Mathilukal by Basheer, DCB edition. Filmed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan
by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer
Translated from Malayalam by Thomas Palakeel
This short novel by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer was originally written in 1953. Many of his works have been translated by A.E. Asher, published by Univeristy of Edinburgh Press and by UNESCO Traslation Series.
Basheer is known for his unique style characterized by the harmony of Islamic culture in its spontaneous interactions with the Hindu and Christian cultures. Poverty and backwardness hold the community of Basheer characters together as tightly as the profound sense of human solidarity that emerges out of his thirty odd short novels. For a longer discussion of Basheer's work, click here and read my survey of Twentieth Century Malayalam Literature.
Let me say it is nothing but Providence. The village has two elephants, the property of Chathamkeri House. One is called Little Neelandan, the other Parukutty. Both are the darlings of the villagers. Little Neelandan is a great rowdy. Possesses great dignity, too. Two terrific long tusks, tipped like needles. If he traces some unpleasantness in the way of the world he would kill one mahout. For this purpose the elder of the Chathenkeri House, Narayanan Namboothiripad, has stocked up plenty of mahouts. Six of them to care for Little Neelandan alone. And none of them has bald head.
Little Neelandan thrashes mahouts on trees, grabbing them by their tufts. Then he transfixes them with those needle sharp tusks. After that act Neelandan will be upset for a few days. Those days it would be like a great festival in the village.
Until now Little Neelandan has made his death call eleven times, after thrashing each mahout against the trees and slashing them up with those needle sharp tusks. But Parukutty is an innocent elephant. No tusks. She hasn't killed anybody, made no death calls. A meek little baby. Has just one mahout, just for the sake of it. She won't mind even if she doesn't have one. She is so virtuous. Anyone can touch her. But just don't hurt her by plucking the hair on her tail.
The famous Aanavaari Raman Nair the elephant thief is a village gentleman who adores Little Neelandan and is quite contemptuous of Parukutty. On the other hand, Ponkurisu Thoma the gold-cross thief adores Parukutty and buys her bananas, jaggery-sugar balls and other goodies, and yet he doesn't hate Little Neelandan.
This world is for everybody; private property is invalid; anyone can take anything from anyone: this is the philosophy of the beautiful world order that is espoused by both Raman Nair and Thoma. And they are comrades. Once upon a time a woman named Ammukutty had betrayed Raman Nair in the area of love and for that reason he doesn't have any great affection for womankind whereas Thoma still possesses a great mind that respects and loves womankind. Yes, there are times when we are distressed by the way the world progresses.
It is during such moments that Raman Nair gathers up some monies and buys bananas and jaggery balls and approaches Little Neelandan and Parukutty. Right in front of her, Nair would give the bananas and the jaggery balls to Little Neelandan. Then he would grab a few mud balls and hurl them at Parukutty.
Though it doesn't hurt much, she would scream loudly, poor girl. . . "Get out of here, you mule," Raman Nair would grumble.
"Aanavaaree! Are you crazy?" Ponkurisu Thoma would shout at him. Aanavaari Raman Nair is a serious man. Anger is always at the tip of his nose. And the gentleman will warn Thoma: "If you open your mouth, I will chop off your nose and pickle it!"
Faced with such dire threats on his nose, Ponkurisu Thoma the pacifist, would shut his mouth. Once upon a time the two tried to steal an elephant and a gold-cross respectively, and until then Aanavaari and Ponkurisu were known merely as Raman Nair and Thoma. Who gave them the surnames Aanavaari and Ponkurisu? This historian has asked the gentlemen a hundred times; finally they brought out their documents and explained the history of the two thefts.
The villagers know this already. Let me record this for the benefit of the students of history. Two During this period of history, Little Neelandan had recently liquidated his sixth mahout and was upset and was even pretending ignorance of the events. Raman Nair and Thoma hadn't acquired their surnames, yet.
Their esteemed comrades, Driller Abraham and Driver Pappunni, were traveling abroad obtaining higher degrees in their arts: burglary, entering houses by drilling holes, robbery. And so Raman Nair and Thoma filled the vacancies and monopolized all trouble in the village and soon Idiot Mustapa and Spider Mohammadkunju began pretending to be their disciples. Mustapa was working hard to be accredited as the top pick-pocket in the village. And Spider continued to exercise his crafts that involved a great deal of climbing: stealing coconuts, arecanuts, hens, etc. Raman Nair and Thoma showed no interest in such inconsequential arts, yet Thoma offered them some minor advices.
They were planning a massive strike against private property and to resist injustice anywhere. Of course, Raman Nair and Thoma had nothing else to do by way of a career. One day Spider Mohammadkunju came running: "Heard the news? Little Neelandan killed the mahout and went after the bourgeois police!"
