Bottles of Moonshine

A short story


The toddy was late today.

It was almost nine, and the late summer sun was beaming down on the shop. Manikuttan stood outside in the heat, with a frown on his face.
This was becoming more and more common. Something like this would have been unimaginable in the old days, when by now the shop would have been reeking of fresh toddy and filled with the sounds of the early morning crowd. Mostly fishermen arriving for their first drink of the day, they would bring with them small bags of dried fish — breakfast to go with the toddy. Except that today a few of his regulars had walked across the main road to Jacob’s shop, and this annoyed him.

He didn’t need this on top of all the things going on in his head. He hadn’t been sleeping properly, and his taut, strong body was betraying a slight lethargy. Everyone around him, including his mother, had attributed it to the summer, which was unusually harsh this year. But only he knew underneath his brown eyes what he was thinking about.

He sighed, and was about to turn back to call Sunil Maman when the lorry came around the bend with a belated roar. At last, he thought, and turned his thoughts outward. Shouting a flurry of instructions to the helper-boys, he tied his mundu above his knees, and ran in to soothe his few waiting customers with the news of their just-arrived salvation.

By noon, the crowd had thinned out. The carpenters, workmen, mechanics, fishermen, union men, had all come and gone. There had been a small altercation with a drunk Bengali labourer, more and more of whom were now flooding the Kerala countryside to construct something or the other. They usually avoided coming to the toddy shops, preferring to down bottles of the cheaper and more potent moonshine, which was illegal and brewed out of town. Manikuttan disliked these short, thin men with haggard faces who chewed some sort of tobacco endlessly and spoke in short, staccato bursts of sound. It had taken him only a few seconds to bodily throw the man out of the shop, after which everyone had unanimously decided to quiet down and mind their own business.

Manikuttan came out of the sweltering shop and lit a bidi.

He decided to take a walk to the pond, to clear his head. He lumbered slowly through the dense heat, letting out misshapen tufts of smoke, and thought about his conversation with Sunil Maman the previous week.

“Manikutta, you have wasted enough time. Everyone is away making money and you are whiling away your time in this God forsaken shop.”

“Why Maman?,” he had asked playfully, trying to sidestep the discussion, “Am I stealing money from our shop that you are saying this?”

This had gotten Sunil Maman angry.

“This isn’t a joke, Kutta. I can get anyone to run the shop. It’s our own anyway. But why waste your time in this village when you can make so much money elsewhere. Look at Gopu and Madhavan, your own sister’s kids. One is in the Gulf and the other in Madras. Both of them keep calling you. Why won’t you go?”

Manikuttan’s famous temper had flared up in response, “I told you I don’t want to follow them. Who will respect me then?”

“Fine,” Maman had said. “Fine. Mathew’s son is in New Zealand. They need men there as well. It’s on an oil refinery of some sort. That wouldn’t be a loss of face for the Maharaja, would it? I thought as much. Now go give this beef to your mother. Yes, yes, it’s fresh. I’ll see what can be done about this New Zealand business.”

Manikuttan’s breath had run cold. He had just nodded, and come away. What could he have said anyway? He was twenty-nine and still unmarried, which was the problem. He had to go work, get married, and send money home. Why? Because it was what everyone did. Besides, Maman’s word was law. After Manikuttan’s maternal grandfather’s death, Maman had taken over the family affairs, even though Manikuttan’s mother was older than Sunil Maman. He had worked hard and prospered. In his success, he had done so much for the village and its families that with time, he had become the unofficial chief of the little community. Maman now had a few shops (including one of only three xerox machines in the district, without which no government business could be transacted), two buses that plied between the villages, and several hectares of land being farmed. He was a kind and generous man; Manikuttan, rebellious as he was, could not refuse to listen to Maman. Maybe a few years ago, when his behaviour would have been laughed at, and dismissed. But not now. He was grown up.

And it wasn’t as if Manikuttan had not been given chances. Maman’s success had meant that Manikuttan had no real necessity to go out and earn for the family. So he had been first sent off to manage the buses, which stopped after Manikuttan had thrashed a local Communist Party member for not buying a ticket. Placed in charge of a shop, he had gotten drunk and given away several thousand rupees worth of rice to pilgrims on their way to Sabarimala. When told to supervise the work in the fields, he had fallen asleep in snake-infested rice paddies, before being found and safely sent home, with strongly worded advice to stay and not come back. After that, Maman had just let him be. Until now.

He had dodged this bullet many times, but even he could not have stalled any more. He knew. It was time. The surface of the pond was calm as Manikuttan started walking back, his face sparkling with beads of sweat.

