Ayyappan fidgeted with his goat as he stood outside the classroom. His dung coloured face acted as a natural camouflage and Harinarayana Iyyer, the turbaned English teacher had no idea that a pulaya boy was listening in on his class. Ayyappan continued to scratch the back of Lakshmi, the she-goat, with his long fingers.
“Shh,” he said and put a finger to his lips.
It was imperative to keep her quiet. Then he placed his hand on the half-wall of the class so that the teacher’s voice sounded loud and clear. The June rains had not arrived. No doubt Muthiyamma was displeased. The black fowl sacrifice had not been conducted. The pulayas had starved and there had been nothing left over for the Goddess. The heat in the tile roofed classroom drew jigsaws of sweat on the bare torsos of the pupils. Harinarayana Iyyer recited ‘Daffodils’ with pride; as if he had written it himself in his spare time. A kuduma nodded rhythmically in a corner as its owner gave himself up to sleep. Even as Harinarayana Iyyer recited the poem, he excavated his nose with his right forefinger rolled the mucous into a ball with the aid of his thumb and flicked it. Ayyappan watched the tiny ball arch over upturned heads and land on the nose of the dozing boy. The boy woke up with a start. The pupils muffled their laughter for Harinaraaya Iyyer was a cane virtuoso.
Harinarayana Iyyer continued, “When oft upon the couch I lie….”.
None of the pupils had seen a daffodil in their lives. Nor had Ayyappan. He admired Wordsworth for being able to lie on a couch. There was no couch in his thatched home. No tables or chairs either. His father had a string cot and Ayyappan and his seven siblings indulged in the rough and tumble game of ‘who gets the cot’, when father went out.
Lakshmi bleated. Ayyappan’s hands clamped down on Lakshmi’s mouth. Too late. Harinarayana Iyyer looked up. A whirlpool of dread tugged at Ayyappan’s heart. Harinarayana Iyyer paused. The daffodils exerted a strong grip on him and he continued with his recitation. Phew. Vikraman the landlord’s son stood up, right under Harinarayana Iyyer’s nose.
“Saar, that pulaya, Ayyappan is listening to your class,” he said , his voice ringing with righteousness.
“Siva, Siva,” said the boy who had been woken up by Harinarayana Iyyer’s missile.
An ululation ran through the class. Harinarayana Iyyer’s fingers closed around the cane on the table. He strode out. The pupils stood on the benches and stared out.
“Lakshmi, run,” said Ayyappan.
Lakshmi stood on her hind limbs and nibbled on a subabul leaf. Harinarayana Iyyer closed in on him like an engine of wrath.
“Muthiyamma , save Lakshmi and me,” cried Ayyappan.
Ayyappan tugged at the coir collar round Lakshmi’s neck. Must protect Lakshmi. Ayyappan hugged the goat .The cane flashed and fell on Ayyappan’s bare back.
“Aaah,” said Ayyappan.
The goat bleated. Vikraman laughed. The cane rose and fell. Pain seared the boy’s spine. The goat leapt up and ran away. Ayyappan rose awkwardly and ran after the goat. Harinarayana Iyyer threw the cane away.
“Waste of a cane. Can’t use this again”. He cursed himself for not beating the goat instead of the boy.
Ayyappan came home with the goats. He lay on the boulder that dwarfed his home, and watched the twinkling eyes of the night. The warmth of the day tarried in the boulder and soothed the bruises on his back. His fingers felt the familiar roughness of the rock. A breeze glided over the paddy fields and rose up the boulder. Ayyappan breathed in the smell of dry earth. He sighed. A song rose from his cracked lips.
“Grain mounds rise in the landlord’s place,
Misery mounts in the pulaya’s hut…”
“Shut up, Ayyappan,” his mother shouted from their hut.
“I was just making up a song,” said Ayyappan.
“Song! The landlord’s men will burn our hut down, if they hear your silly song,” she said.
