What if we could visually be aware of all the neuronic activity in our brain cells every time a thought crossed our mind? It would probably look like how the TV screen would appear when the cable supply suddenly pops off and it gets inundated with those infinitesmally small particles colliding incessantly with each other. I’m sure if I could see the bombardment going on in my brain just now, I’d be exhausted in a minute. Thoughts don’t tire out. We do. So then the “I” that I am is different from the thoughts that I think. So what does , “ I think, therefore I am”, actually mean? I still have to figure that one out. I get exhausted every time I try.
Well, now, a lot of people are doing the rounds in my nerve circuits . For no obvious reason, the bent old man whom we called “Sami” from my childhood days is strolling arm in arm with Arundhati Roy. May be I’ll get to know why if I pin them down to my keyboard.
I have no remembrance of why he was called by that name. Most likely, he must have been a Palghat Brahmin who had found his way to Marakkarkandy, which is where we have our house in Kannur. My father smoked beedis and chewed paan almost continuously. But he never would keep a stock at home. So as children, whenever we were not at school, we ran endless errands to Sami’s shop to get them for him.
If the day started early enough and Sami hadn’t yet opened shop (which meant that the planks in front of his hut had not been removed) , we would scamper to the back of his dwelling.Sometimes he would still be praying in front of a framed photograph of Lord Murugan or he would be having his morning tea session along with his cat, who was his only companion. He would pour tea into a half coconut shell for his cat and break pieces of a “murukku” and put them into it, all the while sipping at his own tea from the aluminium tumbler.
He was thin and slightly bent and wore glasses and his head was always shaved .Most of the time he only wore a dhoti and looked much like Gandhi, although much more slightly built. As children, our cognizance of how old he actually was, must have been a matter of pure impression. The fact may be that he was actually in his forties. Who knows now? Sami would not be hurried , so we had to wait till he had finished his morning ritual. I didn’t mind really. I think I was fascinated which is perhaps why memories of that scene has made such a quantum leap to reach my consciousness now .
That street corner where he lived and earned his living was the most interesting place I have ever known. The evenings in particular, would come alive. There was a toddy shop and an arrack shop near by and a drunken brawl erupted almost on a daily basis. We’d hang over the compound wall and watch as they hurled the choicest abuses at each other and lunged and beat and kicked each other. Ocassionally a knife would come out. At that point , I think the crowd intervened. The “kathikuthu” (knife-stabbing) days were highlights of the nukkad drama that unfolded anew everyday. The next day after one of those incidents , the two who had been deadly intent on finishing off the other, would be seen walking past on the street, chatting together as if the previous evening had never happened.
Sami was remarkably placid and nothing of the goings on around him ruffled him . Now that I think back, I can’t recall whether I ever heard him talk. .But much of my childhood joys revolved round Sami’s shop. Apart from beedis and paan, he kept sweets and groundnut chikkis and marinated mango pieces and avla(gooseberries) in glass jars. Also jaggery sweets wrapped up in small pieces of cellophane which we called “oyalichamuttai”. In local parlance that means something that bothers you out of your wits. “Stick –jaws” , I think similar sweetmeats are called. He also used to have a chart hung up on the wall with very small coloured squares of paper stuck on them. You got to pluck out one of them for five paise and then if you were lucky you would get some small plastic knick-knack. If you were really, really lucky , you would get a shining new one rupee coin! How our hearts pumped when that was won.
And then Sami got himself a wife. At this point I would have to tell you about the row of houses where the prostitutes lived. (This is getting to be like Amitabh’s dialogue in Sholay when he goes to chachi on Dharmendra’s behalf, with a proposal for Hema’s hand in marriage, isn’t it?) “Eacha Lane” , it was called. Eacha, in Malayalam translates to “Housefly”. Don’t ask me why it was so named, but yes, surely, there was quite a buzz around that place.
Sami married one of the females of Eacha Lane, so Sathyan, her son, got a brand new father. I don’t quite know whether they got along; he was already an adolescent then and had started earning for himself by rolling beedis. Work over , Satyan would sit on the verandah of the local library just next to the shop and read the newspaper loudly to himself. As far as I know Satyan had never gone to school.
I don’t remember now how Sami’s tale ended for I got married and came away. In the corner where Sami’s hut stood , Achyutan Vaidyar’s ayurveda shop came up. He too has been there for many years now and temperament-wise, Vaidyar is as placid as Sami used to be.
I have wondered often why the memories of my childhood days creates such a strong yearning in me for having the ability to travel back in time. Most of all, I think , it is because it evokes the sense of freedom and tolerance to every shade of human existence that characterized society of those times. May be it is the total lack of it now in the beautiful valley of Kashmir that made Arundhati Roy speak with such anguish. I can quite relate to her outrage because the Kashmiri society has been rent asunder in this terrible tug of war between the terrorists and the state. I can relate to that because Kerala is walking down the same road and intolerance fuelled by political machinations is becoming the order of the day. The cry for “Azadi” is an agonizing call for the freedom to be as they once were. I think she understands that. I think the rest of us charging her with sedition really don’t understand what freedom is, may be because our thinking has always been in chains.