The birds were chirping in a high pitch during dawn past few days. Crows and mynahs make noises as though they were pecking one another and fighting. Echoing this tantrum peacocks’ screams were heard from the bushes above the stream. It’s unusual of peacocks to scream as the day begins. But the whooping of the birds was inordinate. The peacocks gaze confusedly at the birds’ chatter.
Sundaram kept the blanket aside, stood up and adjusted his dhoti. While he opened the door and entered the corridor, he noticed that Nallamuthu Gounder wasn’t there on his bed. When he crossed the corridor and reached the threshing floor, the cool early morning breeze embraced him softly.
The garden was filled with quietness. The enormous grove that was full of life some four days back seemed dead and desolated now. The trees which faced the electric saw cutting their stems in a frenzied hissing noise, without showing any agitation managing a brilliant smile and glow, lay on the ground now, lifeless. This very thought was quite disturbing. Emptiness, anxiety and agony join hands and disrupt fortitude. It is as just cruel as someone asking their own kids to stand in a line and chop their heads off.
Was Nallamuthu Gounder’s heart saddened too? How come he got the courage to do something like this? Though the good opinion Sundaram had about him got completely faded away and hatred took its place, he never disclosed it. What is the point in just blaming about him alone? He couldn’t procrastinate fulfilling the wishes of his children.
Could see the speedy vehicles afar flashing their lights on the Pollachi – Udumalai Road. Until three days back the light of these vehicles looked like a glassy reflection amongst the trees and vanished. Now the buses, two-wheeler and tempos were all visible. The pregnant jersey Semboothu pushed its abdomen forward and whimpered on seeing him. The calf’s eyes that turned toward him glittered like crystals. A mixed fragrance of astringent and crushed coconut tree pulp pierced his nose.
The kids who were going to School stood there watching the trees swiftly cut and fell. Men and women folk stood on the bunds and watched. There was no vividness on the cultivator’s faces. Crows and mynahs in the peepal tree cawed, rose and switched places. There was a huge banyan tree behind the well and Nallamuthu Gounder had cut that off along with the coconut trees. Left with no choice, the birds which lived in that tree migrated to the peepal tree in the Kalveeran temple. The birds having presumed that they were entitled to that tree, refused to accept the situation until it turned dark on the first day of their migration. They have become normal since past two days. Sundaram descended to the garden.
Nallamuthu Gounder had cut off all the coconut trees in the five acres and they lay desecrate over the entire place. People selling tender coconut leaves on cart could be seen splitting and tearing the leaf stalks to cut the tender coconut leaves, past two days. Bereft these tender leaves the trees looked like the left overs of an incompletely eaten up skeleton by the Dholes, a day earlier. Immature cocoa buds were strewn all over the garden. Tender coconut shells were lying down under each tree that were cut off. When the water level in the bore-well became low, Nallamuthu Gounder put another one in the northeast direction, which went an utter waste. The one he put to the south of the gravel bench provided quarter inch of water after having run for twenty minutes. He had been protecting the trees with the water from the old bore-well and suddenly he decided this.
Sundaram said, “as the drought of 2000 that lasted till 2003, this too would pass on and we would get rains”. Nallamuthu Gounder replied, “Of course! It cannot go on like this forever”But his sons were adamant. It was in this garden, his distant uncle’s grandson, within a year of his employment in IT Industry, driving down a Scorpio rising dust and landed up. The friends who accompanied him also drank tender coconut. Those trees were also among the ones that were fell off. His three daughters and two sons in an unanimous voice said, “When the Goundars owning just five or ten acres could show off buying Swift, Volvo Bolero and Scorpio what have we enjoyed having engaged in agriculture since the days of our grandfather and great grand father?” Nallamuthu Gounder also felt the monotony in his life and that he had not enjoyed anything despite having grand daughters and grand sons. Once he made up his mind to fancy a car for attending the good and bad occasions prior to his demise, he planned to convert the land into residential plots and chopped off the trees immediately.
Two of his son-in-laws were in Government service and another one was employed in a private company. His two sons who were engaged in agriculture lived in the village. The elder son’s daughter got married last year and the son is completing his studies this year. The younger son Krishnamurthy has two daughters and both are studying Engineering. He was the one who allocated a portion of the out-house in the garden to Sundaram.
