The book “Anthill” by Vinoy Thomas is the exquisite translation from the Malayalam of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi-winning novel “Puttu”.
This is the story of common people in Perumbadi who tried to wriggle out of the shackles of family, religion and other restraining institutions, but eventually also struggle to civilize themselves-from their beginnings of a hillbilly existence and life as a promiscuous community.
As Perumbadi moves into modernity and feels the need for refined justice, Jeremias comes to be known by the moniker President and becomes the unchallenged adjudicator of Perumbadi, thanks to his equanimity and sense of fairness. However, even as he resolves local disputes, he is troubled by developments in his own home and by his own moral failure.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Seated on the stacked planks that served as a bench in Prasannan’s teashop, Paul sir told Theruva Mathu, ‘Sit down, my fellow. This is not one of the Kummannoor stories. This happened in Perumpadi. Sit down!’
‘I shall sit here.’ Mathu sat down on the half wall and leaned against the pillar. That he chose not sit on the planks beside Paul sir was not out of respect as his ex-student.
As was the case with all lethargic migrants, Mathu too, as soon as he woke up, would get off his mat, take off and flick his mundu vigorously to get rid of the dust, wear it back and head straight for the teashop. Since he was always late to settle his account, Prasannan would prepare an apology of a tea for him only after everyone else had been served and the glasses washed. Mathu did not mind that. Till tea was served, he could sit on the wooden planks balanced on cut-out laterite bricks and read the newspaper up and down and sideways and across.
One Friday, the newspaper ran a half-page movie advertisement. As Mathu sat reading the newspaper listlessly, the karanavar of Macholil turned up. His pastime was not watching movies, but watching movie advertisements till something stirred inside him and eased out eventually. As soon as he entered the teashop, he looked at the picture of Silk Smitha; her buxom body filled the half-page.
Stating, ‘She seems to have pulled down a little,’ he sat down close to Mathu.
As he sat, the planks shifted and the gap between them narrowed. What was seen next was Mathu’s bulging eyes. With plummy abuses that got scattered wordlessly, Mathu had not only the karanavar but even his forebears resurrected and upright on their feet.
After Mathu had been helped off the plank bench and laid on the floor by two other customers, Prasannan approached him, flicked up his mundu, peered down and said, ‘This looks like a rat caught in a crab’s pincers.’
‘What’s that story, Prasanna?’ asked Paul sir who had just entered.
‘Oh, that one you have heard sir, the story about long beans farming,’ Prasannan the raconteur said.
‘Ah, don’t the youngsters keep singing the song featured in that?’ Paul sir could only remember the song.
The karanavar of Macholil, teetering on the edge of senescence, asked, ‘Which song?’
‘Here, take the long beans, take them,
Release my nuts, let go of them.’
‘Admittedly, I don’t have pincers. So, for those who make me suck dicks by taking things on credit and do not pay up, I have kept ready this plank trap. Do you get it?’ Prasannan said, while sliding up a glass of what passed for tea between Mathu’s legs who had barely managed to get into a sitting position after his trauma.
After that incident, whoever chose to sit on the plank bench started to wear drawers under their mundu. Theruva Mathu alone decided that he would sit no more on the bench.
Seated on the half-wall, Mathu listened to Paul sir’s tale.
‘It was when Neerukuzhi Father was around. We had no church then. We had a grass-roofed shed where the church now stands. Father used to come from Puliyanthara for the Sunday mass. He would come on Saturday evening and sleep in the shed. I used to bring a cot and give him company. One Sunday, when the service was about to start, we discovered that the sacramental bread that he had to distribute at the end of the service was missing. “What shall we do, Paul,” cried Father. “Father, make your sermon long, stretch it out. I shall be back with the hosts when it’s time for the communion.” From where? I would have had to go as far as Kunnoth. Those days, Kuttychettan of the Padukka family had a bicycle. I shot off on that. To cut a long story short, by the time the sermon ended, I was back with the hosts. But just as I was handing them over to Father, I fell unconscious. I had the bicycle practically flying over land all the time.’
While narrating this, Paul sir had no inkling that his memory had been wiped clean of the real sight that had met him when he returned—after spouting something or the other till late that Sunday evening in the guise of a sermon, both Father Neerukuzhi and the faithful who had been listening to him all along had collapsed in that shed and were lying around, exhausted.
In its place, Paul sir’s thoughts had run to his mission those days of giving the father company on Saturday nights.
