He was like that, right from his childhood! Collecting things, show -casing those and enjoying from a distance. Pencils, erasers, books, toys whatever came to his hand, he used to neatly arrange in a row and look from a distance, smile satisfactorily, but never used those. When appa took us to Thripunithura, where my mother delivered her first girl baby, my first sister, the Raja of Kochi was distributing cash gift for his birthday, by his own hand. A great occasion, said the uncle who took me and my friend to the palace to receive the gift.
We stood in a queue and remember well that the Raja placed a coin in our palms, which we were told was a great honour.
I spent that money for buying some balloons on the way home, despite protests from the uncle who took me to the king. Ah, within no time the balloons burst in the air. I cried for a while not only for the balloons which went ‘fut’ within a matter of minutes but as my friend Kuppu’s coin was safe in his hand . His laughter was more heart- bursting than the sound the balloons made in the air while losing their breath and falling down, shrunk, shivering, lifeless.
”Enketa potchu-where have those gone?” Asked the uncle who
tried to prevent earlier, my buying the balloons. I blinked and looked down on the battered balloon pieces. The pathetic sight broke my heart.
“Were these stupidly shrunk colour pieces my proud procession which proudly moved in the air keeping head high, just a few minutes before? I asked and wept again.
The victorious laughter and the visible coin in Kuppu’s hand were forgotten soon, though the memory of those balloons which went ‘fut’ in a matter of few seconds and fell down pathetically loosing shape, pride and very life, lay hidden in an unknown corner of my mind and popped up whenever the castles which I had built up in my life’s path assiduously, fell pathetically, irrecoverably.
Kuppuswamy, that was his name, lived the first half of his life exclusively for his sisters; he neglected the second half. The net result was that he got nothing out of life. We were together up to the SSLC and he could not continue his studies beyond that. His father was a vaadyar, purohit whose meager income was not sufficient to provide even a square meals for his family. Kuppu was a brilliant student and my appa, who was doing well in business, offered to bear the expense for the higher education of my close friend and class mate. ‘Poverty should not come in the way of such a brilliant boy’s future,’ Appa said and asked vaadyar to leave his son with us.
” You will feed him, educate him,” was not prepared to accept appa’s offer and questioned him, “who will feed the remaining 5 mouths ?
I have no money to pay the barber for the past 4 months; are you not seeing the wild growth on my head and face ?”
Kuppu joined the type writing and short hand class.
Many time, while going to college, I had picked up some food from home and delivered at Kuppu’s house which was on the way in the agraharam. Their self prestige resisted accepting them but their dire want overtook and made the prestige to surrender. Hunger is a merciless tornado which gulps everything on its way.
“Oru pathu roopai thada-give me ten Rupees,” he demanded once and that was the only time when Kuppu had asked for a help from me. I didn’t ask him ‘what for’ . Gave him the amount.’ Then he revealed,” Appa is unwell, want to take him to the hospital ”
I went along with him to admit his father in the hospital and stayed over night. Abject poverty had already decimated his body and sucked almost every blood cell . Death had practically no work except to stop the flow of air, which it did with no efforts. Vaadhyar did not return home. The villagers came forward to cremate his body. Appa also contributed for the expenses.on last rites. I looked at kuppu’s eyes when his father’s mortal remains were turning into ash. They were not moist. Only a stark silence, prevailed in them. I hugged him and wept for several minutes. I wanted him to cry and propel the pangs of separation and worry about the future, but he didn’t move an inch. That was deadly. While returning home, he mentioned that the vastrham on the dead body was gifted by my father on the previous night. It seems my father took a pair of new veshtIes to be gifted to the Kathakali artist but on a second thought, don’t know why, he thought went to Kuppu’s house and gifted the clothes. When I told appa that the cloth on the dead body was his gift, he shut his eyes for a few minutes . Silence, sometime speak .
After a week , Kuppu came home and asked for some money. That was the first time he was asking appa for help.
”Enna, kuppu, ammaikku ennachu -what happened to your mom ? ” Appa inquired. I don’t know how he guessed that something was wrong with Kuppu’s mom. it was perhaps his premonition out of his experience with the leg-movements of the twins, death and disaster.
”Mama, Ammai poyatchu-mom passed away” . Without telling a word of consolation or expressing grief, Appa went inside, picked up some cash from the box and asked the cart -man to be ready . Amma came out, saw Kuappu standing in the veranda and appa getting ready to go out . Without asking what was the matter, she went in and came out with a new pudavai, nine- yard sari .The new pudavi was for covering the dead body of the old woman during her last journey. The way they acted silently and swiftly amazed me. Aware of the financial condition of Kuppu’s family, were my parents expecting the dance of death over there any time ?
