Part - I
The story is set in Chennai. Mridu is a small girl living with her grandparents in Chennai. Her grandmother is Tapi, and her grandfather is Thatha (Tamil word for grandfather). One day, Mridu went with her Tapi to her aunt Rukku Manni's house to meet her cousins Lalli, Ravi and Meena.
Rukku Manni opened the door with a smile. Ravi and Meena, Mridu's cousins, came out excitedly and Ravi pulled Mridu inside the house. Mridu had not even removed her slippers by then, so she asked Ravi to wait. She arranged her slippers neatly near another pair of slippers. She noted that the slippers were:
- large black ones
- became grey due to dust
- marks of each toe were seen clearly on the front of the slippers
- the marks seemed long and thin, (referring to thin toes)
The dusty slippers with scrawny toe marks!
Although Mridu quickly noted the above details mentally, she did not have to think about whose slippers it could be. By then Ravi had dragged her to their backyard, behind a thick bitter-berry bush. Bitter-berry bushes refer to thick shrub-like bushes, bearing red fruits called bitter-berries. When Mridu saw inside the bush, she saw a small kitten lying down in torn football. It was padded with stuffing and filled with sand to make the kitten comfortable. The kitten was quickly using its tongue to sip up the milk given to it in a coconut shell.
Inside a torn football lined with sacking, Mridu saw a small kitten!
Meena explained to Mridu that they had found the kitten mewing continuously, outside their gate that morning. She also told it should be kept a secret because her Amma (Rukku Manni) had told that Paati (Tamil word for grandmother, here refers to Ravi's grandmother) would leave the house and go off to Paddu Mama's house if she knew that they had a cat.
Ravi vented out that people always advise them to be kind to animals; but when they showed kindness, they screamed, saying not to bring the dirty creature to home! He further explained his difficulty to bring some milk from the kitchen for the poor kitten, without the knowledge of Paati. Paati had seen him in the kitchen with the glass of milk; he had to lie that he was hungry, and he wanted to drink it. Paati had still looked suspicious, and he had to drink most of the milk toprove to Paati that he had no hidden intentions.
Ravi had to drink most of the milk to throw Paati off the scent!
Paati still had not given up, and she wanted the empty tumbler back. Ravi had to convince Paati that he would wash it himself. He ran and poured the remaining milk for the kitten, in the coconut shell and ran back to wash the tumbler and put it back. He added that they had to think of some other ways to feed Mahendran. Mahendran was the cat's name.
Mridu was impressed by the kitten's name because it was a proper name and not a fancy cute kitten name.
Ravi said his full name was Mahendravarma Pallava Poonai or M.P. Poonai in short. (Poonai is a Tamil word for cat.) Ravi said he belonged to a high-quality breed of cat. He was amazed by the kitten's fur, which he thought looked like a lion's mane. He asked if Mridu knew the emblem of the ancient Pallava kings. Mridu laughed.
A lion's mane.
(Note: Pallava dynasty ruled Southern part of India and Mahendravarman was a great ruler of the Pallava dynasty. Their emblem was Simha or lion.)
Since Mridu laughed, Ravi asked whether she thought he was joking. He said she did not know anything about history. He asked Mridu if she had been to Mahabalipuram mysteriously. He explained that when he went with his class, he saw a statue of a descendant of a member of the Pallava dynasty (Thatha means grandfather in Tamil). Ravi claimed that Mahendran cat was a descendant from the ancient cat. He also said that the cat was a species close to a lion's species. Thus he arrived at saying that the emblem of the Pallavas was the lion.
*This statue is in Mahabalipuram. Ravi refers to the cat in this statue. He says Mahendran is the descendant of this Rishi-cat.
Ravi walked around the bush, simultaneously moving up and down a small twig in his hand. His eyes were gleaming because if his discovery. Thus he proved that the cat was a member of the Pallava dynasty and the Mahabalipuram Rishi-Cat, that he had seen. He finally added the fact that Egyptians worshipped cats as Gods, in ancient times. He was very proud of his facts, while Meena and Mridu looked at each other. Mridu asked what did the Egyptians have to do with this cat? Ravi again explained that the cat had descended actually from the Egyptian cat-goddess, named Bastet.
Egyptian cat-goddess, Bastet!
He completed his findings by saying one of the descendants of the Egyptian cat-goddess hid in a Pallava ship to travel unnoticed; and the descendant of that cat was the Mahabalipuram Rishi-Cat, whose descendant was the Mahendran cat. He called the cat "MP Poonai" and waved the twig in his hand at the cat. He screamed in delight about his theory about the cat and felt happy for himself.
Due to Ravi's sound, Mahendran the cat, looked up with fright. The cat had been sharpening his foot nails on the edge of the coconut shell, in which milk was served earlier. Ravi's shriek sounded bad and unpleasant, but there was a worse sound from the window "Kreech…!" It was a strange sound. Mridu was suddenly alarmed, but M.P.Poonai was severely shocked. His body hair stood up straight in the alarm! He jumped and moved hurriedly with quick short steps. He bumped on a tray of red chillies that had been set out for drying in the sun. Some chillies fell on him, and he shouted terribly.
