Wednesday, 24 October 2012


A reason why the Manmalai Club was different from the other planters’ clubs in the High Ranges of the Southwest corner of India was Daniel. When the Club opened in 1921he was asked to serve drinks. The man continued doing that for a little over five decades. He was lean and of medium height. His left shoulder was, at least when I started going to the Club, noticeably lower than the right. He attributed that abnormality to years of pouring drinks from bottles into peg measures.
Daniel had many stories to tell, but never on a Saturday. That was   the day on which the planters, from top brass to ‘creepers’ (trainees) gathered at the Club to relax. The rubber estates at lower altitudes and tea plantations in the higher areas were extensive. The nearest neighbour with whom one could have a drink stayed probably five miles away. The evenings were long and lonely especially for the bachelors. They looked forward to the Club Nights on Saturdays.
To reach the Club one turned off the main road through Murugan Gate, drove up the steep road, took a U-turn named Dexter’s Folly and climbed further. Behind the tile-roofed club house was a sparkling stream with an eight feet waterfall. But no one seemed to even notice it.
Once I remarked casually to Daniel, “The Club should have been facing the brook.”
After some hesitation he responded, “Pearson sahib himself drew the plan. Spent nights.”
“I wasn’t blaming him.”
“I know, sir. Sahib was going home on four-month furlough. Wanted building completed before he came back. He gave instructions to the contractor and also offered a fifty rupee bonus.”
“I suppose it wasn’t ready on time.”
Daniel smiled and said, “On return, sahib went straight to the site. The building was finished. He asked the contractor to collect the balance due plus the bonus, and added, ‘Get the hell out of here. I don’t want to see your face again.’ ”
“But why?”
“In sahib’s own words, ‘Dumb idiot, you got it back to front.’ ”
I laughed and asked, “Wasn’t he blacklisted?” If that were done, no estate would give the man any work.
“Sahib considered that,” Daniel answered. “But he told us later that perhaps he hadn’t explained clearly enough to the contractor and made sure that the man had understood.”
Looking back I can see that the Daniel yarns offered a kind of orientation course. They gave the newcomers, mostly British, an insight into the history, ethos and élan of the planning community.
On Sundays too Daniel was busy till about 3 O’clock in the afternoon. That was the day Mark Hearth, an owner-planter (most were company employees), had lunch at the Club. Earlier, when his wife was alive, they used to have the meal together there. Even after the lady died he continued the practice.
The ritual started precisely at 11 O’clock when Daniel served the first gin and tonic after Hearth settled down on his favourite chair in the front hall. No one else used that piece of furniture while he was in the Club. The old man would leaf through copies of Illustrated London News, Punch and the Illustrated Weekly of India. He did not mind company till he moved to the dining room. There he would sit alone at the same table on the same chair that he had used for thirty-five years and more. He would top off the lunch with a large crème de menthe and walk steadily to his Bentley.
Once, as Hearth was leaving, the international chief of Indo-South Asia Petroleum Company and wife dropped in. They were on a private visit en route to the Periyar Game Sanctuary. Hearth instructed Daniel to attend to them, and before boarding the car said, “Your tankers don’t come on time.”
Two Sundays later, the Managing Director of the petroleum company’s Indian subsidiary and a colleague were at the Club to meet Hearth.
“Sir”, the visiting MD opened the conversation, “about your complaint to our world chief. We have checked our tanker movements here for one year. Last month supply was delayed twice, but that was due to landslips along the road.”
“I beg your pardon. What are you talking about?”
“When our Chairman came here two weeks back you mentioned to him that our tankers don’t come on time.”
“I don’t remember meeting your Chairman or making any complaint to him.”
Daniel cleared his throat.
“Yes Daniel,” Hearth asked. “What is it?”
“Sahib, it happened.”
Hearth thought for a moment. “I’m sorry gentlemen,” he apologised. “Must have been absolutely drunk.”
For the first time after his wife died, Hearth had guests for lunch at the Club. According to Daniel, the planter and the oil company chaps got on famously. After that, Hearth started attending Saturday Club Nights again.
A popular Daniel story was about a Swedish lady.
“This memsahib was wearing white dress. Very beautiful.”
“She was the guest of a sahib from Madras. He was very angry later. And the other memsahibs wouldn’t talk to her.”
“Why? What happened?”
“She climbed on the bar counter and moved from one end to the other and back. All the sahibs jammed into the bar.”
“What did she do?” I asked. “Sing or tap dance or what?”
“No sir, nothing of the sort. She actually walked on her hands.”
One visualised the scene and laughed. But not Daniel. He was the type who would watch your face anxiously as you took the first sip of the drink he had served and wait for your nod. Once that came, he would break into a grin.
An academic type of creeper from U.K. who had befriended me from the first time we met, asked Daniel while we were having beer, “Isn’t Murugan a Hindu god?”
“Yes, sahib.”
“Then why is our gate named after him?”
“The locals,” Daniel replied, “gave that name because of Amelia memsahib.”
“Why? Did she become a Hindu?”
“No sahib, this Murugan was driver. Memsahib was very upset after that.  Then Pritchard sahib got a job in Assam and took her away.”  
There was a pause before the rest of the story unveiled. Pritchard had bought a dual control car to teach his wife driving. One day they were going up the steep incline by the gate on the main road. Murugan who was coming down with his lorry lost control at the sight of two people driving the same car. His vehicle crashed into the granite wall of the gate. He was badly injured and died later in the hospital. The owner of an arrack shop a mile up said afterwards that Murugan had drank heavily.
One tale led to another. “What about Dexter’s Folly?” my friend asked.
Daniel laughed, covering his mouth with his right hand and narrated the story. After a stag party on a misty night, Tom Dexter, General Manager of Manmalai Plantations started back for his bungalow. His deputy, Harry Barton was right behind. In the poor visibility, Dexter steered his Vauxhall just a little before reaching the hairpin bend. The car went into the six feet deep cutting. Following his tail lights, Barton landed his Morris on top of his GM’s car. Because of the retaining walls of the road, the vehicles were hemmed in. Daniel told us that later the DGM narrated what happened immediately after the accident.
Dexter shouted out, “Is that you, Harry?”
“Yes, Tom.”
“Don’t have to knock that hard. You’re always welcome.”
The coolies rushing for muster early next morning found their big sahibs sound asleep in their respective cars.
The story didn’t end there. Though personal hosting of Club Nights was uncommon, the next one was on Dexter. When the party was in full swing he addressed the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like you to listen to a limerick I wrote.” There were groans all around, but Dexter went ahead anyway.
