The Curtain of Guilt

MARCH 16th 1971 Inspector Mukundan's bike screeched to a halt in front of the departure gate of the Trivandrum international airport.  He spotted Gopan at the entrance waiting for him. Mukundan had promised his childhood friend the day before when he had come to visit him at the Thampanoor police station that he would see him off at the airport.  Mukundan also had a surprise for him today. It was a pleasant surprise indeed for Gopan to meet yet another childhood friend after almost a decade and a half. Omana, the brown-eyed girl as all her friends called her,  had accompanied Mukundan. "The news about our Mukundan carving a niche for himself as a chivalrous inspector brought you too to meet him at the police station and congratulate him like me, I presume," Gopan smiled as Omana nodded. "Hey,  we are getting married soon," Mukundan playfully punched Gopan on his tummy.  Gopan beamed at this news. It was a moment of joy for the three friends.  Through the corner of his eye, Mukundan marveled at the prudence of Omana. Reverence for her grew manifold in his heart and his chest swelled with pride to have her as his life partner as he saw her hug Gopan lovingly burying all ill feelings, if she did nurture any against Gopan's family. The duo bid farewell to Gopan who was now flying to Abu Dhabi to establish his future.  MARCH 15th 1971  Inspector Mukundan was pleasantly surprised to have yet another childhood friend from the days in Shasta colony visiting him the day after Gopan’s visit. Omana Kurup, the name reminded him of a fair, brown-eyed girl. Fifteen years had rolled by; and he was just two years older than her,  but still, he could distinctly remember her.  Was it because he always had a soft corner for the charming girl? Mukundan noticed Omana’s bare neck. The Ela Thaali* was conspicuous by its absence. It was very uncommon for a girl in her twenties to remain unmarried. But Mukundan knew that in the absence of a father figure, it would be Omana's responsibility to take care of her mother and younger brother, who would be only fifteen years old. There was a considerable time before he could contribute to shouldering  the responsibilities of the family. Omana showered words of praise on Mukundan’s valiance and his diligence as a responsible inspector in rescuing a kidnapped girl. "You are all over the newspapers." She smiled rolling her eyes. "My mother saw the news about your feat and recognised you immediately. It was she who reminded me of our childhood days at the Shasta colony, though I do have reminiscences of the same. I am proud to tell people that we were from the same colony and we have spent our childhood playing together."  Mukundan gathered that she worked as a teacher with the govt, school, Trivandrum. “The newspapers called you a bachelor. Haven’t you found the right girl?” She smiled. The beguiling dimples added to her beauty. “Not yet,” Mukundan shook his head. Omana was immensely pleased to hear about Gopan’s visit and his job prospects in Abhu Dhabi.  The friends always considered Gopan the ‘baby’ of their group because of his puny figure and soft speech. "We talked about our good old childhood days and remembered that incident wherein my foolishness actually made your father get the man in my neighboring house arrested for smuggling gold." Mukundan noticed that Omana's face suddenly fell on hearing this. "Do you recollect that we had to leave the colony soon after that due to my father's untimely death?" Omana's eyes turned misty. "I vaguely remember that your father had accidentally fallen off the bridge into the river.  My parents sometimes talk about it." Mukundan tried recalling the incident. "It was not an accident; someone pushed my father into the river."   This revelation came to Mukundan as a shocker. Omana unraveled to him that her ammuma* who was on her way visiting them at the Shasta colony had witnessed a man pushing her father into the river from over the bridge after some altercation. Omana spoke about certain vague conversations that her ammuma had overheard between the two men that involved words like smuggling, and gang which made them surmise that it had got to do something with the arrest of Mukundan's neighbour. "We think this man who brought about my father's end might have been hand in glove with a smuggling gang. He must have stationed one of them in your neighborhood. Probably, he assisted the group in secretly bringing the booty home from the Cochin Port. Prospective buyers would then come for making a deal. The culprit would get a fair amount as commission. Having lost that opportunity must have made him vent his anger on my father." Mukundan expressed his concern over why this matter never came to light earlier. Omana explained that her ammuma had chosen to put a shroud over the happenings as she was well aware of the intricacies that would surround a case like this. Besides she felt helpless as a lone witness not even having caught a glimpse of the man properly.  "It was only a couple of months before, when my ammuma took to bed, that she revealed the true story to us, and showed us this locket.”Omana removed a brass locket from her bag. "While my father and the man were having a serious scuffle, this piece fell at a distance, without the knowledge of either.  