The priest was adamant that he needed the cot on Saturday upon his arrival for the next day’s service. The eighteen-year-old Paul would carry the charpoy from his home to the shed every Saturday evening. It would begin with the priest sleeping on the cot and Paul on the floor. After a little while, Father would say, ‘Son, don’t sleep on the floor. It’s rather cold. Come up and sleep, we can hug each other and lie.’
Paul would climb onto the cot, thinking the Father very considerate and loving.
‘Do you know how to play the flute, Paul?’ Father would laugh and ask as they lay in each other’s arms.
Paul liked the flautist’s role that sandalwood pappan had initiated him into. The charpoy would creak depending on the tune and tempo of the flute-playing. The next morning, Father would himself turn the cot upright and convert it into a confessional. Paul used to be amazed that after all the nocturnal activity, Father would conduct the services without bathing or even washing up, since there was no pond or well in that vicinity.
Many years later—that is, after two years of Father Neerukuzhi giving up his pastoral charge and priestly duties and moving to the Priest Home to lead a retired life—he came to meet his erstwhile parishioners in Perumpadi. Paul sir had retired and was at home. As soon as Father entered Reformation House, he asked, ‘Paul, son, are you doing well? Do you remember how we converted the cot into a confessional?’
‘Of course, Father, I did carry the cot, didn’t I?’ Paul sir said, as many thoughts passed through his mind.
‘Yes, I remember. One day, when I had sat down to listen to the confessions, the women, pushing and shoving, toppled the cot. One of the ladies and I found ourselves beneath the cot, in a clinch. It used to be fun. I have written my autobiography filled with these stories.’
‘That’s very good. What is the name of the autobiography?’
‘Soulful Hymns of a Flute. How do you like it?’
‘That is the apt title for it, Father,’ Paul sir said, without overthinking it. He saw off the priest after plying him with tea and savouries. Kummannoor’s Paul sir could never forget Father Neerukuzhi. He had converted the common man Paul to Paul sir.
Though Lonachan had bought Chinna and her son a large tract of land and settled them in Perumpadi, they were not getting much returns from the land. Whatever she could plant was eaten by wild pigs, monkeys and sambar deer. Paul had not grown old enough to earn a living on his own. They could pull on because they were only two and their expenses were limited.
‘Means of livelihood vary from place to place. Depending on our health and circumstances, whatever we can do to survive we should do. Chinna, the primary thing is to be alive. When you ascend to heaven, our Maker will only ask of you if you have lived the life He had given you. I have no belief that He believes in rights and wrongs or He keeps an account of them. Isn’t He the be-all and the end-all?’
That was sandalwood pappan’s first visit to Perumpadi. That evening, he cooked a small cat he had killed somewhere, claiming it was a jungle cat. He was holding forth while eating the meat with boiled dried tapioca.
‘If you go east from Kollur beyond Udupi in Karnataka, it’s all hills ahead of you. All the hermits doing penance in the caves there need this drug every day. I reach Kollur with supplies. From there the devotees procure from me and climb the hills; it’s their offering to the ascetics, like chrysanthemums distributed in Mahe mosque. No police will touch them. In our own churches, though they do not give it to us as oblation, don’t our priests offer wine during mass? At that time, don’t they sip enough to make their tongues tingle? In Kunnathur Padi, Muthappan quaffs toddy. When the Sabarimala pilgrims have their irumutikettu nira ceremony, many of them buy Idukki gold off me. What’s wrong in that?’
Though he kept talking, since she was feeling sleepy, Chinna had gone in and shut the door. With his belly full, for fulfilling his next need, he tried his luck by knocking on Chinna’s door. A voice from Paul’s room said, ‘Pappan, you can come here.’ Though his mood was for something else, the pragmatist that he was, conceding that something was better than nothing, he went into Paul’s room. After that, all his advices were for Paul.
‘You are now around sixteen. Do you know where I was when I was your age? Korangatti, one-and-a-half day’s walk from Neriamangalam. My father had sent me off saying you have grown cockles and feathers, go and fend for yourself. To this day, I’ll swear that every paterfamilias should do this. In your case there is, of course, no paterfamilias to be reckoned with. You could say lemongrass distillation is my occupation in Korangatti. But that is for namesake. What I really make is moonshine—for the biggest abkari supplier in Thiruvithamkoor. His henchmen come and take it down the hillside, evading the excise department. From then till now, pappan has only worked on the wrong side of the law. I’ve never had to ask anyone for money because of that. I’m telling you because of my affection for you. Although you have no father, you should live without sucking up to anyone. I shall tell you the way.’
Though it was his first visit, pappan became a sought-after person for all the people living scattered around Perumpadi.
Excerpted with permission from Anthill, Vinoy Thomas, translated from the Malayalam by Nandakumar K., Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.