At that point Daniel said “Excuse me”, went inside and returned with a framed paper. It had been hanging in the bar but I hadn’t bothered to read. Now I did, aloud:
‘Driving down from club
Loaded, on wintry night
Dexter took the turn
Ahead of the curve.’
“After the applause died down,” Daniel went on, “Dexter sahib said that he would like to have the U-turn named Dexter’s Folly”.
“I suppose,” my companion said, “the proposal was carried unanimously.”
“No sahib,” Daniel answered. “Barton sahib protested saying ‘Tom that’s not fair. I was there as well’. Dexter sahib answered, ‘Harry, DGMs do all the hard work. GMs take the credit.’ ”
Many yarns went around about a character named Croft but Daniel avoided them. There were two versions on how that man got the nickname ‘Cross’. One said it was because he always carried a crossword puzzle and pencil. The other view was that he was real cross for the others to bear. He had, according to rumour, the dubious distinction of being the only white man blacklisted by Paru and Devu, two beautiful sisters who were available to interested sahibs.
A pencil sketch of Daniel adorns the bar along with various trophies. It was done by a Richmond who was the South India manager of Imperial Fertilizer Company. He was a well-liked man who made a business trip to the area once a year.
Daniel was very proud of the picture. He would say, “Sahib wanted me to stand with my hands on the bar counter. But I said, ‘Sahib, then it won’t be me.’ He scratched his head for a moment and said, ‘Oh, yes, the trademark – your shoulders.’ “ After a pause Daniel would add, “Fine gentleman. Once somebody asked him why his fertilizer prices were higher than that of the competition. Richmond sahib tapped his chest and answered, ‘my salary’. But almost all planters bought from him.”
By the early 1950s the Communist-led labour unions were becoming increasingly militant. Some of the British started selling their estates. A chap who bought one of them found the going tough. On his request the leading Indian planting family in the district sent him a protection group of four men. They were from Palai, an area in the foothills were youngsters grew up with six-inch knives tucked in at the waist and the belief that if the weapon were drawn in a fight, the enemy should fall dead from the blade.
They became the targets of the workers. Some trade union activists managed to kill one of them. The body was hung upside down from a large jungle-jack tree. The workers and their families sat around it in groups, lighting bonfires by nightfall. The dead man’s colleagues had vanished.
It was a matter of honour for the family which sent the watchmen and the planters in general to recover the body. Most of them gathered at the club. The District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police joined in the front hall where drinks and snacks were kept on a table in a corner for self service. The officials explained that recovering the body was not a problem but intelligence reports indicated that the union was planning a confrontation forcing the police to open fire. What the Communists wanted were martyrs.
As the discussions dragged on I moved to the bar where Daniel was alone. After a while Manichan, an owner planter, came and stood near me. “It’s a waste of time,” he said. “They’ll keep on talking through the night.”
He asked Daniel fro a glass of water. That was surprising because he could polish off a bottle of Scotch on a long evening. He finished drinking, placed the glass on the counter and turned to go.
“Manichan sir,” Daniel who had been watching him keenly said in a tone of concern, “I hope you are not going there alone.”
“I am.”
Watching him go, Daniel tried to remove the empty glass from the bar counter. It rolled down and broke. That was an unusual slip for him and he apologised. I wondered whether it was a bad omen.
But Manichan returned about two hours later. His clothes were slightly stained. He told me, “Boy, go tell them to discuss about the funeral.”
I looked at him questioningly.
“The body is at the back of my Jeep. The arms have to be broken to fit it in a box. Rigor mortis.”
By then Daniel had placed a large whiskey before Manichan.
“But how did you manage?” I asked, rather stunned.
“Rather simple. Drove to the spot, climbed on the bonnet and cut the rope.”
“Didn’t they try to stop you?”
He shook his head and answered, “Taken by surprise. And they know me. May be they guessed that the police wouldn’t interfere immediately, and wanted to end the stand off somehow. What does it matter?”
Later that night Daniel told me that it would not be the end. True enough, the two murderers of the guard were found dead within a week. Everybody knew who did it but officially the police could not find any proof. The three missing watchmen returned and the area remained quiet for a long while.
 After that incident some planters had taken to carrying firearms. One evening two Asst. Managers were practicing billiards for the Inter-Club Meet at Cochin the next week. Suddenly there was a gunshot just outside.
They rushed to the front hall. A young man was standing at the entrance with a pistol. A carcass lay in a pool of blood at the other end.
“You killed Charlie,” the older among the two said in shock.
“That one?” the young man asked. “My book says when a jackal rushes at you shoot him. There may be a pack following.”
The animal had adopted the club a year earlier. He found a niche for himself in a hole on the side of the building. Soon he became a pet of some of the younger members who named him Charlie and fed him whenever they went to the club. The others did not mind because the jackal never bothered them.
“Charlie was,” the other billiards player who had a squeaky voice said, “part of the club. Who the hell are you anyway?”
 “I’m a member. Jacob Philipose. Hill View Estate. Was away in England for a few years completing my studies. I didn’t know that in the meantime we started admitting jackals.”
“That’s bloody well adding insult to injury.” Words flew and finally it was decided to have a fistfight to settle the score.
“Daniel,” the senior Asst. Manager ordered, “arrange the furniture on dance night mode.” That meant that everything should be pushed to the sides leaving the wood-floored hall open.
“Yes, sir,” Daniel responded promptly and went inside.
Minutes later he returned with an unopened bottle of Dimple Scotch and the usual accompaniments. “While I rearrange the furniture,” he said, “the gentlemen may like to drink. Pearson sahib has entrusted me with some bottles to be served on the house at special occasions.”
“Good,” Philipose said. “I’m thirsty.” He sat down.
Daniel poured three large drinks. The Indian took a glass, said “Cheers” and had a sip. The others joined after some hesitation. A club boy came and screened off Charlie’s body.
Daniel disappeared again. It was quite some time before he came back with cocktail sausages and bully beef tossed with onions and spices according to the Club’s special recipe. He poured the second drink for the three members and started rearranging the furniture. The pace was slow.
He was called again. Then, after pouring the third round of drinks he said, “With your permission, may I suggest that I remove Charlie and have the place cleaned up?”
“Yes, go ahead,” the senior Asst. Manager said. “He must be given a decent burial.”
“He was dear to us,” the other one added.
“I’ll also help,” Philipose said. “I recall some of the Syriac liturgy.” To demonstrate his knowledge he started reciting the original Aramaic version of the Lord’s Prayer, “Abun da bashmaya…”
