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Insignificant Man

Niranjana Hariharanandanan 

It was the summer of 1998 – the hottest one in the last few years of northern Kerala, and I remembered it vividly by the dozens of extra mangoes that were heaped on the porch of Valliama’s ancestral house.  

We called her Valliama or greataunt. She was a pudgy woman who always dressed immaculately in neatly pleated saris, with distinctive fine facial fuzz that bristled with anger when our muddy paws trailed across her red peroxide flooring or one of us snuck our fish  under a mound of rice. She was a stern woman and the matriarch of the family, but her heart was always open to us kids through  the year. Memories of Valliama were reserved for our summer vacations. With the first hint of the mango ripening by the eastern verandah, all of us maternal  cousins would flock from different parts of the country to her ancestral house – our tharavadu. This is where the story begins.

The leaves on the jackfruit tree by the garden wall burnt a deep amber, and we could smell the intoxicating scent of jackfruits and ripening mangoes when we traipsed outside for long, afternoon games of hide and seek. By the end of summer, Valliama would gather the ladies in the house for the famous family  pickling of jackfruit preserves or chakkavaratti 

Summer was when Valliama kept the family cool with glasses of spiced buttermilk; when the rumble of the old wooden fan offered constant background music to whispered afternoon gossip. A summer of scorching afternoons, where the older men of the family spent many long afternoons, snoozing on the tiled porch, mouths agape. But one of them didn’t and that was Valliachan or my great uncle. This scrawny unassuming man with his deep chuckle and reticence did not sleep during afternoons. Instead, hsat on the porch, his bony legs hardly touching the ground, a blue faux leather diary in hand and a supply of bespoke ink pens lined up beside him. He spent the better part of the afternoon writing away solemnly, his puffy grey brows furrowed in concentration – a common enough sight to most of the family, but one that caught my child’s eyes 

Valliachan was the actual head of the family, considering my greatgrandfather had passed away when we were toddlers. Traditional Malayalee houses in the nineties looked up to their kudumbhanathan or head of the family to make decisions- even the most insignificant ones like what vegetables to source from the local markets or the auspicious  time to schedule monthly temple visits. But my greatuncle wasn’t like that. He didn’t fancy himself standing tall above my aunts and uncles, thundering at the workers to do their job. Neither did he tell the women what to cook. He sat  awkwardly in the spot allotted to him at the head of the table, head held low as he chewed his way through his insipid rice without ghee, or dal and a side of coconut sauteed cabbage,his favorite vegetable. He loved cabbage and asked for it almost every other day; my aunt grudgingly obliged- sometimes frying it with shallots, coconut and spices,  or just boiling them in salty water when she didn’t have the time. Valliachan never complained; he was happy just at the sight of the bright shards of yellow vegetables mounted high on his plate. Then, he retired to his usual place by the porch, muttering  poetry under his breath, blue diary tucked under his  armpit.  

Valliachan spent a considerable amount of time, sucking in his teeth, writing long diary entries meticulously. No one knew what he wrote considering nothing significant happened during his days, except for the occasional walk to the milkman’s house or relatives dropping in to invite the family for housewarmings or weddings. He had no friends with whom he could go on long evening strolls, who sat about the verandah eating paan and swapping stories. So, it was a matter of curiosity to me what this 70-year-old man wrote about, page after page in his blue diary. When asked, he smiled secretively at my indulgent inquisitiveness and proudly murmured that he’d been keeping a diary since 1970!  

“That’s a lot of diaries, isn’t it? Where can I find them?” 

“Oh, I make it a point to burn them in the back yard every 31st  December– no, I wouldn’t want anyone reading them.” A vehement nod of the head followed. 

The curiosity of what this insignificant man wrote in his diary drove me into a frenzy. This combined with the fact that my other cousins were much older than me and of late  spent the summery afternoons whispering to each other rather than playing rough and tumblemade me long for a new ally. Valliachan seemed a potential candidate, and the added temptation of peeking into the blue diary and uncovering “secrets” made me wait no further. I resolved to spend my days tailing him around the house, to win over his friendship – who knowsPerhaps one day he would bend his head over, hook pinkies with me and show me his secret diary, just like Anjali, my best friend back in school, had!  