Chillies, were set out drying in the sun!
The "kreech…" sound from the window continued. Mridu asked what the noise was. Ravi replied in a low voice that Lalli was learning to play the music instrument violin. He added that Lalli would never learn to play the violin. He said the music-master played the violin very well that it sounded like how a train moves fast with a buzzing sound right on track; while Lalli's violin sounded like thetrain that got derailed, that is totally off the tracks.
Lalli's violin sounded totally derailed!
Part - II
Mridu moved carefully and slowly towards the window, without making a noise. Lalli was playing the violin in the room. She was sitting a bit far from the window, and she held her violin and the bowstring uncomfortably, her elbows stretched out, and her eyes filled with concentration. Her music-master was sitting in front of her, with his back to the window. The music-master had:
- an almost bald head
- applied oil on the little strands of black hair
- a traditional knot
- a gold chain around his hard brown skin
- a diamond ring on his hand
- large foot
- golden color bordered dhoti (veshti is a Tamil word for dhoti)
- skinny long toe, with which he was counting the beats for rhythm
He played the violin easily while Lalli struggled to catch up with him. She looked very uncomfortable. The music master's notes rose up and down and settled perfectly in tune to sound melodious. It was like the train wheels which fit insmoothly and evenly in the rails, as Ravi had mentioned earlier. Mridu was looking continuously at the huge hand that was moving up and down the violin, which produced pleasant music.
Again they heard a loud, harsh noise. It was Lalli going off-pitch in the violin again. Another sound came next, "Amma, Amma-oh" from the gate. Ravi's mother, who also heard the sound, understood it was the beggar who had come for alms and shouted to Ravi to send the beggar away. Since she was chatting with Tapi, she asked Ravi to tell the beggar. Paati explained to Tapi that the beggar had been coming there daily for one week, and he had to choose some other house from now on.
Ravi went out to see the beggar while Mridu and Meena followed him. The beggar was already making himself comfortable in the garden, and he had no ideas of returning. He was spreading his upper cloth under the neem tree and prepared his place for a short nap, while the house members brought him his food. Ravi told himto go away in a strict tone. He added that his Paati told him it was time to find another house to beg.
The beggar cried "Amma! Amma-oh!"
The beggar opened his eyes wide and stared at the three children one by one. His voice was blocked with sadness; he said the ladies of that house were very kind-hearted who showed him mercy and fed him food for one whole week which kept him alive. He said he could not believe that they would send him back without food. Then he raised his voice so that the elders inside the home could also hear. He was sad, but his voice was not meek. The voice came from within his dry and hungered stomach, a deep and echoing sound through the few remaining teeth that had become brown due to chewing betel leaves. He screamed "Amma, amma-oh"!
Again hearing the beggar's voice, Ravi's mother (Rukku Manni) asked Ravi to tell him that there was nothing left in the kitchen. She was tired and irritated; she told him to inform that the beggar should not come again. Ravi did not have to repeat the same to the beggar because he had heard it himself. Everybody under the neem tree - the beggar and the kids heard what Rukku Manni had called out. The beggar sat and exhaled hard with sadness. He said he would go, but he requested to let him sit under the tree for some time. The scorching heat had melted the tar on the road, and he said his feet had got boils due to the heat. He extended his feet out to show them the large, pink-coloured blisters on the soles of his bare feet.
Pink, peeling blisters on the beggar's feet!
The kids saw his feet. Mridu said in a silent tone to Meena and Ravi that maybe he did not have the money to buy chappals. She asked them if they had any old pair at home to give away to the beggar. Ravi said he did not know if there were any slippers at home. He added his slippers were too small to fit the beggar's feet; otherwise, he would have given his slippers. Same with Meena's and Mridu's slippers, they were all kids, and their slippers would not fitan adult size feet.
The beggar prepared to leave the place by tightening up his dhoti (veshti in Tamil). He shook off the dirt from his upper cloth that he removed from the floor and saw the road with fear - it was reflecting the bright sunshine in the afternoon heat. Meena almost cried and said it was not fair and he cannot go with bare feet. Ravi hushed her and said he was already thinking about it. He said, crying "it's not fair" is not going to help their cause. They had two minutes before the beggar went to the road barefooted. Ravi pushed Meena and Mridu into the house, and he said they could search in the house.
When Mridu went inside the verandah, she saw the same strange slippers she had noticed when she arrived.
Mridu noticed the same old worn-out chappals!
