The first thought that came to Shikha’s mind at the thought of her mother’s house in Kandanad in the outskirts of Kochin was Rosa cheduthy, who inhabited her earliest memories of the place. She seemed to be the only factor about the house that did not change. During each of her visits there, she would see changes in the house. The house changed its shape several times. During one of her visits, she saw that the lovely colonial style slope roofed house had developed arms on both sides with the addition of new structures with RC roofing. Shikha felt sad because she had loved the original appearance of the house which reminded her of the castles in the fairy tales that she had read as a child. During the next visit, she noticed that the beautiful terracotta floor tiles were replaced with marble. Five years later, the marble gave way to granite. The in between space between the granite slabs were pointed with brass.
The people who lived there also changed, all except Rosa cheduthy. The thin emaciated, dark lady with buck huge buck teeth and salt and pepper frizzy hair weirdly framing the forehead looked the same as she did when Shikha, as a little girl, first met her when she went to attend her centenarian great grand father’s funeral. The last time Shikha saw her was almost a year ago for the 20th death anniversary of great grandfather. She looked as she always did. She wore the same type of chatta and mundu - the three quarter sleeved chatta which was not seen anymore and mundu wrapped around her thin 5’3” body, reaching not quite up to the ankles.
Her mother’s grandfather whom Shikha did not remember having seen when alive, had died of a massive heart attack. In fact, Shikha’s earliest memory of her visit to her mother’s house was to attend his funeral. She remembered the day when his body lay in state in the massive living room of the house. People who streamed into the house went around the body in an organised row. But Shikha became fascinated by an elderly man who would come in at regular intervals, sit on the floor beside the body and start wailing loudly saying “Whom will I pull the panka for again?”
“What is Panka? Who is that man?” Shikha asked Rosa cheduthy when the gate closed on the last row of the funeral procession. Shikha was left behind with the other children.
“I’ll show you. Come”
Rosa cheduthy took her to a room, which once was in the front portion of the house but was now relegated to the back after the umpteen renovations and extensions overtaking it; but it still afforded view of the front gate. It was a beautifully furnished room with heavy ornamental furniture, a huge easy chair made of cane and rosewood. There was a spittoon under the easy chair, which shone like burnished gold. The floor was covered with terracotta tiles with designs.
“Look”, said Rosa Cheduthy pointing to the ceiling. Suspended from the ceiling and stretched across it were three rows of frilled cream coloured satin cloth. Thick cords hung down from it.
“Pull it”, said Rosa cheduthy. Shikha pulled it and the satin frills moved. She kept pulling it and letting it go and felt gentle warm breeze come down from the ceiling.
“The man you asked me about? He is Velu, the pulaya who used to pull this panka for your great grandfather. He came into the house when he was eight years old and spent the rest of his life with your mother’s grandfather who owned Velu’s family. His job was to pull the panka for him, hand over the spittoon to him, keep it clean and do little odd jobs and run errands”, explained Rosa cheduthy.
Appalled and outraged, Shikha asked, “ But he must have stopped pulling the panka after the fans were fitted?’
“You are a smart child – just like your grandfather”, said Rosacheduthy. “But no. Valia muthalali, that is your great grand father, did not like fans. So he did not allow the panka to be removed. Like he had always done, after his breakfast, he used to come into this room where he spent the whole day and sit in the great armchair under the panka and velu would start pulling it nonstop – from sunrise to sunset. He did it till he died yesterday. It’s Velu who first noticed that he’d died. Velu had poured out tender coconut water in the glass and taken it to him. When he did not respond, he shook him and he fell sideways”.
Shikha was almost five years old then. She felt utterly miserable and heartbroken at the thought of a poor little boy who grew old pulling the panka for his boss, not going to school, not having any fun in life. She felt an intense hatred for her great grandfather at that moment. With moist eyes she asked Rosa cheduthy, “Did he ever beat him?”
“Once in a way, when he was angry”.
And then Rosa cheduthy said something, which Shikha would never forget. “My dear child, do you know that Jesus has said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven?”
“So, great grandfather will not go to heaven?” Shikha asked, not quite unhappy.
“Let us pray for his soul”, said Rosa cheduthy and abruptly fell to her knees and started reciting the Our father, Hail Mary and Glory be followed by Eternal rest grant unto him Oh Lord etc etc..
Shikha did not want to pray for his soul. Let him burn in purgatory for sometimes she thought. But she kept her thoughts to herself.
Rosa cheduthy asked her not to repeat her stories to her parents. “If you do that, I will lose my job and my children will starve”.
But Shikha could not get Velu out of her mind. She tried to imagine herself pulling the panka from morning to night, and watching other children play. She cringed at the caning she got from her great grandfather when she dozed off while pulling the panka.
“Promise”, she said to her velliammachi later, holding out her hand palm upwards. “Promise you won’t tell anyone”
“What is this big bad secret, Shikhakutty?” asked velliammachy smiling indulgently.
“First promise”, insisted Shikha her hand still held out.
Velliammachi placed her hand on Shika’s and promised.
“Oh oh, that I won’t do. God has said that we should not use his name lightly. My simple promise is good enough. Now tell me what you’ve been up to.”
Shikha poured out Velu’s story, her narration punctuated by sobs. Velliammachi looked at her five old grand daughter in surprise, as though she was being afforded a revelation.
“I won’t pray for great grandfather. He must pay for his cruelty to poor Velu. But I don’t want him to go to hell. Will he go to hell like Dives, velliammachi?’
“No, my dear. He was a good man”
“But he was cruel. He used to even beat Velu with a cane”
“He was not cruel. He loved Velu. That’s why he punished him, just like parents cane their children because they love them. But he was a very kind man. He made a house for Velu, got him married, and sent his children to school. Both the sons had government jobs”.
“So Velu won’t starve and die because great grandfather is dead?”
“Most certainly not. His children will look after him. And great grandfather would have left some money for him”.
Shikha looked more at peace with herself.
“Rosa cheduthy said that it is more difficult for a rich man to go to heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Is it true?”
“This Rosa cheduthy has destroyed your peace of mind, I see”, said velliammachy laughing. “No, my dear. It is not that way. In Jesus’ days rich men were cruel to the poor and did not take care of them. That is why he said it. If you are rich and kind to the poor, you’ll go to heaven”.
“Is papa rich and kind?”
“Yes, my little girl. Your papa is a very kind and generous man.”
Shikha looked relieved but she went on. “Then why did he look annoyed when I told him the stories Baby cheduthy told me about ST. Antony. He told mama to see that I didn’t spend too much time with the servants when I came here”.
“That’s because the servants here have not studied beyond three or four classes. So sometimes they use bad language, which your papa doesn’t want you to pick up from them. He takes good care of all the servants here.”
Shikha looked visibly relieved and was about to run off to play with her cousins when velliammachy asked her about the St. Antony’s story.
“St. Antony performed lots of miracles”, said Shkika. “One day, when he was a little boy, he was walking by the river side when he saw a pregnant woman bathing. He thought she was suffering from swelling of her stomach and chest. So he prayed to Infant Jesus to cure her. Immediately her chest and stomach became flat. When she went home, her people got scared. They asked her what had happened. She didn’t know. But she said she’d seen a boy looking at her while she bathed. They found out it was little St. Antony who was known to have supernatural powers. So they asked him to pray to God to reverse the miracle. He did and she became all right”.
Tears streamed down velliammachy’s face as she laughed helplessly. “No wonder papa was furious”, she said between paroxysms of laughter. “OK, run along a play with your cousins”, she said, wiping her face, and went to find Baby to tell her to be selective about the stories she told her precocious and sensitive grandchild.