The Agricultural Rationale Behind World War II

Hitler PhotoA classic is sometimes defined as a work whose primary perusal is a rereading. You are aware of Shakespeare’s Hamlet before you read the text. Karna and Joshua are ensconced in your mind prior to your study of the Mahabharata and the Bible. I would dub the Mein Kampf an anti classic. All readers are knowledgeable about the infamous work before they take the plunge.

The book is part Adolf Hitler autobiography and part manifesto. The text forms the ideological bedrock of Nazism. The publication of the book is prohibited in many countries since its content is anti-Semitic and homophobic in nature. I would only advise mature readers to scrutinize the text. The book is full of lies, half-truths, pseudo science and gross generalizations. In the book, Hitler talks at length about proper reading techniques. He states that reading should be a means to an end and not an end in itself. He opines that a man should read to develop his practical abilities and not to amass a ‘useless’ wealth of knowledge. He shows his distaste for the intellectual who is unable to ‘organize’ the knowledge gained and put it into worldly use. Therefore, I was not surprised that the author lacked insight, and he displayed poor critical thinking skills. He proved an inadequate writer too. I describe the manifesto as an anti-classic because as opposed to a classic, Mein Kampf is a shoddy piece of work. Nevertheless, the Nazi manifesto remains as relevant to the twentieth century history as the Rosetta Stone to the ancient Egyptian history.

The ideas in the Mein Kampf are predicated upon two outdated theories that were considered mainstream in the late nineteenth century- Malthusian Theory of Population and the Theory of Scientific Racism. Hitler does not state the application of the theories in the text but the influence of these ideas is perceptible in his arguments. The Malthusian Theory states that population growth follows geometric progression and agricultural production follows arithmetic progression. Therefore, population will outstrip agricultural production and in the future, the world will plunge into famine and chaos. The Theory of Scientific Racism propounds that mankind is divided into different species called races. Further, the races are in competition with each other for scarce resources; as a result of the ensuing competition, the successful superior race will dominate the other races.

Why did Hitler invade Europe? The common perception is that Hitler marched into Eastern Europe because he was a homophobic warmonger, an overambitious conqueror and a hyper nationalist hell bent on avenging the defeat Germany had suffered at the hands of Britain and France in World War I. There might be kernels of historical truths behind these reasons. In Mein Kampf, Hitler clearly states his intentions behind German expansionism. Hitler feared that population growth and increase in living standards will eclipse food production and expose the German people to food shortages and famines. In the book, to counter the insecure national future prospect, Hitler suggests four remedies. He rejects the first three and approves the fourth one.

Firstly, the author puts forward population control. He rejects population control under the false assumption that the offspring produced by ‘artificial’ birth control will be inferior in make-up. He believed that only nature had the faculty to select the fittest individuals and any interference by man in this process would result in the generation of a ‘feeble’ population. The second remedy he suggests is to increase soil productivity. He rejects this method too under the absurd belief that the quality of the soil cannot be improved beyond a certain point.

Hitler explores the third option in detail- national economic development through trade and overseas colony acquisition. Hitler believes that this strategy is flawed as it gives more importance to the economy than to the state. According to him, the state is of paramount importance and the economy of the state comes second. He accuses the European Jewry of popularizing the notion that the state can be strengthened by strengthening the economy. In Mein Kampf, he states that the acquisition of overseas colonies is an expensive proposition. Germany has to go to war with Britain to acquire new colonies. Even if new overseas colonies can be attained, it is expensive in terms of money and time to develop these colonies to make it suitable for European settlers. According to the author, small European nations acquiring large foreign colonies are akin to pyramids standing on apexes. After scrupulous consideration, the author rejects the option.

Hitler presents the fourth option as the most effective solution. Expansion of German land area by colonizing East Europe. He points to history to buttress his theory. He says that the forefathers of Germany had expanded by conquering neighboring kingdoms. Hitler argues that a constant state of war brings out the best in people. An era of enduring peace makes the population indolent, weakening their will. He also states that a country of large land area is difficult to conquer. Further to it, the neighboring European countries are more suitable for settlement compared to faraway Asian and African lands. He maintains that more land area will create a bigger class of rural farmers. According to Hitler, farmers are more nationalistic than the cosmopolitan city dwellers.

Hitler wanted to create a Greater Germany that would have been as large as the United States. Hitler believed that the huge agricultural plains under American control were the source of its wealth. The United States was more stable when compared to the tiny European countries that had vast overseas colonies. In the Mein Kampf, Hitler planned to weld the wheat growing regions of Ukraine and Russia to Germany to create a boundless German empire.

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Shanthamma

bull effigy

The scent came first and an instant later, came the whisper. That is how Vasantha remembered it. After lunch, Omanakuttan had made love to her. Vasantha, fair and curvy, sat under the tamarind tree. Her neck and chin were wet with sweat and some of it was his. From the coriander seeds scattered on the winnowing basket that rested on her lap, she shook chaffs off and picked pebbles out. The slant beams of the afternoon sun sifted through the leafage and made ringed patterns on the ground. The scent that came with the breeze was initially sweet, and it reminded her of oranges. But when the pungency hit her, she knew she was wrong- it was not that of an orange. She struggled to identify the smell.  A few days back, she had  got a whiff of the same scent. Then, Vasantha ignored it.At the meadow below the dirt slope, the heifer grazed. On the hibiscus shrub that leaned on the stonewalled well, a coucal clambered. Up the tree trunk that stood behind her, a chubby squirrel hurried.