College was situated on the other side of the main road. It was convenient to reach the college in mornings and evenings taking a walk on the cart tracts. Considering that he would be supportive to Nallamuthu Gounder and Ammuchi, he was offered the big room for a lower rent. Before Nagaraj’s arrival, it was from here, the math teacher went to School. It’s been four years since Sundaram had come here.
It was a steady yielding grove, which is just fifteen years old. If the water inflow is good each tree could yield sufficiently well for fifty to sixty years of time. Within two days the saw machine had cut them all. Last week when they were chatting in the veranda on Saturday night Gounder informed that he had received approval for converting the land into residential plots.
The town had developed beyond Viswa Deepthi Matriculation School. There were only three gardens in between. Nallamuthu Gounder outmaneuvered them by converting them into plots before they could pursue it. A nearby cent was valued at two lakh rupees. Even after allocating pathways for entry and exit, 400 cents was easily available in abundance. How much ever one focuses on a coconut tree for fifty and odd years, it still wouldn’t yield eight crores. His sons had squandered five lakh rupees for approval. Around seven lakhs and seventy five thousand would be left behind after spending on all other expenses. Inspite of putting in very hard work it is just the land and the loan borrowed that might remain in the end. Once the decision of residential plot was taken, people started paying the advance money. He said that within three months not even a cent would be left out and everything would be sold off.
Whenever his friends owning a car visited him he never failed to inquire about the price, longevity, reliability, mileage, traveling comfort of their cars and their opinion about the best choice among various cars. He had made up his mind to carry the glory of attending the various happy, sad occasions, marriage functions by car and had decided to purchase either Bolero or Scorpio.
It was dawn. The grass that has grown all over the garden looked faded. The water channels and coconut tree seed beds that were filled with grass, shrubs and poisonous plants looked fresh and green. If the tree is matured it could be sold for one thousand rupees. Since they were not fully grown each tree could be sold only for a hundred rupees above the expenses met out for cutting them. Some seven or eight cranes descended on the coconut leaf stalks and looked out for worms. He chose a dark green spring from the neem seeds that lay as a heap on the mound of the well, broke it, put the tender leaves in his mouth and chewed them. When he came to the field hens ran towards the side of the tank. Ammuchi headed toward south of the garden in order to get milk.
Glimpsing Veluchami engaged in some work at the plantain garden, Sundaram put a towel across his head and went near the cart tract. Veluchami took the drip water pipe, kept it adjacent to the saplings where the leaf palms diverge, supporting them. The folds formed on the black hose pipes when repeatedly rolled, get cracked off as days pass by. If they are hung on the leaf palms it would be convenient to cut the weed. Poisonous plants, reefs and hybrid plants had grown above the knee level. Two days back Veluchami said, “if soil is rolled over the weed, the entire weed would turn out to be manure”. He would remove the weed, level up the soil and after binding the water passage and bunds, he would put the rubber hose pipe alongside the roots of the saplings.
Veluchami walked towards west as if lifting the feathers slightly above the ribs due to the hot sun. He has two kids. His wife would come here around 9 O’clock. With shyness wrinkling her nose, fresh blossom spread on her cheeks, she would cross that place throwing a casual look at him. He felt that the inner feeling he experienced while returning a glistening look at her is just like the undisclosed movement made by tongue inside the mouth.
Little chubby, she possesses the healthy look of the industrious class. He would feel like hugging her but instead would just look at her. They are an hard working couple. When Sundaram returns from college, she would walk past the field conversing with her husband and look up as if she is over-viewing the garden. The dark complexion she had on her face due to continuous hours of work in the hot sun gave a new tone to her. She might have even felt proud about the innate twitch in the look given at her, an hardworking elderly woman, by a teacher younger to her age. Suddenly he felt anxious at the thought that these people also might throw off the shovel and convert the land into residential plots.
The mobile phone started ringing and stopped with the second ring. Perhaps it was from the ‘missed call man’ Selvaraj. Sundaram thought that it would be perfect If he leaves after taking bath. Could see Selvi clasping a folded jute sack in her armpit and a sickle in her hands getting down into the water channel. It is a joy to watch the kids and their parents who come there for nearly a week in order to receive applications after the +2 results were declared. All those receiving the applications aren’t going to take up the course. But still three-fourth of the students manage to join here. Some would have a strong ambition that they should study. On some faces hesitation and sadness was found with the dilemma whether they would be able to study. Some would register in advance and confirm their chosen group of study. But then discontinue due to their inability to pay the term fees. This self financing college wouldn’t suit all. They should have scored high marks and be poor as well.
