Sulaiman was my father’s cart- man. His association with my family started in a dramatic way, when he was caught red handed by one of our hotel employees, while trying to jump over the compound wall, to escape from the punishment for non-payment of his hotel bill. He was then a lad of ten or twelve years.
‘I can do any work; don’t beat me,’ he pleaded to his captor. He was thin like a match stick, fair in complexion, tall for his age, had a small lump on his back and his left arm and leg were short and slightly twisted by polio attack. However, his bright eyes, fearless pose and smiling face caught my father’s attention when the urchin was brought home, adjoining our hotel, for awarding punishment.
‘Rascal, you tried to jump over the compound wall?’ my father shouted at him, rolling his eyes and staring at him, ‘what courage despite disability?’
‘Dhairiyam karalilalley, mudhalali?’ he asked slightly twisting his eye brows, and partially closing his eyes,’ Kalilallallo’ Courage is in mind, not on the legs. ‘Isn’t it so, master?’
‘What work are you capable of doing?’ father asked. It was obvious that he was happy the way the boy replied.
‘can catch fish, wash fish and cook fish,’ he boastd enthusiastically. Admirable attributes, but unfortunately unfit for ‘Brahmanal’ hotel. When he uttered the word ‘fish’ not once, but thrice, my mother felt that his presence itself was filling the air with the stink of fish and pleaded, ‘antha saniyanai vidungol ennu- release that devil, please’
‘Take him to the well, pour ten buckets of water over his head and provide him with a pair of clothes,’ my father instructed the attendants, ignoring mother’s plea. ‘Post him for table cleaning and toss him out in the evening’
My mother, as usual, went inside without uttering a word of dissent. My father’s judgment of persons hardly failed.
By his diligent work and decent behavior, Sulaiman continued to stay with us and in due course, became my father’s pet servant . He used to follow my father like a shadow, wherever he went and even while relaxing in his easy chair, the kid used to sit near him on the flour, pressing father’s leg or providing him the frequent dosage of pan leaf- tobacco combination. My mother too loved and treated him well when she learned that he was an orphan. His impeccable integrity, intelligent conversation and pleasing manners, attracted our customers and he became a trustworthy servant. He called my parents, ‘Vappa and Umma’ and they didn’t object. “Vappa ente karala; umma uyirum- dad is my heart and mom my life,” he used to claim affectionately.
My father sent him to school along with me and being elder in age and of daredevil attitude, he became my escort.
Sulaiman didn’t like the idea of idling in the class room for hours together, while the world outside was full of action and joy. Our school housed in a lovely, airy building with high ceiling and wide windows, was surrounded by lush green paddy fields and when the crop was ripe for harvesting, the winds used to dance over them creating waves after waves. The heavy down pours used to create small ponds here and there and variety of birds used to nest on the branches of the trees lining on the borders, making different sounds all pleasant though incoherent and non-rhythmic. Peasant women, young and old, used to happily move about with their sickle and bamboo basket and their loud talk and laughter could be heard from our class room. It was a joy to watch through the windows and sit idle throughout, though that would cost us marks and even put our education in jeopardy. But it was worth, we both thought. Sulaiman had the courage to act on what he thought was correct and became a drop out. Despite my father’s pressure to continue the studies, he showed no inclination. He thus became our full time helper.
My father imported a horse-cart from Coimbatore, for his frequent visits to Palakkad market and monthly visits to his native village and other places and Sulaiman was made the driver. The new arrival was the talk of the town for a few days. Till then there were only bullock carts there. People used to view with awe and respect my father pompously sitting in the new horse-driven cart, with shining ‘kadukkans’ ( ear ornaments) and rings and thick velvety tuft rocking in rhythm to the movement of the colt, proudly driven by Sulaiman, cracking his whip and making all sorts of sounds. Sulaiman was the happiest man in the world.
The annual festival at the ‘Mariamman’ temple was a big event of joy and merrymaking for the local population. Artists volunteered from the neighboring Tamilnadu, to play ‘karakam’ and ‘poikkal kuthirai’ dances. The function starts with the installation of a temporary ‘dwajasthampam’ or flag post, a carefully chosen long bamboo plant, freshly uprooted after taking bath in the river and ceremoniously brought to the temple sight, lead by a procession of drummers and dancers. It ends with the auspicious ‘poomidhi’- walking across the red-hot charcoal path by the devotees, who enter the field, after the ceremonious bath, fresh from the river, clad in turmeric water soaked dhothies, bare-chested and bare- footed. It is an awesome sight. I was eager to join the group and walk across the fire but I was never given permission, by my father.
While I sat grumbling in a corner, cursing the imposition of restriction on my activities by my parents, Sulaiman worked out a plan for active participation in the festival and also to earn a quick buck in the process.