“Who wants Syriac,” the elder planter said. “It shall be Anglican service.”
At this point Daniel intervened saying, “Charlie was not a Christian. To the respected members he was a pet. To me he was a friend and companion. I have no family. I looked after him from the day he came to the club. Please allow me to bury him.”
The senior Asst. Manager said, “Right Daniel, we leave him to you.”
“Thank you sahibs.”
“Sorry, Daniel,” Philipose said. “I didn’t know he was your friend.” After a pause he added, “Anyway, get us some more whiskey.”
The second bottle was only half full. When it was nearly finished, Daniel told the members, “The chambers are ready.” Finally the men moved to the bedrooms arms on each others shoulders and singing, “Show me the way to go home.” Early morning Daniel woke up the Asst. Managers so that they could reach back in time for muster.
The send off party for Walter-Smith, a highly respected planter, was a memorable event. He gave a speech in his soft-spoken manner mainly about the forty years he had spent in the High Ranges. Before concluding he mentioned, “Some of you may know that during the War, I was Honorary Livestock Protection Officer for this division. Quite a few of the cows were dying. The blood sample of each dead animal had to be tested for anthrax and certified by the government veterinary doctor. Every report stated that there were no traces of any disease. I became suspicious. But one certificate was different. I would like to present it to the club.”
There was polite applause.
Walter-Smith continued, “I’ll read it out. Quote. This blood sample appears to be that of a senile old baboon of a species, which hither to was believed to be extinct. Unquote. I have added a signed Post Script that the blood sample was mine. I wanted to check the vet.” He raised his voice to be heard over the laughter and added, “The moral of the story is that there are no secrets in estate bungalows.”
Only once did Daniel get into trouble.
During the Second World War the club bought a Murphy radio that operated on car battery and installed it in the bar. Even on weekdays members went over to listen to BBC, and sometimes, Lili Marlene. One day during a break in the news, while ‘Cross’ Croft sat at a table with his crossword and others were discussing the War, someone asked, “Daniel, who do you think will win?”
The reply was prompt. “The King Emperor.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because Indian soldiers are fighting for His Majesty.”
Everybody laughed.
Croft walked over to the bar counter and asked Daniel, “What did you say?”
“Sahib, I said,” Daniel replied with some apprehension, “that King Emperor will win the war because Indian soldiers are fighting for him.”
Croft nodded and went back.
Next Saturday the members had a meeting at the club at 5 p.m. in response to an urgent notice from the Hon. Secretary. Pearson, the man who built the club, started the proceedings with the statement, “I wasn’t given a chance to see action in the First World War. But now I’m about to be involved with Second.”
There was suppressed laughter. Most of the members had heard about his attempt to enlist in 1914. The recruiting officer at Madras politely pointed out that the upper age limit for joining the army was forty years. Pearson who was forty-one then stared angrily at the man, said, “Don’t blame me if you lose the bloody War”, and walked out.
“Obviously,” Pearson went on, “some of you have heard the story. “Let me delve on it briefly because it is relevant in the present context. I felt miserable about the rejection. Then I realized that they also serve who stay back and keep the supplies flowing. Rubber, tea, whatever.”
The members cheered.
“Now,” Pearson continued, “let’s come to the matter on hand. We have received a written complaint from Mr. Croft against Daniel.”
There were surprised looks and murmurs among the members.
“There is,” Pearson went on, “a procedural problem however. Daniel is the son of my former butler. I gave him the job here. His address in the club records is still ‘c/o R.J. Pearson’. Therefore it may not be proper for me to chair this meeting.”
A senior member stood up and said, “You are the President of the club for life. There is no impropriety. Let’s get on with it.”
The crowd clapped in approval.
“Mr. Croft,” Pearson asked, “is that agreeable to you?”
The complainant replied with a slight hesitation, “I’m not objecting.”
After the petition was read out, Pearson said, “Let’s take the last of the accusations first. Mr. Croft, why do you say that Daniel’s loyalty is with Gandhi and company?”
“Because he always wears a Gandhi cap.”
“If that’s an offence, the blame is with the club management for permitting it. But when I placed him in the bar he donned the same type of attire that is wearing today. Mr. Gandhi has nothing to do with it. Shall we drop it?”
The complainant nodded in the affirmative.
“The next point is that Daniel is unpatriotic. Why do you say that?”
“Most Indians are.”
“That,” Pearson responded, “is a generalization. The word patriotism has several meanings. Loyalty, devotion, nationalism and so on. Talking about the Indians, many believe that we won the First World Was because of them. It was not all quiet for them on the Western Front. An estimate is that 65,000 sepoys died there.”
Many of the members gasped.
“I’m not,” Croft said, “belittling whatever contribution the natives made. But they can’t insult the white soldiers.”
“But why do you say white soldiers? There are coloured men from many parts of the Empire fighting for us. Even our Americans allies have Negro soldiers.”
The witnesses, altogether five, were called. All of them testified that they had felt no offence at what Daniel had said. Then it was the turn of the accused. His statement was brief: “I meant no disrespect to soldiers of any country. May be I should have said, ‘Because my son is fighting under Montgomery sahib in Africa.’ “
The members were taken aback. Most of them did not know about it.
“4th Indian Division,” Pearson explained.
After a short discussion with the Hon. Secretary he announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the verdict. Daniel shall open the bar at 6 O’clock as usual.” He looked at his pocket watch and added, “That’s precisely ten minutes from now.”
The members stood up and clapped as Daniel walked towards the bar with tears running down his cheeks.
His son died on February 17, 1944 in Italy during the bitter fighting for control of the Benedictine monastery near Monte Cassino. Nobody in the Club except Pearson knew about it. I heard it years later when he told my father over drinks at our bungalow.
Next morning I was the first one at the club. After Daniel finished pouring the beer I asked, “Your son was a hero. Why did you keep it a secret?”
He gave me a surprised look and answered, “Why make my patrons also sad with my personal tragedy?” He turned to the rack behind him, ostensibly to arrange the bottles and added with a slight quiver in his voice, “He was just twenty-two.”
I quietly got up with my beer mug and moved out to the front hall. I was twenty-two then.
These days I hardly go to the club. An era has ended and it is no longer the place it used to be. But every December 6th, the few of us old-timers still remaining gather there and go to the All Saints Church cemetery a mile away to spend some time where Daniel rests in peace.
Cross posted from:
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Sunday, 29 July 2007