This kiddo Selvi also didn’t come to receive the application on the day when +2 results got declared. On the third day, around 12 O’clock, across the entrance, she was standing under the iluppai tree that was on the left side of the broad pathway adjacent to the playground and kept eyeing the school. When Sundaram came out to paste the ‘No ragging’ notification issued by the Government on the Notice board did he see her. The face looked familiar and as he took a step forward to have a closer look, he realized it was Selvi. She had been residing in Samikannu’s grove, which was southwest to Nallamuthu Gounder’s land, even before he came here.
“Why are you standing here? If you have come to get the application, get in and take the B block veranda” he said.
“My father said he would follow me to the College and he hasn’t reached yet”, she replied.
“Which group you would like to study?”
“Computer science, sir”
“What is your mark?”
“853 sir. Would I get admission in the lower fee category?”
“You wouldn’t get scholarship for this mark.”
Her face turned dark and sadness spread on it. Sundaram had seen her earlier in the grove, on the bund and cart tract. But he hadn’t seen her so close. Lean though, she had a great glow on her forehead. The parting done at the middle of her head, divided the coarse hair and it looked like a clear foot path. She had a complexion that was neither fair nor dark. Her front teeth were shown outward slightly. She was gazing at him. The yellow flowers printed on her old churidhar had faded away. Her father, a hard worker, looking pale and skinny, could be seen behind the wire fence. Although he wasn’t sick, he looked like a skeleton pasted with little flesh on. “Fine. You fill up the application. Then let us see”. Sundaram said and walked towards Parthiban who was standing in the park, took a piece from the bar of groundnut burfi offered by him.
He washed his face early in the morning using water from the motor tank, stood near the guava tree and could see Selvi cleaning vessels in the North Western corner of the threshing floor. Before the first ray of sun touches the ground one could have a glimpse at Selvi’s father walking like a shadowy figure on the broad embankment that goes towards the east. He is a poultry trader in Komalamangalam and might stay there for three to four days. The voice of the owner of the grove shouting at him, “You do not look after the grove. If I trust you and leave it at your disposal, it would be completely ruined. You better vacate the place. I would let it out to someone, whom am comfortable with” could be heard.
“If you could show me one single seed-bed that isn’t wet, I shall take the kids and leave just now. Where ever I go, don’t I water them all using the motor once I return in the night?” was the strong reply. Though petty clashes occurred between Selvi’s father and the owner of the grove occasionally, the relationship never got completely severed. The reason for that was he’d never had the heart to ask those motherless kids to pack things up once and leave.
After she wiped away the cow-dung in the cow shelter, swept the floor, washed her hands and legs, she sat for milking the cow. Three cows were there. A year after Sundaram’s arrival, they sold off a cow. A calf that was feeding on its mother then, is six months pregnant now. Selling a cow only after its female calf reaches the stage of a heifer facilitated breeding the others. She would take a fast walk on the bunds to hand over the milk to the people who lived in the five gardens. Never got to see her slipping and falling down on the bund. After handing over the milk she would enter Nallamuthu Gounder’s grove before the searing heat of the sun could be felt. She would cut the grass and other plants that had grown to her knee level, entwining the tree.
These plants grown around ten trees would be sufficient for stuffing into one sack. “Hey ! Would I be able to graze these cows in other people’s grove? Why don’t you cut the fodder from the grove where you reside?” Ammuchi called out not mentioning Selvi’s name.
“Ammuchi! If you also chase me away, where would I go? I had to come here only because of the reason that no grass is found there”, replying so, she would busily continue to cut the grass. Nallamuthu Gounder would scold Ammuchi, “Don’t you have space for this single cow to graze?”
Selvi had never sought anybody’s help to lift the big sack which she had squeezed in with grass. While lifting the sack she would hold it with ease, balance with the right knee and reach it up to her shoulders. While Selvi walked across the grove with this load, Sundaram could see her brother and sister washing their faces in the threshing floor.
“Hey, buffalo. Why didn’t you keep water in the hearth?”, she would start hustling once she set her foot on the threshing floor and would complain to her younger sister. “When would I finish cooking and go to school?” After distributing the grass among the three cows, she shook out the sack, placed it on the tin roof. Then she would be engaged in work and chase her siblings for taking bath.