A moment elapsed. The whisper came from behind her, and with ease, it drifted into her ears. A tingle rushed through her nape and she turned to stone.

Everything around came to a stop; the cow, the bird, and the rodent. Like the illustrations in a picture book, everything froze. But the earth eased into a spin. Anticlockwise. From three to twelve to nine.

“Vasantha…….”,  said the voice that was more calm than hoarse. Then it said something about the craft of winnowing coriander seeds. As though  played out from a chewed up cassette tape, the voice turned wonky. Vasantha was transfixed and blood stopped flowing to her brain. A muddle formed in her head.

In the evening, Vasantha learned that on a windy night six months back, Omanakuttan’s former wife had hanged herself to death from the same tree. The whole village had gone to attend the annual fair where giant bull effigies were wheeled around the shrine of Lord Mahadeva of Chirrakara,  Shanthamma tied the noose around her neck and flicked the stool off from under her feet.

Challenging the Necessary State of Violence

anarchy symbolThe Collier’s Encyclopedia was my first window to the real world. I realized that the world described by parents and elders was fraught with inaccuracies. The volumes were encased in a black hardbound cover etched with a vertical gold line. The high quality American paper smelled of fresh ink. I perused an entry on the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti to encounter an obscure political concept- Anarchism. In 1920, at Braintree, Massachusetts, these Italian born American anarchists were accused of armed robbery and murder of two payroll clerks of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company.

Anarchism is a political idea that stands for the abolition of all forms of government; a weird idea. The word anarchy comes from a Greek word that can be translated as ‘without a leader’ or ‘without a ruler’. Anarchism brings to our mind a picture of unruliness, chaos and strife.  Studied by thinkers of the stature of Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky, modern anarchism is serious social philosophy. Today in Kerala, there is simmering discontent on the way the primary arm of the state, i.e., the police force functions. Are we ready to demand a political system that has rules without enforces? Anarchism is an idea that is missing from the aisles of the Indian political supermarket. Will an exploration of anarchist principles bring about a revolutionary change in the way we are governed in Kerala and India?

During its hunter gatherer phase, the human society was anarchist in nature; though not in a modern sense. The early men didn’t live under organized governments and violence was an everyday occurrence. Some thinkers argue that the purpose of civilization itself was to minimize violence. By convention, civilization requires an organized form of authority. We call it the state. This sovereign institution claims the monopoly on violence in the sphere of its control. Therefore, the state is a mechanism that uses violence to discourage violence. In her illuminating work ‘Fields of Blood’, the world renowned expert on comparative religion Karen Armstrong discusses how the Indian emperor Asoka struggled with the conundrum of the necessity of an armed state to promulgate his nonviolent Buddhist Dharma. In ancient China, Taoism had anarchist leanings. Tao is the way in which the universe is organized. The Tao is like water- fragile and powerful at the same time. Human life should be lived as though it is a flowing stream, devoid of any exertion. A sixth century Zoroastrian heretic named Mazdak proscribed private property and marriage. His followers lived in collectivistic communities where children did not know who their fathers were. Apart from these Asian spiritual teachings, many unorthodox Greek and Christian beliefs displayed anarchist tendencies. Until the late seventeenth century, majority of the world’s population resided in areas outside the control of organized states. Though anarchist thoughts have resonated in the ideas of spiritual masters of the ancient and medieval worlds, modern anarchist philosophy is the product of European Enlightenment.

The objective of anarchism is to create a ‘free society’ bereft of any ‘external control or form of government’. Anarchism has two broad streams of thought- Collectivistic (Leftist social anarchists) and Libertarian (Rightist individualists). The collectivistic anarchists champion a society based on mutual aid, co-operation and collective living. They hope to combine these tribal values with modern individualism and the power of the will. The libertarians stand for individual freedom, free enterprise and freedom of thought. The social anarchists fear that too much individualism might lead to destructive competition, and the libertarians fear that too much collectivism will lead to the tyranny of the group. Though the two streams have philosophical differences, they share many common grounds and work together against the established order.

The first great anarchist thinker, Joseph Proudhon came up with slogans like ‘Anarchy is Order’ and ‘Property is Theft’. The German thinker Max Stirner rejected both the government and the society. An extreme individualist, he proposed a ‘Union of Egoists’.  Russian intellectuals like Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin were influential anarchist thinkers of the collectivistic stream. On the basis of scientific principles, they fine tuned anarchist philosophy. Once dubbed as the ‘most dangerous woman in the world’, the fiery American activist Emma Goldman gave a feminist interpretation to anarchist thoughts. Leo Tolstoy stood for pacifist anarchism based on the teachings of Christ. Mahatma Gandhi dreamed of a world composed of self sufficient village republics. A spiritual anarchist, he believed that the state is the source of all violence.

In the thirties, during the Spanish civil war, the most successful anarchist experiment was carried out. The Spanish country side was run by thousands of independent peasant collectives, and the industrial towns were managed by sovereign workers cooperatives. But the intervention of European fascists and Soviet communists dismantled the fledging anarchist movement. In the Russian revolution, anarchists formed independent communes in many parts of Ukraine until the Red Army under Leon Trotsky crushed them.

Is an anarchist movement feasible in a country like India where apart from the state, political parties, religious and caste groups and even feudal families maintain private armies? As an ideology, anarchism is against any form of coercive authority. How can a feudal society controlled by powerful religious and caste leaders visualize a political system that is essentially self managed? The poor in India sees the state as a bulwark against the power of extra constitutional forces. The Indian state is so weak that its writ is limited to the urban and semi-urban areas. A potent anarchist movement might destroy the already frail state structure, further pushing the poor into the merciless hands of feudal and religious authority. Without state support, what chance does the individual stand against organized might of political and feudal satraps?

