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Saikumar Menon was born in Kolkata where he had his early education before shifting to Coonoor (Nilgiris) to complete his schooling. He graduated in Economics from the small temple-town of Trichur (Thrissur) in Central Kerala and has worked for major plantation companies in South India and served as Chairman of the Tea Trade Association of Cochin during 1999-2000. Saikumar writes short stories and poems under the pen name M. S. Karikath. Some of his poems have been published by The Australian Poetic Society and Paradox Poetry.

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unch would be about ready by now. Thirumeni, he reveled in that title of his, quickened his steps towards home, clearing his throat in the time honored uncouth, gargling fashion, planting the resultant glob on the street, that ever-available public spittoon cum urinal cum lavatory. There would be rice, mambazha kaalan - a curry made of ripe mangoes in skimmed curd, podithuval, a dry dish of mashed tender jackfruit and coconut scrapings, mango pickle and papadam fried in aromatic coconut oil. Thinking about the gently delicious fare made his avaricious belly remonstrate and he ran the last few steps home.

Lunch and the customary gurgling belch over, he stretched out on the verandah on an armchair wondering with regret, as he invariably did after a tasty repast, why the Omniscient had limited the capacity of a human being’s stomach to such small proportions.

Cheerakulam was a tiny hamlet at the foot of the Western Ghats in northern Kerala. The nearest town of any size was a good thirty kilometres away. Since it had neither economic activity nor votes of any significant proportions, the tiny settlement was largely ignored by the political circuses and commercial vultures. Cheerakulam’s residents had no piped water or gas connection or any such wonders of convenience of the modern age and neither did they desire these. Electricity was available only to a handful of the affluent households. A lone bus to the nearest town once a day, took care of the logistics. The bus would hobble into the village mid-morning with the mail, some supplies and a handful of passengers, wheezing tiredly, revealing signs of advancing age and clogged arteries. It would shudder to a halt next to Krishnan Nair’s Rice Mill, the closest thing to an industrial enterprise Cheerakulam could boast of. The crew comprised of Thankappaettan, the owner/driver and captain, Sukumaran alias Sugu the conductor and Varghese the Kili, short for cleaner. Thangappettan (ettan is a form of respectful address and could also mean elder brother) was held in awe by all since he was ex-military, meaning that he had served in the Army. Around sixty, with a trademark army komban meesha, horn-like moustache, and a hanky tied around his neck while driving, he had a stentorian voice which in itself instilled respect tinged with fear among folk. When people meeting him for the first time asked how long he had served in the army, his reply would be, “Ever so many years kutti (child).” He had even named his ancient relic of a bus ‘Jawan’, soldier.

A crowd, comprising mostly of loafers and drunks, would gather around at Jamaalika’s tea-shop cum eatery when the crew stopped by for a leisurely lunch. Mystical names like Ladakh, Samba, Poonch would echo around as Thagapetten held his audience with a glittering eye – much like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. Stories of brain chilling temperatures and dazzling snow, of screeching shells and screaming planes would briefly carry a hypnotized audience away from the placid environs of Cheerakulam.

In all these stories, Thangapettan and his mate Satbir Singh, both of whom were army drivers, would make perilous trips under intense enemy fire carrying mortally wounded soldiers or some such task of vital importance. Occasionally the story would revert to the present and would be about some exciting incident during their trips. Sugu the conductor, a taciturn man would chip in with the odd comment with the Kili, Varghese, embellishing the narrative with a spicy bit or two. Thangapettan’s finest hour was an episode in which his celebrated skill at the wheel came to the fore in its full glory. Once, during the rains, the bus had got stuck in thick mud on a desolate stretch. Under Thangapettan’s leadership, the passengers, in pouring rain, had cut some branches and gathered stones to put them under the wheels and then using his not inconsiderable experience and skills, managed to extricate the bus. The incident sent the ex-soldier’s stock soaring sky high among the local people.

