CONMAN'S PUJA: SAIKUMAR MENON/MS KARIKATH
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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.
* * *
Lunch 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 beings 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. Cheerakulams 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 Nairs 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 Jamaalikas 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 Coleridges 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
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. Thangapettans 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 Thangapettans 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-soldiers 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
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
operators 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
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 workers 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 Sultans 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 nieces 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 villagers 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
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 didnt
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
Neelakandan Namboodiripad was treated with great respect by all
that is all but a handful. One of them was Koman, Kunhikannan Nambiars
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 Komans 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 Thirumenis 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?
Komans 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 didnt give any respect to the priest was Ammini
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. Ill give you a drink free
among other things.
She enjoyed watching the scandalized expressions of everyone
around and the priests 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 Paramus 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 priests
curse. However, on the brighter side, being Thirumenis slave ensured
a decent wage and therefore uninterrupted supply of liquor. Prospective
borrowers were spotted by the henchman and brought into Thirumenis
clutches. The interest charged was high and often the debtor lost his
property or gold. The threat of Paramans fearsome fists ensured
that word did not get about. In a few years, he bought a sprawling old
house and compound from old Narayana Marars son. The boy decided
to leave for the city in search of employment after his fathers
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, its 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. Its 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. Cant any of you get the pungent smell?
Its almost overripe.
Where is he anyway, that stupid, good for nothing
wastrel? he demanded after a pause.
Hes not back after delivering the bananas
to Hassan Koya in town, she told him as she came up close to his
Whats 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
Its not as if I dont 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
Ill give you some money when Paramu comes back otherwise youll
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 Jamaalikas
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 couples
hard earned money was thus frittered away with the result, they were
perpetually in debt.
A day came along when Jamaalikas 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.
Whats 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
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 dont 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
I think that would be sufficient. If you want Ill
come with you tomorrow and recommend your case, offered Paramu.
Having no other choice Jamaal agreed to seek Thirumenis 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
With a good man like Jamaalika theres 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
Thus Jamaalika was sucked into Thirumenis 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, Nambiars
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 uncles 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 Thirumenis
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 Thirumenis
boundary. Hearing the screams of a woman from the Namboodiris
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 Thirumenis 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! Dont kill me. I didnt even touch
her. She is lying, I dont 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,
Ive had my suspicions about him for a long time now. Ive
even followed him in town and watched him go to a non-vegetarian restaurant.
I didnt tell any of you all these days since you wouldnt
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. Lets have
the truth otherwise Ill 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
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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