The fundamental misgiving about anarchism is its attitude towards crime. Citing a lack of inmates, prisons in liberal Sweden and the Netherlands are being shut down. In many Scandinavian countries, prisons are true rehabilitation centers where inmates develop personal, business and artistic skills. The downside is that all these innovations are funded by very high taxes. High taxation is anathema to libertarian anarchists. Influx of refugees from Asia and Africa also upsets the delicate balance of these societies. For the most part of this century, Somalia was without a formal government. Researchers found that in Mogadishu, industries like beverages, airlines, utility, and banking thrived in the absence of government. Libertarians like Milton Friedman had always backed the idea. In fact, in Somalia the payment for electricity was so flexible that you only need to pay for the hours you had availed the service for.

Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death on an electrical chair in 1927, after a trial of seven years. On their behalf, massive protests were organized in every major North American and European cities; even as far as Tokyo and Johannesburg. At a time when there were no Facebook or WhatsApp.  On the fiftieth anniversary of the executions in 1977, then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis proclaimed that the anarchists were unfairly tried and convicted, and ‘any disgrace should be forever removed from their names’.

Anarchism is dismissed by its opponents as infantile and ridiculous. Nevertheless, a dose of anarchism can act like a hot spring to the stagnating pool of Indian political ideas. The anarchist sensibility is embedded in the nature of man, and will remain a volcano of freedom and creativity. As the popular anarchist slogan goes- Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible.

Alive in the Depths- Shanku III

TREE WITH HOLE

The slatted risers of the stairs threw barred shadow lines on Shanku. He looked at the nervous interaction between Kunjachan and the security guard. Shanku doubted Kunjachan’s confidence. He had claimed that neither guards nor cameras surveilled the building. Then, where did this guard come from? Kunjachan’s big talk now sounded plain trash.

Ayyappan propped up his bicycle on the kickstand and advanced towards Kunjachan, “You are Kunjachan, the guy who operated that toilet up the road, right? Pappi and I were thickest of chums.”

“Oh yeah Pappi. So you have been working here for a long time?”

“I am here with Josekutty for two years now. I used to be a regular customer at the toilet. Pappi permitted me at night to use the toilet to have a few shots”, Ayyappan winked, ” I used to gulp down brandy, squatting on the same toilet pan into which I shitted in the morning”, he said and  guffawed with partially shut eyes.

Kunjachan studied the diminutive man who shambled before him. Dark saggy circles hung under his bloodshot eyes.

“How is the security job”

“Tough job. And the pay is not anyway near enough.They have many properties here. I just have to ply around, kinda night patrolling. I don’t have to stick to a particular property.”

The bit of information was  great relief to Kunjachan. He now knew why he failed to notice the guard during his reconnaissances.

Shanku detested the building, and its gloom dragged him into a clammy pit of blind dejection. He struggled to find the source of his apprehension – the building or the pale face. The diseased grimace of the shape that lurked behind the leaves remained stuck in his mind. The clarity of the vision refused to fade out. Did the face portend dark days? A hellfire or a rapacious earthquake; some unfathomable catastrophe.

Ayyappan took the keys from Kunjachan, sat on his haunches near the padlock that secured the roller shutters, jerked the key into the lock, and twisted the key. The padlock clicked open. With a clank,  Kunjachan hauled the shutters overhead and revealed a hall daubed with scabby green paint. It stank of oppressive dampness. All the three men stepped into the wide room crammed with heaps of broken furniture, stacks of stained glass panes and sheaves of yellowy newspapers. A cave riddled termite hill infested with colonies of squirmy pale insects nestled at one corner. Behind the main hall, lay a kitchen lined with a continuous ceramic tiled counter buttressed by intermittent concrete columns. The bathroom that adjoined the kitchen had rusty faucets, cracked tile flooring, and was flanked by walls smeared with slimy black mold. Close to the warped door that opened into the backyard, a charcoal fired baking oven perched at the far end of the kitchen. Viscous soot covered the cavernous mouth of the brick lined oven.

“Two years back, a guy from Kottayam ran a bakery out of this place and died here.”

Shanku recoiled at the word, “Died?”

“Right here. His belly ballooned like it was pumped up with gas. The poor guy thought it was acidity, but tough luck, it was tumor. Stomach full of mushrooming tumor. He  dropped dead, puking blood on his vanilla Christmas cake. Vanilla sponge turned red velvet. And a nice cherry stuck under his nose”, Ayyappan doubled over and let out a shrieky laughter.

Muscles on Shanku’s back and arms twitched. He ground his teeth, and itched to grab the disgusting guard, ram him against the wall and smash his crooked jaws. Outside, as employees and customers arrived at the pawnshop, motor vehicles whirred and the staircase rattled.

Ayyappan said, ” I too have my own stomach issues. The herbalist says a mixture of country arrack, turmeric and dried ginger can cure it for good. Those prohibitionists  bastards shut all arrack outlets nearby. ” The guard kicked open the door that led to the backyard and white sunlight poured in. “What will a poor old guy like me do.  I can always take the help of friends like you to fetch some. Don’t think it’s proper though. Maybe like the baker, I will die of the damned stomach ache.”

Kunjachan smirked, trudged towards the guard and whispered. ” You are a lush son-of-a-bitch”

“And you sired the bitch, granddad”, said Ayyappan.