BIG ONE and 'BELT' CHACKO - concluding part

In the morning when Chacko was ready to leave, Carlson opened two boxes of cartridges. He test fired one from each lot and handed over the rest along with the gun to Chacko. He also presented him a headlamp and an ammunition belt.

Before they parted the white man said, “Remember, Big One doesn’t know the power and range of this rifle.”

Chacko returned to Kadep alone. On arrival he went straight to the vicarage and had the gun blessed. Carlson was a Protestant and therefore his gun had to be purified before a Catholic could use it. Then he entered the old church. The smell of incense from morning mass still lingered inside. He presented the weapon and accessories at St. Anthony's altar and knelt for a long time before the statue of the dark robed saint. He took out a silver piece shaped like a crocodile, which Mariam had given, and deposited in the box for offerings.

That very night Big One made his presence known. He razed to ground Janaki's fence on the canal side. The woman ran away screaming. By the time Chacko reached the scene the crocodile was gone. He rebuilt the structure and waited beside it with the rifle for several nights. Big One did not come. But when the hunter gave up the watch the beast demolished the fence again.

Chacko started going out on the lake at nights in a canoe. It was a calculated risk. Salinity in the backwater increased sharply during summer and there was an abundance of fluorescent planktons. In the dark any disturbance would make the water sparkle because of the micro organisms. It was easy to locate and identify objects that moved. But there was an element of risk. If the crocodile floated log-like during slack tide, the telltale signs would be absent. The venture turned out to be futile anyway, and was abandoned.

The hunter changed tactics. Late at night he would wait invitingly near one of the several mangrove forests by the shore or by a canal or on the embankments that protected the rice fields but nothing happened. He wondered why Big One didn’t strike. Was the crocodile trying to wear him out or waiting for the rains? He knew that as time passed his efficiency and alertness would wane.

Days crawled by.

