The story of Big Ben.
Pushpalatha ( that is the name of the air hostess ) guided a huge woman with a small, smiling face, towards us and showed the seat next to ours.
‘Hi, can I sit here please?’ she asked politely turning to Ammalu, who invited her to occupy the seat next to hers.
‘Welcome,’ I intervened unnecessarily,’ but don’t spill over us’
Ammalu stared at me to reprimand while the lady, smilingly asked me, ‘spilling, a solid stuff like me? And Sir, answering to unasked question?’
‘Hei, fatty!’ I jumped from my seat and enquired, ‘ aren’t you, BB, Big Ben ?’
‘I’m. And you Perias , Peria and ss’?
‘How did you find out?’
‘Your three Ks and a queen close by’
“kudumi, kadukkan and koranku goshti’
She suddenly fell on me and hugged so strongly that I feared that I heard some cracking and breaking sound from my inside ! Ammalu was shocked She kept blinking till BB bent down and touched her feet for blessings.
‘Ammalu, don’t go by the attire or articulations of speech organs, fluctuating facial expressions or liberal limb movements, of this woman,’ I introduced BB to Ammalu. She is a ground-to-earth Palakkad Mami , though not by birth. I have mentioned to you about her earlier. Easwari is the name given by her mom which was manicured to Easwa by her father for his convenience . She is a great scholar, a prolific writer , teaching in a prominent London University. Above all, a very close net friend of mine, vibrant and jovial’
‘From whom did you inherit this bewitching smile ?’ I asked, “from your mother ?’
‘No, from my father , the guy who molested my mother’
‘What? ‘ Ammalu asked her mouth wide opened and Parasu tried to rise form his seat.
‘A big story, Ma,’ BB confessed. My biological father was David Daniel, a British, who was the owner’s son of the tea estate, where my mother was working, in Nilgiris. He was a decent guy but somehow took a fancy for my mother who was then hardly twenty. On a ‘puthari dina vizha’ or harvest festival, a thanks- giving ceremony for the Mother Earth for her bounty of fresh green paddy stems carrying bunches of paddies, the tribes venerate her by offering coconut and fruits and sing and dance in group to please her. it is not clear to me even to day whether my mother escaped from that group on her own or was kidnapped but the net result was she lost her virginity .
When the matter came to light, the entire labor force, the Todas, Badagas, Kotas and other tribal leaders with their cows and buffaloes, kathies and thadies, (knives and sticks ) marched towards the bungalow of my father and threatened to burn it. The manager of the estate, Rama Iyer, whom the workers respected for his impartial treatment and helping attitude, came out and pacified the crowd, requested them to disperse with an assurance that by the very next day he would find a solution.
‘You can burn him, burn the house or do whatever you want, if you do not accept my solution.’ He told them.
One young man, Yellakki shouted, ‘I am prepared to marry Muthamma’
‘That is nice of you, no doubt.’ Rama Iyer said, “but give me time till tomorrow. I should talk to Muthamma too’
Next day, the workers came with their cows and buffaloes, kathies and thadies but no torches.
‘The crime cannot be compensated; it cannot be redeemed by burning the criminal or his house. We know how decently the son of the estate owner has been behaving till the other day. There has been no occasion to distrust him so far.
But now, what should not have happened has happened. He regrets his action and is prepared to agree for any of your terms including marrying Muthamma. She will take her to his country and extend every respect due to a lady of his family.
‘Enna Ramappa, Muthammavai Mariya ammavakka sollareengala ? You want Muthamma to become Mariyamma ? ‘ asked Kempa Gowda .
‘What about my offer to marry her?’ Yellaki enquired.
‘We will not allow the chinna sett ( junior master ) to enter our estate when our women are there,’ shouted Kulla.
‘Agreed,’ Rama Iyer came forward to face the crowd. ‘And he too is agreeable for all your conditions. He doesn’t believe in the existence of God and does not follow any religion. So the question of treating our girl as a christian doesn’t arise. Regarding Yellakki’s offer, Muthamma is not agreeable . She will marry none other than Davud. Otherwise, she will go away from the hills and look for a living elsewhere. I treat Muthamma as my own daughter and I will not allow her to go elsewhere. I will accept her in my family as one of my children. If you, the tribal heads and others do not agree for this, I will resign my job and take legal action against David Daniel’
He won the day. the crowd accepted the proposal. Iyer gave each of them a few coins to thank them for their cooperation in settling a burning problem.
After the wedding, which was a simple affair as per the tribal tradition, mom preferred to stay in her old mung and visited her husband’s bungalow infrequently . My father arranged a tutor to teach her English. An English lady taught the ethics of western culture and practices in British homes and behavior pattern in parties and clubs.
‘It would have been a hard task for your mother , the conversion from the tribal tradition to the sophisticated western ways,’ Parasu asked.
‘Not really, I was told,’. BB replied, ‘we in the hills were closely moving with the westerners who were in plenty there, especially during the seasons’
‘And generally women learn things fast,’ Ammalu said.
‘Water flows will be faster into an empty space,’ l poked my nose as is my vogue and received a fitting rebuke from BB. She grabbed the chella petty, betel case from Parasu’s hand and placed on my lap. ‘Keep munching’
‘Agree with Ammalu mom ,’ BB said, ‘ and women generally, do not flap an eye when the Fate aims a powerful torch at their face.’
‘The dawn of independence for the country was drawing closer and the Englishmen were leaving one by one and in groups. My dad came home one day and asked my mom to get ready to go with my dad along with her mother . I was then six months -old safe and secure inside my mother’s womb.
‘I want my child to be born in this valley from which I sprouted, my parents and theirs,’ Mom was firm. My dad tried to persuade my grand mother and promised comfortable journey and complete support in the new place. ‘If you agree to come, Muthamma will definitely join me. she doesn’t want to leave you alone here ‘
Grand ma was firm in her denial . She did not want to leave the Toda mund, her thatched house, where she lived all her life, without leaving it even for a day, where her forbears lived and died and where her only daughter was born and raised.
‘I was born in this soil; as a child, as a teen- aged, as a middle- aged, as an old woman, I have roamed on this greenly hills and silent valleys behind the cattle and the vast land here is filled with their smell and the smell of their drops. Unless I am buried under its surface, I will have no peace in the other world ,’ said my granny holding close to her body all the tools she used, stick, bamboo basket, bent knife etc. as if she wants those implements to accompany her in her last journey. ‘ And should I not see the face of my grand child? Should I not apply scented oil on the baby’s tender hands, legs, chest and back and wash with warm water scented with cardamoms and tulsi leaves ?’ She gestured as if she was holding the baby in her palms and mumbled a lullaby in her native dialect.
‘ I must leave anyway. Most of my people have gone back. But I shall come again to see my baby’, said my dad.
He did come when I was an year old. By then, my grand mother had passed way, leaving her sickle and scissors behind. She had however the satisfaction of giving me cardamom -scented warm water bath and gentle swing in her degenerated palms .
‘ I want this little plant to whom I gave life to grow on these hills, watching the lavishly moving clouds and listening to the whisper of air from the Emerald lakes,’ mother said.
Father returned disappointed.
‘Did you meet him later,?” Parasu asked.
‘I did, when I went to UK for higher studies . We will talk about that later. But I can tell you one thing, ‘ women, generally, do not flap their eyes when the Fate aims a powerful torch at their face’
‘You said it once,’Parasu reminded.
‘She did, ‘ Ammalu intervened, ‘ Repetition never dims the glamour of such words and phrases’