The girl baby at her breast let out a high pitched wail. She hugged the baby tightly so that it had no breath left to cry and rocked it with undue violence. The baby closed her eyes in defeat and slept. She laid the sleeping baby in the ragged cloth cradle that hung from the arecanut rafter. She lifted the plaited coconut leaf door of the hut and pottered to the boulder.
“Ayappan. Why can’t you be like your brothers? Even your younger brother is better than you. All you do is graze the goats. You don’t even do that properly. Give them proper grazing or they won’t put on meat. And don’t take them out to graze near the school”.
“The goat kids like me,” said Ayyappan.
“That shows you are a complete idiot. Ayyappan, food is the most important thing in the world. Never forget that”.
“Yes Amma,” said Ayyappan in a low voice.
There was no use arguing with Amma when she was in such a mood. Better stay put. Amma was quite handy with the cane herself, though not quite in the Harinarayana Iyyer class. The snores of Ayyappan’s father disturbed the silence of the night. What did he have for dessert tonight? Toddy, Ayyappan decided. Ganja made him sing. And tonight he was snoring.
Darkness shrouded the dawn even as Ayyappan made his way to the pond; the pond by the paddy fields where they bathed the elephants before the pooram - temple festival. Ayyappan nearly stepped on a long-handled sickle that lay by the side of the pond. Thambu, the velichappad - oracle - was in the pond. Muthiyamma’s grace.
“Namaskaram velichappad,” said Ayyappan in a familiar yet deferential tone.
“Oh Ayyappan, you are surprisingly early ,” said the Velcihappad and shook the water from his long hair.
Ayappan smiled. “How is your knee, Velichappad?” Ayyappan knew that Thambu liked to be asked about his knee.
“The knee will hold up. I must dance whenever Muthiyamma wants me to. Never mind the swelling on my knee.”
He donned a belt and the brass bells on it jingled.
“Vikraman got me into trouble with Harinarayana Iyyer saar, yesterday. Saar caned me,” said Ayyappan.
He touched a bruise on his bare back.
“You mean Thrivikraman Namboothiri’s son; the one who studies in the Kuruvipadam school?” asked Thambu.
“Yes,” said Ayyappan.
Thambu tossed his head and a fine spray of water drops fell on Ayyappan. “Vikraman has got talent.”
“Oh,” said Ayyappan , “I thought he had only money.”
“No Ayyappan. Vikraman is a poet. His poems appear in magazines. Not those cheap two anna ones that everyone reads. Real literary magazines. And he is only in the seventh standard,” said Thambu.
“A real poet,” said Ayyappan. He was willing to forgive a poet anything. Well almost anything.
“You are dreaming again,” said Thambu, “Got to dance before Muthiyamma at dusk. The black fowl will be killed today”.
Thambu splashed out of the pond with a glug-glug of the water.
That night, black clouds answered the summons and rain fell again on Kuruvipadam. The frogs croaked in the fields again. The pulayas’ huts leaked rain but they didn’t mind that for the rain brought life to Kuruvipadam. The paddy would dance in the rain and give grain that would fill aching bellies. The harvest songs would rise to the stone temple on the hillock where Muthiyamma lived. The pulayas would carry the precious sheaves of paddy on their bare backs to the ancient houses of the landlords spread over the base of the hillock. Kuruvipadam High School, the domain of Harinaryana Iyyer, the demi god, was positioned in the midst of the landlords’ houses near Muthiyamma’s temple, as far away as possible from the pulayas’ huts by the fields.
Seasons costumed Kuruvipadam and marched by bowing to the will of Muthiyamma. Vikraman’s poems acquired depth and gravitas. He became a heroic figure in Kuruvipadam but the big awards eluded him. Folk talked of a conspiracy hatched to deny him greatness. Who hatched the conspiracy? The names of several leading poets were bandied about. Vikraman was a victim of the conspiracy. Of that, the folk of Kuruvipadam were sure.