Kunjachan and the guard clung to each other and burst into uncontrolled peals of laughter.

Kunjachan said. “I will drown you and your bloody herbalist in arrack”

“Then better make it tonight. Can’t wait to die”. More booms of hysterics ensued. Kunjachan and Ayyappan sounded like long lost brothers. Through the glare in the backyard, Shanku looked at the wild jack tree. The hole on the trunk resembled a maw ready to devour.

The partners purchased supplies for their new accommodation. They bought mattresses, rice, flour, a tool kit of drills and wrenches, and soaps and detergents. Since they had one more week to go for the festival, they put off the procurement of the heavy equipment required for the main job.  Kunjachan said to Shanku, “I will handle that guard drunkard. Doesn’t seem to be a problem. Everything is in control. Good going”. The usual chest thumping, thought Shanku.

For the small party they had promised Ayyappan, they got two bottles of Hercules brand rum, a case of soda, fried veal and biriyani. Kunjachan’s plan was to gather information by getting Ayyappan to talk. At night, Shanku, Kunjachan and the guard congregated around the liquor bottle. Shutters were drawn. Over sheets of newspapers spread on the floor, under the dim lit kitchen lights, they sat cross legged. Through the faint shadows  cast by the lights, Shanku looked at the fissured ceiling. The humid weather compressed the air around them and forced streams of moisture to break out of their bodies. They smelled each other’s sweat.

Kunjachan took swigs from the rum bottle in quick succession. Into his stomach, undiluted liquor burned its way down. Ayyappan seemed even more enthusiastic. Like a dry sponge, he guzzled the rum.

He said, “Josekutty is a maggot who feeds on Lijo. ”

“Then why does he keep him”, said Kunjachan, slumped against the base of the oven.

“Oh. Lijo gets to f*** the bugger’s busty wife when he lands on vacation. Good deal.”

After they drained the bottle of rum, Kunjachan brought out a few homemade marijuana cigarettes. Outside, the wind screamed through the air and flung the backdoor open. The cold draft of wind gave them a slight relief from the weariness of the humidity. The smell of impending downpour dillydallied. The men savored the intoxicant and walloped in the sedative scent of the drug. They milled around the backyard; enjoyed the strange cold. Kunjachan took a few drags out of his cigarettes and settled under the hole of the wild jack. Shanku sat at the base of the metal staircase, and watched Kunjachan mired in the fog belched by the tree hole. Behind the branches of the wild jack, the moon struggled against the enclosing clouds. The drug flustered Shanku’s digestive track, and he threw up whatever he had consumed. The bitter taste of bile rinsed his mouth. While the wind hollered around him, Shanku spiraled into a confused sleep.

He opened his eyes : the pale womanish face grinned at him from the hollow of the wild jack tree.

Shanku woke up to the early morning chirps and stink of droppings. The taste of bile still remained stuck under his tongue. He reeked of vomit.  Kunjachan brushed his teeth with activated charcoal and rivulets of black spittoon streamed from the corners of his mouth. He washed himself, and sat on the third runner of the stairs, beside Shanku. By then, Ayyappan had left. Shanku’s head ached like it was about to splinter.

“We went slightly overboard last night. Dunno how my palate got scarred, it was bleeding when I woke up.” said Kunjachan

Shanku looked past Kunjachan at the hollow of the tree. The shape of the hollow had altered – appeared no longer oval but round. Did he imagine things? Or did he lose it altogether? The hollow might have been round in the first place. What now? The building might burgeon into a skyscraper and the flight of stairs might crawl up with it. Jack and the bloody beanstalk. Yes, things worked out this way in this cesspool . Shanku wanted to tell his partner about last night’s weed induced dream. What had transpired in his head or in the haze of the night. But he didn’t want to sound stupid prattling on about a bogeyman that hid behind leaves and inside tree holes. Or bogeywoman.

Before people frequented the pawnshop,the duo cleared up the backyard. For the last few days, with the intention to study its routine, Kunjachan kept an eye on the pawnshop. The number of customers that visited the shop, the number of employees and their activities. The backyard was spread with gravel- grayish white grits. Trees, shrubs and occasional clumps of thistles lined the edges of the property.

Shanku and Kunjachan set out to arrange the equipment they required for the operation. Marydasan, another cousin of Kunjachan had arranged everything with different people, all shady characters. In the midst of their cross country rides, Kunjachan said, “I have Ayyappan in my firm grips. No trouble from his end”. In silence, Shanku listened. What firm grips? Brother Kunjachan failed to find about the guard in advance. And now he talked about firm grips to keep his guilt under control.

On the way back, from a roadside eatery, they bought fried chicken sauted in onions, parathas and a packet of paan. Ayyappan waited on the stairs and dozed off. Dusk fell when the partners returned. Humidity gripped the atmosphere and the vapor laden air flopped on the men’s bodies. Ayyappan was disappointed to know that the duo didn’t buy booze. They pulled the shutters close and settled down to have dinner in the main hall. The floor they sat on was paved with grainy cement tiles. From the nearby highway, the desultory rumble of trucks blared.

With gusto, Ayyappan launched into the friend chicken, and cracked open the slender bones. The spicy flavor watered his eyes, and to assuage the hotness, he blew into his tongue. While he ate, he forced mucus out of his nostrils and flicked the nasal fluid off his fingers into the floor. Kunjachan sat against the wall on the far side and picked his teeth. Shanku applied pickling lime on the betel leaf in quick vertical strokes. He scattered powdered areca nut and chewing tobacco on top of the leaves, wrapped the combination into a roll and inserted it into the corner of his mouth. As he chewed, the paan juice dissolved into his brain; gave him a sweet kick.

