Fiction / November 2008 (Issue 5)

Kavala--a Junction

by Nirmala Pillai

Under the grey washed sky, the rumble of the vehicle echoed among the forested hill-sides. It grunted up the steep hairpin curves of the mist-chilled ranges. In front of the straw-thatched tea-stall and the handful of shops perched precariously on bamboo-legs, the dwellers awaited the bus called "Malakha"* for their daily gossip and sundry purchases.

The shadow-darkened slopes came alive with points of light in the scattered dwellings. The "Kavala"** was buzzing with voices, their laughter mingling with the solitary blare of the static-ridden transistor of Babu. Most of the discussion was generated by the six thirty evening news.

"Malakha is late today. Is it because of the curfew at Parakkal town?" Kesavan asked the tea-stall owner, Appunni.

"Unh … hm!" the rhythmic pouring of the tea, without spilling, like a conjurer did not halt. "Never, that bus will come. She is an angel like her name; our only link with the town," he said.

"I hope my son gets back without any mishap. As it is, the lemon-grass trade is bad. Distilling it consumes all the money," Keshavan said as his nervous eyes scanned the motley group around the crossroad junction. Rough tracks like snagged ribbons radiated from the Kavala sitting like a knot on the mountainside.

Many awaited the arrival of the bus. She brought back 'news' from the outside world. She brought back their requirements and sometimes a new face, a new gossip to break the monotony of their struggling, stony existence. From the valley where Parakkal town was situated, the bus was the only means of communication to this way out corner.

"The lock-out in the cashew factory was all the work of that hammer-and-sickle party." Kuttappan said, puffing on his beedi and coughing. He never failed to express his opinion on any topic.

"She is late; very late, Appunni." Abdul murmured anxiously as he sipped the bitter tea, his aged eyes gazing into the darkness.

Cupping his ears suddenly he said, "That sound of the vehicle — I can't hear it any longer ... Appu can you hear it?" His fingers were trembling with anxiety.

Kuttappan looked at Abdul and sneered, "What is wrong Abdul? Bus! That was not a bus. It is the lumber lorry of Varki. Your Zohra will be back eh! Nobody will carry away your precious daughter." Abdul's heart was beating fast. His pretty Zohra was only seventeen. Her Umma (mother) was always cursing him for agreeing to send her to college instead of marrying her off. Yet what could he do. When he saw her pleading face appealing to send her to college, he could not deny her wish. Zohra was so intelligent. She had stood second in the District. He was so proud of her. Yet every day as evening drew in, he waited for her to come back in the Malakha to return home; only then would his mind have peace.

"Appunni your daughter Sarala, has also gone to College today, I hope?" Abdul asked. The busy tea-stall owner Appunni laughed. "Ayyo! Abdul why are you in such a panic? Our daughters will be aback. Don't you remember last month also, because of some trouble they came late? How can that bus not come?"

Abdul tried to feel at ease. The hope flickered in his heart as he walked slowly to the far end of the turning bathed in shadows, squatting on a rock as if physically going a little down the road would bring him closer to his daughter's arrival.

As Apunni threw the tea leaves into the dump behind the kitchen, his wife passed the hot vadas from the kitchen portion area and whispered in panic, "Laxmikutty told me just now that one of the woodcutters said there was curfew near the college and it has been closed since afternoon. Please find out. If it's true, the quarry workers returning may have some news. Send someone! Oh! My Goddess! Protect my daughter … Oh! What has happened to my daughter?" and she burst into sobs not knowing what to think.

"Shut up woman! You are worse than Abdul. They will be back. In the morning, I saw Manian and Elsie's father going to town. They will come back here. Our daughter is not alone; Elsie and Zohra are also there." His attention wandering and watching the group of suddenly silent, young men in front of Mohanlal Stores the shack on the other side selling beedi, cigarettes and tepid, local cool drinks with biscuits and bananas.

Another source of evening excitement for the men at Kavala was the arrival of Alamelu. The tinkling of anklets, metallic and glass bangles growing louder in the dusk, setting the hearts of the waiting men in front of the Stores beating faster, like the Malayalam screen hero whose picture adorned the storefront and made the young women's heart go pitter patter! Only here it was the men who suddenly felt their face grow warm and flushed as they watched the slow languorous, walk of Alamelu.

Alamelu was the hefty quarry-worker Ashokan's woman. She was unattainable as far as they were concerned. Her plump breasts filled out of the tight blouse she wore; the thin piece of cloth she draped around the front with her mundu hardly hid her rounded curves. In the white glare of the few petrolmax flares her dark skin gleamed and played across the yellow and red mundu tied low on her hips supporting the cane basket, into which she put her purchases from the stores. She mimed her requirements for the large king size golden bananas. Babu the young man could not help touching her fingers when he gave them. His burning eyes caused the suppressed sniggers to spread like ripples on the shadowed faces.

"That deaf-mute woman can make your heart beats so loudly that her Ashokan can hear it down in his stone quarry," one man muttered.

"And next day even your bones won't be traced, eh! Remember Isaac! His body was found in the quarry. Some say Ashokan did it, others say Kallan Varki did it ... who knows ..."

"Whoosh! I even forgot to light my beedi; now I have lost it. That was the last match-stick!" Kurian exclaimed.

Unware, Alamelu sat in a corner of the tea-stall peeling a banana, her small white teeth biting into the soft flesh awaiting the arrival of Malakha and her Ashokan.

Appunni did not mind the free tea she mimed. It was an unwritten law. Either at the shop or the tea-stall Alamelu got what she wanted. Ashokan settled it with them. Ashokan supplied illicit toddy to Appunni, who had a secret country liquor-bar tucked among the woods a little away from the public junction. Mohanlal stores could also produce some ganja and charas again supplied by Ashokan. In fact this was a more lucrative source of income in the underground network of supply to the tourist resort high up on the ranges.

