(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor: Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
As we walked, we had people asking us where we were going or where we were coming from. We would always answer with whatever seemed appropriate. “We’re from here” or “We’re going there to pray to God.” Once, we joined a group on a pilgrimage. Our ears and hearts were overjoyed when they sang the Nama Sankirtanam and we joined them in singing as we walked.
After visiting many holy sites, bathing in their pure waters, and praying to God, we climbed the Seven Hills and prayed to Srinivasa Perumal. We cried our hearts out to Him, putting our minds to rest as we spent a few days there.
We then continued south. As we came farther and farther south, our fears were relieved.
Our continuous walking had given our feet cracks and sores. Two children and three elders died of disease. Grief and disease continued to upset us.
Starvation, late meals, exhaustion, depression, resentment against our companions, silence, and finding faults in each other are all things that plagued us.
One family fought with us and left our group. We weren’t able to make peace with them despite our best efforts.
During our journey we saw wonderful trees and plants that we had never seen before. So many flowers – such color and shape and smell! Even faces changed from soil to soil.
The cows we saw looked different. The language was new. The people were strange and lovely. From now on, the Arava Desam – non-native land – was going to be our new home.
We reached a village’s hostel but there was no space because of the crowd. There was a dense grove next to the hostel that we camped in instead.
When we reached there, a group was in the process of leaving. They also carried a palm strip box in a yellow cloth along with a cane stick. Periyamma asked them what it was.
The lady was as old as Periyamma. Her hair was white as lime. She was a sumangali, a married woman. Her face was covered in turmeric and she had a big vermillion dot on her forehead. Yet there was a deep sorrow on her face.
Before she answered our question, she stared at us. Her look meant many things at once: ‘Who are you? Are you trustworthy? Damn you, why would you make me relive what happened? How can I begin to explain?’ and so on. ‘Yet, these are my people. I can tell by looking at them. I can trust them and tell them what’s on my mind so I can ease my sorrow. There has to be an end to constantly suspecting people.’
Govindappa! That tale was also one of a Muslim King.
Her daughter’s name was Tulasi. Even at birth she had thick, curly hair like kodukapuli. The child also loved her hair.
“It looked beautiful if it was left free to cascade down her back. It also looked beautiful if it was tied up. Any hairstyle made it look gorgeous.
When she stood, her hair came to the ground. We would trim it to her heels against her wishes.
Her bath was a chore for our whole family. She would sit on a palm tree fiber cot on one end and her hair would flow down the entire length of the cot. Coconut oil would be rubbed into it. Soap nuts would be boiled and the water would be strained and rubbed into her hair. Warm water would be poured to remove the soap nut remnants. Then her hair would be gently patted dry while the smoke of benzoin resin was wafted into it. Then she was moved to a different cot to finish drying. Combing her hair free of knots was another huge task.
When she was young, her hair was sixteen feet long. Her dad was thinking of making a yenni narkali – a huge chair with a ladder – for her. The length of her hair was a wonder and so people would come to see her beauty from near and far.
One day, as usual, she was sitting on her cot and combing out her knots. Suddenly street dogs began barking. From the lands behind our house, seven or eight horsemen came up to the very spot where she bathed. When we realized they were Muslim men, we ran into our home.
Tulasi could not run. As she tried to dodge them, her hair became an obstruction that caused her to trip and fall. When we went to save her…”
The lady faltered. Her lips quivered, her nose twitched, and her eyes welled up.
“Then she, Tulasi, called out the names of the goddesses of chastity. We began calling out the names as well. Ladies, it was then that a miracle happened before our eyes!
A damned man gripped Tulasi by her hair and tried to pull her up. Immediately, the earth split open and swallowed her.
The Muslim men were shocked. The man who had grabbed her let go of the hair that had been cut off and ran away. They all mounted their horses and left.
All that was visible was a crack. We put our mouths to it and yelled her name. Then, we put our ears to it. Over and over we called out for her.”
Wiping her eyes, she said, “How can she come back? Mother Earth had taken Tulasi back to where she belongs. She had become a god.
“This box contains the hair the Muslim man had dropped. Along with a fistful of dirt from the same spot.
“We never put it on the ground and take turns carrying it. Wherever we decide to settle down, we will build a temple and keep the box in the inner sanctum.” She wiped her nose with the end of her sari and walked away.
Grandmother just sat there silently and didn’t even drink water.
Govindappa, just like the Pottiyamman Temple we have here with our box and stick in the inner sanctum, there is a temple five leagues away with the box containing Tulasi’s hair. They still pray to it.
The entire family – the men, women, and children – listened to these stories sincerely. Except Akkaya. He thought that they, at best, were embellished.