Walking through neighbourhoods where a few stately houses stand between apartment blocks, one always wonders at the care their vast gardens require. Some owners have a few trees and borders of hardy plants with stretches of cement in between, but some gardens are elaborately planned with lawns and different kinds of plants, all carefully tended. “It must call for at least two gardeners or a full-timer who does nothing else,” we think to ourselves before moving on. The gardens probably got more attention than a human being! Water too is a major element in maintaining a garden and with all the ground water being straw-sucked by bore-wells, how many city homes actually have a functioning well today? Do city-bred children ever see an old-fashioned well with rope-bucket-pulley that was once very much a part of life?
Thinking of wells reminded me of what happened 30 years ago when a well in the backyard was being deepened and desilted. The astonished workers brought up a number of gardening tools! Everyone was mystified. Had someone once tried to landscape a garden that far beneath the surface? (“Maybe we’ve struck a 500-year-old site. A new Harappa!”). Or else how had they slipped into the well! Many theories were presented and abandoned. Imagination took wing till memory stirred and someone said “Oh I know the answer! This is where the maali’s stuff disappeared. No one stole it. ”
Since the dramatis personae are either no more or have moved away discretely, it is a tale worth telling with the united efforts of the family.
A maali and a driver were both in love with a housemaid named Lakshmi. All three of them worked in a large house set in a huge compound, which therefore needed a full-time maali — Kullan. Both attractive and friendly, Lakshmi who had an unspoken understanding with Kullan soon drew the attention of a much smarter suitor — the driver Narayanan.
Creativity must fill missing historical details so let’s just say that very soon Kullan couldn’t bear the sight of Narayanan and he let Lakshmi know quite loudly. There followed a scene scripted by a B-grade film-maker and the lady of the house was compelled to lecture Lakshmi on how to behave decorously when young men were around. Lakshmi decided not to listen to suitor 1, and dallied on with suitor 2 or that is what it looked like to Kullan. So the caveman in him emerged and he threatened his rival with death or mutilation too horrible to describe.
Then one day, the gardening tools disappeared. The kattapara, manvetti, shears and everything else. When Kullan woke up to find the implements of his livelihood missing, he was then furious. He accused Narayanan of selling them. Torrid conflicts began with everyone accusing everybody else. Never one to overlook a theft, however petty, the lady of the house sent for the police. They arrived and promptly took both Kullan and Narayanan away to the police station for questioning. The man of the house protested. He had a soft corner for Narayanan and was ready to swear to his innocence. Within a few hours everyone returned and the employers were told that the garden tools had not been stolen, but that Narayanan had flung them all into the well, fearing a threat to his life or face or …worse. The man of the house was unconvinced. It was a confession extracted under duress he said. The lady of the house was of the opinion that the trip to the police station might have curbed Narayanan’s roving eye.
Years passed. Lakshmi and her suitors left for greener pastures. The man of the house left to meet his maker. There were many rainless years and the well dried up. When the lady of the house decided to clean and deepen it, out came the weapons of mass destruction that suitor 1 had planned to use on suitor 2. And there lies the history of shears and fears.