(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor: Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
The Kammavar caste wasn’t the only ones to migrate from Andhra. The Reddys, Kamballatar, Chettiyar, Brahmins, Porkullar, and Chakkiliyars also came.
There were many reasons for their immigration. They could have been escaping Telugu kings. They could have been trying to escape famine or trying to better their lives. Or they could have been escaping Muslim rulers.
According to Mangathayaru Ammal, the word Kammavar was derived from ‘Kamma’ a type of earring worn by their women that would elongate their earlobes.
She also related a story about their ancestors. In the Nagarjuna Hills, there was a brave Rakshasa girl who nobody could subdue. A bold and handsome Brahmin man managed to do so and dragged her along by shoving a toratti – a hook – through her nose. The rakshasi began to wear the toratti as a piercing. And to this day, the Kammavar women – the descendents of that rakshasi – wear the toratti.
“Tell me, again, how you came here from Andhra.” Govindappa Nayakkar asked. He had asked her to tell this story many times.
Mangathayaru Ammal should have become a poet. Her view of things and her style of relating them with charm was often appreciated by Akkaya and Govindappa Nayakkar. She was also in love with the story and her way of telling it. In her old age, it was all she could do.
Whenever Govindappa Nayakkar made this request, Mangathayaru Ammal’s happy expression would fade, become tense, and her eyes would lose focus as her mind wandered. Then her face would become happy a bit before growing sad and emotional. Finally, she would clear her throat and begin her story:
Chennadevi was my cousin, the daughter of my father’s older brother. She was six years older than me. I was nine.
Govindappa I am this old and I still haven’t seen a girl of such beauty and charm.
There was always a glow around Chennadevi. Perhaps her face had that brightness because she was born during a full moon.
Just like cows of a certain area have looks and pure features unique to their country’s soil, so do humans. Chenna Devi was as beautiful as the Andhra country’s goddess of beauty.
Her beauty became known in far away places, not just nearby villages. This fame did not bode well for her.
And her voice was so sweet! Once she began to sing, the world itself would become quiet. The breeze would grow still. Vines would stop swaying. Our bodies would feel lighter and we would feel like we were floating. Our hearts would brim with joy just like the waters of a pond.
She would only smile rarely. And we would long for those occurrences. And how varied they were!
She would smile with just her eyes, with her eyebrows cooperating fully.
She would smile from the edges of her eyes.
Or she would look straight and smile without a single muscle twitching.
Or she would smile at the floor – her most beautiful smile.
She would flutter her eyelids like a bird flapping its wings – her eyes would glitter at that moment.
Sometimes she would flare her nostrils and there would be a smile there as well!
When her lips stretched in a smile, her mouth would look more beautiful than it already was. When she bit her lips to suppress a smile, their color crossed the line from light red to the darker hue, like a sparrow’s blood.
A single pearl dangled from her septum piercing. When she smiled, the flash of her teeth would be in competition with the pearl. The taste of the goldsmith that thought to dangle a pearl septum piercing to call attention to beautiful teeth needs to be appreciated.
Then it happened. Just before she started puberty.
They decided to make a ruby necklace but did not have enough rubies. As they were thinking of buying some, a few men arrived in town. They had come to buy rubies, not sell them.
Chenna’s father asked them if they had rubies to sell, and invited them into his home to show them what he had. But the Muslim men were stunned by what they saw and asked where the family had bought them. Chenna’s father replied that he didn’t know and that the gems had been in the family for generations.
The merchants couldn’t take their eyes off the gems that seemed to light up the house. They took a few from the lot, placed them on their palms, and went out into the sun to appreciate the gems’ beauty. They smiled and spoke excitedly in their own tongue. It seemed like each one was trying to convince the other that the ruby in his hand was the best one.
Chennadevi arrived. Their turbans, trimmed beards, bulging eyes, and strange way of speaking made her burst out into laughter.
The older of the two men looked to see where the sweet sound had come from. He stared intently at Chennadevi and rubbed his eyes, as if to confirm what he was seeing was real. Chenna was so amused by his behavior that her laughter continued like strands of pearls were being flung, one after another.
That day Chenna was wearing a blue silk pavadai and a saffron silk dhavani with sparkling yellow dots. She was also wearing a diamond studded waist belt.
The merchants who were unable to take their eyes off the rubies were now struggling to stop looking at this jewel of a woman.
The older man raised his hands and eyes skyward like he was praying, muttering in his strange language. He gestured towards Chenna like he sought god’s blessings for her. It was not unusual for that old man to do so. I’ve seen many people do odd things like that after seeing Chenna.
Once, when we visited a temple, a man stood praying until she was out of sight. A different man stared at her and then began crying silently.
Something even more interesting happened when we were young. It was noon. Chenna and I were in a palanquin on a forest path. Not a soul was in sight. We were on our way back after accompanying her mother to her maternal grandparents’ house. Chenna had me sit close and was telling me one of the many stories that all children enjoyed. Two flies were getting married. Chenna gave me a detailed account, from head to toe, of what jewelry they were wearing. The bride was wearing so much that she could hardly turn. She desperately wanted to see the groom at least once but the jewelry on her neck got in the way. Just then, the palanquin shook. I hugged her and heard shouting and screaming outside. We felt the palanquin being lowered to the ground.
There were openings in the palanquin that allowed us to look outside. We had been surrounded by bandits and they were frightening! They wore black dhotis tucked between their legs. Caked in mud, they looked like unwashed elephants. Brown fuzz covered their bodies and heads that had likely never been washed with oil. Their moustaches were long and curly as a squirrel’s and their eyes bulged out. Each one had a spear.
“Will you open the palanquin or should I?” A gruff voice asked. It terrified me. Chennadevi looked at him through the opening.
A perfect round dot of vermillion was on his forehead, a streak of sandal paste beneath it. He had a string of tulasi beads on his neck. He was wearing a dark blue dhoti and yellow silk cloth draped across his shoulders. He held a shining sword in his hand and was gigantic.
It was quiet. No one knew what would happen.
Chennadevi got out of the palanquin and looked at the bandits with a calm smile, her eyes stopping at the leader. She stood like a statue and her smile did not falter. The diamond of her piercing brightly shimmered.