Friday, September 3, 2021

OLD Town BY THE SEA


 Those days I lived with my husband’s parents in their ancestral home in the village. A tiny hamlet tucked up a couple of kilometers from the sea - the way the crow flew, and dotted with coconut palms, Jack, Cashew and Mango trees. An old town and serene little place by the sea! A 17th century Portugese construct church and not far away a Devi temple stood as symbols of social amity, if I may. I wondered why my husband’s parents chose to settle down in that place where they were but only about half dozen families from their own Muslim community.Nevertheless my father-in law turned out to be a succesfull business man and highly respected human being.No one noticed or cared that he always sported a skull cap or well groomed goatty beard,and unfailingly went to the ancient little masjid for five namaz each day, and they were not used to identify his faith then. They were personal, peripheral and incosnpicuous. My father- in-law was simply Kochukunju Musaliar to the village folks. Nothing more nothing less!There were no muizins balaring out through loud speakers, and the six families took turns to announce the call for prayer.  The gulf boom brought with it migaration and  today we see quite a few neo rich Muslims who bought land in the village and flaunting their petro-dollar wealth . That also brought with it a new mosque and its fancy and unaesthetic ornamentaion. How could they resist being content with an ancient Masjid that is as spartan,nondescript and silent though an enduring symnbol like the ancinet temple or the gothic church?. My father- in- law’s objection to having muizins announce prayers through a loud speaker was ignored. They shouted down his question why a loud speaker, a prochronism during the Prophet’s time  when the purists insit life must be pedantic to the dictations of the Koran and the Hadith. The Gulf money spoke and they funded the new mosque.

That goes about as the introduction to the old town near the sea.

 As a dutiful daughter-in-law I chose to stay back with my husband’s parents , while he worked in the city about hundred kilometers away and came home over weekends.The little place with its laid back life and perenially flowing river - its waters gleaming like silver in the mid morning sun, the dragon flies and colourful butterflies, the birds flaunting their musical notes, the street dogs who wag their tails vigorously and followed you,the dense sacred grove near the temple which is awe to me and erie to a few,the gentle ring of temple bells at dusk announcing deeparadhana, and the spirit of Christ that I could see on the ancient church, all, were too dear to leave behind for a city life.My love for my husband was not less than the love for the old town by the sea. But it may  have seem wiered for few others.He, my spouse was happy I took care of his parents and I eagerly awaited his return on weekneds, though we both  missed each other on many other days.

 I have the habit of going out for walk immediately after sunrise ,something that which I carried from my schooling days in the Jesuist school in Ootty.                                    The gentle nip in the morning air was plesant and I did not notice him, until he, a  man of about 70 caught up with me. He was a bit short of breath and may have been trying to catch up with my brisk walking. I have  often spoted him stand at the gate of the house near the post-office, its fa├žade reeking with Gulf money.

 “ Haa young woman , I haven’t noticed you in these parts. Are you a vistor here?”

I smiled like I would to an elderly acquaintace or relative and said, “No, I live here.”

His avancular expression was  noticeable. “ Oh, old man that I’m do not remember seeing you. By the way which household dear?”

“I’m Kochukunju Musaliar’s daughter in law.”

 “Oh , oh I see, I see. Pardon me my dear. I was living in my ancestoral home in Ranni and after the partition my nephews threw me out, ungraetful scoundrels you see.The had no qualms in telling me. ‘Ouseph velliappa now get out. You have nothing to do here.’ Luckily Clara is in Kuwait, ye she is a nurse- you see , my son’s wife and she bought 15 cents land and build this house for me and  Chackochi. We moved in a few years ago. Haa,  I get it, now, and your husband did not join you for  the morning? Lazing in bed young fellow, tired of the night’ acrobatics , I guess.” He made a chuckle and winked while he said that.I did not notice that he had managed to arrest my walk.

“No, my husband works in the town and comes back only on weekends.”I said feeling a liitle awkward.

“Oh , goodnes, save this girl holy Mary mother of God.” He looked heavenward and then he continued. “How  unkind of your husband to leave you an young woman alone here!”

“ No, no, I’m not alone, I live with my father and mother-in-law.I take care of them.”

 “ No, no, dear. That is unfair. An young woman,will have fantsaies and goodness me,now see you can enjoy the nuptial bliss only a day or so in a week.! Good Lord how do you manage my dear?” He winked and chuckled.

