Love in a Small Town – by Aravind Jayan

by TBLM

When Colonel Aravindan Nair took him out back to the great grounds bordering his rubber estate, Panikker assumed that it was to show him the site of the prospective wedding. He expected the Colonel to stretch his brawny arms and say, ‘A tent this big’ or stomp his foot and proclaim, ‘lunch for a thousand guests here, there a podium, and of course, changing areas! – and all this depends on you, Panikker.’ Indeed, Panikker felt a good measure of pride at this imagined trust, and the scent of rubber milk had just about filled his two-bone chest when the Colonel asked him to wait and went into the outhouse at the edge of the grounds. Imagine Panikker’s surprise then, when he came out with an Enfield .303 and pointed it first at his heart and then at the trees. ‘Pick up a stone, Panikker,’ he commanded. ‘What, Colonel?’ ‘Pick up a stone and throw it into the trees- I don’t have all day.’ Unsure, Panikker picked out a small and polished pebble, wiped it clean against his shirt and tossed it into the woods. It landed not twenty feet from where they stood and barely crossed the tree line. ‘You’re not pitching to your nephew, Panikker. Throw hard, I say!’ This time Panikker set his attaché case down and freed the crook of his arm. He chose a larger stone and arched his back till his spine creaked. Saying a quick prayer, he hurled the stone as hard as he could and stumbled forward, nearly falling. The stone flew straight through the trees and landed among some bushes. Far enough, he thought with some relief. But before Panikker could compose himself and look to the Colonel for approval, something stirred among the mulberry shrubs. A large black duck flew out, flapping its wings in funk, using the momentum of astonishment for a clear take-off. Not a second later, a shot rang out. Panikker’s knees nearly gave away and his ears caught fire. The bird cried for a last time before falling formlessly onto a high branch.

Panikker was still barring his ears when the Colonel turned to him and smirked. With the muzzle of his hot gun, he nudged Panikker’s arms so they were back at his side in attention. ‘Did you note how steady my hands were, Panikker? Ah, where! You were busy saving your ears!’ the Colonel raged. ‘I want a son-in-law who won’t cower at the sound of gunfire. If he’s to herald this Nair tharavad, I want him to be able to look down the barrel of a gun and still stand tall. You hear that, Panikker?’ Panikker nodded. ‘Yes, Colonel, yes. I understand completely. In fac-’

‘Panikker,’ the Colonel said cutting him off, ‘Find me someone like that. Can you? Bold and traditional. Bold and traditional. Simple. What is it? ’

‘Bold and traditional, Colonel. Yes.’

‘Exactly. Now the servants will bag that bird for you. Cook it for dinner. You could use some good meat.’

‘No no, that’s really not necessary, Colonel. Your trust is more than sufficient. I mean- ’

‘Oh but it’s not,’ the Colonel boomed, ‘I shot an innocent creature for you. You will not let it rot, Panikker. Do you not realize the value of life?’ He looked Panikker in his supine eye and watched it roll on the ground gathering dust.

*

Dead duck in a jute bag. Gunshot still ringing in his ears. Walking to the town center, Panikker could hardly focus on the task at hand. Bold and traditional, he let the words roll in his mouth. Bold and traditional. Like Jawaharlal Nehru. But even if he weren’t dead, he wasn’t a Nair or a Namboodiri Brahmin. Panikker sighed at his own nervousness. He had been doing this for nearly twenty years; the town had grown around him but his stature as the Number One broker was still the same. In fact, he had helped the town expand, coupling villages and nearby townships through his alliances, sometimes sending an envoy or two into the cities. Yes, he had done very well now that he thought about it. He couldn’t complain about the money – though, of course, more would always help. And had he not found himself a good-looking wife? A young wife. Modern, fashionable, city girl. A little snooty perhaps, but that didn’t matter. It was done.

What mattered now was the wedding of the Colonel’s daughter – the weddings to come. The Colonel was the head of the biggest Nair family in town. A successful alliance for his daughter would ensure good business from his extended family as well. A line of shy, young girls materialized before Panikker- all ripe for marriage. But at the same time, were he to displease the Colonel – and he knew him to be a perfectionist, the entire arrangement would shatter like clay pots. The parade of beautiful girls turned the other way at once, all pouting. ‘Hmph.’