Ayyappan looked at Kunjachan and said with a smug smile, “Is your tooth solid gold? The false one.”

Kunjachan scraped at the tooth and said. “Kind of gold. Mostly copper, coated with gold. Why?”

“Good. You wouldn’t have lost much if that guy had plucked it out and ran away with it”

Kunjachan sprang up and rushed at the guard, “What guy. What nonsense you talking about”

In the wake of the revelation, Shanku stirred out of the gentle intoxication of the paan. In his mind, visions of the previous night flickered. The womanish face in the hollow. He remembered Kunjachan lying at the base of the tree trunk. So he didn’t see it in a dream. It was real. As he remembered, the vision emerged out of the haze. When it grinned at him, the pale thing had stooped down over Kunjachan. From the fractured memory, Shanku traced the thing’s blood red lips. The image was so coherent that a cold shiver tickled his nape.

“Last night, some guy shoved his hands into your mouth. You were dead asleep. Like a stone. I thought he was gonna snap your gold teeth and pocket it”, said Ayyappan, and he continued to chew his food.

Around Shanku’s head, a buzz hovered. A slow dizziness attacked him. The thing had shoved its hideous hands into Kunjachan’s throat. That was when he sighted it and it stopped, confused.  Shanku doubted the veracity of the incident. But the repugnant guard had witnessed it.

“You reckless bastard. Why didn’t you wake me up”, Kunjachan towered over the diminutive guard who sat down and indulged in gastronomic delights.

“He understood that I caught him. He then simply disappeared into the darkness”, Ayyappan blew his nose and looked at Shanku. The despicable smile played on the guard’s lips.

“If I made a ruckus, he might have turned violent and slitted your throat. Who knows what these guys carry. Dagger, or a pistol. And Shanku was smiling at that guy. Like he was infatuated or something”

Shanku blew a fuse. He leaped towards the guard, held him down and jabbed him on his throat. In horror, Ayyappan shrieked.  Shanku clambered over him, and punched him on his jaws. Kunchajan interposed himself between the two men, and utilized his powerful leverage to pull his partner away. Ayyappan writhed free from Shanku’s grip, staggered on his feet, and ran into the kitchen.

Trapped within the firm grip of Kunjachan,  Shanku said, “Drunken codger. Kill you reekin f***er. How dare you say that”

Through the backdoor, Ayyappan rushed out the building.

“I don’t understand nothing. Who was that guy. Why is everything is so weird.” said Kunjachan and he kicked the pile of broken furniture heaped in the main hall. A plume of dust rose up into the air.

“Brother. All this is your plan.”

Kunjachan explored the interiors of his mouth. With uneasiness, he stared at the traces of blood that stained his fingers.

“I am calling it quits.”, said Shanku.

Through the open door, a draft of wind that stank of weeds gusted inside. Shanku felt good about the cold air. From beyond the grounds, the faint humming of an eerie tune drifted along with the wind. Shanku looked at the tree through the open door. Yet again, the hollow changed its shape to an inverted triangle.

*EXCERPTS FROM AN INCOMPLETE NOVEL

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alive in the Depths- Shanku II

river in the dark

The last time Shanku had trespassed upon the isolated riverbank under the cover of  darkness, he dumped a tanker truck full of raw sewage into the unblemished waters. Tonight, in the faint moonlight, the narrow river that ran deep looked forlorn. The smell of dewy grass and rotten reed lingered in the air. With his back turned towards the river, Kunjachan sat cross legged on the uneven floor. Under the fluorescent light of his mobile phone, he drew his plans on the ground with a broken twig and took frequent swigs of diluted rum.

“The pawnshop is on the first floor and the ground floor is vacant. We are going to hire the whole ground floor under the guise of opening a café. No security guards or CCTV there. I have done my survey. You got it? For Navarathri, the pawnshop will remain close for three consecutive days.”

Kunjachan’s bony frame sat slouched, and his limbs were long and firm. Grayish green veins twisted and branched off all around his steely forearms. The freckled skin on his forehead held tight below the thinning hairline.

He continued, “The night before the first holiday, we cut a man-size hole through the roof, right at the center of the strong room floor above. Crack open the big safe and take out the gold and run. When shop opens after three days, we are safe across state lines in Telangana. As smooth as a baby’s bottom.”

Shanku reclined on the grassy mat, leaning back on his arms, and he thrust his wide chest forward and looked past his partner to the river. Blades of herbs pricked him on the hamstrings.

“Something is not right Brother. Everything seems too easy.”

“It seems f***ing easy because I planned it that way. I have talked to Josekutty, the caretaker of the building about the lease. He is okay with it. Marydasan will arrange everything in Telangana, should give him a small cut though. All the equipment and money we need, its ready.”

Across the river, slender tree trunks popped up in the midst of a swarm of wild taro leaves. Dark boughs brushed against the thick blue of the night sky. The low whistling wind that fleeted through the air bent the taro leaves sideways in unison. A pale womanish face revealed from behind the taro stalks.

“What was that?”, Shanku jumped on his feet, knocked down the bottle of rum and charged towards the river. The flesh of his body crawled, and the hair on his back stood erect like spines. A rush of sweat squirted out of his armpits. Kunjachan , startled, sprang up and scanned the darkness around him and in a instant, turned sober. Shanku shuffled about the sandy bank, peered across the river, swaying his head from side to side. The disembodied head vanished without a trace. The face was puffed up and implanted with round opaque eyes that flashed around, and it had square jaws and a gray fiendish grin. Thick shiny hair that flowed down from both sides of the head gave it a feminine aura. Feminine but dead pale.

