Balan - A small story from Pallavur

Chevudan balan chatte, chevudan balan chaatte (deaf balan is dead) …so we gleaned from the high pitched voice from afar, and looking out (we cousins were sitting on the raised verandah and gossiping) we saw the running boy, barefoot, speeding through the raised field embankment or varambu…he was wearing a pair of faded shorts, suspended with straps and showing his bony frame…no shirt due to the heat, I guess. Well, in summer, the heat radiated off the swamimala was quite fierce with hardly a breeze to cool one off, so it did make sense to let the kids run around bare bodied…the boy was screaming at the top of his voice. I don’t know who instructed him to run through the village to announce the news, but he did this with great responsibility and alacrity. Within an hour the village knew that Balan was dead, not that people were bothered by the news. Even womenfolk hardly batted eyelids.

Until then few knew Balan, though many had seen him walk hunched and fearful by the edge of the road, at odd hours, with eyes that were normally unfocussed, talking to no one, though mumbling to himself, lost in his private, silent world. Not did anybody care. Everybody had bigger problems of their own. In the old days, people would have stopped him and joked about his forlorn countenance, but nowadays, he was left alone…the brooding walker braving the busy, noisy roads. Years ago, Pallavur had one bus, but now there were many, then there were the Pandi vaykol (Tamilian trucks that procured the local hay and took then to diary farms in Pollachi or Salem or wherever) lorries that sped by with precariously overloaded hay bales. During school hours, there were the autos that loaded kids from the Chinmaya school, a few taxis that took patients to doctors & hospitals located at the distant Palakkad town, or brought the richer traveler (usually visiting his old parents) from Olavakkot station or transporting boisterous wedding parties to Guruvayur…An odd motorbike sped by shattering the afternoon peace, sometimes it was the Japanese Kawasaki that squealed its way through, with a dull echo from the nearby hill ‘swami mala’, in its wake, breaking the afternoon stillness…or the never obsolete Enfield bullet owned by ‘company Babu’ that chugged by…I describe the peace and the roads to set a normal scene, because it was on such a placid road that Balan fell victim to a sad hit and run accident. Rumor has it that it was some vaykol lorry, but that was just a guess, since the local policy was - when in doubt blame a pandi..

My cousin and others who were interested (most people in Pallavur had little else to do) rushed to the scene. I heard the rest from him when he returned in the evening. He got back after attending the hastily arranged funeral and the mandatory post funeral bath at the pond, to provide us with a surprising account.

The accident had occurred near the Kizhekkethara, the only quad junction in the village. Here the Pallasena-Alathur road and the Koduvayoor –Kudalur road meet, and is the home to the main bus stop for the village and location for the lone provision shop and tea kada. Youngsters usually teemed there in the evenings when the school girls walked back, to ogle and make snide comments. It was also the place where the bored oldies met towards dusk for a long chat on the ills that irk the world these days…

Today, the villagers were crowded around the body, somebody mentioned that KP (Kerala police) constable 909 Ramankutty had been informed. There was a buzz in the air; people were excited, and murmuring between themselves. Most were muttering on whatever little they knew about Balan. Some seemed to know a lot, some provided exaggerated background bios…none seemed to match or make sense, until Keshavan Nair turned up.

Keshavan Nair is a retired army officer (rumor has it that he was not really any officer but a cook, but I always thought he retired as a Havaldaar or a Subedar – an NCO or a non commissioned officer) and even at the age of 70 carried himself ramrod stiff, his body healthy, though a bit wizened, leathery and gnarled by age. His countenance was graced by a full moustache, dyed rarely, but usually brown as the dye wore off. The moustache was coiled up ‘rajapat rangadurai’ style (I don’t know who this duari is, it is a usage at home –as usual implicating a Pandi king). KN had the loudest voice in the village. He was the lead folk singer for the local festivals. People listened to him, because it had always been like that, when he talked, others listened. In the old days the army man was the strong one, much traveled and respected. He usually regaled the village with his stories of brave encounters with the enemy…usually tales which were much embellished fiction based on very small figments of truth. Sometimes choice friends and listeners were rewarded with a little peg of (army ration) rum, which he always shared. Anyway KN arrived, pushed the crowd aside and looked. He did not utter a word. He spent over five minutes staring at the dead body, before he spoke his first words, not in his usual booming voice, but in the voice of a broken old man. He said ‘You may not know, but here lies a brave man’. With that comment he walked off from the crowd and sat under the nearby tree, head on knees drawn to his chest and hands drawn over them. Surprised people remarked that this was the first time that KN looked forlorn and showing his advanced age.