The night sounds of the insects rose higher as the buzzing voices rose and fell in the slowly growing tension among the people.

"Bus," Alamelu mimed with worry. Her cheerful face clouded. "Why was her Ashokan late? How would she go back now? It was so dark. He always came to take her home."

"Another vehicle is coming," some chorused. Their ears pricked up anxiety. The gloomy reflections and sound lifted their mood, as their nerves tightened and their eyes continued peering in to the darkness.

"There is no electricity, no telephone," Shivan said in anger. "We must tell our M.L.A next time he comes for a vote to install electricity. They can pull a line for that resort up there … not for us … uh!" spitting into the night. The sound of the motor grew loud and the headlights turned out to be a jeep, which sped away, in spite of all the attempts of the youths to stop it for some 'news' from the town.

"Strange! Why did they speed away like that?" Kuttappan wondered. Must be carrying something illegal like whisky. I know what happens up there," he muttered. Women and charas; all unwanted people go up there to escape the law."

"And the government gives help to them, pah!" Keshavan complained. "They won't give subsidy or loan to hard working people like me."

Appunni's mind was in turmoil. He recognized the jeep. Isaac's name had sent jitters up his spine. Now the prevailing uncertainty and the thought of his daughter perturbed him. It was Varki's jeep. The lumber smuggler who dared the forest officers and cut the sandal wood trees and took away the lumber. Issac was their victim. Some days back at midnight it had stopped by his stall for Toddy and fried eggs flashing a wad of notes and glinting knife whose steel stretched out like a thirsting tongue. Frozen with fear he had handed over the bottles of country liquor catching the cold stare of a rarely seen Varki in the driving seat as his henchman snatched the stuff from his hand saying, "You have not seen us, okay?" The short, hard order rang out in his ears even now.

His optimism dwindled by the minute. In his heart he prayed Malakha would come. His wife was sniffing behind the partition.

Her sobs were muffled behind the smoke and sound of tea cups.

Fear like threads of mists rising from the valley floor, up the green slopes touched their eyes, slowed their tongues and gathered in the nooks and crannies of their hearts with the passing minutes.

Issac's body was found because Varki chose to issue a warning with the body. Issac the man who tried to form a union at the quarry; who tried to bring some idealism into these mountain ranges. Here the subtle jungle in civilized veneer still continued. Appunni saw Issac's old mother come to buy kerosene and salt. She lived on wild roots if she had not earned anything in some days. After his death she roamed the hills cursing the Lord for bringing her to this new place in search of a better living.

Appunni had left his village for a dream of a better life. He was a communist working for the party, but when his wife threatened to leave him and his children cried in hunger he came here in search of a new livelihood. His son died of fever but his only daughter survived and was now in college. But today the over-boiled tealeaves grew cold in the blackened saucepan. The fire sank back in to the ashes. Appunni's heart was knotted in fear for his daughter. Even in the town terror awaited, where he was to go now. It was nearing eleven o'clock. "Appu," the faint reedy voice of Abdul chilled his blood as he felt the clutching fingers of pain.

"It's almost eleven o'clock. Oh Allah! Where is my daughter?" Both men held each other and prayed.

"Why doesn't someone go to the quarry? The vehicle which must have stopped there, must have some news … "

"The transistor is also not working properly — today of all days," Babu sounded sober. The common thread of anxiety joining them together.

"Who will walk down this stone ridge at this time of the night?" voices muttered in the dark.

"There is a storm coming. I can smell it," Kuttappan's voice said as if predicting the doomsday.

"Don't cry, Parukkuty. Your husband will come back," a tense voice comforted the other in the darkness.

"My little children who will take care of you? Feed you?" The voices wailed; sometimes joined by the sniffs and sighs of unseen voices and faces.

Sometimes the harsh, grating bitterness …"The Kavala is a cursed place — no phone, no electricity!"

"Where is the money that was to develop this hilly area? Even the tourist complex has a new separate road from the west side. Wasn't this road earmarked for widening and tarring?"

"I say, it's all eaten by them … The bureaucrats … the politicians."

The tension was ripped open by the scream of a woman. It was Alamelu who had gone crazy. Strange sounds rose from her throat as she flung out her arms and beat at a youth, crouching under the glare of the hostile and indifferent sea of eyes. Appunni dragged her back and pushed her inside his house towards his wife.

Commotion broke out as the crowd grouped and regrouped like caged animals, restlessly waiting. Keshavan was mumbling again, "How can they widen the road; this area is disputed. It comes under the forest belt …"

"Yes, not for Varki and his cronies; to rob more trees and make more money … You know the cost of teak … Almost a lakh of rupees …"

No one laughed. The shadows thickened as the fear lumped into clumps of squat forms, thinning into a primitive waiting for the moment to arrive and explode at their nerves edge.

The sudden sharp cry of another woman rose, "I know my son won't come back. Malakha won't bring him back. In the morning I called him back. I shouldn't have done it. He was so angry. I killed him …" Sheer superstition strangled the breath as people were splayed on the wall of waiting.

Hysterically she said, "He told me, don't you want me to come back? Why do you call back when I am starting my new job?" her wails ripping open the night.

Like puppets their hearts swung between primitive fear and superstition, their minds wavering on the edge of living.

"Appu, I can hear the sound again. This must be the Malakha. It is my daughter; she will be here now…" Abdul's faint voice carried the thread of hope. The names of their respective gods and prayers coloured the return, awaiting their loved ones.

*Malakha — angel (in Malayalam)
**Kavala — junction (in Malayalam)

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.