Kittu – The Superhero to the rescue

“Kittu! Don’t even dream of going out to play without finishing your homework!” Narayani shouted from the kitchen.

Kittu, her eight-year-old son grimaced. He was the only child she and her husband, could afford on his clerk’s salary. They had been married ten years. Their names rhymed, Narayani and Narayanan.

“A match made in heaven!” the astrologer had said. Surviving on a small salary anywhere on the planet was torturous. For the couple, if this was heaven, hell could not have been much worse.

Kittu was officially called Krishna Kumar Nair. Only the cruel sisters of St. Mary’s convent called him by his full name. The rest of the world called him Kittu. There was one more version of his name – Kicchu. That version was reserved for use by Bhavani Amma, his maternal grandmother.

Kittu banged his fist on the table. That hurt. It also made a noise that his mother heard.

“This is the last time I am warning you about banging your fist on the table,” she said, “Do it one more time and you will be standing in the corner of the kitchen for the rest of the day.”

Kittu sighed. Mothers! Can’t live with them and can’t live without them!

He could not understand why the whole world was against him. Earlier that day in school, Shastri Sir the Mathematics teacher had caned him. Three sharp swipes that stung for half an hour. Kittu had got all the answers wrong in his class test! He scores were one out of twenty-five. To pass you needed seven. The one mark he got was for neatness. His handwriting was neat. There was not much that he understood in Mathematics. In the test, he had copied the questions neatly and left blanks spaces where the answers should have come. He had hoped they would fill up somehow. That did not happen. His magic pencil had failed him.

He was not the only person in his class who got caned. Eight other boys were with him in that line-up.

“Next time, pay attention when I explain the problems!” thundered Shastri Sir.

He was repeating this sentence like a mantra each time he caned a student. Three swipes, his mantra, and then he would move on to the next boy.

Standard Eight Section B had forty students. Not that the rest of the class did great. Most of the marks ranged between 8 and 10. The one exception was Gopi. There was something strange about that boy. He got twenty-five out of twenty-five in Mathematics!

‘He gets full marks in Sanskrit! Who on earth gets full marks in Sanskrit? I wonder if he is an alien. An alien from the Krypton’ thought Kittu. His thoughts paused at this point. Then they went down a different path. ‘Did Krypton have aliens? Or was it that all the citizens of Krypton were aliens? Superman was an alien on Earth. If an earthling were to land on Krypton would he be considered alien? Was Kryptonite a problem for everyone from Krypton?’ These questions vexed Kittu. He was not sure about the answers. He did not remember reading about aliens in his comics. The problem was serious. There were too many gaps in his knowledge.

“I need to read all the superman comics again,” he said to himself.

At home, Kittu had one small, wooden cupboard all to himself. His mother had given him the cupboard for his school books. Kittu did not think his school books deserved that much respect. The bag occupied the lowest shelf of the cupboard. He arranged his comics in neat stacks in the cupboard. The superman and batman comics were costly. They occupied the top shelf. The Indian comics came on the second. The third shelf was for his toys. He hardly had any, yet they got one shelf all for themselves. The last shelf was reserved for the school bag. He did not let the school books contaminate the comics.

“Are you working on your mathematics homework!” Narayani yelling from the kitchen woke Kittu from his dreams.

He looked at the books spread across the table. As always Evil Shastri had given five problems that day. There were fractions and multiplications. Kittu could never understand why numbers played such evil tricks on one other. Why could they not live in peace with other numbers? Why do they always have to divide and multiply and why did they expect you to know the answer?

As if his problems with Mathematics were not enough he had homework in History and English. The sisters from the convent were worse than Shastri. They had strict rules. You were expected to speak in English in the class. Anyone caught talking in the local dialect was fined fifty paise on the spot. Since the students did not carry money, it would be noted against their name by the class monitor. At the end of the month, these fines were added to the fees. Indeed, it was a cruel world!

Kittu looked out of the window. Gopi lived in the only double-storied house in the village. His father was an engineer with the electricity department. On the opposite side of the road was the house where Chikoo, another of his friends lived. Chikoo was a normal kid. He was also in the line-up that morning, getting beaten up by Cruel Shastri. Kittu wondered what Chikoo was doing. Unlike him, Chikoo watched TV the whole day. He did not like reading comics.

