CHENNAI: What’s your experience with village panchayats? A large open space where curious people of all shapes and sizes are gathered; a huge banyan tree under which sit four or five mega-moustached men; a weeping woman/man, looking suitably concerned, outraged or resigned; a whirring wind; a shattering judgment that turns the world upside down. Any village movie would spontaneously combust if it didn’t have even one scene worth the name.
Reality was just a little different. For one thing, PreciousGems doesn’t have a single aalamaram, panchayat-worthy or otherwise. But I discovered that the locals had made provision for large-scale gatherings: the space right opposite our farm. We were, as it happened, slap-bang in the middle of the village, so the road which snaked by the lake and broadened to allow for a sluice-gate acted as panchayath grounds. Here, under a leafy arasu tree was crammed most of PreciousGems and in the midst were my father, Hill — the supposed perpetrator, KingKong, Mannar; other owners such as King, and Bottle’s son, Jolly Giant. All were agog with curiosity and a pleasant sense of anticipation. My mother, filled with a nervous fear, had stayed away; I, equally panicky but torn between the desire to observe, had to park myself at some distance — as a woman, my entrance into this entirely male preserve except as a plaintiff or defendant would be seen as improper.
Since PreciousGems didn’t technically possess a “naattamai,” and the disagreement was between land-owners, the process was jinxed from the beginning. I paced about, jumpy about my father’s ability to be a part of an arena he was unfamiliar with — but he surprised me with a flair for drama.
Father: Good people, I have come here with a petition. I appeal to your sense of fairness and your judgment. I ask you to listen to my case and rule justly.
Murmurs of approval. This was courtly language indeed. The accusation was outlined swiftly; the battered JCB shown; and the fence-posts. Hill looked furious; KingKong was smirking; Mannar and the rest shrugged, and gesticulated. Spiro was asked to come forward as witness. Surprise twist! — He simply denied, outright, any knowledge of JCB, Hill, or midnight adventures whatsoever. We were aghast. The panchayath erupted. Until Spiro’s testimony was actually called for, we’d no idea how much we’d depended on his word; his integrity, and values. Like Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War, we were beginning to find out that everyone had their own agendas. Now, it was chaos. And then Hill took it a step further: he stalked forward, and addressed the gathering. “Yes, I did it,” he bellowed. “Drove a JCB at night and removed the boulders. And I will do it again.” He turned to my father. “No fence, do you understand? No fence!”
The reasons given were astounding.
(The writer is a journalist, artist, translator, historian and editor but not necessarily in that order)