The narrow panchayat road wound through the periphery of the Lower Primary Government School and abruptly ended sloping at the entry into the vast expanse of the paddy fields that stretched beyond into Kuttanad.. From the school it took about twenty minutes, a distance of about three quarter of a mile to reach the cul de sac in the road, on nights when the moon was free from clouds that often threw their mantle across its lucent face.
One could see the couple of street lights en route, atop the tall poles with moths and insects swarming around the glow of the bulbs and occulting their incandescence. Some dead and stuck on the face of the bulbs like barnacles. The street lamps gave the image of forgotten ancient detritus. Folks depended more on the torch made out of a bunch of coconut fronds than the faint glow of those electric street lights. The tall Kanjiram stood on the Ouseppachan’s small plot and silhouetted at night like a lone cliff over the plains. It dwarfed the Jack trees and the Poovarasu that together threw a thick canopy over the house . The panchayat road ended little further down the wired gates of the house.
It was usual for Esthappen to sit at the gate, a movable barrier made of wire mesh and pieces of log. Some nights, he would recline in his easy- chair on the verandah pulling profusely on the beedi stubs and lighting another when the dried rolled tobacco had burnt-over almost scorching his parched lips. Old Esthappen had since long forgotten to sleep and he cohabited with insomnia. His hallucinations and fantastic woolgathering were probably the result of that.
The bats that lived in the kanjiram would circle about and shriek occasionally from their inverted berth high up on the branches. They moved about in the night sky in silence, their dark silhouettes gliding, their wings flapping gently in flight often conveyed awe and yet to some an eerie sight to behold. Those innocuous winged mammals often are alleged representatives of evil and harbingers of evil forces in the stories told a dozen and more times by Esthappen. He was quite deft in mimicking while narrating stories and folklore, something that enthused the fascination of kids and Esthappen happy.
On some nights, Esthappen’s mongrel “Kaiser” would howl looking aimlessly into the night sky. Perhaps he saw something we could not; something Estahppen could not notice. Kaiser may have been annoyed by a phantasm- a psychedelic shadow, a field rat scurrying past, or the glowing moon.
Folklore has been unkind to dogs; old mother tales and chronicles in which dogs have some strange sense of perception, power to see the unknown, feel things that we could not and to foresee bad omen. Esthappen swore that the street dogs which strayed around the LP school compound wailed in unionism while the old karnavar at the Thekkeparambu thravad laid battling snake venom that had paralysed all of his body. The dogs signaled his end was near-his death by their howling and strange wailing the whole night until he passed at dawn and as soon as he died their howling stopped abruptly. Esthappen asserted that most deaths were forewarned by dogs.
The thatched shed that housed the two cows kept by Esthappen’s daughter Kochu Maria was a few yards from where he rested on the verandha. The occasional shuffle of the bovines , their snorting and Esthappen’s phlegmatic cough interrupted the silence of the night.
It was rumoured that Estahappen smoked strange dry leaves rolled up in the beedis. He also used them as added flavour to the beetle leaf he chewed .The old man often spoke about floating through the clouds and sometimes galloping across mountains and valleys on a horse. He would fly through the sky on a beast, which would sprout wings and appears like a white stallion- a Pegausus! He would be brought back little before day break. Old man spoke about retinue of fairies who would guide him through the journey. Esthappen claimed that these mysterious night odysseys have happened many times and he unfailingly would narrate to the children the very next day.
His fantasies were fantastic as fairytales of yore and about solo crossings of men, of men flying through the skies on white Pegasus and magic carpets, crossing oceans to faraway heavens by night, when the rest of the world sleeps. To come back by daybreak with intrigues and privy to them only; their stories- apparently mostly contrived and images of sorcery, of which most have survived ages not only as fables and folk tales but as apocryphal beliefs. Beliefs for which men and women are prepared to forsake their lives, to snuff out another life, to wound and kill without a feel of remorse or guilt, but with casuist fervour.
Esthappen’s molars had all fallen out except a couple and all that remained of the rest of the teeth was the incisors. And they stood precariously. The perpetual stubble on his cheeks resembled the parched paddy fields, dry and life less like after the harvest. Because of age his eyes were rheumy. His hearing was faulty and he often bowed angling his head and holding his palm to the ear as a deflective barrier to direct the sound he wanted to pick up. This created an impression that he was eager to listen, while often he meant the opposite. He loved to chatter, tell stories and of adventures from his days in the Army and before that his life as the cook at the bungalow of the plantation manager the English man. Esthappen was eighty five.