The konna trees bloomed ushering in Vishu, the New Year that the Hindus celebrated. It fell in mid-April. Clusters of small yellow flowers hung from gray, leafless branches covering entire trees like splash of sunshine. But there was no brightness in Chacko’s heart. He was lonely. There was no one to talk to. People appeared to be avoiding him.

The hunter evolved a new plan. After dark he would tie a live goat to a mango tree by the lakeside and wait at a vantage point on the branches.

After two uneventful nights of this routine, Ali the hunter from across the lake came to see him again. The Martini Henry fascinated the visitor. No body in that locality had seen a weapon like that. The two hunters talked at length about Carlson, the training at Windermere Estate, and about Chacko's efforts to track down the crocodile.

"Don't waste your sleep," Ali said, as he was about to depart. "Since there is fluorescence in the water Big One won't come at night. It's likely to be a daytime attack."

Chacko smiled sheepishly.

He walked behind the Muslim till the edge of the courtyard as the man was leaving. "Perhaps," he stuttered, "we can team up now?"

Ali turned around and gave him a long look. "Sorry," he said. "You make too many mistakes."

Chacko stood all alone watching the man walk away.

Every morning and at bedtime Chacko used to say a cursory prayer out of habit, standing before a picture of St. Anthony. That night also he mumbled, "Please take care of us," and lay down.

Soon the saint was smiling at him. The scene lap dissolved to show a coconut grove with patches of drying grass. In the background was a cluster of trees. The sun was bright. A golden colored snake, about a foot long and very thin, shimmered on the ground. It had a small hood. The minuscule emerald eyes were watching him.

The hunter woke up. He spent a long time trying to interpret the dream. The serpents that the Hindus worshipped, he knew, were supposed to be tiny golden reptiles. The belief was that humans could see them only if they wished to be seen. What was one of them doing in the vision that he had?

Next day the answer came to him. He remembered one morning at Windermere. Carlson was sitting at his office table with the GTS map before him. Chacko stood beside.

"Tell me about these woods," the sahib said pointing to the marked areas on the map.

"They are sacred groves," Chacko replied. "The Hindus venerate the serpent sculptures in them."

“How big are they?”

“Most of them are small. Less than half an acre.”

"This one by the western shore?"

Chacko explained that it was the largest and the most important woods on the island. It was spread over two acres. The trees and the undergrowth were very dense. The canal that went past Janaki's house was its southern boundary. The lakeside was fringed with mangroves.

Carlson had left it at that. Now the hint seemed clear to Chacko. He started walking by the grove every day around noon, passing very close to its edge. He was well aware that Big One’s foray would be unannounced, like death. His only hope was natures’ warning system – the rustle of the undergrowth if there was any movement in the grove.

Big One was there on the fifth day, for sure. Chacko heard the roar and stopped. A moment later he cursed aloud. The sudden realization that a Christian entering the sacred abode of the serpent gods or any one shooting into it would offend the Hindus, was a crushing blow. As the man walked away with slouched shoulders Big One bellowed repeatedly.

The hunter adapted a new routine. He started roaming the island extensively during daylight. Because of the ammunition belt that he wore constantly, people began referring to him as 'Belt' Chacko. Friends and relatives seemed to distance themselves as though contact with him might endanger them. He carried on nevertheless, inspecting the ponds and the canals, walking over the dykes and by the lake shore, and sometimes even venturing into the mangrove forests. By sunset it was back to the emptiness of the house.

Now there was a new phenomenon - nightmares. They occurred with alarming frequency. The theme was always the same and the scenes passed in slow motion with great clarity - Big One tossing little Mathai in his mouth and swallowing him feet first and the child screaming.

At that point Chacko would wake up sweating and shivering.

"Are you sick?" the priest asked when the hunter appeared before him one morning with a week's growth of beard and disheveled hair.

Chacko shook his head negatively. “I need money,” he bumbled. “I'm going back to Windermere.”

The vicar studied him carefully. "There's no man," he said perceptively,” who has not known fear."

"Carlson sahib," Chacko continued, ignoring what the father had said, "offered me a job. I'll repay you from my salary."

The priest was silent for a while. Then he said, "Running away doesn't solve problems."

“Big One won’t bother me in the hills.”

“Wrong. He’ll haunt you throughout your life.”

“At least,” Chacko said defensively, “my son would be safe.”

“And when he grows up, he’ll know that his father ran away from a crocodile.”

The hunter was silent.

The priest opened a drawer of his table, took out some money and gave Chacko. He put both hands on the man's shoulders, gripping firmly. "Go if you must," he said looking deep into Chacko's eyes. "Only what God has willed can happen. I'll pray for you."

The hunter hurried home and after packing, shaved and bathed. He sat on the black steel trunk that he was taking along. The bullets, ammunition belt and the headlamp were placed inside the game bag that Carlson had given.

Suddenly he remembered the bottle Janaki had presented while he was guarding her fence, saying, "This is a unique brew." He had buried it in a sack of paddy to keep the liquor warm, planning to give it to Luka. He retrieved the bottle and placed it also in the bag.

There was plenty of time. The afternoon boat was only at five o' clock. Once he boarded the vessel he would be safe. Only the priest knew that he was leaving. Perhaps Big One as well, like the last time. But if the beast repeated that performance the rifle would be the answer. Then he realized that there was another possible scenario. The monster could quietly slip in close to the boat under water and get on board and in the ensuing melee a safe shot would be difficult.