The bus would begin its return journey after lunch and a siesta, laden with bananas and other agricultural produce eked out by the Cheeras, as well as the occasional passenger wanting to maybe visit the Govt. Hospital in town for repairs to his or her body or some such errand. To this comatose village came the revered Neelakandan Namboodiri, or Thirumeni (honoured one) as he was designated by the respectful populace, around fifteen years prior to the start of this tale. He was not always known by that name or title. He kicked off life as a newborn to an impoverished Nair woman running a wayside teashop in Kochi, near the port. His father, whom he had never seen, was apparently a Christian dock worker who died before he was born, or so he was told by his mother. The woman was keen on getting her son educated, so a reluctant young

Laalan (which was the tag given to him by his mother) was packed off to the local primary school where day in and day out, bitter medicine of education was administered in unpalatable doses to his reluctant brain.

Nights were spent in the fleapit of a tea-shop where he would occasionally be nudged awake by the sounds of his mother, augmenting her income, through the rotting wooden boards. Barely into his teens, he could tolerate the bitter potion of learning no longer, so he dropped out of school and found his way into the serrated world of the docks. A certain shiftiness coupled with an honest countenance, ensured that he stayed away from trouble, despite a tendency to stray outside the straight path. He soon befriended a young Namboodiri (priestly class) crane operator and shared his lodgings.

The crane operator originally had aspirations of becoming a doctor. When it became clear to the Namboodiri lad, a post graduate in Botany, that he could never fulfill his dream of taking the Hippocratic Oath thanks to the suffix attached to his name, he settled for the crane operator’s job which was obtained with much difficulty and bribery.

Having an ear for languages, Laalan picked up Tamil from some Tamilian dock workers and Sanskrit from his friend, the crane operator, and got his first glimpse into the world of Vedas and Mantras. He observed the reverence with which most people treated his priestly friend and a nebulous idea formed in his head that this knowledge might be of use sometime in future. He was fascinated by the tales of his friend about his old mana (the Namboodiri ancestral home) and the legends associated with it.

In time Laalan became reasonably well versed in shlokas and the like. He even made a poonool or sacred thread worn by the priestly class for himself. However, as time went by, the monotony and the poverty of a dock worker’s existence made him frustrated. He finally decided that it was time to move on and bidding goodbye to his friend, the crane-operator, he decided to head north. He had always wanted to visit the Wynaad both for seeing the hills as well as prospecting for a livelihood. He had a hunch that something worthwhile could be done in those parts. If nothing else, he could try and get a job in one of the tea estates. He had heard that employees in tea gardens were well looked after with the employers providing housing, medical care and a number of other benefits.

He took an early morning train to Shornur from where he planned to catch a bus to Sultan’s Battery in the hills. Being a Sunday, the normally packed passenger train was half empty. He struck up a conversation with a man sitting close by. The stranger, a simple looking soul, was from a village in Northern Kerala. He had come to attend a niece’s wedding in Cochin and was getting back to his village Cheerakulam. Encouraged by Laalan, the man, Chaathu, got talking about his village. Gradually their conversation veered around to the village temple. Folklore had it that a lone time ago, the priest performing pujas in the shrine was caught stealing. The deity, a goddess, furious at the errant priest cursed him and decreed that thenceforth no Namboodiri should perform the rituals. The villagers were to open the temple on the first day of every month and jointly conduct poojas. The rest of the time the shrine would have to remain closed.

Lately, however, there was a feeling among some of the villagers that the goddess was not pleased with the conduct of poojas, which was why several misfortunes had fallen upon the village in recent times. Laalan listened to the story with great interest smelling an opportunity in the villager’s tale as he was forever looking for an opening to further his interests. Stating falsely that he was a Namboodiri and well versed in Deva Prashnam (communicating with the Almighty and finding reasons/solutions to problems), he offered to accompany Chaathu to his village and conduct one to set things right. The gullible villager accepted the offer readily saying that Kunhikannan Nambiar, who was a wealthy landlord and one who could loosely be termed as the first citizen of Cheerakulam, would be very pleased.

