by Chandramohan Nair
“Mohan, your lunch is getting cold. Where are you?”
It was Renu, the younger of my two older sisters.
I was in the backyard, throwing vellaikas at the coconut tree standing at the furthest end of the yard. Throwing these tiny, premature but fully formed coconuts was a favourite diversion of mine but today it brought little joy, even though I kept hitting the tree most of the time.
“What’s the matter with him today? He would normally be prowling around the kitchen well before lunch time,” said my mother.
I could hear them clearly and even smell the spicy fragrance wafting from the kitchen. But I kept quiet.
“It was all because of what Valiya maman said when he visited us yesterday evening,” said Latha, my eldest sister.
“But he was all praise for Mohan ! How could that have upset him?” said Amma.
“You don’t understand, Amma. It was what he said about Sashi that spoilt Mohan’s mood. The bit about Sashi catching cockroaches, toads and lizards with his bare hands,” said Renu.
Sashi was Valiya maman’s younger son and he was a nine-year-old like me.
“You should have seen his face then!” Renu added with a giggle.
“Oh! So, our naughty boy became jealous of his cousin’s exploits!” said Amma with an enlightened laugh.
I wondered morosely whether all elder sisters were so observant and could read their brothers’ minds with such ease.
I had a “naughty boy” image within my family. An image derived from the frequent fights I had with the kids in the neighbourhood, my mischievous ways in class and the histrionics I would display to get my way at home. My parents were quite indulgent of my behaviour and would never miss an opportunity to regale visitors to our home with an account of my latest prank or tantrum. My sisters were a bit less tolerant on this count, perhaps because they did not enjoy the same freedom.
It was no surprise that over time the “naughty boy” image became a badge of honour which I jealously guarded. When we came back to Kerala after some years abroad, I was eagerly looking forward to building on the reputation I had established. So it came as a rude shock when I realised, after hearing about Sashi’s feats, that I would need to develop a whole new set of skills if I wanted to preserve my standing.
When I finally went into the house, my sisters were already seated and having lunch.
“Not feeling hungry?” said Amma, with a smile.
“I was trying to catch a big beetle,” I said.
“Liar! He was just moping around,” said Latha, cheerfully.
“And worrying about how to catch up with Sashi,” piped in Renu.
“No fighting during lunch,” said Amma, nipping a potentially ugly argument in the bud.
I quietly finished my lunch and went and sat on the verandah in front. I had a lot of thinking to do.
Life had actually been very interesting after coming back. We stayed at our old brown-tiled family house in Quilon with its quaint little Padippura entrance. The house had a large compound housing a variety of plants and trees including those of the banana, coconut, jackfruit and mango.
There was also plenty of insect, rodent and reptile life for company – cockroaches, mosquitoes, spiders, rats and lizards inside the house, and beetles, butterflies, crickets, chameleons and scorpions outside. During the rains, the frogs and toads would hop in as guests and every once in a while I could spot a palm civet scurrying up a coconut tree or a bandicoot emerging out of a burrow along the compound wall.
After apartment life in a metropolis, this was as good as being on a nature trail for me. My attitude towards all these forms of life was distinctly pacifist. I was happy to leave them alone as long as they did not trouble me.
The only troublemakers on my list were mosquitoes and cockroaches. I had no qualms at all about squashing mosquitoes especially if I caught them biting me. With cockroaches it was different. Their uncanny resemblance in colour and shape to the sweet dates that we ate was fascinating. What was unnerving was the unpredictable way they tended to fly straight at you. So often as a preemptive measure I would swat them with a folded newspaper.
I could see myself catching hold of cockroaches and lizards without too much of a problem. Lizards especially were easy if you caught them by the tail. But toads were a problem. They looked ugly, their croaking put you off and they had a tendency to hop right into your path while walking. My instinct was to leave them well alone.
Monsoon was about to set in and the first showers saw a bunch of toads inviting themselves into our compound. One of them seemed to like the path leading to the verandah from the Padippura. There were potted plants on either side of the path and this toad used to play a game of hide-and-seek amidst these.
The bumpy skin on his back was of a light brown colour speckled with black. His front was an unattractive dirty white. But the eyes stood out – bright jewel-like eyes that opened sideways and never seemed to blink. He used to sit in squat comfort, looking perfectly at ease with the world.
Over the next few days, observing the toad from the verandah became my favourite pastime. Crickets and worms appeared to be his preferred food. He hopped around occasionally and would sometimes disappear beneath a log or a pile of fallen leaves.
I began to like his placid and unruffled temperament. Sometimes he would hop onto the steps leading to the verandah and sit there ruminating. He seemed to be the philosopher in his family. He had a dignity of his own and I thought I should call him Mister Toad.
A few days later, in the morning, I found him missing from his usual haunts. I thought he would have buried himself under some leaves as it was a warm day. Around noon we heard a scream from Renu. She was standing outside the bathroom, which was a separate unit in the backyard, and pointing to something inside. We rushed in thinking she must have spotted a snake but we could not make out what had alarmed her so much.
“Look, there in the corner!” she wailed.
And there was Mister Toad sitting smugly.
My sisters looked at me.
“Mohan, this is your chance to show that you are as good as Sashi. Just get it out of the bathroom,” said Latha.
There was no way out for me now. Moreover, I felt obliged to get Mister Toad out in a safe manner. There was no knowing how our maid would handle him if she were called.
I tore a banana leaf from a nearby tree and went inside. Mister Toad had not budged an inch. I placed the leaf in front of him. He looked at me quizzically. I wondered how to make him jump onto the leaf.
“Why can’t you pick it up and throw it out?” said Renu, who had regained her composure.
I gave her a glare. It was not at all an appealing option – neither for me nor for the toad.
A thought struck me. I took a mug of water and poured it on the leaf. Mister Toad looked puzzled and then quietly hopped onto the leaf. I quickly folded the leaf, ran to the front-yard and released him.
“Well done, Mohan!” said my sisters in unison.
I felt relieved and happy. A big weight was off my shoulders. My reputation had been salvaged and I had to thank Mister Toad for that.
In the evening, Valiya maman dropped in. Everyone was in a rush to tell him about the encounter with the toad and how I had come to the rescue. He laughed and gave me an affectionate pat on the back and said “Excellent, Mohan! You are really following Sashi’s footsteps. But you need to forget about toads and move on. Sashi is now busy catching the rats in the house.”
My sisters gave me teasing looks. I smiled, shrugged my shoulders and walked out to the front-yard. I wasn’t bothered anymore. I had realized that catching these creatures as a pastime held little appeal for me.
Mister Toad looked at me approvingly.
He really was a jolly good fellow.
Valiya maman: Mother’s elder brother
Padippura: A structure forming part of the compound wall for the house. It has a door and a tiled roof on top and marks the formal entry to the compound.