A lot can happen over chilled beer under a sweltering sun, including freer minds and tongues wagging about old secrets.
Seevalaperi Pandi, a Robin Hood of Tirunelveli, caught the imagination of readers of Tamil weeklies when the story of his real life, bustling with cinematic elements, was serialised in a Tamil weekly a couple decades ago. It was made into a film, too.
Few wouldn't be interested in knowing about the man who first hacked to death the village munsiff he worked for, and then went on to commit a series of crimes before falling to policemen’s bullets.
Seevalaperi, a small hamlet in Tirunelveli from where the legendary Pandi had hailed, is a cradle of folk culture and music. A fistful of sand from this village is always a key ingredient of any statue of Sudalaimadan, a deity of graveyards, in these parts. The reason is simple: the Sudalai Madan in Seevalaperi is considered to be very powerful, and the very sand strewn around the hamlet is supposed to enjoy his grace.
After Sudalaimadan, our desperado Pandi possessed the name to evoke fear and respect for long. And I happened to meet someone close to that folk hero in totally different circumstances when my election work took me to Tirunelveli district.
As we were desperately looking for a retail liquor shop in town to beat the scorching summer with a few bottles of chilled beer, a non-journalist friend keeping us company said, “It is not a difficult job as there are more liquor shops than ration shops in the state.”
The first shop we spotted had plenty of beer in stock, but a power cut denied us an opportunity of quenching our thirst with a chilled bottle. Then the salesman guided us to a nearby bar run by TASMAC, where again we faced the same complaint. But the salesman, already shuttling between customers and the sales counter, asked us to wait for a few minutes.
Even as we started the session with a moderately chilled beer, a group of young men clad in “minister white” shirts and denim jeans arrived and the salesman left every other customer to serve this privileged lot. “Today is my off-day. Still I am working as I know you will come,” he said.
The leader of the group spoke up: “Last night I ordered 47 quarters and 63 beers. That was for others. Now we have come here to enjoy ourselves.” He maintained that he needed nothing and that he just wanted to entertain his friends. But when the bottles arrived, he was the first to have a glass of beer brimming with froth.
A few glasses loosened his mind and he smiled generously at us. “This fellow is more drunk than any of us,” he told me, pointing to the wobbling salesman.
He and his friends had come to the bar to prepare their stomach for a good lunch in a family marriage in a hall nearby. As the conversation progressed, there entered a man who'd already had many rounds. He had returned to maintain his tempo.
His eyes brightened up as he spotted one young man among our friends who were enjoying their drinks. Without any introduction, he said, “I know your father well. I have seen Seevalaperi Pandi at a marriage,” he said.
Inevitably I perked up and began to listen closely to the conversation that followed.
“He was very lean with a fine moustache. Your father was close to him,” he said and recalled the name of the father of Youngman, who listened to him without any expression. “Everyone dreaded him, but the police killed him.”
I couldn't control myself any longer and intervened. I asked him whether he indeed knew Pandi well.
“Why should I lie? What am I going to gain by talking him about now? He was killed at Paraikulam,” he told me, and explained that the local Tamil daily known for its extensive crime coverage published the encounter in its traditional “grey newsprint.” He then mentioned the name of a powerful politician from the district and said the police killed Pandi at his instigation.
I asked innocently whether Pandi was a Yadava, because in the film he was referred to as 'Konar'. “What are you saying?" he exclaimed. "He is our man. His father was close to him,” mentioning the name of Youngman. Suddenly he frowned at me and asked why I was so curious about Pandi. “You should either be a policeman or a journalist.”
I told him a man wearing spectacles with minus-four glasses could only in his dreams think of becoming a policeman.