I was quite uneasy and was swiftly on guard.

“What?”

“Ha, Oh you know what I mean. The acrobatics with your husband can happen only over weekends. That is a pity dear.”

 I was incensed , I ignored him and began to walk fast as I could. Surprisingly he was abreast of me.

“ Dear how do you tolerate this unkindness.. you see if female vagina is untouched for long it sews up tight  naturally.” He winked again and the repulsive chuckle followed.

I stopped and turned looking him in the eyes. ” Look, stranger. I do not know you, and do not care to know either.Now, what is your problem here? It is my life and my privacy. You shouldn’t be concerned about it let alone come up to me from nowhere , ask such outrageous questions and make unsolicited suggestions.”

 “Dear , dear . Did I offend you. Just see it as an avancular concern of this old man Ouseph.”

 “Do you know this is stalking and what can happen to you if I report this? Please stay away , there are people to be concerened about me. I do not need you.”

 I walked fast more in anger and utterly annoyed. How dare he come up and strike such conversation. Ouspeh, He said! I went past the Church and worshippers were walking out after the mass. I stopped, and looked back.I turned towards the street leading to my home.I was panting and exhausted more out of seething anger.

 Standing under the shower , cold well water flowing over me, it did little to calm my annoyance and nerves. I barely managed to eat an iddly and even before my mother- in-law could ask something I was out on the street walking towards the church. I gate crashed into the small parish meeting.

“ I want to talk to the priest - the Father? “I said breathlessly.

It was then that I noticed that it was the same old man Ouseph I was addressing. That group of a dozen parishshoners, looked t me with curioisty. I repeated my demand  with firmness. “ Where is the Father. I want to speak to him.”

“Oh my dear young woman, what brings Kochukunju Muslaiar’s daughter in law in to this church?” said a parishoner.

 “ I want to speak to the Priest? “ I repeated .

 “My dear girl, Father has retired to his chambers after the morning mass. If there is something we can do for you dear , tell us.”

 “I can stay put, till he is back”. I moved and fell into a vaccant chair.

 The more I think of  the morning and that old man’s smirkfull face , I began to shiver with anger. I woke up from a trance when a warm hand fell on my shoulders and my chin was lifted . Mariamma Chettathi was looking into my eyes quite concerned.

“ What is it my little girl. Fathima’s daughter in law is mine too. What ails you? If there is something we could do, we should not wait fror the priest.”

 “But how could that be so? She is not a parishoner. And non parishoner  that too from another community sitting here itself is not appropriate.” That was one Sebastin Muthalali who  has the  department store in the village. He  returned from Kuwait a few years ago.

 “Thangal Kunju Muslaiar’s daughter in law need not be member of the parish. For all these years this church has enjoyed all his benevolence. Mariamma chettathi ask her if we could do something for her.” An elderly man intoned and silenced Sebastin muthalali.

  I told them what happened in the morning. But by then he old man Ouseph had sneaked away.

“ I want the Father to be present. I’ll wait for him or I will  go to the police.”

The alatar man  a lean scrawny figure shouted from the door to the priest’s chamber . “ Atchan has gone to town. He left a few minutes ago. Won’t be back till late evening.”

“ Haa that is not surprising. He must have sneaked out hearing all this.When has the Father ever handled an issue. Is it not his creed to escape such situations.” Mariamma Chettathi was candid.

“ Koche, don’t you know it is common for men to pass lighthearted comments? If you begin to take up every word and utterances there will be no time left in a day to pursue other important matters.” I did not care to see who among that motely group said that.

“ Mariamma Chettathi will you come with me to the man’s house?”

I asked  and soon a small group volunteered to join me, albeit reluctantly and after strong persuasion from Mariamma Chettathi.  

 Sebastin Muthalllali said he had to open up his store and cannot be wasting time on frivilous  matters. “ My girl think twice before making these little  issues big. Won’t do any good to your family honour and pride. Besides the matter will blow up  into issue between two communities. You may have to bear the brunt.”

“Yes , girls should not be this obstinate . This is arrogance. Let these things pass.” I looked towards the man who said that, and he cast his eyes down not meeting my gaze.