Chacko started sweating.

He looked at St. Anthony's picture. He took it off the wall, came back and sat on the luggage. The saint would not only offer protection but also be a symbolic link to Kadep. He kissed the picture of the Miracle Worker and inserted it inside the bag and in the process, touched the bottle.

He pulled it out after a moment of hesitation, removed the stopper made of dry coconut husk with his teeth and took a long swig. He kept on drinking.

"The son of Mathai is dead," he shouted abruptly. “The great crocodile hunter is finished.”

He flung the empty bottle aside and lay down. There were no dreams, no nightmares. The hollow tranquility was shattered by loud sounds at the front door.

Chacko jumped up, snatched the rifle and backed against the wall, trembling.

"Chacko," some one called from outside.

He composed himself and opened the door. The priest stepped in and said, "I came to check. You didn't take the boat yesterday."

"I must have overslept."

"Yes," the priest said. "By more than twenty-four hours. It's nearing four o'clock."

After the visitor left, Chacko plucked two tender coconuts from a dwarf palm beside the house. He ate the kernels, drank the water and went back to sleep.

Life revived after hours. Fear was still there, like the original sin. There was, too, a sense of submission that fate could not be altered.

It was back to the rounds.

One afternoon, Chacko stopped by the lake shore a few hundred yards south of the jetty, where a retaining wall of granite blocks was built up to land level. He leaned against a coconut palm near the edge, resting the rifle by his side.

His eyes surveyed the backwaters.

It was a peaceful scene. The sky was a clear blue canopy over the expanse of the lake. Low tide had set in. There was hardly any breeze. Far to Chacko's right, a passenger boat was approaching on its way to Cochin. Ahead of it was a country craft. To the left, at some distance, a bale of hay was floating near the shore. The water was clear along the embankment. Any movement there could be easily noticed. Behind him was a coconut grove and beyond that the bazaar. A couple of mynas were picking grasshoppers. Crows that perched on the palms were silent. A kingfisher dived to catch its prey and flew away. The tattoo of a woodpecker came from somewhere in the distance.

No sign of any crocodile was visible.

Yet, for no apparent reason, Chacko was uneasy. Minutes passed. There were still no danger signals but the premonition persisted. He looked for birds resting on the water surface. Normally that meant a floating piece of wood or a crocodile below. Instinct warned him to move away and he straightened up. His heart pounded. He started sweating profusely.

The motorboat was close now, the noise of its engine clearly audible. The country craft trailed far behind. The hay had drifted near the retaining wall, directly in front of Chacko.

In a flash it came to the hunter's mind the bale was floating against the tide!

Chacko dived sideways holding the gun firmly, and rolled away. He heard a loud, slapping sound and knew that the crocodile had struck at the spot where he had been leaning moments ago. An earsplitting bellow from Big One followed.

The battle cry!

Chacko began rising to his knees, releasing the safety-catch of the rifle. The scene before him was blood chilling. The mammoth monster was out of the water, rushing at him with wide-open jaws.

For a moment Chacko was unnerved but recovered quickly. The beast was only a few feet away when he pulled the trigger. The roar of the gun and that of the crocodile merged. There were frantic cries from birds flying away in panic. In the background was the chugging of the boat's motor. Passengers were shouting excitedly.

Big One kept on coming.

Still holding the weapon, the hunter turned his face aside and put out his left hand in feeble defense.

After that there was darkness.

Many hours later Chacko opened his eyes. There was excruciating pain in his ribcage. Slowly he became aware of the smell of alcohol and of medicinal herbs. When the haziness lifted he realized that he was lying on a table in the meat shop. The priest, the butcher and the local medicine man were beside him. He saw too the stump of his left arm neatly tied with smoked, green banana leaves.

"Big One," the priest volunteered, "is dead."

Chacko closed his eyes.


Saturday, 28 July 2007


The child screamed.

Chacko rushed to where his wife and son slept. In the dim glow from the turned down wick of the lantern that was in a corner of the room he saw Mariam, half awake, gently patting the child. The crying tapered off. He crouched and touched little Mathai’s cheek. It was warm and soft and still wet where the tears had rolled down.

After a while he went back to his room. Many thoughts crossed his mind. Big One had accepted his challenge but he had failed to confront the beast. Why was he making so many mistakes? He had bagged his first crocodile at the age of thirteen and now, after eighteen years of exp

erience, he was performing like a novice. Was it because of some special power that Big One had? Was the creature really invincible?

At daybreak Chacko saw that Nero’s open grave had been annihilated. The skeleton was a heap of jointed and broken bones. The harpoon and the bamboo stakes were flat on the ground and the palm leaf streamers that had turned light brown in the sun lay scattered. Sand was viciously dug up in several parts of the ravaged square.

Instinct told the hunter that Big One wouldn’t come there again. He would have to locate and kill the enemy. If that didn’t happen before the first week of June when the southwest monsoon normally arrived, the beast would have an additional advantage. In the torrential rains it would be almost impossible to spot him. The ensuing floods would favor the crocodile to mount an attack.

Panic gripped the island. Big One had been to Chacko’s house three times but not a single shot had been fired. That was proof enough for the people to reiterate that the crocodile was an evil spirit and unconquerable.