And so, began an implausible friendship. Valliachan, a perpetually wary person who didn’t initially fancy the inquisitive eagerness of a nine-year-old confidante, eventually relented soft-soaped on the inside, he acknowledged that he was finally the object of someone’s awe and interest. So began our morning ritual:. I sat by his side, slurping Bournvita, eyeing him as he sat at the farthest corner of our living room,a glass of milky coffee in hand. Once seated, he opened the newspaper to the obituary section. It was always this page that caught his fancy. Whether India won a game of cricket against Pakistan or a space shuttle scaled the moon, Valliachan’s eyes were glued to the grainy black and white pictures of morose looking people. He scoured them meticulously once, twice, and then a third time as he sipped the last dregs of his coffee, a smile playing on his lips.  

“But why, do you know these people? They all look so solemn. Didn’t anyone click them smiling?”  

“No,” the mildly irritated mutter, “They are gone, and it is the custom that the picture be of this kind.”  

 “Who made the ‘custom’?  Do you know any of them?” 

 “Who knows, I might have. I’ve seen many of my classmates’ pictures here over the past 10 years! There was Seetha and Manu and Ramankutty and even my dear friend Mohanan, last month.”  

 (A little awestruck that Valliachan went to school too!) 

 “Does that make you sad?” 

 “Well, no… no.” 

 “Then why do you look at it?” 

No answer, just the rustle of the newspaper as Valliachan folds the pages neatly over, and looks at me with a smile.  

Now who wants to listen to some riddles? 

Whether I liked listening to those riddles or not, Valliachan would start on them, sometimes messing them up, recycling ones he’d already told me, or making up puerile ones on the go! Hwas a repository of jokes and riddles and had a few tricks up his sleeve, which he revealed over time as our camaraderie ripened like the mangoes heaped in our kitchen. We’d spend late mornings by the porch overlooking the pond, me carrying my coloring book in case things got too dreary – and Valliachan with a pack of matches, some sticks and a notepad where he tried his riddles and tricks on me. The coloring book was never opened as I sat squealing with laughter while he walked me through jokes or dared me to answer tests he set for me.  

“Who told you these riddles?”  I’d probe. 

Well, it was a professor who used to teach him mathematics in secondary school. Was it secondary, or high school? He doesn’t quite remember. But he remembers other things. the professor was a witty man, just a few years older than them. He knew all these tricks and he’d spend lunchtime showing the boys how to do them. He even knew how to mimic the voices of popular Malayalam and Tamil actors. See, this was how he did it” a poor rendition followed, and I laughed glibly, not really finding it funny since I had no context to who these people were, the actor or the professor for that matter.  

Context or not,” Mashu became a permanent character in most of our chatter. Mashu allegedly was a jack of all trades; he was a poet who could compose verses off the top of his head; some that Valliachan recited were from those sonnets. He could sing ghazals better than the most popular singers on radio, or reality shows, and Valliachan would sneer at the contestants on television and look meaningfully at me, as though both of us knew who the better singer was.  

Mashu was seemingly a good cook too. Valliachan raved on and on about the tamarind chutneys, coconut curries and cabbage pickles he used to make. He remembered their texture to the minutest detailmemories seared into his palette of long afternoons after school watching Mashu cook spiced fish curry and tapioca. But he’d stopped eating spices, hadn’t he? I’d known Valliachan all of nine years, and his staples now consisted of dosa with a drizzle of weak chutneys, and rice, curds or the favoured cabbage.  

“Oh, it was a harsh case of ulcers. It had to stop anyway, someday,” a downturned glance, a furrow of the brow, the grinding of the denturesLet’s look at some more riddles?”  