Ouseppachan, his son-in-law bought the 18 cents of land with a loan on his retirement funds and the house was painstakingly put up. The majestic jack fruit tree stood at the gate and mocked at the seasons with the perennial bearing of green jack fruits. Folks were awed how that tree produced those fruits round the year in such spectacle of abundance all over its trunk and bow. In fact the tree bore fruits even when jack fruits were an unseen thing in the market.
Esthappen was the errand and cook to the British manager of the plantation who lived for long in Peeremade, in Idukki before he went back to England. But before the English man went away he did not forget to reward Esthappen for his loyalty and most of all for his culinary skills. No one knew how he acquired his culinary attainments. In any case Esthappen by the stroke of fortune became the owner of five acres of Tea and Cardamom plantation in Idukki.
His daughter Kochu Maria was from his earlier wedlock. When his wife died young soon after childbirth he married again, something that he would later rue. As ill-luck may have it, his new bride who was about half his age and little older than his own daughter was a termagant and feral woman. Her parents did not care much about the age of the widowed Estappen and had no qualms in giving away the young lass Rahel.
The past in Rahel’s life were not without mysteries so as to attract a young suitable boy from a respectable denomination. A widower was the best bet. When she was nineteen Rahel eloped with a Tamil labourer, a tea picker from a nearby tea estate. She spent about a year with him in some town across the border in Tamilnad before presumably when matters had got unbearable, took the rickety bus that deposited her back at her father’s door step. She would not talk a word about her whereabouts, the fellow with whom she eloped or her life with him. It is a fact of our times that sententious folks are common but of little value. Equally obnoxious are the ones who pass pharisaical judgments and have scornful opinions on other people’s lives, their follies and personal grief. Esthappne understood that well. When he solemnly took the wedding vow accepting Rahel as his bride at the altar of the St Joseph church in Peeremade, Esthappen was not eschewed by such queasy lots, the people who chose to be unkind and rude, alleged malicious stories about his bride. Esthappen's large heart, was not touched and was not to be shriveled by vicious comments, all of which he rubbished as innuendos. He was unmoved by those shenanigans. He did not probe Rahel with disquieting and unkind questions. As a good Christian he believed in the salutary effect of forgiving and forgetting and also acknowledged the frailty of man. He was only concerned of making a secure home for his little daughter Kochu Maria and did not want her live through childhood, motherless. A foster mother is a consolation than not having the affection of one, he presumed. For that he needed a woman- a wife. He hoped to found one in Rahel.
However his bride for that matter was incisive about the tidy fortune of Esthappen- the gift left to him by the Englishman, than a life with the man who was her father’s age. She was not to be impressed about having to be foster mother to his daughter. Rahel was cantankerous and rude to Esthappen and the little girl. She did not bother to hide her dislike for both.
When war reached the Indo-Burma border, Esthappen volunteered to go to the front. Unable to bear the shrew wife, quite upset and saddened he enlisted in the Army. He entrusted his adolescent daughter to a catholic nunnery run by the order of the Congregation of the Mothers of Carmalite in Vandiperiyar. He left Rahel and the two sons she bore him and journeyed to the place of his stationing, in the trenches in the jungles of North East Frontier.
Four years was a long period but they went fleetingly. When Esthappen returned to Peeremade after the war he realised that Rahel had not changed her ways and was crotchety as before. He felt unwanted, a stranger and an intruder. It was during one of those days then that a robust young man, a tall dark complexioned and well-built fellow of about thirty came to see him. His hair was black as a raven’s, well-oiled and combed back. Thick tooth brush moustache was well trimmed .He wore kakhi drill trousers and white short-sleeved cotton shirt neatly buttoned and well tucked inside the waist of his trousers. However his brown leather shoes were untidy and badly needed a coat of polish.
He spoke head held high and straight into Esthappen’s face. “I’m Ouseph, the mechanic at the Merchiston Tea Estate in Vandiperiyar. I was born up north, in Malabar. Though, now for all practical purpose my home is here in Idukki .My mother passed away a few years back and since then I have not been to my native town. In fact I do not have any close relatives back there”.
