Short Story

‘Thenvarikka’ by Narayan: A Malayalam short story in translation

Print edition : December 17, 2021

The story “Thenvarikka” features in “Cries in the Wilderness” by Narayan, edited by K.M. Sherrif (Kerala Sahitya Akademi, 2009).

Narayan, the author of this story, is the first Adivasi writer in Malayalam. His novel "Kocharethi", a remarkable account of the life of the Malayaraya tribe in the hills of Central Kerala, won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in 1999. He has published three more novels, "Ooralikkudi", "Chengarum Kuttalum" and "Vannala", and two collections of short stories, “Nissahayante Nilavili” and “Pelamarutha”. Narayan retired as postmaster from the Department of Posts and lives at Elamakkara in Kochi.

K.M. Sherrif, the translator of this story, writes in Malayalam and English and translates among Malayalam, English, Gujarati, Hindi and Tamil. His published works include "Ekalavyas with Thumbs", a selection of Gujarati Dalit writing in English translation, "Desert Shadows", his translation of Anand’s Malayalam novel "Marubhoomikal Undakunnathu", "Reverberations of Spring Thunder", a selection of political modernist short fiction in Malayalam in English translation and "Kunhupathumma’s Tryst with Destiny", a study of R.E. Asher’s English translation of Vaikom Muhammed Basheer’s novel "Ntuppooppakku Oranendarnnu". Sherrif lives in Kozhikode and is Reader, Department of Studies in English, University of Calicut.

The first Adivasi writer from Kerala, Narayan’s Malayalam is itself a translation of the dialect of his Malayaraya tribe. This story, like all his fiction, draws deeply on the experiences of Narayan’s people, and is a metaphor for the loss of their habitat and way of life.

DO the leaves fall with a cry, Ayyappan wondered as he looked at the Thenvarikka. A great grandfather who looked down benevolently at his home. A bamboo ladder was propped up against the thick trunk which went up without twists and turns. The branches were full of the new crop of jackfruit. There was still time for them to ripen.

Ayyappan’s eyes fell on the two men who had come with Surendran. They were measuring the girth of the tree. As Ayyappan stared at them puzzled Leela, Surendran’s wife, came in with a pot of water. “Acha, they are timber brokers.” Ayyappan stared at her aghast. “Didn’t you tell him it shouldn’t be sold?” “He never listens to me.” “Hm, must be looking for a way to settle his accounts at the toddy shop.”

Surendran’s children stood in the yard watching their grandfather’s expression. “Muthacha, please don’t sell the thenvarikka.” “Tell it to your father.” With a smarting pain in his heart, Ayyappan gazed at the thenvarikka again. There were birds on the branches. But only a few. There used to be hundreds, of all kinds.

There had always been timber brokers who had eyed the thenvarikka ever since its trunk became temptingly thick. But nobody in the family had even thought of selling it. How could his son think of such a thing? Ayyappan had brought up his children without ever letting them feel the pinch of hunger. He had to thank the thenvarikka for it.

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Fruits would appear all over the tree in Thulam, two or three on each stalk. Some would fall off, the rest would he half ripe by Makaram. The second crop would also appear in Makaram. On Sivarathri in Kumbham there would be fasting and a wake. No rice was to be cooked at home. But the thenvarikka had God’s plenty of jackfruits to offer. Early in the morning Ayyappan would take a bath and appear in the yard with a mark of sandal paste on his forehead. He would have already marked the jackfruit that was to be cut. The black spots on the thorny skin would show their ripeness. But standing under the tree he would have a second look now. Just right for chopping and boiling into a mushy puzhukku. Ayyappan’s gaze would suddenly become wistful. The thenvarikka was losing a child. He had to ask the tree’s consent before he cut it. He would close his eyes and stand still for a moment as if in meditation. He would hear the tree speak: Take it, everything I have on me is yours. Sometimes the jackfruit he selected would be high up and he would have to go up the bamboo ladder, tie it up with a rope and let it down gently. Sometimes it would be low enough to cut from the ground. Sap tasting like honey would ooze from the stalk for two days. Ayyappan used to collect it in cups made of the tree’s leaves. He was too old for it now.

But, despite his age and infirmity, Ayyappan remembered everything about the thenvarikka. The cycle of plenty would last from Kumbham to Mithunam, four months in all. The tree would yield not less than a hundred and fifty jackfruit, ripe and raw.

It would be a continuous feast of jackfruit—for breakfast, lunch and tea in the evening. The layers of the pulp could be separated and the seeds with their thin coverings would be removed through a small cut made at the top. After removing the sticky fibre, the pulp would be cut into small pieces and boiled with coconut scrapings and curry leaves, chillies and turmeric for taste to make the mushy, mouth-watering chakka puzhukku. The seeds had their own delicacies to offer. A gentle squeeze would free the seed from the sac. Cutting it into pieces one could make thoran or mezhukkupiratty. If drumstick, mango or shrimp were around, it could chip in to make a tasty gravy.

The real bounty of jackfruit was in Meenam and Medam. There would be dozens in all, too many to eat up. So the pulp would be cut into thin pieces, boiled and dried in the sun to keep for the lean months. The fibre and skin were fodder to the cattle. If the fruits were too high to cut or pluck with a crook, they had other claimants: squirrels, bats, crows and birds of all kinds. Feasting on the pulp, they would drop the seeds to the ground. Nature’s way of ensuring that new jackfruit trees replaced the old. But man who accepted defeat only temporarily would be waiting below to pick them up. Food was always in short supply for the human species.

