A true story about land, life, and a woman’s fight for her family’s rights.
After Ayyappan had redeemed his encumbered property some three milestones away from the village, he built a hut. Once a week, his wife, Rajathi, would visit the market with her son clinging to her like her own flesh. Everyone in the village ignored them.
“Don’t we have a village? Why do they need a hut in the forest?”
“I have seen many demons, rakkachis. But I have not seen any rakkachi like Rajathi. Yeppa... my goodness, she’s always ready for a fight, she is.”
“For a man like Ayyappa to have such a wife! It is only because he’s so patient that he’s managed this female demon all these years!”
“Maybe because she’s so good-looking. Remember how he used to drool? And why should she remain silent? If people make nasty comments, should one just remain silent?”
When Rajathi went to the market, she didn’t seem to be bothered about these comments. She walked briskly, swinging her arms confidently. Her strong neck that did not yield to the pressure of heavy weights on her head was stunning. That she did not care for her looks was obvious from her chapped lips.
When you came across her suddenly, she looked like a soft black velvet flower. Her piercing eyes complemented her dark complexion.
In a few years, the village people began to take notice of their growing prosperity.
The first year, he had to work hard to uproot the overgrown thorny bushes and plough the fields. In each furrow, he had to dig with the plough-stick to clear out the stubborn roots.
When the bulls hesitated, just like caressing the cheeks of a newborn, he would delicately flick and slash the whip in the air and get them to work with just that sound. “Let’s try and find out what’s up” said those from the adjacent fields and sat down to examine the shoots of the tapioca plants curling up on the sticks planted, only to exclaim, “Edey Ayyapoi.” They were beginning to wake up to reality. When the plants were harvested, they were amazed to find they were ankle-deep in tapioca.
The next year, the rains were good. Once again, he toiled. Rajathi worked in the sun, engrossed in her work between the furrows, pulling out the tubers and roots and piling them in one corner. After their hard work, the land looked as vibrant as a maid who had just come of age.
In the neighbouring large farm, Sughavanam placed a cot amidst the coconut trees and watched. Coconut fronds were being dried and stacked on uncultivated land, then stripped and woven into thatch. For this, Ayyappan’s land used to come in handy. Now Ayyappan had raised the bund around his property. In the coconut grove, men were at work stripping coconuts on metal rods planted in the field.
“Hey fellows, have you noticed this chap Ayyappan? Once a casual labourer, look how thriftily he is living now... stinking low-caste fellow!”
Ayyappan’s two children were washing grass and sedge and spreading them out to dry on the green coconut fronds.
“Have you noticed how careful those kids are even at this age! They are washing the grass to feed the calves.” Sughavanam’s eyes were constantly trained on the adjacent field, thinking, “Last year he planted roots. He dug them up like gold treasure. What he is going to plant this year, I wonder?”
He disturbed Ayyappan’s concentration the way you divert the attention of a child drinking milk.
Ayyappan stood up, anchored the plough and planted his stick in the mud. Out of respect for Sughavanam, he removed his turban and called out to Rajathi, “Hey, take care here”, and went towards Sughavanam.
“What are you planting this year?”
“I am thinking of planting urad dal.”
“Have you made arrangements for seeds?”
“I have told someone in the residential part of the village. I have to meet him again.”
“Hmmm. Better train your children for this kind of work. It will be helpful to you.”
“I have been a fool, at least let my children learn something and live with dignity. If they are unable to study, then I will see.”
“What da, what cannot be learnt at five, will it come at fifty?”
“That is true. Whatever their fate is, it will happen. But to educate them is my duty. My wife also says the same.”
“Okay, go da,” said Sughavanam irritably and sent him away.
Unable to understand why he had been called, he pulled up the plough’s anchor.
The bulls began to drift. In that blistering heat, a fresh fragrance rose from that wet mud. Sweating, he became engrossed in his work. Rajathi came right behind him, half squatting and plonking her feet left and right, waddling forward like a duck.
“What did he say?”
“Warned that our sons should learn field work.’
“Leave it. We are struggling without even a drop of oil to rub on our heads. They are hereditary landlords. Why should they envy us?”
“All along, our children have played on their land. Today, they’ve raised a barrier there—why?”
“Were they not peeling coconuts there?”
“Who can say anything to you? You’ll just believe what you want to.”
The urad plants grew in small bunches. The pods were draped in verdant green. There were twenty to thirty pods in each plant and no sign of any weeds in between.
Rajathi would carefully remove weeds every time she had a free moment. Once when she was standing in the Pillayar corner looking at her field, her eye fell on a lush growth of sedges.
“Ayya comes in the evening to the field and like an accountant, measures the output. Suppose he sees the grass growing like this, and thinks we are relaxing, taking things for granted and growing fat, and measures less...?” She jumped across and pulled the grass out by its roots and flung it. She took a pot, painted it with black and white spots, upended it on a stick and planted it in the middle of the field.