Esthappen heard out the young man, but was at the same time searching for some clue as to why he was standing there and telling Esthappen about himself. The reason for his coming was yet not evident in his words.Perhaps noticing Esthappen’s searching eyes, the young man decided to get to the point. But he had to speak about himself before he touched on the subject. It would not help to broach the subject without the preamble. Because who he was and what he was mattered most when the subject come up. “Of late, I drive down to the St. Fathima convent daily on some substitution of work- you know transporting tea leaves and I happened to see your daughter there. I do not think that she would disagree with my decision to ask you her hand in marriage. Though I must confess I have not spoken a word to her or asked her willingness yet. But I do not have reason to believe that she may have a different opinion about this or about me.” He paused and followed Esthappen’s face, which now showed a mouth slightly agape and eyes squint in surprise. Seeing that he continued, “I can promise you that I shall take care of her for all her life". Esthappen was a bit surprised but impressed by the young man’s demeanour and frankness, the choice of his words and how he spoke in a voice of clarity and masculine. Esthapen surveyed him head to toe and looked him in the eyes and placed him as an exponent of free will, innocuous, youthful in spirit and perhaps pollyannaish in emotion. He was not wrong. Esthappen continued to watch the young man for some moment. But to the young man Ouseph time stood still. Would his words be seen as the audacity of youth and improper on a subject that is customarily dealt by elders? Esthappen rewound the young man’s words “I can promise you that I shall take care of her all her life”. He noticed the glint in the fellow’s eyes and he felt the fellow meant what he said. Esthappen studied him; he had a straight face, an honest face. He has shown the courage to seek his approval for his daughter’s hand. He is young and strong and he could not disbelieve that his daughter will be unsafe with him. There seemed to be nothing inscrutable in the man. His face seemed to evidence his personality, his words and how he let them flow vouched further. His countenance was reassuring.
Meanwhile, Rahel who was in the kitchen noticed the arrival of the stranger and sneaked behind Esthappen to eavesdrop-an exercise that she excelled. Rahel was seamlessly pleased when Kochumaria was sent to the convent. She only had to plot a bit and finesse Esthappen’s plans for his daughter. Plans, she thought could make her and her boys’ position weak and precarious. She must ensure that Kochumaria will not be coming home to be a threat to her and her children. She must ensure that the girl was ordained a nun. She had in fact with seductive lure of an enchantress, speciously confronted the war ravaged and disheveled Esthappen not long after he was back from the front; to persuade him by all means to accept the offer from the convent to let Kochumaria take up nun-hood. She knew the idea may not fail to work if tapped shrewdly as she was aware of Esthappen’s taste for matters of the Church. Rahel had not forgotten his penchant to sign off of his land to the church when the parish committee expressed anguish at the precarious state of the parish finances. Under no heavenly skies shall offering a girl to God and his church be a lesser sacrificial act than willing some ground of land laden with undergrowth.
Rahel knew the art of malarkey, when to blow hot and when to relent, when to stoop to conquer; most of all how and when to wrench. She would remind Esthappen of the words of the Genesis. “Adam knew his wife Eve intimately and she conceived and bore Cain. She said, "I have had a male child with the LORD's help." Then she also gave birth to his brother Abel. Abel became a shepherd of a flock, but Cain cultivated the land.In the course of time Cain presented some of the land's produce as an offering to the LORD. And Abel also presented an offering-some of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but He did not have regard for Cain and his offering. Cane was furious and downcast. Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you furious? And why are you downcast? If you do right, won't you be accepted? But if thou do not do right, sin is crouching at the door.”
Nun-hood was the easiest and the surest way to eliminate the burden a girl child may become. At the outset and most importantly it may also appear as a sacrifice and penance by the girl and her family. A deed, of piety! However the losers was the girl, who more out of condition than own volition consigns her life as if destined by fate into the dark, dreary, repressive cold world of cloisters and nuns. A renegade is ostracised by the Order, community and her family. It is a one way ticket for many young girls in Kerala who are driven to choose a life ostensibly pronounced and described as “God’s maidens”, “God’s beckoning”. Penury drives families to offer girl children to the Church and for some sending a girl into a nunnery is a convenient way of casting away an inconvenience or a liability.
