A tall tale….
There are some unbelievable stories, this might one day be consigned to one of those collections. But then again, I have to tell it, for it is, if not remarkable, an interesting tale. I take you again, my friends, to the little village I hail from, nestling near the Western Ghats, where we still have only three or four shops, where we still have but one road passing through it going from Kunisseri to Kollengode, one school, one temple, one bank and a post office. Paddy fields stretch out to fill your gaze and both coconut and palm trees dot the gap between the ground and the sky. As you scan from left to right, you would see some of the smaller hills like Swamimala and Koormamala and farther yonder you can see the Nelliyampathy hills. Not much happens as you look, you see an odd bullock cart or a motor bike, and perhaps a heavily loaded lorry from Tamil Nadu. Sometimes you see an auto-rickshaw scurrying through, and nowadays you can even see Muraliettan’s bright yellow auto taxi, a covered contraption, which is the talk of the village. Traditional auto rickshaw’s which boasted of sharp bursts of wind on your face and activation of all of your joints as they traversed the 20Km distance between Pallavur and Palghat are in lesser demand it seems.
This story remains fresh in my mind, even though it took place a decade or more, back in time. It is not mentioned in the village these days, for many of the characters have passed away. I myself was vacationing in the village that July. In fact it involves my cousin who is always in the thick of things, as he puts it. He somehow gets wind of happenings in the village and reaches the location, always on the ready to ferret out the tiniest morsel of information. But when he later narrates the story to you, you can rest assured that he has added at least another 50% masala, and I am sure this was one such story.
The rains were delayed, the previous harvest had not been good and the weather was horribly humid. It was not a good idea to sit inside and so, we, the two of us, were sitting in the long wall beside the house, swatting mosquitos or as they say in the US, shooting breeze. Every now and then somebody would pass by and Mani, my cousin would shout out a greeting to him and a little chit-chat would ensue. You may wonder why I used the word shout, well, that is exactly how it is, since the old times, we had to communicate with the workers in distant fields and bellowing was the only way you could get your message across. All the farming folk of the village therefore had huge and booming, but raspy voices. Today you would see the mobile phone at work, but in those days, it was an almighty shouting match between two speakers across thousands of feet of open space. The only problem was that it got so ingrained into you that even if the person is just a few feet away from you, you cannot get the voice attenuated to city levels where people, according to Mani, only whisper.
A little boy was speeding through on his bicycle and the shouted question from Mani nearly unseated the boy, causing him to lose balance, but the bright little fella Krishnankutty managed to stop and wheeled back to answer the question about the wellbeing of his father. But what he said next was what got this story started.
Krishnankutty, the son of the local priest, mentioned that a couple of foreigners were seen near the temple, and that one of them was as tall as the coconut tree near Mudaliar’s house. He said, you know, that tree which has reddish coconuts - that tree, not the big one, that chenthengu. Mani pooh poohed him, saying no foreigner had ever been seen in Pallavur and told Krishnankutty to scram.
You don’t know Mani, he is not the type who would leave this tidbit to the proverbial dog. Within minutes he excused himself and went rushing to the source of the information, though he did not mention anything to me. He is like a bee, goes off in a straight line to the location, neither looking left or right, arms swinging furiously, the orange dhoti at half-mast. The dhoti which was once orange in color (signifying his support for a popular political party), now looked like a white dhoti which had been washed over and over again in the stagnant brown water from the fields.
I was summoned indoors in the meantime, as the TV had gone on the blink. You see, that is the problem if you are an electrical engineer. If something goes wrong, be it the power supply, the fan, the radio, the fridge or the phone, you are asked to take a look. The hardy people in our family would not dream of calling a repairman and paying him, when a qualified engineer was available at hand. So whenever I landed up at home, my uncle would be ready with a litany of complaints and would ceremoniously hand over a mini tool set which he would never give to anybody else (that ‘foreign’ kit was only to be handled by his engineer nephew). This time the TV was not working and I found out that the stabilizer had cut out due to very low voltage, and that was because the nearby rice mill was ‘on’. Mill Babu must have got a consignment of rice to polish, and that meant that our voltage dipped, till he finished his work. Since a cricket match was going on and everybody was frantic, I connected the TV direct as it could indeed handle a lower voltage. The match took up the rest of the evening.
