MacBook in the hamlet

This is an incident which amazes me each time I think about it, for it shows me how small the world has become these days; how small the distances can be and how opportune life can be. How a dream can so easily become a reality today, how the borders we once had, with haves and have nots, castes, creed and the such can so easily vanish, is exemplified in this little incident. To see how, you must join me on a sojourn to my little hamlet of Pallavur, nestling under the shadows of the mighty Western Ghats that form a tall border for much of Kerala.

For a long time, I believed that my village will always be frozen in time, but I guess it is now thawing out. Things have started to change in this remote corner of Palghat, and I was wrong to believe that  it would stay insulated from the vagaries of time. Nevertheless, there are no great signs of development, though homes have TV and cars, motorbikes and internet. The days of the bullock cart are long forgotten though you still see an odd one on the road, what with wizened bullocks straining at the yokes and looking forlornly hither and thither as it passes by. Cowsheds, gobar gas plants are all relics rotting away in neglected homesteads(the ancient nalukettu – built in traditional Malayali architecture) now locked up.

The homes are still there like ours, since ancestral spirits are believed to live there forever and dare not be disturbed. The many Sarpakkavu or snake temples still dot the periphery of our home, but we do not see so many serpents or pythons, they have all migrated elsewhere, like the inhabitants of the home, perhaps there is no waste, consequently not many rodents and thus no food for snakes. But well, once a year everybody troops in for the Navaratri festival at the temple and then things start to perk up with visitors arriving in droves.

And so it was on a Navaratri festival season not so long ago, that all this happened. The days of listening to cricket on the radio were all just memories, youngsters today were watching a limited over cricket match on TV and screaming their head off, exhorting Kohli to score more runs and roundly abusing Dhawan for having got out early. The home is busy and noisy again, Gopalan the cook who used to come often died some years ago, but his son Parthan is at it, and is busy making the sweets, savories and condiments for the many relatives who have landed up, so that they can consume some and pack the rest to be carted away past the pesky customs officer’s eyes, to America, Malaysia and Canada where they were all settled these days.

The 1st day of the festival is sponsored by our family, so there is a lot of participation and an urge to make sure it is well attended. Whatapp groups are created, everybody is persuaded to contribute to the finances mightily, and a couple of us are nominated to handle the accounts and contracts. Mani has become old, his eyesight is weak and is not the robust walker he once was, but he is still omnipresent and never short of comments. Every now and then his booming voce would castigate some wayward kid who after having suddenly started to feel an abundance of space, compared to his or her tiny flat in Toronto or Kuala Lumpur, would be running all over the place, clambering up on trees, and generally doing whatever they wanted, for once. They were enjoying it, Mani was not, and his stentorian yells and demeanor would remind you of Mr Wilson in Dennis the Menace comics. The kids don’t care anyway, they mumble ‘what an old fart that is’. But then again, Mani has been eclipsed, sort of. His younger brother has taken over the anchor role and is running the show, even though he is a bit incapacitated after a stroke.

Much food is being consumed, many sweets have been eaten, and Parthan is a jolly sort, for he was having a gala time with all the kids around him, akin to pied piper, feeding them tidbits as he cooked. The kids had taken to the red jelebi’s (we call the large soft red one jelebis, while they are known as Jhangri in every other place!). They manage to converse with him through signs and heavily accented broken Malayalam but get along famously.

We had a little bit of a furor today. Three elephants had been ordered (can you imagine, there was one Canadian born kid who had the temerity to ask if we ordered them online on Amazon!) were brought in on trucks and one of them Kumaran, simply refused to get down. Eventually one of the mahouts sped towards Alathur to buy some sugarcane to entice Kumaran (we name our elephants you know, in Kerala they are like our brethren!) down. After much coaxing and screaming, and threats of using the ankus (elephant hook) on its ears, the elephant decided that terra firma, plus the sugarcane placed strategically on the road, was perhaps better than the truck bed, for his own good. Oh! How I enjoy watching their overwhelming majesty, those simple and gentle giants!