Kunjachan trudged towards his partner and shook him by his shoulders, Shanku was still baffled by the oddity.

“There was somebody over there spying on us. Hiding behind the leaves.”

“Some idiot taking a dump at night”

“No Brother. It didn’t look human”

“What. An animal spying on us? What you talking about.”

“No animal. It was woman like. But yellowish”

“Shanku. I know you are worried. Even I am worried under all this stress. People see things in these situations. It’s all normal. Happens to everybody”

Shanku, soaked in sweat, trembled like a cold jelly, and he surveyed the vegetation on the other side of the river. Was that some kind of omen. A signature from the heavens. Old timers used to say that gods showed you these scary things to caution you when you strayed too far.

The gurgling sound of flowing water, the smell of the muddy river and the stink of decayed plant material immanent to marshlands floated around. Everything prevailed as it should.

Kunjachan continued, “Things are going to get positive. That is the only assurance I can give you because I know it. Now, let’s get out of here. Cheer up. We are gonna start tomorrow. Okay”

“Brother. I can’t do this. Everything is so muddled up. It’s going wrong”, said Shanku.

Kunjachan hugged his partner, squeezed him and consoled, “Wrong is the past. The future is right.”

They picked up the glasses and the half full rum bottle and ambled along the riverbank, towards the motorcycle. They hopped on the bike and Kunjachan  kickstarted  the motor. When he released the clutch and jerked the vehicle forward, Shanku swung his head back to take a final look at the taro leaves. Apart from the leaves, there was nothing.

The two storey building shone in the new paint, but signs of wear and tear were visible underneath. The structure was situated a hundred meters from the state highway, in a secluded spot. When they had operated the public toilet up the highway, Shanku had been to the place a few times. But then  Kunjachan’s cousin Pappi managed the concern on a day to day basis, and he screwed it up big time. The owner of the building resided in Canada, and his cousin Josekutty managed it his behalf. Josekutty was a small man, wore a silky shirt and glittering white dhothi. His oily hair glistened under the sun and mustache was neatly trimmed. He negotiated with Kunjachan as Shanku wandered around the building and observed the surroundings. The frontage of the ground floor  was secured with a wide roller shutter. At the back there was a wooden door, warped due to the exposure to the sun’s radiation. A steel staircase, worn smooth by clambering customers, snaked up along the side  of the building to the grilled doors of the pawnshop on the first floor.

“He has seven brothers. Why Lijo chose me to manage all his properties? Specifically me?  He trusts me. A cousin should trust a cousin.”

Kunjachan said, “And a Malankara Nasrani should trust another Malankara Nasrani”, he smiled ear to ear at the manager.

“Exactly. That is what I wanted to hear from you. But a Malankara Nasrani knows where his money is. So make sure you pay on time every month.”, Josekutty handed the bunch of keys dangling on a tarnished chain to Kunjachan

“One hundred percent. Regular as the rising sun”.  Kunjachan received the keys and crossed himself. “Go to do some interior design works in here. Me and my partner will  stay here all day and night until the opening.”

“Fine with me as long as you don’t drill too much into the walls”

Behind the building, a few meters into the backyard, there stood a massive jungle jack tree of enormous girth, so wide that four grown men had to hold hands to reach all the way around. The trunk caved in at the height of a man’s chest to form an elliptical hollow.

When Josekutty was about to get into his shiny new Maruti Suzukhi, a bald man who wore khaki shirt and slacks, came in riding a rickety bicycle, and dismounted in front of the building. . An uneasy Kunjachan deduced from the attire that the man was a security guard. The man clasped his hands over his belly and bowed to Josekutty, who nodded in acknowledgement.

“This is Ayyappan. He is the security guard and you can take his help if you need anything.”,

“That is so helpful…Thanks… I never knew… we would be provided with such useful services.”,  said a stunned Kunjachan when Josekutty  hurried into the car and drove away without paying heed to his words of gratitude. He looked at Ayyappan who leaned on the rusty bicycle with a stupid smile on his round face.

On the outer wall of the building at the ground floor, behind the staircase that climbed up, there was a triangular vent. Shanku thrust himself into the gap between the stairs and the wall and peeped into the dark interior of the building.

*EXCERPTS FROM THE INCOMPLETE NOVEL

Alive in the Depths- Shanku I

indian cow

2010, thirty years after Ammu stood by the lake, clutching the waterlily.

Shanku groomed the heifer and fed it with a mixture of packaged cattle feed and oilseed cakes. The breeder had told him that the animal was the crossbreed of a Jersey and Vechoor. He squatted in front of the animal and watched it push through the pasty feed with its snout. Next year, he would get it impregnated. The livestock assistant at the dairy farm said that the  sperm came from Australia. How was that possible. Probably they brought the bull from Australia on a plane and helped it mate with cows. Was that cost effective? They might force the poor bull to work its ass off.

Animal husbandry was hard work. He knew it for the last one week since he had purchased the heifer from a government approved breeder. He had to wash the animal, groom it, feed it, muck the shed out. But he was pessimistic about the future prospects of cattle farming.  Tonight, Brother would be back. He had called in the morning. After a week of backbreaking toil, Shanku looked forward to meet Brother. From the pit behind the cowshed, the stink of decayed dung rose through the humid air. The soft drum beats of the evening prayers at a distant temple reverberated in the atmosphere. At any minute now, he would arrive.

