Ajja is a very intelligent man. His former tenants await his quips with expectant faces; sarcasm that sends people flying away. “Arr Birsayrh” they’ll say. It means he’s an accomplished man. But Ajja has never been a happy man.
In Elyoor, the house at the bottom of the valley, the house is all edges, concrete and modern. Somehow the second floor of the house seems to have made it through time. Like a history that refuses to let go, its walls and floors are made of crumbling red mud. The roof is ancient, smoke blackened wood and tiles, home to bats who layer the floor with droppings. He was the second son, always bitter.
There are black and white photos of his family. The last Jain Zamindars who had sold away sacred ornaments of the Bhootas. They are expressionless and I am told how my grandfather would hide everyone’s pencils in his curly hair. The house is home to a collection of comics, decades of Readers Digests, pulp novels, literary classics, and car magazines – a personal library. “I’ll expand the back of the house. We’ll get AC’s. A royal gate too.” He’s always thinking of changing the house which is still built on the bones of the old Tulunadu style mansion. He’s fought all his life to keep the land. A fight he’s never really won.
A picture of his mother, still a quick witted lady today, stares out into through the living room. Everyone knows the tale of how she would carry him, his older brother and his younger sister on her back across the river. Maybe she saw that the world didn’t have a place for strong women like her; the matriarchal inheritance system was falling out of favour in at the time. She told him her daughter needed land.
He calls his brother a Neechay. Everyone has a story about his brother stealing and selling land. Maybe that’s why his mother refused to give him anything. She’d ask him to leave my grandmother later and he refused. She had the police beat them and throw them out.
When the four meet up at weddings now, they’ll sit grinning, mocking all the young, all struggling to hear because they have extremely poor hearing. None of them are on good terms, with their relatives or each other.
It would seem there’s some hint of affection, maybe romance in the story of him staying with his wife. There’s none of that anymore. My grandmother tells us he’s a psychopath and points to his exaggerated bleats, singing and tendency to quote movies and fables at the top of his voice for no reason at all. What’ll the neighbors think?
They stand to learn a lot. Now and then he’ll shout the old British national anthem he learnt at school where they pronounced George and Mary as “GeorGA MAAry”. He likes westerns for some reason, so you’ll always have an endless supply of stories about the good, the bad and the ugly. More than anything I knew him for his stories.
We’d sit on old pink chairs outside the house in Elyoor and drink Grape juice. It is what happened every day. Tulu folk tales, Indian mythology, Buddhist legends, and the Arabian nights were what he would mix together. Now I think back and wish I had recorded them. How many stories had he authored day after day every year when I went there during my vacations? How much Tulu was spoken while I felt further removed from the language?
I’d repeat the word “continue” over and over, the only thing that could stop him from telling a story was his falling asleep every ten minutes. He practically raised me for a few years when the family fell apart. He was always moving between places fighting over land that his former tenants claim and the rubber plantation that the tenant burned down. I think he wonders why he doesn’t get any respect, after his mother saved the tenants family. My mother tells how she used to see the lean people of the forest come to town to try and sell the forest crops. They’d eventually stop using their old names. What happened to the forests I wonder?
My other grandmother, whose last name is horse, tells of a about a legendary Tulunadu king who made leather coins. He went bankrupt after dogs ate his economy.
There are so many stories. But I doubt anyone knows all of them. It’s always strange to think someone you know could have seen a world war, an end of an empire and be indifferent to it all. The way we narrate stories in my family anyways has a great number of interesting characters, incidents and humor. After so many years he isn’t any closer to doing what he wants with the farm and I don’t think anyone will ever know everything about him.
When I was edgy and 15 I wondered why my grandfather wasn’t an atheist. He was always so rational, mocking everyone’s irrational choices. My grandmother tells me of the local giant cobra larger than a train. When I didn’t believe her she told me how an old labourer, famous for his sloth like demeanour came running screaming about the snake. When my grandfather did the same thing a few minutes later everyone was convinced. “I couldn’t see its head or tail. Its body was taller than a truck, what could I do but run away?” he says wearing a serious face that I could never figure out.
When he talks about his college days in Mysore, before his mother forced him to stop, he only mentions mischief , quirky lecturers and a cast of interesting south Indians that makes me wonder if he walked out of Malgudi days. One story he never mentions is one that my mother told me. She learnt it when a Bhoota in a Bhoota Kola revealed the story and my grandfather cried. It might have been the only time he did. My grandfather while in Mysore had seen a body, late at night near a fountain. He heard sirens and hurried away afraid of getting in trouble with the police.
He noticed a dark, extremely tall figure was walking next to him. He tried walking faster but he could not lose the shadow. He finally ran away. How a village shaman who had never left the village knew about this no one might ever know. The Bhoota asked “It was me you left behind that day. Why did you leave me? How could you forget?”
Illustrations Rijul Ballal