Malnad Diary: Much Salt Over a Little Pepper

An inconsequential episode regarding pepper at Nandi Thota, except that …

We thought it was foreman Mohan’s work when we first heard of it, which was through a call by Mohan himself, to Sujaya in Bangalore.

“Somebody is drying pepper on the bungalow terrace, madam.”

“But we’re not drying pepper. Hasn’t the dealer taken it yet?”

Only the coffee is picked by plantation labour. Pepper is leased out to a dealer, who brings his own men who settle on the plantation until the picking is over.

“Not our pepper, madam. Somebody is drying it for himself. I saw it when I went up with Nagesh-sir. We saw it together.”

Nagesh is our civil-works contractor. He’d gone to the plantation to see about a leak in the roof. He called Sujaya the same evening. He’d gone there in the morning, had been unable to tell Mohan when he was coming. By the time Mohan came to the bungalow from whichever coffee-patch he was working on, Nagesh had already climbed the terrace. About 4 kilograms of pepper was drying there, spread out on plastic sheets.

“Mohan looked surprised, madam. But he’s the one behind it, no doubt,” he said.

Mohan called next morning. “It’s Vadhi’s son, madam. I found out today. He’s not denying it.”

Old Vadhi has been caught laying ingenious traps for wild hare across the plantation. And I had to shout at him once to make him stop bringing visitors to the labour line for his wife. The lady claims god comes upon her when she wills it. Armed with the almighty, and for a fee, she’d been telling villagers their past and future. She’d been offering to patch their future for a little extra.

“Who allowed the boy to climb the roof?”

“He says the guard, madam.”

“What’s wrong in that guard’s head? He should be guarding the bungalow. What’s he saying?”

“He says the boy is lying, madam.”

She called the guard. “I don’t know anything. madam,” he swore. “I don’t know how he went up. I’m always going round and round the bungalow.”

It is allowed for labourers to gather the little pepper that has fallen to the ground after the pepper-dealer is done. What worried us was that a workman had gone up our bungalow. How much liberty were folks taking in our absence? How much was Mohan involved?

Two weeks passed, and in that time Mohan reported that the bungalow-guard had left the plantation. Health problems. Also, Vadhi’s son was getting married.

The two days of the wedding fell on the same weekend we managed to free ourselves in Bangalore to visit the plantation. The son’s home was decked up with a thorana arch, made of banana stems and marigolds and palm fronds and mango leaves. A vaadya hung about, on call to play hard-edged pipe music to the accompaniment of rustic drums each time a ceremonial event happened.

We asked for Vadhi’s son to see us the next day. It was absolutely the wrong time for it, but we told ourselves, “We really must find out what’s going on, and nip it now.”

The music from the vaadya could still be heard the following morning. The bride would enter the groom’s home today, and more colour had been commandeered for the event: flowers, and silks, and so on. Relatives on both sides had arrived by rickshaw and small trucks. When the bride arrived she was led to the groom with a shining, chinari-decorated umbrella over her. Squealing children got in the way of men and women performing important, adult tasks round the couple. With high head-decorations, the bride and groom were the tallest in the crowd, king and queen in the moment.

Afternoon, Vadhi brought his son the groom to the bungalow. He handed Sujaya a large, long invitation card for the just-concluded wedding. His face was plaintive, different than the insolent one of the last time, when I’d shouted at him.

“He’s just a boy,” he said, gesturing to his son who stood behind him to come up. “Made a mistake. Please let it go this once.”

His son had shed his ceremonial garments, was now wearing black jeans, and a blue-striped white shirt. He’d been a tall groom decked up, but now he seemed about four inches over five feet. He was lean and wiry and moved constantly, stepping up and back and side to side. He had vermilion and sandal paste on his brow. His curly long hair fell about as he moved his head.

“You go,” I told the young man’s father. “I want a chat with your son.”

I sat on the stone bench in the porch. The boy came up to me. Came up too close, and I had to bend back my neck to engage his eyes. I asked him to step back.

“You know why we’ve called you,” I said.

“About the pepper.” His voice was not yet a man’s.

“Tell me what happened.”

“I’d put 4 kg pepper to dry before my house. The guard saw it and said, ’It won’t dry there, the ground is moist.’ He asked me to put it on your roof.”

“How did you go there?”

He pointed to the grill that fronted the electrical panels. The grillwork went up to the deck. From there a gangway led to the terrace.

“Don’t you know it’s wrong to do that?”

“Yes. But the guard told me to do it. I needed to dry the pepper to sell it. To buy a shirt.”

“Will you do anything anybody asks you to do, even when it’s wrong?”

“The guard cheated. Because of him I also became a cheat.”

“Did Mohan ask you to do it?”

“No, no. I shouldn’t bring him into this. He has nothing to do with this.”

“What else have you been doing here?”

“Nothing. I’m working all day. Evenings and holidays I play cricket in the village.”

He was too young for marriage. I couldn’t help thinking how much of a kid his bride would be. From the direction of the labour lines, a faint smell of jasmine was wafting in. I struggled for next words.

“It’s your wedding day,” I said. “Go.”

And he went.

“God bless you,” I called after him.