My ammuma wasn’t sure if this belonged to my father or the culprit.  If she had displayed this locket then itself, maybe we could have traced the man because my mother asserted that my father had never worn such a locket.” Omana handed it over to Mukundan. Omana was speculating on the ‘accident,’ while Mukundan was lost in his thoughts, looking earnestly at the locket.  Lord Sri Krishna was smiling radiantly at him. Hadn’t the same God smiled at him from a similar locket just the day before? Mukundan distinctly remembered that Gopan had displayed his locket while explaining to him the rituals that he had to conduct before leaving. “All men in our family have to wear this brass locket on turning twenty-five. It has our family deity; Lord Sri Krishna embossed on it. It is an inevitable part of our Tharavad,* and losing this is akin to sin. My father had lost his locket once. He had to conduct a Parihara Pooja* to get a new one.”  The truth behind Madhavan Kurup's 'accidental,' death gaped at an honest inspector.  Adversities at home might have pushed Gopan's dad towards bilking. That, however, cannot justify his nefarious act. But would it be advisable to stir a hornet's nest? Gopan was the eldest son in the family, and evoking an obsolete episode will severely deter his prospects.  But if Mukundan chose to turn a blind eye to it, he would deny justice to Omana. The curtain of guilt weighed heavily on Mukundan. Words became redundant as Mukundan’s expressions spoke about his mental turmoil. An eerie silence engulfed the room.  It did not take Omana much effort to realize that the locket had exposed the culprit. It went without saying what was running in Mukundan’s mind.  “I can sense the dilemma in your mind, Mukundan. If my guess is correct, I think this has got something to do with Gopan because it was only he who visited you from the Shasta colony.” She spoke uttering each word with discretion. He nodded. “It must be Gopan’s father at whose hands your father met with his end. I am sorry, but I think this is the truth.”  Omana gently took the locket from Mukundan and placed it back in her bag. "We never had the intention to pursue the matter.  The locket happened to be incidentally in the bag I carried today, and, incidentally again, you broached the same episode that forced me to narrate the bitter truth.  Am I going to get back my father or retrieve those lost fifteen years of my life by handcuffing Gopan’s father and thereby impairing my childhood friend’s future?”  Smiling at Mukundan, she asked, “What time is Gopan’s flight tomorrow? I want to wish good luck to our baby friend for a bright future. I hope you will also accompany me to the airport." Mukundan was more than awestruck at her calm response. How tactfully she had camouflaged her intentions of tracing her father's killer when she learned who it was. Still, in a daze, Mukundan held her hands, “Omana, will you consider me worthy of giving you an Ela Thaali?”  She coyly smiled with a nod.  Her brown eyes spoke volumes, and the curtain of guilt lifted from Mukundan’s conscience. March  13th, 1973 'Newly appointed inspector, twenty-seven-year-old Mukundan Pillai of Thampanoor police station, exhibits unprecedented gallantry.' 'Industrialist, Dushyant Thambi's daughter, rescued by the timely thoughtfulness of inspector Mukundan Pillai, of Thampanoor police station.' The Thampanoor police station in Trivandrum was all over the news. Pioneer editions like Kerala Kaumudhi, and Deshabhimani, carried the story of Inspector Mukundan Pillai's Chivalry.  Mukundan had successfully rescued the nine-year-old daughter of the industrialist, Dushyant Thambi, from the clutches of a kidnapper.  After a hectic week of interaction with many political stalwarts, who came to compliment him for his discerning act, Mukundan found some time to relax.  Just then, a constable heralded the arrival of a visitor, Gopan Menon. The very mention of the name brought back pleasant memories of childhood friends in the Shasta colony.  Gopan’s family had moved to Trichur for better prospects.  The family had gone through penurious days, with six mouths to feed and ailing grandparents. When Gopan’s Ammavan* had started a hotel in Trichur, his father decided to join in the venture, giving up his job as a loader in the Cochin Port.  Mukundan expressed his ecstasy on learning that Gopan had landed a lucrative job in Abu Dhabi.  “I had some rituals to perform at the Vilwamangalam Sri Krishna temple before leaving.  My trip to Trivandrum presented me with this opportunity to meet you. Your notability as an honest inspector is laudable indeed,” Gopan said, hugging his childhood buddy. The friends then plunged down memory lane, recollecting many events and the various pranks; some done in oblivion while some wantonly. They especially remembered a funny adventure that had a dramatic ending. Though the kids had gone ahead venturing into something without knowing the consequences they had inadvertently been responsible for bursting a smuggling racket. Both the friends laughed heartily, and wondered where the other friends were now. Over the years all the families had gradually shifted out of  the Shasta colony, and had lost touch. OCTOBER 5th 1958 The petrichor in the air welcomed Parvathy as she alighted from the bus at Mattancherry.  