He entered the house, wiping his sweaty face on the sleeve of his already soiled shirt. She eyed him with lowered eyes – he had one too many, she could smell cheap ‘navsagar’ liquor from a mile. Very soon the prohibition would be lifted, he had told her many a times with glee. What difference would that make to you, she would ask. You would prefer your ‘navsagar* battery cell’ stuff anytime. At this he would smile sheepishly.
Oh heh heh, he would say. What’s lacking in this house my dear kitchen rag? I slog the whole day. Unloading those heavy pipes from the trucks. Do you think it is a joke? The bile from the pit of the stomach comes in the mouth. I send it back down with a couple of stiff ones. The "munscipalty" loses anything? Four coolies per truck, only four, to unload those heavy pipes. And….my rag, do I trouble you every night? I scrape the bottoms of the pans and pots in the kitchen, gulp down what comes to my fingers and that’s it….I am out like a candle."
What Bejmi declared was absolutely true. Mary had no qualms about the way he led his life. There was nothing lacking in that home, they never bother to check what was lacking, if at all.
But she had a dream, a longing, a yearning. She wanted her son John Baptist to study in an English medium school. She did succeed in doing so. JB who studied in the Kannada medium school till standard five, got admitted to an English medium school in the sixth. Bejmi was instrumental in having this feat accomplished. There was no nun, no priest, no saowkaar he did not approach. Bejmi was one of those "Quasimodos" every locality has, to be used indiscriminately. That was another side of his life.
When Mary dressed up JB on the first day of his English medium studies she said "Very soon you should learn to write your name – John Baptist – in English!" Looking at the son with appreciative eyes, tears of joy welled up and she kissed him on his forehead.
This was their world.
"Where did you unload the pipes today?" Mary asked. "Will you have bath first or shall I warm up the food?" All this was mechanical.
There was no work Bejmi did no know to do. One evening whitewash somebody’s house, on a Sunday apply distemper to Gurikar’s house, clean "khube*" of the coconut palms or hammer tin bands around the barks to prevent bandicoots from destroying tender coconuts, take small contracts to build compound walls, set a mouse trap in Vicar’s kitchen. Once, the nuns wanted a dreadful honeycomb to be removed from their convent chapel steeple and when Bejmi tried this stunt, the bees attacked him with such a fury that he lay for the next three days in Fr. Mulllers!
All said and done, and having a track record of this magnitude, did fetch results. The nuns and the priests and the soawkars* and the gurikars* did not let him down. JB got a seat in a convent-run English medium school.
"We don’t do this everyday and to everyone eh, Mary!" whispered the mousy looking Headmistress as she signed JB’s admission papers. "English medium is for the rich brats, you know. Don’t you ever let the cat out of the bag, eh? Never tell anyone that you have a fee concession and that Bejmi is a coolie although everyone knows!" She looked around cautiously. "We have to maintain our standard, you see. So see that JB dresses neat and clean…remember, this is a very great favor we have done for you people. What is Christianity after all, eh? Helping the poor, right? Right!" She asserted her own statement. "And, ah….could you ask Bejmi to come to the convent tomorrow? Yes, yes, I know it is a Sunday….there is dead cat in our well!"
"One load on the Gorigudda maidan*," he answered, beginning to undress. "I will just pour a "kollso*" or two of cold water on my head and……what have you cooked?" He suddenly changed track of his talk. "You know what, Mary?" he chuckled devilishly. "From tomorrow, I will get my quota of drams* home. Or else, by the time I walk home, have a cold water bath…..all the intoxication goes down the drain." He chortled a little more loudly.
"Does anything else other than cravings for liquor pass through your head?’ Mary let out a long sigh. But this was not a grumble, he knew. "Thukra had caught some "denkle*" and I bought a couple of shinklyos*…I have prepared spicy "jeera-miri" curry….you will have your bath or…." Mary dragged her words.
"What do you mean or?"
"Remember, you have a son….."
"What? Hasn’t he eaten and gone to bed as yet?" Bejmi looked around. There was nothing much to look at. Two room house (one room, Bejmi himself had constructed illegally), and a small, partitioned strip as an excuse for a kitchen; toilet and bath both rolled into one behind a coconut palm. Bejmi slept in the open courtyard during summer. "It is past eight or nine in the night!" Bejmi exclaimed.