When I met Mani the next day he had lots of news for me. In fact I had never seen him so worked up. But this time he had authentic information (according to him) since the protagonist of our story happened to be his customer. How so? Well, my cousin dabbles in life insurance policies and he had once sold a policy to Mohanettan, which is what our hero was called.
Mohanettan (actually he is much younger than me and Mani, but that is how he is known in our village) was Karvatte Raman’s son. Karavatte Raman used to run one of those old Ambassador taxi’s in our village for a long time, till both he had the car had to be retired. Every single person from reasonably well to do families of the village had gone someplace in that car. It had taken people to numerous marriages, temples, hill stations, honeymoons, hospitals and what not. People have died, and some have been given birth to, in that car. But one day the car just broke down and Raman could not afford to repair it. So it occupied a corner of his front yard, falling into further disrepair. Neighborhood kids could be seen playing hide and seek or doing imaginary driving in it and the owner Raman never recovered from the event.
Mohanettan was a strange guy actually. He passed his SSLC from Alathur and joined the Chittur College for his BA which he passed eventually, but not without difficulties. When he was in college he got involved in some political party like many a Kerala student and it was rumored that he was even put into a lock-up once and trashed by Krishnettan, the police constable at Chittur. Some rumors floated around those days that Krishnettan was actually a distant relative of driver Raman and that Raman got it done to teach the errant boy a lesson. I am not really sure about all this, because Mani told me these stories and one cannot really figure out how much and what portion is fact and what portion is fiction. Mohanettan had sworn revenge, but before he could do anything, Krishnettan was transferred to some remote place after getting caught for accepting a bribe.
Mohanettan, as mentioned, got his degree, but then that was not enough (just a low scoring BA degree was worthless) to get a job. Raman tried requesting anybody and everybody who got into his taxi to help get his son a job, but nothing worked out. My uncle tried as well, but Mohan was a little bit of a rebellious chap and never performed well in interviews. He could not tolerate an interviewer asking questions about some obscure freedom fighter when the interview was for the position of an office clerk. In addition, his countenance was always scowling and not friendly. So nothing worked out, for quite a long time.
As the car performance declined, Raman became more and more surly and took it out on Mohanettan. In the meantime, another complication arose as Mohanettan fell in love with a comely girl from the big and wealthy Aravancheri family. Really, one has to blame the temple for all these liaisons, because in Pallavur that is the only place where ‘boy can meet girl’. They met a few times in dark corners and out of people’s sight. For some strange reason, the two hit it off, but in filmy fashion the girl’s family soon got to know of it. I understood that it was my cousin Mani who actually went and leaked the information to them, though he denies it vehemently even now. As you see in numerous films, the girl was quickly married off to some idiot fellow in Bombay with great fanfare. I remember all this because I had attended that wedding and had a nice payasam - ada pradhaman. Mani was missing from the event and had excused himself, rumor has it that he was keeping a low profile as he felt Mohanettan was on the warpath.
Mohanettan soon sported the traditional beard which always sprouts with a vengeance on the faces of such lovelorn youth, grew his hair long (one less cut for the poor village barber) and was seen smoking pot or visiting Neeli’s house. Now don’t get that wrong, Neeli was not the ‘other’ type, she just supplied good toddy on the side which her husband got from the palm trees doting the field pathways. All this happened in quick succession, and Raman the driver fell severely ill, thence to be bedridden.
Mohanettan following a decent brainwave, decided to become a good man, shaved his beard, cut his hair and started looking again for a job, what with the cost of the medicines and all that. It took some effort, but he finally found a clerk’s job in Bombay. From what I know, he did not try to contact the girl who was also in Bombay, fortunately he let sleeping dogs lie, but he sure was one disturbed chap out there. The pittance he was earning was just sufficient to pay rent at the ‘chawl’ in Vikrohli, and the accommodations can at best be described as slum-like with a common toilet, five people in a room etc…. nevertheless he learned to live and work, and value the small earnings he made, a far cry from the carefree life he led at Pallavur. Mohan also learnt how to speak Hindi and English fluently. Mani and he did patch up and Mani, the clever salesman he was, managed to sell him an LIC policy, which they said would take care of not only his life, but also expenses related to any cancer & heart treatments.
