(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor: Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
When Urkudumban told Govindappa Nayakkar that torch-wielding bandits were on their way to the village, the latter turned to Akkaya and asked him what to do.
“Torch wielding bandits? Let them come. We can have a grand reception for them!” Akkaya cheered. His jolly mood spread to the other two.
“If they come at night should we give them dessert?” Govindappa Nayakkar asked with a laugh.
The torch wielding bandits had many tactics. For days beforehand, they would spread rumors of their arrival. The villagers would remain awake in anticipation for many nights. It would prove to be in vain so eventually the villagers would grow lax in their vigilance and fall asleep. The bandits would arrive then and attack. They would torch the hay piles and while the villagers were occupied with dousing the flames, the bandits would go for the houses on the other side of the village.
The bandits did not come in groups of ten or twenty. They would number a hundred or even two hundred. Each one held a torch in one hand and a weapon in the other that could be a billhook, a spear, a dagger, or an axe.
Two or three men would stand at the entrance of each house in the village to prevent the occupants from coming out while the bandits picked one or two houses to rob.
If the owner of the house happened to have hidden their valuables in buried pots, as they often did, the bandits would scald the owner’s face with a torch and get the location out of them.
They mainly attacked in the winter.
Entrances being torched and walls being broken with crowbars was common. If the house was locked, they would simultaneously make big holes in three of the house’s walls and the whole horde would enter.
The villagers and the Kottaiyar household readied themselves for the attack. They piled cartloads of stones on the rooftops, porches, and anywhere else they could be used to attack the bandits by hand or by sling. To handle the torch wielding bandits, stones were their weapon of choice.
While many young villagers picked round stones, Akkaya chose flat ones. When a flat stone was flung, the screech of it tearing through the air would inflict terror on the victim. Chosen youth were stationed in the upper stories of many houses with stones and weapons.
After sunset, they had an early dinner, hid important possessions, and turned off all the lights.
Women and children were told to hide in the Kottaiyar house behind an iron door on the first floor and lock themselves in.
Before the doors were locked, Govindappa Nayakkar’s ten year old son Tiruvatti ran out and tugged on Akkaya’s veshti. “Uncle! The bandits are coming to our house right? I want to see them. I’ve never seen them. Will you wake me up when they come?”
Akkaya widened his round eyes and smiled at everyone. He then nodded and gave Tiruvatti a stone. “Keep this by your head just in case.”
The women stifled their laughter.
Krishnappa Nayakkar, Akkaya, and Urkudumban waited on the sloped portion of the first floor. As birds return to their nests at night, the villagers returned to their homes.
As ordered by Govindappa Nayakkar, the main door was left open. On the large and level front porch, Akkaya had strewn four potfuls of millet.
The night grew darker. Some men were told to sleep and wake up when alerted. However, anxiety kept everyone awake.
The heavy silence was discomforting and time refused to move. Based on the position of the stars and the call of nocturnal birds, they guessed the time.
“Tell me a story.” Krishnappa Nayakkar said to Akkaya. “So we won’t get sleepy.”
“Alright.” He said. He went upstairs and checked on the four people asked to watch over the four directions. Seeing that everything was okay, he returned downstairs.
“Mmm. He wants a story.” He muttered. He began coming up with one as he wondered about the villagers hiding up in the trees. He told himself not to worry as Ragupathi was there.
In rural areas if a person is asked to tell a story, it is customary to pose a counter question, “Should I tell you a story about my birth or how I grew up?” The listener had to pick. However, the ensuing story would not be connected to either. No one knows why this came to be.
Urkudumban assumed Akkaya would start the story this way. But he did not.
Once upon a time, there was a king. He had a son who was old enough to get married. They arranged a grand wedding with two sisters who were princesses.
It was the first night after the wedding. There were two rooms stacked on top of each other with a ladder connecting them. The younger sister was in the bottom room and the older one on top. The prince came.
At the same time, a thief arrived. He threw an iguana with a rope attached to its leg and the animal gripped the wall. The thief then climbed up to it. He waited for the prince to enter one of the rooms so he could start his work.
Krishnappa Nayakkar laughed softly at this.
The prince stepped on the ladder, preparing to go to the top room. However, the younger princess grabbed his leg.
“Why are you skipping me?” She asked. “Don’t you see me?”
“Alright.” He said and began to step down. The older sister reached down and grabbed him by the neck.
“What are you doing? You married me first. You have to come to my room and then go to her.”
“She is younger. Same as a kid. You’re older so take the high road.” The prince said. “Also, she asked me to stay first.”
The older one did not let go.
The prince turned to the younger princess. “Your sister is also right. I did marry her first so we should follow tradition. Let go of my feet.”
“It’s the older one that should be patient. I’ve overcome my shyness to ask you to stay. Why can’t she be generous? She has always been like this.” She complained.
“So you’re talking back on top of ignoring tradition. Never! He’ll come to me first.” The older sister snapped, her grip on the prince’s neck growing tighter.
The younger one did not yield and tugged on his leg. The sisters continued to torture him with their “Me first!” argument.
The thief watched with rapt attention, wanting to know how this problem was solved.
The prince tried to placate the sisters and failed. He wasn’t sure what to do.
“I don’t want either of you!” He shouted angrily. His veshti came undone and the sisters still did not let go.
(Kumarappa Nayakkar did his best to suppress his laughter.)
What could the robber do to help? Hold a candle to the spot?
The two women did not get tired or give up. The prince’s eyes bulged out of their sockets.
Dawn arrived. The second horn sounded out from the palace.
The robber was now scared as the daylight made his escape impossible. As he tried to leave stealthily, guards caught him.
They took him to the king who ordered his head to be chopped off.
There was a noise upstairs so Akkaya went to check. He came back saying that everything was okay. “It was nothing. Just a suspicion.” He then continued the story.
The prince learned of the thief’s capture and the king’s judgement. He ran to the king and said that he knew of a better punishment.
“What would that be?” The king asked.
“Just get him married to two women at the same time!” The prince exclaimed.
As Akkaya finished the story, he heard muted sounds upstairs. He alerted everyone downstairs and went up.
In the west, two lights like fire-breathing demons could be seen flitting closer and closer.
“Could they really be demons?” A young villager asked.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts and demons.” Akkaya said. “It’s only our imagination.”
“Isn’t tonight the new moon?” Someone else asked.
“The new moon was yesterday.” Akkaya said. “Traditionally, bandits don’t rob during a new moon. It’s the night they rest.”
The torch wielding bandits weren’t coming from the west as the villagers suspected. They were coming from the east.