A grandma and her T20 team: A trip down memory lane
Life's Like That is a column by Suresh Pattali, recounting his musings on everyday life
Once upon a time, I was a thief. Hold on. If you ever thought it’s a figure of speech, you lost the game. Stealing hearts wasn’t my cup of tea; I was a thief in the literal sense. One of a cabal of ruffians drawn from varied faiths, castes and socio-economic backgrounds. We weren’t Robin Hoods, but a truly secular and democratic felonious posse.
Unlike in the underworld, we never had a cache of weapons. We were too small to hold one or own one. Our brain was our weapon. We ran recons on our would-be victims and our ability to move in stealth in broad daylight was admirable. It’s just bad luck we weren’t spotted by the CIA.
Ours was the same old story of economic servitude. We detested familial oligarchy under which parents made up the haves and children have-nots. The draconian system denied us the fundamental rights of children. We toiled in farms and in middle school to realise grand parental dreams. More than the playtime that children typically demanded, our requirement was minimum wages to make sure three square meals (read snacks which included bonda, dal vada, Cadbury and ice cream) are put in our pockets.
Since pocket money was a pair of alien words, the other route to generate funds was pocketing our legit share of cashew nuts and selling it to a grocer, a willing partner in the crime, at a subsidised rate.
We rested immense faith in our gang leader, Babu Bhaiyya (brother), and his deputy Vijaya Didi (sister). Oho, don’t jump the gun again. They weren’t in a relationship. Love never occurred to us in the ’70s. We were just comrades in arms, bonded by the common goal of ‘drink life to the lees’. So, us the gang members, girls and boys from Grade 5 to 10, roamed around looking for our prey, picked without bias by Bhaiyya and Didi.
We typically started our day by plucking cashew fruits from our farmland. And that’s where we honed the art of stealing. “Charity begins at home, so does thievery,” the chieftain would sermonise.
Smuggling nuts out of the home was next to impossible as bulging trouser pockets would give us in. “Lesson No 1: Be patient and smuggle out small portions,” advised Bhaiyya. A crate under the bed which served as my bookshelf was where I kept the nutty booty before I was able to safely export it, a process which involved greasing many a palm, including sisters.
Whenever domestic resources dried up, Bhaiyya and Didi evoked clarion calls to raid bourgeois homes. On our way to school — an hour’s walk through coconut and cashew groves, lush green paddy fields and shaven hillocks — we schemed and brainstormed. On our way back home after school hours, we would swoop down on targeted properties like a swarm of a million locusts, plucking all that’s edible, including mangoes, bananas, cashews, papayas, melons etc.
The operation was so well executed without much hubbub that the loot was plucked, cleaned and packaged in bags in no time before the Alsatians having a siesta with their owners got a whiff of us.
The scenes that followed would put to shame Agent 007 in Tomorrow Never Dies, which grossed $333 million in 1997. We deserved much more. The heats we ran, chased by German Shepherds and baton-wielding landowners, could have created a dozen Usain Bolts for India. We would later gather under some culvert to split the booty. Some we ate, some we sold, some we took home and some we hid in haystacks. At the age of 10-14, we lived a life on the edge.
Enter Rudrayani, Babu Bhaiyya’s mother, the effervescent and ever-smiling grandma who we fondly called Ammama. She was forthright and would employ the gang to assist her in harvesting cashews every morning. It was an hour-long job. She paid us in love and nuts on the spot, a kind act which weaned us from felony. She lent us support in all the crazy things we did.
She loved pillion riding. Her demeanour and svelte figure draped in settu mundu (traditional dress for women in Kerala), stole the thunder from her son’s vrooming Enfield. She was even game for a round of cricket when I returned from Singapore a couple of decades later. An innings well played where she was the skipper and the keeper. She brought us a smile that each one of us still remembers — five years after her passing at 95. She smiled in pain when I broke down into her arms after her last sitting for a photoshoot.
The cashew groves, stretching kilometres, have since disappeared, all felled to give room for swanky villas. The paddy fields have been filled and the hillocks levelled. The culverts have caved in and dried up. The landscape that we once traumatised as little Gabbar Singhs and Phoolan Devis is incomplete without Ammama. The concert that the sea wind plays in this hamlet constantly echoes her words of positivity and forbearance: “Never mind, let bygones be bygones.”