Let me digress a bit now, for Mani has come and took me out of that reverie. He has news. It seems that not one but two foreigners had come in a big ‘benz’ car, escorted by the police. They looked like burly people and one of them was indeed a 6+ footer (the boy was right about his being as tall as that midget coconut tree). I am not too sure they came in a Mercedes, but people in our village have not seen all those fancy imported cars, so I will give that a pass, but for sure it was some big imported car, and that meant big and powerful people. Then he added the clincher, that the Benz had an escort full of police officers and a guy in a safari suit. They had come, and quietly went into Mohanettan’s house. After a while, they all came out and Mohanettan was seen meekly accompanying them. He also had a small airbag with his belongings. It looked like he was going somewhere with these foreigners. Nobody was smiling or laughing, and Mohan did look very nervous and upset, but he was not handcuffed.
You can imagine how irregular all this is for the people here. Well, I must admit I was also perturbed, and could not make head or tail of the events. We decided to go to the location together. I am supposed to know the world a little better as I lived overseas, or so they believed.
To reach the place is not so difficult, just a couple of furlongs walking distance (you may wonder what a furlong is – it is 200 ft in today’s terms, still a usage in our village, remnants of the British past and the FPS imperial system) just past Dubai Krishnan’s house. That house is quite lavish, right in the middle of the old thekke gramam’s row houses where pattars once lived, next to Krishna Iyer’s. Now they have all gone to Bombay or elsewhere and most houses are shuttered. Some have been renovated or rebuilt in modern fashion and the view they have of the temple pond is unsurpassed, especially in the mornings when a number of ladies are having their bath. Many a young fella would be up and peeping through those second floor windows hoping to catch a glimpse of what he is not allowed to gaze at. Past the grammam and just beyond is Raman’s house. We reached there and saw many others lounging around.
Oh! I forgot to tell you, Raman passed away a few years ago, dying with no one around. The remnants of the taxi are still there, but the house has been repaired and painted. Taking you back some years, his son Mohan could not come, for he was working overseas in Iraq. In fact he found a job in Baghdad during the late 80’s while at Bombay, not a great job or anything, but still well paying. That paid for the medical bills, kept his dad somewhat comfortable and once every two years Mohanettan would come on his month long vacation. What great stories he had, of life in Baghdad, trips to Basra, the casinos in the capital, the huge palaces and buildings and what not. He would bring a few bottles of imported booze and a couple of cartons of Dunhill cigarettes. He would have guests at home till the booze and smokes were finished and weeks later, it would be time for him to go back to the desert and to back breaking work. I met him once or twice and he would explain to me what he really did. He took care of air-conditioning systems, something he had learned while in Bombay. Not repair but just routine maintenance, cleaning and so on. His company did most of the work in Iraq’s palaces and other government buildings. The nature of work was such that he had access to many important homes and even the women’s quarters. He was very careful, very polite and very meticulous. Not once did he get into trouble or earn anything other than a good name and some petro dollars. And being somewhat good at languages, he mastered Arabic.
Good things don’t last, Saddam Hussein fell afoul of the West after he decided to conquer Kuwait. Mohan continued in Iraq even after others deserted Baghdad. The war which ensued was no good for anybody and like so many others, Mohanettan returned back home after the second one in 2003, impoverished and sad, but with many memories, some good and some bad. His last earnings was spent trying to get home and his trip back home was a harrowing tale by itself. He had no desire to look for another job immediately and he spent a year doing nothing but moping around and spending the last of his earnings. His friend’s circle dwindled and soon he was at his wits end. It was at this juncture that the foreigners visited him.
Mani was going from person to person trying to find out if somebody knew anything. Wild rumors were being farmed, like Mohan had done something wrong in Iraq involving the Americans and British, and so was in trouble. Some suspected theft and flight, others suspected sex and rape, and one or two suspected treason. But all this died down after a few days and Mohanettan was forgotten.