My cousin sold insurance policies, so he knew almost all of the few hundred who lived in Pallavur. He sat next to KN and asked what the matter was. It took a while for KN to open out, he waited till all had left and they were alone, the two of them, KN said his voice very much that of a broken soul ‘did you know that Balan was also an army man? We were in the same regiment; He became deaf during the Indo-China war. That was a miserable war; we lost so much in that war, pride & personnel. We had each of us just 50 rounds of ammunition for the 303 rifle we carried plus the bayonet when we were sent to the front lines, nobody in the high command expected the Chinese to come on and well, Balan managed to survive the onslaught, killing a few of the enemy in the bargain, saving just one round for an eventuality. If he had got cornered, he had planned to kill himself. You see, we were friends back then. During the action, I retreated, as ordered by our CO, as soon as we spotted the Chinan’s, knowing that we had no chance, but Balan did not think that way. We both survived the war, an exploding mortar made Balan deaf, and I got back to the lines and lied that we had returned after a vigorous fire fight, taking credit for many kills. Balan knew I was lying, but he did not utter a word. In the course of time, I got promoted to Subedar, but Balan got waylaid, eventually retiring as he was when he started, a foot soldier-a Sepoy. He added that Balan actually belonged to another village, some 10 miles away, but had married years back and settled down here.

KN continued, ‘our relationship had long since soured, were never talked to each other after that. I have never slept in peace nor did I try to make peace for fear that my horrible secret will get out. I have always known that some words from me to the HC (high command) could have got Balan a promotion and a pension from the army. Seeing this dead body now, I wonder what ill waits for me in future’?

Subedar KN then pulled himself to his feet and hobbled off home. No family around to notify, no friends around to help. The villagers waited for KN to lead. KN would not. KN stated emphatically that Balan was living alone and that they should hold his funeral ASAP, before the hot & humid weather turned the body putrid. PC 909 Ramankutty confirmed that a funeral could be carried out, since they had no idea if or how the hit & run lorry could be traced. Balan would never have known what hit him, deaf in both ears, he would probably have felt the lorry bearing down, too late, but would never have heard it…The pyre was lit in the presence of a few on the Malampuzha water canal varambu, and with that the last traces of Balan left for a heavenly abode.

My cousin being the inquisitive type tried to find more answers. So after narrating the tale as you read it, he went again to KN’s house, knowing that KN was the only source for more information. He remembered that Balan was married to somebody in the village, what happened to the family? KN had tracked Balan’s life for a while out of fear and saw the misery that followed Balan wherever he went, doing nothing to help though. Yes, he agreed, once in the past, Balan had married, but his wife left him soon after and was rumored to have moved to Madras, marrying a Pandi hotel udamai. That was all he knew. A search in Balan’s hut provided nothing, but for a trunk with a service uniform, and some meager belongings… there was no other pointer to his sad days..

There is not much more to add to this sad tale, but the words from the ‘Queen’ song ---Another one bites the dust…

The villagers did not see much of KN after that event, It is believed that he is bedridden, searching for answers in darkness, waiting for the final summons from up above. ..

A work of fiction – hardly any truth- mostly imagination - but for the location…

I mulled a long time before I posted this. Years ago I used to write many more stories of this type, i.e. stories rather than the shorter blog format, anyway I decided to put this up, mainly for a change and to see how it goes..
Some of the events, e.g. the China war story was told to me by Subedar Ram Singh, who fought in that war and who presently cooks at the Niti's restaurant at Temecula.


Venka said…
Dear Mady,
I encourage you to write more stories like this and am sure over time you will your own collection of short stories ready for viewing by some publisher. Also should say a very well written fiction with good bit of sentiment and also use of some very apt words. I was extremely happy in usage of few words in this story and especially the one that describes Balan (...his forlorn countenance....)and really gives some real intent into how you desire your character to be. I realise this is very intended use, even if not at the time of writing. If you didn't want to do this way, you could have always said in simple words his miserable face/lonely face etc. instead you used a very dignified word at the same time clealry stated what the people in the village thought of Balan.

I was wondering after I read this why you didn't use any animal as part of Balan's life (like saying Balan lived with this goat, cow bla bla- any specific reason or just that at the point of time you were writing you didn't deem it necessary), reason being most greek and Indian stories use them one way or another(Indian stories more because most of our Gods are depicted like that, Hanuman, Ganesh, Masya Avathar etc..)

Well done and many thanks for this short story.
Maddy said…
Venka sir - romba thanks, this is one of a series of 'Pallavur chronicles' that I started to pen, mainly fiction, very loosely connected to some events... hopefully some people will like reading them, some others wont...In any case, any comment for improvement is appreciated..