TEACH HER A LESSON

 

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From hero to villain.

 

I am trying to get my head around what is unfolding in Kerala. To boil it down to its bare essentials.

A leading actress and actor had a fallout. There are many theories, reasons and notions floating around. Some say that she had rejected his advances and he was miffed. Others say that it has something to do with some real estate dealings. Yet others say that she had revealed his philandering ways to his first wife, resulting in them getting divorced. A rift in the perfect façade – the ideal marriage, in which he was the provider and she had to sit at home taking care of the child, as per his  wishes. The charade was over! Was the charade over? No. The charade was just beginning. The year was 2013.

The charade was over! Was the charade over? No. The charade was just beginning. The year was 2013.

In the intervening four years, the actress loses one acting offer after another. The industry buzz says that he is responsible but nobody comes right out to point a finger at him. The divorced wife, herself an acclaimed actress never speaks about the divorce. She, however, returns to acting with a bang. He initially denies his relationship with yet another actress, but eventually, marries her. He states that he decided to marry her, because he wanted to protect the besmirched name of the woman who was linked to him by the gossip rags. Oh, the patriarchy! He has everything going for him. His daughter opts to stay with him. His career climbs even greater heights. He is newly remarried.

Yet his mind and heart are still stuck in 2013. He had it all. Public sympathy and a new love. Yet deep in the crevasses of his mind the darkness spread. He is consumed and burning with a rage and hatred that dominates every other emotion, accomplishment and joy in his life. For four fucking long years. He plots with a conman driver on how to get back at the woman who was, in his mind, solely responsible for the break-up of his first marriage.

I know. I know. You are thinking… ‘But dude, he is the one who cheated! And, didn’t it all work out well for him? He is after all now married to the woman he loves!’ But what chance do common sense and logic have, when anger, ego, arrogance and power have set roots in our heart and mind.

We have all committed some stupid act or the other; said something regrettable in the heat of the moment at some point in time in our lives. People have even committed murder in the heat of the moment. But when you are plotting for four long years to teach a woman a lesson… to teach her exactly what her place in the world is, then that is not an act committed in the heat of the moment. It is a planned act of depravity.

Teach that bitch a lesson. Haven’t we all heard variations of that sentence in our own lives? Addressed to ourselves or to another woman in our presence. Aukad mein rah. Know thy place woman.

How dare you tell the world that I am a cheat? How dare you reveal my feet of clay? How dare you believe that you can make a career in the same industry as me without my say so? How dare you think you can continue to live your own life, get married, and hopefully be happy in and with it, after crossing swords with me? How dare you?

Teach her a lesson. Silence her. Shut her up. Oh, you don’t need a gag for that. She will bind herself in knots and ties, and maybe even hang herself with the same rope. Shame is the greatest silencer… the strongest gag.

Hurt her.  Molest her. Harm her. Click. Click. Click. Add fear. We will show your shame… your body… your tears to the world. Talk and we will hurt you again… and again… and again. Know this. Know this well. This is a contract. We are here to hurt you.

This is a story that has been written and re-written for so many years. The characters are different, the details are different. But the ending is always the same. Silence. The silence of shame. Or the silence of death. How is this man any different from the animals who threw acid at the women who rejected them? How is he any different from the men who stabbed the women who turned them down or antagonised them in some way or the other.

But not this time. He may not be any different from those animals. But she was different from the popular, widely accepted image of the female victim that our ‘traditional culture’ is comfortable with. She spoke. She stood tall and spoke. About the abduction. About the molestation. About the photographs. She spoke. She refused to own the shame that was not hers. She refused to own a fear that had been our cross to bear for centuries, our yoke to shoulder forever. And then, most wonderfully, she continued with her life.

Four fucking long years! He plotted and waited!  The hero reduced to ashes. Even the villains shine brighter. The tables have turned. The mighty have fallen. And I wonder. Why?

When a man had it all – fame, name, love and wealth. Why did he throw it all away? Why did he toss it all away? For a grudge that should have In reality meant nothing at all! Did his sense of entitlement blow everything else out of his mind? Did the power fed to him over the years blunt his sense of right and wrong?

I know why.

He didn’t expect to be caught. He didn’t expect her to speak. As simple as that.

 

Odiyan

I am still working on the Pambattu piece. So in the meantime, here is something else from Kerala. This story (in fact there are two stories – I really should learn to write shorter posts!) too was handed down through the generations, with a few embellishments added along the way. I have also noted the cultural and social references to the best of my ability to give you a more well-rounded view of the history behind the myth.