" He has done what he has to do after getting home from school," quipped Mary.
"Perhaps he is not asleep. He wanted to show you something. "Why don’t you call him out?" She sounded like a small-time conspirator. Her eyes twinkled.
"What is it, my son?" Drooled Bejmi. "No ‘putha’* I have not forgotten you. I am a little tight you see….come out my prince…"
Mary turned the knob of the sooty kerosene lamp to have more light in the room.
JB came out. He was rubbing his eyes. There was a small colorful packet in his hand.
"What are you hiding, you little imp?" Bejmi asked the son.
JB raised his hand showed the father that little cardboard box. "His class teacher gave it to him," explained Mary. "I believe she also said ‘very good’ to JB."
"Enough of your English!" said Bejmi, taking the packet from son’s hand. "I know you have studied up to five stupid classes. Now, let my son speak in English and tell me"
He opened the cardboard box. There were many colorful sticks in it. "What are these putha?" He blinked at the box. "Sugar candies?"
JB laughed uncontrollably. "They are not sugar candies, baba!" He said. "These are crayons. In the whole class my handwriting is the best and I can even write my school’s name in English!" JB was beaming. "I can even recite poetry from the book without a mistake." He took the box of crayons from Bejmi’s hand. "That is why our miss has given these crayons to me as a present…."
"Crayons…." Bejmi looked so lost that Mary had to come to his rescue.
"Crayons are like……colored chalks….bannakaddi. One can draw color pictures with them. But I have warned JB, no drawing on the walls. The whitewash get spoiled….." She eyed Bejmi with lowered eyes. It was JB’s age since the walls had seen any whitewash.
Bejmi ignored this remark and patted JB’s back. "Very soon," he said. "Very soon, you should learn to write your name, my name and Mai’s name in English." There was a distant look in his eyes.
"Baba, will you look at my note book?" JB asked with bubbling enthusiasm.
"Not now, JB," said Mary. "Baab is tired and has not eaten….show it to him tomorrow. Now off to sleep."
JB obeyed instantly.
Sitting on the red ochre floor they started to eat their dinner.
"I cannot understand what is wrong with our municipality!" Exclaimed Mary. "Our wells have crystal clear water tasting like honey-suckle. And why these pipes, why this water all the way from Thumbe? That water will be pure and clean? Our wells have seven-eight ‘mundaas*’ of water throughout the year!"
"Even having studied five stupid classes," Bejmi picked his words. " Your brain still is that of a cow!" He paused to brood. "This world does not belong to us anymore, Mary," he said.
"Meaning what?" Mary was visibly hurt by Bejmi calling her five-stupid-class-educated. "Meaning what?" she repeated. "The moment water flows in these pipes we die or our wells go dry?"
"Perhaps we may not die," he said. "But certainly our wells will go dry if we do not have piped water. Look around my wife," he opened and gestured with his arms. "See the increase in number of people around us. How many neighbors did we have when JB was born? Look around now. You cannot walk straight in Hyapatta (Hampankatta) without bumping into another. Look at the land prices. Even on a piece land the size of a loincloth they are putting up two-storied buildings. Look at our own Valencia. How many wells you think will remain? That what we call the big forest (vodlem raan)….the well there is already polluted. How many have committed suicide jumping into it. Alright, let us believe that the wells will remain. Who’s going to draw water from them? This present generation is strong enough to draw water using block and tackle and pulley? That too in a huge copper kollso? Look at our own little imp. He can read, write and speak English even at this age. Tomorrow he may become a ‘munsipalty injner’ (municipality engineer) and marry a bob cut haired bombay lady. See, see now only he has brought home…what is that krii…..ahem…bannakaddis…..will you ask such a fine young man to draw water from a well? Mary, our ‘gaarment’ (government) is not stupid."
Mary was amazed at the tirade Bejmi gave, in spite of the liquor flowing in his system. "If you had a little education," she murmured to herself. "You could have been a municipality engineer too and a good one at that. Not like that quack doctor Narayan Guntala!"