Shanku heard the rumble of the motorcycle and he knew it was the sound of Brother’s Yamaha RX 100 motorcycle. Long five months and he returned. He  had created all the mess and one fine morning, he ran away. Kunjachan was not his real brother but Shanku called him Brother because for the last ten years, he had been Shanku’s companion and boss. They began in Sabarimala where they sold hooch, then in Adoor they ran  a Ponzi scheme, before the big hit in Vattapara, a gambling den . When success got to his head, Kunjachan wanted to do something legitimate. He always had this thing about settling on what he called a legal business. Kunjachan’s obsession with legitimacy drove them into the public toilet management business. The plan was to lease out, operate and maintain public toilets. And in return for the services rendered they could charge a fixed user’s fee.  Who would not need toilets? In this business, there was no slump in demand because it was imperative that people ate and drank and occupied public spaces. The pilgrimage season would be a great bonanza. With the money borrowed from a good old friend of Kunjachan, a loan shark named Machete Sura, they hired toilets at major bus stations and public hospitals.

Like a bolt from the sky, economic downturn came upon them. Business went from bad to worse when people shunned public toilets and emptied their bowels behind bushes. The pilgrimage season was a big letdown. Kunjachan borrowed money left and right and before long the merciless creditors chased him out of his house. Before he had fled to Karnataka on his battered motorcycle, Kunjachan’s wife and teenage son abandoned him.  The creditors ransacked the house, carting away anything they laid their hands on- a Gillete shaving set, a broken Onida TV, a single door Kelvinator refrigerator, copper troughs, crowbars and stained mattresses. After five months in hiding, Kunjachan appeared on the dirt road. Shanku dashed to meet his Brother who straddled the motorcycle. Hard life in exile took its toll and Kunjachan’s face wrinkled and hair grayed.

“My Brother, after you left ,all the hell broke loose. Creditors were throwing rocks at my house. Firing missiles”, Shanku said, “That Machete Sura and his cronies roughed me up.   He said he has got a new switchblade to cut your belly open”

“You get in. Let him shave his pubes off with his goddamn switchblade.”

“Where are we off to?”

“Shanku, Remember last summer,  we had driven to Salem where the forty seventh f***ing highway ended. Trailing a harlot who eloped with a trucker bastard. And she happened to be your wife”

Shanku blinked into the darkening air. The dirt road they stood on led past many houses uphill to the state highway. Downhill, the road meandered through meadows and disappeared into waterlogged rice fields. The atmosphere was heavy with tropical humidity and vapor fogged the rear view mirror of the motorcycle.

“You just kept mum like a dumb retard. Not asking me nothing. To where going or when, until we brought her back. Now reckon you are big boy.eh. Questioning your Brother Kunjachan”

“Didn’t make much difference though. She ran away a second time with the same guy and we not go searching for her ”, said Shanku

“I am no wife searcher. You understand. Not the job of mine. But I have a good job on my hands now”, said Kunjachan,

“Now, what next”

“You know. I always wanna do something legal and settle down. Enough of this mishmash . We will lease out farmland and grow crops in Karnataka. Cashew nut farming. How is that”

Kunjachan had a knack for finding impossible business proposals. Proposals that were impractical and downright stupid.

“Do you even know what cashew nut is”. Shanku smirked.

“Yeah. The thing that you make some kind of butter with”

“That is peanuts. You make peanut butter with peanuts”

“Okay. Peanuts then. We will grow peanuts. What the big deal”, said Kunjachan

“Where do peanuts grow”

“On trees, I guess. Yeah on trees”

“Cashew nuts grow on trees. Not peanuts”

“Shanku, that is what I told you first. Cashew nuts. We are going for cashew nuts, agreed?”

“Whatever, do you have the cash for the land lease, seeds, equipment. Nobody is gonna lend us any money now”

“ You know, how much I wanna do something legit. Legal. My heart is in the right place. Just see”, Kunjachan tugged Shanku’s hand towards his chest.

“Brother, cut the crap will you.”

Kunjachan lit a cigaratte and took a couple of deep drags. His gold tooth shone through coils of smoke.

Kunjachan looked around and said, “Remember, where we operated that toilet near Pandalam. There was that pawnshop owned by a crazy hag, gold ornaments  pawnbroker.”

“You are gonna rob the pawnshop. Have you gone nuts.”

“I have planned everything. No worries. This is our last chance to do something legal and we have to grab it.”

“Do you think it is as easy as pie. Really? That is no easy job, Brother”

“What do you think I was doing all these months up north”

“You were into burglary. Are you serious. That’s crazy. Please. You can’t count on me, sorry”

Kunjachan turned on the ignition, tipped his head to one side and said, “It was always me who did the thinking. But you stood by me, every single time. Now, you wanna part ways. Okay with me. Your life, your f***ing decision. But then, it is the end of it. Done”

For a moment, Shanku stared at his interlocutor. Why did he keep falling for emotional blackmail. There was no woman in his life and no money. All he had was a heifer that wouldn’t take him far. With Brother, there was hope. But hope was all he had earned from this partnership.

He mounted the bike behind Kunjachan. The smell of sweat issued from Kunjachan’s neck and  nocturnal birds uttered demented cackles. Kunjachan cranked the engine and flicked the cigarette stub off. They rode into the darkness.

