Insignificant Man

By Niranjana Hariharanandanan

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It was the summer of 1998 – the hottest one in the last few years of northern Kerala, and I remembered it vividly by the dozens of extra mangoes that heaped on the porch of Valliama’s ancestral house.

We called her Valliama or great aunt. She was a pudgy woman who always dressed immaculately in neatly pleated saris, with distinctive fine facial fuzz that rustled with anger when our muddy paws trailed across her red peroxide flooring or one of us snuck our fish meat under a mound of rice. A stern woman and the matriarch of the family, but her heart was always open for us kids all-round the year. But memories of Valliama were reserved for our summer vacations because come the first hint of the mango ripening by the eastern verandah, all of us maternal cousins flocked from different parts of the country into her ancestral house – our tharavadu. This is where the story begins.

The leaves on the jackfruit tree by the compound wall burnt a deep amber, and we could smell the intoxicating scent of jackfruits and ripening mangoes when we traipsed outside for long afternoon games of hide and seek. By the end of summer, Valliama would gather the ladies in the house for the family famed pickling of jackfruit preserves or chakkavaratti.

A summer where Valliama kept the family cool with glasses and glasses of spiced buttermilk; where the rumble of the old wooden fan offered constant background score for murmured afternoon gossip. Of scorching afternoons, where the older men of the family spent many long afternoons, mouths agape snoozing on the tiled porch. But one of them didn’t and that was Valliachan or my great uncle. This scrawny unassuming man with his deep chuckles and antisocial demeanor did not sleep during afternoons. Instead, He sat on the porch, his knobby legs hardly grazing the ground, a blue faux leather diary in hand and a supply of bespoke ink pens lined up beside him. He spent the better part of the afternoon writing away solemnly, his puffy grey brows furrowed in concentration – an inconspicuous sight to most in the family, but one that caught my childlike notice.

Valliachan was the actual head of the family, considering my great grandfather passed away when we were toddlers. Traditional Malayalee houses in the ’90s looked up to their kudumbhanathan or head of the family to made decisions in the house- even the smallest ones like what vegetables to source from the local markets or advising them on the right ‘time’ by checking the almanac to schedule monthly temple visits. But my great uncle wasn’t like that- He didn’t fancy himself standing grand and tall between my aunts and uncles, roaring down to the workers to do their job. Neither did he tell the women what to cook. He sat blandly and awkwardly in the slot allotted to him at the head of the table, head held low chewing his way through his insipid rice without ghee or dal and a side of coconut sautéed cabbage- his favorite vegetable. He loved cabbage and asked for it quietly almost every other day, and my aunt grudgingly obliged- sometimes frying it with shallots, coconut and spices, sometimes just boiling them in salty water when she didn’t have the time. Valliachan never complained- he was happy just as the sight of the bright shards of the yellow vegetable that mounted high on his plate. Then he retired to his place by the porch, murmuring poetry under his breath, blue diary resting beneath his left armpit.

Valliachan spent a considerable amount of time, tongue between his teeth, writing meticulously long diary entries. No one knew what he wrote- considering nothing significant happened across his long days, except the occasional walk to the milkman’s house or when relatives dropped in to invite the family for housewarmings or weddings. He had no friends to go on long evening strolls with, who sat about the verandah swapping paan and stories around the block. So, it was a matter of curiosity to me- what this 70- year -old man wrote, page after page in his blue diary. When quipped, he smiled secretively at my self- indulgent inquisitiveness and proudly murmured that he’d been keeping a diary since 1970!

“That’s a lot of diaries isn’t it, where can I find them?”

“Oh, I make it a point to burn them diligently by the back wall every evening on the 31st of December every year– no, I wouldn’t want anyone reading it.” A vehement nod of the head.

The curiosity of what this insignificant man wrote in his diary drove me into a frenzy. This combined with the fact that my other cousins were significantly older than me and recently spent more summery afternoons whispering to each other than play rough and tumble made me long for a new ally. And Valliachan seemed a potential candidate, and the added opportunity of peeking into the blue diary and uncovering ‘secrets’ made me wait no further. I resolved to spend my days tailing him around, to win over his friendship – who knew! One day he would bend his head over, hook pinkies with me to imply clandestineness and show me his secret diary, just like Anjali my best friend back in school had!

