I started my blog on 28th Aug 2010 and this is the 2000th Post in my blog. I have come a long way and never expected that I would last this long with my modest to less than modest work.
I thank all my blog viewers and visitors for their continuous support, encouragement and comments which kept me going.
I am presenting one of the most popular stories of yester years by Sri C. Ramachandra Rao garu today. You can read more about him here
For reasons of copyright, I am sorry I could not attach the original story here.
Hauling twice – the – permitted load up the hill with groans and screechs, the lorry stopped in the big bazaar of the Estate. To call it big bazaar was a luxury since the Prospect Tea Estate big bazaar had just four shops… two grocery, one coffee “Club” … and the fourth one was divided between a barber shop and a footwear shop. Peeping through the front door, people from the grocery shops hailed “goods have arrived”. Driver got down and opened the bayonet for the engine to cool off. From the other side Gopala Chettiar jumped down smiling gleefully. Already four or five idle youth flocked around the lorry.
“You devils! Have you smelt my coming already?” he cursed them with a boisterous laugh. He pulled out a pack of bidi from his long shirt and presented them few stubs each.
“Sir, give me matches too,” solicited a youth with a familiar air.
“You doggy fellow, you want me to supply the matchbox as well with the bidi? Get lost!” He said, thrusting the matchbox into his hand. There was no hint of anger or hatred in his abuses. That was his tone and tenor of addressing those youth.
“Look at our two lazy fellows over there,” pointing towards the top of the loaded lorry where two youth were sleeping blissfully, he said, “Oy Kadalesuu! Please wake them up. They learn to be wise at least by watching you people.”
Some boys had already begun to loosen the ropes of tarpaulin that covered the goods to insure them from unexpected rain. Two people tried to wake up Irulappa and Karuppayya … the two youth sleeping on the top, calling them by their names. Gopala Chettiar ran his hand over his bald head to set right the few disheveled strands of hair, and over his white long shirt to spruce it up. He felt the zari towel over his shoulder once more. He tightened the silk Dhoti he was wearing round his girdle once more lest it should give in, and started walking towards Velupillai’s shop.
“Hello Shavukaru* garu, Namaste!” Munuswami Gaunder greeted with folded hands from the Coffee Club on the other side of the road.
“What’s the matter Gaunder? You look smart today calling so loudly? Why, you want to serve me tea?”
Chettiar teased him flaunting his teeth, stained by regular chewing of pan, through his ruddy lips. Smelling something, he walked towards that side of the road.
“Look gentleman! It seems you plan to delay somehow the payment of your installment this time as well. No. I don’t allow that.” he said rather jocularly. Chettiar enjoyed light-hearted humor with his clients. Honestly speaking, he was not thinking of his dues at all. Every Friday Chettiar would bring pulses, vegetables, and other miscellaneous grocery items by lorry and sell them to the small shopkeepers and vendors in the markets around Anamalai Tea Estate. There was no custom of collecting the dues every week. He would collect his dues whenever they could pay. To keep him afloat even when some of them turned out to bad debts, he would inflate the prices suitably.
“What did you say sir? Can I back-out upon my word once I promised you to pay?” said Gaunder rather apologetically for the hint of delayed payments in Chettiar’s banter.
“Is it? When did you start becoming so prompt, then?” Chettiar continued his friendly sarcastic vein with a harsh pat on Gaunder’s back. The rows of fingers on each finger pinched his back. Caressing his back Gaunder said,
“I just called you if you would like to have some tea?”
Chettiar was really surprised this time on two counts. First, he proposed to pay his dues without being asked; and secondly, the miserly Gaunder had offered him tea on his own. He just asked Gaunder for tea in fun, but never with any real expectation or intention to take it at his shop. Gaunder knew pretty well that he took his food with Velupillai.
“Why do you take the trouble? You know, Velupillai will be expecting me anyway,” replied Chettiar.
“It is not a trouble at all. It would be my pleasure to host you. If you give me an opportunity, I shall take of your needs from now on,” proposed Gaunder.
Waiting for his response for few minutes, he said, “Sendamarai is no more, you know.”
“Ah!” Chettiar could not believe his own ears.
“She was fine last week when I was here. Such a great tragedy in so short a time?!” said Chettiar.
“She died the very next day you left this place.”
“Then I must go,” Chettiar got up.
“Velupillai was not at home.”
“Where is he, then?”