The people had already made their guilty verdict against the police. The Police and the Government are rascals! They delighted in the news that Little Neelandan chased them around a bit. It is a popular need to get rid of the police reactionaries. Actually there are only two policemen in the village. Let Little Neelandan liquidate them! Raman Nair and Thoma could care less.
Spider Mohammedkunju said: "Let me tell something."
"Hm," Raman Nair and Thoma grunted.
A great commotion arose at the very moment. All the important dogs were barking in unison, too. Popular uproar. Chaotic sounds everywhere. And there came Idiot Mustapa with the hot news. "Police booourshas, says... our Little Neelandan. . . is to be shot," Mustapa cried. Raman Nair and Thoma sprang up. They are not stones or wood; they ran toward the crowd. Thoma and Raman Nair quickly provided leadership to the people.
They began shouting pro- elephant slogans: "Long live Little Neelandan!" "Down with the police rule!" People joined together in rage and surrounded the police station. The warmonger police, those very ass-rests of the bourgeois foreign government, trembled with fear as Raman Nair and Thoma issued their statements: the above-mentioned Government must withdraw the police decision to shoot Little Neelandan, unconditionally and the Government must apologize to the people. "If not, their noses will be chopped off and pickled."
In the end, the police bowed down before the people. And withdrew their reactionary, revisionist, bourgeois statements and apologized to the people. In this manner the great struggle to save Little Neelandan ended in victory. Feeding him bananas and jaggery balls, and with the assistance of Parukutty, the villagers gave a bath to Little Neelandan and safely tethered him on a tree with a massive celebration.
That day, the elder, Narayanan Namboothiripad of Chathenkeri House, gave a rice feed to the people and thus happiness and peace prevailed in the village. It was during this period that the gambler, One-eyed Pokker's daughter, Sainaba, had a small business: tea, coffee, steamed chick-peas, tapioca, fried bananas, boiled eggs. She served these items from six to nine in the morning and all the following gentlemen ate them regularly: Raman Nair, Thoma, Driller, Driver, Spider, and Idiot Mustapa. All on credit.
But it was known that Sainaba, the prominent beauty of the village, had a deep seated affection for the prominent idiot of the village, Mustapa. Thoma and Raman Nair can vouch for this fact by presenting many evidences and documents. The best evidence is the great magic rice cake Sainaba served to Mustapa. There was a boiled egg hidden in the rice cake! Students of history must remember this. Those who believe in the beautiful egalitarian society find this painful. Everyone is buying Sainaba's goodies on credit.
How come everyone doesn't get hidden eggs in his rice cake? "We've resolved to do something against this stinking, rotten, reactionary system," Raman Nair said. But Thoma didn't agree. The reason is that like everyone else Thoma owes Sainaba some money. This fact of life has been written large on the door of her teashop where Sainaba kept her accounts; with a piece of chalk she had inscribed the names of her debters, and with charcoal, the amount they owed her.
The account could speak for itself.
Spider 7 ana
Thoma 9 ana
Raman Nair 14 ana
Mustapa 2 ana
Actually Idiot Mustapa owed at least 40 anas, but that shameless girl scribbled only two anas against his name. "Down with boiled eggs. Down with the revisionist accounts!" Raman Nair mumbled as he walked out. How could I live with dignity after having recorded in history as owing money to one among the womankind? This rotten, reeking, social structure must change!
And it was at this moment that Raman Nair was offered a business contract, by Owl-eyed Andru. Andru called out: "Raama Naaaire!" It is no secret that Andru is the prominent miser in the locality. Just to avoid the great loss of paying two anas salary per month to his house-maid, this Andru gentleman married her and made her his beloved wife!
The old party is also involved in some sort of agriculture along with his trade in jaggery. It is common wisdom among gentlemen farmers that if you spread some cow-dung and ash in the field, the soil will become fertile. And the famous local farmer Kuttiali had heaped up a mountain of cow-dung and ash by the river for this purpose and he intended to fertilize his large fields. Andru's plan was to get Raman Nair to pilfer a canoe full of the dung heap.
Just a matter of half an hour work in the night and it's cheap. "Here is the ad. . .vanies." As advance, Andru gave Raman Nair two rupees. When Raman Nair arrived, Thoma, Spider, Idiot Mustapa, etc., were feeding jaggery balls to Parukutty which irritated Raman Nair. Why should he do such a thing? Feeding womankind!
"Da Thoma, come here," Nair called out. "Am I everyone's ass-rest? You call your woman like that, not me!" If someone curses you in the name of your woman, sure you'd be angry. There are no men worth the name who won't be offended by such talk. Raman Nair became seriously angry. "You mention my woman, and I'll pickle your nose!"