As short-term owners ( i.e. we had rented it for a day) we were entitled to go near the elephants and say hello. Well, one of the kids got a little swipe from the already irritated Kumaran’s trunk and fell down. The commotion was horrendous and the panic somewhat akin to a seeing a king cobra. It was all quickly sorted out by the mahout and the pachyderms ambled off in tandem to the temple, with large coconut leaves held over their tusks. But it did take a couple of hours for the child’s mother to calm down, she had threatened to take the next flight back top Bombay, to leave this uncultured place full of animals and insects! I did have half a mind to tell her that her Bombay had more troublesome animals and insects, greatly injurious to everybody’s health.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ravi’s children come down the road from Kizhaklettara. They have 5-6 provision shops there and a couple of hotels (it has grown many-fold in the last decade) and the kids had gone there to pick up mineral water. Mani is aghast, why are they not drinking the well water, he asks, and the kids reply in broken Malayalam that it is full of mud, not fit for consumption. My wife has been telling me this for so many years and I would fob her off saying that it still tasted good, with the hard-working farmer’s good earth in it!

The parapet wall near the field in front of our house is about to collapse here and there, and I wistfully remembered the time when Mani and I used to sit there and shoot breeze. Sometimes i would look wistfully at where the Pathana Maimuna had lived and I remembered meeting her again in New York the other day! I was telling Mani that story and he just looked at me and sniggered. He is bitter these days, unfortunately life has not been too kind to him, or so he thinks, what with his physical issues, eye sight, memory decline and the such. I try to tell him that it is just aging, but he says he sees only himself suffering.

The fields are still there, as always, the Swami mala still dots the horizon, but none of the kids seem keen on climbing it. Oh! We used to enjoy running up the warm black rocks, and once at the summit, sit and gaze at the whole village in front of us, with a bird’s eye view. The blue hills, or the western Ghats to my right are hidden behind hazy clouds and to my extreme right are the Nelliyampathy ranges, where an American made B24 liberator, I once told you about, crashed after the second world war.

Sleek Hyundai and Toyota cars zip past the only road connecting Pallasena through Pallavur, Kunisseri and Alathur, though buses still roar past occasionally. Pandi (Tamil) lorries ply goods between Tamilnadu and Kerala, but this is not their usual route, so we are saved from those careening trucks driven often by drunk drivers. Nowadays many farmers opt to rent big cultivators coming in from Tamilnadu to till the soil and harvest paddy. Babu’s mill is still in business, though its motors don’t drop the voltage on the village power lines any more. Everybody has lightning fast internet, big screen televisions and nobody really bothers to bathe in the temple pond. Our own pond, once open only to specific families is heavily silted. In any case the kids and families teeming to the village for the festival want to bathe in a clean shower. The mosquitoes are however omnipresent and increasing in population.

But the temple is a solace, in this changing world, it remains exactly what it was, a majestic structure with 12 foot granite walls all around, built by god knows who and still sporting many a legend, such as the time when Tipu’s elephant (they say – not Kerala elephant, that was a Mysore variety!) tried to destroy the idols, but failing to do so, they just leaned a bit to the side, never toppled ( I checked, there is no tilt anywhere, it must have been a rumor, I suppose).

Krishnan Kutty, the priest has aged and looks  tired, but drummer Sreedharan, Appu Marar’s nephew is younger and going strong. He has a lot of bookings and classes in the USA and nowadays spends a while as a guest drummer at the Houston temple. He is at Pallavur for the festival, now regaling his fans with stories from his American trip. As he drums expertly on the Chenda or the Edakka, I am transported to the percussion world his three uncles (Appu, Manian and Kunjukuttan) introduced me to many decades ago. He has their genes, no doubt and loads of talent.