Mohammad, owner of the ‘Annan ( squirrel) photo’ beedi was a regular customer to our shop, and my father casually suggested that he should make use of the festival where large people gather, to advertise for his product. He also gave him a few tips on visual representations for sales promotion. Sulaiman overheard their conversation and sought and obtained my father’s permission to arrange a procession of young boys holding placards and also organize a cultural show. Mohammad was not so optimistic but agreed for the proposal, in view of the low cost involved in the production and presentation of the street show.
I was eager to join in the venture but my father would never allow me to walk along with the urchins, across the streets of the town or participate in the cultural program organized by our worker. Sulaiman also was not for that, as he was fully aware that it would be against my father’s prestige.
Sulaiman collected discarded materials from the hotel such as coconut shells, dented sauce pan, broken bucket, palm leaf fans etc and painted them with pastes of quicklime, ash, charcoal and turmeric powder collected from the kitchen. A variety of display materials were ready and what was required was manpower. He collected a good number of young boys working as coolies from the railway stations and nearby teashops and taught them what to do and what to say. He would be leading the procession and others had to simply respond to his call.
After ensuring that a good number of people had gathered in front of the temple, and the kids had by-hearted the slogans he had taught them, Sulaiman organized his team to stand in a line and handed over the banners and other display articles to each one of them. He took the leading position and gave the first clarion call:
‘Gopala!’ ‘Yes, sir,’ replied the kids ‘Eanke porea?’ whither? ‘Kadaikku poren’ Going for shopping ‘Enna vanga?’ To buy what? ‘Beedi vanga’ To buy beedi. ‘Enna beedi?’- What beedi? ‘Annan photo beedi, annan photo beedi, annan photo beedi’
Annan is squirrel, in Malayalam.
The procession started from the Mariamman temple, which was opposite to our shop and therefore I was just an onlooker, initially, fearing my father’s watchful eyes. But when it progressed and moved beyond a safe distance, away from the area of vision of my father, I joined the group and was with them almost till the end, now and then switching over to the role of an onlooker, when familiar faces appeared on the road.
The procession gathered speed and the slogans became more voluminous, when two bullock cart drivers offered us free ride. We covered the full length of the Palakkad town purposely avoiding Kalpathy, a site unfit for beedi marketing.
Companies always target specific groups, defined by gender, ethnic group, income, and region and so on. A technique that works for one group may not appeal to another. If we were canvassing for coffee powder or ‘mookkuppodi (snuff), it would be worthwhile to pass through the Brahmin villages. It was nothing but common sense that prompted us to skip those localities.
Another major element of advertising techniques is to capture the viewers’ attention and longer they remember the product after watching the show, better for the company. The efforts are waste, regardless of the quality of the product, if the above aim is not achieved. The third one is the cost factor. By using waste materials artistically and effectively, Sulaiman proved the efficiency of low-cost advertisement, well planned and executed. Thus, on all these counts, his road show was a spectacular success. It became so popular that, subsequently, corporate houses like Hindusthan Lever, hired him for their publicity campaign. By simply replacing the three words ‘Annan photo beedi’ in the slogan to suit their products, Sulaiman organized the street shows and his services were in great demand.
The news that I participated in the procession reached home before I reached.
‘Get inside and hide somewhere. Your father is furious,’
my mother warned me, as soon as I entered the house. But before I could hide, father spotted me and asked, Sulaiman ‘enketa-where is Sulaiman?’
He had, by that time, already hidden inside our ‘pathayam’ the big wooden box, where rice was stored.
Father opened the top of the wooden box and picked up Sulaiman with his fingers as if he was a rabbit. ‘Get out of my house, you scoundrel,’ he thundered and then turning towards me, ‘and you too’
‘Where will we go vappa( father)?’ Sulaiman asked calmly. “
‘This is our house and why should we go? And moreover, you gave me permission for what I did’
‘I didn’t permit you to take Appu, along with you,’ my father clarified.
‘I cannot ask you to join the procession. Then, who will guide us if not Appu mudalali?’
His wits and the way he answered mollified my father’s anger. “Oom” he ordered, ‘Get in and attend to your work’
The work we attended to was not what father had in mind; we started collecting discarded materials again from the kitchen and nearby shops to give a makeup to Sulaiman for his ‘puliyattam (cheetah dance)’, that night. The makeup was so impressive that even my aged grandmother came out to the frontage of our house, from where she could catch a glimpse of the dance before the temple gate. Effortlessly, Sulaiman joined the professionals and after the other dances were over, he was to have his solo performance.
He went to my grandmother, took her blessings and also requested her to sing. ‘At this age?’, she exclaimed, but slowly walked towards the temple gate, heavily depending on her walking-stick and gave a lead with the first line of a song
“Mariamma, mariamma, engal muthu mariamma”
She was exhausted before she could start the second line but others continued. The women, who had come from Coimbatore, Gobisetty palayam etc, spread their hair, poured turmeric water over their head, beat their body with the bunch of neem leaves they had in their hand and broke into a dance amid religious ecstasy.
