The Village Postman – a short story

Narayanan was checking the air pressure in the cycle tires. He pressed down with all his strength on the handlebars. The tires fought him back. He was satisfied. “No need to pump in more air today,” he thought.

He checked his watch. It said five minutes to ten. It was time to start his mail delivery rounds. Every day of the week Narayanan would start his mail delivery round by ten. The route he took depended on where the letters were to be delivered. In the village, it was said that you could set your watch by looking at Narayana making his rounds. Narayanan was proud of his reputation. The salary of a postman was low. Sometimes he wished he had studied more, that would have helped get a better job.

Narayanan’s father Gopalan Pillai was a farmer. A farmer who lost his wife when he was in his early forties. She departed leaving him with two sons still in school. Narayanan and his younger brother Krishnan were good at sports but to excel at studies required more than a healthy body.

Year of droughts interspersed with years of floods ensured that Gopalan’s efforts were all wasted. He vowed that his sons would not end up as farmers. He was elated when both his son’s got government jobs. Narayanan the elder son became a postman and Krishnan joined the army as a sepoy. When Narayanan got married and had a son, Gopalan’s happiness knew no bounds. But as the saying goes all things good must come to an end. One day Gopalan slipped and fell on a wet floor. He slipped into a coma and eventually passed away in his sleep.

Narayanan was an active member of the communist party while still in school. He would have been happy with a simple funeral for his father but that was not to be. His relatives, most of who never helped Gopalan when he was alive, insisted on a traditional funeral. His wife, Kalyani a devout Hindu supported them.

“It is important that al the customs and traditions be followed. If not, the soul does not achieve salvation,” Kalyani said.

All the old-timers nodded their heads in agreement and Narayanan was voted out.

Now all that remained of his father was a photograph, which hung near the main door of his house. Every day as he started for work, Narayanan would look once at his father’s serious countenance and only then leave for the day.

“Please can you post this letter?” a voice brought Narayanan back to earth. This happened every day. People would stop him on the way and hand him letters which they had written but as yet not posted.

“Yes, why not,” said Narayanan and put the letters in a different part of his bag. He would now have to carry them back to the post office and then stamp them and then deliver them to their address.

The letter receivers were usually the same. Housewives with husbands in distant cities, Parents with children in hostels. These addresses repeated after a fixed number of days. Narayanan noted such small details. He also carried money orders. Money sent by post and eagerly awaited by their recipients.

Narayanan had almost finished his round for the day. He took out the last letter from his bag. He looked at the address and for a moment was lost. He had stamped it at the post office but not read the address then. It was an address of a place behind the temple. He had never been there before. As he rode his cycle up the temple road, he realized he would have to walk the rest of the way. The road behind the temple was full of bushes and shrubs. This was no place to ride a bicycle.

“Narayanan, finally you decided to visit the temple!” said Unni, the tailor whose shop was next to the temple. Narayanan had put his cycle next to Unni’s shop.

“No!” said Narayanan and smiled. Everyone knew he was a communist. They just liked to rib him once in a while.

“Is there a house behind the temple?” Narayanan said.

“There are two-three huts not sure who lives in them. Why do you ask?” said Unni.

“I have to deliver a letter,” said Narayanan.

“Rajamma? Anyone by that name here” said Narayanan. He saw only one house behind the temple.

There was no reply. He repeated his question, this time in a louder voice.

Narayanan heard a low cough from inside the hut. An old woman came out of the hut. She stood there holding on to the crumbling pillars supporting the hut.

“Who wants to know? I am Rajamma.”

“There is a letter for you,” Narayanan said handing over the letter to her.

“There is a mistake. I do not have any relatives. This should be for someone else.”

“No! That is not possible. See it clearly say.

Rajamma Amma

Behind Shree Krishna Temple,

East Street, Neyyarinkara Post Office. Trivandrum. 

“The address is correct, but as I said I do not have any friends or relatives who would send me letters.”

“It is from Bombay.”

“I do not have any relatives here in Neyyarinkara, why would anyone in Bombay send me a letter?”

It was a good question. Narayan now had a problem. As per the rules, his job was to deliver the letter at the correct postal address. He was at the correct postal address but the addressee was refusing to accept the letter. Then he found a way out.

“Read this letter. In the first few lines, you will know if this is for you or not.”

