Thursday, January 05, 2017

A Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma

A RIDDLE WRAPPED IN AN ENIGMA

Nobody knew how Swamy came to live with us.

He was discovered one morning by my grandfather when he woke up at five as usual and opened the main door of the house to step out. In the blur of the setting moon, he noticed the human figure lying on the floor at the far end of the open verandah. He went in, fetched a lantern and came back to find out who the uninvited guest was.

Deep asleep was a man in his mid-fifties. The lanky frame was clad in nothing except a thorth (thin white bath-towel used in Kerala). He had not shaved for a month and it looked as though he had not had a square meal for several days. Grandpa's first reaction was to wake him up and interrogate him. He overcame the instinct and decided to allow him to sleep for as long as he wanted to.

In thirty minutes, grandpa was back, after his bath and coffee. He sat in the easy chair in the verandah and bridged its arms with the writing plank. After lighting the kerosene table lamp on the table beside, he carefully placed the inkpot and the steel pen (or dip pen - how many of us remember this predecessor to the fountain pen?) somewhere in the right half of the plank. Soon he was engrossed in his work. The project on hand was the 'vrittaaanuvritta, padaanupada tarjima' - metre-to-metre, word-to-word translation - of Kalidasa's Abhijnaana Shaakuntalam into Malayalam. (This work would be published later with an introduction by the redoubtable Sardar K M Panicker and paid rich encomiums by none less than Vallathol Narayana Menon, the Titan of Malayalam literature.)

In a little over an hour, the rays of the rising sun woke up our guest. He opened his eyes, sat up and smiled at my grandfather, who smiled back. His answers to grandpa's queries about him were vague or philosophical, depending on how one looked at it. What is your name? 'People call me Swamy because I sport a beard and recite stotras and shlokas. They think I am a saint,' he replied. Where did he belong to? Sagely, he replied, 'One belongs to a place this moment and to another the next. Can anyone say with certainty that he belongs to a particular place?' Any relatives? Saying 'Everyone in this world is related to me,' Swamy walked towards the pond for a bath.

When he returned, he was in the same thorth, only, it was wet. Grandpa asked grandma to get a mundu (dhoti) for Swamy, but he declined. Get me another thorth, he said. I wear only a thorth. He demanded a cup of tea. He sipped it, visibly enjoying the beverage, humming some folk song.

Around half past seven, grandpa got up and went to the vegetable garden where he used to grow brinjals and okras, chillies and string beans, flat peas and tapioca, plantains and the like. Making the beds for the plants, removing the weeds, plucking the dead leaves and watering them was his idea of exercise. He would spend an hour each in the morning and the evening every day in the kitchen garden.

Swamy followed him and helped him fetch water from the pond to water the plants. Neither spoke a word, but they co-ordinated their moves very well. When both returned after the job was done, it was beyond half past eight.

We were served breakfast in the dining room (called 'antaraaalam' perhaps because it connected the main building and the unit consisting of the kitchen, store-room, the work area and the allied facilities) and the kitchen. It being a joint family, the brood was quite big, you see. Meanwhile, Swamy, sitting in the verandah, was given his breakfast on a plantain leaf.

Breakfast done, Swamy borrowed a knife from the Kalyani, our cook, and, unasked, proceeded to the 'estate' where he pruned the plantain trees, tied the pepper vines to the trees they clutched at for support, and did a lot of odd jobs till it was time for lunch.

Post lunch, when the older members of the family withdrew to their rooms for a siesta, he too lay on the floor of the verandah. After the evening tea, he watered the kitchen garden after which he had a dip in the pond. Then Swamy went for a stroll to the village market beyond the unending stretch of paddy fields, to return in time for dinner and sleep.

This routine continued for a few days. My grandfather found in him a helping hand. My grandmother would at times request him to fetch some provisions on his way back after the evening walk which he would gladly do. As he had no major use for money, he never demanded payment for his services - nor was he offered any remuneration. Swamy marked his attendance regularly for all meals. That was all he needed.