Appa could manage to get my friend a ‘karyasthan’s job- something like a manager cum clerk, in a tobacco shop in the Palghat Angadi, bazaar. The ‘moothan’ the shop owner was a kind man. Having known from appa the financial condition of my friend, he gave a month’s salary in advance for kuppu . Appa helped the family with grain and vegetables.
In six, seven months Kuppu learned typewriting and shorthand, went to Bombay and worked for an export company, living in a small room , eating a single meal a day and starving on the days of religious fasting days, which were too many. Most of the amount he earned was sent home for education of his three sisters and later their wedding .
When I met him in Bombay after a gap of twenty years, he had his own flat, thanks to the additional income he had, which his part time ‘pourohityam’ the job of purohit fetched for him.
” At least now you think about your life, ” I pleaded, ” You need a woman to share your life and a progeny to extend your lineage ”
”Too late,” he replied. ”It is never late to live” I asserted, ” it might be too late for some to die but for none it is too late to live “.
He extended his brass betel box offering a chew for me. “Nice box, looks like your appa’s. I like the cover in the shape of a betel leaf” . While picking up the leaves and other ingredients from it I noticed a small coin inside it . I jumped from my seat, ‘ Kuppu, this coin was the gift from the Kochi Raja, right ? ” I asked. He nodded in agreement, with a smile on his face. No balloons came in between us this time.Then he held my hand, opened a wooden cupboard in which over a dozen Mayilkan veshties, doube-dothies with ornamented borders, were neatly stacked.
“Pakshi ”- that was how he used to address me as I was a lover of birds and used to wander in forests during my school days in search of them, ” When I call you from my death bed, you know what you should do, spread all these fragrant, mill-fresh dothies on my body before you light the fire .My parents did not have their own clothes on their body during their final trip. Let me have that luxury” I looked at his eyes. He meant what he said, I was sure. It was not a casual request but a well thought-out plan.
”You are a stupid,” I screamed, ” throw away this soiled cloth you are wearing now and don the new one from the cupboard, one everyday. What is the guarantee that you and me will have a tomorrow ?’
“You have not faced poverty, ” he remarked looking at the ceiling ” I will never pardon the Fate for depriving my parents the privilege of having their own clothes for their last journey”
“Now the same Fate has provided you plenty of them .Why don’t you use them ?”
” It is not time yet”
“Poda madaya – get lost, you fool ” I shouted and rushed from there. That was the last time I saw him . Afterwards, we lost contacts.
Two months ago, when I raised my head after a dip in the waters of the Kalpathy river, I noticed on the adjacent rock a brass chellapetti, betel casket and from the betel-shaped lid I could guess that it belonged to my friend. “From where did you get this ?” I asked the man who was beating his clothes on the rock.”It looks like my friend’s ”
”Your friend had a sacred thread like what the brahmins of this village wear?,” He asked me and I confirmed.
“Sorry, sir. Your friend is no more”
He stopped beating the cloth and came close to me. ” A few days ago, a man slipped from the moving train near Palghat Junction and despite wide publicity given through the local dailies and mike announcement through the streets of Kalpathy and Palakkad, there were no claimants for the body.The Poonal gave an indication of his caste and it was decided by the authorities to cremate . Along with two other Railway staff, I was given the responsibility. I had a new red colour turban which I used to support the head load. I covered the body with that new cloth and sprinkled some water from the nearby stream. This brass vethilappetty, was lying a few yards away from the body which I collected while returning .You can kept it, if it belongs to your friend”
I opened the box .The coin gifted by the Kochi Mahraja was in tact inside .
I took out my wallet which I had hidden in a rock-hole and searched for some cash. There was a five hundred Rupee note, which I handed over to the porter. ”Buy a new turban cloth for you and a sari for your wife. It is our custom to give a small gift to that relative who performed the cremation”. He accepted it with a smile.
I sat on the rock, looking at the flowing waters. How unpredictable life is ? Kuppu did not buy balloons as I did, but his life just went ‘fut’ like the balloons. When my balloons lost their life, at least I was their to morn the loss. Now my friend is no more but I am unable to cry. Or why should we cry at all ?. The air from the balloons just escaped and got mixed with the vast expanse outside and is it not the case with my friend too when his life escaped from his body and amalgamated with the supreme reality ?
I don’t know how long I sat there like that. The sky got filled with stars and cool wind was blowing from the western hills, when I got up .
I returned home and opened my wardrobe to change the dress.
A dozen Mayilkan veshties, doube-dothies with ornamented borders, was neatly stacked inside it .
I cried inconsolably..
October 6, 2011