And so, began an implausible friendship. Valliachan, a perpetually wary person who didn’t initially fancy the inquisitive eagerness of a 9-year-old confidante eventually relented- soft-soaped on the insides, that he was finally the object of someone’s awe and interest. So began our morning rituals together. I sat by his side, slurping on Bournvita, eyeing him as he sat on the farthest corner of our living room – a glass of milky coffee in hand. Once seated, he opened up the leaves of the newspaper to the obituary section. It was always this page that caught his fancy. Whether India won a game of cricket against Pakistan or a space shuttle scaled the moon, Valliachan’s eyes were peeled to the grainy black and white pictures of morose looking people. He scoured them meticulously once, twice, and then a third time as he sipped the last dregs of his coffee, a smile playing on his lips as he finishes.

“But why, do you know these people? They all look so solemn. Didn’t anyone click them smiling?”

“No,” the mildly irritated mutter, “they are gone, and it is the custom that the picture be of this kind.”

“Who made the ‘custom’? Do you know any of them?”

“Who knows I might, I’ve seen many of my classmates’ pictures on this over the past 10 years! There was Seetha and Manu and Ramankutty and even my dear friend Mohanan last month.” (A little awestruck that Valliachan went to school too!)

“Does that make you sad?”

“Well, no… no.”

“Then why do you look at it?”

No answer, just the rustle of the newspaper as Valliachan folds them neatly over and looks at me with a smile.

“Now who wants to listen to some riddles?”

Whether I liked listening to those riddles or not, Valliachan would start on them, sometimes messing them up, re- reciting ones he’d already told me, or making up puerile ones on the go! he was a repository of jokes and riddles and had a few tricks up his sleeve which he revealed over time as our camaraderie ripened like the mangoes heaped in our kitchen. We’d spend late mornings by the porch overlooking the pond, me sporting my coloring book in case things got too dreary – and Valliachan with a pack of matches, some sticks and a notepad where he tried his riddles and tricks on me. The coloring book was never opened as I sat squealing with laughter while he walked me through jokes or dared me to answer tests, he set for me.

“Who told you these riddles?” I’d probe.

“Well, it was a professor who used to teach him mathematics in secondary school. Was it secondary, or high school? He doesn’t quite remember. But he remembers other things- He was a witty man, just a few years older than them. He knew all these tricks and he’d spend lunchtime showing the boys how to mimic them. He even knew how to mimic the voices of popular Malayalam and Tamil actors. See, this was how he did it”- a poor rendition followed, and I laughed glibly, not really finding it funny since I had no context to who these people were, the actor or the Professor for that matter.

Context or not, ‘Mashu’ became a fixed character in most of our chatter. Mashu allegedly was a jack of all trades, he was a poet who could conjure versus off the top of his head, some that Valliachan recited were from those sonnets- he could sing ghazals better than the most popular singers on radio, or these reality shows and Valliachan would sneer at the contestants on television and look significantly at me- as though both of us knew who the better singer was.

Mashu was seemingly a good cook too- Valliachan raved on and on about the tamarind chutneys, coconut curries and cabbage pickles he used to make. He remembered their texture to the minutest detail- memories seared into his palette of long afternoons after school watching Mashu cook spiced fish curry over tapioca. But he’d stopped eating spices, hadn’t he? I knew Valliachan all of 9 years, and his staples now consisted of dosa over a drizzle of weak chutneys, rice, curds and more than occasional cabbage.

“Oh, it was a harsh case of ulcers. It had to stop anyway, someday” a downward glance, a furrow of the brow, the grinding of the dentures. Let’s look at some more riddles?”