Later that evening Sunil Maman arrived at the shop in his white Honda scooter, to collect the day’s earnings. Manikuttan dawdled next to their toddy shop, by Ibrahim’s eatery; he knew Maman would call for him. In the little makeshift hotel, plates of omelettes and fried fish and roast beef, all of them burn-your-mouth-spicy in the time honoured toddy shop way, travelled down hungry throats.

“Kuttan?”, came his Maman’s voice, from under the white tube-light that lit their toddy shop’s door.

“Yes, Maman”, he said, and walked over.

“You’ll be leaving in two weeks”, said Maman simply. “Even if you send one-fourth of your salary here, your mother and father can live comfortably.”

“Ok, Maman”, said Manikuttan. He didn’t know what else to say.

“You don’t have to come to the toddy shop anymore. I’ve got Rinto’s son to come and take charge. Enjoy the time at home, and get things ready. I will come home and talk to your mother about it. And yes, get your passport out; I’ll take it when I come. Go, now.”, said Maman, smiling, happy at having engineered this opportunity for his sister’s son. It was a good position, and it paid well. Manikuttan could even be ready for a bride next year, thought Sunil Maman. His nephew might be thirty then, but he was a good looking fellow, though slightly stubborn. Finding a girl wouldn’t be that difficult.

After accounts had been settled and Maman had left with wads of money safely tucked into his underwear pocket, Manikuttan got on his motorcycle and drove through his village in a daze. The day’s heat was gone now; a cool, slow breeze whistled through.

His village went by in a blur, as his motorcycle made its way to the main road. Usually he would take these roads slowly, letting the evening air wash over him, as school kids and government employees returned after the working day. He noted disinterestedly the empty roads today, and remembered the strike, thinking about how familiar the evening seemed. There was a sameness to life here, an enchanting constancy. This seemed to reassure the old and the conservative, people like his uncle, that in whichever way modernity chose to intrude upon Kerala, it would retain its character, like a time capsule. Manikuttan would have dwelled upon that thought for some more time, but his destination had arrived.

He stopped the motorcycle at the Indraprastha hotel, or the IP, as the locals called it, the only ‘English liquor’ shop for miles. He went in, ordered and poured himself a generous helping of brandy, and sent it down in one go. He looked at his watch and asked for another round. He didn’t eat anything. He just sat there underneath a weathered, fraying poster of Lenin, and drank. And then he drank some more. He looked around the room, at big men drinking quietly and little men drinking loudly, at old men washing down years of hard work with whisky and young men anticipating the decades ahead with beer.

It was late when he stood up, his legs flailing slightly as he gave the old bearer a tip, evoking a toothless grin. His motorcycle started with a loud roar, drowning out the crickets’ din. The silent countryside flashed a brilliant green where the headlights hit them, and Manikuttan started singing. He sang an old Malayalam song about his land and his people and his coconut groves and his boats and his fish fry. He sang loudly. He sang from his heart. He sang with the carefreeness that only the truly drunk and the completely oblivious are capable of. He sang his song right through to his village.

On the last turn, a few hundred metres away from his nearest neighbours, he abruptly stopped both his singing and his motorcycle. He got down and pushed it slowly, avoiding the dried leaves on the side of the road. He parked the bike a few feet from his house, and walked around to the backyard. He stood there and looked back at his house for a few seconds, before stepping past the old well, and sitting down on its other side.

Her eyes looked into his, and her hair, dark as charcoal, fell in curls and melted into the blackness around her. He, as always, was dumbstruck. She gave him the aluminium bowl, and taking it without a word, he started eating. He wasn’t strong enough to look her in the face.

“When are you leaving?,” she asked, slowly, almost reluctantly. The pain in Manikuttan’s chest grew deeper.

“A month,” he lied.

Her eyes turned to the ground. She thought for a minute, and, in a voice that broke Manikuttan’s heart, asked him the question he hadn’t dared ask himself.

“What will become of us?”

Manikuttan was silent for a while, and then he looked up at the sky.

“I don’t know”, he said finally.

There were milky white clouds scattered in the moonlit sky, he saw, the unmistakable colour of toddy.


Notes

I first came up with a draft of this after a visit to a village called Pavumba in the Kayamkulam district of Kerala, where a close friend’s family is from. Most of these characters are real, as flesh and bone as you and I are, but their actions are wholly imaginary. The biggest struggle I had with this story was how to end it. I needed an emotional attachment, something that wanted to keep Manikuttan here, and I wanted to nest that in a setting of loneliness and nostalgia. I know that the girl as a metaphor is a fairly obvious ploy; apologies for that. Kerala is famous for sending its sons and daughters abroad, and I wanted to explore what the sons felt when the time came for them to go. It’s a deeply felt story, as much about the place in which it is set as it is about the people that inhabit it.