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If the fruits gave a surplus of seeds, not all of them would be eaten. The ones that were left over would be stored in a pit in the corner of the kitchen in layers of mud and sand for the lean months of Mithunam and Karkkitakam. Mithunam and Karkkitakam were unwelcome guests who brought hunger and scarcity with them and were reluctant to leave. In homes with children, hunger droned in the air like hornets. There was nothing to be plucked or cut, no edible leaves or roots of any kind. But Mithunam and Karkkitakam could not indimate the wise mother who had put away her stock of dried jackfruit seeds and pulp and dried tapioca. She would put the tapioca and jackfruit seeds in water to soak at night. In the morning they would be boiled to make a puzhukku to be eaten with coconut chutney, or smoked dry fish or some kind of gravy she could put together.

But puzhukku was not the children’s favourite. They wanted the seeds fried in a pot or pan. They had only to wait for the seeds to cool to remove the skin and gobble them up in one crunch. A couple of pieces of dried coconut to go with it would make it a feast. Or you could simply roast the seeds over hot coals. But if all the gorging makes you too lazy to go out in the rain and you decide to curl up in the verandah and fart, the neighbours will know what is up.

It was dusk. Ayyappan leaned on the thenvarikka. A wind blew like a long sigh. How thick the trunk was! Thick enough to hide a man standing on the other side from sight. Why didn’t you stay trim, Ayyappan asked the tree, it’s your bulging middle that makes people eye you with greed. But how could Ayyappan be so silly? Had a tree ever spurned what the earth gave it? Have you forgotten your grandfather who planted me, the thenvarikka seemed to ask Ayyappan. He was the one who fiercely protected me. Forget being thin or fat. I wouldn’t have lasted a full year if my fruits were watery or sour. Think of the generations of children who have eaten my fruit and played under my shade. But some of you thought of selling me.

Ayyappan tried to convince Surendran against selling the thenvarikka. Surendran did not look at his father’s face. “It is only a tree. Why should you fuss over it? Let it go.” Ayyappan fell silent, dejected. Then Leela intervened: “It is only because of the thenvarikka that my children did not starve.” “Let them go hungry a little.” “You will only make the envious neighbours happy.” “Let them be happy for a while.” “Nobody here has such a tree in their yard.” “So what? You didn’t bring it as your dowry? Look, with this blasted tree out of the way, we can plant up to sixty rubber saplings. If the yield is good we’ll get as much as four kilos of sap every day.” But experience had made Leela wiser. “But that will take at least seven years. Who knows what price rubber will fetch then.”

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Surendran lost his temper. “But how else can I clear all my debts? And how else can we scrape together something so that we don’t starve?” Ayyappan could not take that. “You have to work to live. Have you ever done an honest day’s work?” “Acha,” Leela intervened again, “It is no use talking to him.”

“Hey, Surendran, are you there?” The men had an axe and a coil of thick rope with them. It was Ayyappan who met them at the door. “We’ve come to cut the tree.” Ayyappan felt a tremor creeping up from his feet. His eyes grew hazy. No, I cannot stand the sight, he said to himself. Ayyappan staggered out of the house and walked away down the path. He felt the earth rumbling under his feet.

The rubber saplings were in the plastic bags filled with mud. The dry pits gaped at the sky. The tiny pond fed by the fountains in the rocks had been sheltered by the thenvarikka’s shade. It never used to go dry. It had always given Ayyappan’s family good, clear water for drinking, washing and bathing.

Without the thenvarikka’s shade the sun bore down fiercely on the pond and turned it bone-dry before summer was halfway through. The rubber saplings planted after the last rains wilted in the summer sun. The fierce wind from the hills blew away the coconut palm fronds Leela had stuck around the saplings to give them shade. For water Leela had now to walk to the house down the hill. The owner of the house was not pleased to see Leela arrive with a pot. “I don’t think I should allow you to draw water anymore from this well. It has almost dried up.” “I’ll take just one pot, for drinking.” “All right, but only for today.”

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The heat was unbearable. It was tough going to sleep without at least a wash. Surendran stared at the empty pots. “Get some water.” “Where will I get water from”, Leela shrugged her shoulders.

At last the rains came, bringing the curtain down on drought and thirst. Even as he tried to ignore the hungry children quarrelling and fighting in the yard, Surendran saw with alarm that the rain had washed away a corner of the yard. Leela stood in the rain with a piece of cloth pulled over her head. Most of the rubber saplings had been uprooted by the rain and there was nothing for the soil to withstand the violent flow of water. The land on the slope had slipped. Boulders and stones were littered all over the yard. Did he hear his father’s derisive laugh? Surendran looked back, startled. He thought he heard Ayyappan’s gentle voice: Son, you don’t know anything about the bond between a tree and the earth which sustains it. Cut the tree and the earth is angry. It withdraws all the water from human beings, shakes the top soil loose and the sends the hills tumbling…Go, go away to where mother earth will take you into her lap. Go away.”

Surendran stared at the darkening sky. Where shall I go, father.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

Reproduced by permission of Kerala Sahitya Akademi

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