(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor: Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
In those days, guests would spend at least a month with their host. This was because the journey had to be made on foot or because of the distance travelled or it was their habit to do so. The host wouldn’t let their guest leave either. The Kottaiyar house guests spent two to three months with them.
In the kitchen, one of the cone-shaped clay stones that made up the stove was replaced with a huge earthen vessel and always kept filled with water. The stoves would burn two or three times a day to make sure the vessel was always hot. The guests could then have a hot bath and eat whatever was available.
The kitchen chimney of the Kottaiyar house was perpetually smoking. The ladies were drawing water from the well, chopping vegetables, making pickled vegetables, frying fitters, or pounding kammam grass. Older women would be grinding millet in mortars, their earrings shaking in a similar circular movement. Several mortars, with wet cloth spread over their surface, were ready to be used for husking whole grain.
In the northern part of the home was a long cattle shed with a tile roof. In the shed, local breeds of buffaloes, cows, and a pair of oxen were eating their feed; their neck bells chiming. Two stone troughs, each one long enough for a man to lie down in, were filled with water for the animals. Tall mortars were in the shed for grinding cotton seed.
The Kottaiyar were a joint family. Akkaya supervised their needs. He would be wherever one looked. The women teased that the sole of his foot had a wheel imprinted on it. The youngest master of the Kottaiyar was Kannappa Naiyakar, also known as Chellapillai. He was the family’s beloved son. These were his chores:
Carrying an iron ladle filled with hot coals to the shed, taking horn flies off the cattle using pincers, and burning them on the coals.
Filling up stone troughs with fresh milk and watching the family’s two, waist-high, whitish gray village dogs slurp it up.
Mixing plucked poduthalai leaves with fried chicken eggs and feeding it to the turkey poults.
Collecting perfume from their caged civet cats.
Feeding soaked, finger millet to their gamecocks.
Cutting the fronds off young palm trees, weaving them into fans, and giving them to his favorite people.
He loved doing these chores, seeing them as a pastime. He also loved singing. Kannappa’s voice was like a conch and he was always humming a raaga. He was fond of women and palm wine. He knew many erotic Telugu songs and many village women, namely the younger ones, had an eye on him.
Chellapillai’s older brother was Sundarappa. He took care of the buffalo husbandry to the point of obsession. His favorite was a specific male who was the size of a small elephant and loved setting it upon the females.
Akkaya playfully called him Visvamitran, a mythological sage. When Brahma created the universe, he made cows. Visvamitran, who created a rival universe, made buffalos instead of cows, palm trees instead of coconut trees, bandicoots instead of mice, and so on. Akkaya would often make playful comparisons like this.
There were seven Kottaiyar brothers. All of them were born to Naranappa’s first wife Kondamma. His second wife, Rangamma, had a single daughter named Mangamma.
The seven brothers took care of seven household duties.
The eldest, Govindappa Nayakkar, was a general supervisor.
The second, Krishnappa Nayakkar, cared for their crops.
The third, Kovappa Nayakkar, took care of their cows.
The fourth, Ramappa Nayakkar, took care of the goats and the goat-pens in the fields.
The fifth, Dasappa Nayakkar, was the family representative for local and distant functions such as funerals, weddings, coming of age ceremonies, housewarmings, and tonsuring and ceremonial ear piercing. His time was filled just by going to these events.
The sixth, Sundarappa Nayakkar, took care of the buffalos.
The seventh, Chellapillai Kannappa Nayakkar, stayed at home and did the aforementioned chores.
The Kottaiyar house had two front entrances and two side entrances. Due to the cattle sheds, the house did not have a backyard or back gate. Just like the other houses in the village.
Neem trees grew densely to the side and behind the house. During summer nights, the trees would bloom with flowers that gave off a bitter scent. Akkaya called the trees Vepamma, neem woman. She was dressed in green and white. When the fruits appeared, he would declare that Vepamma was wearing kunukku, a dangling earring. When the vagai tree cast of its leaves, keeping just its branches and pods, he would remark: “This tree doesn’t have shame. Look at it standing naked after taking everything off.”
Along the long, raised front of the house were four windows that were each tall as a man. Through the northernmost window, in a room, an ancient woman sitting on a rope cot could be seen. She was a bag of skin and bones with a large, long nose like an old eagle that had lost all its feathers. This woman was Mangathayaru Ammal. She was 137 years old.
She was leaning against a long leather pillow stuffed with cotton silk. Her head was bent. Her hands were held together, near her stomach, as if she was praying. Her large, cart-wheel shaped earrings rested on her shoulders and were held in place with gold links.
Pooti hadn’t slept in years. Occasionally, she dozed off while sitting, her nap as quick as a hen’s. Sometimes she’d clear her throat. If she did it twice, Govindappa Nayakkar would rush into the room to find out why.
Pooti could still hear well. Since she didn’t have teeth, only those who knew her well could understand her.
“Govindappa,” she would say and make him sit next to her and gently stroke his arm. She would do that to anyone who sat next to her. Her touch imparted many tender inquiries such as “How are you? How is your health? Why don’t you come often? I can’t stay without you.” The caresses of her soft, wrinkled hands held many such questions.
“Why have you become so thin?” She’d say to a fat person. “Eat well. Put ghee in your meals. Do you get oil massages and bathe your head regularly? Do you eat curd in the morning? Drink lots of buttermilk. Do you take castor oil as a laxative?” And on she would go.
Pooti had stopped eating a proper meal years ago. All she ate now was palm molasses and curd.
When those caring, shaking hands touched Govindappa Nayakkar, his body would erupt in goosebumps and his eyes would grow misty.
“What day is it today? Which star is in the ascendant?” She would ask. She was always confused about these details due to her sleeping habits, thinking of day as night and night as day.
She had narrated many stories from her childhood, youth, and old age. There were many events that she hadn’t completed telling and those she hadn’t mentioned at all. Govindappa Nayakkar was immensely happy to hear her stories. Some he had heard, and enjoyed, repeatedly. Pootiyammal was an encyclopedia of experience.
She had come with the Kammavar – a Telugu agricultural caste – from Andhra to Tamil Nadu. When she recounted the difficulties that they had been through, she would become emotional. She would shed tears or laugh. Whenever she felt overwhelmed by her recollection, she’d hold her two hands up in obeisance to God and would start singing. Anyone sitting near her would quietly leave as she was done narrating for the day.