Being a Nair himself – albeit a low ranking one – Panikker had a way of playing the resident weaver. As was custom, arrangements were usually discussed with the matriarch of the family, and he was quick to impress old women. He spoke loudly to flatter their hearing, making the rest of the house cringe no matter, and wore bright colors – bright enough to attract butterflies- to sooth their doubting sight. In the Colonel’s case however, the matriarch, his mother, was completely blind and bedridden. All proposals, the Colonel had explicitly stated, would go through him. This ensured complication.

‘Panikkere!’ someone called out to him from the other side of the mud road. It was Krishnan Menon. He was saying something and pointing wildly to the jute bag.

‘What?’ Panikker yelled, worming a finger into his ear, trying to remove an imaginary bullet.

Menon crossed the road, pointed at the sack once again and shouted ‘I said, I heard you had a meeting with Kargil. And now I see you have got him in the bag!’

What a nuisance, Panikker thought. He considered Menon to be the Number Two broker in town, though in reality this was nothing but the clever consolation of a threatened mind. They were for the most part neck to neck, and some would even dare have dubbed Menon a better negotiator. He had started much later in the game and had quickly learned the fundamentals of family politics in the small, green town. He dressed sharper than Panikker did, always in a shirt and pants (professional) whereas Panikker still wore the traditional mundu. Where Panikker was thin, aged and balding, Menon was stout with a full head of hair. In a different universe, Menon would have been Panikker’s protégé. But not in this one. In this one, he had come too far and was eager to poach.

‘I did have a meeting with Colonel Nair, yes. I meet with the heads of several large families every day. Hardly your business is it, Menon?’ posed Panikker.

‘Don’t be like that, master. I’m simply curious. Anyway, how is she, Kargil’s daughter? Beautiful? Or is she hairy like him? Show me the picture, will you?’

‘I don’t carry her picture around, Menon. It’s at home of course,’ Panikker lied. ‘This is hardly my first meeting with Aravindan.’ He wanted to don the impression that everything had been settled.

Menon only grinned. He pushed his crotch forward, arched his back and rocked back and forth. ‘Is that so? Well well. News travels fast but not safely. I see… speaking of news, I heard Reghu and Shalini were having some… marriage troubles. Divorce, I heard. True?’

Reghu and Shalini had married each other only three months ago with great pomp. Two elephants had been hired, one elephant more than was custom. And a red Fiat Palio was given as the dowry. Panikker had declared it his 45th successful marriage. He was also the first one to drive the car around once the crowd had dispersed, revving the engines and shocking the unsealed roads.

‘Where did you hear that?’ Panikker asked, sweating at once.

‘In the wind, of course. Blew right threw there -’ Menon pointed to the treetops, ‘- and went right over those groves. Better chase it fast, master. Wouldn’t want your godly Colonel to hear about it. As for me, I’ve got to go marry mortals.’

‘Don’t be an ass, Menon. Don’t spout lies for the sake of lies.’

‘My mouth is zipped. You know me,’ Menon said walking away.

‘What?’

‘Mouth. Zipped. Bye. Are you going deaf, old man?’

Watching him walk up the road, the attaché case began to slip from Panikker’s greasy armpit. News spreads fast, Menon had said. Panikker knew this to be true. If the Colonel were to hear about something as radical as a broken marriage, he would be done for. No more 100 percent success rate. No more tying towns. No more Number One. Menon would lap up the opportunity in a heartbeat; he would kill all the ducks in town if he had to!

But wait, why hadn’t he heard about this himself? The bastard Menon lies before he brushes his teeth. Why, he would want me walking around town asking about this, creating the rumor myself. Of course! And he had done this before too! These games have to be played with care and finesse, Menon.

Following this line of thought consoled Panikker. He would go home now, rest easy for a while, and then scour his books for an excellent match. Yes, that was the right course of action. Before heading home, Panikker looked down the road to make sure no was around and hurled the jute sack into the grove beside.