“Watching cartoons is better.” Chikoo insisted. He insisted that reading gave him a headache.

Kittu did not argue. His father could not afford a TV. All the TV viewing he did was at Chikoo’s house. Kittu was allowed to watch TV at Chikoo’s house for two hours every Sunday morning. Chikoo or Master Dinesh Kumar, as it said on the label of his books, was a shopkeepers’ son. His father would be in the shop the whole day. His mother also helped with the business. This meant that Chikoo was all alone in that house. This also meant that the TV would be switched on the whole day. Chikoo did all his homework watching cartoons. He was a regular member in Shastri’s line up. That was where he and Kittu first met. Over the months they became good friends.

Kittu heard the sound of the bathroom door close. He looked at the clock. The shorter hand was on six and the longer one was on two. Kittu always had trouble telling the time on clocks with hands. He preferred the digital watch his father wore. After a few minutes of staring, Kittu figured it was sometime after six.

That was time his mother went for her bath. She would oil her hair first and then go in with some clothes. First, she would wash them, which gave the oil time to set in. Only then would she have her bath. That meant she would be away for at least an hour. Kittu heaved a sigh of relief.

He hated taking baths. He could not imagine why anyone would want to spend an hour in the bathroom. On the positive side, he welcomed the fact that his mother’s bath took an hour. It gave him an hour to play.

He jumped off the chair and ran to his room. He had a superman cape, a gift from his previous birthday. The cape, in its previous life, was a door curtain. His mother had stitched it in the shape of a cape. Narayanan found the price of the real thing at the local toy store, much above his budget. This cape was a compromise with an old curtain. Kittu was not complaining. As long as it looked like a cape he was happy.

“With my super-vision I see some bad men hiding behind a rock!” Kittu said to himself.

Walking on his toes he went behind the ‘rock’ or what looked like a bed-sheet covering a chair to people with normal vision.

“Take that and that,” Kittu shouted and threw punches at imaginary bad-men from his imaginary world. “Disappear before I burn you with my super-x ray-vision!”

The bad men vanquished, Kittu struck a pose in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom.

Cape around his neck, dressed in a vest and shorts, something was missing in the overall Superman persona.

“Yes! I know what is lacking” he shouted.

Running to his school bag he pulled out his set of felt pens. He removed his vest spread it on the floor and sat down next to it. He was about to start when he paused.

“Hmm! An ‘S’ will look common. I need something different.” Kittu said.

Then a stroke of inspiration hit him.

“Yes, that is it!

Kittu the Superhero to the rescue, ” said Kittu as he admired himself in the mirror. Flashing right across the centre of his chest on his vest was a big ‘K’. He stood there with both hands on his waist. Then for a better effect, he turned to one side, drew the cape partially over his body, raised one arm upwards.

“This is how I will look when I fly all over the world, saving people,” he said. He could feel the wind blowing his mop of curly hair into his eyes.

The next second there was a stinging pain in his earlobes, and he was back on earth! Narayani had finished her bath and found her son, preening before the mirror. She also saw his vest that would require some serious cleaning.

“What did I tell you about playing before finishing your homework?”, she did not wait for an answer and continued, “Why do you always waste your time?” Narayani was warming up, “As it is my life is tough!”

Once she started her tale of woe, it was impossible to stop her.

“Do you want to end up like me? Had I been a graduate, I would have got a job. Yes! Some women work now. You do not see them here in this village but in the big cities, they travel by buses, go to offices. They earn money and contribute towards the monthly expenses. I could have been like them. The only reason we are stuck in this village is that we never got the opportunity to go in for higher studies. Your father was lucky he got a scholarship that paid up to his graduation. Now, look at you! You have got this great chance to make something of your life and what do you do instead? You waste your time playing silly games…”

The monologue continued. Kittu sat there, wishing it would end. His eyes wandered above his mothers face. A few feet above her head a spider was dangling. Twisting and turning, attached to a silvery thread from its web. Every twist was bringing the spider closer to his mothers head. Kittu watched in fascination.

