are expert cooks. We will take care of you,” said Komalam, “I will take care of you.” As she said this, her hand brushed Kurup’ s gently and his breath quickened. All he could do was nod his head and agree to her.
One month later Kurup got married to Komalam. It was expected to be a grand affair. Almost the entire village was invited. None of Kurup’ s friends or relative turned up. That was compensated by a large delegation from Komalam’ s village. Food was arranged for all who attended. There were chaotic scenes in the lunch hall as some of her relatives almost came to blows on the question of who would get served first. The rituals to solemnize the marriage was to take place after lunch. Most of Komalam’ s relatives left after they had their lunch. When the time came for the marriage to be solemnized there were very few people left.
Komalam looked beautiful in her wedding saree. She was decked in jewels. Kurup had purchased both the saree and the jewels. The previous day he had handed them over to Anandavalli.
“I think the two women are wearing some of the jewels that were meant for the girl,” said Laxmi as she watched the proceedings.
Satyan shrugged. There was nothing else he could do. He knew his master was making a mistake. Satyan hoped he was wrong in his assessment.
After the marriage, Kurup and his wife went on a trip to all the holy places. It was meant for the newly married couple to get the blessing of the Gods, but her relatives tagged along. After a tiring three week trip, the group returned. Thankfully Sugesan and Vasanthi were missing. Only the mother in law came back with the couple.
“Get the bath water ready. It should not be too hot,” said Anandavalli to Laxmi.
“I know how warm it should be for the master’s bath,” said Laxmi.
“It is for me. After that Komalam will also take a bath,” said Anandavalli and went inside.
Laxmi and Satyan looked at Kurup but he said nothing and quietly went to his room.
“There will be some changes here,” said Anandavalli.
She was addressing Laxmi and Satyan.
“What time do you come in the morning?”
“You have seen us, we come in around six.”
“That is what you say. I do not get good sleep at night so get up at nine. I need a cup of tea as soon as I get up. Komalam will get up whenever she feels like it. She will also need a cup of tea when she gets up.”
“Does this rule change once your sister and brother return?”
“They will not come back here. We had a …….” Anandavalli said, “You do not need to know all that. Servants should know their place in the household.”
“Kurup Saar gets up early. He needs his tea by six. I give it to him along with the morning newspaper,” said Satyan.
“You don’t need to worry about your Kurup Saar. Komalam will decide what he wants and when he wants it. You two will listen to what I tell you.”
Both Laxmi and Satyan looked at each other. This was worse than they had imagined.
“The lunch you make is bad. It is too bland. I like my food to be spicy. There should be at least three different vegetables every day. Why don’t you make fish here? I need to eat fish with every lunch.”
“The master does not eat fish or non -vegetarian food,” said Satyan.
“That is his problem. I want to eat fish every single- day. Komalam loves fish and chicken.”
“Non-vegetarian food has never been cooked in this house,” said Satyan.
“Can you cook it or not? If you cannot then I will get someone who can.”
“I – we can. We eat non-vegetarian food at our house. I was just mentioning that non-vegetarian food has never been prepared in the Kurup house.”
“I told you at the start there will be changes. Lunch will be ready at twelve o clock sharp. There will be fish at every lunch. Along with …….”
The changes were many and sweeping. It started with the kitchen, moved to the entire mansion and then extended to Kurup’ s properties.
Six months passed. Madhavan, the temple guard was checking the keys for the temple gates. They were there in his pocket. It was time to lock up the temple. He looked around one last time. In a corner, he thought he saw someone still sitting. He shook his head.
“These beggars are a nuisance,” he said to himself as he walked towards an old man huddled in a corner.
“I have to lock the temple gates. You have to leave now,” Madhavan said.
The man did not stir. He was sleeping with his head resting against the pillar.
“My friend. You cannot sleep here. You can go outside the temple complex and sleep in the garden there.”
The old man slowly got up and started walking. As he came under the light Madhavan looked at his face. It took him a few seconds to realize that the person walking towards him was Kurup. He looked old and weak.
“Kurup saar is that you?” said Madhavan.
Kurup nodded his head. Six months of marriage had changed his life. Changed it for the worse. Within the first couple of months, Komalam had convinced him to make her the owner of his properties. Once the registration deeds were legalized, he became a guest in his own house. First to go were Laxmi and Satyan. Food came from a nearby hotel. It took Kurup some time getting used to the smell of fish, but he had adjusted. At first, his love for Komalam had masked all his smells and logic. Then reality crept in and the scales fell and he realized he had been fooled. He had let himself be fooled by a wicked woman and her mother, but he did not feel sorry for himself. He thought he deserved what had happened to him. He should have known better. All that education he had received the books that he had read they all added up to nothing when he forgot to use them in real life. He made one smart move before he signed over his property, he donated his collection of books to the local school. Komalam and her mother did not have any problems with that. They never had anything much to do with the books. It was the land and the money that they were interested in.
Madhavan looked on in wonder as he saw Kurup walk slowly towards the public park, opposite the temple. There he saw Kurup lie down on a bench and drape himself with his shawl. There was nothing that Madhavan could do. He locked the gates of the temple and went to his house. He had a story to tell his grandchild.