My nine-year-old mind equated Valliachan’s increasingly bland taste in food with his relationships with the family members, mainly Valliama. In hindsight, it was hard to tell that they were married – that these two contrasting people had once found joy in each other  or maybe not. Relationships back in Valliachan’s time probably did not believe in compatibility more so than they did in convenience. As long as he received his 11 O clock coffee by the porch and the side of cabbage for his afternoon meal, and she got her way in the kitchen, their relationship was pretty much a tuneless rhyme of monosyllabic mumbles, suppressed sighs of frustration and perhaps regret. All I knew was that fuzzy memories of his childhood professor from fifty years back brought more of a sparkle to Valliachan’s eyes than the sight of his wife bearing a bowl of  sauteed cabbage.  

The riddles continued as did the long summer afternoons under the jackfruit tree as Valliachan wrote away in his diary or pored over newspapers, but my nine-year-old mind did fathom that there was more to Valliachan than what met the eye. All I knew was that under the staid 70-yearold, who stuck to his diary entries and memorized poetry, was a solitary man who struggled with social disquiet.  

He wore firm blinkers that he set for himself; for instance, he didn’t appreciate a woman or child – an” inferior being to the lofty Malayalee man — interrupting his conversations. His amicable face crumpled in distaste at the sound of my sister’s anklets when she walked the corridors. He despised it if Valliama made an occasional omelet on a Saturday the day of purity that meant serving only vegetarian fare in Malayalee houses back then. His lips would fade into a thin line, and he’d disappear behind the foliage with his treasured pack of cigarettes in a cloud of smoke. Smoking was his only vice, sometimes two or three packs a day. A stealthy affair that caught only Valliama’s and now my keen eyes.  

Maybe if I been older and nosier, I could’ve probed him more on his childhood. Did he have friends? It seemed odd that all of his friends had died or skipped town. If he cared so much for them to go to the lengths of checking the obituary, why didn’t he meet them, considering he lived in the same village all of his 70 years? Did he have a long-lost girlfriend, who had betrayed him? Did this deep-rooted disdain towards women stem from that, or was it him upholding the family tradition  of the male Malayalee privilege? I didn’t know. I was nine that summer and all I cared about back then was that there were enough mangoes to last till my visit ended and that Valliachan would eventually give me the blue diary and some secrets to go with it 

Summer was coming to end, and we kids were reluctantly planning on packing our suitcases to head back to the city. Valliama went easy on us and let us snack on the fragrant jackfruit sweets she’d prepared over the last month, while we spent afternoons watching rented superhero movies.  

The first splatter of the summer showers arrived during our last week in the village. Valliama scurried around rubbing our locks dry, and passing around brass cups of spiced tomato and lentils to ward off the sniffles. The coconut groves smelt of wet earth and promise, and Valliachan instructed the gardener to cut off banana stems we could use as umbrellas as we scurried in and out of the house.  

The sweltering month of summer also spelled the onset of mandatory power cuts or load shedding in Kerala those days. Valliama ensured the kids were in a tight-knit huddle during this dreaded 30-minute patch, keeping us busy with games of monopoly or carrom.  

One such night, I watched, whilst munching on a mouthful of sticky sweet pudding, Valliachan sitting at his usual corner with a lantern by his side, poring over his diary, a smile playing on his lips. I crept up behind him, and he snapped it shut, laughing at my sneakiness.  

“What do you write in thisNothing happens in your day, does it? You don’t even watch movies with us, which you can write about… or do you have a secret friend you converse with when we’ve gone to bed?”  

A chuckle. “Yes, you are my secret friend, right, Ammu?” 

A beaming round face, and a tiny chest puffed up with pride.  

“But won’t you be lonely once I go back to the city?” 

“Why should I? I have 70 years of memories to live with. Mashu used to say that we don’t need the actual person in our lives to feel their presenceThere are other ways to stay connected.   

“Like phone? You don’t even own a phone!” 

“No…” a pause. “Sometimes, you cannot be with some people in the conventional way because your forefathers do not allow it. So, we respect our elders, do the right thing and come up with other ways to stay connected.”  

The nine -year- old in me is puzzled 

“But you can always call me in the city. I’m sure Valliama would allow it.”  

Valliachan chuckles and ruffles my hair. 