*EXCERPT FROM THE INCOMPLETE NOVELLA

 

 

Alive in the Depths- Ammu

Aambal

The girl child, Ammu, was mute and she waited near the lake, the waterlily catching her attention. Grandpa had gone to get a shot of arrack leaving her by the lake. She knew that he had gone to get his daily quota of kick, though he had told her something else, she could’nt remember. The twilight settled on the surface of the lake, sewing spangles on the far side. At the near side, floating beds of hyacinths brushed against each other, causing the sea of leaves to flutter. A lone waterlily, pristine and purple, with a yellow core, popped out of the aquatic crowd. Ammu slid down the sloped bank and reached out to the lake to pluck the flower and she got the jolt – like she was electrocuted. She yanked her hand, backed away with a jerk and stared into the water, fidgeting at the edge of the lake. A creature-like-a-man, partially submerged in the water, one eyed and looked funny . The other eye was messed up, as though eaten by a fish. Part of its head was also chewed off by a fish, a bigger fish. Probably a shark. Shark in a lake? The eye that worked was rusty, trembled and rolled all over its deformed socket. The creature, cute like a doll that oozed stuffings out of torn seams, smiled at her, displaying the sallow interiors of its mouth.

“Come down cutie. The water is so warm and we will go swimming”, its squeaky voice sounded like a talking bandicoot rat.

Ammu shook her head amidst a peal of silent giggles. She stole a quick look backwards. No, Grandpa was not anywhere in sight.What would he say if he caught her talking to a funny merman with a missing eye. But, did it have fins? It was not possible to see that deep into the water. The earthy smell of turbid water and fertile mud discharged from the lake.

“So cozy in here and it’s bouncy in the water. See. Come on”, it said, bobbing up and down in the water.

The child chuckled and tried to suppress her laughter, clapping her hands over her mouth. She peered into the face of the creature and pointed towards the waterlily. The creature floated underwater, towards the flower, sending out ripples whose dying outer laps grazed Ammu’s toes at the shore. The water stung her with faint shocks. The creature snapped the waterlily off its stem with mildewed claws, surged through the waters, clutching the purple flower and extending its scaly arms. Ammu bent over above the water, eager to receive the gift, her braided hair hanging down from both sides of her face. The creature glided  forward, approaching her and pounced on her like a weasel pounced on a mouse. It captured her and there was silence all around except for the wind that sighed through the trees. And Grandpa was still at the arrack stall.

Grandpa gulped down his fifth shot. So far so good. He was energetic after the last shot, sitting on a wooden bench inside the shack that had a thatched roof. He did not have the cash for more and was not acquainted with the shop owner to buy one on credit. It would take hours to reach home from this strange place. He had to walk a few miles more until he could catch a bus. And if he couldn’t  find a seat in the bus, then it might turn out to be difficult, strap-hanging with the child. Oh, the child. Why did he leave her near the lake. He sprang up from the bench, paid for his transitory revelry and scrambled out of the arrack stall. He wiped his lips with the end of his mundu that had flowery pattern imprints, wrapped his cotton rumal around his head, like a turban and bounded towards the direction of the lake, where he had left his child.

Why he had abandoned the poor child near the dangerous lake. The child to whom even god hadn’t shown any mercy. She was born mute. The child who had witnessed the death of her mother who was his adorable daughter. His daughter who ran away with the butcher, the child’s father. The child, cowered behind the wattle, watched her father murdering her mother, kicking her below the navel. The butcher buried Grandpa’s daughter who was as healthy as a tree, in the backyard. No hassles.

And how he took care of Ammu all these years, applying Aloe Vera infused oil to her curly hair, lining her petal eyes, like a mother would do and like a big brother would do. Oh yes. Like a big brother and now he discarded her near the lake. If god forbid she had ventured into the lake, she might have been gobbled up by an alligator. No alligators in this lake, you stupid. A water snake might have bitten her and she might be lying at the bank with froth in her mouth. Or worse she might have drowned and the body might have sank into the depths of the lake. Such a damned old idiot.

He clambered over the ridge and looked past the thicket at the lake through the hazy darkness of the evening. The girl child waited, holding a water lily in her hands, close to her chest and gazing across the waters. So innocent and charming, his Ammu, but she looked obscure in the twilight. The child had grown into a ten year old girl. His sweet girl whom her mother had left in his safe hands before she had left this world for good. His Ammu would always love him and if not, what was the whole point in living this torrid life.

He had returned to his granddaughter and sat on his haunches beside her and watched  the soft light of the descending sun setting fire to the lake. Ammu radiated with a healthy glow as though she had had a protein rich meal, sardines fried in coconut oil, hard boiled eggs and lentils stewed in diced tomatoes. Her eyes shone with an amber twinkle. Her small lips and slender limbs, beautiful. What he had feared did not happen. She was there in front of him and his world was intact, his small happy world. Ammu started to play with his mustache like she used to do when she was a small child. Sometimes children did not grow up. She counted his tobacco stained teeth and pinched on his tongue, sharply and it hurt. But she was his child. Ammu shoved her hand into his mouth and pushed her forearm deep into his throat, tearing the walls of his alimentary canal. She thrust her arm in with the force of a jackhammer and blood oozed out of Grandpa’s mouth, staining the ground below. He let out a guttural croak, gave an involuntary shudder and collapsed into the sticky lake shore. His eyes bulged out like pale egg yokes, dead. Her arm still stuffed in his throat and the waterlily held tight in the other hand, unspoilt.

 

*THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM A NOVELLA I MIGHT OR MOST PROBABLY, WILL NOT WRITE IN THE FUTURE.