Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Presence of Mind

North Malabar in the dawn of the 20th century. Koodali and Kallyad were two small villages about twelve miles apart. There was no transport those days and you had to walk from one village to the other. To add to the woes, there was a gang of thugs which frequented the route. They were particularly active in late evenings and early mornings. Small groups were particularly vulnerable. Solitary passengers never passed that way between dusk and dawn. The thugs would pounce upon the unwary passenger and rob him of whatever gold he wore or money he had.

Damu and Kelu, about the same age, were cousins from Koodali. They got married within the space of six months of each other. The similarity did not end there: their wives too were related to each other. They were: second cousins hailing from Kallyad.

Damu was a school teacher by profession. Contrary to custom, even after his marriage, Damu continued to stay in his own home, as Koodali was closer than Kallyad to Damu’s school. He would spend the weekends in his wife’s house. Kelu was in business. He would buy cash crops like coconut, arecanut, pepper and cashew and sell then in the nearest town. He would offer an advance, and make a token payment, to have a lien on a year’s crop in a coconut grove or on all the areca in a plot. Or he would acquire the right to a season’s cashew by making an advance payment.

It was the practice of every such businessman not to pay the contracted amount in full. Payment would be made in bits and pieces and at the end of the year, some excuse would be offered for not making the full payment. Typical excuses were: the quality of the crop was poor, the quantity was less than expected, the season was short because the rains came too soon, the summer was severe and tender coconuts dropped, causing great financial loss. He would normally get away by paying no more than eighty percent of the amount originally agreed to.

Damu, the school master, had inherited some land and the savings from his salary helped him acquire more. In a particular year, Kelu offered an advance to Damu in exchange of the right for the crop of coconut in the ensuing year. A firm believer in the dictum that doing business with a friend will terminate the friendship, Damu promptly refused. He said, “If the full amount is not paid, I can quarrel with Mammu Haji. Can I do that with you?”

Kelu was insistent. When some senior relatives intervened, Damu had to relent. Finally, they arrived at a satisfactory solution acceptable to both. The full amount would be paid in advance. Soon, word spread in the village that Kelu had contracted for Damu’s crops for Rs 500 (which was a lot of money in the 1920’s).

But then when the day of reckoning came, Kelu was short of funds: He had only Rs 450 with him. Kelu assured Damu that the shortfall of Rs 50 would be made good before Onam when the sale proceeds of the first plucking of the year would flow in. That sounded reasonable and Damu agreed.

It was a Friday evening. Damu was on his way to his wife’s village. There was a lurking fear in his mind: the thugs. Still he mustered courage and quickened his pace, determined to cross the den of the thugs before they took charge. A couple miles on, he saw a figure ahead of him. If he could catch up with him, he thought, the two would be more formidable than his lone self. So he walked faster. Soon he realised that his pace-setter was none other than Kelu. He called out. Kelu was also on his way to Kallyad to his wife’s house. He was returning from the market after selling some goods.

They walked together, exchanging news and comparing notes, each secretly hoping that they would not encounter the thugs. They did not give vent to that hope because they were afraid the fear might be contagious.

As luck would have it, three hefty men, moustachioed and menacing, loomed large before them. Now there was no escape, the two friends realised.

“Remove your rings!” one of the thugs ordered, while the other two grabbed the victims to ensure that they would not run away.

Damu and Kelu rid their fingers of their wedding rings.

“Out with the money!” was the next command.

While the poor school teacher fished in his bag for the small notes and loose change, Kelu took a couple of notes from the folds of his dhoti around his waist and thrust it into Damu’s hand: “Here is the 50 I owe you!”

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