Taming of the Tough
The train stopped at THANJAVUR with the puff of a marathoner having travelled all the way from RAMESWARAM. The emission of charcoal powder mixed fumes was irritating and also made the vision blurred.
It was but natural as it was drawn by a steam engine and the story relates to pre-independence days. Advocate Srinivasa Iyer entered the 1st class compartment with a few pieces of luggage ably assisted by the porter.
There were a lot of empty seats for occupation as very few only could afford the luxury of that class in those days. Actually that created him the problem of selecting the best. At last, he made the choice of that seat with good ventilation and more moving space.
He missed taking notice of the 2 luggage that was above the opposite seat. In a few moments came a BRITISHER making it clear that our friend was destined to travel with him for the rest of the journey. He was fully aware that co-traveller won’t be a worthy companion and may also create problems.
However, he was reluctant to move away to another seat out of his in-built stubbornness and confidence. His glance over IYER was not encouraging and receptive.
To put it straight his body language and postures were radiating animosity with hatred. Indirectly he was expressing his anger for the audacity of Mr Iyer not moving somewhere else. Mr Srinivasa Iyer was a leading criminal lawyer of KUMBAKONAM having his jurisdiction spread throughout the state of MADRAS.
At present his assignment was to attend a tricky criminal case at MADRAS and also to avail that trip to visit his daughter’s family. Mr Iyer (50+ ages) was well dressed as per the standard of a wealthy educated Brahmin of those days.
To start with his turban was well folded with golden border. His forehead adorned by three stripes of VIBUTHI and at the centre was kumkum laid over sandal paste. He was wearing golden framed glasses and through them, his pair of eyes was generating hidden smile and mischief all the time.
Slight dimple was visible over the well-shaven cheeks and the fair colour of the skin was paying compliments for his intellectual look. His nose was prominent and sharp, typical of quick wit and sharp reaction. He was wearing a brown coloured coat with high neck and white full hand shirt inside.
Occasionally the golden couplets of the shirt were inviting the attention. Every now and then he was drawing the pocket watch with the chain to confirm whether the train was running as per schedule.
He was wearing his Dhoti in Panchakachcham style with remarkable symmetry on both sides. The texture was very nice which they used to call as MULL veshti and it was also sparkling white. But again there was one flaw in this gentleman.
He was picking his silvery tiny box frequently and inhaling a pinch of snuff and at those moments his face was red communicating his pleasure in no uncertain terms.
The British man must be in his 40s fully dressed in a coat, suit and tie and also well-polished shoes. He had however removed his shoes and wearing only socks. It is a different thing that not only his socks but also suit was giving out pungent odour as it was the month of March and they are no match to south Indians in cleanliness.
Mr.Iyer ignored him and made himself busy with the papers of the case he had to attend on the next day. The BRITISH could not tolerate the indifference of Iyer as he was denied the chance of snubbing him.
On his part, he took out a British journal and pretended to read. He was however focused on Mr Iyer and his activities. Just to irritate him he took out his cigar and started puffing until the entire compartment was filled with the smell of burnt tobacco.
Even in those days, smoking was strictly prohibited inside the train which was violated all the time only by the whites. Mr Iyer understood the intentions of his companion and after a long thought, on the pretence of going to the toilet, he crossed his seat and liberally sprinkled and also emptied a box of snuff in his direction without being noticed.
On his return from the toilet, he glanced at the white man and much to his relish was seeing him rubbing his eyes at great pain and irritation and that fool couldn’t even guess from where it could have come from.
The cold wars were being played between them at so many instances in those few hours and let us describe the last one only which I am sure the readers would relish.
The British took out a shining Australian apple from his bag and with his pocket knife made it into pieces and started gobbling with the calculated intention of insulting Mr.Iyer as the elementary courtesy demands offering to the only co-traveller.
Over and above these acts he was teasingly fixing his eyes on Mr Iyer suggesting that he was not considering him as a human being at all. Iyer was the last person to be humiliated by anybody and least of all by a British.
His fertile brain was working at a brisk pace to reciprocate in a more violent manner that he won’t forget it to the rest of his life. In his bag, he was carrying a few kilos of Karunaikizhangu – a variety of root grown under the soil.
He had specially taken it from his vegetable garden to be cooked and enjoyed by his daughter at MAMBALAM of MADRAS. It is a highly nutritive vegetable-root available only at Thanjavur district having medicinal qualities and also widely used in AYURVEDIC preparations.
It is having thick black skin with the mud of the soil to be removed carefully and elaborately treated with washing and processing before making it palatable. But once it is cooked the taste is matchless and anybody will take more than one helping.
Any mistake in processing will be disastrous in taste with permanent itching in the mouth up to the throat and beyond that. We can as well imagine the condition of a person taking it raw. Iyer selected one nice piece and started peeling off the skin very carefully with all fondness of skinning off a MALGOVA MANGO.
The British were amazed by the rosy colour of the strange edible once the skin was removed. He was wondering what it could be. Having treated Iyer shabbily all along his self-respect prevented him to quench his curiosity.
Mr Iyer had timed his operation of KARUNAIKIZHANGU so well that it would be completed just when he is getting down at MAMBALAM railway station- one station short of EGMORE station where the BRITISH was bound for.
Iyer made it into tiny pieces- all the time covering his hand with a handkerchief to avoid itching.
Perhaps our white mistook it for cleanliness. Mr Iyer collected them in clean paper and just when the train was slowing down gave signs of throwing some of the pieces into his mouth- but withdrew his hand suggesting that there was no time to take as the station had already approached.
While the porter was carrying his luggage, Mr Iyer for the first and last time talked to the British offering those tempting rosy pieces claiming as there was no time for him requesting him to taste that rare fruit. Naturally, the white refused the offer with contempt and pretended his disinterest.
But Iyer was damn sure that idiot would try his hand on them once he was out of sight permanently. Iyer waited stealthily outside and was observing his movements.
The British sheepishly looked around and greedily threw not one but 2 to 3 pieces at a time while Iyer was gleefully looking the plight of him. I need not describe the torture suffered by the white with his eyes continuously in tears and the extreme irritation in his food canal system that was a tell-tale story from the expressions of his face.
He was rushing to the gate and shouting at Mr Iyer with all filthy language and this time Iyer came out from his hiding in full view to the British causing uncontrollable rage for him. But the train had already picked up its speed Unmindful of the suffering of one of its passengers.
Contributing Writer: J. PANCHAPAGESAN is a Chennai based DSP (RETD).
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