Now Ayyappan’s dry land looked like a patch of wetland. A pump loaned from the society allowed irrigation from a well that had been desilted. A thicket of hibiscus with blood-red flowers bordered the well. All along the water channel were plants with bright white flowers. There was a creeper on top of Ayyappan’s thatched hut. Looking like a bunch of stuffed calves were long bottle gourds wrapped in straw. Like green lotus flowers were coconut saplings with outspread leaves. There was a new rope cot in the shed. Seated on it, the older child was reading while the younger one was writing on his slate.
On his way back from the village, Ayyappan walked across the path through Sughavanam’s property as usual.
“Why are you coming through the grove?”
“I went to the society and I am on my way back.”
“That’s not my question. I asked why you are walking through someone else’s grove.”
“Okay, get lost!”
Over the next few days, the pathway, as slender as a backbone, that ran through the middle of the grove to Ayyappan’s property, was blocked at Sughavanam’s end.
Rajathi lamented to her husband. “If they block the path and there is an emergency, how will we reach the village?”
“You have blocked the pathway... how are we to pursue our livelihood at the edge of the forest? The children have to go all around walking on thorns and stones to reach school. I request you to be benevolent and remove the block.”
“Why are you living in the forest? Why don’t you live in the village?”
“May you be blessed! Please consider... we are just poor people...”
“You fellow, will you allow a path through your property?”
“We have been walking along the path for years. If you do not want us to walk through the middle of the grove, please let there be a path at the edge of the grove that we could use; please be magnanimous.”
“What? You fellow! If I give you a path before long, you’ll ask for a share of the property.”
“Ayya... if you set aside that path at the edge, I will give you an equal extent of my land in exchange. Please show some humanity.”
“You low caste fellow, have you become so rich that you think you can gift things to me?”
“Ayyoyo, please don’t misunderstand. If I have said anything wrong, please forgive me. I only asked because this path has been in use for a very long time.”
“You keep saying ‘for a very long time’. Did your grandmother earn this path?”
“Tell me, did your grandmother earn this path?”
“No, but for a long time...”
“From the first you have been repeating ... for a long time...”
“No, I saw the VAO, he said that in the village register it is listed as a ‘path’.”
“VAO... You have gone that far? Gone to the VAO, learnt everything, read the law and then you come to make demands? Fellow, if you can go to the VAO, I will go to the Collector, you know that, don’t you?
“Ayya, don’t misunderstand me. I had gone to the VAO about the family ration card. Since I was there, I asked about this also....”
“Don’t stand here. Get lost. Go, do what you can.”
The next day, a sackful of coconuts from Sughavanam’s grove was deposited in the VAO’s house. This continued once every six months.
Three years later, one day in the zila collector’s office, an altercation broke out between a woman and the orderly, Mayavan.
“Let the Collector-amma herself say that she cannot see me. Who are you to say that I cannot see the Collector-amma? For a woman, even a ghost will materialize. Won’t another woman make her appearance?”
“Look here, you cannot talk disrespectfully about the Collector-amma referring to her as woman-buman... Look here, if I say you cannot see her, I mean you cannot see her. You are becoming a big nuisance here every week. Hand over your petition and leave.”
“I will hand it only to the lady.”
“Mayavan, what is all the ruckus?”
The lady Collector appeared to be in a hurry to get into the car. What was the emergency? Where was she rushing to?
“Nothing, madam...” replied Mayavan.
The woman stood in front of the car, blocking its exit.
Stumped, the Collector got out from the car.
“Look here... what is this... what for... look here... come inside...”
The woman was stripping in public. The Collector quickly escorted her into her chamber.
“Why are you stripping, taking off your sari?”
“Look here, madam,” the woman said, displaying a huge angry scar on her abdomen.
When she saw the raw and barely healed scar, the Collector was very disturbed.
“Tell me, what is the matter?” she asked with genuine concern.
“If this operation had been delayed by even ten minutes, I would have died, leaving my children orphans. They have blocked the path in such a manner that it cannot be used even in the case of an emergency! We are struggling like pigeons caught in a cage. How many times have I come here? How many petitions I have given! So far, along with you, I have submitted petitions to three Collectors. You must come. You must come and see for yourself. It will happen only if you come. Look here, you are like god to me... If you don’t come...I don’t plan to live. You had better know that!”
Tears streamed... The Collector, who had been staring unblinkingly for some time as Rajathi straightened out her sari and walked away, called her PA and made him mark the petition for inspection next week, and drove off.
“Is her name Rajathi or Rakkachi?” some people in the village asked each other.
“It is not without reason that they say ‘the child that cries gets the milk’!” said an elder when he heard about the incident.
Story selected by Mini Krishnan
Reproduced courtesy of Zubaan
Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta