Mallaiah

For years there was an unclaimed site next to our house. This used to be the source of some anxiety to us as miscreants would try to enter our house through the fence that divided our property and the vacant site.

One fine day, or rather night, a person who had bought the property, had trees planted in the site, thus wanting to give the impression that he had bought the site a long time back. Apparently this was done to cover up some hanky panky business. To look after the plants and to act as caretaker, he employed a man from his village.

Mallaiah, the caretaker, was a typical "villager". Many of his ways were rather annoying. He would talk at the top of his voice to address a person who was a few inches away from him. he would get into loud quarrels over the least provocation. Being fond of dogs, Mallaiah adopted a couple of street mongrels who were very faithful to him. This meant waking up to loud barks in the wee hours of the morning when the mongrels were apparently protecting their area from unwanted visitors such as rodents, cows, or even passers by.

Over the next few weeks we noticed the plants were doing very well under Mallaiah's care. Not only that, he had also taken the initiative to plant some others, such a banana, lemon, chilly and beans. At times we heard him talking aloud when no one else was in sight. So from our bedroom window, my husband and I kept vigil.. To our surprise, Mallaiah's audience was his darling plants! He was literally speaking to them, cajoling them to grow well. No wonder they flourished. Sometimes he would break into a song and dance when he thought no one was watching. He would sing in a Kannada dialect which was more difficult to understand than his normal speech, which by itself was not clear due to the speed with which he spoke as well as the dialect and the vocabulary which was not what is used here.

My husband and I got talking to him and soon established a bond with him. We too had many plants on our terrace. Mallaiah gifted us a lemon plant that yielded several lemons each season. He would come up and gently hold the leaves in his hand. He had no qualms about asking personal questions such as how much my salary was or how long I could continue to work and so on. But one could not get angry with him. He seemed so much a part of nature, just like the trees or the birds or the rivers. Our neighbours silently wondered what we had in common with this simple villager who seemed so uncouth. Yet, being the "polite" urbanites, they refrained from this clarifying with us, although their disapproval of our taste was clearly writ upon their faces.

Once, my husband, who is fond of experimenting with cooking, requested Mallaiah for a banana leaf. He immediately became very serious, as if he had been asked for a loan of a thousand rupees! Yet how could he refuse us, his good friends? We could see the conflict in his mind. He examined each and every leaf that was at the base of the plant. He chose one small one that was becoming yellow and cut it for us. We felt privileged!

Soon the time came for us to leave that house and look for another one. No one seemed more upset than Mallaiah. He could not understand the logic of selling the house to someone and moving away to another area. Referring to the purchaser, he kept urging us to "tell that man to go away". Shaking his head with disapproval, Mallaiah would say, "How unfair..... taking over you nice house and driving you away!"

All along I had been persuading Mallaiah to sing for us. He was a very shy person and would somehow avoid this. I finally managed to coax him to come home and sit down for a chat. In the course of conversation, I asked him how he had learnt to sing and he described how he would spend the evenings watching plays of which the songs were a part and parcel. He then burst into singing, once in a while mimicking the characters of the mythological plays complete with verbatim dialogues. Having kept the system ready, I recorded his voice. I was happy.

At last we left the house bidding goodbye to everyone. We promised Mallaiah we would show him our new house. Unfortunately, in place of the site is now a number of apartments and he has gone somewhere else. We are still making enquiries about his whereabouts. In the meanwhile we sometimes listen to the rustic tunes sung by that simple man.

---- Shobha Rani

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