By: Maya Unnikrishnan
The phone rang around 10.00 pm. Mother answered.
Hello, Tharayil veed aaono?
(Is it Tharayil house?)
Naale varunu sthalam pootan .
(I am coming tomorrow to dig the land)
Adhu shari she replied yepol varum ?
(Ok , what time will you be here ?)
Oru pathu mannikyou ravile varaam.
(I will come at 10.00 am )
He came the next day , the corner of his white mundu held in his right hand . He had a pointed face slightly longish gray hair and a serious look on his face . Her mother explained to him , last year we had cut around 110 Rubber trees . We plan to use the land for growing banana and tapioca . Maybe even Ginger , turmeric she added .
He nodded and said he will start the work soon . They didn’t discuss any fees . He asked for a bottle of water. Her aunt quickly sets the water to boil . It’s always hot water offered , not cold despite the hot weather . He walked towards the machine . It was a digger or more precisely a tractor like unit fitted with a shovel on the front and a rear backhoe. It was easy to think of it as an elephant trunk except it had forks at the end of the trunk. She noticed that the elephant trunk like backhoe is permanently attached and the machine has a seat that can swivel to the rear to face the hoe controls. As he walked towards the machine her thoughts went back to last year .
It was a different scene then, not one but many men had come. They came with saws to cut the trees and their trucks almost got stuck in the newly constructed road , a road which was intended for a few pairs of human feet, soft goat’s paws and maybe an auto or a car . Their truck got stuck and after quite a lot of work the men drove off leaving in their trail XXX rum bottles and mutilated stumps of trees . Those men were different , they had lungis on and shirts sleeves rolled back to expose brown strong veined forearms . White handkerchief bandanas stopped the sweat from flowing down their face. Their expressions were toughened and they looked at you not with curiosity but with a piercing look which almost quickly made you want to move away.
He came the next day, and quickly got down to the job and soon she could hear the rumbling of the machine as it dug into the earth. The trunk directed by him searched for remnants of the past, roots buried in the earth nursing a painful memory of their existence a year back connected to the outside through their lofty trunks.
He sat inside in the reversible seat with levers on both sides to maneuver the elephant Trunk of a machine. He directed its trunk to uproot the remnants of the slaughtered trees. The machine heaved as it pulled the roots out. He reversed the vehicle to use the huge shovel to gather the roots in and hurl them on the side of the road. Tirelessly he worked, taking short breaks for lunch and tea. By evening the headlights were out as the sun was setting but he was like a man on a mission, waging a war with the earth. A lone man, face passive, swiveling in his seat changing levers, digging, scooping, hurling, flattening. The earth brown from outside now had thrown up from its insides deep brick red mud . She watched from the window as she saw her mother standing on the land taking in the new changing contours. Her mother was both impressed and surprised by this man. He was unlike most workers in Kerala who clearly let you know that once the lights were dimmed no work happens. It seemed like he was upset that there was just over an acre to dig.
More work remained; the entire land had to be dug. More roots were hidden. Some roots were huge and digging them out was tough .He said he will come the next day. It was dark by the time he left that day. She asked him what about your battle tank, he smiled and replied that it was hidden. His eyes had a different look as though he realized that she knew his secret .