Cochin was experiencing the October rains. Her son-in-law, whom Parvathy expected at the bus stand, was nowhere in sight. Cursed postal department, must not have delivered my letter on time,’ muttered Parvathy as she approached some bystanders for guidance. Being her first visit to her daughter's newly rented home, Parvathy was unfamiliar with the route.  They directed her towards a bridge, at the end of which, half a kilometer to the right was the Shasta colony, where her daughter, Shailaja, lived with her husband, Madhavan Kurup, and their two children. As Parvathy approached the bridge, she spotted Madhavan having an altercation with a man a few meters away.  Though she could distinctly hear the man’s high-pitched sound, what he uttered, seemed incomprehensible. Some words got diluted in the torrential rains. 'Why did you have to listen to the kids? What do you think you are some great detective or what?’ Then a few sentences became inaudible, and last she heard, ‘My relationship with the smuggling gang became tarnished. Thankfully they did not involve me in the case.’ Before Parvathy could approach them, the verbal conflict suddenly transformed into a brawl.  In the blink of an eye, the man pushed Madhavan into the river, running beneath.  It was an impulsive act, no doubt, but the damage was done.  Panic-stricken, the man, looked around, but fortune had favored him in the form of inclement weather that confined many to their houses. However, he was petrified to see a lady sitting on the opposite side. It was none other than Parvathy, who, terrified to the core after witnessing the incident, had just slumped down. The man took to his heels and vanished into thin air.  In his haste, he toppled Madhavan's bicycle. The Mel mundu*that he had used as a shield from the rains, abetted completely in hiding his face. For a long time, Parvathy sat in a stupor.   A widow who worked as a house help in Kottayam; Parvathy had, with much difficulty, wedded away her only daughter to Madhavan. He worked as a security guard in a factory.  Her heart bled to see Shailaja’s life crumble in front of her eyes, but what could a poverty-stricken woman like her do? As she approached her daughter's house, someone came rushing behind her.  “Shaila Chechi*, Madhavan Ettan* accidentally fell into the river.”  Neighbors came flocking in to console a wailing Shailaja. Parvathy overheard people talking, "Madhavan had left home to receive his Mother in law at the bus stop. The bicycle must have slithered over the marshy bridge." “Yes, do you remember a similar incident that happened a few years ago?  Hari Ettan fell into the river during rains.”  The police fished out Madhavan's body. His head had hit a massive stone. The report said, ‘Death due to accidental fall.' Parvathy's graceful aging had taught her that going into legalities would be a long haul and involve colossal expenditure, which was far beyond their capacity. Moreover, people had already formulated a hypothesis that it was an accident, with supportive instances. Her voice would get submerged in the din as she was the only witness, and she hadn’t even had a proper glimpse of the man’s face.  Madhavan will never return; that was the eternal truth. Resigning to fate seemed the most intelligent approach.  Parvathy knew that Shailaja, who had just delivered her second kid, would not be able to sustain herself if she learns the truth.  Accompanied by her daughter and grandchildren, Parvathy left the Shasta colony, burying the agony inside her. She was not aware of the exact episode that happened only last month which had brought disaster to her daughter's family. SEPTEMBER 2nd 1958 There stood a cluster of houses in Mattancherry, a locality nearly 9kms southwest of the center of Cochin Kerala. The group of unpretentious dwellings collectively formed the Shasta Colony. Most of the menfolk worked as loaders and helpers per diem at the Cochin port. Some worked in factories. The vicinity lacked recreational facilities for children, like a park or a playground. The woods nearby with huge trees and some rubble provided plenty of hiding places to hide and seek.  Once back from school, the kids spent a couple of hours in the woods playing and catching butterflies.  The families residing in the colony eked out a living with considerable stringency.  A delicacy like chocolate was an extravaganza. The kids hardly got to eat any, and even if they did, it was apportioned with thrift. Dreaming about relishing chocolate bars was considered overindulgence. On the balmy morning of September 2nd during Onam* holidays, twelve-year-old Mukundan impatiently waited under the banyan tree for his friends. He had some exciting news for them.  The kids aged nine to fourteen; gathered by 7.30 during vacations. They played in the woods until one of their mothers came looking out for them. Today Mukundan, the eldest among them, had an impromptu expedition for the group. No sooner than he saw his friends, he excitedly jumped forward. "Let us all go to the other extreme of the woods.   Our milkman, Kuttapan, has plenty of haystacks.  