“For the last five days he was at the Vinayaka Temple wailing for her. Poor fellow. Sendamarai’s death is a great setback to him.”
Chettiar understood the reason for Gaunder’s cheerfulness now. Velupillai was a competitor to Gaunder. Each of them had a grocery store of his own. Gaunder has a Coffee-Club in addition. But Velupillai had a larger turnover. Velupillai was known for his honesty, integrity and good customer relations. His business went northwards after his friendship with Chettiar. Gaunder was envious at his prosperity. With Velupillai lost in grief for Sendamarai, Gaunder might be entertaining dreams of developing his business without competition.
When Chettiar reached Velupillai’s shop, workers and a few Estate coolies were playing Pachisi. They abandoned it after seeing Chettiar.
“Why didn’t you open the shop?” asked Chettiar
“Owner forbade us to open it,” answered a worker.
Chettiar entered the house through the sliding door. Cabbage, Cauliflower, Peas, Potato, Drumsticks and all other vegetables he supplied last week were lying on the floor drying. Rats had rummaged rice and pulses from the part-opened bags. Chettiar felt so sorry for Velupillai. He got angry with the workers. He came out in a huff and shouted at them:
“When misfortune befalls your owner and he says not to open the shop, do you just nod your heads like Gangireddu? See, how all the vegetables are getting spoilt.”
News of Chettiar’s arrival had already passed through the Estate and the Panchayat bigwigs Kolandavelu, Asirvadam, Kondai, and some young and old workers of the Estate congregated near Velupillai’s shop.
“Don’t find fault with the boys. Velupillai was adamant to open his shop,” defended them Kondai.
“Without taking even gruel, he was grieving for her. I am afraid he would die soon.” said Kolandavelu.
“Is it?” asked Chettiar.
“Why should we lie? If anybody takes to him something to eat, he would take. Otherwise he would put up with some tea.”
“Show me where that Vinayaka Temple is?” asked Gopala Chettiar. All of them walked towards the temple.
“Isn’t it after erecting this temple, that Velupillai became suddenly rich?” said Ennasimuttu.
“Why only this temple, hasn’t Sendamarai turned out lucky for him?” countered Kondai.
Gopala Chettiar listened to them but did not comment. For the last three or four years he had been doing business on the Anamalai Estates. Velupillai had become a very close friend to him during the last three years. His meeting Velupillai for the first time and Velupillai bringing home Sendamarai happened almost within an interval of four to five months. Velupillai had a first wife. The old story narrated by Velupillai reeled before his mind’s eye.
Till ten to twelve years back, Velupillai was a coolie on the Prospect Tea Estate. Once he had a serious scuffle with the Estate Conductor and after emotions flared to a high pitch challenging each other, he resigned and started his own business. Though it was called a business, it did not run into hundreds but a very modest venture. Every Thursday in the Pollachi hat at the foot of the hill, he bought the left over onion, tamarind, vegetables etc. at the end of the day cheaply, and sold them to the Estate workers for a profit. Jealous of him, the Estate Conductor used to threaten Velupillai that he would complain to higher authorities against him for starting a shop without a valid licence. Once the Conductor spotted the location of his business, the shop used to disappear into his hand bag. And once the Conductor had left the scene, it used to reappear at a different place. Though he was able to manage this way for some time, he did not like it. Some Estate coolies who were in favor with Velupillai went to the Estate Conductor and petitioned for sanctioning another retail grocery shop. They also requested that the shop was sanctioned to Velupillai. Thereby, Velupillai started a grocery shop as a competitor to Munuswami Gaunder.
It might not be as roaring a business as it was now, but it was still a very profitable one those days. Within a year he got married and in another three to four years he decorated his wife with fine jewelry. He bought her renowned Kanchi saris. He furnished his house with three chairs and a sophisticated high bedstead with tester and studded with mirrors. Having got rich, there arose a desire in him to make his name everlasting. He decided to do whatever he could do and held consultations with the coolies of the Estate. They asked for a Vinayaka Temple and he consented to it. But his wife Pavanal was against this kind of money-wasting exercises. Without her consent he could not do anything. Every evening she used to take the collections from the shop from him tallying to the last paise. She was the lord of the home and managed the household expenditure. She was notorious for not attending to Velupillai’s basic needs of food and clothing. Rumors circulated that she spent all the money he earned for her jewelry, clothing and sending it to her parents. God knows the truth behind such rumors. But one thing was true. Velupillai and Pavanal were always at loggerheads. She went to her father’s place once or twice after getting angry with him in such domestic quarrels. When once she returned after two or three weeks, Velupillai did not let her enter his house. Then Estate coolies arbitrated calling for a panchayat, censured Pavanal and pacified Velupillai.