As before it is the place where youngsters come to chit chat, though with mobile phones and their apps, once does not need to go there to meet or ogle girls. The temple is festooned with lights and various generations from our extended family are busy lighting all the small oil lamps around the temple since one among us is sponsoring the Poornabhishekam. The elephants are munching juicy palm leaves and gobbling rice mixed with gingelly (sesame)oil,  while one well to do family or another passes by to feed them with whole ripe plantain clusters. As you know, the elephant does not even bat an eyelid, it just extends its trunk, twists it around the giant cluster and consigns it into his mouth. I have never seen a happy smile on an elephant’s face, unlike a dog which can look happy, why is the elephant perpetually sad?

By coincidence, I saw Sam at the temple, you remember her? I had mentioned her in my ‘Pack of cards’, Ramnath’s granddaughter. Well she is a big name in America these days, a top scientist at some government organization. She seemed to be at home in Pallavur, though speaking only American accented English.

As I got back and sat on the Kolayi (raised floor used for meetings) of the ancestral house, which has been cleaned up and spruced a bit, I saw a face peering at us from the gate. My cousin’s wife told me that it was Cheeru’s son. Cheeru had been in our employ since her birth, and she is doing well these days. Her husband was a party leader and she managed to get some education along the way. Her son however was a bright guy and was in high school, no, the lady across corrects me, he has finished his Pre-Degree and was getting ready to apply for college admission.

I called him in, and he introduced himself with a little nervousness. He was here to seek my help, having been told by his mother that I lived beyond the seas, in America. His name was Chandran, he spoke well, fluently in an educated voice and sounded decent with his English too. A very pleasant sort of guy, one who you took a liking to. He was dressed well, with a spotless dhoti and  a striped shirt.  He was wondering if he should apply to the engineering college in town or outside the state, he was confident he could win admission into the IIT, and money was not a problem. With his backward caste situation, he could easily get scholarships as he was very good in his studies.

I thought he was here to seek direction from me on his future and I was feeling a bit sheepish, for I had been away from India for so long and I no longer knew much about the education scene out here. But that was not why he was there for, he had another problem and wanted to know what he should do about it. You the reader have no idea on how matters transpired, and how this affected Chandran, but I know you are getting impatient, so let me cut to the chase.

A couple of months ago, Chandran found out that the YMCA was giving away computers to needy kids, you just had to prove your proficiency and your financial situation and the officer in charge gifted you a used computer (gifted by Americans). Chandran saw the opportunity and seized it with both hands and both legs, as they say, and came back, a proud owner of a 2006 model Apple MacBook. In fact, he impressed the manager so much that he gave him the best of the lot he had, which was this nifty notebook from Apple. Chandran did not have wireless at home but would visit friendly families and see the world through his computer. With his new machine he got to know the life outside the village, the many opportunities and news from the world over and many a thing one never saw on TV.  He also learned about the computer, drives, operating systems and so on. As it transpired, he was scanning through the hard drive of the computer and came across a folder nested deep inside it.

The folder had many files, very personal files. There were pictures, there were ID related files, bank statements and what not. There was a will as well. It was the personal related folder of the person who originally owned the notebook computer, hidden within some application folders, perhaps for security. When the owner decided to get rid of his machine, he wiped the rest of the hard drive but forgot all about his personal folder, for some reason. These things happen all the time, but the young fella Chandran was in a quandary. The will in the folder was the problem. It listed massive assets and pointed to the fact that the owner was easily a millionaire many times over. There were other papers of an extremely confidential nature, related to his many properties, accounts and investments, much of which was Greek and Latin for the young Chandran. The pictures were in the hundreds, going back to his childhood, all belonging to the lovely countenance and body of a lady, perhaps his wife.

Idly Chandran then googled the name of the man who had written the will, only to discover that it was none other than Oliver Bronson, the well-known New York millionaire, who was close to his death and presently hospitalized. Suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer, he was fighting for his life at the NYU Langone center according to a recent report from the New York Times. So Chandran’s question to me was, if he should do something and if so what! He could easily just delete the folder and be done with it, but his mind and innate honesty would not permit it, what with the previous owner of his PC now lying on his deathbed. He also felt that the financial and ID papers were just backup’s, but the photos were another thing altogether.