“I can hardly see you properly. How do you expect me to read? I do not have money to buy reading glasses.”

Narayanan sighed. This was another ‘service’ that came with his job. Narayanan opened the letter and began reading.

I, Mohamad Usman am a chief mechanic at Bombay Construction Company in Kurla. I am writing this letter on behalf of one of my workers who say he is your son. His name is Sreekumar and he says he ran away from home when he was twenty years old. This incident happened five years back…..

Narayanan stopped reading as he heard a crashing sound. The old woman had fainted. She was lucky that she fell on top of a bed and then slid on to the floor. If she had fallen directly on the floor, she would have broken all her bones.

Narayana ran and picked her up. He lay her down and went inside the house. He bought some water and sprinkled it on her face. When the woman came to her senses she started wailing. The wailing brought Unni and a few of the shopkeepers to the house.

By evening the news that Rajamma’s long-lost son was alive was the hot – topic of discussion in the village. People who never in their lives had seen or known Rajamma spoke about her as if she was a close relative.

The boy’s story was indeed remarkable. He had jumped on a train and reached Bombay. Therefor some time he had begged and survived on the scraps thrown out by hotels. Then Usman had found him and given him a job. Five years later the boy had saved up some money and was planning to send his mother some money every month.

“This is a miracle! Now do you believe in God?” said Kalyani

“Why should this make me believe in God?” said Narayanan.

“Is it not a miracle that Rajamma’s son should return now. The whole village had given him up for dead. Even the police had closed the investigation and now after five years news comes that he is alive.”

“Nonsense think of how much he had to struggle in these five years. He was surviving on scraps from dustbins. And what of Rajamma’s suffering all these years. He was the only support she had. With him declared dead, she was living the life of a recluse all these years. What was her fault that your God made her suffer like that?” Narayanan countered.

“It is a miracle that her son is alive. Your communist brain will not understand it but I know and the whole village agrees with me that it is a miracle.” That was the end of the discussion. They did not speak for two days after that.

A week after the letter the first money order for five hundred rupees arrived at the post office. Rajamma beamed with pride as she signed to receive the money.

“My son has sent this. I do not want his money. All I want is to see him once before I die, “she said to anyone who would listen.

Sreekumar’s coming to the village to meet his mother was the event of the year in Neyyarinkara. The entire village had gathered at the railway station. Very few trains stopped at the small railway station and those that halted stopped for a few seconds. Seeing the massive crowd gathered at his Railway Station the Neyyarinkara Railway Stationmaster halted the train for a full minute. Like some V.I.P the boy got down and was received by a tearful Rajamma. There was hardly a dry eye in the crowd. Overcome with emotion the station master offered them a cup of tea in his cabin. Son and mother decided to go home instead.

The next day when Sreekumar took his mother to see a doctor they were again followed by a crowd. Rajamma was weak. All the years of grieving and extreme poverty had taken its toll and the woman was ailing. Most of his leave of two weeks Sreekumar spent on visiting doctors and hospitals. A tearful Rajamma was there at the railway station the day her son returned.

Rajamma’s condition took a turn for the worse after her son left. All the medicines her son had purchased remained on the shelves in her hut. After a few days, the people also forgot all about the mother and son and went on with their lives. Narayanan was the only occasional visits to her house. He went there to deliver a letter or hand her money sent by her son.

One day Narayanan was about to start his mail rounds for the day when the telegraph machine started rattling out a message. It was a telegram. Narayanan read the message and for a moment did not know what to do. He reread the message. It said.

“To Rajamma STOP Son Sreekumar dead STOP Fire accident at factory STOP Call 022 2801234 STOP from Usman STOP”

Narayanan folded the message and kept it in his pocket. He delivered all the mails and came back to the post office. That day as normal he locked the post office at four-thirty and left home. He did not tell anyone about the telegram. It was a telegram and the rules required it to be delivered immediately. For the first time in his career, Narayanan broke the rules. That night Narayanan tossed and turned. He could not sleep. If was not that this was the first death telegram that he had received. He had delivered numerous such messages before. Something was different in this case. He was unable to muster the courage to deliver the telegram to Rajamma.

The next day he used the telephone in the post office and dialled the Bombay number given in the message.

“Can I speak to Usman? I am calling from Neyyarinkara, Sreekumar’s village.”

