“Chandra, I heard that you are visiting Bengaluru on work and may visit Chennai also by month end. You never tell me anything,” grumbled Singaram to her son.
“Who told you? It is not yet finalized” replied Chandra
“Your son Nattu told me and that he would also be accompanying you. In case you are going, it is after a gap of many years. I wish to ask of you a favour. It is not that I wish to accompany you. There is nothing there for me after your father disappeared years back leaving no clue about his whereabouts,” replied Singaram.
“Yes, Amma, I promised Nattu to take him along as he evinced keen interest in visiting India. I will have to hurry now for a video conference. Can we discuss this leisurely over dinner?” he said as he left.
It was in the evening around 7pm when the family was in the living room, Chandra asked, “Amma, what was it you wanted from me?”
She kept quiet for a while lost in thought and when prompted again she started with a long sigh, “It is several years since your father mysteriously disappeared after he visited his village home near Kumbakonam. His ancestral house was there and he had visited it earlier a couple of times. There was no hassle till your grandfather was alive staying with us. The earlier tenant who lived there was remitting without fail to the bank a small amount as rent. The rent was collected more to ensure that the ownership was not disputed at a later stage. There was no thought of disposing the house till your grandfather was alive.
When that tenant who was a single died after your grandfather’s demise, I suggested to your father to dispose of the very old house as we had already sold away all the lands and keeping the house served no purpose. Your dad was averse to selling as it was the only remnant connecting him to his roots though all his relatives had sold away their homes and lands and shifted to distant cities and even abroad.
Adamant as he was by nature, he fixed a new tenant without verifying his antecedents or got any reference. Your dad, a gullible man, just introduced the new tenant to the elderly village head but had no written rental agreement made out. For six months or so the small rent was remitted regularly by money order and then received at irregular intervals till it stopped completely. Besides reminding the tenant about the rental dues by post cards, your dad did not visit the village from Delhi where we were residing. The amount was too small to take the long trip and he was postponing it. Meanwhile he learnt to his dismay the village head had passed away.”
She paused for a moment, when Chandra intervened to say, “I know all that and dad’s disappearance, Amma. Tell me quickly what is it you want me to do now.”
“Please do not be impatient. I was explaining for Nattu’s benefit also and I will be done soon. You had moved long ago to US for post-graduation and got settled here in US on a good job. After your father’s retirement, we continued to reside in Delhi. You had also chosen your classmate as your partner and married her with our consent. Life was going smoothly till your dad suddenly decided to visit his village to evict the tenant and dispose of the house. When he asked me to accompany him to visit the nearby temples, I had foolishly declined.”
“What happened thereafter, grandma?” asked Nattu.
“Listen carefully. He presumably went alone to his village, where he knew none, to accost the tenant with a view to evict him. When there was no message or call from him after once from Chennai and my calls elicited no reply save the auto message that the phone seemed switched off, I got scared. I requested my cousin at Chennai to visit the village to find your father’s whereabouts and make a police complaint, if necessary. He left the next day itself and met the tenant only to be told that your father had not visited him. The tenant also expressed his concern about his missing and wondered whether your dad had changed the plan. My cousin met the new head of the village only to draw a blank and both of them went to lodge a complaint with the nearest police station. After some enquiries, the police informed after a month that there was no evidence of your father having visited the village or met anyone and was not traceable. They were still trying though.
Chandra, I have a strong suspicion the police have closed the case. Till this date we have not heard from them or your father. He is not a spiritual person to renounce the family and to take to forests or mutts. I think something amiss must have happened and we have no clue.”
“Is the tenant still continuing and what about his eviction?” asked Nattu.
“When my cousin spoke to him a year or so back about our wish that he vacate the house after paying the dues, he got the curt response from the tenant that he owed no dues and suggested that the owner can contact him in person. In the circumstances, I want you, Chandra, to visit the village and get him evicted. Pray, do not go alone. Take someone from police with you. I remember his name is Varada kutti,” concluded Singaram.
“Surely I will visit and try to get him evicted. I will also sell the house at whatever best price we get though there may be legal hassles when dad’s whereabouts are not clear and we do not have any documents.
It was about three weeks later when the work at Bengaluru was over, Chandra met by chance at Chennai his old classmate who had joined civil services and was working in state government. With his help, it was arranged that an inspector of police from Kumbakonam would accompany Chandra to the village.
On the second day morning, when Chandra, Nattu and the inspector got down at the entrance to the village that hardly had three lanes and was looking for someone to guide them to the main lane that housed a small temple. The ancestral house was the fourth house from the temple.
It was then Nattu suddenly spoke with excitement,” Appa, I think I know the place as it is very familiar. It is close by on the road to the right,” and started walking ahead of them.
Angered, Chandra shouted, “Stop there, you idiot. This is the first time you are visiting this country and you are blabbering about your familiarity.”
“Appa, what you say is true but strange as it is something makes me very familiar with this place and I wish to run to the house. Sorry, my mind is clouded with vague memories that I cannot restrain myself and there is a hot flash all over my body,” the boy replied.
