Monday, June 25, 2012

Beyond the Ferry

In 1989, my uncle Mathai Zachariah  (father's sister's husband) asked me to write a book let on Human Rights for his new institution which he had founded in Nagpur, called Peace Ashram. I agreed, and it was published by them several years later. While he was waiting for the typescript to appear, he would routinely ask me for it, and I would say, "it's coming, just coming." Finally, he got quite irritable, like any publisher waiting for promised manuscript, and he said "This is like Vietnamese mothers answering their childrens' queries, Where is Papa?" I did not catch the joke, I'm really slow sometimes, so he said, "The children had American fathers who went back to America." I feel that way now about Nelycynda. Where is Nelycynda and Other Stories? My publishers at Roli keep saying 'Its coming, it's coming" and I don't have the heart to repeat Mathai's joke to them. Here is a chapter from embryonic new novel,  of which I now have seven chapters, also a work which Roli says they are interested in, which is called Beyond the Ferry, after a poem I read on the web. The web is a great space, its quintessentially abstract, and a quill for every one. After the Tsunami the fisherpeople were given computers, and the children made great use of it immediately in tarpaulin sheds, or so activists report. The novel was begun on January 26th 2012, and I expect it to be finished end of this year.



“You know the terror that for poets lurks
    Beyond the ferry when to Minos brought.”
W.H Auden From Letter to Lord Byron

 It was a small village, right out of the main track. No  house was to be seen from the hillside. The roads veered this way and that. An occasional truck veered in bringing supplies. When it was very hot, some of the trees seemed to wilt, but they never lost their leaves. It was called Jehangir, a village which was known for its great reverence for gardens. Ofcourse, the Muslim population had long since left for the Gulf, and the women had made it very clear to the visiting block development officers that they were in purdah. In the middle of Jehangir village’s ostentatious market square was a statue to Ambedkar. It was painted an electric blue, and the general population called it the meeting place of the intellectuals. It was understood that a village which consisted of Dalits and Muslims would be known for its progress. To tell the truth, it was an optimism that the nation state carried with it. Ofcourse the Muslims knew that their presence was understood in terms of medieval kings and the rule of the gentry. They knew nothing of being well to do themselves, for they had always struggled with their land, and now, with the opening up of the Gulf, a whole new generation of young men had hoped to improve their status and that of their families.

The cashew nut trees had leaves which were oddly warped, their edges curling, dipped in strange dyes of green and mildew. The children sitting under the trees were misshapen too, since childhood they had been twisted, and looked at each other with sympathy. Among them was one child who was of strong build, he could get up without pain and he did not limp. The children were selling the cashewnuts, which had caused them misfortune, and they sold them in sacks, to men who came and bought them from them for a very small price indeed. After the sacks were carried off, the men sat in groups near the railway tracks waiting for the trains, repacking the cashew nuts in small plastic bags, talking and laughing as they worked. They were manual labourers who when out of work, became middle men for saree weavers and kashewnut growers. They kept company with the Biharis who came looking for work to Kerala, bedraggled first, chewing tobacco and betel leaf, but very soon, speaking a smattering of Malayalam,  and saving money to go home to Patna. The vice of fertilisers had been their death knell. Not as bad as the kashew harvests of Kerala, but with them it was the stranglehold of debt. The chemicals were no longer being used here, but were sold to a foreign market which was not as literate as the Kerala farmers with their web of KSSP workers.
Abe  looked around him. He, the only surefooted among the children had accompanied the salesmen. He stood with them at the rail tracks, waiting for the children who would return from school and buy from the sales men tea and snacks. He had never been to school himself though it was compulsory in Kerala. He often ran away when his father admitted him,  because the lessons were too hard. He really could not make sense of it at all. Growing up with the crippled children of Jahangir made it easier for him, he did not feel as displaced as he otherwise might have done. To tell the truth, the sight of the children with their eager hands outstretched  through the train window crying for tea and ethika appam and kapilandi and kash inn ettu was an everyday miracle for him. These children had money! They could  admit to their hunger.

Abe thought of the children he had just left in the village. They were all well dressed, some even had mobile phones. It seemed odd that hunger pursued them even though luxuries like foreign chocolates and mobile phones were not beyond them. They had relatives who bought them these things, food however was harder to buy. The rice crop had failed, the mangos too had been full of cankers. The river was increasingly dirty, with soap suds mixing with petrol oil, gleaming rainbows in the sunlight, but very irksome it was to wash clothes or to bathe in the river anymore. The African lilacs choked up the water ways, and all that the river carried with it was now indestructible plastic waste. He wondered how long this could go on. Their family was luckier because they had a small plot of land which was far away from the river, and the wells on their land were always full of cool clean water, shadowed by overhanging jackfruit trees.

“Train’s coming!’
“Where? I cannot hear it.”
“Stand where I am standing. You can see the plume of smoke, like the feathers of a migrating bird, like a cloud, like… I don’t know, can’t you see it?”
“NO!”
“Okay step down on the track you will feel the  vibrations.”
“And if I die?”
“Well, all of us here are to mourn you!”

Abe looked at the man, he was chewing betel, and his whiskers were thick and grew right back to where his ears were. He was an old linesman without any retirement benefits, and knew his job well enough to yell almost instinctively every day, half an hour before the train appeared.

