This is the first part in a multi-part, multi story arc.
It was a back alley, dully illuminated, one end disappearing into the splendor, glitz, and electric shine of shops on Market Street and the other end gently sloping off into darkness, towards the empty trough of the canal. The alley was punctuated by looming walls, fenced off backyards overgrown with weeds, boarded up doors, and the many windowless back sides of buildings that had a splendid façade on Market Street. Garbage was piled up against the walls, with scrawny hungry dogs and stout bristly bandicoots rummaging it for scraps of food. Even in this alley, where everything was washed out and forgotten - one building stood out. What was remarkable was that it was the only building in the alley that had windows. A single row of windows with grills in them, two stories above the street, and through the windows came glimpse of the world from the other street. There was laughter, the blaring of nathaswaram and thavil, the aroma of delicacies – of vadai and payasam, the smell of turmeric, sandalwood and Hammam, of splendid Tamil Maamis, and the intermittent shine and luster of serial set lights. The color faded beyond recognition with peeling plaster, the wall belonged to Lakshmi Kataksham kalyana mandapam. It was the most auspicious marriage hall in the city, always booked for many months in advance. But for a brief respite during Margazhi, there was always some event happening here, a reason for celebration and sharing of much joy. The mandapam had a track record; any girl married here became the sweetheart of her in – laws, bearing for her husband strong boys and beautiful girls. Boys married here always rose to the top in their profession, many leaving for distant shores, coming back only if just to marry off their children in the same place. Today was no different, the lights, sounds and smells, some marriage made in heaven was getting formalized here, or so any onlooker would be led to believe.
It must have been past midnight when grilled shutters on one of the windows opened. It was the window in one corner of the mandapam’s wall. A rudimentary and hastily constructed rope was thrown out of this window, and it lay swaying gently against the wall. An experienced eye or careful examination would have identified the rope to be made from the old grey jamakalams, ubiquitous in marriage halls across the city. The rope was quickly followed by a pair of Bata sandals, and then, dangling legs, the torso and head were hidden from view - still inside the room. The straining and struggling of legs and torso to get free of the window made it look almost as though the room was giving birth to a fully grown, slightly obese idiot child, coming out legs first. Struggling to break free, eager to get out to the world outside, the dhoti came loose. It fluttered down gently, moving like a mystical ghost bird, in circles till it settled onto the dusty pavement. A dhoti lost in such fashion would have normally evoked a sigh and a cry, but then the situation was almost like the proverbial Thirudan and the Thaelu. Finally, the hands and head of the man emerged, back turned to the world and clinging to the rope. Like all proud middle class men from this part of the world, upper body strength lacking, he was struggling to hang on to the rope. Already in shame over the lost dhoti, now came the larger fear of injury. So there it was, a man, in silk shirt, brown Tantex underpants and a pair of hairy legs, clinging desperately onto a rope, with a very weak pair of hands trying to negotiate gravity. It would seem that fear of breaking your leg, added to the embarrassment of getting caught with your pants down is enough to make the man out of anyone. Thus our man, over the course of few minutes, teetering in and out of disaster, almost seemed as though he would make a safe landing into the alley. At about the same time two figures emerged from the shadows adjoining the mandapam’s wall. Unbeknownst to him, our man had a welcoming party to receive him. Silently, two men, clothes and features obscured by the shadows, walked towards the end of the rope and waited. Almost on cue, the muscles of our man on the rope gave up on him, and he descended rapidly. In anticipation of hard impact on the dhoti-less bottom, our man let out an undignified ladylike screech and landed into two pairs of waiting arms. Half startled, half in shock, before the man on the rope could respond, the duo unceremoniously dropped him to the floor. One then got behind him and picked him up by his armpits and the other gave him a toothy grin before slapping him across the face. The man on the rope was Karthik, the bridegroom and partly cause for the festivities in the marriage hall. The duo welcoming him was The Captain and Mottai Thatha.