After being put on hold for some time he heard a man’s voice on the other side. The man identified himself as Usman. His story was short. There had been an explosion at the factory. A few workers had died and Sreekumar was one of them. Usman had got severely burnt but was now recovering. Sreekumar had a saving of a thousand rupees.

“I will send that money as a money order to his mother.

Narayanan did not say anything. There was nothing much to say. A week later the money arrived. Narayanan had not said a word to anyone about the telegram. That day he had forged Rajamma’s signature in his register. Now the money had also come in.

He went to Rajamma’s hut. When she came out to meet him, he gasped. She was hardly able to walk. He helped her sit and then told her that Sreekumar had sent her a money order for five hundred rupees. From the expression on her face, he realized that she was not even able to understand what he was saying. Narayanan went into the house and made a bowl of gruel for her to eat. She was having difficulty in swallowing it. As a little bit of the food went in she asked him to write a letter to her son.

It was a rambling account. Rajamma talked about the time when she had taught him to walk. Of how scared she was he would fall. She narrated about the time when he went to school. She gave the names of his friends and what games he played with them. The effort was too much for her.

Rajamma eventually fell asleep narrating the letter and Narayanan carried her inside the house and laid her on the bed. He covered the old woman with a sheet and went back into the world.

That night Rajamma passed away in her sleep. One of the shopkeepers who was passing, by the way, thought of checking on her and found her dead. The news spread and soon people gathered at her house. They asked Narayanan to send a telegram to her son to inform him about the accident.

“That would not be necessary,” he said, “I have the phone number of his Bombay factory. Let me make a call to them.”

He went into the phone booth and closed the door. Then he dialled the Bombay number, informed Usman about the death of Sreekumar’s mother and put the phone down. As he stepped out of the phone booth Narayanan said, “Sreekumar died yesterday. There was an explosion at their factory. They are sending us a telegram. Let me see if it has come.” He went in a returned with the old telegram. No one bothered to check the date. They were too shocked with the news of the son’s death.

With the money, he had received Narayanan conducted a funeral for Rajamma. The whole village attended. The rituals were done for both mother and son. Narayanan the hard-core communist was in the middle ensuring that all tradition and customs were followed to the letter. More than the villagers he thought he knew the mother and son. He was there not as the village postman, he was there as a family member.

The Old Man – a short story

The day in our village Neyyarinkara started early. By five in the morning, most of the villagers would be at the river bank. We went there for our morning bath, to brush our teeth and wash dirty clothes. As I was eight years old, I did not have to wash clothes. I could also have done the bathing and brushing at home with the water from the well in our backyard. Mother did not allow me to go near the well. The river was a kilometre from our house. The street which ran across our gate ended at the river bank. During the sunlight hours of the day, I ran up and down this road a thousand times. Running off to school, returning from school, going to the market to buy groceries – I knew every bump and bend on the road but in the dark of the early morning hours, I would hold on to mother’s hand for support.

At the riverbank, I recognized most of the people. They were the regulars. The village policeman was there. I could also see the teachers from my school and most of the shopkeepers. Even Raghu the village thief was there, bathing at a safe distance from Gopalan the policeman. Mother took a lot of time to finish her bath. First, she would wash all the clothes she had bought along with her. Then she would brush her teeth and finally take a dip in the gentle waters of our Neyyar. I would finish everything in a couple of minutes, come out of the water and wait for her on the sandy river bank. I loved to listen to the conversations of the elder folks as they stood there preparing for their bath. It was while waiting for the mother to come out of the water that I first met the Moopan.

In Malayalam, the language we spoke at home, Moopan meant old man. The man was old. To my eyes, he looked as old as my grandfather if not older. He was sitting inside his shop. It was more of a big wooden box than a shop. Wooden planks held together by rusted nails on three sides. A tin sheet on the top to keep the rain away. In front of the shop had an opening. A portion of the wooden planks was cut in half and was held up by hinges. The old man was inside the shop at all times. There were ledges on the walls of his shop which had jars of different shapes and sizes.

“What are you doing here all alone?” the old man said as he spotted me standing there all by myself.

My first reaction was to slide away and go back to standing near the river. One look at him and I realized he could not be dangerous.

“I am waiting for my mother to come out.”

“What is your mother’s name?”

“Kalyani,” I said.

“Oh! you are Narayanan the postman’s son?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I have never seen your father coming to the river for his bath.”