When he mooted the temple issue with Pavanal, she came down upon him heavily, accusing, “you want to make me bankrupt, and “you want to be happy at the expense of my children,” etc., etc. For some days she stopped attending on him for his needs like… arranging water for his bath and serving food on time. Velupillai might have relented if the issue were anything else. But it was a question of erecting a temple for God. Once he made a promise, he could not back away. So he compromised by furnishing her wrong accounts, making private arrangements with his customers and reducing his personal needs to bare minimum, saved money and started his project. For long, he managed the news about temple construction did not reach Pavanal’s ear. But the day she got the wind, hell broke loose. For the next one week Velupillai was forced to live and bury his hunger in his Tea shop. From then on, he was always short of money. By then, he could only complete the bare structure. It could not be called a temple. Velupillai’s intention was to consecrate Vinayaka’s idol and to protect it from elements by erecting a Gopuram. So he leveled up hundred square-foot plot over a knoll, invited sculptors from Madurai, and erected the Gopuram. The structure stood on a three-foot high platform with four stone pillars and the Gopuram resting on them. The Gopuram was decorated with several colorful idols like … Lord Shiva, his vehicle The Bull, Lord Vinayaka and his vehicle The Mouse, some elephants etc. At the foot of each idol “Courtesy: Velupillai” was prominently engraved with date and year. He used to frequent the place every day and prided reading his name over there. After all this effort, he was sorely disappointed that he was short of money for the main idol and consecration.
When he consulted the purohits they said that it was not that easy to consecrate a presiding deity in a temple. It needs propitiatory rituals that would cost about four to five thousand rupees in the least. He hardly had ten rupees on him. When he was lost and in a state of mental depression, somebody suggested to him an alternative… that “if he could steal an idol that was already consecrated in another temple it needs no propitiatory rituals”. And also, that it was not immoral to steal for a greater cause of public good. After all, he reassured himself, he was not stealing the idol from the sanctum sanctorum of any temple but the one that was lying idle and neglected in a dilapidated temple. He decided to bring the Vinayaka idol stealing it from Konnattur temple complex. But even that was not an easy job. Without the help of three or four people he could not steal the idol at night. Though it needed no propitiatory rituals, for formal consecration and feeding the poor it would cost anywhere between thousand to fifteen hundred rupees. He was tense and restless. All his savings were in the form of gold but was lying with Pavanal. If only she could come to his rescue agreeing to pawn it now, he would release it in due course. But he did not have even a glimmer of hope. For a holy cause, he reasoned, it was not a sin to lie. So, he composed a letter in the name of her father … stating that a piece of farmland was on offer for sale and he needed two thousand immediately… and posted. Next day when Pavanal asked to read the letter to her, he stopped after the mention of loan and pretended anger. For the next two days she talked sweetly to him; soaped his back when he took his bath; meticulously removed the veins on pan leaf, applied a tender layer of quick lime and prepared pan and served him; and tried every trick to please him and bring to her way. When he thought it was enough, he pretended to have relented and agreed to provide the needed money by pawning her jewelry.
With his four confidants and the jewelry Velupillai took off to Konnattur. On the way he pawned the jewelry with a Marwari at Pollachi and tucked the money in the secret vault of his waist belt. They resumed their journey to Konnattur at nightfall and reached there by midnight. They went straight to the dilapidated Siva temple, removed the Vinayak idol and covering it safely walked out. Just when they were rejoicing that everything passed off peacefully as planned, someone ran past them followed by a mob people at a distance chasing him and shouting, “thief… thief… catch him…” Velupillai and his friends understood the situation and thought it wise for them to take to heals. Because they were young, his friends took off immediately. But Velupillai was already past fifty and his strength depleted. Added to that, he had a heavy idol in his hands. Before he could hardly run few yards, he began to gasp. He stopped running and looked around. On the other side of the drain he noted a shack, ready to be blown away by a wind. He went in prepared to face whatever might befall him. Until long after the chasing mob had passed the hut, he did not dare to do anything. He lighted a bidi, and in the glow of the burning matchstick he tried to gauge the hut. Before he could make out anything the light went out. Taking a long puff, he tried to look out for any human forms in the glint of the burning bidi. After a while, weary with nothing else to do, he started loitering in the hut.
