[Below is a chapter from my translation of N P Muhammed’s wonderful retelling of folk tales about Malabar’s best-loved folk hero and one of the earliest songsters of the Mappillapattu song tradition of Malabar, Kunhaayan Musaliar. The book, Kunhaayante Kusritikal (Kunhaayan’s Capers), which won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi’s award for the best children’s writing in 1973, is almost forgotten now. In the stories of the Mappila Muslim community of north Kerala, Kunhaayan figures as the quintessential humble-born person who grows in stature through his wit and quick thinking, rising to eminence in royal courts of late 17th- early 18th century Malabar. In these times in which the Mappila traditions of Malabar are clearly under threat, I thought that it was necessary to reclaim this figure for our children and ourselves – and translating NP’s sensitive rendering of the tales, which reverberates with the folk wisdom of the Mappilas of Malabar, seemed the best way to do it. The best thing about Kunhaayan, who impresses all of Malabar, is that he is no saint. Thus he does get puffed up a bit with all the glory, and has to be brought down a peg or two – it is his young wife who fells him, finally. This chapter is about how she does it!]
There was time when she used to brim with joy, proud to be introduced as ‘Kunhaayan’s wife’.
Tears welled up in Aisakutty’s eyes.
Each day, she was drying up, getting brittle, each day. Squirming when women murmured, in kitchen corners, about the husband who hadn’t sent the birthing-cost and the gifts.
Never had she expected this breach of trust. No wonder they say, ‘the beautiful jackfruit isn’t bountiful’. But, well, how loving he used to be once! Two children– and now — how cold he is.
Men, she brooded. Her mother’s warning used to be –‘ men are creatures who hop into mud when they see mud, and into water when they see water’.
Kunhaayan first saw her in his journey from Ponnaani to Talashery. The more he tried to get close, the more she slipped away. That steeled his resolve all the more. Dogged pursuit ended in marriage. Without much fanfare, that is.
Kunhaayan was enamoured of his wife. He never failed to visit her whenever he was home. When their first child was born, he’d sent her the birthing-cost and generous gifts. The baby’s head-shaving ceremony was held with such enthusiasm. But now, it was weeks since the second child arrived. The birthing-cost remained unmet. No one had come to see the infant!
What a man, this! Famous in all the eighteen kingdoms, and in all ten royal houses! The minister of the Raja of Kottayam! What a pity, he didn’t have the sense to meet his wife’s birthing-cost!
Aisakutty’s family tried to cover up the insult, but couldn’t. The neighbours would get to know, wouldn’t they, if someone had come to pay the birthing-cost? The khasi and the mukri of the local mosque, the local folk, all would’ve been invited to a feast, wouldn’t they?
Grandmother complained to Father.
“Everybody’s begun to ask why they haven’t sent Aisakutty’s birthing-cost yet! There’s nothing I can do, except slink back, hanging my head low!”
The person sent over to give news of the birth returned empty-handed. Kunhaayan didn’t give him the customary gifts. Maayankutty Haji had smelt a rat right then!
Wanting to get out of the shame, he decided to send another person to his son-in-law. Just to make another try. He needed to know why Kunhaayan was acting so dour.
Aisakutty waited for news with bated breath. Maybe he’s been ill? But, even then, he wouldn’t have failed to send the birthing-cost!
Well, never mind the birthing-cost; let him be safe.
The man who went in search of Kunhaayan returned only at dusk.
Kunhaayan’s reply was numbing.
“She and I have equal shares in this business. I paid for the first birth. Let her pay for the second!”
Aisakutty was down, but not out.
“Good move,” she told herself, “but not good enough for me.”
Three months went by.
Kunhaayan didn’t turn up. Even to see the baby. Aisakutty set out for her husband’s house with the children.
Maayankutty Haji tried to dissuade his daughter
“He’s a cheat, dear. Don’t go. It’s an even worse loss of face to go over to such a husband’s house.”
“Well, we’ve lost face anyway; there isn’t much left, to lose,” she reminded him. “Dive deep, and it won’t feel cold!”
He yielded before her resolve.
“Don’t linger if he isn’t welcoming,” Grandmother cautioned. “By God’s grace, your father has enough to support you and your children.”
Aisakutty took the older child’s hand. Pathukutty the midwife carried the infant and stepped out after her…
Kunhaayan started. He hadn’t expected Aisakutty and the children to turn up like this.
He stepped out before they reached the front veranda and took the infant from Pathukutty’s arms.
A golden orb!
Kunhaayan covered it with kisses.
He held his older child close, caressing it warmly.
Aisakutty walked straight in. Not even bothering to look at his face.
Kunhaayan’s mother was surprised
“Who, Aisakutty? You’ve come, my dear? Even before we sent someone?”
She continued, “I’ve been very unwell, dear. That’s why I didn’t come over. Just look at me — my legs are swollen, both. Can’t even get into the kitchen.”
She pointed to a girl busy cooking something. “This girl is the one who cooks me something. Kunhaayan is mostly at the Raja’s palace. I keep telling him to bring you and the kids whenever he comes. Oh, he keeps saying yes, but well, you know, he’ll crop up at Ponnaani or Kozhikode.”
Aisakutty listened. So this lady doesn’t know that he hasn’t sent the birthing-cost. She doesn’t know that he hasn’t come to see the infant.
Should she tell her?
No. Why hurt the poor woman?
“I came over because I missed you a lot, mother”, she said. “I have to return today.”
“Do stay on for a few days… where are the children?”
“With their father.”
Aisakutty walked to the veranda.
“The baby’s crying. She wants to be fed.”
Kunhaayan held out the baby to his wife.
“Give her the breast if she’s crying”.
“Who, me?” Kunhaayan grinned.
“Yes, of course.”
Aisakutty took up her umbrella. She picked up her older child and handed it to Pathukutty.
They climbed down the steps of the verandah.
“The baby’s peed on my shirt, see…!”
Kunhaayan held out the baby to her again.
Aisakutty turned around and faced him.
“Oh, really! Well, this is part of the profit that came out of our equal-share business. I took the first instalment. The second one is yours.”
She walked ahead, briskly.
Kunhaayan ran after her.
The baby squealed aloud in his arms.
He came down, he did! Pleaded with her. Entreated. Begged. Aisakutty didn’t budge an inch. She didn’t return. Or take the baby.
I’ll pay up the birthing-cost; I won’t repeat this, ever, please, please, give the baby your breast, make it quiet!
Aisakutty didn’t move. She said, “You’ve to come home with me right now, so that all our local folk can see, you’ve to hand over the birthing-cost to my father and apologize!”
Kunhaayan could only obey.
As he trudged across the Narangaappuram fields with the baby, who had fallen asleep on his shoulder, tired out from bawling, he thought to himself.
“Felled — for the first time in my life. And by a woman!”