Written by R. Venkat Ramanujam
Part 2 of 2 (Read Part 1 here)
Drops of fresh pig-blood trickled down from Kutuk’s upper arms and chest, and stained his brand new pink loin cloth. A thick beaded necklace hung from his neck. Richard respectfully placed a glass of milk-tea in front, next to the kerosene lantern. Kutuk sat cross-legged, and stared downward at the offering laid before him. The wide eyes under the bandanna were uncharacteristic; the Nicobarese were typically slit-eyed. Kutuk’s pupils were jet black and dilated; their unblinking exaggeration lent him a fearsome look.
Richard rose respectfully, and returned to the wooden image with his bag. I looked on curiously to see what he would fish out now. Like a magician pulling out rabbits from his hat, Richard had first brought out the loin cloth, and then the bandanna that Kutuk’s karyaavaa was wearing. Now, in the beam of Ejaz’s powerful torch, he brought out a long-sized school notebook. ‘Mildred Herbert, Samaaj Shaastra (Sociology),’ the flyleaf announced in Hindi.
“Is that for Kutuk to be able to identify the girl?” I asked.
The elderly Joseph, whose house we were in, nodded vigorously. Kutuk was his ancestor.
Next, Richard slipped out a folded piece of paper from the pocket of his shirt.
Richard nodded, trademark gentle smile lighting up his serious face.
“For Kutuk?!” I asked, puzzled.
Everyone laughed. They thought I was joking. I wasn’t but the mood lightened.
“Let me see it?!” I couldn’t control my curiosity.
Richard hesitated. Ejaz said something in Nicobarese which I couldn’t understand but it generated more mirth.
Richard unfolded the piece of paper as Ejaz and I crowded around on either side of him. It was a note, only three lines long, and written in chaste Nicobarese Hindi.
Hum tumko bahut pyaar karta. Kya tum humko pyaar karta? Agar pyaar karta to kal humko hituse ped ke paas milo. (“I love you very much. Do you love me? If you do meet me near the hituse tree tomorrow.”)
Richard slipped the letter into the notebook, and placed it before Kutuk’s karyaavaa. “Don’t forget to pick it up in the morning tomorrow,” Joseph said.
Dinner was a feast of pork, served in kerosene-light. The pig had been slaughtered as an offering to Kutuk. Richard, who could not afford a pig of his own, borrowed one of Joseph’s, promising to repay him in the future.
Joseph had lost his son and daughter-in-law in the tsunami. They used to live in another village further up the Kamorta coast. Joseph had adopted their surviving orphaned son. “My grandson is gone to Bompoka; he will be back in a few days,” he remarked, as we sat up talking into the night. Joseph graphically described to me the horror of the morning when the tsunami struck. The earthquake happened first, and the earth shook for several minutes. Then the seawaters gradually withdrew more than a kilometre from the shore, as if being sucked in by a gigantic creature at the bottom of the sea. All of a sudden, the tsunami had risen like a massive fortress wall of water, and washed swiftly shore, swallowing all that fell in its path. Rumjau had been lucky because it was located at an elevation, the crescent-shaped cove offering another layer of protection.
Ejaz and Richard had long gone to bed. As I turned in under the mosquito net, the sceptic inside me could no longer restrain itself.
“Joseph Uncle, do you think Kutuk will unite Richard with Mildred?” I asked, trying to find the right words so as not to appear disrespectful.
Joseph’s response was mysterious, tangential, “Who can read a men-lu-aanaa’s mind? Only another men-lu-aanaa. But there are no more men-lu-aanaa left now.”
I woke up next morning feeling overwhelmed. The pangs of yearning gnawed me from within. Maybe I could make an offering to Kutuk, even if a small one perhaps? After all, one could do with all the luck one could get in matters of the heart.
I had not disclosed my sentiments for Emily to Richard (or anyone else). In the first place, I was self-conscious of my status as a ‘teacher,’ and the code of rectitude that came with it. Besides, I had grown aware of the tension between the Nicobarese and non-tribal settlers. The Nicobarese did not like their women marrying outside the community. They argued that non-tribal outsiders lured Nicobarese women and married them as a stratagem to secure a toe-hold in the islands, and then quickly went on to acquire land and set themselves up in business. The Nicobarese had even gone to court seeking eviction of non-tribal settlers. Making public my liking for a Nicobarese woman was fraught with potentially grave consequences.