After deliberating for a few days Chacko went secretly to a Brahmin astrologer who lived thirty miles away. The man asked for his horoscope. Like most Christians, he did not have one. The astrologer made him sit before a set of squares drawn on the floor and squatted opposite. He asked Chacko to name a flower and quote a number. The Brahmin made some calculations, moving his palms all the while along the sacred thread that was looped from his left shoulder to the right side of the torso. After identifying the star under which the hunter was born, he placed some small cowries on the squares and withdrew them systematically, chanting Sanskrit verses. Then he closed his eyes and concentrated.

Minutes passed before the Brahmin started talking. Words came out slowly and his voice sounded as though it emanated from a great distance.

“There is danger,” the man said. “You have a powerful adversary who is not human. You did something wrong to acquire such an enemy.”

“Perhaps it is anger against my father.”

“Your problem has nothing to do with your sire.”

Chacko did not respond.

“I can see,” the astrologer carried on haltingly, “water and land. I can also see you and a beast. And a row of stones. In the background there are two vague human figures. One appears white. The other is in a dark robe.”

There was a long pause. The Brahmin appeared to be straining to visualize the future. He opened his eyes abruptly and said, “I cannot see beyond that.”

Chacko was confused. What the astrologer said made no sense to him. “Is my enemy evil?” he asked.

“There is good and bad in all beings.”

“Sir, what I want to know is whether my opponent has supernatural powers.”

“Supernatural power is what The Supernatural Power bestows. It might be there, might not be there. No one can tell.”

“What should I do?”

The Brahmin considered the question and answered, “Shed all traces of pride. Purify yourself and acquire power. Pray to all your gods. The rest is fate.”

Still confused, Chacko went to the church as soon as he was back in Kadep. He didn’t tell the vicar about his visit to the astrologer. Without wasting time he asked, "Is Big One an evil spirit?"

"I don't think so," the priest answered. "But there are many things in this world for which we have no rational explanation."

"Father, I was confident of handling Big One. After all, I’m the best hunter in these areas. But now I'm beginning to feel a little uneasy."

The priest smiled. "Yes," he said, "I can see. That's a good sign."

"Why do you say that?"

"I know that you are capable of defeating Big One. But when a man is overconfident he's forgetting God. Without Him you’re nothing."

"What's you advice?"

"You must," the priest answered, "approach the enemy from a position of strength. Trust in God. And pray."

After contemplating what the priest and the astrologer had advised Chacko asked Mariam to pack. Next morning, they went to the pier on the eastern side of the island. Mariam walked in front carrying the child, and a small steel box containing essential clothing on her head. Chacko followed a few paces behind her with his loaded gun. There were some ponds and canals along the route. The hunter didn’t rule out the possibility of a surprise attack be Big One.

After a long wait at the jetty, the passenger vessel going south from Cochin to Alleppey, another port town, arrived and they boarded. It was one of the new crafts with a pentagonal wheelhouse on the roof, which were replacing the old paddle-wheeled steamers. The sleek motorboat would take about an hour to reach Vaikom, a small hamlet on the other side of the lake, where Mariam’s father lived.

The boat had traveled for nearly five minutes when Chacko heard the bellowing.

"Crocodile," some one shouted.

The hunter looked. It was a strange sight, awesome. Big One was fifty yards away keeping pace with the vessel, which was beginning to pick up speed. He kept on roaring. Each time the beast did that he bent like a bow, head and tail above the lake surface. His sharp teeth were clearly visible. Water sprayed into the air from his flanks. When the tail fell back there was more spray.

Passengers were dazed. No one spoke. Mariam glanced at the beast once and started crying silently, clutching the baby to her bosom with one hand and counting rosary beads with the other.

But Chacko was not worried. The beast was unlikely to attack the boat since he had exposed himself. The hunter considered using his gun but it didn’t have the range. He stood quietly, watching the antics of the crocodile that was mocking him in front of all those people. He was glad they were strangers. Nobody from Kadep was on board.

Big One submerged as suddenly as he had appeared. It would be months before he was sighted again.

Chacko left Mariam and the baby at his father-in-law's house. From there, traveling overnight on foot and by bullock cart he reached Kottayam, a trading center for hill produce and estate supplies early in the morning. He managed to get a lift in one of the trucks carrying provisions to the plantations in the High Ranges and by the afternoon reached his destination, the mist-shrouded Windermere Estate. That was where Luka worked.

The man from Kadep was not used to the cold of the hills. That night he sat wrapped in a blanket, drinking rum with his brother-in-law and eating chunks of spicy bison meat. He could not help thinking how much better crocodile tails with its stored up fat tasted.

After a few pegs he explained the purpose of his visit. Luka had mentioned some time back that CF Carlson, the owner of the plantation, was a great hunter who had shot many tigers and elephants. He wanted to meet the Englishman.

Carlson had returned recently from a furlough to Blighty. That was something he had missed for years because of the Great War. Next morning Chacko went to the owner’s bungalow. With Luka translating, he told Carlson all details about Big One except his blunder at the bridge. The white man was interested. He leaned back on a planter’s chair smoking a pipe filled with aromatic tobacco and listened attentively.

When the narrative was over Carlson said, "Never shot a crocodile. But I'll take care of this one."

"No, sahib," Chacko protested quickly. "I must kill Big One."

There was a flash of anger on the Englishman's face. "What the hell do you want then?"

"A gun," the man from Kadep answered. "A gun that can kill an elephant."