My uncle, a banker in the district headquarters, was quite upset on seeing Swamy when he came visiting his parents during the weekend. He had apparently taken an instant dislike for Swamy. No, it was not just the looks of the man who wore nothing but a thorth. The dishevelled salt and pepper hair, the unruly beard and the hairy chest did not help matters. He asked my grandfather, 'What do you know of this guy to offer him shelter here? He could be a criminal on the run. He may decamp one night after looting you. How can you trust a man who strays in?'

Grandfather, firm in his conviction that Swamy was not up to any mischief, pacified my uncle. He helps me, my grandfather said, in the kitchen garden in the morning and evening and does odd jobs during the day. He is a good fellow, my grandfather added, let him stay. My uncle did not press the point further. Thus Swamy became part of our household.

My grandmother would hand over a tenner to him at times and ask him to fetch a pound of sugar or green gram or salt from Moosa's shop which he would gladly do. He would appropriate the small change and return to my grandmother only the currency notes that Moosa gave back. In the initial days, grandmother would ask him, 'Swamy, how about the six and a quarter annas?' Avoiding eye contact, he would respond, 'Oh, that? I took it,' or 'Looks like I dropped it' or 'I put it in the offertory in the temple' depending on his mood. That was the pattern.

He was not too strict with the money, whoever it belonged to. One evening my uncle gave him a rupee and asked him to get a packet of Passing Show cigarettes. An hour went by, two hours went by, but there was no sign of Swamy. Finally, around nine in the night, all of us went to sleep. Next morning, When Swamy was questioned, he replied, 'Being Muharram, Moosa's shop was closed.' How about the money? Without batting an eyelid, he responded, 'But Kannan's arrack shop was open!'

Swamy was outspoken to a fault. In retrospect, I suspect that he used to take advantage of the impression that others had about his being an oddball and an eccentric. Our kitchen was strictly vegetarian, which Swamy was not too happy about. He would say, 'The reason why all of you have to wear spectacles from an early age is that all that you eat is grass and leaves. Eat fish and meat and see the difference!'

On that point, there was convergence of views between Swamy and my uncle. Though initially not well-disposed towards Swamy, he and Swamy had a pact: on Saturdays, Swamy would bring some fish from the market which he would cook in an ad hoc hearth set up in a far corner of the large compound. The two of them would polish off the entire stuff and both would look forward to the next weekend.

Swamy was not 'all there'. He refused to wear anything except his thorth. He had no use for mats or pillows or sheets: rain or shine, sick or well, he would sleep on the floor in the verandah exactly where my grandfather had first found him.

He was a man of moods. On certain days, he would be quiet, and would not speak even if spoken to. On others, he would go around singing aloud, unmindful of who was around. His repertoire was quite large - ballads, nonsense verses, prayers, astrology, keertans, kathakalipadams, ottan thullal verses, poems, slogans used during the freedom movement, - and his memory phenomenal. It was through the oral tradition that the illiterate that he was had learnt all these. When my sisters taught him 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star', 'Hickory, dickory dock' and 'Saare jahaan se acchha Hindustaan hamaara', his range went to the next level.

Swamy would spend the small change that he appropriated from the money given for purchase of provisions money on beedis or a fish curry meal in Ambu's hotel, the only eatery in the village, or an occasional drink. On days he planned to eat out or have a drink, he would announce to nobody in particular, 'I'll be late tonight.' That is supposed to mean that he did not need dinner that night. Nobody knew when he returned after the revelry and slept in the usual place, but the next morning he would act as if nothing had happened!

It was never given to us to know more about Swamy - his background, his family, his relatives. Enquiries by different people at different times during his twelve-year stay with us elicited no information except that his name was Swamy.

A true awadhoot Swamy was. One morning when my grandfather opened the main door of the house at five as usual, he noticed that there was nobody at the far end of the open verandah. And that was it.

Nobody knows why Swamy left us or where he went to.


1 comment:

Anilkumar Kurup said...

I could picture the man, Swamy as if I knew him. It was a fascinating tale , but the end was foretold in the man's character.