“…there are people in this village who would give anything to send their children to St Mary’s…”

Narayani continued. Her lament was worsened by the fact that she could not help in her son’s studies. By the time she had reached her tenth, her parents had pulled her out of school. They had two children and preferred to spend the little money they had on their son’s education. Narayani’s brother went on to become a graduate and was now working as a bus conductor. Not that it did any good to his parents. After his marriage, he had moved to the city and cut off all relations with his parents. It was Narayani who took care of her parents in their old age.

“… I was smart in school. I could have done well in college as well…” said Narayani.

This part of the narrative was not exactly true. She had barely scraped through her school exams. She had no idea how fractions worked. She could manage the local language subjects but English, Science and Mathematics were beyond her. That was left to her husband. Narayanan, when he found the time taught his son. He was a good teacher. The only problem was he rarely found the time to teach. By the time he would reach home the boy would already be asleep. The weekends were when father and son would get together and catch up.

“……had my parent not wasted their money on Kannan, today I would have been a graduate. I would have got a job, I would have….eeek!”

Kannan was her brother. Her story about her brother was interrupted as the spider finally made it to her head. Kittu saw his mother jump up and shake her head vigorously. She then began running in circles, shaking her head and making sounds as if trying to scare the spider. All this could not dislodge the spider which held on to Narayani’s hair. Kittu had never seen anything this funny in his life. He collapsed on the floor laughing. This was better than the cartoon films on Chikoo’s TV. Narayani was circling the room for the second time when the door opened and her husband walked in.

“What is a gadtuate?” said Kittu.

Half an hour later Narayanan was sitting reading the mornings newspaper.

“There is no such word. Where did you hear it?”

“Mother always says that if she were a gadtuate she could have got a job”

“Oh graduate! That is someone who has studied for about fifteen years. Ten years in school, two years of junior college and then another three years of college. That is when you become a graduate. You have to pass all the exams on the way!”

Kittu was lying on the straw mat with his feet on the wall, listening to his father. He could not imagine why anyone would want to study for fifteen years. He hoped to stop in a year or two. He was clear in his mind. He wanted to become a professional wrestler or a magician when he grew up. It was one or the other. There were days when he would want to be a policeman, but then he was afraid of the dark.

“How come you are home early,” said Narayani. She had a hot cup of tea in her hand.

“There was a seminar in the office today. Some people from a bank had come and gave us a talk on setting up a small business with loans from the bank.”

“What business?”

“A small business. It could be a shop or a ….”

Kittu was bored. His parent always had these boring discussions. He went to his cupboard and took a few of the Superman comics and started reading them.

“Look at him! No need for a bed or a pillow. He can sleep anywhere. Good that he had his dinner.” Narayanan found Kittu sleeping on the floor with the comics spread all around him. He carried the boy to his bed and tucked him in.

“Did he finish his homework?” said Narayanan.

“Yes. There is a little left, I will make him do it in the morning before he goes to school. This loan that you were talking about, the one that you get from the bank…can I also apply for a loan?”

Narayanan started to laugh but then seeing the look on his wife’s face stopped.

“What do you want a loan for?”

“I can stitch clothes. Maybe I can get a loan to start a tailor’s shop. During the day when you and Kittu are out, I can stitch clothes and make some extra money.”

Narayanan thought about it for a few minutes. His wife was not bragging. She was skilled with the sewing machine. He had bought her a machine a few months into their wedding and that proved to be one of the best investments of his life. Over the years her sewing skills had saved a few thousand rupees for the family.

“I think this could be a good idea. Let me speak to the bank people tomorrow.”

Narayani smiled. Her son sleeping in the next room was also smiling. In his dream he was flying high above the village, his cape fluttering in the breeze, Kittu the superhero to the rescue. From high up in the clouds, with his super-vision, he could see the village wave at him. They knew they were safe now.

The chair with a world around it – a short story

Ramesh settled down in his chair, stretched his legs and arched his back. His chair was ‘strategically’ placed on a shaded portion of a patch of grass. This patch of green, was referred to as ‘The lawn’ by members of the housing society. The five Shanti housing society buildings surrounded the lawn on all sides. Every day Ramesh, the society’s watchman would sit on his chair for a minimum of ten hours. Guarding the society from the evil forces of the outside world. The dull gray colored plastic chair was his throne. His kingdom. He never let anyone else sit on his chair. Those efforts were not always successful.