The Prashnam was a great success. Neelakandan Namboodiripad of Choorakkat Mana, as he introduced himself, with his archetypal Namboodiri mannerisms and speech impressed Kunhikannan Nambiar and other residents of the village greatly. Names of obscure Namboodiri illams (ancestral home/lineage) rolled glibly off his mouth; distant relationships were claimed with famous Namboodiris.

“You must have heard about the Katumadom Namboodiris. I am related to them; in fact I spent a few years training under them.’

‘Brahmiyur Mana Namboodiris (purely fictitious, but then who would know in this Namboodiri-less land) are well known in the southern parts; they specialize in Deva Prashnam. I learnt a great deal under them as my uncle has married from that Mana.”

Among various pronouncements which came out during the Deva Prashnam, the most important requirement of the deity was the need to have a learned priest who would perform poojas regularly, except for the new moon period of the month. The goddess was offended with the people of the village for not attending to rituals in the right manner, or so it was interpreted by Thirumeni (honoured one) as the people began calling Laalan. It didn’t take much persuasion by Nambiar and others to coax Thirumeni to become the village priest.

Life in Cheerakulam was very good to the wily Thirumeni. His word and advice on all matters religious and otherwise were sought for and accepted unquestioningly. A born lecher, there was nothing better he liked than handing over prasadam, religious offering, to women devotees. His day would start early with the dawn poojas. He got away quite easily with his trickery because most of the rituals were closed poojas –performed with the door of the inner sanctum sanctorum closed. The rascal would sit back and relax for a length of time before opening the nada or door. Once in a way, he would light a beedi (a habit from his days at the port) behind the closed doors. The beedi smoke would be nicely masked by the perpetual smoke from coconut shells which hung around the temple premises. His secret hoard of beedis was replenished during his occasional trip to town during the new moon period.

The only time he felt a twinge of regret at this way of life was when he craved for meat. As a priest, there was no way that he could have meat in the village. His cunning brain soon found a way to satisfy this craving. During one of his trips to town, he wandered around and chanced upon a tiny restaurant run by Moidu, a Muslim. Though not very clean, the place served excellent chicken biriyani and Thirumeni started visiting the eatery surreptitiously to enjoy the mouth-watering fare. Though the boys in the restaurant were bribed handsomely by him to keep his secret safe, they were derisive of this greedy meat eating Brahmin which earned him the sobriquet ‘Kozhi Namboodiri’. Kozhi – chicken, also had another meaning in colloquial speech – lecherous one.

Neelakandan Namboodiripad was treated with great respect by all – that is all but a handful. One of them was Koman, Kunhikannan Nambiar’s nephew. He had attended school in town and was planning to join the law college in the city of Calicut. He was one of the few in Cheerakulam who did not treat Thirumeni with the universal reverence, probably because he intuitively sensed something false about the priest. Thirumeni in turn was rather resentful of Koman’s lack of respect and tried to belittle him in his pompous manner, speaking disparagingly of the decline in values of the present day youth. But he always came off second best because Koman was a master of repartee. While he was not downright rude, he would unfailingly raise Thirumeni’s hackles with his sardonic tone and manner. Koman would often refer to him in his absence as Thara-meni – Thara meaning a low-down one in colloquial Malayalam. On occasion Nambiar would gently chide his nephew.

“Koma”, he would say. “Be polite and respectful to Thirumeni. Why do you want to earn the wrath of a Brahmin, my boy?”

Koman’s reply would be just a mischievous grin.

However, since Nambiar was very fond of this attractive son of his dead younger sister, he could never be angry with him for long. Laalan was relieved when Koman finally packed his bags and left to join the law college.

Another person who didn’t give any respect to the priest was Ammini who

ran the local toddy shop. She also catered to the second most important biological need of man. Foul-mouthed and ever ready to quarrel, most people gave her a wide berth. Whenever she spotted Thirumeni on the street, she would loudly shout, “Edo (hey you) Namboodiri! Come and have a drink at my toddy-shop. I’ll give you a drink free among other things.”