*

‘So you went hunting with the Colonel?!’ his wife exclaimed, ‘Oh, how regal!’

‘Yes yes, it was all very regal. Very royal,’ Panikker mumbled distractedly. He was looking out of the bedroom window, straining to see through the thick torrent of rain. Darkness had fallen like a ration shop shutter- firmly and without remorse. Only a few flickering lights could be seen in town fighting the blackout. One was surely Colonel Nair’s estate; the others were probably from the Administrative quarters. Panikker concluded it unlikely that the astrologer would come in such weather and readied for bed.

‘Were you two in the heart of the jungle then?’ his wife continued as he sat back down.

‘Well, it was only a stone throw away,’ Panikker said flatly. He was surprised at the fantasy world his young wife inhabited and her innocent vision of his social position.

‘Still, you could have bought me something, you know, anything-’

Someone rapped on the front door, cutting her off. Panikker lit a fresh candle and rushed to open it. The astrologer stood there, soaking wet. He refused a towel; this is all penance, he said, stretching out on the sofa and throwing his head back.

Nambiar came every Friday to collect a sum of Rs. 200. That was their arrangement: a weekly pay of two-hundred and an additional pay whenever he was summoned to study the compatibility of two families ordained by Panikker. Being the popular one of two astrologers, Nambiar was constantly courted by Menon, owing to which now, Panikker had to deal a steady rise in pay.

He handed him the brown envelope and Nambiar counted the notes wetting his fingers so the paper would oblige.

‘The things we have to do,’ he said sighing, putting the notes into the fold of his mundu.

Ah, cruel fate, dripping on all men, thought Panikker. He felt a strange sympathy for the astrologer that night. Not long ago, Nambiar had occupied an enviable position. Even the smallest affair demanded his rigorous consultation. He would be invited to sit on crimson thrones in the largest houses; generations would be shushed to hear him speak. There was a time when he could study the stars for an hour and people did little other than stand quietly by, waiting. Back then, he wouldn’t have stepped into Panikker’s house, let alone sit on his sofa. Now though, Nambiar divined only the prospects of young girls as they stood shyly by the living room door. Now, his income had dwindled – much like the count of stars.

‘Do you see any weddings happening soon?’ he asked, rubbing his chest.

‘Maybe. I had a meeting with Colonel Aravindan.’

‘Are things good?’

‘Why wouldn’t they be good?’

‘Nothing. Actually, I heard something about Reghu and Shalini. Some trouble?’

‘Nothing. Just rumors,’ Panikker said, trying to squash the words. ‘Where did you hear this? Menon, I bet.’

‘Reghu’s father. He came by to settle some old accounts. These young couples, I tell you.’ Nambiar got up to leave. ‘Before the night gets darker.’ He was all business.

Young couples, yes, Panikker thought. He wiped his forehead, forgetting to shut the door behind the astrologer. The first divorce in town, the words ran amok in his head. Rain lashed into the house, coming in as far as the coffee table and drenching the newspapers.

‘Has he left, darling?’ his wife called out from the bedroom.

Panikker wished she called him something more traditional for once, something easier on his tongue.

*

Like most towns, this one too had its little jam jar of sticky stories. A photo of Sai Baba that produced sweetmeats. A shooting star that once landed in the temple pond. A treasure buried in the old railway tunnel. The following day, it found another.

Panikker was on his way to the registrar office when he saw the crowd at the town center. It was still early in the morning; the clouds were pink and the Ernakulam SuperFast was yet to arrive. Squeezing through the thicket of people he found the Assistant District Collector lying in the middle of the road. Several people were calling out for water but no one wanted to leave the scene and miss the excitement.

‘What happened?’

‘Collector’s finally filling those potholes,’ someone shouted out.

It was Abu, the tea-seller who explained the situation to Panikker. He was first at the scene, he claimed, much before these fools.

‘Getting some milk from the town over –our cows are poor- anyway, that’s when we saw him,’ Abu said, ‘what did we do? We thought he must have been bitted by a dog or a toddy cat. We woke up him up and what did he do? He started crying.’