An hour ago, or to be precise at four in the evening, he found the old gentleman from B-23 sitting in his chair . The society manager had sent Ramesh to buy some stationary. As the society watchman, he occasionally ran errands for some of the house owners. In return they gave him a few rupees for these efforts. The society watchman job paid him a meager eight thousand rupees a month. These errands fetched him a few hundred extra. Keeping five hundred he would send the rest home to his parents. He did not mind running errands for the house owners. It was the errands for the society manager that irritated him. He had to do these for free.

The stationary shop was at a short distance from the society. By the time he returned, he found Mr Sapatnekar a retired school principal, who lived in B-23 sitting on his chair. When it came to his chair, Ramesh was very particular. The chair signified his role as the watchman in the complex. Mr. Sapatnekar was not the watchman. He had no business sitting on it.

“That is the watchman’s chair” Ramesh said. He was careful to stand out of reach of Mr. Sapatnekar’s walking stick.

The old man gave no indication of having heard him. Age withered hands were holding on to his walnut walking stick . His glaucoma ringed eyes stared through thick horn-rimmed glasses at something in the distance.

Ramesh coughed. This time Mr. Sapatnekar heard him. He slowly turned his head and peered though his thick glasses at Ramesh. After a few seconds he recognized Ramesh and smiled. The acknowledgment complete he returned to staring at nothing in particular.

“It is a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it ?” Ramesh asked. “I am used to sitting on it for hours.”

There was no response.

“It belongs to the society. This chair came along with the chairs in the society office. A set of six chairs. In the society office you can see the other five chairs.”

Ramesh continued on the subject close to his heart.

“The manager occasionally checks on me. He expects me to be in my chair at all times. Watching and guarding the building complex.” Ramesh said, “He gets angry if he does not find me seated on it.”

Ramesh was dropping all the right hints. Now he waited for a response.

“There was a large pond here,” said Mr. Sapatnekar finally breaking the silence. “All round the pond were huge mango trees. I used to swim in the pond as a child. Yes! that was a long time ago. Our house was a stones throw from here. That was why I booked this flat when the complex came up. ”

“There are times when the children in the building use this chair as the goal post while playing football! ” said Ramesh continuing from where he had left off. “That usually happens when I go to rest in the afternoon. After my lunch, I sleep for about half an hour. I do not like it when the children misuse my chair.”
Ramesh was offering glimpses into his daily routine.

“We used to hold competitions to see who could swim the fastest. Mohan, Jagtap were my best friends. We were inseparable back then. I was well built as a child. Even as a young man, I took part in many athletic events and won a lot of medals. That is how I got the job as a Physical education teacher. Those were the days ……”

Mr. Sapatnkar’s voice trailed off.

His mind was far away trying to recall images from a long forgotten past.

Ramesh stood there. Uncertain how to proceed. The society manager would come on his rounds any minute. He tried a different approach.

“It must be time for your evening cup of tea?” he said.

Mr. Sapatnekar’s daughter in law worked as a nurse in a local hospital. She and her husband, Ajay, Mr Sapatnekar’s only son, lived along with him in B-23. Ajay, like his father was also a teacher. While his father had started as a physical education teacher, Ajay taught Physics to senior students in the local government school. The same school from where his father retired as the principal.

“I met Asha at one of the sports events. I won the gold medal that day. She came to the event along with her school friends. In the forties there were very few schools for girls. Her father was a teacher in one of those schools. It was natural that he wanted his daughter to study in his school. Asha could sign her name in English !! Did you know that ?”

Ramesh was not interested in this information. The old man showed no sign of vacating the chair. Ramesh decided to vacate his post and return to his quarters. He lived in a single room behind the complex. He was about to turn around when he heard footsteps behind him.

It was Melvin D’costa the society manager. D’costa was an Anglo- Indian. A remnant of the British Raj. The Anglo-Indians spread across India still held on to a few idiosyncrasies of their European forefathers. For Melvin D’costa one was that he always insisted on referring to himself as Mr. D’costa and the other was that he always wore a tie. India is a hot, humid country and Mumbai is humid the year around. In Mumbai temperatures at the peak of ‘winter’ hovered in the twenties. Wearing a tie in such conditions was a form of self torture. Yet Mr. D’costa always wore a tie. Day or night, rain or shine there would always be a tie around D’costa’s neck.