 The small group walked to Ouseph’s house. As we entered the gates we could se the old man reclining in his chair on the verandha reading the morning news paper.

A man of about 40 came out  smiling . “ Yes, yes welcome welcome the parish committee is out early today on fund collection I suppose.”

“ Nothing to do with fund collection. It is about Appachan, your father.”The elderly man in the group announced.

“What about him?” asked the son, a bit curious and surprised.

I moved to the verandha and said.” Appacha why don’t you please come out for a moment?”

 Ouseph timidly looked at me and  cast his eyes down and without looking at me he muttered feebly “What my dear girl? What can I do for you?”

“ Appacha. Now why don’t you tell  these folks what you spoke to me this morning?”

“My girl, I’m old as your grandfather.”I could barely hear him.

“Yes Appacha. That is what stopped me back from slapping you, your age.”

“ Ha Ousephe, is it true what she says? Surely you know why we all are here.All said and done , what you said to her was too gross. You ought to have thought about the holy sacrament you take  before being so offensive and indecent and that to a girl who is just as old as your grand child. Shameful!”

 “ Oh yes daily, this Appachan passes sleazy comments at me. I told my husband but he is always asking me to ignore it and not make an issue.” The middle aged woman who made that observation then  glanced at her husband and a teenage girl who were curiously watching the proceedings from the neighbouring house ,across the compund wall.

“ See that is what embolden people like this appachan. Your husband ought to be ashamed. Don’t you folks have a girl child growing up? Will he  advise the same to her when someone tries this on her?” I could see the man’s head from  over the compound wall go down, and the expressionless face of his daughter.

 “Ouseph , it won’t help if you sit quiet like this. Tell yes or no if what this girl says are true.” The senior in the group said.

 Ouseph was sitting expressionless both palms supporting his head, his eyes cast down.Obviously unable to meet our eyes. That pitful  image seemed to be melting my fury inside, I could not but pity that miserable old creature. He sat there like a cornored old stag, its antlers broke and hanging.I turned to the son said, “ Chetta , who else is with Appachan besides you?”

 “ What has that got to do with this drama ?”

“ Old age and lonliness Chetta. You have avenues to entertain and make merry, obviously friends too. But think of the old . There is no one to talk to , to express their feelings , some banter and fun.”

”Koche what are you trying to tell? I don’t take care of my father?”

“ Chetta , please do not be presumptuous. Did I say so?”

“Then what. Clara sends bank draft every month. She sends it in his name , she dosen’t trust me  with money , that stupid woman. Every day, three or four times he can have sumptuous food. Every day mutton , beef and fish. He even gets brandy bottles twice a month from town. He has televison and cable. What more should I give a parent. You folks can easily conclude . I  take care of my father very well. Now don’t expect me to sit by his feet and massage all day.”

  “ Chetta . Appachan’s silence itself tells the story of what he said, what happened this morning and how he spends each day. See this Chechi too has her story to tell. Who knows how many other folks will have similar embarrassments! It is is your parent. It is only kindness and gratitude if you undesrtood their feelings and old age. I’ve nothing more to say.” And I turned and walked.

  He shouted behind me.“ Koche, you see it is quite natural for men to crack some jokes. Women must be able to laugh it away.”

 “ Haa, all hear wonderful son !” Mariamma Chettathi hollored more in angush and anger.

 He continued.“I see you  folks are determined to slander my father. When some stupid, mad woman brought up a  false story about my father the whole parish thought it fit to come along. How can you be not sure that this woman  did not court my father. After all he type of women are capable of enticing and enchanting  decent men, even old men. I won’t be surprised if she did that. Look at  what she wears.”

I almost lost my bearings ,I stopped in my track and gathering my wit I moved up to him – glaring and looking him in the eye, I said. “ Yes, you can call me a slut. Isn’t that the easiest way of defense you men know. I have been warned that if I make  an issue of this it will hurt me , my respectability and family’s status. So be it. Brother, I understand your wife works in the Gulf  and sends you money so that you and this Appachan could built this bungalow and live merrily. Did your Appachan not tell you that if your wife did not have regular sex , her vagina might get sewed up naturally? He warned me this morning.So better take care my friend.”

 I turned around and walked back leaving behind a thrilled Marimma Chettathi as I could see from her face, and obviously a stunt son. The rest of the group may have stared at my receding figure.

 

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