“I wasn’t talking about you… well, I will not call. But we will stay in touch. Here, take this ink pen. It was the one Mashu gifted me when I passed my tenth standard. I want you to start practicing writing with ink pens now. Enough of those pencils.” My chubby, awestruck hands examine the pen and fiddle with the nib.  

“Now don’t break it, keep it safe and do your sums using this. And maybe occasionally, you can write me a letter.”  

“I’ll write to you every day, Valliachan” 

In the shifting light of the lantern, the beady eyes furrowed by bushy brows have melted into pools of black, and Valliachan kept dabbing at them.  

 “That’s what we all say, Ammu, but we forget. Only those who have everything to lose, remember.”  

I have suddenly realized that my hands are making interesting puppet shapes in the spool of light on the wall.  

“Look, Valliachan, I’ve made a deer head! Can you do this? 

The last day of summer dawned stormy and grey, and we were forbidden to go outdoors. I woke up early to the sound of the raindrops falling on the tiled roofs and sat sleepily beside Valliachan, toying with my new prized possession as he waited for his morning paper and his caffeine fix. He seemed in good spirits and promised to buy me a bottle of purple ink to go with my new pen — if the rains ceased by afternoon.  

The papers came in and Valliachan opened them, sifting straight to the obituary section. I perched on his armchair, eager to see the faces of his dead acquaintances. A surprisingly large number had come up over the summer. A few pages rustled as Valliama brought over the coffee cup.  

They were out of milk and would need a few packets more. Would he request the gardener to head over to the milkman?  

There was silence as Valliachan’s eyes stayed glued to the paper, at a picture of a grainylooking man on the bottom right corner of the picture tile.  

Valliama clicks her tongue irritably and bustles away. 

A few moments have passed and creamy froth form on Valliachan’s now cold cup. I flick at it with my pinkie and lift it under Valliachan’s nose to get his attention.  

He smiles at me vacantly, as I follow his gaze to the photo. 

Is this your friend, Valliachan? 

No, and a long pause.  He’s staring at the photo so intently. The man in it isn’t smiling as per Valliachan’s “custom”; he’s got puffy hair on either side of his forehead and a pouty mouth. Nothing significant about him. Just another old man who has become momentarily famous by dying.  

Valliachan seems to have lost the trail of thought, and the vision of Valliama bottling pickled amlas for us to take back to the city has got my interest.  

I don’t see Valliachan for most of that day; he stuck to his chair, sitting pensively watching the raindrops fall. At lunch when Valliama brought out a bowl of grated sautéed cabbage to go with his rice and lentils, Valliachan pushed it aside, almost vehemently. Eyes downcast, focusing on his rice, a fervent shake of his head.  

Valliama inwardly muttered a sigh of relief. She hated cooking that vegetable for almost half of her life.  

That afternoon, while I played hopscotch on the porch of the house, for the first time in my nine years, I saw Valliachan retire indoors for a nap. His blue diary and a rack of pens lie neatly by the side of his chair, forgotten. I rush up to it, finally excited that I could pry into his cherished secret. I open a page at whim and discover, in neatly scrawled Malayalam, words of longing and belonging – for summery afternoons behind the school wall, of the taste of cabbage that still lingered, for lyrics of the poetry that seemed unforgettable and the sound of melodies that rung in the ears deep into the nights . My young self couldn’t fathom the meaning behind those words. But I was sure of one thing; I knew Valliachan would never write a diary entry after today.  

I don’t remember much of that day from that summer, except that the rains came down heavily, and Valliachan took to his bed and his promise of buying me the ink remained what it was – just a promise. I left the village, and our summer was forgotten just like the last bunch of mangoes that had disappeared from Valliama’s kitchen.  


Niranjana Hariharanandanan is a writer/ documentary filmmaker and works as Executive Producer with Discovery Networks Asia Pacific. When she’s not working on a piece of fiction or on a documentary film, she’s traveling back and forth to run her heritage homestay in Cochin, Kerala. Niranjana is a scuba diving enthusiast, a Murakami maniac and loves all things Japanese.  Her work has been published by Indulge, The Book Smugglers Den and The Punch Magazine. She is an alumnus of the Dum Pukht writers workshop and is working on her first novel.