Exclusive excerpts from The Araya Woman, a translation of the first South Indian tribal novelist's debut novel, to be released later this month.
Kochuraman listened to the verses and their explanations and memorised them. He soon learnt to recognise medicinal herbs by sight or by chewing them. He also learnt to grind the herbs in various combinations.
Ittipennu was in labour. Her groans and moans could be heard from the eettappera. The midwife voiced her misgivings; it was Kochuraman who had plucked the herbs to be ground to a paste with the oil. The oil had been massaged in, but there were no signs of labour beginning. Ittipennu rolled about, unable to bear the pain. Kochukochu wondered if the wrong herbs had been used. Had the boy done it on purpose, he wondered. He glared at Kochuraman...let elamma* die, said the expression on his face.
Narayanan who had been hiding behind a rock on an incline kicked something into the water… it floated down to the shallow bathing place. By this time Kunjipennu had surfaced. Standing waist-deep in the water she began to scrub herself. Narayanan climbed on to a rock and clapped his hands. “You needn't yield to me. How about rolling around, blistering and burning?” He shouted and laughed.
“Friend, we want to start a small business. Can you sell us this year's pepper? We'll fix a deal for the whole crop and give a token amount now.”
Kunjipennu coughed a warning from the door. Kochuraman swallowed what he was going to say and thought for a while.
“This is the first time that we've had a full crop. We'll pluck and dry the pepper, then sell.”
“Don't bother about the plucking. We've come up this hill for the first time, that too to a friend's house. Don't say no. Accept this token amount.”
“No, that's out of the question.”
“Okay, will you sell the pepper to us once the plucking and drying is done?”
“Yes, that can be done.”
“So you've given us your word. Now give us something to drink and chew…”
“Kujammade, why are you silent?”
“You are doing the talking, eleppa. And I know the vaidyan.”
“Give him the money.”
Kunjammad took out a crisp new ten rupee note from his belt-pouch, flicked it with a finger and held it out to Kochuraman. “Accept this. It's ten rupees; British money.”
“Ha, we've agreed on a deal, haven't we? ... and we said we'd give a token amount. In the name of God, please take it.”
Kochuraman accepted the money, feeling uneasy. He felt he was doing something wrong. At the same time a strange excitement filled him.
“When the pepper is weighed I want you to pay me the entire amount. Or else…”
“Of course, that's how it will be.”
Now that the price of pepper is increasing, it's good times for the Arayar in the hills, isn't it?”
“Say that about the merchants of Kanjaar. The poor Arayar! They toil hard on the land; but they don't know anything about weights, they can't count or calculate. The merchants cheat them with their crooked weighing balance and weighing sticks.”
Kochuraman overheard this conversation in the toddy shop. He began to tremble. He wiped the sweat on his neck and lifted his mug.
The forest officials came again, with the overseers. They numbered all the hard wood trees like rosewood and teak that belonged to the crown and stood in the clearings around the Araya dwellings.
“All these belong to the government. They'll be cut down”. The overseer said.
Some thought this was a good thing. They would get more space and sunlight. Others were frightened. When the trees were felled, would not all the coconut trees and the pepper vines nearby be destroyed?
“How many trees are there in your yard Kochurama?”
“Not even one, Thambrane. It was waste land once. There is a venga tree near the stream. The pothen variety.”
They did not believe him .Two guards came to check.
“You burnt up the trees did you not?”
Kochuraman served them two mugs each of toddy; he also gave a small present to each of them. It was declared that there were no trees in Kochuraman's yard!
Summer arrived. The forest authorities came with their implements – big and small axes, and several other tools. They also brought two elephants. They built a shed bordering the road where trees were to be felled. The land adjoining this was occupied by Thannikkal Shankaran. A huge rosewood tree stood just next to the house. One of the elephants was chained in Kunjadichan's yard, the other in Mundan's. The elephants destroyed the coconut palms and plantains. The woodcutters took away Shankaran's tapioca and a bunch of bananas. Furious, Shankaran went to the shed where the men were staying, chopper in hand.
“The men who came to cut the trees took away my tapioca and bananas. Couldn't you have just asked before you took it?” He asked angrily.
“Why have you come with a chopper, to cut us up or to kill us?”
Boorish lot, thought Shankaran as he walked back to his yard. Well, what was gone was gone.
Kocharethi (The Araya Woman); Narayan, Translated from Malayalam by Catherine Thankamma, OUP, Rs. 450 (Hardback).