According to Abu, the collector said he saw a djinn last night. In fact, he said he saw two. He was walking back from his office after finishing some paperwork (‘Must have been around one, we think,’ Abu speculated.) when he noticed some shuffling behind the large banyan tree by the town square. First he heard the sound of anklets, and then he heard ‘the whispering of two souls.’ There was no else around of course, so he proceeded with caution, tracing a wide circle around the tree. That’s when a soft giggle seared the paper-thin air. Like bells. (‘Can you imagine that? A giggle like that, here, at night.’) The last thing the collector saw before he fainted was the long hair of a woman. He said there were two djinns but that the other one was hidden by the tree trunk.

‘Sa-ar fainted again right after. We could see the fright in his eyes. Must have come down with a fever too by now.’

Panikker looked at the Banyan tree and felt his spine chill. He thanked god for the yellowing sky and prayed for the town’s peace. A converted Matador had arrived from the hospital across the river. The attendants, still droopy, carried the Collector off without care.

‘Get the broker to marry these djinns off,’ someone said, ‘that’ll stop them from stepping out at night. What do you say, Panikker?’

But Panikker had just then spotted Reghu across the crowd and was already off. Reghu was walking towards the bus stop without even glancing at the crowd. An aristocrat who hated fuss.

‘Reghu!’ Panikker called out. ‘Reghunath!’

The Matador’s old engine drowned out his voice, and before Panikker could catch him, he rounded the block and vanished as if into thin air. Instead, he ran into Menon.

‘Slow down, Panikker.’ he grinned. ‘These bureaucrats, they are phantoms.’

*

Though Reghunath Pillai wasn’t exactly a bureaucrat, it was indeed a convenient definition. In reality, he was a student of the Civil Services Brigade who dreamt of great reform. Panikker had met him nearly ten years ago, when Reghu had won a local quiz competition against the neighboring town. Since then, he had watched him become something of a local celebrity. He was a student leader for the SFI brigade. His name had appeared in a national paper after he topped his twelfth grade exams. He was the only one who could list all the Presidents of America and the revolutions in Dominica. He had touched the Taj Mahal and his father had nearly gone missing during Emergency.

Through all these years, Panikker had maintained cordial associations with the wealthy Pillai family. ‘You have to water the seed and let it grow,’ he would say, ‘Only then can you pluck the fruit.’ And pluck, he did.

During his wedding, Panikker had proclaimed: ‘The town’s favorite stallion has been saddled by this buckaroo.’

Reghu’s wedding was a landmark achievement. Panikker had, for several years, patiently received queries about his coming of age. Mothers and Grandmothers had visited him during many a dawn asking:
‘Panikker, this only a suggestion, but what about that Reghunath for my daughter? You think they’d make a good match?’

But of course, Panikker too wanted nothing but the best for Reghu. And that’s when Shalini came along. Beautiful. Rustic. Wide-eyed. Like a little lamb. ‘Perfect for you, Reghu.’

Panikker thought about all this the night after he had chased Reghu at the town center. He only wished they could talk it out, so he could pursue his duties once more, without worry. Think of the weddings to come.

That night Panikker suffered a long dream where usually there was room for none. In his dream, Indira Gandhi was back and another emergency was in place. All the men in town were slowly disappearing.
First to go, of course, was Reghu. Then they kept on fading till Abu was gone too. ‘No more men! No more men!’ Panikker cried in his dream, ‘What do I do now?’

A shot rang in the distance.

In the second part of the dream, he was standing at an altar dressed like a bride. A Christian wedding. There were doves in the air and a huge white cake. The groom was Menon, powerful then than ever before.

*

Standing in the bowl boat rolling gently towards town, Panikker felt slightly romantic. He felt poetic when tired. On a night like this his mother would have called the moon a Papadam, he thought. Full and round. Right out of a tub of boiling oil. A glistening thing.

He paid the boatman the fare he demanded; he was in no mood to argue. Though he had planned for an easier day, wherein he’d talk to Reghu about these rumors and counsel him, duty had called him away. He had been to the other bank to discuss the case of the Colonel’s daughter with an old and aching family. Nothing had come off it, and the futility clung to his clothes like burr. All he wanted now was to lie down on the cool side of the bed, face the window and be swept into sleep.