She enjoyed watching the scandalized expressions of everyone around and the priest’s angry scowl. As a result, he steered clear of her whenever she was sighted in the distance.

The residents of Cheerakulam were generous with their dakshina (offerings) to their beloved Thirumeni. He was consulted for spiritual advice ever so often, be it a horoscope matching for a wedding, a change of jobs, an illness or any critical situation. A high frequency of different pujas for different situations was thus ensured. Thus, he put on weight both physically as well as financially. Thirumeni had another secret source of acquiring wealth, that of money lending -- loans advanced against gold or land. This was done discreetly with Paramu’s assistance. Paramu, his henchman who carried out all his legitimate and not so legitimate orders was a drunkard ever ready for a brawl, who, because of his hammer-like fists, was feared by people.

Being superstitious, the only man he was afraid of was Thirumeni, who fuelled his fear by often hinting darkly about Brahmanashapam or the curse of a Brahmin who is crossed. All kinds of frightening stories were fed to the gullible Paramu about the dire consequences of a priest’s curse. However, on the brighter side, being Thirumeni’s slave ensured a decent wage and therefore uninterrupted supply of liquor. Prospective borrowers were spotted by the henchman and brought into Thirumeni’s clutches. The interest charged was high and often the debtor lost his property or gold. The threat of Paraman’s fearsome fists ensured that word did not get about. In a few years, he bought a sprawling old house and compound from old Narayana Marar’s son. The boy decided to leave for the city in search of employment after his father’s death. Thirumeni managed to snaffle the property for a song although he piously declared he was buying it to help the young boy.

Basking in his newly acquired status and wealth he would often think pityingly of his old mate the crane operator, pity tinged with contempt.

“Poor fool. He had the makings of a fortune within him but never realized it. And then, it’s my good luck that the chap was an idiot.”

“Vallikutty, tell that ass Paramu when he is sober, to ensure that the coconut pullers come this week. It’s long overdue,” he called out to the woman who cleaned the house as he took out a small bronze box, the chellapetti, which carried betel leaves, lime and accoutrements for chewing. Lalaan had by now started actually living out the delusion he had created, in his own mind.

“And ask him to pluck that ripe jackfruit from the tree on the northern side. Can’t any of you get the pungent smell?”

“It’s almost overripe.”

“Where is he anyway, that stupid, good for nothing wastrel?’ he demanded after a pause.

“He’s not back after delivering the bananas to Hassan Koya in town,” she told him as she came up close to his armchair.

“What’s it now,” he asked in annoyance as she continued to stand there.

“I want some money Thirumeni,” she said.

“You are a demanding woman. You are forever crying for money.”

“It’s not as if I don’t take care of all your needs so who else should I turn to?” she asked with a pout, her words loaded with meaning.

“Anyway the money is not for something trivial. Susheela has to visit the dentist in town. Her toothache is getting worse.”

Vallikutty was a widow. She had a daughter and a son both of whom were attending the local primary school. Her husband drank their little plot of agricultural land away and himself to death after which she was forced to do menial jobs to earn a living. Sometime ago she had approached Thirumeni for work in the temple. Sizing up her ample frame, he said that since the temple already had one worker to clean the premises, there was no need for another one. Instead he offered her a job to keep his house and gradually bent her to his will.

“You are mollycoddling your children too much. All she probably needs is to clean her teeth with umikari (charcoal made of paddy husk) and put some clove oil on the affected tooth. Anyway I’ll give you some money when Paramu comes back otherwise you’ll nag me to death, wretched woman,” he told her tetchily as he thought enviously, for the millionth time, about the Namboodiris of yore, the sambandams (relationships) they had with any number of women, of their vast land holdings, wealth and power in society. What lives must they had lived and enjoyed. He had begun to tire of this grumbling mother of two. Granted that she kept the house well and catered to his physical needs but she was always dissatisfied with the wages she received, forever moaning for more. Ever a lech, lately he had taken a fancy for Jamaalika’s young second wife. Coming across her on one occasion when he was going somewhere with Paramu, he observed, “Even if she is from another religion, she is a good-looker.”