Ramans’s house remained locked, the rusted ruins of his old taxi were now not even used by the playing kids, for they had been warned that it would be a sure case for tetanus. The trees and plants grew wild and the place looked ramshackle. Mani was upset since Mohanettan’s LIC policy premium remittances had stopped and the local LIC manager was furious with him.
Pallavur continued to be the sleepy village it always was, and I was there for the following year’s vacation. The mystery was still not solved, but I had a few other important things to take care of, which took quite a few days. Meanwhile, Appu marar had passed away, the temple drums had been silenced, and soon enough all three of the drumming maestros had left us. I was seeing many new faces each time I went, the youngsters were all growing up and I even saw the girl Mohanettan had been after, the girl who had gone to Bombay. She had become rotund and was now a mother of two sniveling kids and I thought, fortune had been, for once, nice to Mohan.
But I was intrigued about that old tale and Mani kept on pestering me to help him find out what happened to Mohanettan. So I went with him to the Alathur police station where Mani had a friend – Police constable 463 Ramankutty. He introduced me to the SI, who was part of the team which had picked up Mohanettan two years ago. The SI agreed to talk over dinner and we all went to the Noorjehan hotel at Palghat. This SI was a nice fellow actually, though he did not really have much to say. He mentioned that a call had come from a ‘higher-up’ to escort two Americans and an officer from Delhi. That was all he was told, other than the fact that he should take them to Pallavur, to Mohanan’s house and after that to keep his mouth shut for a few months. Now that a couple of years had lapsed, the SI was not too worried about talking to me.
When I heard all this, I knew that something sinister was brewing, but the thought that intelligence agencies could be involved made me desist from making further enquiries. I cautioned Mani as well and we drifted on to other tasks after which I went back to Florida where I was working. In the middle of the year which passed, I heard from Mani that the LIC had started receiving premiums on Mohans’ policy and that late fees had been paid. So Mohan was indeed alive and safe, somewhere.
Like clockwork, I was home at the village the following year, again on the annual vacation. One day Mani came tearing in, with his dhoti almost falling off and looking in complete disarray. He announced that Mohanettan was back, that he had come in a Japanese car, a Toyota Corolla it seemed and had a North Indian wife and a son in tow. It seems they were redoing the house and would remain there for a month. He wanted me to accompany him to meet Mohan.
I was not averse to the idea, and so we trundled along the slushy path to Mohan’s house which was by now all spic and span. A little boy’s howling could be heard, perhaps he had been bitten by one of those zealous Pallavur mosquitoes and we heard a lady shush shushing in Hindi. We saw Mohan lounging on an easy chair and soon he had us seated while the lady was dispatched to make some tea. Things were going well, he said, he had got married to a Marwadi girl in Bombay, which was where he was working these days. In fact he had acquired a nice flat in Bandra. I was flabbergasted, how could he do all this in a couple of years? He was virtually impoverished two years back! He would not tell me, and just smiled. Sheepishly we walked back home, my thoughts spinning away with the suspense. How on earth? I thought.
The next day I went alone to meet Mohanettan. This time the meeting was different and Mohan was effusive and in a talkative mood. He explained that he was still upset with Mani for having messed up his love life and did not want to tell a story to somebody who would spread it all around with so much masala that it would be something else, altogether. But he told me…
Something he had overheard at the palace helped the US forces nab Saddam and others hiding in bunkers, during Operation Red Dawn. A small portion of the large bounty on his head, was paid to Mohan for his timely input. It took a while, but the amount was big enough for him to buy the Bandra house and with that he secured a job and started a family. I did not ask him for any further details nor did he profess any more by way of information. It was, as you will agree, none of my business.
Mohan never came back to the village after that, it was the last I heard of him. I got back home, mind at ease, only to see a super agitated Mani. He had hot news, it seems that a particularly well-endowed lady of the village had been seen by somebody in a compromising situation. He is off, to get more details…Ah! Well…
Note: This is a work of fiction and fertile imagination, for no such event occurred, nor does such a ‘Mohanettan’ exist.
It is just a tall tale.
A tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements, related as if it were true and factual. Some stories such as these are exaggerations of actual events, and tall tales are often told in a way that makes the narrator seem to have been a part of the story. They are supposedly humorous and good-natured, like this one hopefully is…