She wouldn’t dry her hair immediately after washing it but put a top knot spun around a towel to absorb the water, which would seem big. Then she brought two plates of boiled rice that was very hot and kept it on the raised veranda hastily. It might either be drumstick or brinjal, the one which she get her hands into, she would cut them and prepare broth in a small utensil. If not broth, it would be pepper juice. Then curd. After serving food to the siblings and chasing them to school, she would comb her hair. Parting in the center, separating her hair for putting two plaits, while she laid it on each side of her shoulders, her singing the lines, ‘A Dewdrop on fire, a wandering parrot, tendril of a flower in search of a tree, am a persona of all these henceforth’, would be heard. After the two braids were put she would fold, lay them in front, keep the mirror slantingly on the window and apply talcum powder to her face. Once she applied it on her face and to the back of her neck, the song, ‘If a stone and a mirror could collide without breaking, it is love’ would be sung. Her singing wasn’t perfect in its rhythm. But the joy experienced out of singing itself would add a new flavor to it.
After taking food she would provide hay and water to the cows, wear her uniform, pluck a rose with its stem from the backyard and keep it on her right side plait using a hairpin. Placing the schoolbag on her back she would run towards the Bus Stop.
She could be admitted in BBA only. For getting admission to courses like B.Com (C.A) and C.S, even people with higher scores were paying more. Well-to-dos always come first and occupy the places completely. Initially, Kavitha was complaining, “Sir, what is this! She always comes late to the first hour and leaves early during the last hour.”
Sundaram replied, “Be happy that she reaches college at least at this hour. Don’t lay your hands on her attendance. If you stress too much on that, she might just stop coming to college.”
Last year when Steven, Sundaram’s past pupil who completed college a year back, visited him in his house in the grove, he was shocked to see Selvi cutting the grass. On reaching the main road he asked, “Isn’t this girl studying BBA?
“She is cutting grass”
“Why, should she not?”
“Not that. She must have returned from school just now”
“It’s been an hour since Selvi returned from school. After removing the cow dung, providing water to the cows, soaking the clothes to be washed and extracting milk was when she started cutting the grass. Her sister and brother should come and take the cow for grazing. Otherwise they would get scolding from her. Then Selvi should start cooking. Her father would return home by night. By that time she would switch on the motor, divert it towards the grove, open the narrow water channel, come home and then clean the house. While the overturned book with the page to be read lie there down on the chair, she should pour water from the tank. Then should run to divert the narrow water channel. You haven’t seen all these…..” Stephen couldn’t move away his surprised eyes from Sundaram listening to this.
Senthil Kumar having taken bath wiped off the moisture from the wet hair and as he stood on the threshing floor, he heard Selvi yelling at him, “Hey! Karuvayaa! Wash your hands and keep the grass under the cart”. She was standing by the side of the tank washing her legs and bending her head; she turned and looked towards him. Just not bothered, he took the books and kept inside the Padayappa bag. The soiled plate was still lying on the small mound.
“It’s either you or me…. Let us see today. I asked you to keep water for the cow and you didn’t do that too. You are running so early to the school which is very close-by. Velu, dear little thief! How much of work I could do by myself?”
“Bow- Wow” he barked like a dog to show his anger. Then he walked off placing the school bag on his back without completing any of the tasks, despite Selvi’s bawling.
Wiping her face and hands with the towel she went near the sack. “My rage would be reduced if only I beat you up with a broom when you return in the evening. You can eat only if I cook you some meal. I would leave you starving for two days. I wouldn’t do any work hereafter. Let me see your brilliance then. Am I cheap like sheep’s poop balls to you?” Looking at her through the corner of his eyes, he just kept walking, as she talked to him. Selvi’s younger sister Jaya, though she had to catch two buses to reach her school, would leave only after assisting Selvi in the petty household chores.
Selvi laid down the sack under the trolly which was kept aside. Took rye flour from seed box and put it in the trough. These cows also don’t drink just water nowadays and are obstinate. After they got accustomed with the flour fed by her father, they might even demand boost in their trough now. Selvi untied the heifer. Once taken out of the shed it stretched its back and as it shirked off its hoofs sand particles struck in there flew away. On reaching the tank she put the rope on its back and sat on the elevated platform outside of the house. She poured coconut oil from the glass bottle into her hands, rubbed it and applied to her hair through her fingers.