Ayyappan acquired a hut of his own. When a pulaya acquires a hut of his own, Muthiyamma blesses him with a wife. So it was in the case of Ayyappan. Neeli came into Ayyappan’s hut on an auspicious day. She wore her dowry; a silver nose ring. Ayyappan was attracted by her big bones. They would come in handy on the paddy fields. On that first night he stood shyly in the light of a flickering oil lamp. Neeli came up to Ayyappan and embraced him. Her soft tongue probed the roughness of Ayyappan’s mouth. Ayyappan was excited and surprised at her forthrightness. A delightful lightness filled Ayaapan and he flew with Neeli into a rainbow world.
Later when they came back to earth, Ayyappan stroked Neeli’s long hair and asked her, “Tell me dear, what do you like most in this world?”
Neeli’s jaggery-brown eyes opened slowly.
“Vikraman’s poetry,” she said and let out a little sigh.
Ayyappan wished that she was not as forthright as this. Ayappan had created three harvest songs, they could well be poems, but now he decided against singing them at harvest time.
Kanni, the month of the rains came but the rich dark clouds stayed away. Neeli looked at the sky through a gap in the thatch and shook her head.
“Don’t worry dear,” said Ayyappan “The black fowl sacrifice will bring the rains”.
“Thambu did sacrifice a fowl last week. Your Amma told me but the rains have not come,” said Neeli .
“Oh,” said Ayyappan, “now they will do the pooja in Muthiyamma’s temple. Then the velichapad will dance to find what Muthiyamma wishes”.
“Really,” said Neeli, “I have never seen the dance before”.
Thambu’s hair did a frenzied dance. He swayed this way and that like a coconut tree caught in a hurricane. His swollen knee shot up signals of pain but Thambu had become Muthiyamma. Pain would not touch him. The crowd of onlookers drew back from the red- clad figure that brandished the long handled sickle at the evening sky and danced in widening circles. The brass bells on his belt clanged. Ayyappan had never seen Thambu in such a state. Sweat blurred the velichappad’s eyes but he saw a strange vision through the sweat. His pupils dilated. Thambu brought down the sickle on his forehead and came to a stop. Blood trickled down his face and mingled with the sweat. He made an incoherent noise.
Then he said in a startlingly loud voice, “Honour my poet. Bhagavathy has spoken”.
Three days later Vikramanan of Kuruvippadam hosted a ten-curry feast in anticipation of an award. Harinarayana Iyyer was the chief guest. However, a week went by without a sign of the fertile rain bearing clouds. Ayyappan lay in his hut and stroked Neeli’s hair.
“The rains have not come dear”
“I know,” said Neeli.
She ran a finger over her silver nose ring. Would she have to sell it? A sound like that of thunder reached them. Was it rain? Ayyappan jumped up and raised the thatch door of their hut. The sun shone brightly and Ayyappan shaded his eyes. A long procession was winding its way over the bunds of the paddy fields to his little hut.
Neeli hugged Ayyappan, “What have you done?” she asked.
Her eyes betrayed a glimmer of fear. Ayyappan’s heart beat faster. He caught sight of the velichappad at the head of the procession. In a minute the procession poured into Ayyappan’s little courtyard. Amma was there in the crowd. She wiped a tear from her eye with a dirty finger. Thambu stepped forward and embraced Ayyappan.
“What?” Ayyappan asked.
A garland of jasmines fell on his shoulders. Great sheets of rain fell on Kuruvippadam that night. A song rose in Ayyappan’s heart. He did not choke it. The real poet of Kuruvippadam.
Vestin Verghese is a writer . A magazine editor at school and winner of writing prizes at University, Vestin Verghese went on to write for newspapers and magazines. He was a winner of the Times of India ‘Funny Valentine contest’. He wrote for the Youth Express and was columnist for City Journal. He has written for Magic Pot and Tell Me Why; the latter won the National award for scientific communication in 2015. His children’s novel is expected to hit the stores in the coming year. He may be reached at [email protected].
Narcissus image courtesy: vintagefieldandgarden.com