“He has his bath at home. We have a well at our house.”

“And you like coming here so early in the morning?”

I shrugged and kicked at some sand which was lying in a heap. The old man smiled.

“Don’t you go to school?” he said.

“I am in the third standard at the Government Boys High School.”

“Are you good at your studies?”

“I stood first in the under ten boys athletics competition. I got a gold medal for that.”

“Does that mean that you are not good at studies?”

I winced. It was a trick question. I hated trick questions. Adults always had this habit of trying to coax answers out of us using such trick questions.

“I got a B grade in my exams. That is not bad, but I am better at sports,” I said.

“Your grandfather was also good at sports,” the old man said.

“You knew my grandfather?”

“We were close friends during our school days. I had to stop studies after the fourth form, he continued till his sixth. He stood first in all the sports competitions.”

“I got my gold medal for coming first in the under ten boys division,” I said happily that I was being compared with my grandfather.

I loved my grandfather. He used to play with me. He would tell me a new story every day. I used to sleep in his room at night.

“Grandfather is now in heaven,” I said.

“I know,” the old man said, “most of my friends are now in heaven.”

He became silent. The light from the single wicker lamp burning in his shop added more creases to his face.

The Moopan’s shop specifically catered to the early morning bathers. Coconut oil, ummi- kirri powdered burnt rice husk which we used to rub on our teeth, small one-inch pieces of soap different brands for bathing and washing clothes – he only stored such items. He also stocked the stalk of coconut leaves with which we used to clean our tongue. All combined these essential ingredients for morning bath cost ten paise per person. People found it easy to bring a ten-paisa coin rather than carry all these from home.

“Is my son troubling you?” mother’s voice stopped our conversation.

“Oh no! He is a smart boy. He tells me he is good at sports,” the old man said.

“It would have been better if he had paid more attention to his studies,” said mother.

Mother was always like that. Putting me down in front of others. She firmly believed that you should not praise you, children, before others. It invited the ‘evil eye’. I did not believe in the concept of an evil eye. Then you could not argue with their mother. I could get spanked right there on the street. Father was easier to handle. I stood there, head bowed inspecting my toes as they played with the sand.

“Come boy lets go to the temple,” said Mother.

That part of the morning program was why she dragged me along with her every day. Father did not believe in God. Mother said he was a communist. I did not understand what that was but knew that they were happy people who did not have to get up early to go to the temple. I knew that I would also grow up and become a communist – anything that could get me a few hours of extra sleep. Not that the temple was a bad place to visit.

Our village temple was small but beautiful. It was in the shape of a square. A series of square-shaped structures one within the other. In the inner, square was a small roofed house where the idol of God was kept. Mother would stand at a distance along with other people all with still wet clothes and pray. Mother had taught me how to pray. I followed her instructions to the letter every day. My prayer was always the same. I would ask God to set easy question papers in the exam. It never worked. I knew God would have only himself to blame if I eventually became a communist.

Every day after my bath I would run-up to the Moopan’s shop and watch as he served his customers. After he had served them all, he would turn to me and we would resume our conversations. I told him about the school. How difficult mathematics was and how confusing science could be. I told him how much I enjoyed athletics and football. The Moopan told me about the rhinoceros beetle and the red palm weevil which could destroy coconut trees. He told me about his wife who had gone to heaven when he was thirty, leaving him with a son who had eventually run away from home – never to return.

One day as mother and I reached the river bank we found a crowd of people gathered near the Moopan’s shop. The shop was closed. It was the first time I had seen the shop closed. It was the first time any one in the village had seen the shop closed.

“Why has the Moopan not opened his shop?” someone asked.

“I don’t know. Why are you asking me?” someone else replied.

“I cannot have a bath without coconut oil in my hair,” said another person. I looked at the man and saw that he had about a hundred and fifty strands of hair on his head. There was not much that the moopan’s hair oil could have done for him.

The next day the scene was repeated but this time the number of people standing were far less. Some had come expecting this to be the case with their hair already greasy and small pouches of ummi-kirri.  When the shop remained closed on the third day, people stopped asking questions about the moopan.

“Why is the moopan not opening his shop?” I asked mother on our way back home.

“I don’t know Kittu,” Mother called me Kittu, “maybe he has gone to heaven like your grandfather?”

