Mascara, Butterflies and Mango Manchurian.
When my ancestors died, they were buried near the paddy fields. Dare someone to hold a funeral procession, it would be more deaths. The eldest male will carry the dead, wrapped in a “thazha paaya” (Dried grass mat) to some grave a bit far away from home. When he comes back, he will have the thazha paaya folded under his arms.
That simple it was, the death for the downtrodden.
Anything could bring in death, a snake, a scorpion or a minor fever. There were no guarantee for our lives, we slowly evolved into a species indifferent to death.
But the kids were in peace with death. More, it made them happy! They don’t get to see the deceased anymore, but elders weren’t close to their hearts.
The work was hard and the parents (and grand parents) will be gone much before they wake up. Gobble the meager breakfast and go out to play. By the time they return, there will be a female cooking dinner outside the home.
They eat whatever they could manage and go back to sleep. Elders were those strange creatures who appear for festivals, drunk and happy, or when they die. Calm and quiet rigid this time.
Death bought them dead chickens. Plastic muscles floating in a sea of loose gravy. Soon after death, the family squanders a month’s income to buy a cock. It was then sacrificed to Marutha, a low caste god now long extinct. When the eldest male carries the dead body for burial, the family will feast upon the unfortunate cock. We will have one more cocktail to play with.
The children gobbling two years worth protein couldn’t complain. They couldn’t help, but has to happy with death. More, they wished for it.
The dead rotted in the graves. Unpolished stones served as markers to our graves. The landlord could get rid of them any time he wished. If not, oncoming monsoons took care of them.
We lived close to the soil, we danced in the soil to symphonies that could shoo away famines. When the music stopped playing, we went back to our homes. That’s when we got to eat. The only thing that mattered was food. Letters were far from our realm.
Now, centuries later, I am standing near a paddy farm thinking about all the great things we lost. My ancestors are part of these paddy fields. They are the soil now. They are not caring for the plants now, they are feeding them.
I am here to study about a recent outbreak of pattala puzhu (Army worms) here in Kuttanad. They made their way through the paddy fields leaving wailing farmers all the way.
It’s well past an epidemic now, it is wiping out entire farms, killing plants. They feasted on the dreams of a hundred bereaving farmers.
A few decades back, there weren’t as many farmers. Owing land was a privilege one acquired by the accident of birth. They were too a few and us, a lot. My ancestors worked for them, dancing in the soil producing food for them. Their masters called them pulayadis.
As a kid, I always struggled to understand the meaning of the word. It never quite made any sense until Anu explained it to me sitting under the grand banyan tree in the campus.
Pula meant soil. If someone dies, they are now pula, meaning they are going back to the soil. Aattam meant dance and aadal was the verb; aadi past tense. We who danced in the soil so that they could eat in peace.
We pulayadis perished in the soil so that they could eat us. They ate, belched and farted us. We became the food. They ate rice from the paddy fields were they buried us. They ate us, they drank our blood!
Their teeth, stuffed with our flesh, rotted and the smell engulfed the land, sea and air. Such was their malice.
Now centuries later, I can see them all with their plump bodies. Kids in our caste are still under nourished. We never got the food we deserved - From all the human bodies we could have eaten.
I approached a rice plant that was being guzzled by the angry worms. This is murder! I looked closer and I could see umpteen shades of violence in it. I took out my camera, caressed the lenses before focusing it on a dying rice plant. There isn’t much left on it now - Slow death is painful.
I pointed the camera to an ageing tree near the fences far away. I could hear my grand father shouting to his comrades. They were flooding the field. That was the only way to contain the break out. You flood the field and the pattalapuzhus drown. Then, we will unleash the ducks on them.
We Starved the ducks for almost a day. As the famished ducks quacked as if signaling the impending doom, the family struggled to find sleep. After a sleepless night, we would guide the ducks to the flooded fields. The ravenous ducks will finish off the leftover pattalapuzhus - another battle won.
I ambled around the rectangular fields. Death was all around. For me, death is a moist sound akin to the smell of damp mosses. I would expect death in an old wall, wet with memories. But here, death was dry. It was hot, steaming hot.
As my mouth tasted thirst, I could feel the death as streams of hot air whistling past me. I tried to focus my camera at eternity, but the mirages formed by the hot rising air wouldn’t let me focus it.
This time 30 years ago, this was a bucolic countryside buzzing with life. Now what do I see? Death in a thousand different colors.
I felt no loss. Instead, a subtle smile graced my lips. My innards were indifferent to the outside world. A core of dampness inside me kept radiating pleasantness to the outside world. The physicist want to believe that it is absorbing the heat from outside.
The romantic had no doubt though, it was radiating pleasantness to the outside world.
Once the pattalapuzhus died, we drained the land and would leave it to recover. Ferocious battles were fought between packs of children to ascertain their superiority over one another.
This year’s rainfall is around one third of what we receive normally. The death I see around was not created in one season. It is round the corner for a long time from now.
There are no water bodies left to flood the infested fields. If the outbreak is further inland, the only option is to burn the fields. Further death.
Half a million ducks had to be culled a few months ago. Another outbreak of Avain Flu. My ancestors never heard of anything like H5N9. Hemagglutinin and Neuraminidase, viral proteins that could infest unfortunate birds and kill them. And of course, the luckyy human beings who ate them.
I don’t know what all these human beings are fighting for! SARS outbreak killed thousands before it was contained. So did Spanish Flu and other infamous ‘flu massacres’. Some ‘collateral damage’ before the battle is won. But each one of us could be that collateral damage. Feed some viruses and be feasted by worms.
Scientists fight this battle on behalf of humanity so that us Humans could be at peace and thank an abstract concept. When we could love the tangible, we choose the abstract to shower all our love with. Human existence is such an irony!
As I walked forward, the smell of death started to nauseate me. It wasn’t just hot anymore, but accompanied with a loud shrill that made my heart beat faster. The heart beats began to rise till it started to resonate with the voice (noise?!!) of death. I couldn’t breathe anymore. I kept the camera on the varambu near me and let my palms feel the boiling soil.
It had a lot of stories to tell. I have to listen now. I could feel slight tremors through my palms. As I tried to concentrate, it slowly started to make sense; they condensed into one thick story line that I could read. The story of my ancestors - The story of humanity.
The undocumented history of lost souls who could not preserve their story in letters that we could read. And that’s how it all started…
(To be continued…)