(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor : Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
The village was lost in a deep, sound sleep.
The moon’s glow was cool and silky.
The western breeze had just subsided.
It was time for the fruit bats to return home now that they had filled their stomachs to bursting with fruit from the fig trees.
The susurration of nocturnal creatures slowly faded out. Cats were returning home after their night of hunting. Owls and their cousins flew back to their hollows. Bandicoot rats returned to their lairs. Crickets, having tired themselves out from their nightlong droning, began to sleep. Dogs curled up at the end of their guarding duty. The time had come for night to sleep and for the day to wake up.
The rooster, the flagbearer of diurnal animals, flapped his wings and crowed to wake up the village. The drongos and the red-wattled lapwings were already chirping and cooing. The crows had begun cawing.
The blowing of a conch and the beating of a drum floated out from the temple.
The relieved groaning of a village stretching off the drowsy vestiges of sleep. The rustling and loving murmurs of couples pulling away from their nightlong embrace.
The soft sucking sounds of newborn children feeding on their mother while playing with her thaali or grazing their fingers on her free breast.
The kind, firm voices of the parents waking up their children. The creaking of doors.
The sharp sloshing of watered down cow dung against housefronts.
Calves called out for milk. Their mothers echoed back their cries and bellowed.
Filled with vigorous energy, the village began its day.
The adults set out for the fields and the children for the streets to relieve themselves and thereby make a mess of their village.
A mother steps out into the street and loudly calls out the name of her child.
The metallic sounds of pots being lowered into the village well and hauled out. A teenager leaned on an empty cart and brushed his teeth with the branch of a neem tree while watching the women around the well.
Inside sheds, mortars begin grinding cotton seeds into cattle feed.
The village was bathing in the warm red rays of the rising sun.
Children began their day of playing and adults began their day of working.
The large house on the western street was known as the Kottaiyar house. It didn’t get its name from being a kottai, a fortress. Years ago, a wall had been built around it like a fort’s wall and the people that lived there began to be known as the Kottaiyar.
The family had once been one of wealth. Now their home has become a symbol of decay and misfortune. The crumbling outer wall resembled an ancient ruin, with the mortar turned black. When it rained, the walls turned darker. The dirt and soil that made up the wall was now pockmarked with moss.
Wild pigeons now roost on the second floor of the house. This was fine with the family as they were able to treat their guests with cooked birds.
The house used to be surrounded by massive trees. Now all those trees had been chopped up for firewood and consumed.
Any villagers that passed the house would still walk with reverence towards its people. If, by chance, they saw the Kottaiyar family they would see people with sunken stomachs, narrow hips, and eyes glowing with desperate hunger.
The wooden frame of the front entrance was carved with a conch, a wheel, and a V-shaped namam, all symbols of the god Vishnu. After crossing the front yard and at the end of a long and wide corridor, a large armoire could be found with Vishnu’s symbols engraved in the brass inlaid doors. Priceless gold jewelry set with precious gems had once filled the armoire. Now it had leather ropes made of buffalo skin so the tilling tools would not be nibbled by mice.
Arasappa Nayakkar – the current master of the house and the village chief – was sitting with his back straight without leaning on the stone pillar. He had sat down in the morning and it was past noon now. As always, he would sit there until bedtime.
Everyday – without a break – people would come from far and wide with their problems for him to solve and he would listen with steadfast patience. Usually, the problems people brought could be split into two general groups: issues that could be solved by an important individual and those that could be solved by a village assembly.
Loans, matters of position, security, rivalry, land disputes, caste fights, blocking of water channels, arson, laborer’s share disputes, etc. were taken up and investigated by the assembly. Quarrels that arose within families- inheritance disputes, marital problems, food and care of the elderly, dowry issues, and other related problems were brought before an individual of standing and respect in the village. Complicated problems would take days and sometimes even months to resolve. Regardless, time solved all problems. If a judge couldn’t do it, time would.
Of all this, the hardest part was getting all the information and comprehending it as every villager had their own way of talking.
Sometimes, the plaintiff would be overcome with anxiety and emotion – especially if things weren’t going their way – and heap insults on the judge as if they were the opponent. “Go to hell, bastard!”
Anyone watching would assume the problem was between the judge and the plaintiff. And they themselves would join in on insulting the judge.
Whenever that happened, Arasappa Nayakkar would raise his left hand with a smile to calm the plaintiff down. The plaintiff would then bow their head and withdraw while wiping away tears.
Due to their wisdom and high values, the Kottaiyar had been doing this for generations.
At the time, the country was in the tumultuous period between the end of the Paalaya chief rule and the beginning of the East India Company’s writ. It was a lawless time of fear, confusion, arson, loot and theft. Property and lives had to be protected by the people themselves and this responsibility even extended to the punishment of wrongdoers.
One day, during that period…