A SUMMER STAY AT KANGAZHA
‘God’s own country’ turns hostile towards man and beast during summer.
“Unbearable! It’s 41 degrees at Kottayam ; may further go up. Bangalore is tolerable.” My daughter, Megha, crackled like the hiss from a burning piece of coal in a forge. She was, obviously, trying to shoot down any proposal for a vacation trip to my home village, Kangazha – 22 kilometers away from Kottayam, the district head quarters. Megha’s love for my mother had become proverbial in the family circles. My mother, recovering from a bout of dementia, clung to Megha like a child. The doctor recommended a month’s stay at the ancestral house in my village where everybody and everything was familiar to her. Megha, when she heard about the doctor’s advice, gave in and prepared herself to fight summer boils and burns. The long drive, despite a night halt at Palakkad, left us high and dry. It was past 3 in the afternoon. My mother was all smiles as she was received by my brother and his family. My grandfather, going strong at 92, murmured a prayer on our safe arrival. “Daddy, the tap is dry; no water.” Megha’s voice betrayed apprehensions about what lay in store for her. She collapsed into an age-old, lackluster easy chair, without a face wash. “There’s water in the well; plenty. I’ll draw it for you?” Vidhu, my brother’s daughter, three months elder to Megha , was willing to make life less miserable for her. “Please switch on the fan. It’s like a furnace.” Megha lost her cool. Vidhu blushed at Megha’s predicament. I intervened. “Megha, this is how life is in a village; power failure is frequent; can’t contact the lineman; the landline is dead and no network for the mobile; you’ve to put up with such things.”
“No fan, no TV, no phone, no games! Daddy, when’re we going back to Bangalore?” Megha was full of self pity. “After a month.” I sounded detached. She looked at me with a blank expression. The evening was silent. Megha and Vidhu were seen seated on the veranda, listening to the cries of birds. Vidhu could name a bird by its song. I left them to themselves as the moonlit sky and the breeze borne treetops played a game of light and shade on the virgin earth. The village woke up to the full-throated, intermittent crowing of cocks, warming up to befriend their own territorial brood of hens. Life was in full swing. The temple elephant, carrying the mahout atop, traced his way along the panchayat road to the cascading river down the coconut groves for a scrub bath. A trail of half-naked boys in shorts went on cheering the royal march. Men were busy ferrying banana and tapioca crops in bullock carts to the village market. Women kept the hearth burning with firewood chopped in the backyard. There were no signs of Megha and Vidhu inside the house. “They’re playing hide and seek in the open.” I saw a sparkle in my wife’s eyes. She withdrew herself into the kitchen with a catch-me-if-you-can smile. I took the narrow lane winding through the lush growth of guava and mango trees to reach them. “Sh!” Megha, standing beside a jackfruit tree, gestured me as if she expected the whole world to come to a standstill. I heard a sound like the repeated blows of a carpenter’s wooden hammer on a chisel head. A woodpecker was making a nest hole on the dead trunk of a coconut palm, its mate keeping a vigil, perched on the top. It was time for breakfast. A bowl of kanji, cherupayaru thoran, buttermilk seasoned with baby onions, curry leaves and ginger, a roasted papad and a touch of lime pickle were served by loving hands. Life was changing for Megha. I gave her a round shaped hand fan made of dried ramacham roots to tone down the scorching sun. She took it without a fuss. “Daddy, I’ve had a bath in well water; it’s so refreshing. Vidhu has taught me how to draw water from the well. A pulley, a bucket and a length of rope – that’s all you need.”She turned the fan on me.
I spent the day visiting my school teachers, languishing in the evening of their life. Megha accompanied me. My teachers were proud that I had become a College lecturer. “Born in fire, you won’t fade in the sun.” My English teacher’s faith and conviction amazed Megha. My grandfather was a great story teller. He made the evening vibrant for his brood of grandchildren with the story of ‘Neelakoduveli’, in the dim flame of a kerosene lamp. How many times had I listened to the same story with my cousins on the bed, smeared with the aroma of betel leaf, lime and tobacco bites! Yet, the story continued to charm me. I turned an eavesdropper. “Neelakoduveli is a herb with never-heard-of magical effects.” The story started unfolding itself. “Once you’ve its root, your life will transform. Dream what you wish, and you have it. A farmer became a Prince overnight!” The green-white-brown chew turned red as the betel spit flowed into a brass container, held by young hands. “How do we get the root?” It was a chorus. “You can’t get it; neelakoduveli grows in blind wells; in the wild.” There was an exchange of glances as the red spit flowed into the container again. “There’s a way out…..” The silence was broken by the chirping of a cricket in the distance. “A Chakora bird can get it. Catch a Chakora nestling and cage it; the mother will fly into the wild and fetch the root. When the root is placed at the mouth of the cage, the door will open by itself and the young bird gets reunited with its mother. And you have the root with you!” A wild applause marked the suspension of disbelief. A huge nutmeg tree stood in the backyard of the house. Megha had developed a love for the tree. Every day, Megha and Vidhu watered the tree and collected the fallen seeds. My mother would deskin the seeds, expose them to the sun and pack them in carry home boxes, meant for relatives. A wonderful cure for many ailments. One day, Megha and Vidhu climbed the tree and started plucking ripe fruits with a forked stick. My wife was panicky and raised an alarm. I cautioned them not to scale further heights. “Daddy, this is how life is in a village; please put up with such things!” Megha had a dig at me and blew a kiss. I suppressed a smile. It was past 7 in the evening. Suddenly, the nutmeg tree threw up the sight of a lifetime. Glow worms, countless like stars, swarmed the tree and turned every leaf, every fruit into a gorgeous bride. “ Wow, I can’t believe it!” Megha jumped in joy. We watched the tree till it slept in the arms of the night. Days wafted away like the gentle fall of leaves from the nutmeg tree. My mother made an amazing recovery. She started saying prayers and singing her favorite hymns. It was time for us to return. “Megha, we’re leaving the day after. We need to collect your uniform and books from the school. You’re going to be in class 6.” My words fell on Megha like the beep of an alarm. She held my arm and said, “Daddy, can we postpone the journey by a week?” “Done!” It was my wish as well.