My 9-year-old mind equated Valliachan’s increasing bland taste in food with his relationships with the other family members- mainly Valliama. In hindsight, it was hard to tell that they were married – that these two contrasting people had once found joy in each other – or maybe not. Relationships back in my Valliachan’s time probably did not believe in compatibility more so than they did in convenience. As long as he received his 11 O clock coffee by the porch and the side of cabbage for his afternoon meal, and she got her way in the kitchen, their relationship was pretty much a tuneless rhyme of monosyllabic mumbles, suppressed sighs of frustration or perhaps regret. All I knew was that fuzzy memories of his childhood professor from fifty years back brought back light in Valliachan’s eyes more than the sight of his wife bearing a bowl of brightly sautéed cabbage.

The riddles continued as did the long summery afternoons under the jackfruit tree as Valliachan wrote away in his diary or pored over newspapers, but my innocuous mind did fathom that there was more to Valliachan than what meets the eye. All I knew was that under the glib 70-year old who stuck to his diary entries and byhearting poetry was a solitary man who struggled with social disquiets.

He wore firm blinkers that he set for himself and the house- for instance, he didn’t appreciate a woman or child – an ‘inferior being’ to the holy Malayalee man interrupt his conversations. His amicable face crumbled in distaste at the sound of my sister’s anklets when she walked the corridors. He despised it when Valliama made an occasional omelet on a Saturday- the ‘day of purity’ translating to serving only vegetarian fare in Malayalee houses back then. His lips would crumble into a thin line, and he’d disappear behind the foliage with his treasured pack of cigarettes in a cloud of smoke. Smoking- his only vice, sometimes two or three packs a day. A stealthy affair that caught only Valliama’s and now my keen eyes.

Maybe had I been older and nosier, I could’ve probed him more on his childhood. Did he have friends? It seemed odd that all of his friends had died or skipped town. If he cared so much for them to go to the lengths of checking the obituary why didn’t he meet them considering he lived in the same village all of his 70 years? Did he have a long -lost girlfriend, who turned on him- was that what had stemmed this deep-rooted disdain towards womenkind, or was it him upholding the tradition of our family’s well-famed male Malayalee privilege? I don’t know. I was nine that summer and all I cared about back then was that there were enough mangoes to last till my visit ended and that Valliachan eventually gave me the blue diary and some secrets to go.

Summer was coming to end, and we kids were reluctantly planning to pack our suitcases to head back to the city. Valliama went easy on us and let us snack on her fragrant jackfruit sweets she’d prepared over the last month, while we spent afternoons watching rented superhero movies.

The first splatter of the summer showers hit during our last week in the village. Valliama scurried around rubbing our shorn locks dry and passing around brass cups of spiced tomato and lentils to ward off the sniffles. The coconut groves smelt of wet earth and promise, and Valliachan instructed the gardener to cut off banana stems we could use as umbrellas as we scurried in and out from the house.

The sweltering month of summer also spelled the mandatory power cuts or ‘load shedding’ in Kerala those days. Valliama ensured the kids were grouped into a tight-knit during this dreaded 30 -minute patch by the porch, keeping us busy with games of monopoly or carrom.

One such night, I watched through a mouthful of sticky sweet pudding as Valliachan sat at his usual corner with a lantern by his side, pouring over his diary, a smile playing on his lips. I crept up behind him, and he snapped it shut laughing at my sneakiness.

“What do you write in this, nothing happens in your day does it? You don’t even watch movies with us, which you can write about… Or do you have a secret friend you converse with when we’ve gone to bed?”

A chuckle “yes you are my secret friend, right Ammu?”

A beaming round face, and a tiny chest puffed up with pride.

“But won’t you be lonely once I go back to the city?”

“Why should I? I have 70 years of memories to live with. Mashu used to say that we don’t need the actual person in your life to feel their presence, there are other ways to stay connected.

“Like a phone? You don’t even own a phone!”

“No…” a pause. “Sometimes, you cannot be with some people the conventional way because our forefathers wouldn’t allow it. So, we respect our elders, do the right thing and come up with other ways to stay connected.”

The 9 -year- old in me is puzzled

“But you can always call me in the city. I’m sure Valliama would allow it” Valliachan chuckles and tousles my hair.

“I wasn’t talking about you… well, I will not call. But we will stay in touch. Here, take this ink pen. It was the one Mashu gifted me when I passed my 10th. I want you to start practicing writing with ink pens now. Enough of those pencils.” My pudgy awestruck pair of hands examine the pen and fiddle with the nib.