Alas, now here stands the spoiler in the form of this avtar, this intruder, this dark tall specter who descended here heaven knows where from, in quest of asking Kochumaria’s hand in marriage. Rahel’s agitated mind began to churn fast -thoughts, ideas, plots which only must have one end and that was to see that the girl Kochumaria stays inside the convent and as a nun. A life for the girl outside the convent would be disaster for Rahel. She was aware and apprehensive about Esthappen’s boundless affection for his daughter and will have no hesitation in bequeathing all that he has for her. She cannot let that infliction, the lass corner Esthappen’s modest fortunes.When she agreed for the wedding with this middle-aged man who was already at the threshold of edentulous existence, it was because she was desperate for a life, a life that will bring her some respectability and financial security, nothing more and nothing less. Derisive comments, spiked glances that impales alive, muffled derisive laughter when she attended the mass at the church services made her realise how insincerely, callously and cruelly society can attend to a woman; who have perhaps in hindsight foolishly tethered her life to the promises and gallant assurances of a man only to be tormented and abused by him later. It was then that she decided she needed a refuge even a decrepit one that will lend her respectability. It was not for nothing that she was quiet and pliant to the mental duress and emotional blackmail of her parents and others who delighted in bearing upon themselves the right to rubbish her. She decided to bore his children, cook him food, wash his clothes and asphyxiate in the vice like carnal grip of the old man. No woman can lie back and relive the odour of the sweat and slime of a man- a man she has no love for, a man whose proximity she despises, a man who she decided shall only be an instrument, an aid to wrench back self-worth and not barricade from the world any more. She will stand up to life’s betrayals and do not intend to be shriveled and closed with fear, shame and pain. She harboured no sympathy for this man Esthappen. She cannot love anymore, no man –and the feeling that stays within her is only the love for her.
Esthappen was unsure of giving the man his word either way. He was not displeased with this young fellow. But he needed time; he needed to discuss the matter with the parish priest. A shuffle of the feet made him turn and look towards the kitchen door behind. Rahel stood there looming like the goddess with eighteen arms, like a juggernaut; teeth bared, fire blazing from her mouth and nostrils. Her blood-red tongue extended dripping blood; eyes as amber intending to incinerate to ashes all that it surveyed. Rahel stood there with one hand on her hip and the other on the door frame, signaled him with the corner of her eyes to go in with her. ”You oafish, mister I do not want you standing there drooling and blinking like a nitwit bowled over by that fellow’s sugared monologue.”
She was seething. She pushed Esthappen to the wall and thumbed her finger in his chest. “If not for your sake, at least for the sake of my two boys better not forget the vow I took in your name while you were holed up in some goddamn trench in some goddamn jungle eating grass and fighting somebody’s war for all the past four years. Remember your daughter is meant for the church, for the Lord and not for some vagabond whom you think have descended like a messiah.”
The day Ousepachan wed Kochu Maria, the Esthappen household was almost in shambles. Rahel vent her distress and anger on all that she saw. She threw the household goods all around, uprooted the banana plants, deracinated the coconut palms in the small nursery that Estappen maintained, chopped down pepper vines, she flailed the cows and starved the dog. She rubbished Esthappen’s entreaties to be at the Church for the wedding. Disheveled and incessantly wailing Rahel walked about the house like a schizophrenic. She cooked no food. She swore at Esthappen and Kochu Maria. She tore Estappens dhotis and shirts. She ensured utter cluttering and disarray. Her boys wailed and ran behind her tugging her.
Sarah was eighteen and was the first one to discern that there is world beyond the fantasies and gibberish that Esthappan fed her and other children. She sensed that there is a wide and interesting world outside, big cities like Madras , Bombay and yonder. And she was not awed by the quite meaningless existence and life in that little hamlet where they lived.
Sarah was born to Ouspeh and Kochu Maria in the ninth year of their wedding. Kochu Maria believed that she owed the child to the forty one days of novena she did at the Vellankani Church which appeased and pleased the heavens that finally she and Ousepachan begot Sarah, their eldest child. Sarah, named after the wife of Abraham the Biblical patriarch of Israel, (who when Abraham and Sarah remained childless into their old age, took it upon herself to have children through a surrogate, her Egyptian handmaid). Apparently her fervent prayer for a child must have moved God over the top that she begot 6 more children after Sarah!