He came early the next day. Today the work was faster, the major roots have been dug out and were lying with their gnarled branches on the red earth, wisps of soft weeds entwined in them. At that moment she visualized herself painting the hopelessness of the roots reaching out with their stiff curved appendages. He was now using the shovel to hurl the stones, the backhoe trying to bring some semblance of level. In the process his machine broke the side of the road between the lands. It didn’t matter as he told her mother to use more cement. Her aunt remained indoors. She missed her trees and didn’t want to see more carnage. But new beginnings were inevitable. They had decided to plant Tapioca on the upper grounds and plantain on the lower. The sisters made plans as they saw a new land emerging from the old helped by the man and his machine . She took some tea for him; he looked at her and smiled. She felt strange , the smile was gentle but didn’t quite reach his eyes, but she sensed that was his best. He was not faking it , that was all he could manage , a smile which just reached short , a smile which didn’t crinkle on the sides .There was an infinite unfilled depth in him. As another huge root was dug she watched the machines heaving one last time that evening. The forked trunk stopped and he directed it gently to rest by the side . The whole land looked different now. Few tall Anjili Trees with branches high up looking down at the earth wondering at its newness. The red earth had changed to a reddish earthy river rivulets’ of mud curling and spiraling into the next. The sun set and she watched as a scarlet moon slowly came up and within minutes the sky changed to amber , a bat swooped to the nearby Jackfruit tree. The machine was quite and he switched on the lights so she could walk back to her house and he followed. He asked for some water, she offered tea. As he sat down she prepared ginger tea without sugar. He smiled and said work was done. Her mother went in to take the money . He charged 700 for every hour and he had finished six and a half hours yesterday ,almost 9 hours today, Somehow she felt it was still not about the money .
As he sipped the hot tea, she asked him if he lived nearby . Quite close . He volunteered further, I live with my father . When he said this somewhere she remembered the movie monster’s ball, the cop with the difficult father, yes he reminded her of him. Was his father a difficult man she wondered ?
He was saying, I have a son–Gautam, he is a physiotherapy student. I don’t approve of this course he said but the way he said didn’t sound too harsh so she didn’t counter with an argument about the scope of being a physiotherapist . My wife is a teacher , she lives in Calicut , and I have set up a workshop there which is given on rent . I visit her sometimes when work is not there . This is my second son. I had an elder son , Gowrishankar. He is very intelliegent , is a computer person . She smiled thinking that’s how they spoke in these parts and that was enough to qualify the boy as intelligent . She nodded in appreciation. He continued Gowri was a brilliant boy.
His voice took a different modulation as he said softly , my son , he committed suicide . He was only 14 years . Her mother was asking him why did he ..? She left her sentence incomplete as though not wanting to say the dreaded word again. He looked at three of them in turns searching for the eyes which spoke less and felt more . Their eyes met and he continued.
He wanted to visit an ashram and his mother didn’t allow him It was set up close to their house and the boy had read about it . He had seen many youngsters visiting and from his house he could hear the Bhajans in the evening. He was curious , full of noble ideas and intensity . She , being a tough school teacher dealt with her sons as she dealt with her students , strict and unforgiving to their mistakes and ignorant of their curiosities . She wanted none of this in her son . She considered spiritual pursuits by her young son as idealistic and a waste of time .There was an argument that evening and when his wife had gone out , his son ended his life not wanting to continue hearing no from his mother . He was working in the Gulf at that time . He said if only his wife had called him and allowed his son to speak to him . Probably the boy would have listened . He always listened to me he said . Many times when he was working in the farm the boy would close his books and accompany him.
There was no stopping the grieving man , he wanted to talk , the elephant trunk was digging out the roots , dead roots but alive enough to hurt to choke to bleed .She saw in his eye pain yes that was what she had seen even when he was at the levers hurling mud with his machine. This was the reason he gave but he knew in his heart that there was more to why his son took the harsh step . This was a good reason to tell people but she saw in his eyes a desire to speak , a desire to articulate many reasons for his young son’s death . He looked at them and said that’s my story , my life story . I don’t tell my second son anything , he lives with his mother . He bent his head and ran his long fingers over his face and head smoothening his hair. Looking up he asked her so are you leaving . Yes she replied in a few days . She was the youngest amongst all of them but she felt he was speaking to her all the time wanting her to understand .
It was getting late her aunt reminded him . Herself wanting to forget the man’s dead son and plan for fresh plantings .He walked into the dark switching his mobile on , the torch showing him his path through the land he had just dug. He had done his part removed all the roots . He had helped in preparing the land to welcome new crop . He said he will come back to take the machine the next morning as he had more work in the nearby land .
Next morning she walked towards the machine , she saw the name Gowrishankar painted on the trunk .His son , with him always .