Ramesh was sure Mr. D’costa would have a solution to his problem. ‘He would surely get Old Sapatnekar to vacate my chair and send him back to his flat’ Ramesh thought.

There was also the possibility that D’costa would get angry at Ramesh for letting the old man sit on his chair in the first place. A chance he was willing to take if it got him the ownership of the chair back.

“Good evening Sir!”

Ramesh had never heard D’costa speak in a tone of deference before. In the society office he was always gruff and hostile. Yet here he was addressing the old man in tone the very epitome of politeness.

Mr. Sapatnekar looked up and with a stern look on his face replied, “Melvin, why are you not in your class?”

He never forgot his students, especially the naughty ones. Melvin D’costa, son of Rodriguez D’costa, the village fishmonger, was the leader of the mischief makers pack. How could he forget him?

Melvin D’costa smiled.

“Sir! I am no longer in school and you retired twenty years back!”

“Boy! You always have an excuse ready. Go to your class or I will have to discuss your behavior with Rodriguez” said Mr. Sapatnekar.

Melvin sighed. His father had passed away more than a decade back. Mr. Sapatnekar had attended the funeral. Melvin was about to remind the old man about this when his cell-phone rang. He took it out of his pocket, turned and began walking away.

Ramesh felt let down as he saw D’costa leave with his cell pressed to his ear. Mr. Sapatnekar was mumbling something. Ramesh tried to listen. It sounded like a tune! The old man was singing an old movie song. Something from the fifties. Ramesh grimaced.

Mohit, the son of the policeman from D-12 was coming. The boy picked up a small stone from the ground and ran imitating a cricket bowler. The boy was twelve years old and chubby. He huffed and puffed as he ran. The boy then threw the stone with all his might. Then like the professionals on TV he threw up his arms and shouted, “Howzzat!”

On a normal day, Ramesh would have jumped out of his chair and chased the boy away. Last week, Mohit had thrown or ‘bowled’ a stone and broken the window pane of A-15. D’costa and Raghavan Pillai who lived in A-15 gave Ramesh an earful. No one said anything to Mohit. After all his father was a policeman. The last thing you wanted was to get on the wrong side of the law.

“Are you not going to play cricket with your friends today?”

Ramesh could not believe he asked Mohit that question. The children from the complex played cricket , football what ever was the game for the season in the narrow strip of ground. Normally Ramesh would chase them away. Today he was hoping to welcome the entire lot. All the children running around would mean Mr. Sapatnekar would have to vacate the chair.

“I am going out to buy a packet of cheetos,” said Mohit. “The cable TV guy has started transmitting Cartoon Network on our TV. No one is going to come out to play.”

Ramesh cursed his luck. He had given up all hope when he heard the sound of anklets in the distance. Shyamlee was four years old. Dressed in a colorful frock, her hair tied in a neat braid she was Mr. Sapatnekar’s granddaughter.

“Dadaji, it is time for your evening cup of tea.”

Shyamlee loved the silver anklets her parents had gifted her on her last birthday. She loved the jingling sound they made and ensured that they jingled with every step she took.

She ran up to her grandfather, caught his old gnarly hand in both her tiny hands and pulled with all her might. The old man was amused and got up from the chair.

“You always forget that mummy makes your tea at exactly four in the evening. Is it my job to remind you? I have so many tasks to do. I have to arrange my doll house. Then I have to complete the picture of the cat. Remember I showed you that picture yesterday? Then I have to practice my dance steps. Dadaji, today I learnt a new step in my dance class. Let me show you how it is done. You cannot try it. You will slip and fall. Then I will have to take care of you . This is how the dance step is done. First I have to bend my knees like this, then ……”

Grandfather and granddaughter walked away towards the B-wing building. Shyamlee’s non-stop chatter slowly receded into the distance.

Suresh did not waste a second. Finally he was back in his rightful place. He settled down and was ready for another long eight hour shift.

“Watchman!” he heard someone shout.

It was the woman who lived in D-23. She would send him twice a day to buy provisions from nearby stores. He always wondered why she could not make a single list. Though he was not complaining, she paid him for each trip to the store. That was all that mattered.

“I am coming!” said Ramesh and jumped up from his chair and ran towards the D wing.

woman wearing red and white dresses

The Street Dancer – a short story

“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.