"What are you murmuring about?" he enquired. "I know, we do not have a well of our own and you are sick and tired of drawing water from Nathalbai’s well, not to mention her acid tongue."
Mary fell silent for a while.
"The thing is not the drawing of water," She said after that break. "I did not want to tell you but…..I had told JB too…not to tell you. We know your temper…."
"What is it anyway?" Bejmi asked sucking on the delicious head of the "denklo" He sounded very much sober now. "Tell me, I say!"
Mary dabbed her forehead with her pallu.
"That Narayan Guntala’s son, Panna is teasing our JB to no end, calling him a coolie’s son and that he is getting free English medium education because we are kissing the feet of padries and madries?and cleaning their toilets…."
Bejmi was silent for a few seconds. "Everybody knows I am a coolie!" he said, unperturbed. "This is our world, Mary," he said, smiling. "And that is theirs. The people have accepted that quack as a doctor and it is his smartness that has made the people trust him. You see, if people like us try to squeeze in into their world, this is what happens. Had our JB got admitted into a government free school no one would have said a word…..is there one more ‘denklo’ in the pot?"
…there was a box of crayons lying close to this pipes, soggy and red. Someone picked it up and threw it in the municipality dustbin.….
"You do not understand," she said, her voice slightly shaky. She fished out the last ‘denklo’ from the pot. "That Panna has threatened JB saying if he draws any pictures using the crayons…I mean bannakaddis, he will tear them up and….today he pinched and twisted JB’s navel…"she burst into tears.
"Mary, Mary," he said. "This is kids’ play, kids’ fight. Today they fight and tomorrow they play together. Should I call Hitler to settle this fight? Don’t they play ‘kirkit’ (cricket) together on the Kankanady maidan? Go, do your chores and go to bed. I hope these ‘denkles’ do not give me a stomach upset….I ate one too many!"
She again heaved a sigh.
"You are another sample!" she said. "The boy has brought home a box of crayons, stood first in the class….what did you give him in appreciation?"
"Oh…yes…yes," Bejmi stammered. "Had I known earlier I would have brought ‘benne-buttar’ from ‘bekri’"
"That is not what he wants!" She practically wailed. "How many times he has begged you to take him when you unload the pipes? He wants to see you in action and shout ‘aisaa, aisaa’ along with you."
"Aiyee sabhaas!" said Bejmi in glee. "The coolie’s son has already become an ‘injner’. Sabhaas. See, mango tree bears only mangoes and not cashews. Ha, ha. In a day or two I will be unloading huge pipes on the Kankanady maidan. Let him come there straight from school…let him bring his English kirkit friends also. But do not tell him yet." Bejmi rose and belched merrily. But in a second, his face fell. "What is there to see in unloading pipes?" He asked in a low voice. "Our blood flows in them, our blood!"
"What a simple soul my husband is!" Mary said to herself. "God will bless him and us too."
Mary could not keep the secret. She blurted it out to JB the very next day. His face brightened. He went inside in a jiffy and came out with the box of crayons. He deposited it carefully in his school bag. "Mai," he said. " I have an idea!"
"Why are you taking that box of crayons to school, my son!" Mary sounded terrified. "If that Panna snatches it from you? If he pinches and twists your…er…navel again?"
JB’s eyes twinkled. "I will teach a lesson to that Panna," he said rather maliciously. "I will not take this box out till Baab brings the pipes on the truck!"
Three days passed.
On all these three days JB never stayed back to play cricket but came home straight, gulped down some snacks and coffee and grabbing an old exercise book started writing something over and over again.
"What is this-re putha," Mary asked. "Your miss gives you so much of homework? Morning and evening you are writing and writing. Have you given up bat and ball?"
JB just smiled.
On the morning of the fourth day Bejmi called the son to his side.
"This evening a very big load of pipes are to be unloaded on the Kankanady maidan," he said. "Very big, indeed! Do you know how big the truck is? One big machine is coming to unload these pipes. They call it…kiraain (crane). Come straight to the maidan after school. If your friends want to come, very good. Careful while crossing the road…..after unloading I will treat you to "goli bajeh and tea in bhatta’s hotel!"
