What Lies Beneath…

I love holidays and I love traveling during holidays. Usually, I manage to write right through my travels. However, this year a combination of poor to no wi-fi connection in places as far flung as Mussoorie and Palghat, and an itinerary that included covering 6 states in 5 weeks, meant that my writing took a backseat. I am now back to my routine.

Recently I got commissioned by a friend, to put down on paper a story that a grandparent told me growing up. It got me thinking. My grandfather (whom I called Velliachan – big father) was full of stories. It should have been easy but it took me a while to think of a few stories that he did tell me. You see, what he really loved to tell me were stories about our home, the incidents and events that shaped our family ties and bonds, and the tharavad (family) history. As I mine my mind to remember particular details of the more traditional stories that he told me, my mind is also busy remembering all the other not-so ‘traditional’ stories he told my cousins, my brother and me.

Velliachan was like any other grandfather in the world – totally unique.  He did not have any pet names for us and believed in talking to us six grandchildren as adults. His favourite method of bonding with us, when he was not playing the fool with us kids, was to take us for a ramble amongst the trees in our family home in Malappuram, Kerala.

I loved those walks. He would patiently tell me the local names of the plants and trees over and over again, year after year. We would check if the hedges needed trimming and if the mangoes and jackfruits were ripe enough to be eaten, and the coconuts ready to be felled. My grandfather was a man who was very good at creating atmosphere. His stories brought the past alive for me.

As we walked down to the front gate, I would ask him to tell me about the well that we no longer use. This well, could be seen from the side porch of the house – the porch that ran along a bedroom wall and connected to the kitchen. Along the open porch, there was a tap and this was where my brother, cousins and I liked to brush our teeth – in the open looking at the greenery around and enjoying the early morning sounds of the birds mingling with the sounds from the kitchen where my grandmother, mother and aunts would be cooking. At least once during this early morning ritual, my eyes would run over the well (Actually the part of the grounds where I knew it was. One could no longer see the well itself) and I would feel a frisson of fear.

The house that my grandparents stayed in was built in the 1960s. The original family home, in which my grandmother grew up, was a few meters downhill. Her aunt and family were still staying in that house. During one particular summer, (I think it was while I was still an infant), my grandparents, parents (who were visiting) and uncles heard a commotion from the old home. They rushed to the old house and heard cries of ‘pambu pambu’ as they neared it. Snakes are a pretty common sight in Malappuram, Kerala, especially during the monsoon.

Entering the house, they came across an ashen female relative who somehow managed to tell them that as she had opened an old almirah (cupboard) she had seen a huge python curled up in its recesses. She had run out screaming.

All the men rushed upstairs to the room where the said almirah was. One of the men pulled the door open as the others raised the thick wooden sticks they were carrying. The almirah was empty. The fear spread thick and fast amongst those in the room. There was a python in the house and no one knew where it was hidden. This meant that no one could rest in peace until it was found. There had been quite a few incidents in the district where the pythons had feasted on goats and calves.Would it eat a human being? My grandmother’s aunt was tiny enough.

The men spread out around the house, carrying the sticks and carefully searching for the snake. But search as they might, there was no trace of the snake on the first floor where it had been originally spotted. They extended the search to the ground floor of the old house. Every single room in the house was searched. So were the cupboards and all the nooks and corners of the old house. And there were many. By then it was nearly two hours since the first cry of ‘pambu pambu’ was heard.

Defeated the men gathered together in the main living room downstairs. At the foot of the stairs leading upstairs to the bedroom, there was a very old wooden trunk. It was so heavy that when it was built, they had just decided to leave it on the ground floor instead of lugging it upstairs! Someone asked if anyone had searched the trunk. Another man laughed and said, “There’s no way in hell the python could have got in there!”

But the snake was not to be found anywhere else in the house. So, my grandfather, father, uncle and a few other men stood around the trunk. They were hoping that it was there and the search could wind down, and yet praying that it was not there as no one wants to deal with a scared and disturbed python that was strong and clever enough to get into that trunk. One of them gingerly raised the lid of the huge wooden trunk. And there it was! Coiled comfortably at the bottom of the case. My grandfather says that it was big and dark.

I don’t like snakes, but I can’t help but feel for the snake that must have had a pretty rude awakening as the men beat it to its death. They say that even three grown men staggered as they carried that snake out. It was getting dark and they were wondering how to get rid of the dead snake. There was an unused well in the land. I think it was unused, because it tended to run dry in the summer months, and the family had dug another well in the backyard. The old well lay neglected and run over by wild shrubs and weeds. I am still not sure as to why they decided to give the python a burial in the well. But there you go! Since then, no one has ever used the water from that well, even though there is water in it.

As we walk to or from that gate, we can barely see the well, hidden as it is behind shrubs and trees. The whole area has an eerie feel. In my mind’s eye, I can still see a python lying curled up in its water, waiting for some poor sucker to draw water from that well. The house and the grounds on which the well stood have now been sold, and I wonder if the new owners have been told about the well.

In the next post, I will tell you about Pambattu Kaavu (the family shrine dedicated to… you guessed it – the snake God.)