The darkness precluding the identity of the captors, the adrenalin rush from his escapade subsiding, the hard slap ended Karthik’s shock and now he was afraid of the situation he had gotten himself. In despair and fear, his knees gave way and Karthik sat on the dusty pavement, bewildered and defeated. Almost on cue, a rickety rickshaw emerged out of nowhere, screeching and heaving with effort. A hollowed gaunt of a man was pedaling it, wearing a banian, a lunghi, a towel tied around his head, beedi in mouth and a thayath with MGR’s picture around his arm. Captain and MT waved him down; it seemed that the rickshaw’s appearance was prearranged. The rickshaw man jammed his hand brake, a loud screech in the otherwise silent alley, but would not have been heard over the raucous noise of the mandapam. The duo lifted Karthik, who offered no resistance and bundled him onto the tattered blood-red vinyl seat. MT settled next to him and Captain on the wooden plank in front of him. No word spoken, the rickshaw man released the hand brake, stood up to start pedaling again. After a moment of resistance the rickshaw creaked to life, and started moving towards the dark end of the alley, towards the canal, slowly.
The group traveled in silence as the rickshaw pulled up along the canal, it now left the alley and was going on the Tank Bund road towards Brick factory. There was the gentle sway of the sea-breeze in the late evening, the puliyan-marams along the canal buzzed with mosquitoes, there were a number of water Buffaloes soaking in the canal, none of whom considered the group on the rickshaw worthy of their attention. The group travelled in silence. Karthik was muttering under his breath, something about the hopelessness of it all, bemoaning the loss of youth and plethora of choices that come with it, something about how he can never become a kung-fu master now, or travel the world at the drop of his hat, in general questioning himself on how his life had arrived at this juncture. The silence was broken with another timely slap by the Captain. Kartik was no longer sure why he was getting slapped around, but his brain made a correlation between general obedience to his newfound masters and a lack of punishment. This brought a stop to his muttering. Now, there was absolute silence. The rickshaw man carried on his rhythmic cycling, the ancient vehicle lurched with every crank of his legs, the mosquitoes swarmed, and MT and the Captain seemed to communicating telepathically, mentally preparing each other for some predetermined action. Kartik was praying, half pleadingly – half angrily to gods who seem to have abandoned him. Kartik then changed the target of his prayers, now focused them on his kidnappers, begging them to let him go, anything to break the silence, to know the reason for his abduction, and get an inkling of what fate waited him. What bothered him the most was that they were not taking him back to the mandapam, but away from it, it would almost seem that they were helping him flee yet at the same time it seemed to him that he was being led to some fate worse than what he chosen. The silence was broken by the rickshawman who started singing, a song about living like birds, dancing like the waves and the unquestionable freedom of the wind.
After about ten minutes of travel, the rickshaw abruptly left the road and turned towards the canal, heading straight into what seemed like thick shrubbery. Hope was fading quickly in Kartik’s heart, for now he seemed headed straight to a shallow and unmarked grave on the banks of the canal. He seemed on track to be one of those mysteriously vanished person tabloid stories that he used to read during his way to work. His prayers to gods turned to frantic promises and bribers, offers of hair and large sums of money were being made in exchange for safe return to the mandapam. During this mental commotion, Kartik had missed their entry in a large abandoned compound, overgrown with shrubbery. In fact, the compound had been an old temple many years back, which fell in disuse and eventually became ruins. Even after this, the village people, before the village became a town, used to use the aayiram kaal mandapam for large gatherings, for religious discourses and occasionally for panchayat. As the village transitioned to town, the place was abandoned in favor of a location more central to the town. The place then became a safe meeting spot for star crossed lovers, the secret hide out of the many young boys and truants in the town, and a central feature of grandmother’s ghost stories that scared the younger ones into good behavior. As the township grew, the slow flowing canal adjoining the compound stagnated, choking as it got loaded with the unwanted waste from the township. The canal became a precursor to the compound’s fate, lovers gathering here started getting harassed, there were stories of villains gathering here to settle quarrels and share their ill gotten spoils. Finally, the township was deemed to be the largest city in the state, and the villains found that they could fit in with the people of this large city, they no longer needed this hiding place to do their ill deeds, and abandoned it. On occasion, those who needed a place like the compound, who remembered its existence, used it.