Jamaalika was in his fifties. His first wife had died of cancer, childless, after twenty years of happy married life. A year after her death, the gentle Jamaal had remarried a woman much younger than him, probably in the hope of raising a family. It was however not to be, as wife number two also remained childless. Jamaal and his wife Subaida were a cheerful and hardworking couple and well liked in Cheerakulam. Even the sharp tongued Ammini was very fond of Subaida since she was the only woman in town who did not treat her with contempt. She would call on Subaida once in a while with some little dish and spend a while talking to her. The good Jamaalika however had an unfortunate vice – that of gambling. Regretfully, he lived under the delusion that he was an expert card player. His bunch of cronies, dissipated idlers most of them, including the notorious Paramu, encouraged this delusion by praising his technique, his excellent memory etc. Most of the couple’s hard earned money was thus frittered away with the result, they were perpetually in debt.

A day came along when Jamaalika’s debts mounted up and his creditors were no longer willing to wait. At his wits end, he confided his woes to Paramu that evening when they were alone.

“Paramu, I am in deep trouble,’ he began.

“What’s the matter Ika?’ asked Paramu with a false air of sympathy.”

“ am in heavy debt and my creditors are pressing for payment. I have no money at all. What am I to do?” Jamaalika lamented.

“Do you have any money Paramu, to help me tide over this crisis?” he continued. “I need at least five thousand rupees urgently. Once my banana crop is sold I can pay you back.”

“Five thousand! I don’t have even fifty rupees Ika. And even if I did I would not give it to you my dear friend. I know all about the banana crop,” Paramu sneered, “and how it is pledged to Hassan Koya in town.”

“But I will tell you what,” he said in a milder tone. “You can try and ask Thirumeni for help. He is a kind-hearted man; he may help you. But do you have any gold to give him as an assurance?”

“Whatever Subaida possessed has been also pledged. The only thing we have left is our tea-shop cum home,” said Jamaalika miserably.

“I think that would be sufficient. If you want I’ll come with you tomorrow and recommend your case,” offered Paramu.

Having no other choice Jamaal agreed to seek Thirumeni’s help.The next afternoon, accompanied by Paramu, he went to see the priest. The great man was relaxing on his arm chair after lunch, gently fanning himself, chewing betel leaves.

“Ah! Who is this? Jamaalika. What may be the matter?” he queried in his imitation of the Namboodiri twang.

Jamaal kept silent, not knowing how to put things across. It was Paramu who spoke up.

“Thirumeni. Jamaalika is in great trouble. He is in need of some money urgently. About five thousand rupees.”

“Haiiieh! Why do you need such a big sum Jamaalika? Where will I raise this sum for you at such short notice?”

“He had to pay someone urgently. He will give his place as security Thirumeni,” finished Paramu in an ingratiating manner.

“With a good man like Jamaalika there’s actually no need for a collateral but then one has to follow the common practice in society,” said Neelakandan Namboodoripad with a leer.

“Let me see if I can do something to help. When do you require the money?”

Jamaalika who had stood in crestfallen silence thus far spoke up. “I need the money immediately Thirumeni, tomorrow if you please.”

Thus Jamaalika was sucked into Thirumeni’s filthy clutches. Over a period of time the poor man was bled white by the unscrupulous trickster. In the end, once when he had gone to town, Thirumeni, using the foulest of threats, blackmailed a terrified Subaida into submission. The poor woman unable to live with herself afterwards, cut her wrist and attempted to kill herself. While she was saved because of the presence of mind of Ammini, who had come for a visit, the effects of the suicide attempt made her a cripple. The truth never came out and stories were put out by Paramu and his blackguard cronies, who in any case were in the dark, that the woman, grief-stricken at remaining childless had made the suicide attempt.