I was perplexed, to say the least,  perhaps this was the definition of ‘being in a quandary”. Obviously, I was going to get involved now and with the evening festivities at the temple looming near, I asked Chandran to come back the next day. It would also give me some time to think out a solution.

The festivities went without a hitch, the dance drama was much appreciated by the village folk, especially the men, and I am sure more than the story line, it was the buxom actress playing a goddess, with her ample and well-rounded assets about to pop out, who kept the audience spellbound and at the edge of their rickety seats. The Panchavadyam was also a resounding success and the beautifully decorated temple with all the oil lamps lit for the occasion, presented a glorious backdrop and a festive ambiance.

This time around, there were no reasons for family politics and so it was all good. Peace reigned at our homes and later some of the men slunk away to a corner of the house to imbibe a bit of ‘som ras’ , the elixir for good health or put in plain words, some black label JW scotch! Even though there were complaints that it would have been so much better, if accompanied with chicken fry from the ‘Light of Asia” restaurant in Kollengode, everybody ‘adjusted’ with spicy bajjis made by Koman, as touching’s.

While traversing through the heady fumes and a healthy kick generated by a sizeable portion of the 750 ml of waters brought in all the way by somebody from Scotland, I took a decision on what to do with the intriguing case brought in by Chandran.  I decided to take a copy of the files and get it to the dying millionaire. Easier said than done, for I myself was a Windows user, never having used a MacBook in my life. The next day Chandran came and I explained to him that I would copy the files to my USB drive and take it to New York, for we were to visit my son the followings week, after returning to the US. He worked as a doctor in NYU, so I can get to the guy Bronson and hand over the flash drive to him.

Chandran brought in his silver-grey MacBook and I fired it up, but I struggled to get the copying done. I was about to check out on google what to do when Chandran himself came to my rescue in explaining that the USB drive was formatted in NTFS, so it could be tough to copy to it from a mac. I had a fairly big capacity FAT32 flash drive, so we cleared it up, and after some effort and workarounds,  dropped the files into it. Phew! Was I worried for a moment, looking kind of silly and not knowing what to do, in front of a kid who was under the impression I knew all, by virtue of being in America and worked there! It was heartwarming not only to see this young fellow trudging around proudly with his MacBook, but also to see him adept in its ways. For him, unlike his parents who worked in the fields and tended to petty jobs, he was on par with the rest in the world.  He had seized whatever opportunity he got, and made something of himself, not allowing any negative thought to hinder him. And in the middle of it all, he spared a thought for the person who had helped him, the original owner of the computer, wanting to make sure that he returned to the owner what was his and only his.

That was not the end of the story, which as you imagined, had legs of its own. It ran on a direction I never thought it would.

The festival ran through its course of a week, all the relatives got ready for their return to their real worlds, and to say goodbye to the village they had grown up in, some with teary eyes (I imagined it perhaps, it was only me). The kitchens were closed and the hearths extinguished, the empty ‘mineral’ ( I don’t know who coined that stupid term or adapted it in India, blindly from the west, it is water devoid of all minerals actually, just cleaned up plain old battery or distilled water and not from any spring) water bottles were thrown into the backyard by the callous ones with the many plastic bags, to choke up and sully the ecosystem for years to come.  The freshly re-laundered clothes by the local dhobi were packed back into the suit cases and all return tickets reconfirmed. One by one, the families left in their rented cars back to Cochin airport or Olavakkot (nowadays Palghat Jn) railway station for their return journey with promises to meet up again the following year. For a couple of days, it was only me and my wife left with my brother and family, who of course live in Pallavur. We reminisced of the good times, our parents and grandparents and our childhood days, and sighed…

Two weeks later, I was at the Langone center, and my son, who knew the place like the back of his hand,  took the responsibility of guiding me through the corridors to where the rich man was spending his dying days. Strangely the man was alone and in good spirits, but alone, and I thought yeah! you always die alone.

