(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor: Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
There were 60 or 70 torch wielding bandits. To make running easy, they wore leather thong sandals. Two or three of them carried skin-bags filled with water or palm wine. Almost all of them were carrying a torch that was either a little or halfway through its oil. Five or sex men held brass pots filled with oil. On the other hand they had a cloth band wrapped around their wrist to prevent oil from seeping down their arms as they poured it on torches.
When they were on the village outskirts, one of them took out a piece of cotton that had been wrapped in a dried plantain peel. He then struck two flint stones together until a spark landed on the cotton. He put the glowing cotton ball on a torch and blew on it until a flame erupted.
From one to another, they all quickly lit their torches. The oil bearers quickly poured oil onto the torches. In turn, the torch-wielder would twist the torch and poke at it to ensure that the oil would soak in deeply. On each torch, a cloth had been tied a hand’s width below the lit end. This was to soak up any hot oil that might drip down from the brim and burn a hand.
When they entered a village, they would hold their hands up in a prayer gesture whenever they saw a temple. After all, would the villagers part with their possessions easily? Lives would be lost on both sides in that battle. Nothing was sure about their lives until they returned home. It was said that the bandits told their wives to take off their thaalis – a wedding string worn around their neck – and keep it in a uri, a pot hung from the ceiling that kept milk and other things from prying hands.
On the days leading up to the attack, the bandits would disguise themselves as beggars and scout out the streets, homes, and any other potential places to rob.
As though they were used to the route, the bandits went straight to the Kottaiyar house. The dogs attacked the bandits, barking, but they were warded away by torches. Beasts were afraid of fire. Hearing the dogs bark frantically, the village went on high alert.
Akkayya hadn’t just placed young men in houses and on rooftops. He had made them hide in tall trees. They were all well-trained and armed.
As soon as the bandits entered the village, the young men came down from the trees with their weapons and stones as planned. Then, they waited for their cue.
The Kottaiyar house entrance was wide open, which surprised the bandits and made them apprehensive. The bandits lifted their torches high and looked around, seeing nothing suspicious. One of them, supposedly the leader, nodded his head. Nine of the bandits entered.
All of them slipped and fell. None of them had expected this. The whole house echoed with laughter. They hadn’t expected this either!
As they had fallen with their arms spread, in a desperate attempt to keep their balance, their torches burned them. They kept trying to quickly get up despite their burns but they continued to slip and fall. Their special footwear was useless in this situation.
With the kind of quick thinking that came when things went wrong, other bandits crawled in and laid on their bellies. They each put their heads on the feet of the person lying down in front of them, forming a human pathway for their companions to walk on.
Akkayya was shocked. This was the first time one of his plans had been defeated.
He chastised himself for not listening to Urkudumban’s advice of attacking the bandits with stones as soon as they arrived at the house. He was insane to have ignored the suggestion.
As the bandits walked on the human pathway with their torches, Akkayya made a noise.
The young men came running. Urkudumban’s sling began to play. Stones flew from Akkayya and Krishnappa Nayakkar’s hands.
Stones pelted bodies, causing a strange sound. Wails of pain joined shouts of rage and commands to keep going.
The human pathway went to bits under the stones that were falling like hail. They became stuck on the strewn millet, slipping and falling like the first group of men, unable to go forward or backward.
Each stone from Urkudumban’s sling felled a man and left him writhing on the ground in agony.
The extensive attack from every side of the house and the upper floors made it difficult for the bandits to come up with a new plan. To make it worse, Akkayya’s youth battalion arrived.
The bandits could do nothing but throw their fallen companions over their shoulders and run.
In a few moments, it felt as though a heavy downpour had ended.
In the middle of the night, the entire village danced with joy. Lamps lit up homes. Some ran to the temple to ring the bells, beat the drum, and blow on the conch. In that cold hour, the sounds of their celebration could be heard for miles.
The millet grains were cleaned. Akkayya picked up a torch that had been abandoned and laughed. No one had heard him laugh like that before.
The torch was hung from an iron ring in the ceiling of the Kottaiyar house. It became a trophy for their descendants to show off with pride.
Stones as big as coconuts can still be found on the roof of the Kottaiyar house and other flat-ceilinged houses in the village.
The village was filled with conversations about the night’s events even as it gave way to the day. A little before dawn, a shepherd went to the Kottaiyar house to talk to Ramappa Nayakkar, the lead shepherd. He told Ramappa Nayakkar that four healthy goats had been stolen. The people there were shocked but began laughing.
“How can they leave empty handed?” Akkayya asked.
“Let them go.” Kovappa Nayakkar said. “They need to drink and eat fried meat for all their pain.”
Ramappa Nayakkar listened to the conversation but didn’t say anything. Krishnappa Nayakkar then said, “Don’t worry. If they don’t accept it as an expected loss, we can replace the
goats.” Krishnappa Nayakkar then looked at the eldest brother.
Govindappa Nayakkar nodded.
“If we had given Mother Earth a few of their men they wouldn’t have been bold enough to do this.” Ramappa Nayakkar fumed.
No one responded to this. Urkudumban looked at Akkayya who in turn looked at Krishnappa Nayakkar. The latter was unable to look his older brother in the eye. Govindappa Nayakkar, who had been observing all this, revealed a smile as thin as unhusked rice and slightly nodded his head.