In Kerala in the olden days, most tharavadu (family/clan) homes were spread over many acres and stretched across hills, forested land and fields. The area was dotted with traditional homes of the family and the extended family. Each home would be situated in splendid isolation, surrounded by vast tracts of wild land. Family members co-existed happily with domestic animals like cows, goats, and hens. It was a safe environment. As long as one stayed close to the homestead and farms, and did not venture out after dark. This was drummed into every child’s head. You ventured out after dark at your own risk… because, then you could meet a wild animal or worse, a paranormal one, like the yakshi or the odiyan.

Malayalee folklore is replete with dark elements that can make your blood run cold. The yakshi, chattan, kuttichattan, gandharvan, and marutha have featured prominently in our grandparent’s tales. The most popular of these characters, in my opinion, was the odiyan.

Odiyan was the word used to describe people who practiced odi vidya (a form of black magic) that allowed them to change form. The odiyans, known for their physical prowess, were the product of a vicious caste system, black magic and thirst for power. The members of the Panan, Parayan, Pulayan, and Velan communities were the ones often accused of becoming odiyans. Poor, uneducated and downtrodden, they made ends meet by making chool (brooms), paya (mats), kuda (umbrellas) and morams (dustpans) with dried coconut fronds and selling it to the wealthier upper caste folks in the community.

Odi vidya was usually practiced by the upper caste men and they used a potion and black magic to turn a man from one of the above downtrodden communities into an odiyan. A magical hired gun who would do their bidding, which usually involved the murder of a rival tharavadu or family member.

The legend goes that the method of preparing the potion (marrunnu) was a secret held by the upper caste folks. An appalling yet important ingredient in the making of the odiyan marinnu, according to the stories handed down, is an unborn foetus. Pregnant women were lured from their homes and their foetus stolen. The woman would then make her way back home. The next morning, she would be found lying peacefully in her bed without any injuries – but stone cold dead. As a result of these fears and beliefs, pregnant women were not allowed to travel alone and forbidden to step out after sunset (as the odiyan only attacked when one was alone and usually in the dark).

In odi vidya, after the performance of some rituals, a pouch containing the marrunnu was placed behind the ear of the chosen man. This enabled the man to turn into an animal like an ox, buffalo, fox, dog or wolf, or trees or even an inanimate object like a wicker gate. These animals or things would however have an imperfection – like a missing tail or limb or eye. At the conclusion of the puja, the odiyan would break a little stick which represented the intended victim’s spine. The rituals were meant to literally break someone’s spirit. Most of the victims died of sheer fright.

The odiyan, who was usually out only during the dark could see clearly in the night. He also had the powers to become invisible and change his form as per his choice – as long as the marrunnu pouch was behind his ears. The upper caste men would however never place the marrunnu behind their own ears, as it was believed that the man who became an odiyan would die soon.

Some believe that the odiyan could revert back to his human form only when the upper caste man or his helper would knock the marrunnu pouch off, with a stick, from behind the odiyan’s ears.

Rationalists believe that the legend of the odiyan was created by thieves and murderers to scare away people and to ensure their own safety. They argue that in the past when Kerala did not have access to electricity, stepping out in the dark was a frightening proposition because even a harmless plantain leaf hanging oddly could resemble a Yakshi or the shadow of a strange animal. As regards the pregnant women who were found dead in their beds, female mortality rates were high especially in the case of pregnant women, and these stories were a way of coping with and controlling something that was beyond the understanding of the people in those days.

In Kerala, in the late 19th century, my maternal great-great-granduncle was the karanawar (head) of the Adikarakunnath tharavadu. He was highly respected by one and all in the community. People from near and far came to him for guidance and even to settle fights and disputes. His word was considered final and no one ever went against his decision.

He was also unique in that he was not afraid of the odiyans. He was in the habit of walking through his property and its thodi (front and backyard) at any time that he pleased – day or night. It was a habit with him to walk in the thodi, and even in the woods surrounding his home, after dinner. He would often sleep outside on a charpoy (wooden cot). The people in the community believed that he too possessed certain magical powers.

One day some men came to him and asked him for some food and veraggu. Usually, a generous man, on that particular day, the karanawar was in a foul mood. He shouted at them and asked them to get out of his compound.