The sky was clear and blue that night. An unbroken cotton cloud was drifting inwards from the North; but Panikker would be home before it had a chance to cover the moon. Still, for good measure, he lit his Eveready torch.

Trudging the riverine slush and reaching the stony path, he looked across the water to study the progress of the small boat and found it gone. The water was unbroken. But instead of feeling frightened and alone, he felt calm. No matter how many years had passed the river was still the same, he thought. Married to time.

These thoughts were so removed from Panikker’s usual methodology of practicality, that he felt at once shocked, melancholic and revolted. It’s all this stress, he told himself, stroking his attaché case like he would a pet. Tomorrow he would have to meet the Colonel and tell him his progress. Maybe then his nerves would feel slightly soothed.

Panikker started walking up the path when something stirred in the bushes to his right. For a brief second he thought of the dead duck rotting the jute bag. Then his practicality returning, he thought of wild dogs and quickly picked up a stone. Another rustle. He took aim. But what ran across the path was neither duck nor dog, it was a girl. A Djinn! Panikker thought, nearly collapsing. He dropped his torch and it rolled down the path. He didn’t dare move to pick it up. Two djinns, Abu had said. He hoped the second one too would float by without minding him.

Panikker stood stalk still for a long while then. The large cloud, which had been many miles away earlier, covered the moon during this time and immersed everything in deep water darkness. And though in the meanwhile he should have been praying for his safety, his head was flushed with images of the djinn’s moonlit face- a face which he thought resembled that of the Colonel’s daughter.

*

Panikker had spent the whole night in a fit of fever; he felt possessed. Sitting at the local coffee house now, he fell asleep between sips of tea. Twice he dreamt of a girl with duck’s wings. Once he dreamt of Menon – howling at the moon. He cursed himself for dreaming anything at all.

He should have been rehearsing lines for his meeting with the Colonel. But here he was, waiting to pounce on Reghu. Whatever had happened last night was an ill-omen to say the least; he wanted to make sure all the bolts were tight now. Then he would finish his duties as fast as possible and be back home before the moon even stirred in its bed.

Reghu was in the habit of haunting the coffee house on late Sunday mornings. But it was nearly noon when he showed up that day. He had a thick book in the crook of his arm which seemed to tilt him about his axis.

‘Reghunath,’ Panikkar called out to him, putting on his best face and wasting no time in joining him at a table, ‘How are you?’

‘I’m fine, Panikker,’ Reghu said, evidently surprised to see himself facing the jumpy broker. ‘Days are long, you know – studying for the Civil Services. Plenty of reading.’

‘Of course. I was once an aspirant myself! So, how’s the Fiat?’

‘Well, the Fiat is very good.’ Reghu turned red. ‘The mileage is weak.’

‘Of course. Same problem with my brother’s car. Your Fiat is better though. And everybody healthy at home?’

‘All okay, Panikker. My father is getting a promotion. Manager now.’

‘Great man! Great man!’ Panikker said nearly applauding, startling Reghu. ‘Your mother has always been there to support him, of course. Credit is due, credit is due.’

‘Indeed! She is very happy.’

‘Behind every great man is a great woman, Reghu,’ Panikker said stroking his chin. ‘True? Gandhi had Kasturba, that Mary Curry-Pierre Curry. Behind every man, all of them. True?’

Reghu studied him for a while, grinning. Then suddenly sitting bolt upright like a folding chair, he said, ‘Alright Panikker. Stop beating around the bush. This town was built on rumors; they never fail a sly man like you. Yes, we are separating.’ His voice had become ice cold, bureaucratic.

‘Separating?! Not divorce, surely!’ Panikker felt choked. Murder!

‘Divorce, yes. Don’t cringe, Panikker. It’s hardly your fault. Truth be told, I was forced into this thing’- he gestured into the air- ‘we are still young. We haven’t been married long. A divorce is good for us both. This is not the eighteenth century anymore, Panikker. That’s all I have to say.’

‘Every marriage has starting trouble. It can be fixed, Reghu.’