“Who are you?”
He heard a female voice from a corner.
There was no fear or urgency in that voice. Velupillai got brave.
“Sh! Don’t speak a word!” he warned.
This time he lighted another matchstick and asked, “Where is the lamp?”
“There is no lamp,” she replied.
He put the burning stub near her face and asked, “Are you alone?”
The light went out again. Velupillai did not light another. He narrated his story to her in darkness. He prayed her to let him sleep in another corner and promised to leave in the morning.
“He might not have slept alone in a corner. He must have spent the night in the warm embrace of Sendamarai. The old man never tells the truth.”
Gopala Chettiar could not help smiling even at such an hour of grief. People around him were talking so many things about Velupillai and Sendamarai. He did not pay any attention. His thoughts went back to the autobiography Velupillai told him many times before.
Velupillai did not dare to bring Sendamarai to his home. Instead, he arranged for a house to her in Pollachi. He invented one reason or other to go to Pollachi every other day. Sometimes, he used slip out silently putting a rupee or two in the hands of the lorry drivers going that way. He knew it was not safe but did not want to break his head over that. He wanted to enjoy his life as long as he could.
It did not take long Pavanal to realize that Velupillai conned her to get hold of her jewelry. This time she not only stopped cooking for him but also started wailing loudly. She complained to every passerby. And she beat Velupillai with nobody noticing. People thought he ran away from home that very day. But, he was actually having a great time with Sendamarai in Pollachi. When he returned to the Estate after a week, Pavanal was not at home. She packed up everything available in the shop and went to her parents. He was happy that a heavy load was off his head. He wished that she did not return. Before he could rejoice at the very thought, reality dawned before his eyes. There was not a thing in his shop to sell. Other than the heavy bed she could not remove, she left nothing in the house.
“Had I not met him that Friday what would he have done!?” thought Chettiar within. Dark clouds were gathering over the sky. It started drizzling lazily. Chettiar started walking briskly.
“How far is the temple still?” he asked.
“We are almost there. Just after we take that turn, we can see that,” said Kondai.
Chettiar resumed his thoughts about Velupillai.
That Friday he was actually going to Valparai for collections. He stopped at the Prospect Tea Estate to change water in the radiator as the engine got overheated. That was the first time he met Velupillai. It was still green in his memory how they talked together hours on, lighting bidis and sitting on the culvert by the hill track, as if they were age-old friends. Velupillai recounted his whole story. Chettiar pitied him. His story struck a chord. He trusted Velupillai.
“Good fellow,” said aloud Chettiar wiping off the few drops of rain that fell on his baldhead with his left hand.
“Though my friendship with Velupillai began by helping him start his business all over again, isn’t it for Sendamarai that I come to these parts frequently?”
Old memories still haunted Chettiar.
Before he met Sendamarai, Chettiar used to come to the Estate for collections once in a while and used to dine at Velupillai’s house, but never did he appear with his wares every week promptly as was his wont now.
“Healthy bitch. She was good to everybody.”
Chettiar could not help thinking about Sendamarai.
He recollected the pleasant profile of Sendamarai … always sitting cheerfully in the shop … people of all ages congregating at the shop and engaged in friendly banter with her… and even the very old hogs, not excepted, buying bidis they did not need just for the heck of touching her fingers… everything played before his mind’s eye.
“But for her intelligence, no other woman could have withstood the onslaught of Pavanal and come out successful as Sendamarai did,” he thought.
After she packed up all materials and went to her parents, Pavanal did not return after two or three weeks as was her practice. She did not turn up even after two to three months had passed. Velupillai dared to bring Sendamarai to Estate. Having got wind of this, Pavanal came with her father for fight and seeking justice. Velupillai lost his nerve. Sendamarai asked to call for a panchayat. Panchayat declared that Velupillai was under no obligation to continue his conjugal relation with Pavanal since she left him on her own without intimation. It also declared that he need not pay the mandatory twenty-five rupees compensation at the time of divorce, ticking it off for the value of goods she took away with her while leaving him.
“That bitch managed to get the judgment she wanted. Strange, even people on their death beds danced to her tunes,” thought Chettiar.
“But Pavanal is a termagant bitch. She deserves it.”