"What do you think I am?" Carlson retorted. "A bloody arms dealer?"

"No sahib," Chacko replied with respect. "I want to borrow the weapon."

"Borrow? How do I know that you'll return it?"

"I'm Chacko, the son of Mathai. You'll get the gun back, and the skin."

Carlson laughed.

The crocodile hunter's training in modern guns began the same day. The planter had a collection of weapons. The program started with a .22 rifle. Chacko’s aim and reflexes were superb. Gradually he became used to the weight and kick of weapons, which could drop a charging elephant in its tracks. The practice included quick shooting, fast reloading and firing from different positions. Chacko learned to roll with the gun and come up firing. There were detailed instructions on maintenance of rifles. The safety code in big game hunting was also taught.

Carlson collected information on crocodiles from the Encyclopedia Britannica that he had, and books borrowed from the Planters’ Club library and friends. Relevant points were discussed with Chacko.

Now they had to decide on the weapon to be used. The man from Kadep had already become familiar with different types of guns. The Englishman explained about ammunition. Soft nosed bullets that exploded on penetration caused extensive internal damage. Some hunters preferred it for the first shot and followed up with a non-expanding solid for the kill.

“There won’t be time,” Chacko said, “for a second shot.”

Carlson nodded. Range was not very important here. What mattered was power, and accuracy. He chose a Martini Henry. It was a good gun, which had range as well.

Using his influence with the government Carlson obtained the Kadep area sheet of the classified General Traverse Survey of India Map and spent a great deal of time studying the details. He and Chacko theorized about the possible methods and locations of attack by Big One and the techniques to be used by the hunter to trace the beast. The sahib admitted that crocodile hunting was unlike the big game that he knew, and perhaps more difficult.

The forests always gave useful indicators for a hunter, like spoors, droppings, waterholes, crumbled undergrowth, favorite foods of different species and the locations they were found, predictable habits of animals, scent, weather and temperature. Looking at the greenish ball shaped excreta of elephants, an experienced person could tell not only the direction in which the animals had passed but also the approximate time. When a tiger was on the prowl, birds and the smaller creatures in the vicinity scrambled away. A wounded buffalo was likely to veer away from the herd and circle back to its original track to attack the pursuer. Normally there would be at least a guide and a gun bearer on a hunting expedition. Some hunters waited on a machan, a platform erected at a safe height on trees with a live prey tied below, or when drummers ‘beat’ the forest to drive the animals that way.

Hunting crocodiles was different. These beasts normally searched for prey at night. They could go on for long periods without food and spent many hours of the day resting quietly at some safe haven. Their usual method of attack was to crawl up stealthily within striking distance, rush out at an incredible speed and grab the victim. Sometimes they attacked out of sheer vengeance. Crocodiles were more vulnerable on land and shallow waters. The lake offered them immense cover. It was extremely difficult to get a fix on a wily crocodile like Big One unless it made a mistake.

Soon Chacko’s training was shifted to a stream near the estate bungalow. Live fish, submerged stones and driftwood that floated down the rapids were the initial targets. He learned to judge the deflection of bullets in water, the varying speeds at which objects moved in the current and the sudden changes in their direction. The next step was with green bamboo pieces tied to ropes and placed near the waterline. The hunter was made to walk along the riverbank at dusk. When someone positioned away from the line of fire pulled the string and the bamboo jerked up, he was to shoot. With practice his hit rate improved.

To round up the training, there were instructions on long range shooting as well. In this, gauging the distance and the wind factor carefully and adjusting the gun sight appropriately for straight, upward and downhill shots were important.

Weeks passed and it was early March. One evening Carlson and Chacko were in the drawing room of the bungalow. The sahib was on his favorite leather upholstered chair smoking his pipe. The hunter from Kadep sat on a large tiger skin spread out on the wooden floor. A turbaned butler was mixing whiskey and soda for his master and acting as interpreter.

"In some countries," the Englishman said, "crocodiles were considered evil spirits. But in certain places like ancient Egypt they were revered."

"My people too," Chacko said after a brief pause, "say that Big One has supernatural powers."

Carlson looked at him sharply. "You don't believe that nonsense, do you?" he asked.

The crocodile hunter didn't reply.

Carlson took a sip of whiskey that the butler had placed near his chair. "With all the training,” he asked, "aren't you confident now?”

Chacko was pensive. "Back in Kadep," he answered, "one wouldn't know when, where and how."

"You're right," Carlson agreed. "A hunter's always alone to face the unpredictable.” He drank more whiskey and continued, “Out there in the forest I feel humble. And scared. A hunter is only a small speck in the great scheme of things. He’s an intruder into the fine-tuned mechanism of nature.”

The Englishman took a pull at the pipe and went on, “But sometimes one has to kill. A man-eater, for instance. Or a rouge elephant.”

There was a long pause. Each man was left with his own thoughts.

After a while Carlson broke the silence. "I can give you a job here," he said, "if you like."

"Thank you. But I have to go. Maybe after I kill Big One."

"Yes," the white man agreed. "Go tomorrow."

In the morning when Chacko was ready to leave, Carlson opened two boxes of cartridges. He test fired one from each lot and handed over the rest along with the gun to Chacko. He also presented him a headlamp and an ammunition belt.

Before they parted the white man said, “Remember, Big One doesn’t know the power and range of this rifle.”

To be continued.