The ‘Cheetah’ jumped and rolled among them and the whole atmosphere was surcharged with jubilation. The slogan displayed prominently on his back read: ‘Simhathe ploley ulla C.P.Mohammadu, Vappaye poley ulla ‘Annan photo beedi. Ha,ha! Enthu veeryam, Enthu sukham, enthu manam, enthu gunam! C.P.Mohammd is like a lion – (In real life, he was as timid as a lamb). . Annan phot beedi is rich in qualities, hot and flavored like ‘Vappa’ (meaning my father).
Sulaiman’s show was well received. I don’t know whether the sale of Annan Photo beedi shot up or not but his fortune did. The road show was a turning point in his life. Several small companies hired his services and when I left the college, he was managing the Anil photo beedi shop, though during his spare time he used to help my father too.
After two years I went to attend his wedding with Ayisha, the only daughter of Mohammed, owner of the ‘Anil photo beedi company. Then we lost contact, as he left for Dubai. However, news about his prosperity continued to trickle and I was happy to learn that Sulaiman had became a ‘settu’, a wealthy man owning a number of tea and rubber estates.
A few years ago, I met a huge figure clad in Arabian costume along with half-a -dozen attar-scented, burqa clad women and a score of youngsters and children of all ages, at the foot of Eiffel tower. He stared at me for a moment and yelled, “
‘Wah, Allah!’ and hugged me so forcefully that I stopped breathing for a moment. When released from his vice-like grip, I raised my head to have a good look him and immediately recognized him- he was Sulaiman.
‘We came to Paris to buy perfumes,’ he said and took me to his hotel suit.
‘Appa mudalali has met Ayisha, my first wife,’ he said introducing his family members, after the initial excitement was over. ‘Yes, I have.’ I replied, ‘ how many more do you have?’ ‘Only two at present,’ he replied proudly. ‘But I see many more black beauties,’ I enquired. ‘Those women are my wives’ maids’ ‘When are you getting your fourth wife?’ I enquired with a mischievous smile. . But he was serious. ‘Yes, Appumuthalali. I will have my fourth nikkah, Inshallah, at your presence and with your blessings’
I spent several hours in his hotel suite, chatting reminiscently about our childhood days and while taking leave, I agreed to his request to meet him more often.
‘And don’t forget,’ he reminded me while seeing me off at the hotel exit, ‘I will wait for you for my fourth and final wedding’
Everything went wrong for Sualiman for the next two years. His business empire collapsed, his health deteriorated and one by one, his wives and children deserted him when they learned that his company was no more beneficial.
He refused to avail any financial help from me. ‘That is against what Vappa has taught me,’ he said. I went to Palakkad and helped him to establish a small tea shop on the road side but that too failed. He stopped contacting me.
I went to Palakkad again, specifically to meet him and force him to accept some help from me, though I knew it was a difficult job.
The moment I got down from the train, a porter grabbed my suitcase. It was Sulaiman! He had shrunk in size, scattered in looks but still smiling! I took him to my house. The ornamental huge wooden doors, uncared for a long time, opened wide with a protest. Sulaiman cleared the dust accumulated all around and prepared a tasty black tea.
‘Vappade kattilil kidannu marikkanum’- Wish I could breath my last, on father’s cot. He said looking at the ebony cot on which my father used to relax. He said that he was happy with the porter’s job. I asked him to stay in our house and take care of it. ‘Not now, mudalali. The time hasn’t arrived,’ he replied.
After six months I rushed again to Palakkad, on receiving a call from an old railway porter, Vavakka that Sulaiman was sick and desired to see me urgently.
Sulaiman was in a bad shape when I went to his hut.
‘Let us rush him to the hospital,’ I commanded Vavakka but Sulaiman refused. He wanted me to take him to my house. ‘Vappade kattilil kidannu marikkanum,’ he pleaded. I sent for a doctor and took him to my house, with the help of Vavakka.
‘You have come for my fourth Nikkah, Appumudali?’ he enquired, lying on my father’s ebony cot. He was slowly losing his consciousness though his face was calm. I could see that he was slowly sliding towards the valley of death. ‘I am glad that you kept your promise and came for my nikkah. ‘Will this wife desert me?’ There was anxiety in his voice.
‘Never, Sulaiman; you can sleep peacefully on her lap, forever’
‘What are her demands? Perfumes from Paris and crystals from Amsterdam? ‘ The pitch was slowing down.
‘She has no demands,’ I replied unable to control my tears. ‘She only wants your company’ He seemed to be satisfied with the reply. ‘The Mariamman kovil procession has started,’ he whispered looking at the temple across the road, ‘Can I Join them?’, he enquired. His eyes were moist. He pulled me towards him and whispered into my ears, ‘Gopala!’ The words were clear and deep. ‘Yes sir!’ I responded. Now my throat was drying up. Yet, I could manage to ask him the next question in our old slogan-chain.
His voice had become still; but I had the answer.
July 29, 2008
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