Sarah often displayed an air of imperiousness. She demanded and ensured that she as the eldest of Ousepachan’s children deserved the best and preference in all matters. Sarah insisted that she be served food first. She chose the biggest chunk of fish Kochu Maria fried for lunch and dinner. Only she got to garnish her rice and lentil with butter that Kochu Maria made whipping the creamy milk from her cow which she otherwise usually sold out. She had her own room, an alcove that she wrested and made an exclusive territory for her and hers alone- her private chamber. She chose the most colourful cloth and the colourful flip-flops Ouspecahan bought for Xmas. She ate almost all the candy that he brought home leaving crumps and tit-bits for the rest. Worst of all she enjoyed the vicarious pleasure while she ate chocolates, the Cadbury bar she bought with the little money she shaves off from the groceries. She enjoyed eating them alone and not sharing with her siblings who stood about drooling like alley cats but fearful of being mauled if they asked for a crump. She sashayed. This display of dominance was a ploy to ensure the obedience and the pliancy of the younger ones. But unbeknownst to her, Sarah desired. She dreamt of a life that is rich, opulent and believed one day she will have servants and butlers waiting upon her and huge estates of land. Cars parked in the porch, huge wrought iron gates with gate keepers. Her parents will not have to break their back and be stressed for meeting ends. She will often take the airplane to distant lands and come back home with exotic gifts. She believed in the dream of possessing.
Esthappen called aside his daughter Kochu Maria one day, few days before he died and he said, presciently, “The domineeringness Sarah shows is partly a ploy and partly her desire to possess. Sarah is a person who will not hesitate to invite hardships and sufferings upon her if that would help the family. For, she will carry the quality of benefaction and caring within her to an extent which will make your family obligated and bound to her for all your life. But even if she desires she will not find a life of comfort and happiness. She will in the end lose her youth and life in search of felicity. Yet, lo and behold sacrifices will never be truly beneficent, can one day extract more than its share of the pound of flesh. But pity the child for she will not know contentment and will be always seeking, stretching her hands to grab the mirage, the rainbow. People who lived by her will purloin her. She will not be shown gratitude. Her birth star is such”.
Sarah was endowed by Nature with qualities that compensated for the average chiseled beauty that she possessed. She had elegance and charm that would beguile any. But she was smitten by traces of hedonism. Sarah decided that she will not coagulate herself in that bottled place, she felt the yearning to fly out into the world. She heard about Bombay and the window of opportunity there, the life in a metropolis! Her hostel mate in the convent the Anglo Indian lass gave her rollicking stories of the city and the possibilities of life she could hit out there. She was ambitious and resolved that whatever may balk she will weather them.
One week-end evening after supper, after the younger ones were sent to their bedroom she confronted Ousepachan and Kochu Maria with her plan to go to Chennai. Her parents were aghast. Ousepachan had a couple of months more to retire. The thought of the loss of income that it will bring about was giving him sleepless nights. With five young mouths to feed, clothe and school, two adult girls and old father what can his wife Kochu Maria do besides what she has been doing all these years, tend to the daily chores at home? But he refused to accept his daughter’s plan. “Sarah, I as your father cannot sit idle and in comfort while my daughter a young woman, who has not seen the world beyond a hundred kilometers from here venture out alone to a strange and far away city. Life is uncertain there, full of pitfalls and danger. Do you know that?”
“ Appacha it is not that mysterious and frightening as you make out. I will be living with a friend, you know the Anglo Indian girl. She has been here last Xmas too. Don’t you remember Ammachi?” She turned excitement dancing in her face to Kochu Maria.
“What do you know of her, her family? All that you know of her is in the few months she was in the school with you. And you decide to hitch your life to her fantasies? She is an Anglo Indian. A chattakari. They are very different from us. They claim to be more English than the English themselves. It doesn’t matter to them what others in the society speak about them.”
“But Appacha, there is nothing to be worried of, besides I will get a job to begin with. She has promised to help me out. You see, her family has been there for a long time now. I could do a secretarial course and move on. The apprehension you have will be short-lived. I assure you that.” Sarah was now using her guile and persuasive tool. Kochu Maria was uncomfortable and was unsure what she should say to dissuade the child. She was not happy with Sarah’s audacity. The looming retirement of her husband was scary though as her daughter’s proposal to travel to foreign lands in search of living. She fervently prayed that the girl gains reason and sense. She was different from the rest. She volunteers to take up responsibilities, she decides on matters that are at hand but the impetuosity of youth can lead to pitfalls. Yet she has been a yoke. Kochu Maria reminisced that time when Sarah ran to fetch the mid-wife in the blinding, rain five kilometers through the hilly terrain in Peeremade early before dawn. Kochu Maria had slipped into labour of her boy Cain and Sarah brought the nurse on the pillion of a bicycle well in time to assist Kochu Maria in her final wailing pushes to get out the child. She was as helpful in assisting in the parturition as the midwife herself. For her three younger children Sarah was like mother except she did not suckle them. How could they as parents let this young girl of eighteen, in fact she is a woman now, travel far away from home alone and live in a strange land with no one responsible to fall upon if need arose?