"Your which woman did I mention? What woman you have?" Isn't it true? He doesn't have a woman. Not at all. Still, it was an offense.
"I forgive this time. Go away."
"Go away where? What's wrong with you, Nair?"
"It angers me when I see you flirt with that bitch of an elephant. . . Well. Here's thirty anas, your nine, and my fourteen. Go pay that one-eyed monkey's daughter, Sianaba. I've a job to do." Nair gave one ana to Mustapa as a donation.
The auspicious moment approached that midnight. It was the darkest night. Most of the villagers were asleep, but the ones who weren't got into a canoe and rowed down the river: Raman Nair, Thoma, Spider Mohammadkunju, Idiot Mustapa. Actually, Raman Nair and Thoma brought Spider and Idiot as an encouragement to the arts.
Water was flooding in the river; the undercurrent was fairly strong. Three baskets, a shovel, and three porters to do the job. But the night was too dark. Where would they tie up the canoe? They didn't find any stake. Thoma fumbled around in the dark trying to tie up the canoe. They had no time to waste. Time is money.
Raman Nair and Idiot Mustapa finally approached the gigantic heap of cow dung and ash which appeared darker than the night. And Raman Nair cut into the heap with the shovel and that's all he remembers. At that moment the dark heap of dung and ash transformed into an elephant and roared. The dogs of the whole world barked! The village woke up.
Thinking that it was the ghastly Elephant Devil appearing in the midnight, those who woke up huddled under their blankets. All this happened at the blink of an eye. Idiot Muhammadkunju screamed louder than the Elephant Devil and sprang off into the river. The village would see him two days later when he did scramble ashore, about five miles down the river. A few minutes after the event, Thoma stirred out and called for Raman Nair who eventually responded with an owl's hoot and indeed he did this from his safe perch atop a tree.
"Whachya doin there?" Thoma asked.
Nair was still trembling. "If you frightened, come up. There're some ants. Still come up," Raman Nair said.
"Oh, you're too brave! Come down here," Thoma said.
If Thoma is brave Raman Nair is also brave. He came down the tree, asking: "What the hell was that? Elephant devil?"
"Our Parukutty," Thoma said, "you mistook her for a heap of dung and ash."
"You little bitch. I'll liquify your...."
"Won't she cry if you try to scoop her up with your shovel? Poor girl! She's frightened. The dung heap is a bit farther down the river. Let's go. Where are the baskets and the shovel?"
"Must be there somewhere? Where's Mustapa?"
"That gentleman jumped into the river and swam away."
"Where's Spider?" It was Spider himself who answered from the shrubs.
"Know what? It was our Parukutty. Little Neelandan is there, too, in a distance. See how he's keepin quiet, sayin nothin?"
"Raman Nair, go fetch the shovel and the baskets."
"You go, Thoma," Nair said, "Parukutty and I are not too close of heart these days."
And finally Thoma approached Parukutty. "My darling! My little dreamy baby! I am not that Raman Nair who came to scoop up your little ass with the shovel. This is your admirer! Thoma! Darling, let me take that shovel and the baskets. Please, don't move!"
"Stop your goddamn flirting with that bitch and come here with the shovel!" Raman Nair became testy. Thoma kept quiet. And soon they completed their mission and filled up the canoe with dung and ash and woke up Andru and handed over the canoe with the fertile payload and received three rupees, and it was at that moment someone gave Raman Nair the great surname with which he would be honored universally: Aanavaari, the one who tried to scoop up an elephant.
Who actually did this cowardly act of naming? Is it Thoma? It couldn't be Spider. Could be some ethereal voice! That night they slept quietly. Soon Raman Nair started threatening everyone who called him by the new name Aanavaari. He threatened to do the usual thing: pickling their nose.
No one would dare to call him Elephant Scoop Raman Nair, for during those days Aanavaari had become fanatically attentive of such possible calls. Nobody dared. And then he found it. On Sainaba's famous account book, on the door: Aanavaari Raman Nair---6 ana. Hm. What to do? If he could pay off Sainaba's 6 ana, she would've wiped it off!
But Aanavaari Raman Nair didn't have the money. Look at the decadence of the social system. And in no time, the whole village started calling him Aanavaari, including the two bourgeois police rascals, the ass-rests of the foreign government. "I must fight against this oppression. . . Hm," Raman said this much to this humble historian.
"I prefer being called Elephant Thief instead of Elephant Scoop Raman Nair," Aanavaari said. And that was the truth. But no one cared for the truth. His new name had already entered the police books. Click to continue