Chettiar could not help being partisan to Sendamarai. He recalled her full breasts peeping through the blouse, her passionate lips, her embrace that made one forget ethics for the moment and her disconcerting bubbling youth. He was so embarrassed to get such thoughts at that time.
“There he is,” shouted Kolandavelu pointing towards Velupillai sitting leaning onto the steps of Vinayaka temple.
Chettiar lost his heart looking at Velupillai… in soiled clothes, disheveled hair, thick crop of unshaven beard, and emaciated with grief. He did not imagine Sendamarai’s death would shatter him so much. He was angry with Sendamarai.
“Thankless woman,” he thought.
“He will go mad,” said Asirvadam looking at Velupillai.
“Why? He is already crazy, for sure. He drove that simple woman Pavanal out of his house, and is wailing day and night for this bitch! What a pity!” said Kolandavelu.
“Poor chap. While the whole village was agog with rumors about her, they did not reach his ear,” pitied Ennasimuttu.
As if to suggest “don’t you have commonsense to look around before you speak,” Kondai pressed Ennasimuttu’s hand surreptitiously and gestured towards Chettiar with his eyes. Chettiar noticed him.
“But then, didn’t Velupillai see the best of his times only after she stepped into his life? She took good care of him as well,” said Ennasimuttu loud enough to be heard by Chettiar.
“That bitch really made a fool of Velupillai making him dance to her tune,” thought Chettiar.
He lost himself with the emotions of the surroundings.
“I cannot keep quiet as this innocent fellow forsakes his life and home for that bitch. I shall reveal everything about her.”
“All of you leave at once. I will take care of Pillai,” he said turning towards them all.
Velupillai broke down hugging Chettiar.
“You are old enough to bear with her loss. Is it meet to be so meek?” said Chettiar caressing the few silvery strands that fell on his chest.
“What is the use of my living without her?” cried Velupillai.
“Tut! You should be brave,” said Chettiar.
“God was so cruel to me taking her away. He left me alone.”
“Pillai, you should not lose hair over a woman” said Chettiar.
“She is not like any other women.”
Velupillai blew his nose.
“Pillai…” called Chettiar.
There was a change of tone in his voice. Velupillai stopped crying and looked at him in disbelief.
“You are very innocent. You need not have to grieve for Sendamarai this way. if only you knew the truth about her…”
“Chetti! Do you also speak like that?” interrupted Velupillai, “Do you believe the words of those mindless coolies?”
“No Pillai! Sendamarai was in fact…”
“That was what these useless fellows were trying to tell me for the last four days. So that was what they told you. Idle fellows. “
Velupillai spat out with vengeance.
“So long as she was alive, not a single fellow had the guts to point a finger towards her. Now they speak all nonsense. Jealous fellows.”
“Pillai…” Chettiar was about to say something but refrained.
“I know what they brain washed you with. They said Sendamarai went out with others cheating me. Do you believe it true Chetti?” Velupillai pleaded deplorably.
Chettiar was surprised at his own answer.
“The people who circulate rumors about her shall be afflicted with paralysis,” cursed Velupillai.
Chettiar fell silent losing in thoughts. After a while Velupillai resumed,
“Only after she stepped into my house, my fortunes took a favorable turn. Was I ever happy before?”
“True,” agreed Chettiar.
Velupillai witnessed a veritable hell with Pavanal. Even after being successful and earning substantially, he could not enjoy his life. Sendamarai set everything right and brought his life to an order. She sat at the counter and improved his business. She talked sweetly with everybody and earned him a name in the society. She took care of all his needs. Chettiar could now slowly understand the reason behind Velupillai’s grief at the death of Sendamarai.
“OK. Let us suppose that she was like that. Why should they bother about her?” resumed Velupillai. “They were green with envy that an old man like me had such a youthful wife.”
Chettiar for a second thought if Velupillai was really as innocent as he seemed. Did he really not know what he wanted to say about Sendamarai? Why people were so anxious to say something about her? Would the pleasures and peace he enjoyed with Sendamarai come to naught by knowing about her now? Poor Sendamarai! What else she could do after all! She lived with a fifty year old man and made life pleasant for him. Velupillai should be grateful to her. Gopala Chettiar did not want to think beyond that.
“Pillai. I am getting hungry. Come on. Let us go home,” said Chettiar.
Velupillai got up. Together they started walking towards bazar.
Original: Velupillai by Sri C. Ramachandra Rao
Tr. RS Krishna Moorthy and NS Murty