The inspector intervened to say,” Mr. Chandra, we will know in a minute if what the boy is telling is true. Let us ask him to guide us. Please do not restrain him. I will discuss about this more later.”
They followed the boy who walked confidently and turned right to see the main lane with a dilapidated small temple at one end. Most of the houses were tiled and in poor condition. There were a few new constructions. They went to the temple, a very small structure with only one room doing the duty of sanctum. A lamp was burning outside the locked and broken doors. Both Chandra and the inspector stared at each other meaningfully at Nattu’s inexplicable familiarity.
They walked to the fourth house and the main door was open. When Chandra knocked the door, a tall middle aged man of about 50 years came out. His height was contrary to the suffix kutti (small)to his name.
“Are you Mr. Varada kutti? My father is the owner of this house. After he came here several years back, he went missing and has not been traced till now. I wish to talk to you,” said Chandra.
As Varada kutti saw the police inspector in his uniform, Chandra could discern a streak of fear flash through his face. He deferentially invited them inside the long hall. While they sat in cane chairs, Varada kutti sat on a wooden swing (oonjal). He asked the boy to sit by his side on the swing. The boy looked at him in an unfriendly manner and sat over the lap of his dad.
Chandra explained the purpose of his visit and asked him to vacate the house within a week as he was planning to sell the house before his return to US.
“A week is too short a time. I can vacate in two months. If you are planning to sell the house, I am willing to buy at whatever price such old houses are being sold,” replied Varada kutti.
It was then Chandra and inspector heard a shriek from Nattu from inside the house. He had obviously gone inside unnoticed by all the three of them. The inspector rushed inside to the courtyard adjoining a kitchen to see the boy highly agitated with his eyes shining animatedly and jumping at one corner of the courtyard.
Chandra shouted at the boy scolding, “Why are you behaving like a mad cap and possessed since we came here? What is bothering you? Come away from that place.”
“Appa, I felt a hard blow on my head by a hammer and hear recurring noises on the ground,” bewailed the young boy even as he was jumping with a faraway look.
Chandra with a worried look dragged the crying boy after a tight slap away from that corner.
“Mr. Chandra, do not be rash. Let me handle this. This is a serious matter not to be ignored. Please be seated. I will talk to the boy,” he said and turned to Varada kutti to tell him in stern voice,” Do not leave this house till we are finished and be seated with Chandra.”
He took Nattu to another side of the courtyard and putting his arm around the boy gently said, “I am inclined believe you. You can freely tell me anything else relating to this matter freely.”
“I am scared to be here but I am sure some mystery underneath there where I stood. I know the entire house and nothing has since changed except that corner,” the boy replied.
“What else you remember? What were the noises you repeatedly heard on the floor? There is no evidence of any digging and re-flooring the corner,” asked the inspector without any leading question.
Looking at him vacantly as if he was in a trance and with the body sweating heavily, the boy explained to no one in particular, “My memory is hazy but I distinctly remember the heavy blow on head with a blunt object and the faint sound of earth being dug out for long time before everything turned black.”
“Whom are you referring to when you say I? You have never been here earlier,” gently prodded the inspector.
“My mind is confused. Can I have some water?” asked the boy.
“Surely, finish quickly expressing the thoughts passing through your mind before it becomes blank,” said the inspector.
When he saw Varada kutti getting up on the pretext of getting water, the inspector pressed him down.” Do not stir. This my order,” he admonished the tenant and turned to Chandra to get the village head there immediately.
As he waited for village head, he stroked the boy gently and said, “Have no fear. We will find out the truth soon if you are pretty sure.”
“I am confused about me but am positive that something mysterious under the place where I stood,” he said
When the village head came, the inspector took him aside introduced himself with his card and briefed him about the suspicious disappearance of the owner after a visit to his house to get the tenant evicted and the unexpected prescience of the boy about some assault and possibly burial under the ground.
“He seems familiar with the village and guided us to the house correctly on his first visit to this village. I have heard cases of a few young children make statements of past lives. I learn the boy is very bright and has had no mental issues or hallucinations earlier. Since there has been no clue to the owner’s disappearance after a purported visit, I need your help in getting the place dug out. Keep also some men on the front and rear side to prevent the tenant from attempting an escape.”
In an hour, the cat was out of the bag when they found the skeleton of a body with shreds clothes on it and a broken mobile without any sim card.
When the inspector pulled up Varada kutti by his collar and asked him to explain the presence of the skeleton amid hostile stares of all the men around, he broke down and fell at Inspector’s feet owning up the crime in his greed to acquire the house. The man was taken into custody.
I will skip the details about the subsequent events like last rites, the taking over the house and letting out the house free for a primary school after repairs. Chandra also donated some amount for the upkeep and maintenance of the temple.
Though the outcome turned sad for Singaram, the family decided not to broach the subject of past memories to Nattu and allowed them to be forgotten over a time.