LIFE OF THOMASKUTTY
July 26, 1999-A KSRTC Bus from Perumbavoor to Kothamangalam
Captain Praveen Thomas was looking smart. With a clean-shaven face, close cut hair and tanned skin, he looked a commando officer in every sense. His broad shoulders that filled his sparkling white shirt seemed to completely occupy the seat he was sitting in. But there was a mysterious sadness in those eyes.
Praveen Thomas, who his friends and family lovingly called Thomaskutty, was on his way to Kothamangalam from Perumbavoor. Both his friends and family forbid him from travelling, but today was a day he could never miss. He was sitting alone by the window seat of the old, dilapidated KSRTC bus. Enchanting meadows, mansions and greenery ran parallel to the winding road between Perumbavoor and Kothamangalam. The sights were so beautiful that it took Praveen on a nostalgic journey to his past. He was a Civil Engineer from MA College of Engineering and that’s where he had met Neethu. Neethu Mary George. Neethu was exactly like that college campus…magical and gorgeous. Somehow he could feel the fragrance of the rain sodden earth and the rain-drenched leaves of the campus in the cool breeze that invaded that bus. It was like facing a nostalgic storm of memories. Memories that were fresh…memories that breathed life. Praveen still had no clue as to how much he loved Neethu. All he knew was that she was the love of his life and that was the only reason he was going to meet her today…for one last time.
As majestic churches and mosques brushed past his vision, Praveen walked down those memory lanes. How he had met Neethu for the first time in the survey lab… those big lovely eyes that kept smiling at him…Neethu looking fragile but cute…how he had proposed her during Sanskrithi (3-day cultural extravaganza)…The overwhelming moment of promising each other be together for a lifetime…His own constant quest for doing something adventurous, doing something for the nation made him an officer in Indian Army…He thought about his brothers of 18 Grenadiers Tiger Hill PVC Paltan… How he along with 6 others had gone on a patrol on May 3, 1999, and surprisingly found Pakistani militants holed up in Indian posts…heart-sickening memories of his fellow army men being gunned down and him luckily escaping death by a hair-thin margin. He shut his eyes tight and clenched his fist tight with regret of not able to fight the ongoing war in Kargil with the men of his battalion… even though a Pak shell had ripped off his left leg.
Praveen was completely absorbed in his own world of love, friendship, action and tragedy that he hardly noticed the bus conductor shouting at someone sitting by his side.
Praveen looked at the conductor,a burly man with a potbelly and dark complexion, shouting at a teenager sitting by his side.
“Kayil kash illengil irangi poda chekka… (Boy… if you do not have any money get out of the bus)”
“Sire, kash edukan maranu…ivade kothamangalam vare ullu (Sir I forgot to take cash…I’m only till Kothamangalam…” the boy replied casually as if the bus belonged to him.
“Bus ninte appante vaka annoda…irangi poda… (Does this bus belong to your father? Get the fuck out of the bus…)” the bus conductor pulled the string and the bell by the driver’s side clinked. And the driver applied the brakes and the bus came to a standstill.
Praveen looked at the thin boy with a fair complexion. He had neatly combed oil slick hair and a light shade of teenage facial hair. He had a red kurri (teekka) on his shining forehead and a thick orange string around his right wrist. The boy looked as if he was just 17 or 18, seemed quite innocent in a black shirt and brown jeans. Praveen felt like he had seen this boy somewhere. But he could not figure out exactly where. Praveen strangely felt compassionate for the boy.
“I will pay for his ticket…”
“Sir…no need for that…brats like him should be taught a lesson…” the conductor continued but Praveen took a five rupee currency note from his black purse and handed over the cash to the bus conductor. The conductor without a word slid it into his big leather pouch and returned the change and ticket to Praveen. The conductor then moved to his seat since his problem was solved. The bell clinked once again and the bus started its onward journey towards Kothamangalam.
Praveen handed over the ticket to the boy who took it from him and smiled sheepishly.
Surprisingly, the boy looked in his eyes and asked:
“How do you know Neethu Miss?”
Praveen was dumb struck for a second and he kept searching for his tongue for an answer. Finally he managed a reply that was in turn a question:
“How…I mean how you know??”
The boy smiled at him…
“I saw her photograph in your wallet, when you opened it to pay for my ticket sir…”
Praveen stared at the boy for a long time and then shrugged his head in disappointment. There was a searing pain in his body and soul. He gripped the crutches kept by the side of his seat in agony. Praveen recollected the final letter from Neethu.