Ousepachan was grim. “What do you think of us Sarah? That we can sit back idly, listen and enjoy the innuendos and slander people will throw at us for sending alone a young girl to Bombay?” No, certainly not. I will see if we can find you a job with some traders in the kambolam or even in Allapuzha. After all they will need someone who could handle English and their accounts. This is not America or England; this is a tiny village in Kerala. And we are not living in a western society. This is a little small town where even walls and lamp posts breathe, see and talk,”
Sarah, from early childhood developed a close bond with her parents. Though Ousepachan would cane her when she was young for the many infarctions she was adept at, he did not let go a chance or a moment to be reproachful and showered unrestrained affection upon her. But she was aghast at the prospect of having to spend the rest of her life marooned in that tiny village, where people still have medieval mind set and whose lecherous upper caste men folks are a bigger nuisance than the vicissitude and vagaries of life in a distant and foreign land. She was not sure if just being fortuitous is helpful. She shuddered at the prospect of having to run errand or commit to clerical work in the shadowy, smelly, narrow claustrophobic places at one of those many traders in the market.
Ousepahan asked Kochu Maria for a glass of water. He stood up from his chair at the table and went around and held Sarah around her shoulders and caressed her head. Sarah felt she would choke, the nerves from her toes tingled up to her forehead and she felt the blood gush about faster through her veins.
Esthappen coughed and called out from his capacious chair in the verandha. “KochuMariey, Ousephe,. don’t hold her back.”
Sarah stood up and looked pleadingly towards her father. He held her close and kissed her forehead. Sarah looked up into his eyes and her eyes widened seeing her father nod approvingly what her grandfather advised a moment ago. Before she could know she let out an ululation. She heard a muted murmur from her heart. “Really Appacha?”She kissed him in the cheek.
Ousephachan said, “If it is your wish, your destiny, yes my dear. God will be with you my child. I heed to your wish not with a quiet heart, but how can I decline my girl?” He walked towards the verandah and went down the steps, stood in the still night and inhaled a lungful of the cool night air. The wind blew across the paddy fields with a sough. He repeated the inhalation and exhalation as prolonged as he could so that he would not choke uncontrollably. He has never lost to his emotions, not when the children where around. He sensed that the courage and resolve that were his companions in youth seem to have deserted him. The long years of being a beast of burden- the commitments, the daily tussle to bring home bread, ensuring shelter and clothing for his seven children has taken its toll. His orphaned childhood life doing meanly works at workshops, earning about enough to sustain him and his widowed mother; at the young age he had to begin running for errand jobs, an age when kids are cavorting in their adolescent exuberance. Those periods of loneliness, isolation, rejection had whetted him and his resolve. Then his mother died. And suddenly he was left with nobody to call his. He had never known his relatives; his memory of his father was abstract. Later, he could get a permanent job as the errand boy at an automobile workshop owned by a Parsi. That gradually turned around his life. It gave him hope and the old Parsi was good teacher- a master of mechanics and an artful teacher of life. He learned a skill, the skill that would help him walk into any mechanical shop and ask for work. The skill that he mastered required just his hands and mind to finesse work. Tools were only an aid. He could even set up a shack by the road on the highway and offer his skills to earn enough to sustain him. He lived and worked with the Parsi for fifteen years. The Parsi had two sons, the elder a noodle and the younger who was not keen about the greasy business inside of a mechanical workshop. When the Parsi died and his son decided to close shop and move into newer pastures, Ouseph packed his canvas bag slung it across his shoulders and boarded a bus, a bus to nowhere. He did not care to notice the destination the bus would travel. The journey, nevertheless deposited him in the faraway hills of Idukki. There he began his new life. After a few days of wandering about in the town, he could found a job as the mechanical assistant in the workshop of Harrison & Cross Fields Plantation Estate. The life there was to take him to the convent and to Kochu Maria and later, one day he walked into Esthappen’s house boldly and proudly proclaimed that he had the capacity and will to take care of Esthappen’s daughter Kochu Maria, till death does part and hence he ask of him , Esthappen, his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Now, soon in less than two months he will be retired. And he has been feeling for some time now that his knees where buckling, legs going weak. He looked up to the sky; the sky was undefiled by clouds and clear. The stars where twinkling or where they winking at him? The Southern Cross was in the south west horizon as he walked through the gate towards the fields; he needed some time alone, to himself. The soft and billowing green fecund paddy fields had a lambent shade in the dark blanket of nox.
