Each time we drove over to the farm from Indra’sGift, PrettyMan would drop us off at the entrance, chat with his brother Vic for a moment, and disappear for hours. Farming had never been one of his interests and we assumed that he was just strolling around. The truth came out through someone else: Bottle.
We’d made Bottle’s acquaintance the day we purchased our farm: as thalaiyaari of the village, he was attached to the Registrar’s office, and was supposed to be ready to meet the newest residents. When we first came upon him, he was lying flat on the silent village road, one scrawny leg rakishly bent over the other, hands waving in the air. King Kong, accompanying us from the signing, made the introductions. Bottle surveyed us blearily from top to bottom, and made an announcement:
“If the axle of a cart breaks, where do you think the street goes? To the end of the market of course!”
He untangled his legs, rose and delivered a salute, whereupon King Kong chided him, and it was slowly borne in upon us that like with GoldSpear, our erstwhile land-broker, intoxication was Bottle’s natural state. We smiled uneasily at the man who stood swaying in front of us, his vetti slowly coming undone.
Two weeks later, King Kong had receded from our lives; it was Bottle who performed parambadithal for despite his problems, we were assured (by Bottle himself), that he would do a phenomenal job. “I am not like that driver of yours — so drunk that he couldn’t even save his wife,” he burped.
It was like being struck by lightning. PrettyMan and Vic, going home for the New Year, hadn’t returned after a week; neither had they answered our repeated calls. Could Bottle know something we didn’t? Turned out he did: PrettyMan’s wife, driven to desperation by her husband’s constant drinking, had set herself alight in front of him — and PrettyMan, whose reflexes were shot, couldn’t put the fire out. Neighbours leapt to her aid; for a brief while, she battled death for the sake of her two-year-old child… and died in agony. If PrettyMan’s alcoholism was alarming, news of his wife’s death was a shock. For days we mourned a woman we’d never known or seen, whose life had ended so tragically. Mulling over the incident, it was not difficult to understand PrettyMan’s easy access to alcohol in Chennai — but how had he managed to drink himself into oblivion so thoroughly at PreciousGems? “Oh, I and PrettyMan were supplied every afternoon,” Bottle revealed the secret. “We would go beyond those karuvela trees,” he pointed to the corner of our land. “And our supplier would give us our tipple. Because, you know, he wanted to spy on you city-people; find what you were up to —”
“Wait — who?”
“King Kong, of course.”
(The writer is a journalist, artist, translator, historian and editor but not necessarily in that order)