Katthukutty amma gave deep sigh when she was told by the peon in uniform- white trouser and tunic with white turban and a red, & gold bordered militia barrette that the sub collector “sar” will now see her.
Early that morning, Kathukutty Amma left home when it was still dark and had some time to go before day break. She had to travel through the narrow path cutting across the stretches of paddy fields, and do a balancing act that she was so accustomed to across the brook over the make shift bridge that was the trunk of a coconut palm .She walked along the side of the canal that flows from the dammed river and reservoir a few kilometer upstream. She reached the road circumventing the Sreekrishna temple, when the early dawn keerthanam (hymns) was gently flowing through the loud speaker placed somewhere above on the old pea pal tree that must be rooted there for centuries ,adjacent to the temple pond. She held her right palm close to her bosom when the mesmerizing ode “kaninkanum neeran …” flowed through the loud speaker. She did the customary bow and uttered prayers for a minute standing outside the temple perimeter, before she crossed the road towards the street light pole that displayed a tin sheet painted red and with white letters” BUS STOP”. The first few crows took flight from their perches on the pea pal tree and flew in circles. An hour before that Kathukutty amma polished off the Kanji ( rice gruel or porridge ) and the Chakka Puzhukku ( Jack fruit stew) with some chutney of Knadhari Mullaku ( hot green chili, native to Kerala). From the past many times, she knew that a visit to the Government office will not be a brief affair and she may have to as before sit in the verandah of the office till dusk awaiting the officer to consider meeting her.
“Velliamme Sar akatheku chellan paranju”, (Sir asked you to meet in the office cabin).Katthukutty Amma was a quite surprised by the early ushering. She went in after the peon and was astonished to see a very young maiden in the chair of the sub- collector. She was told by the Collectorate staff that the former sub collector was transferred out and a new officer was in charge. But now looking at the sub collector, a young woman may be as old as her grand child if she had one surprised the old woman by no bounds. And when the peon said “sir will now meet you”, she presumed that a man would be in the chair.
The young sub collector beckoned her and reciprocated her “namasthe’ with folded hands. She asked Katthukutty amma to occupy the visitors’ chair, which the old woman declined out of anxiety and surprise in seeing the unpretentious new appointee. Besides she was uneasy seeing the powerful Circle Inspector, her neighbour and a retinue of other officials seated around the sub collector’s table. Anxious about the fate of her grievance and how this little girl would entertain her supplication, she palpitated within. More over she a poor woman was not used to being offered a seat in a government office. She was not even allowed inside the cabin or office on her many previous visits to petition. She stood behind the officials with folded hands.
The circle inspector began, “madam this old woman is my neighbour and she lives in the ten cents of land adjacent to my house. Respected madam, as you know I’m a police officer and the custodian of law. I subscribe predominant value and importance to my job and engage much of my time and effort in safe guarding the law of the land. I spent considerable time of the day and night in pursuit of my haloed duty. I ‘m faced with constant threat to my life while engaged in my duties. While I work under ever looming mortal threat while on duty, I ‘m not saved from that plight even while at home with my family. I, my wife and children besides my aged parents live in constant danger and threat from the Jack fruit tree that stands precariously on the fringe of this woman’s property. The mortal possibility of danger from the tree and or its huge branches falling upon my house is real as sunrise. I request your office to issue the order to slaughter that tree before it can put at risk the life of a sincere and honorable officer of the constabulary.”
The sub collector looked towards the Tahshildar seeking his explanation and report. He endorsed the plea of the inspector and agreed to its genuineness. The Village officer and the Revenue official were unanimous and in chorus nodded in agreement in favor of the inspector’s plea.
Kathukutty amma could not control her sob. Tears streamed down her weather beaten, skinny cheeks and she stood with flowing tears and pleading with folded palm begging for righteousness and mercy. The sub collector looked towards Kathukutty amma. More than the plight of the old woman she was harrowed by the unanimity of the officialdom in lining up against the poor hapless woman. She enquired if Kathukutty amma had something to say.