A shiver of thrill ran through JB’s body.
In fact, the truck that brought the pipes was really big. And even the pipes were large, JB had not seen such a girth before. As the truck came to a grinding halt, some laborers jumped down from it and told the boys playing on the maidan to stand in a corner. They all grouped together and moved to a corner. Bejmi too jumped down and came panting towards the group of boys. "Kiraain is coming now!" he announced. "You have not seen how the kiraain works, eh? Let the unloading be over…."he again promised goli bajeh and tea to the boys. All this time his adoring eyes were on JB.
"Yes papa, thank you papa!" yelled JB but Bejmi who ran back to the truck did not hear this.
A boy in the group burst into uncontrollable, nasty laughter.
"Now why are you laughing, Panna?" JB went to him and held his collar. Dr.Narayan Guntala’s son, Panna. "You called my father a coolie, no? Now see. He is a foreman." JB screamed into Panna’s face.
"Foreman, eh?" asked Panna. "A foreman who calls a crane, a kiraain!" Some others in the group laughed. "You brought us here to see this? We could have continued playing cricket. Friends, let’s go. Foreman he says, foreman. Till yesterday he called his father baab and mother, mai and today he calls them papa and mamma…"
"Hey, wait you guys, wait…"Pleaded JB ignoring Panna’s sarcasm. "Look the crane is here! You know I can write my parents’ names in English. I learnt from our miss. I have practiced day and night."
"And where will you write these names?" Panna asked, showing his tongue to JB.
"Where everybody can see them!"
"Leave it Panna," said some. "Leave it. Let us make him happy. Even if we start a game now we cannot finish it. Let’s stay back and watch the fun."
And they stayed back?
Totally ignoring the sarcastic remarks and taunts by Panna’s group, JB watched with admiration his father at work. Heeding to his hand signals, the crane operator would lift the pipes and stack them on the maidan, in the form of, what looked like a pyramid. The other coolies helped to chain the pipes to boom of the crane. Every time the boom of the crane swung with a huge pipe JB’s heart somersaulted….what if the chain snaps? My father would be crushed under the pipe. Good that mamma did not come. She has a weak heart…..
It was almost dusk when the unloading was over but the visibility was good. Bejmi took a ‘chembu’ of water from the crane driver and gulping it, he came to the boys. "Hungry, eh?" he asked. "How did you like my work? Happy, JB? You got to see the kiraain today, eh?" He gave the chembu back to the driver. "You boys stay right here," he said. "We will be gone now but will be back in a jiffy. After that goli bajeh and tea….ha, ha…" And he was gone.
JB heard Panna snort. "Let’s go," he said to his friends. "What more is there here to see? Who wants to eat those soggy goli bajeh? My Mom has prepared lovely maalpuris."
Now, JB got up to his plan. He quietly pulled the box of crayons from his bag. He strode briskly to Panna and held the box under his very nose.. "You are jealous of me, aren’t you Panna?" he yelled. "You pinched and twisted my navel; you said you will kill me if I drew anything with these crayons."
Panna glared at him. "So what?" he asked, pushing JB’s hand away "You will sit on the road and draw?"
"Yes I will draw, I will draw!" screamed JB, groping for better words to retaliate. "I will write in whole of Kankanady. Let me see how you will kill me? Just now my papa will come and his friend is the crane driver. You saw his muscles no? He is my Papa’s friend…"
"Get lost you big gas pot!" Panna pushed him back. "We would have had a nice game of cricket but this stupid idiot spoiled the game. My father is a foreman, he says, his father is a dirty coolie. Now he talks about the crane driver. Muscles, he says. My father? My father is a doctor, doctor Naryana Guntala….stupid fellow is showing me a box of crayons. He says he can write his parents’ names in English. Till the other day he was rotting in that Kannada medium."
JB gulped and looked in the direction his father had gone. He knew his father will not be back soon. He had gone with his friends for his usual quote, a little more this evening, perhaps.
"If you want," Panna went on. "If you want write your parents’ names on the pipes. "If you have the guts, take your crayon box, climb this stack of pipes and write their names on the top most pipe. Write yours too for all I care!"