She asked Ravi to whom it belonged. Ravi turned around to take a look at the old, ragged slippers but noticed it was strong and solid. He smiled and nodded; he said those were the correct size and picked them up. Mridu and Meena went behind Ravi into the garden tensed. Ravi dropped the slippers in front of the old man and told him to wear those slippers. He also warned him to never to come back. The beggar saw the slippers, he threw his towel over his shoulder, quickly wore the slippers and left the place in a minute. He also said some blessings in a low voice for the children. He was quickly out of sight. He wanted to leave the place quickly, and maybe he feared the elders might find out what the kids had done and take back the slippers, so he disappeared around the corner of the street in a minute.
The music-master finished his violin class with Lalli and came out. He was not happy that his slippers were missing. He saw the three children sitting under the tree and playing without any noise. He felt something was not correct. He searched for his chappals in the place where he had removed them. He called Lalli, and she came there in a few minutes. He asked her kindly if she had seen his chappals as he remembered that he had kept them in that place. Lalli and music-master began to search the whole verandah. He moved quickly, searching the rails, moved the flower pots to search for his chappals.
The master scurried around, crouching near the flower pots to look between them.
Ravi, Meena and Mridu were quietly watching the scene. The music-master grumbled that it was a new pair and that he had to go till Mount Road (a place in Chennai) to buy them; it had cost him a whole month's music tuition fees.
Lalli went inside the house to inform her mom about the music-master's missing chappals. Rukku Manni came outside, looking stressed out. Paati also came along with her; she wondered where they could be. She said it was very disappointing to know that some vendors who come to the door might have stolen them.
Rukku Manni just then saw the children. They were sitting under the tree. Just as she started to ask "Have you children...." she stopped the sentence halfway because they were unusually quiet. She continued slowly and asked if they had seen anyone hiding in the verandah. She suspected that the kids had done something to the chappals. A sharp V-shaped line had formed between her eyebrows, meaning she became angry and strict.
Rukku Manni's eyebrows took a V shape, in anger!The usually soft, good-natured mouth of Rukku Manni had become another straight tight line. Mridu shuddered at the thought that she was angry. Mridu convinced herself that if Rukku Manni knew what they did with the chappals, she wouldn't be very upset. Mridu took a deep inhale and started explaining the truth. She said there had been a beggar there with a lot of boils on his feet. Rukku Manni turned to Ravi and asked him if he gave the chappals to the beggar.
Paati started grumbling that "children these days..." and stopped. She meant to say children these days did things without elders permission, unlike the children of her era, who were obedient and not as mischievous.
Ravi had a reply, and he asked his mom that she had explained about the kind and generous Karna, who had given away everything he had, including his gold earrings. (Karna is a character from the great epic Mahabharat, who was known for his generosity). Rukku Manni replied angrily that Karna had not given away other people's things, he had given his own things only.
Ravi continued rashly to say that he would have given his chappals, but it wouldn't have fit the beggar's feet. He added another question, much to the irritation of his mom - whether she would have minded if he had given his own chappals in case it had fit the beggar.
Rukku Manni choose not to answer the question as she was very angry, she just ordered Ravi to go inside immediately.
Rukku Manni went inside quickly and brought Gopu Mama's (Ravi's father - Mridu's uncle - Mama is a Tamil word for uncle) new chappals that he had worn a few times. She apologized to the music-master that her son had behaved in a naughty way, and said these new chappals should fit him. The music-master became happy, he put on the new chappals but tried to look not very happy. He had got a much better pair of chappals than his own! He said reluctantly maybe it will be enough for him, but he was genuinely happy. He scolded that children of today do not have any respect for elders. He further added that Ravi was a Lord Hanuman incarnate and that only Lord Rama can save him. The references have been made to Hindu gods, Hanuman who depicts a monkey (and monkeys are known for mischievousness); Lord Hanuman is a disciple of Lord Rama, and thus the music-master brought out the connection. Rukku Manni did not like her son being called a monkey, even it was referred to the God's incarnation, and her eyes glared. She stood straight near the front door as if she was showing him the way out to leave quickly.
As soon as the music-master moved away noisily, Rukku Manni called Lalli inside to have some tiffin. She was wondering how these children were even able to think of such things. She was relieved that Gopu Mama did not wear his chappals to work; otherwise, she could not have managed the situation at home that day. She walked into the kitchen with Mridu and Meena, and suddenly she thought of something and laughed. She said Gopu Mama was always in a hurry to change to chappals as soon as he came home. She wondered what their Mama was going to say if he knew that she had given away his chappals to the music-master.
On a deeper thought, though Rukku Manni was angry on Ravi for donating other's things, she had also done the same thing. She had given away Gopu Mama's chappals, which should be decided by Gopu Mama and not her. But her actions seem justified because she had to decide immediately in her situation, to solve the problem at hand. Similarly, Ravi's mistake also seems justified because he had also given away music-master chappals only because he had to decide within the two minutes that he had before the beggar left the place. Hence, both Ravi and his mom Rukku Manni had done similar deeds, and both seem justified.
*Image courtesy: https://sudhagee.com/2017/01/30/stories-in-stone-arjunas-penance-or-descent-of-the-ganga/