I told him why I was there, I told him about our little hamlet in South India, Chandran and his MacBook,  and when I got to the crux of the story and mentioned the hidden folder in the MacBook, his eyes lit up. He exclaimed “Oh! That’s where it was, I searched all over for it, and now that you say it, I remember I had hidden it in the application folder, thinking it a wise thing to do in those days without any encryption tools , which are aplenty today”. Then he asked me, if there were some pictures in it. I knew we had guessed correctly, for that was all that mattered to him at this stage, not the other confidential papers, only the photos. I gave him the drive. He rang for his secretary who was lounging somewhere out of sight and asked her to get him his computer. As we waited, Bronson explained how important the pictures were to him., they belonged to his first wife.  He had an album, but that got damaged and he never could fin d the scans which he had made of them. She had died many years ago, Bronson had remarried many times, but all the new companions were just that, he loved none of them and likewise they married him only for his money and the alimony or settlement whichever came after. But his first wife was the love of his life and so her memory was so much more important to him than anything else. In fact, during his last years, that was the only thought in his mind.

Soon the secretary, her name was Suzannah, an elegant and efficient lady, arrived with his MacBook, and Bronson plugged in the drive and spent an hour wistfully looking at his departed wife’s pictures, perhaps telling himself and her that he would soon be reunited with her, perhaps not – or maybe just thinking about their good old days. Who knows, he certainly did not tell me. After some time, I could see that he was troubled, pained and weary and I told him I was leaving. He asked me for my cell number and turned over to sleep.

Two days later, I got a call from Bronson. He said that he wanted to do something for the young man Chandran who had brought him peace. He said that his secretary would contact me with details and thanked me for everything I had done and disconnected. Those were his last words to me. A few days later, he passed away and all that remained of him was a glowing obituary in the NY Times Bronson - a great man and a philanthropist. I heard that several of his estranged children and wives were clamoring for his millions, but well, it was of no interest to me, so I let matters lie.

It was a month later that Suzanna, his secretary contacted me. In a concise fashion she explained to me briefly that Bronson had left a sizable trust fund favoring Chandran, to help him through his education, but that it was given with strict conditions and would terminate if the boy misused it or failed to complete his courses with proficiency.

That my friends, was the culmination of a fascinating and inexplicable tale of a twist in fate, for Chandran, a boy who had never seen riches, whose family had been simple field workers through generations.

These is a reason why all this came to the fore and I wrote it all up, we have visitors coming in for dinner today and it is none other than Chandran and his girlfriend Stacey. He completed his education in America, lives in New Jersey, and is now looking for a job which he will have no difficulty in finding, for he was brilliant in his studies. The Bronson grant no doubt helped him get to the US and pay for it, but I think he is the type who would have done good nevertheless. Some people are like that, self-made and destined for greatness.

But what jolted his fate was as you now know, the MacBook in the hamlet.


Sorry to say this, but while the place and the events preceding the arrival of Chandran on the scene are real, the rest is just fiction, including the billionaire Bronson. Just fertile imagination.

There is an interesting connection between Steve Jobs of Apple and India. It is said that Jobs like many others, was entranced with the ISKON movement and eventually flew to India in 1974 seeking spiritual solace, participating in the Kumbh mela at Haridwar. From there he went to Kainchi in the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand and planned to hang around with the Karoli Bhaba at his ashram, only to hear that the baba has passed on from this world to the next. But he did hear from Jeffrey Kegel (a.k.a Krishna Das) that the baba was very fond of apples, during his 7 months stay in India. Some say that was the reason Jobs named his company Apple. Jobs moved on later to embrace Zen Buddhism. Later, celebrities such as Julia Roberts was influenced by the late Baba and Mark Zuckerberg even visited Kainchi after recommendations from Jobs. Many other equally well-known persons have conducted the pilgrimage to Kianchi but let me not digress.

But what none of them perhaps knew was that the Red delicious variety Simla apples which the baba favored, were brought in from Louisiana in America and planted by none other than Samuel Evans Stokes, an American missionary turned Hindu, and a Gandhian to boot, many decades ago.

Other Pallavur and related stories referred to, in this story

Photos - from the recent vilakku - Amrith Nair