JB looked at the alarming pyramid of pipes. The truck and the crane were there, like two big hulks silently listening to Panna’s challenge.
"You think I cannot do it, Panna?" JB asked.
"I am not thinking anything!" Panna shrugged. His friends laughed. "Let’s all see your English and the colors of your crayons."
JB again glanced at the stack of pipes. They looked like the rungs of a ladder.
What’s so frightful about climbing a ladder?
Clutching the box of crayons in one hand JB ran to the stack and with an effort climbed the lower most pipe. Panna’s gang screamed. "Come on, gaspot, there are still five layers to climb!"
Now the second layer…..
And now the third……
Someone on the maidan shouted at him. "Stop this game boy! Stop this and get down. What is wrong with this Bejmi’s son today?"
JB paid no heed.
Now the fourth layer of pipes. Climbing it, he looked down and felt nauseated. He gathered his nerves.
The fifth layer.
The top most layer had only three pipes and their long sides were all facing the Kankanady road.
"Now write the names…come on, come on, hero!" He heard Panna shouting.
He balanced himself on the first pipe of the fifth layer and turned to the first pipe of the sixth layer.
He opened his box and picked the most bright looking crayon. He looked down at the group. It looked so small. Panna looked like a crawly frog.
He started writing.
"Benjamin Camille Pinto"
The group cheered.
Now mamma’s name.
He walked sideways on the pipe to get a clear space to write her name. Tomorrow he will bring her and show what he had done.
"Mary Magdalene Pinto"
Again the group cheered.
"Now write your own stupid name you gaspot!" Panna yelled at the top of his voice.
"John Baptist Pinto."
He had done it. He raised both his hands (with the box of crayons in one) in triumph and turned himself on the pipe to look down at the group….
Suddenly he felt his feet had stepped on some wheels.
The pipe was turning?
He could hear boys screaming.
"Oh God, what happened?"
He heard some thunderous rolling noise and felt his legs caught in a turning oil mill…..
It took some days for the pipes to be laid in the deep trenches that were dug.
Till then the pipes remained there on the maidan, lying helter-skelter. On one, two names were clearly visible.
Benjamin Camille Pinto
Mary Magdalene Pinto
Those who could read English, read them.
On the far side of the same pipe something was written. It was not legible….there were huge blotches of red on them. Red, slowly turning to rusty brown. By the time this particular pipe was laid in the trench, the blotches had turned black.
And yes, there was a box of crayons lying close to this pipes, soggy and red. Someone picked it up and threw it in the municipality dustbin.
I very vaguely remembering my late grandfather coming home one evening and whispering to the grandmother that two small school boys were crushed under the water pipes when they were being unloaded. Mangalore was getting a water supply system then. He whispered the news (but I heard it) to my Mom too because they did not want my young mind traumatized by it. But it remained as a vague picture in my mind around which I could weave this story. This appeared titled "Bannakaddi" in Raknno dated 8 June 2006.
I have used quite few Mangalorean words as they are:
Navsagar: a fertilizer which was used to speed up fermentation of the ‘wash’ for distilling illegal liquor during prohibition. Used battery cells were used for the same purpose!
Khube: Topmost portion of the coconut palm
Kollso: Big copper vessel to draw water from the well.
dram: a measure of liquor
denkle: a tasty fish found in the ponds during rains or as the water starts drying up in the ponds when rains recede.
shinklyo: These denkles were caught and strewn on coconut palm leaf ribs and looked liked plats made of fish. Denkles would remain quite alive on these for quite a few hours.
mundaas: height of one full grown male.
benne-buttar: this is a small, crunchy snack in the shape of a small bun. Benne and buttar mean the same, like saying barsoap ‘saboonu’
ai saa: Cry uttered by laborers when doing very strenuous jobs.
aiyee sabhaas: A cry of appreciation or joy of some achievement. It should sound like "Ayi Shahabhaas!"
My short story which appeared in Mangalorean.Com is picked up by Shri M.P.Prakash, Karnataka’s Honorable Home Minister and translated into Kannada and is appearing in the October 4 issue of the Kannada Magazine, SUDHA, a Prajavani/Deccan Herald Publication
Author: Edwin JF DSouza- Mangalore