Thursday, May 07, 2009

Lead, Kindly Light

Nanu Nair and Chacko were bosom pals. Nearly the same age, they lived close by in a Malabar village. While Nanu Nair was a native, Chacko’s parents had migrated from faraway Travancore in the early 1920’s. They had bought a parcel of land close to the homestead of Nanu Nair’s parents. The migrants were hardworking. They cleared the wild growth and cultivated tapioca, bananas and coconut. They were thrifty and invested the surplus in more land where rubber was planted. In a couple of decades, the two families were on par in their economic (and hence) social status.

The two friends had studied in the same school. After schooling, Nanu Nair inherited the Village Adhikari’s job from his father. Chacko worked for a few years in his father’s farm. That was when the Second World War broke out and the army started massive recruitment. Chacko took a break from agriculture and his wife Mariamma to join the army. This stint took him to several places within and outside India, introduced him to different climes and people and exposed him to new experiences.

Chacko had to return to the village when his father expired because there was nobody else to attend to the farm. So, after two decades of service in the army, he sought and was granted superannuation. Nanu Nair was delighted that Chacko was returning to the village for good. They could spend the evenings in each other’s company reminiscing of their school days, discussing everything under the sun and considering the riddles of the world.

Soon, a pattern emerged. During the day, they would be busy in their own farms, but, in the evening, the two would, after a wash, amble towards the village market. After a while, they would walk back and end up in the house of one of them where they would be in each other’s company till dinner-time.

Chacko would narrate his exploits in Burma or the warfront in Mongolia and Nanu would be all ears, as if hearing it for the first time. Nanu Nair would recite romantic poems by popular poets like Changampuzha or the naughty couplets of Venmony. Mariamma or Devaki Amma, depending on which house the pals happened to be in on the day, would be at a respectable distance, eavesdropping and enjoying their conversation.

The two pals were similarly placed in nearly all aspects. Both had retired from service, were reasonably well off, and respected in the society. Both had their pension to supplement the income from the farm. Their children held small government jobs in the nearby town. They were married and would visit the parental homes when the schools would close. But for those occasional reunions, it was just the old man and his wife in the respective houses.

There was one difference, though. And it was a major difference. Apart from pension, Chacko had access to the military canteen where he could pick up stuff at prices much lower than the market rates. As a retired soldier, he was entitled to a couple of bottles of liquor too. Chacko would cater to the needs of his friend’s household, much to the gratitude of Devaki Amma.

Come the first of every month, Nanu Nair and Chacko would catch the bus to the town, go to the treasury to collect the pension, head to the canteen to collect the provisions and return by noon. The provisions included the liquor that was Chacko’s due.

Unlike other evenings, Chacko would not step out. Nanu Nair would proceed towards his friend’s house where they would share a drink sitting on the bench in the sit-out lit by the hurricane lamp suspended from the the ceiling. Nanu Nair would listen, for the nth time, to Chacko’s narration of his exploits in Burma or the warfront in Mongolia.

This happened in one of the monsoon months. It had rained hard throughout the day. The pensioners could leave for the treasury only by half past eleven. By the time they returned their routine in the town, it was three in the afternoon and it was still drizzling. By late evening, there was a let-up in the rain.

Chacko was waiting for him as Nanu Nair walked to the friend’s house, his feet wet from the raindrops on the blades of grass. Chacko went in and re-emerged, with the bottle of firewater in his right hand. As if on cue, Mariamma appeared with two glasses and a jug of water. The usual recital of poems, recounting of stories and jokes followed.

Though it was getting late, there was no sign of the friends winding up the session. Mariamma who was feeling sleepy after the day’s chores, took leave of them and went to bed, telling Chacko that his dinner had been laid. The two friends traded some smutty jokes and by the time they decided to call it a day, it was half past ten. Both were sozzled.

Though it was not raining, the sky was overcast. The night was dark. (Did I say this was in the 1960s when the village had not yet been electrified, not to speak of street lights?) Chacko offered his flashlight to Nanu Nair.

‘I know my way about,’ replied Nanu Nair, declining the thoughtful offer.

‘There may be reptiles on the way,’ cautioned said Chacko and insisted, ‘Carry this lantern. You can return it tomorrow.’

As the footsteps of Nanu Nair receded, Chacko asked him, ‘Is the light enough? Can you see the ground you are walking on?

‘Oh, yes. Very well.’

‘Still, be careful. Better safe than sorry.’


The next morning, the sight Devaki Amma saw in her sit-out surprised her. What was Mariamma’s pet parrot in its cage doing in this house?

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