The men were enraged and decided to teach him a lesson. That night after everyone had gone to bed, four of them entered the compound. They had used their magical powers to take on the shapes of a wolf, a fox and two huge dogs. When they saw him fast asleep on the cot, they smiled at their luck. Silently, the walked to the cot in the dead of the night and then moving as one, lifted the cot with the karanawar still sleeping on it. The odiyans then headed to the woods nearby. Once in the woods, they planned to wake him and scare him with their appearance.

When the odiyans reached a thickly forested part of the wood, they decided to put the cot down. But they couldn’t put the cot down! They thought it may be because the area is too thickly wooded and they didn’t have space to manoeuvre the cot around. So they walked on to a place with a little bit of clearing and tried to put the cot down. To their surprise, they found that they could not put the cot down. They tried to put the cot down several times, but they could not.

For the rest of the night, the four odiyans carried the karanawar on his cot, trying to put the cot down every now and then, but unable to. Their arms and legs were hurting and they felt that their muscles were on fire. But no matter what they did they could not lower the cot on to the ground. They even tried to shake their hands and fling the cot down, but they could not even remove their hands from the cot’s legs. It was as if the cot was stuck to their hands!

The sun was about to rise. Tired and scared they were near tears, as the karanawar woke up. It was not yet light and the odiyans were still in their animal forms. The odiyans had by now realized that they had crossed paths with someone who had even more powerful magic in him than them. They cried and begged for his forgiveness.

He then ordered them to take him and his cot back to the place from where they had picked him up. The odiyans carried him back to his front yard. And this time when they tried to place the cot on the ground they succeeded. The odiyans fell to the ground in sheer exhaustion. The karanawar sat up on his cot and with a stick lying nearby knocked off the marinnu pouch tucked behind the ears of the odiyans. The odiyans reverted to their human forms.

The karanawar then made the odiyans promise him that, henceforth, no odiyan would ever trouble or scare any member of the his tharavadu. Feeling that the odiyans had learned their lesson, the karanawar then ordered his servants to give the odiyans rice, vegetable and clothes and then sent them off.

Another oodiyan story that was handed down to us involved my paternal grandfather, achachan. The story goes that he was returning home from work and had stopped at a wayside shop (shaap if you want to sound like an authentic Malayalee J) for a bite. As he stepped out, he was stopped by a poor man who said, “Thamburane (lord) what about me?” Achachan initially snapped at him, but on realising that the man was hungry, asked him to come home and get something to eat.

Achachan then walked home (again at quite a distance) and on reaching, sat down on his favourite chair near the thinna (flat wooden veranda railing where one can sit and even lie down – almost like a window seat). His second eldest daughter, Bhargavi, came out to give him water and she exclaimed, “Acha! There is a huge black dog behind you!” He turned around and indeed there was a huge dog in the thodi on the other side of the thinna. Achachan loved dogs, but this one looked wild. So he took a stick lying nearby and shooed the dog away. The dog was quite stubborn and reluctant to move but finally, he was chased out of the property.

The next day as my grandfather was returning from work, he saw the poor man again and asked him why he had not come to the house to get some food. The man looked affronted and said, “Thamburane, I had come. But you chased me away!”

Go figure!

While the stories relating to the odiyans are fascinating, they expose the ugly underbelly of the caste system that was even more prevalent in those days in India. These were men and women who were branded untouchables. They suffered a lot at the hands of the society’s rich and powerful. They had no access to education and had no money whatsoever. They made ends meet by making household goods with dried coconut fronds and selling it to the upper caste folks. Since they were untouchables, they were not allowed to enter the homes of the upper-caste people. They would stand at least 50 meters away from the house. From there they would call out to the residents of the house and the servant would step out and give them some rice or vegetables as payment for the chool or paya. The odiyans also use to help clear the animals that had died on the homestead. Some say that they would eat the meat of the dead animals and save the skin and make things out of it.  Some of them would use these skins to disguise themselves while committing petty thefts thus lending to the mythology of the odiyan.

Today, surrounded by electricity and information, it is hard to believe that people could believe in yakshis and odiyans. But even as recently as the mid-to-late 20th century people were extremely superstitious and scared of anything and everything that they didn’t understand. Education and development have helped in the emancipation of communities like the Panan, Parayan, Pulayan, and Velan. The practice of odi vidya has died a slow death with few or no takers for this practice. But even today, when you are in Kerala and you step out into the thodi or the street and see the looming trees and the weird shaped shadows they throw, a tiny part of you can’t help but feel the cold finger of fear and wonder – does the odiyan really exist?

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.)