Ousepachan walked along the hedge in the paddy field towards the, the althara where the ancient Kalvilakku stood now for years. The solitary electric bulb on the leaning wooden post near the Kalvilakku emitted a hazy light. Did he yield to Sarah’s entreaties rather soon? Was he being a nincompoop, a careless father? She is just past eighteen and going on nineteen, Is he doing her justice by letting her go? Is he being too cushy a father, acquiescing to a daughter’s wish? Or is he being selfish? Is he foisting on her his burdens? What if she would one day accuse him of letting her wade into the squelch of life before she knew what life was about? What if she accused him of not being a persuasive and caring father to discourage her, talked her out of intemperance and the impertinence of youth? Yes, he will be jobless in a couple of months. He will be sixty in a month and with profuseness of jobless young walking around in desperation, young people who are willing to work for lesser wages and put in longer hours if need be, which employer would fancy a middle-aged man? His retirement savings were already spent in buying the land and putting up the house. He was unsure of how his pension would suffice in meeting the needs of the house.
Ouseph sat on the dark rough granite steps of the althara and looked into the horizon. It was dark yonder as dark as his thoughts. It will be a sometime before day breaks with streaks multi coloured linings and like a kaleidoscopic canvas. The lush leaves of the pipal tree hustled and rustled in the wind. But mundane thoughts continued to perturb him.
It was his decision to ask Kochu Maria to politely decline her father’s offer of sharing his land with her and Rahel. “You should not accept heirloom from your father. Your foster mother and her children are the rightful heirs to that. I did not think of, nor did I enquire about your father’s wealth when I asked him your hand, because, my wealth is my will and the limbs God provided me to achieve my will- to work. God willing we will have enough to live.” People who knew Ouspepachan , scoffed at his bêtise. They decided he was naïve and blathering. Some of them warned him that he was being a dullard by declining his wife’s rightful share of her father’s estate. They advised him he should understand that he has seven children and five are girls. Where is he going to found the money to secure their future if he brushes aside what was coming to him rightfully?
He could not decide if he was hasty in the face of Sarah’s doggedness. Is he being mentally enervated? He cannot tell what Kochu Maria would make of all this, his decision. Will she think that he was weak and not caring? Why did he not discuss with her? Perhaps he should have let the subject lie and slept over it! The excitement in the girl would have ebbed and she would have cast away the fantasy. Maybe Sarah is right her life should not be tethered to the morass of this village. But yet…!
The shriek of a Screech Owl coupled with the frightened squeaking of a filed mouse from somewhere near in the fields woke Ousepachan out of the slumber and the wanderings of his mind. He could not tell how long he slept on the althara. It was quite late in to the night, must be past midnight. The stars have moved their positions. New constellations were in place. Nothing is constant. Movement is inevitable to survive and when you cease to move you are as good as dead- quietus! He began to walk back home in slow, measured steps. A veil of mist had fallen low over the fields like gossamer silk. There was slight nip in the air. The sough of the wind persisted. When he turned in the direction of his house, he saw the shimmering lone light in the verandah. As he entered through the wired gate, there was rustling in the stables. Daisy was awake and has noticed him come back. The bells on her neck jingled. “Calm down Daisy some hours to go before Kochu Maria is ready to milk you”, he mused. Kaiser must have dozed off tonight or he must be in the backyard sniffing rats in their boroughs.
“Why did you risk the chill, outside? Do you know what time it is? It is well past 2’o clock. If you have not come now, I wanted to send Able to fetch you from the althara.” Kochu Maria was awake all this while. She never sleeps until Ouspeachan was in bed and he slept. He could not remember a day in their lives when she was not awake until after he slid into sleep and he cannot imagine of a day when she is not around to wake him at dawn.