There was a crowd comprising of a few men and more than a dozen women outside Sevanthi’s thatched hut.The hut sat on the middle of a large plot of land with many coconut trees around the periphery. There were a couple of mango trees and a small curry leave tree too. The people were standing in clusters outside the hut talking in hushed tones.
The silence was broken by someone asking loudly at no one in particular “Any idea when the old woman actually died?”
Someone replied “The girl who supplied milk daily got no response yesterday. When she did not get any reply today also to her repeated knocking of the door and had also smelt a bad odour emanating from inside, she informed her mother.Sevanthi must have died day before yesterday or the previous night”
A woman added “We could not stand the stench when we went inside to see her body. She must have died of diarrhea for she lay on filth. Poor woman, she had no one to take care of her in her twilight years. She seemed a nice person though she was aloof and never mixed with others”
Another woman in the crowd said “I know we should not speak ill of the dead but I think she was a bit haughty as she never allowed anyone to mingle with her. Otherwise we would have come to her help instead of letting her die uncared for like this.”
“Do not talk rubbish, you foul mouthed woman” shouted an elderly man and added “Do you know the sufferings she had gone through her life. Anyone else in her position would have ended her life years back”
“How will I know? I came to this village only a few years back. Why don’t you tell us? You have been here for decades” prodded that woman.
“Ok, let me tell you all briefly” he said as the people came close to him.”She was in her late twenties when she came as a bride to a local man who was about 15 years older than her.. She was good looking and worked hard in the fields to supplement the income. They got a son after a year. I have not seen any of her relatives visit her. After the birth of the son they used to quarrel frequently because the man used to come home drunk. When her son Vadivel was five years, her husband eloped with another woman older than him and never came back.”
“How cruel. You said she was good looking. Why did that useless fellow go after an older woman?”asked one woman.
“Who knows? She must have had money to give this fellow for his alcohol in return for his physical company” said another.
“That is of no relevance now. Let me finish soon for we have to arrange for her cremation” said the village elder.”Sevanthi worked in several homes when the harvest season was over and brought up the boy. She was a virtuous woman who even complained to local panchayat that some men who knew she was single were harassing her by knocking her door in the nights. As advised she had a new hut amidst several others and was safe and secure. The boy studied up to class 8, learnt a bit of plumbing and electrical work and joined the municipality of the adjacent town. They continued to live here and he had a cycle.”
“Where is he? Did he also desert his mother like his wicked father? I don’t see him at all” asked one hasty woman.
“No, he was a good son and fond of his mother. He was aware of the hardships in her life. But as ill luck would have it, in the course of his work he went down a well that was not in use for some time to check the pipe work. The poisonous gas therein took his life away. Some kind lawyer in that town fought for her to get her good compensation from the municipality and the government. With half the money that good man bought in her name this big ground for a song and had a thatched hut built. She lived on the interest from the balance. She gave the coconuts to the needy. She never objected to people entering her plot to pluck curry leaves. She would smile at young kids stealing fallen mangoes. Sometimes she would call them inside and give two apiece to the surprised children. Her only past time was making brooms from the fallen coconut leaves” he completed.
“Anyway, let us make arrangements to give her a decent funeral as she belonged to this village. It is delayed and foul smelling already. Someone go and fetch the priest.”
One by one most of the men and the women slipped away unwilling to participate. There were however a few who managed to get the body cremated spending some money from their pockets. People who accused Sevanthi of being aloof and reserved were actually distant when a need arose to lend their shoulders.
A week later most of the village folks had assembled under the large banyan tree for a meeting called by panchayat to condole on her demise. They all stood in silence for a minute in memory of the departed soul.
Raman Nair who ran a tea shop in the village stood up and said “I was unfortunate to be away from the village on the day the cremation took place. She was like a mother to me. She used to send coconuts to my shop free telling that I was doing a service to the village by running the tea shop. I regret I was not there to do her funeral rites” He could not stop the tears flooding his eyes as others pacified him.
Everyone heard a shrill voice of a woman from the crowd “What happens now to the plot and the hut? It is very big in the middle of village”
The village elder in anger shouted her down saying “We have assembled here to pay our respects to the dead soul and bemoan the loss to the village. This is not an occasion to bring extraneous issues”
An elderly man apparently not belonging to the village stood up and said “I have a few words to tell you all”
“Who are you? You don’t seem to be from this place” asked the village elder
“I am Santhosham, a social worker by inclination and a lawyer by profession. I live in the adjacent municipal town. About three decades back, I fought for the deceased woman for a fair compensation when her only son died in tragic circumstances in the course of duty. Since then I have helped her whenever she came to me. I came to know of her demise only yesterday. It is good that I am here by chance when the condolence meeting is being held. She has left a registered will for the disposal of her property after her death. I have been made an executor and trustee.”
“What is the gist of the will? Let the villagers know” said the village elder.
“She has not mentioned anyone in the village specifically as beneficiary” the lawyer said with a pause.
Some murmurs were heard from the crowd. Raman Nair said loudly “It is her property and her prerogative to do what she wanted. Why are some of you so mean?”
Someone from the crowd was heard to say “I suspect that man.He must have got the property in his name by giving her his rotten tea and stale idlies now and then to ingratiate himself to the old woman”
Santhosham lifted his hands and said “Do not rush to wrong conclusions and rashly accuse anyone. Sevanthi ammal felt bad that the children of this village and adjacent villages had to walk three kilometers to the nearest school. She has bequeathed her plot and the money in deposits to start an elementary school. She has nominated me, the village elder, Raman Nair and a lady chosen by village women to do the needful. I would need the cooperation of all to fulfill her wish.”
There was a hushed silence in utter disbelief at the compassion and large hearted nature of Sevanthi for the village community. Many were seen wiping their moist eyes overwhelmed by the way Sevanthi had touched the hearts of the all in the village.