Ejaz had slipped out to ready the boat and Joseph had disappeared early into the forest. As Richard and I sipped our cups of morning tea, all set to leave back to Bompoka, I asked, as if in jest, “Do you think Kutuk would help if I want him to make a girl fall in love with me?”
Richard remained silent for a while.
“Maybe Kutuk helps only Nicobarese folks,” he said slowly.
I was stung to the quick, and spoke no more.
The office was empty, and the lull at work seemed to mirror the stifling calm of the sea. It was mid-December, and my colleagues had dispersed for a long Christmas break. Richard was little to be seen of late, immersed as he was in a state of bliss in the company of his girlfriend. I looked out of the window at the placid waters beyond the jetty, the floating buoys barely bobbing up and down. After we returned from Ramjau, my fortunes had dipped in parallel with the rise in Richard’s. Emily grew increasingly withdrawn and quiet, almost as if she was deliberately seeking to cut down on conversation. I walked the tightrope of not letting my thoughts show but was barely able to contain the growing insecurity, the gut-wrenching anxiety. Today, the deathly calm outside heightened the maelstrom within.
The breeze kissed our faces as the motor-boat from Bompoka lunged southwards towards Rumjau. The boat and boatman were different. The sea was still, and we made rapid progress. Powered by hope, expectation, suspense I could almost hear my heart thudding over the loud, rasping noise of the boat engine. I looked down at my bag. It contained the purchases of the morning: a bandanna and loin cloth, but also something more precious: a keychain belonging to Emily, which she had absent-mindedly left behind in the Yessel office.
It was still daylight when we reached. I had sent word ahead to Joseph that I would arrive today, although I did not mention the purpose. I climbed up the steps to his dome-shaped house on stilts, one of the few Nicobarese houses that had been rebuilt in the traditional style after the tsunami. Halfway up the stilts, I peered inside. My eyes squarely met Kutuk’s fierce stare. I started, and almost slipped off the footrest. I hadn’t realised it in the dark the last time but the karyaavaa was positioned to face the entrance to the house, almost as if keeping a watchful eye on every visitor.
Doris, Joseph’s wife, greeted me with a broad smile, showing that I was expected, and then quickly disappeared. I seated myself on the floor to wait for Joseph.
A few minutes later a babble of voices sounded, strangely familiar, and grew near.
Emily entered the room excitedly carrying a glass of tea in her hands. “Welcome, Venkatbhai!” she exclaimed happily, handing me the glass.
My heart skipped a beat. Glory be to Kutuk! But what was Emily doing here in Rumjau?
Before I could ask another familiar figure followed. Curtly Ambrose was grinning from ear to ear.
“Grandfather has gone into the forest. He will be back soon.”
The grandson who had been away in Bompoka.
Emily turned and spoke rapidly to him in Nicobarese. Ambrose swiftly knelt down to a bag lying on the floor, dipped his hands inside, and produced something gingerly.
It was a magnificent miniature model of a Nicobarese canoe, called a hodi, complete with outrigger, perfectly balanced, and intricately decorated at its two sharp, curved ends.
Ambrose bent down to me as I sat cross-legged on the floor. Stretching out his hands, he said, “This is for you, Venkatbhai.”
“Yes, Venkatbhai,” Emily responded before Ambrose could react, “I wanted him to give it to you. Do you like it?” she asked eagerly.
The artisanship could not have been more exquisite. I turned it around in my hands, regarding it with awe. It was a labour of love, very far from a mere piece of carpentry.
It took me a while to find my voice.
“It is extremely beautiful. I love it. Thank you very much!” I looked up at Emily and Ambrose to find them beaming, the pleasure radiating from their being.
Emily looked at Ambrose and then at me. Suddenly turning coy, she said, “Venkatbhai…” Her voice trailed.
“What is it Emily?”
“We’re getting married after Christmas. You’ll come for our wedding, won’t you?”
I turned the canoe around slowly in my hands once more. “A labour of love,” I whispered softly to myself.
About the Author:
This is a work of fiction based on experiences as an aid-worker in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The illustration of the karyaavaa used in the story is based on a photograph taken by Simron Jit Singh, anthropologist, and author of ‘The Nicobar Islands: Cultural choices in the aftermath of the tsunami‘. As a PhD candidate, I am currently researching transforming Adivasi relationships with the environment in eastern Madhya Pradesh.