Dhandhapani Pillai hailed from Nagercoil, now a town in Tamilnad, south of Thiruvananthapuram. In fact before the restructuring of the States in the 1950s, Nagercoil was part of the Travancore Princely State. The influence that the old political dispensation has on the social fabric of Thiruvanathapuram from Tamil culture and from people from the former Tamil speaking areas of Travancore is remarkable. For instance Deepavali a distinct Tamil festival is observed with delirious energy in Thpuram, whilst its aura wanes as one travels northwards and beyond from Thpuram. The influence of the heavenly offspring Subramanian, the God with distinct Tamil flavour is widely accepted as deity in Thiruvanathapuram. And south/central Kerala has many temples where he is the presiding deity. Towards north Kerala he seems to be still like the BJP unable to make inroads.
Our Dhandapani Pillai was the namesake of this Tamil God, the distinctly egoistic son from the relationship between Siva and Parvathi. I was often narrated the early beginnings of Dhandapani Pillai by my mother.
It was way back in 1950s that Dhandapani Pillai, a widower, migrated with his son and daughter, to Thpuram. He was from quite penurious background and by chance approached my maternal grandfather who then owned a well known and respectable business in textiles in Thpuram. The helpful points in his general demeanour were his widely bared air of submission to authority and his verbal volleys that can bowl over anybody.
Thence began a new innings and Dhandhapani Pillai gradually entrenched socially as a Tamil speaking Mallu . He worked as a salesman at the textile counter and also trained as a tailor. He married a second time and begot three children, two girls and a son. Dhandhapani pillai was ambitious but was too anxious to go forward that he often stumbled and that put him back one step behind. When the enlarged family found it difficult to meet their living from one source of income which was his salary, he laid out his small plan to his employer (my paternal grandfather). He proposed to put up a small pan shop that those days meant an outlet for beetle nuts and tendu leaves, fresh lemon juice and local sharbath, besides local candy and bananas.He came on an auspicious morning to my grandfather along with his son and family- his son decked up as a priest and carrying a framed photo of the God Subramaonaian. And I ‘m told that they were helped with the initial capital and the tiny shop was begun very near the place where I lived in my childhood days.
My earliest memories of Dhandapani Pillai were from the time I used to buy small rubber balls to play. He also sold paper kites which was a fascination for kids like me. Occasionally I used to be send from home to Dhandapani Pillai’s shop to buy bananas. He usually used to play his smart tricks and pack for me amongst the good ones the mice eaten bananas too. He also used to charge me the extras anna for bananas. When I was sent from home to fetch half dozen chicken eggs and the tiny parcel opened back home there will always be an egg short.This was his way of making the extra nickel.
Later I had been often given the feeling of being a “jack ass” by Dhandhapani Pillai’s cunning. He had by then expanded his wares and business that he bought a few bicycles which could be hired on hourly rent. He also had a couple of the smaller bicycles. They were hired by kids who were learning the art of cycling. My first lessons and subsequent many little escapades where first on the little bicycles of Dhandhapani Pillai and later on his more flashy “Raleigh” bicycles.
I remember well that it was twenty paisa for one hour of hire. And I and a few local friends used to hire them on weekends. The meanness which Dhandapani Pillai could not resist was very infuriating and gave us helpless feel. But when thinking about it now, I can sometimes smile at his crooked acumen as a business man and laugh at the trickery he used to regularly play on us. It was quite upsetting that the one hour we hire elapses in a jiffy. Dhandapani Pilli carefully winds forward his little time- piece soon after we have hired the little cycle. And after a few rounds when we check with him the time left he will in his shrill voice say, “smayam ayii ini anchu minute mathram”, (it’ is almost time and five more minutes left).The fact is that he ensures that we pay him the twenty paisa for thirty minutes and if we protest he will agree that we can keep the cycle another thirty minutes if we pay extra.
Dhandapani Pillai had electronic antennas all over his body. That he smells everything and anything in the neighbouring households.
The foolery that he inflicted on us was burning like amber, but we could do nothing. His forward winding the hour on his time- piece was continued even after I began hiring his bigger bicycles for my little clandestine trips. He had by then increased the charges to fifty paisa an hour. Though I knew his larceny, I was afraid to confront him as he was privy to my hiring the cycle without the approval from my house hold folks. And also he sort of knew where I have been. Grudgingly and helplessly I had to always pay the hire charges he wanted.
The opportune moment dawned like destiny come calling. I was well into my teens. I and a few neighbourhood boys found out like a revelations that Dhandhapani Pillai had an illicit affair with a vegetable vendor, a woman living a few blocks away. Since his house was adjacent to his outlet it could also be left unattended for a while. At 6.30 pm every evening Dhandapani Pillai used to vanish from his shop. And he comes back after an hour or so, with sandalwood paste and vhibhoothi on his forehead some pooja offerings in hand. This temple visit of Dhandapani Pillai went on without fail and undeterred.
The enterprising detectives amongst us boys found out the truth of the gloaming visits of our man. We, one day, keeping an undetected distance, followed him to the house of his paramour. We hung around outside on the road for Mr Pillai to alight after his courtship. It was getting quite dark but for the incandescent street lamp in front of the small path way to the woman’s house. Like a whiff Mr Pillai cycled out from the pathway and on to the road, to virtually ram into us. Mr Pillai was decked like after a temple visit, sandal wood paste on the forehead etc. His face in that street light is still amusing to relive. One boisterous fellow among us , tapped on the bicycle handle and asked, “Dhandapani anna njangade karyam paranjo akathe deviodu”(Dhandapani anna did you tell about us to the Goddess in there)?
Since that late evening, I cannot recollect one instance when he played his opportune tricks on us. But he continued his temple visits at dusk until the Vegetable vendor died. And the wonderful end to the story is that he entrusted his little shop to one of those local boys while he was away on his daily pilgrimage at dusk.
He passed away after quite some years.