I did not like her reply. It made me sad. I said nothing on the way back home.

That day after school on the way back home I took a different route. During my conversations with the Moopan, he had told me where he stayed. It was a place behind the temple. Normally nobody used that road. Our temple had a paved street right outside its main gate. The other three sides were full of shrubs and wild overgrowth. I had to walk carefully to avoid getting cut by the thorny bushes. In a distance, I could see a small thatched hut.

“Anyone at home?” I said.

There was no reply.

“Is there anyone living here?” I asked again this time almost shouting the words out.

There was a faint cough from somewhere inside. Cautiously I went into the hut. It was dark inside and it took my eyes a few minutes to get accustomed to the light. The smell inside the hut reminded me of my grandfather during the last days of his life. Grandfather was always in bed during those days. He did not have the energy to walk around and sometimes soiled his clothes. The hut had that same smell. In the dim light, I could make out the Moopan lying on a cot in a corner of the room.

“Don’t worry grandpa,” I said, “I will get someone who can help.”

I ran towards my house, halfway through I changed direction and ran towards the post office. I knew that in a situation like this it was my father who could be able to help better.

“Father….father, come quick. The moopan needs your help,” I said as I entered the post office.

It was a weekday and people were standing in a queue at the counter.

“What are you doing here?” said father his head popping up from behind the counter.

“Father the old man needs help. He is not well,” I said.

“Which old man?”

“The Moopan. The old man who runs the shop near the river bank.” I said.

“How do you know that?” father asked.

“I went to his house. I saw him lying there in bed. He cannot get up. Hurry he needs help.”

“How do you know where the old man lives?” one of the men standing in the queue asked me.

“He told me,” I said, “Father please can you come now? He needs help.”

“I need the stamps and the envelopes,” said another man standing in the queue.

“My money order is urgent. My son needs the money for his college fees. He is staying in a hostel.” said a woman standing behind him.

Father looked at the clock on the wall behind us. It was two-thirty in the afternoon. The post office was open till four in the evening.

“Today we will close early,” said father and the queue moved closer to the counter.

I waiting at the door. I could never understand adults. A man was suffering and all they could think of was stamps and money.

“Kittu go home or your mother will be worried,” said father. He also called me Kittu at home.

“I want to come with you,” I said.

“No. Go home take my tiffin box with you and give it to your mother,” said father this time his voice was firm. I obeyed.

“Where were you?” mother was at the doorstep.

I told her everything.

“Why did you go inside that old man’s house?”

“Amma, he is not well,” I said.

“Have I not told you not to trust strangers?”

“Amma he is old and sick.”

“Kittu he could have hurt you,”

“Amma, he reminded me of Appupan,” I said. I could not stop the tears as they poured down my cheeks. I repeated, “He reminded me of Appupan.”

Mother smiled and bent down and lifted me.

“Such a big boy and you still cry. Don’t worry your father will take care of him. He will take care of the Moopan. See! you are so tall when I carry you your feet touch the ground!”

I laughed despite my tears as I saw that she was right. My feet were touching the ground.

The shop remained closed after that. Every morning I would stand near it and wait for my mother to return after her bath. Somewhere in my mind, I hoped the old man would come and open the shop. I knew that it was not possible. Father along with a few villagers took the old man to the hospital. He sat there besides the old man for a few days, coming late at night. Every day he would tell us what the doctors had said about the old man’s condition.

One day my father came home early from the post office. I was playing in our courtyard. As I ran in father caught hold of me and picked me up. He kissed me on both cheeks. I was embarrassed. Father never behaved like this. It was my mother who hugged and kissed me and I hated it.

Father handed me a package wrapped in an old newspaper. He asked me to open it. I tore open the paper. Inside was an old photograph of two boys.

“Do you know who that is?” said father pointing at one of the boys.

I looked carefully but did not recognize the face.

“That is your appupan – my father. And this is the Moopan standing with him,” he said, “this is a photo of them from their school days. This is the only photo of my father from his school days that I have seen. The Moopan wanted you to have this picture. The Moopan died today in the hospital.”

Father choked as he said it. Mother was standing there listening to him. I could see tears rolling down her cheeks. I felt sad too. Then I looked at the photo. A photo of two boys holding hands, laughing at the camera, not a care in the world and then I felt happy again.

I knew that my Appupan and his best friend were together again.