“Now don’t break it, keep it safe and do your sums using this. And maybe occasionally, you can write me a letter.”

“I’ll write to you everyday Valliachan”

In the shifting light of the lantern, the beady eyes furrowed by bushy brows have melted into pools of black and Valliachan kept dabbing at them.

“That’s what we all say Ammu, but we forget. Only those remember who have everything to lose”.

I have suddenly realized that my hands are making interesting puppet-like shapes in the spool of light on the wall.

“Look Valliachan, I’ve made a deer head! Can you do this”

The last day of summer dawned stormy and grey, and we were forbidden to go outdoors. I woke up early with the sound of the raindrops falling on the tiled roofs and sat sleepily beside Valliachan toying with my new prized possession as he waited for his morning paper and his caffeine fix. He seemed in good spirits and promised to buy me a bottle of purple ink to go with my new pen– if the rains ceased by afternoon.

The papers came in and Valliachan opened it, sifting straight to the obituary section. I perched on his armchair, eager to see the faces of his dead acquaintances- a surprisingly large number who’d come up over the summer. A few pages rustled as Valliama brought over the coffee cup. They were out of milk and would need a few packets more. Would he request the gardener to head over to the milkman?

There was silence as Valliachan’s face stayed glued to the paper, at a picture of a grainy looking man on the bottom right corner of the picture tile.

Valliama clicks her tongue in tetchiness and bustles away.

A few moments have passed and creamy froth form on Valliachan’s now gone cold cup. I flick at it with my pinkie and lift it under Valliachan’s nose to get his attention.
He smiles at me vacantly, as I follow his gaze to the photo.

Is this your friend Valliachan?

No, and a long pause. He’s staring at the photo so intently. The man in it isn’t smiling as per Valliachan’s ‘custom’, he’s got puffy hair on either side of his forehead and a pouty mouth. Nothing significant about him. Just another old man who’s become momentarily famous for dying.

Valliachan seems to have lost trail of thought, and the vision of Valliama bottling pickled amlas for us to take back to the city has got my interest.

I don’t see Valliachan for most of that day, he stuck to his chair, sitting pensively watching the raindrops fall. At lunch when Valliama brought out a bowl of grated sautéed cabbage to go with his rice and lentils, Valliachan pushed it aside almost vehemently. Eyes downcast focusing on his rice, a fervent shake of his head.

Valliama inwardly muttered a sigh of relief. She hated cooking that vegetable for almost half of her life.

That afternoon, while I played hopscotch on the porch of the house, I saw Valliachan retire indoors for a nap for the first time in my 9 years. His blue diary and a rack of pens lay neatly by the side of the porch, forgotten. I rushed up to it, finally excited that I could pry into his cherished secret. I open a page at whim and discover in neatly scrawled Malayalam, words of longing and belonging – for summery afternoons behind the school wall, of the taste of cabbage that still lingered, and the lyrics of the poetry that seemed unforgettable and the sound of his melodies that ring in the ears deep into the nights. My 9 year -old self couldn’t fathom the meaning behind those words. But I was sure of one thing- I knew Valliachan would never write a diary entry after today.

I don’t remember much of that day from that summer, except that the rains came down heavily, and Valliachan took to his bed and his promise of buying me the ink remained what it was – just a promise. I left the village, and our summer was forgotten just like the last set of mangoes had disappeared from Valliama’s kitchen.

Fin

About Niranjana Hariharanandanan

Niranjana Hariharanandanan is a writer and content creator with Discovery Networks Asia Pacific. When she’s not working on a piece of fiction or on a documentary, she can be found traveling back and forth to her homestay in Cochin, Kerala. Niranjana is a photographer, a writer with Indulge and Punch magazine, and an award winning documentary filmmaker. She is a 2 AM existentialist, scuba diving enthusiast, a Murakami maniac and has 67 pairs of shoes. She lives in Mumbai with her husband, and turtles- Roger and Mirka.

You can find more of her work on www.clickninjaa.com or at +91 8800524975

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