“Kathukutty amma leaned forward and began sobbingly, “Ssare njan arrorum illatha niralambhayanu.Ente bhrathavineum moneum deivam nereathe kondu poi.Kooli vellaum, a plavil ninum kittunna chakka vittumanu njan
muttathe kazhiunnathu.Deivam sahaichu a plavuil varshaam muzhuvan chakka undu. Athu oru shaliavum arkum nalkathe ente parambil nilkunnu. Oru vidhathilum njano a plavo ee emanu prayasm akoolla. Ente jevvan a vriksha manu. Athillangil ee njan um undavilla. Kunju onnu athuvare vannu nokiayal mansilakum. Athu inspector emmanu apathavum athu vettanam ennu kunju paranjal aa nimisham najan a plavu murichu mattam. Ee vaysiyodu dayavundavanam”.(Sir, I’m a poor destitute woman with no one to turn to. God took away early in life my husband and son. I live engaging in menial jobs and selling the fruit from that jack tree, which mercifully bear fruits through the year. Neither I nor the tree is of any threat to the inspector. If the tree is gone I have no means to live. I request you to please go to my place and know for yourself. If you then feel that the tree has to be cut down I will not hesitate a moment to abide. Please have mercy on this poor woman) annam
Hardly had Kathukutty amma ended her tale of woe and request the Tahashildra blurted out, “No, no what do you think old woman. Madam has important work and her time is invaluable to throw after your silly tree and story. She cannot be going there for inspections. Moreover your place is far away by road and through the dirty fields. You have to cut the tree immediately”.
The sub collector had a penchant to read between the lines, something she picked from her father who was himself a bureaucrat.. She glanced through the reports on the subject that were lying on her table.All three officials have given in their report . They all endorsed, “slaughter the tree immediately”.
The collector leaned back in her chair and said, “Amme njan adutha thingalastcha varam. Amma onnu ithu vare vannal ente car l thanne onnitchu poyi sthalam kanam” (Dear woman I will go with you next Monday to the site. You may come here in the morning and we will travel to your home in my car).
She turned towards the Tahashildar and said, “I have to conduct a site inspection before making a decision. You may plan it for next Monday morning, first thing. You can come with us and the rest can meet us at the site”.
Kathukutty amma could not believe her ears. She felt that a tiny door has opened for her.
The following Monday, Kathukutty amma joined the sub collector and travelled back to her little land. The car stopped at the temple and then they began the arduous walk along the sides of the canal. Walking for a while the young sub collector enquired if the site was very far. Kathukuttuy amma said, “illa molle kuracthu koodi poayal mathi, oru oru mile matram,.( No dear just a little over a mile left). The young woman smiled. They went over the foot bridge through the winding path amongst the paddy field. And finally reached Kathukutty amma’s little piece of land and the villainous Jack tree. The sub collector went around the plot and was able to see at one glance that the Jack tree was away from any harm’s way and will have no bearing on the inspector’s house even if it is uprooted. It stood majestically, and in greenish splendor with fruits dotted all over its branches and trunk. The amazing fact that she saw was the tree had fruits and they virtually camouflaged the bark and the trunk! It seemed like manna for the old woman.
She had no hesitation to immediately order that the tree need not be slaughtered and also asked the Tahshildar to ensure that the inspector meted out no trouble to the old woman. As a parting gift the sub collector asked Kathukutty amma if she could buy a jack fruit. Though the old woman was hesitant to take money ,but the sub collector ensured she did.
On the way back the sub collector asked the lawyer of the inspector why such frivolous matter was pursued and the old woman harassed. The lawyer pleaded that he was acting only on the behest of his client and the Jack Fruit tree was the main subsistence provider for Kathukutty amma. The inspector planned that if he could force her to cut that tree down she will be left in the lurch and will be forced to sell the plot of land. And he could buy it for a song and enlarge his chunk of property.
This story is based on a real life incident mentioned in brief by Smt J. Lalithambika (former bureaucrat). This was one of her most vivid experience as an IAS officer!