By the time the rickshaw stopped, fear had completely overcome good sense and clear thinking in Kartik. By now, he had chance to see his captors in light and was startled to see that they were two old men. As the two men disembarked from the rickshaw, Kartik decided to make a run for it. Over estimating his physical prowess, he decided to push the Captain down and threw his body against the Captain’s. Now Captain, was, really a Captain. He was a retired military man who had served his country’s military in two wars, both of which his country won and as the victor promptly surrendered its territories to the loser. This confounded Captain’s logic and he decided that it was not feasible for him to serve a country that he no longer understood. He quit the army and came back to his hometown, now a city, and moved into a house in the neighborhood he grew up in. It turned out that Captain was still the man he was two decades back, and Kartik, appearances apart could not even qualify to be a boy. Kartik came to realize this through the sound thrashing he subsequently received from Captain. Now bruised, shirt torn and lip bloodied, thoroughly humiliated, a whimpering Kartik edged away and sat down quietly beneath a large neem tree. At this point MT intervened and suggested to Captain to go light on the boy, after all he may have to get married in a couple of days and if then, needs to have a presentable face. MT the spoke to Kartik, proceeding to introduce both Captain and himself, and went to great length to explain to him how all three were really related. Most of this passed off as a blur to a very dazed and resigned Kartik.
The rickshawman by now had left the trio and proceeded to the far end of the compound, near the canal, where he subsequently raised his lunghi and squatted facing away from them. From the wafts of smoke one would presume that he as smoking a beedi. MT went back to the rickshaw to retrieve a large bag from which he would procure a Petromax light, a roll of tortoise bug repellant which he lighted and strategically placed in a circle around the trio and a flask. He then poured out three glasses of piping hot coffee, which he offered to Captain and Kartik. Kartik who had been sobbing was thankful for the hot liquid while Captain openly complained at the loss of quality men in the country to MT. MT drew a smaller backpack from the bag and threw it in the ground next to Kartik and then settled down next to him. Captain followed shortly and sat down on the other side. A short moment of pregnant silence followed, Kartik was unwilling to initiate conversation and MT and Captain were mulling in their minds about how to begin one. In the end MT broke the silence and started a story about the temple in the compound they were in. Apparently the temple was a Swayambhu Vishnu temple, with Vishnu giving an avatar here around 1st century AD. MT then said that historical records around this time say that a dark man appeared at the site of the current temple and started curing people who visited him. Eventually the man disappeared and idol of Vishnu popped out of nowhere. MT the continued saying that a myth was recorded with the temple that Vishnu or his avatar would appear here every few centuries for a few days, performing miracles in general. The Pallavas built a temple around the site and eagerly waited for the god and his blessing. During this time Cholas, a rival empire rose in this region and occupied the lands surrounding the temple. Cholas generally treated the region well and even built up the temple, adding a gopuram to it. Around 750 AD, the myth of the avatar’s reappearance gathered steam. This piqued the interest of a Chola prince, who decided to pay a personal visit to witness the event. A large throng of people laid camp, with the prince camping directly in front of the sanctum. On the appointed day, another dark skinned man emerged from inside the closed sanctum doors. The man looked strong and handsome but at first sight could not be associated with divinity. The prince, thinking this was a hoax decided to play along. Things got to a head when the man claimed he was Vishnu asked the prince to bow in submission to him. Unfortunately the prince was a staunch Saivaite and was not bowing before any man, nor Vaishnavaite god. The angry prince drew his sword and the man disappeared in a huge flash and bang, never to re-appear again. However, the flash and bang did cause the temple to collapse, killing the prince. Apparently, MT continued, this did not go down well with the Chola rulers and the ensuing few decades were made very difficult for the Vaishnavites in town. MT claimed this to be a true story and also that not many people knew this. At this juncture Captain broke his silence and suggested that instead of telling goodnight stories to the boy they were babysitting, they should focus on the matter at hand instead.
To be continued ....