‘No. Not a matter to be fixed,’ Reghu said firmly. ‘I shouldn’t have let it happen in the first place.’

‘But what is the issue?’

‘Frankly, Panikker – it isn’t your place to ask.’

‘But even I have troubles, Reghu. So common!’ Panikker tried to cajole him. Reghu seemed to listen, if only for a minute. Then he exploded. ‘Don’t ambush me, Panikker. This town is too small-minded. Are we but relics, Panikker? Props for your antediluvian attitude?’

‘Shush. Keep your voice low, Reghunath,’ Panikker insisted. ‘We’ll find a solution for everything. I’ll speak to Shalini myself.’

‘Why should I keep my voice low? To hell with that. Make it as big as one your weddings I say!’

Reghu looked like he was about to leap onto one of the tables and bare his chest. Bold, but not traditional. The coffee house had become small, as if all this while everyone had been silently and secretly edging towards their table. Here was a short story for the town’s jam jar.

‘Will you leave or should I?’

Panikker thought of leaving the town altogether.

*

But of course the only people who ever really leave town are brave businessmen who end up beggars, cancer patients and the women he ships off to the cities. As for Panikker, he was destined to be cremated here – and even then ashes wouldn’t rise above the tree tops.

Walking towards the Colonel’s house now, he was filled with a strange sense of determination. What had to happen has happened, he told himself. Soon everyone would hear about the scene at the coffee house, it would be embarrassing no doubt – but, he wouldn’t submit to the indignity of being fired or give Menon the satisfaction of being appointed because of his ineptitude. No, he would march to the Colonel, shake his hand and resign on his own terms. Then he would talk a long break – maybe visit the temple town of Sabarimalai.

While he turned over in his head the things to say, an open jeep roared past him, nearly knocking him into the groves. ‘Blind bastard!’ the Colonel shouted over the dust. He was sitting in the passenger seat holding his colonial gun.

‘Colonel!’ Panikker shouted after him. But the jeep had already rounded the corner.

He heard another one rattling towards him and jumped in the middle of the road to stop it. This one was had three of the Colonel’s Man-Fridays in it.

‘Where’s the Colonel going? I have a meeting with him!’

One of the men grinned. ‘Well, the Colonel’s going to be busy for some time now,’ he said.

‘I suppose you haven’t heard yet,’ said another, ‘The Colonel’s daughter eloped on the Madras Mail today morning – with Suresh Chandran, the mechanic -’

‘And we are chasing the train. He’s as good as dead. Now if you would be so kind as to get out of our way, your highness-‘

The jeep zoomed around the bend and out of sight. Panikker stood there confused, a certain degree of awkward relief swept through his thinning hair; a minute ease in his anus.

Then he suddenly recalled the night before and shuddered.

The djinns haunting town may have been no djinns after all.

*

By nightfall, whatever little sense of relief Panikker had felt was long gone. So what if the Colonel hadn’t had the chance to fire him, the divorce was still going to happen, and his position as the number one broker was surely beyond rescue. He sat at the Abu’s matchbox tea shack ordering tea after tea, as if he were awaiting inebriation. This is the sunset of my life, he thought.

‘Chin up, Panikker,’ Abu told him, ‘these things happen.’

‘But the town’s not what it used to before, Abu. I’ll tell you that much. We are becoming rusty. The turn of the century has my fingers caught in the hinges. ’

Abu shrugged. People still drank his tea. Same as ever. Panikker wished he had someone better to relate to.

‘Maybe I’ll go to Sabarimalai for that long hiatus.’

‘Well, we don’t know about all that. At least, you’re better off than that Menon, – so you have some cause to cheer up.’

‘What do you mean?’ Panikker asked, sitting up.

‘You don’t know? Well, we are glad. Let us be the one to make you a bit happy. The mechanic who ran away with the Colonel’s daughter? Who do you think married him off last year?’

Panikker couldn’t help but grin now. A new vitality entered his bones. Away with the turn of the century. Away with the sad sunset. He would marry a hundred people more before he retired!

‘Hey Menon, do you know when the Madras Mail leaves town? Ha-Ha!’

***