By Joji Jacob
Karuppa heard not a word of what the landlord was screaming at him. He merely stood on the sand-filled courtyard, wringing his hands and looking up at the landlord dancing with rage in his armchair on the raised verandah. Karuppa stared at the landlord's mouth with fascination as it gaped open, then shut, and then open again. Two silver teeth gleamed dully between the uneven rows of yellow ones. His tongue, stained red with betel leaf, leaped in and out like an animal wounded in its own lair and thrashing about in its own blood. The landlord's thick black hair was shiny with coconut oil and slicked back over his scalp. Karuppa saw the heavy gold chain, the spotless white kurta and mundu stiff with starch. He marveled at how the smooth ebony skin ended abruptly in chalky white at the soles of the landlord's feet.
QLRS Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005
Behind the teak armchair white curtains swayed in the sea breeze. The red oxide floor was polished to a shine.
The stick that the landlord flung caught him unawares and with such force that he staggered and fell to the ground. He supported himself with one arm and with the other reached for his forehead. He looked at the warm blood on his fingertips with wonder.
"Son of a whore, did you listen to at least one word of what I said?"
As Karuppa tried to stand up, the mundu at his waist came loose. He grabbed for the strip of cotton cloth with both his hands and left bloodstains on it. Blood dripped from his forehead into the white sand of the courtyard where it quickly dried and turned brown.
The cronies gathered around the landlord's verandah shuffled and looked at each other. Somebody cleared his throat. They didn't want any trouble with the police. They were here simply to while the time away, to stay in the uncertain circle of the rich and powerful man's goodwill, to help themselves to betel nuts and the cups of tea that appeared at regular intervals from the kitchen.
The landlord stared at Karuppa to ascertain if he had gone too far, if the blow had been lethal. But Karuppa seemed to steady himself. He dabbed gingerly at his forehead with one end of his mundu.
When the landlord spoke again, his voice was full of hurt.
"Every body knows that I'm a reasonable man", he reminded the gathering, "But I am not a charitable institution. I am not Mother Teresa."
He paused and beamed. The spongers tittered.
One of them wiped the blood off the stick and handed it back to the landlord, holding it aloft with both hands.
The landlord pointed the end of the stick at Karuppa and continued.
"Now this man, he borrowed twenty thousand rupees from me."
The cronies scowled at Karuppa.
"That was four years ago. And think of inflation; today that same amount is worth at least one lakh rupees."
Nobody was sure how inflation really worked but they knew that the landlord spent two thousand rupees on betel nuts and leaves each month.
"All I'm asking for is fairness and justice." The landlord stretched back in the armchair and clasped his hands behind his head.
He looked at the thin dark man standing in front of him. Blood was beginning to cake on Karuppa's forehead. His eyes were downcast and his toes drew patterns in the sand.
"Look Karuppa, you are a good man. But you are obstinate. You refuse to see things from my perspective also."
Karuppa looked at the landlord.
The landlord was now talking to the crowd.
"I don't have the time or the patience to run behind people collecting the money that is owed to me. I'm finished with lending money to help people out. Karuppa had promised to return the money in three years. And we are now in the fourth year. I want the money back. I have things to do with it. And with all of you as witnesses, I give him a full week to repay me."
The men paused in the midst of their drinking and chewing. Even if Karuppa were to sell both his kidneys to the first Arab sheikh and his soul to the devil, there was no way he could raise that amount in a week. Indeed, there was no way he could raise that amount even if he had the rest of his life.
"Otherwise.," The landlord paused for effect. "Otherwise Kuruppa leaves me with no option but to take possession of his land which is already pledged to me. A week, that is all. After that I will listen to no more pleas for leniency."
With that he lay back on the chair, crossed his feet over its long arms, and stretched out his hand for a betel leaf and nuts. Karuppa had been dismissed.
That night an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a tsunami that threw up 40 meter-high waves. The tsunami spread in gigantic pulses from its epicenter on the coast of Indonesia to Thailand, Sri Lanka, Southern India and as far away as the Somalian coast in Africa. In a matter of hours, thousands of coastal towns and villages were flattened. Many small islands disappeared altogether. The physical map of Asia was altered. Millions lost all they possessed. Over 150,000 people were killed.
The landlord had been fast asleep when a mountain of cold salt water descended on him. He was thrown against the wall of his bedroom. When the wall crumbled like cardboard, he was swept away into the pitch darkness. As he gasped for breath and flailed his arms underwater, several objects crashed into him. Many things in his body broke: ribs, fingers, bones, teeth. Just when he thought that his heart would explode, the landlord was wrenched to the surface. Breathing deep painful gasps of air, he sobbed with fright. In the inky darkness, he saw with the corner of his eyes a huge white object floating towards him with great speed. He turned around in the water and looked at an Ambassador weaving and careening in on him rapidly. The last thing that crossed his mind was that the thought that he recognized the number. TN6001. The car belonged to Valliappan, the Police Inspector.
When he came to, the landlord found himself hanging, wet and limp like a kitchen rag, on the crown of a coconut tree. He clung to the trunk of the tree and lowered himself down. Everything hurt.
All around him, as far as he could see, was a wasteland of debris. Bricks, trees, furniture, billboards, refrigerators, sheet metal, tiled roofs, cars, electric poles, all lay together in a jumbled mess for kilometers. All that was left standing were a wall of the village temple and the lone coconut tree that had saved his life. The hospital, the court, the magistrate's office, the police station, his own house, his shops, the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, everything was razed to the ground.
It was when he saw the first dead body, the ration shopkeeper's corpse already turning blue under the fallen tree trunk that he started to run in the approximate direction of where his house must have been. With the first step he stumbled and fell. He howled as sharp pain shot through his leg and he realized that it was broken. He willed himself to get up and hobbled over the debris.
"Lakshmi.Kanna.Lakshmi.Kanna." He called to his wife and child.
He ran in random circles. He fell, got up again, shouted, wailed, fell again. Finally he simply sat down and sobbed.
There was vast and complete silence. Only the sea murmured, low and menacing.
As the landlord glared at the sea, a solitary figure appeared on the horizon. The man was walking slowly, hands clasped behind his back and head resting on his chest, as if he was simply on an early morning beachside stroll.
The landlord limped towards him with out-stretched arms.
"Karuppa, O my God, Karuppa, you are alive."
Breathless, with tears streaming down his face, the landlord stopped in front of Karuppa.
"There are just two of us. Everything else is wiped out, Karuppa. We are finished. What will become of us now?" He beat his chest.
Karuppa looked at the man for a long instant. Then, he continued to walk. The landlord hesitated for a moment and then fell in place behind Karuppa, his limp broken leg leaving a trail in the sand.