Palamalai, an idyllic village in Coimbatore province, was the first Panchayat to get conditional autonomy during the British rule. A clandestine meeting with the Chief Minister of the Madras Presidency by Nattamai Ponnusamy facilitated this administrative change. Surprisingly, the villagers felt a sense of independence despite having to shell out a quarter of their produce to the Presidency.
Panchayat meetings were conducted under the huge banyan tree opposite to the Amman temple. The Nattamai served as the chief lawmaker whose books prescribed harsh sentences for crimes that would be implemented swiftly, with no right to appeal. Whatever that was uttered by Nattamai, was the law unto itself. Dissent garnered maximum punishment.
As fate would have it, Ponnusamy succumbed to a bout of chicken pox. Muthuswamy, Ponnuswamy’s son took over as the new Nattamai. Educated in Political science and influenced by his bible Das Kapital, Muthusamy had ideologies that were opposite to his father’s autocratic methods of governance.
He realized he could use his power to bring social changes in his village. He built a primary school for the children of his village and abolished bonded labour. Despite stiff opposition from the elite class, he implemented many other social reforms too. Nattamai became the saviour for the poor who worshipped him.
Muthusamy was married to his cousin, Saraswathi. As much as the villagers revered Nattamai, they hated Saraswathi.
Saraswathi had lived a life of a pampered princess with a boorish attitude. Brought up in a house where the servants were treated as slaves, she found Nattamai’s socialist reforms a threat to their autocracy. She had an acid tongue and feared no one, even her power wielding husband. The villagers hated her and felt sorry for their beloved Nattami, for not only was he married to a shrew but also a barren one at that.
One day, Nattamai woke up to a bad news brought in by the healer of the village.
“Nattamai, kindly give me permission to assemble the Panchayat tomorrow”.
“Why, what has happened”, Muthusamy asked.
The healer spoke, “Nattamai, Valli, your maid’s daughter….”
Nattamai looked as if he did not want to hear the rest of it.
The healer recounted, “Oh Goddess Amman, the savior of Palamalai….
Blood drained from Nattamai’s face as the healer narrated,“They brought Valli to my ashram early in the morning. She was unconscious, bleeding and I can confirm she was raped”, he paused until eternity and added, “She died shortly afterwards.”
The healer felt sorry for Nattamai. After all, he had a special affection for Valli. She was a smart girl and Nattamai had convinced Rakayi, her mother to send her to the college in Coimbatore and shouldered her educational expenses. She would have been the first woman to do so, thanks to Nattamai.
A visibly broken Nattamai spoke, “Should we make it a news and sensationalize it? Why sully the poor girl’s name?”.
“We have to call the panchayat. Rakayi is baying for blood. She is devastated and swears that Palamalai’s protector, the Nattamai, will punish the guilty and deliver justice.” the healer added.
Muthusamy prepared for the panchayat. He wore the traditional Nattamai’s head gear, made a silent prayer in front of his father’s portrait.
The villagers congregated en masse in the open playground. The cacophony ended with the arrival of the Nattamai. Everyone folded their palms in reverence. Rakayi was sobbing inconsolably.
After rendering the customary prayer to Amman, Nattamai explained that the Panchayat has been called on account of a cruel incident that had happened. Rakayi wailed beating her bosom wildly, as Nattamai choked on his words.
Gathering his composure, Nattamai looked at the crowd and said,
“It is one of you pervert bastards who committed the crime. It would be wiser if the culprit comes forward and gives in. Or else, you all know the rule of the book of our great forefathers. Death, it will be. If you confess, it will be instant. Or ….” leaving the damnation incomplete.
Nattamai slouched heavily on his seat.
There was a heavy silence. Fear was written on every single man’s face. The healer scanned the faces for any signs of betrayal of emotions.
The silence was broken by a splattering sound. Everyone turned around to see a dazed teenage boy urinating through his dhothi. People moved away and Nattamai strained his neck to look.
Bless the blindfolded lady with the balance and the scale, thought the Nattamai.
Some men rushed towards the trembling boy.
Suddenly from the women’s section, a lady shrieked “Stop!”
It was the Nattamai’s wife Saraswathi.
Heads turned towards her.
“Nattamai, tell the truth and truth only. Where were you yesterday night? I saw you sneak into the house during the inky hours of the morning?”
Nothing rustled and she continued.
“There were speckles of blood in your dhoti that you so cleverly hid in your almirah.”
Muthusamy felt the earth move below him. No, it was his trembling feet.
The Villagers were stunned, not by the accusation, but by her audacity to suspect the Revered One, her mate.
The healer spit viciously and cried “Shrew.” One by one, the whole village joined the chorus, “Shrew, shrew, Shrew.” Men, women, and children picked up stones and cudgels.
Rakayi suddenly sprung to life as she pulled free a spear and charged at Saraswathi. High on emotions, Rakayi failed to see that lust was as powerful as Justice, sometimes more. Rationality fell apart as the mob closed in on Saraswathi.
The mist cleared lifting the drapes on the blue solid surface of the Western Ghats and the noises echoed from the valleys “Shrew, shrew”, while Nattamai let People’s justice prevail.
- Nattamai – Village Chief
- Amman- Short name forMariamman. She is the main mother goddess predominant in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu. The goddess Mariamman is considered by many to be the incarnation of Goddess Kali. It is said that when Kali went to southern India as Mariamma. Significant to note that Amman temples can have non-Bhramin Priests
The above story is an entry into the writing event(Feb. 02nd – 20th) hosted by ArtoonsInn: #PullTheRug #UniK-3
Event rules and guidelines: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/pull-the-rug-unik-3-writing-event/
Check out Nagamani’s space here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/author/ranjith-narayanan/