We need to get five bundles from there." He rolled his eyes mysteriously even as the others gawked at him. "Follow me, and later, you all will get chocolate bars to munch on." He announced. The word chocolate acted as a catalyst, and the others followed Mukundan obediently. No one bothered to analyze the ambiguity in this mystifying barter system.  Mukundan took it upon himself to give a valid elucidation for his move.  "If we give five bundles of hay to my neighbor by 1 pm, he will let us have all the chocolate bars kept in a trunk box." "What is a trunk box?" Chandran, asked, while the others embarked on a visual tour of relishing bars of chocolates. The group spent a few minutes debating on what a trunk box is and finally unable to arrive at a consensus; they decided to give up. "How did you come to know that Kuttappan has haystacks?"  Indira asked.  "I saw them when I had gone with my father to the Vaidiyar*next to Kuttapan's house a couple of days before. My father says Kuttappan uses some as fodder for his cows and sells the rest." "What if we get caught?" Balakrishnan raised his brows in awe.  "Yes, yes, I am afraid," said Omana, her brown eyes widening in awe. "Shhh!!!" Mukundan cautioned the others to bring down their decibel levels, as they neared Kutappan's house.  "Unni, you are the tallest, and Gopan is the puniest among us. Lift him on your shoulders. We will collect the hay as and when Gopan throws it." Mukundan whispered. It was not even half as easy as they had thought it to be. By the time Gopan pulled the second bundle, Unni's legs had gone wobbly. To add to their woes, Kuttapan's wife came from nowhere carrying her colossal figure with much difficulty. "You rascals!!! What the hell are you up to?" She said, lifting a staff to hit them.  It did not take a minute more for the children to scamper to their feet and run for their lives.  They stopped only when they had reached the middle of the woods and were double sure that Kuttappan's wife, had given up the chase. An argument triggered off as to who was responsible for the meager collection of hay bundles. Everyone zeroed in on poor Gopan, who cried for a while, and then Indira came out with a solution.  "Let us break these two bundles into five." It sounded so effortless. The others threw appreciative glances at Indira for her wisdom. When the kids reached the Shasta colony, they realized that they had caused anxiety to their mothers. All of them were running to and fro searching for them.  "You weren't there in the woods when I came looking out for you. Where had you all been?" Chandran's mother twisted his ears. "And why are you carrying hay?" Now it was Unni's turn to be bashed.  The others stood with their heads hung low, listening to their mother's woes against their callousness of not returning on time.  The cacophony disturbed Omana's father’s forty winks. He had just returned from night duty at the factory and was trying to get some sleep.  Everyone pointed at Mukundan, and so he was considered fit for interrogation. "Last night while acchan*and amma* were having dinner, someone came to our new neighbor's house in a fancy colored bicycle.  I was sitting on the porch after finishing my dinner. I just went to see the brand-new vehicle.  I heard our neighbor saying to the visitor, 'The cow needs hay. If you can get me five bundles by 1 pm tomorrow, you can munch on all the bars hidden in my trunk box.' Mukundan's eyelashes fluttered naively. "I thought if we could collect five bundles of hay and hand it over to him before 1 pm, he would give us the entire chocolate bars." He meekly admitted to being the brain behind this adventure. Omana's father contemplated for a while on what the boy had said just then.  "Give me the hay bundles and go home.  I will come back with the chocolates." He assured the kids. The headlines in the following day's newspapers read as: 'Smuggled gold bar worth twenty-five thousand hid in a trunk box, seized from a resident at Shasta colony in Mattancherry.' Omana's dad received accolades and a cash prize for being a valuable informer. The kids were only happy to receive their share of chocolates, which Omana's dad bought them with a part of the prize money. He distributed the rest of the money to all the other kids' houses, keeping one portion for himself. The innocent kids did not know that each 'bundle of hay' was a synonym for five thousand rupees, and 'bar' meant a gold bar and not a chocolate bar. And little did they know that this act of theirs would eventually cause a dear friend to lose her father. Glossary: Mel Mundu*______A towel used by men to put on the shoulder. Tharavad________ An ancestral home Ammavan*_______Uncle (mother’s brother)  Onam___________A festival in Kerala Vaidiyar__________Doctor who gives herbal medicines. Acchan___________Father Amma____________Mother Chechi___________Elder sister (A term used in general to address a woman) Ettan____________Elder brother(A term used in general to address men) Ammuma__________(Grandmother) Mother’s mother Ela Thaali_________ A locket worn by married women. Parihara Pooja______A ritual conducted to repent for some wrong act done by mistake.   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!