Time went on, mango seasons came and went as life ambled by in peaceful Cheerakulam and the immoral Thirumeni grew mightily both in stature and in wealth. Jamaalika was now a much chastened man; he had given up gambling. Working as hard as his elderly frame would allow him, he managed to clear off most of his debts. Meanwhile Koman, Nambiar’s nephew finished his studies and had enrolled himself as a lawyer in Calicut. Often, he and a few friends would come to visit Nambiar and would stay on for a few days. Thirumeni ensured that he remained clear of the Nambiar property during these visits. One day Subaida and Jamaalika has a surprise visitor, a young woman

called Laila. Suabaida had an elder sister Suhara Bibi. Suhara Bibi had three children, two boys Abdu and Ali and the youngest, a girl, Laila. As a child Laila was very fond of her aunt and used to come and stay often with her. As she grew up she was busy with studies and helping out her mother who was widowed by then. After a gap of many years she decided to pay her aunt a visit. She was a young woman with a sad face, as if carrying some secret sorrow.

Shortly after she arrived at the village, Jamaalika had to go to town for a couple of days to attend to some business. Laila managed the eatery in her uncle’s absence but her swollen, red eyes and unhappy expression made it obvious to everyone around that she had been crying over some great tragedy. Paramu and his bunch turned up as usual at the tea-shop for their morning tea and gossip. The ever inquisitive Paramu, curious to know why the young woman was so upset adopted a sympathetic avuncular manner as he went about fishing out the reason. Taken in by his kindly words, she told him the whole story. Abdu, her brother, had got married and as both he and his wife knew tailoring, he wanted to set up a tailoring shop in Calicut. However, setting up such an establishment in a big city like Calicut required a lot of money. Even to rent out a small shop in a good area, one had to pay a hefty pagdi (deposit). To raise the required funds they had taken a loan from a bank with the family house as collateral. Unfortunately Abdu had defaulted on repayment and now they were all in danger of eviction unless they could make a substantial chunk of repayment immediately.

After hearing her out, Paramu promised to persuade his master to help her get over the immediate crisis and asked her to come to Thirumeni’s place in the afternoon.

Just after lunch, Koman and his friends were on their way to catch the bus back to town. They took a shortcut skirting Thirumeni’s boundary. Hearing the screams of a woman from the Namboodiri’s house they rushed in and broke open the door to find Thirumeni in the room with a cowering Laila, her dress in disarray. It was obvious – the priest had tried to force himself on the young woman. The next few minutes were the most painful moments in Thirumeni’s memory as he was given a sound thrashing by Koman and his friends. His henchman Paramu disappeared at the first signs of trouble. The fake priest screamed in pain, “Aiyeeo! Don’t kill me. I didn’t even touch her. She is lying, I don’t know why. Aiyeeo! Aiyeeo!”

A crowd gathered around to watch the unlikely spectacle of the priest being beaten to within an inch of his life. Kunhikannan Nambiar rushed to the spot on hearing the news. He ran into the house and shouted, “Enough Koman, enough.”

Koman hauled the cringing Thirumeni and shouted angrily, “I’ve had my suspicions about him for a long time now. I’ve even followed him in town and watched him go to a non-vegetarian restaurant. I didn’t tell any of you all these days since you wouldn’t have believed me. Do you know what they call this rascal there? Kozhi Namboodiri. The name really suits him in every way.”

“You are an impostor, you scoundrel. Let’s have the truth otherwise I’ll break your legs so that you will never be able to walk again,” he hissed at Thirumeni.

In garbled bits and pieces, the villain confessed, about his deception, how he managed to take in everyone, his money-lending ventures and other misdeeds.

After the trickster was kicked out, his property gifted to the village panchayat, Koman took his bride to his uncle and prostrated before the dumbfounded patriarch.

“Forgive us, uncle, for the deception. We were married last month,” he said penitently, with a half smile at Laila, his old college mate and life partner.

The shrine at Cheerakulam is unique – it has no priest.


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