Kashi, the man with the moustaches, asked the boy if he had had breakfast. Yes, his mother had given him hot rice kanji with cheeru payr. It was quite delicious, he said, smiling happily. His clothes were neatly darned, and he wore Hawai chappals in an iridescent green. Abe was healthy, the last of the species it seemed. All over the hillside, the children had been maimed by the pesticides or by malnutrition. The government never had much to say, since the officials were salaried employees, who always shrugged and said “Matter of free choice sir! Not everyone is affected, and the yield is more important to them than their health.”
Inspite of the difference of their years, one so ancient and quick to understand the world for what it was becoming, the other young and quick to learn, they had forged a comradeship which stood out among the gang of motley men. The train came in, they made a dash into the compartments, each working a different segment.  Abe always went to the one with the children from St Elba school. They were grown up, next year college or engineering institute, and they always had large appetites. His cashewnut consignment of forty small plastic packets finished even before the train began to edge out of the station. Five minutes was all he had. The Shoranur Express was the best train of all, in none of the others could he make this kind of sale. The Malayalis returning from the big cities, travelling over many days, always carried their food packets, including glistening microfilm in which they had wrapped their snacks, and looked down their noses at him. Ofcourse they knew about the fertilisers and the pesticides of North Malabar.

Kashi picked his nose, and then his ears with the same index finger. Body dirt was something he was terribly comfortable with. He did it surreptiously though, because when he was overt about it, someone always shouted or hit him. He was an old man, but often invited a friendly thwack on the shoulder. He was wearing an expensive blue striped linen shirt his son had got him from Dubai. He had  a clean vest too. The matter of digging for gold as his teachers in school had described it, was something which was more like a necessary reflex action. They were surrounded by so much dust, he always had to make sure that two of his orifices were clean. He had a sacred thread, and some sandalwood paste on his brow, which he often checked to see if they were in place too. Shoranur biriyani was what he sold, Brahmin though he was. Never touched the stuff himself, he said proudly. He had a Nair wife who cooked it, and wrapped it in two layers of plantain leaves strung together with sturdy white twine.  He handed out the parcels and took the money. How the food was cooked, he had no idea; they had a large house and his rooms were nowhere near the kitchens. His son had constructed a laterite house with many rooms. His son, Ishwaran was the bright one, he was a chartered accountant in Bombay who had trained in Madras. He used the suffix Pilla to his name, rather than Kashi’s name, which was not acceptable in the offices he worked in. Anyone called Venkatraman was a disadvantage in Maharshtra, Pilla was alright, though sometimes he came in for some rude teasing, since in the bawdy Hindi that Maharashtrians used it meant pup. He sent money home to his parents, regularly, and visited once a year with his beautiful wife who was a nurse in an army cantonment in Poona. Kashi’s grandchildren visited too, sometimes without their parents, since they had vacations like clockwork, four times a year. When they came on their own, their grandfather arranged with one of the ticket collectors on the train to keep an eye on them for the journey, and the word was dispatched to all the other ticket checkers too, for Kashi had been a legend in his time. He had started as a sweeper, worked his way up to  be a linesman, and had represented the Railways not only on the Union, but played football as a National Champion.

The train was leaving, the whistle was piercing, the girl who always waved to Abe from the last coach, threw him a plastic whistle and a new fountain pen. He picked both up and saw her hands through the drizzle waving at him. He kept the whistle, the pen he would exchange for toffees with someone in the village. It was a curiosity, no one used ink pens anymore. He  wondered where she had found it. He could read the engraving, it said “Waterman.” He opened the cover, and looked at the thick gold nib.
“She must have stolen it,” Kashi said in awe.
“I have no use for it. We cannot buy ink and paper.”
“Keep it.”
“I know where she lives. I will leave it outside her window tomorrow.”
“Where does she live?”
“Two stations down.”
“Have you spoken to her?”
“Yes, a couple of times. My mother’s sister lives near her house.”
“So you know her?
“Since childhood. Since I was five years old.”
“You should find out where she gets these things she throws you from the train.”
“It’s her uncle, he gets things from America. He wears a bow tie.”
“Waiter at a New York caf√©?”
“No , he is an engineer in Canada, but they spend their holidays at the Niagra falls.”
Kashi and Abe both fell into silence. Then Kashi said,
“We could go to the Neelamba dam tomorrow if you like?
‘”I have a function in school tomorrow.”
“I thought you had stopped going to school? That’s what you told me last month.”
“I had to earn some money. My mother was ill.”
“I saw her yesterday. She looked fine. Buying kappa in the market. Kappa is more expensive than rice you know. We all ate it in the 60s when rice was not available. Even now, I prefer tapioca.”
“Yes, yes, she is fine now, that’s why I am going to school, and I won’t be here tomorrow. I must rush now and get my books and bag. My school uniform is to be lengthened, and we will have to dye the shorts so that the new threads don’t stand out.”
“Need any money?”

“Look at this chillara I got today. The new five rupee notes are really nice, with a lotus and Aurobindo  and some have waves. Lucky that we can get money just by standing in one place and jumping in and out of trains.”
“Go fool! See you when you have holidays. I expect you will be visiting the girl who throws things at you.”
“No, her marriage is arranged with someone else. She will see I am not here tomorrow, and will know I have gone back to school.”
“Marriage arranged! She must be fourteen.”
“Shazia has a husband waiting. they arrange them before they go to the Gulf.”
“And a boorkha!”
“Not my business.”
“Well, I heard from my friends that Kamala Das felt free in one.’
“Goodbye, I have a statistics class to prepare for.”
“You can come to my house when Appan comes for the holidays, he will clear your problems.”
“Alright!”

Abe was gone on his new silver bicycle. He rode at great speed through the puddles and up all the small hillocks. The sun was hot, it was bright, it was burning.




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