CHENNAI: The not-so-gentle rustle of sugarcanes greeted us enthusiastically as we stepped off the highway and onto a horribly pot-holed road; much later, we would learn that this part of the district was famed for sugarcane cultivation and by the same token, jaggery. Eyes devouring the scene, we bounced along in golden sunlight, our path meandering towards low, mysterious mountains in the distance.
After we’d trundled like this forever, disquiet settled upon us. Father decided to stop for directions — but we were in the middle of sugarcanepatti and aside from rolling green fronds in all directions, there was precious little. We were beginning to get desperate when the phone rang. My father almost dropped it in his haste to pick it up. First his face was wreathed in smiles, then puzzlement, and finally, plain anxiety. “It’s Bottle,” he said, handing it to me.
“I can’t make out what he’s saying. Can you?” I took the phone. “Soytellytes!” Bottle shrieked into my ear. “You buy Soytellytes, ok? You are starting planting no? Buy those first! You cannot begin without giving them!” The call ended.
We set off again, scratching our heads. What on earth were Soytellytes and why were they so important? We couldn’t call again, for the signal was terrible. By this time, we were upon another conundrum: the road forked. To the left, a small path ended in a tiny shrine. A humongous headless Aravaan, painted blood-red, complete with terrifying weaponry knelt menacingly in the light of a slowly dying day — while to the right wound a marginally better tar road. It led, thankfully, to Kappalur, a quaint village almost at the Javvadhu foothills; once, it has been a border-town of some repute, complete with armed forces. Its Siva and Vishnu temples, dating from Pallava times, were now garishly painted monstrosities, their valuable inscriptions almost chiseled out — but there was still a magic about them, framed against the deep blue, velvety hills. I could have lingered, but we had a job to do. Fortunately, when asked for directions, a farmer pointed to a path and grinned. “If in doubt, follow the crow.”
This was deeply mystifying, but we’d no choice but to stumble along a lonely road redolent with the cloying sweet scent of jaggery. Large neem trees surrounded us – but where was the unit? A crow quavered from somewhere.
The sound was so different from the usual, raucous caw-caw that we stopped and listened. There was the quaver again — long, low rumbles; little quacks; chirps; flute-like noises — was it trying to sing? We caught sight of it suddenly, above us, on a neem branch. To our amusement, it suddenly swung upside down and warbled. A woman’s head popped suddenly beyond the trees. “Don’t mind the crow. He’s drunk.” She chuckled. “Did you want jaggery?”
(The writer is a journalist, artist, translator, historian and editor but not necessarily in that order)