The heifer drank some water, raised its head, licked the flour stuck on its lips by rotating its tongue and ate it. On lifting the face when it found that there was none around, it jumped and kicked its hind legs towards the sky. “Oh my dear! You too have become this naughty! Wait! Am coming behind”, she said, kept the mirror down and ran towards it with her hair let free. The heifer ran with joy, descended through the northeast of the threshing floor and jumped forward in delight. To catch it, Sundaram went near the trees that were cut off. When it jumped across the trees with great ease, the rope on its back fell down. Within the snap of a finger, it turned and started running towards the east. When Selvi ran in that direction, it turned towards Veluchami’s grove. It’s entry into the plantain grove might damage some seven or eight saplings, for which she might get scolding. Selvi rushed in that direction now and blocked it across the embankment on the Water passage. The knot of the rope got struck in the aperture of the leaf stalk of a tree that was cut and it had to stop that very instance. Its ears got pointed up and eyes bulged as it watched her approach it.
The young heifers, when they have a sensitive feel in their abdomen, generally would have a liking to indulge in this sort of enthusiastic acts. Selvi went sprinting and hit it on its back with her folded elbow. It slightly wriggled and smiled at her. Holding the rope which she folded furiously to beat it up, she just stood there, gasping. The heifer licked her hands. Selvi’s anger disappeared and she stroked its forehead. Stretching out its neck, it also sighed and looked at her with glittering eyes. She caressed its muzzle with fondness, placed her cheeks on its neck and led it singing the lines, “You are my golden spring. The queen owns a new royal life”. The heifer followed, rubbing its body against hers.
When Sundaram sat on the overturned pot and was about to slightly brush the shoes instead of polishing them, he could see Selvi scurrying on the western tract. When he took his bag and reached the tract, he could see her crossing the Vitex tree. Of the test papers he had brought home to correct, he could complete only half of it. They are just monthly tests. But the Head of the Department would be pestering to hand them over immediately and would be badgering him as though the degree results might get delayed due to him. One can’t sail smooth if worried about such things. Should carry on dodging him that it would be done today, tomorrow and so on. Next day while crossing the vitex tree Sundaram could hear Selvi’s yelling voice. When he ran to see what it was, he could see a woman standing on the road facing towards his direction.
Not descending to the road, Selvi stood on the right end corner of the track, near the densely grown mallow plant. He could hear her saying, “You need not stand here, please go!” to that woman.
“Please don’t shout”, said that woman.
“Now, don’t you make me furious. You left a toddler who hadn’t learnt to keep a few steps, in order to live with someone. How much have I been suffering with a boy having nasal mucus and a girl who does not even know how to take bath? Why is your affection suddenly gushing out now? Have you come here to publicize to people that she is so and so and humiliate me? ”
“Why would I humiliate you? My dearest, you are like God to me! Please take these and I would leave”. She took two steps towards Selvi and offered something. Selvi pushed it away and the newspaper packet that was rolled in the shape of a ball fell down on the ground and she glowered at Selvi.
“From a distant town I came running here to see the kids. Oh! I had a great experience. Why do you pierce the belly with a spear that gave birth to you? These were certain things I have been using. Just accept them and I would leave the next second”
“You didn’t give birth to me! You heard it? Now, go”
“Come on! Tell those words loudly so that people could hear. You are the first child who drank the milk that my breasts fed” she slapped heavily on her abdomen with both hands.
“You know how sad I felt when I heard that my daughter is toiling so hard? I came here as I have decided to live for my kids hereafter”
“I know how to bring up my kids. You just leave as you came. Go. At least, you be happy.”
She swiftly got down on the tract and strutted down her way on the main road heading to the College. The packet that lay opened displayed two ear rings and anklets. Tears welled up in the eyes, her mother took the packet in her hands.
“If am doing well, why do I have to be so distressed? Even God couldn’t stand the level to which I have degraded”.
It seemed like she had traveled from a long distance all night as she looked sleepy. Her hair was dry without oil and one or two grey hairs were visible. Her forehead and nose resembled Selvi’s. She got down on the main road, stood on the mound and watched her daughter heading towards the College.
“You have inherited my mother’s traits”, her lower abdomen twitched as she murmured. Her nose wrinkled and wiping away the overflowing tears with the left corner of her Saree, she trudged on the main Road. She had just a sordid yellow string worn around her neck.