(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor: Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
Govindappa Nayakkar had just finished eating and was chewing betel leaves while sitting on a slab in the shade of a neem tree. Urkudumban was standing in the shade of the wall with his arms crossed. He was one of their farm hands and was always in that spot like a living statue whether or not there was work for him.
Govindappa Nayakkar began preparing more leaves for another round of chewing. He arranged five large betel nuts, a sheaf of leaves, lime powder, and white tobacco like a shop counter in front of him.
First he put three of the nuts in his mouth. Then he spread lime on three leaves, rolled them up tightly, and bit into them whole. His ears moved and his jawbone bulged with his powerful chewing.
When he spat out the juice, he’d do it in a large stream that fell far away without a single drop going astray. He could clear out five betel nuts and half a sheaf of leaves with each sitting.
“Do you know why betel-eaters spit?” He asked. “It’s so we can chew more.”
He spat out the chewed up remnants into the edges of his fingers, threw them away, and got started on the third round. It took a minimum of ten rounds to get one that tasted distinctly better.
Govindappa Nayakkar reached into the betel nut box with his eyes shut and felt around to automatically grab five more. Instead, his fingers instinctively felt around the box to count. No. I should just get a handful first and count. He thought. He opened his hand to throw the nuts back and felt as though someone was standing nearby. Should I get the betel and then look or….His eyes opened on their own.
Govindappa Nayakkar was shocked to see his younger brother with a blood-soaked knife in his hand.
Krishnappa Nayakkar rushed over and quickly told his brother what had happened.
Govindappa Nayakkar told Urkudumban to head over to the pond with his sling – a weapon the farm hand always kept tucked in his waistband. “Urkudumban, we don’t know if the thief is by himself or has cohorts. Make sure he doesn’t escape. Also make sure the goldsmith doesn’t kill the thief out of rage. Take care. We’re right behind you.”
Urkudumban removed the sling from his waistband and became a changed man. It was as if Veeralakshmi – the Goddess of Courage – had come upon him. It was hard to see him as the same man that was humbly standing off to the side in the shade.
In those days before guns, Urkudumban had worked up an unmatched reputation with his use of a sling. Using only sound, he could even hit targets in the pitch dark.
A hare couldn’t escape his aim. When he hunted mountain boars, he’d accurately call out where he’d hit them and where they’d fall. He could even shoot down a flying bird. It was hard to believe his feats without witnessing them. He’d use anything from a pebble to a coconut. Depending on how he wanted it, the stone would either make a loud noise or fly quietly to keep the target unaware.
After seeing him rush off bravely, the brothers smiled proudly at each other.
Govindappa Nayakkar told his brother to first gather the village elders before beating the drum to signal the village into attending an assembly. With that done, Krishnappa Nayakkar set off with a few young men to capture the killer. As soon as his brother left, Govindappa Nayakkar reached into the betel nut box and took out five.
“Kaliyuga is at its worst now.” He muttered.
The village and the surrounding fields fell into a disturbed silence. It was hard to tell what would happen.
One day, awhile back, Govindappa Nayakkar was chewing on betel leaves and stitching banyan leaves together. People of the karisal bhumi (‘Charred earth’) didn’t use banana leaves as they do now. Instead, they’d break their ritual fasts by eating on the banyan leaves that had been stitched together with millet stems. On normal days, they would eat on metal or wooden plates and bowls.
Stitching the banyan leaves together was a pleasant pastime for Govindappa Nayakkar. He kept the nail of his left thumb long and sharp to carve out fibrous strings from the millet. He would tell Urkudumban to bring large banyan leaves and then stitch them into various shapes. He would stitch with his eyes closed and only open them to see the result.
Suddenly he would imagine that he was a blind man abandoned by his brothers and other family, with no other way of fending for himself except by stitching leaves. While crying, a thought would intrude and remind him that he wasn’t an orphan. Then a different thought would tell him he’d be better off as an orphan… but then what about Urkudumban? Should he be there or not? Govindappa Nayakkar burst out laughing. Who else would bring him the banyan leaves?
He wiped his tears and looked around, glad to note he hadn’t been seen crying. Govindappa Nayakar started a new daydream but Urkudumban came with news saying that the village was going to be raided by torch-wielding bandits.
“You’ve told us this a million times.” Govindappa Nayakkar laughed.
“So what?” Urkudumban countered. “What if they come when we’re not prepared?”
“Well that’s fair. I guess we should be safe and stay alert.”
Govindappa Nayakkar shut his eyes. Thinking with his eyes closed was a habit of his. “There are numerous paths to the village. If we can narrow down the route they’re going to use, you’re enough to protect us. Why tell the whole village?”
As always, Urkudumban shrank back shyly from the praise.
While they were talking, Akkaya arrived. He was related to the Kottaiyar family by marriage. He was short and almost forty but didn’t look it. He was a bachelor and his eyes were round like a fish. His hair was in a top knot. Except when he was working, he wore his waist cloth up to and around his chest. Women would laugh whenever they saw him. He walked on the balls of his feet, lifting and dragging them with each step. His face maintained a permanent expression of innocence.
Though Akkaya was younger, Govindappa Nayakkar would call him Mama. He worked for the Kottaiyar household.