Valiyaveetil George, her Appachan (dad) and Mary Kochanna, her Ammachi (mom) were against marrying Praveen and was brutally forcing her to marry Bastian ( a businessman based in Thodupuzha). Neethu was totally helpless under tremendous pressure from within and outside the family to give consent. She had urged Praveen to come and take her in that letter which was smeared in her tears.
But how could he? He had spent almost a month in an Army Hospital with no consciousness. For most part of the remaining days he wondered whether he was dead or alive. And by the time he had read Mary’s heart breaking letter, it was too late. Moreover, he had lost all hopes in life. The only option left with him was to let Neethu marry someone else and letting her live a happy life. Praveen was a true Indian Soldier who believed that sacrifice as the greatest symbol of love… be it for his motherland or be it for the woman he loved.
Somehow Praveen suppressed those tears welling up in his eyes and smiled at the boy. There was an ocean of sadness in that smile. But he managed to speak:
“How do you know Neethu?”
“She takes Strength of Materials for our batch…Errr… today is her betrothal in Cheriya Palli (a church in Kothamangalam…though it is called “Little Church” it is quite big and powerful) “, the boy replied with an understanding smile.
“Ohh…” Praveen sighed as he looked out and realized that the bus had already reached Thankalam. They were getting closer to their destination.
“Even I’m coming for the betrothal…So what is your name?” Praveen asked the boy.
“My name is Vishnu… and your name Sir?”
“Praveen…” he replied as he offered his hand. The boy reciprocated and shook his hand. Praveen felt the boy’s palm unusually strong, stiff and rough for an engineering student of that age. As if the boy sensed what Praveen was thinking he replied:
“Sir, you know Avarachan?”
“You mean the Timber Avarachan … in Perumbavoor?? Yess..”
“My father works there in his furniture workshop as the head carpenter…you may have heard his name…Balan Ashari (carpenter) they call him…”
“Ohhh… I heard of Avarachan…he is filthy rich right…about your father…maybe if I see him I can recognize him…” Praveen racked his brain trying to recollect the so called Ballan Ashari.
“…I work there part time Sir… We are not that well off you know…I have two sisters as well…”
Those words touched Praveen and he patted the boy’s hands. Vishnu smiled in return.
“Kothamangalam….Kothamangalam….” the conductor kept shouting instructing passengers to get down the bus.
“I think we need to get down Vishnu…” Praveen suggested and took the crutches from the side of the seat.
Praveen saw genuine sympathy in the eyes of Vishnu and some fellow passengers who were getting down. He just ignored them all. From the time he was back after the tragedy, he could see that hollow sympathy in the eyes of people. Those glares seemed to hurt his dignity somehow. Nobody had any genuine concern for an Army Officer in this land and to an extend that was true. With Vishnu’s support he got down from the bus. The duo boarded an auto rickshaw and Praveen instructed the driver to take them to Church where Mary was getting betrothed. The 5 minute journey between the Kothamangalam Bus Stand and Cheriya Palli went in relative silence. Praveen remembered how much he wanted to be in the battle front after being discharged from hospital. He even wired his then commanding officer of his battalion, Capt. Vikram Batra on the 1st of July. However Vikram Batra not only declined his request, but humbly instructed him to return home for recuperation. And on that very day Praveen was relieved from all his official duties. Praveen felt restless sitting at home when his battalion was ripping through the infiltrators from Pakistan.
But on July 7th he was shattered when he heard the news of Capt. Vikram Batra’s martyrdom. He had fallen while trying to capture point 4875. The operation would later be considered by war historians as one of the toughest operations in mountain warfare. There was disappointment and regret in Praveen’s mind…he felt like a coward who isolated his battalion during a raging war. Seldom could he digest the fact that he was not fit for action and it would be a great burden for others if he participated under his current physical conditions. But he was still an officer who was drilled and grilled to fight till death…somehow watching Neethu getting married to someone else would inflict enough pain to grant him redemption…that was what Praveen thought. Also he felt somewhat relieved since this boy Vishnu seemed to be understanding and most importantly, unlike other people, the boy was not pestering him with painful questions on how he lost his left leg.
The auto rickshaw stopped in front of the Church and the duo got down. Praveen paid for the ride and they both slowly climbed the steps that led towards the church. Already there was huge crowd. Neethu belonged to one of the oldest and one of the highly influential ancestral houses in Kothamangalam. Though they were planters basically, her family gave great importance to education. Kothamangalam was like that…it was rich and it had class.
He walked towards the church that was jam packed with people from in and around Kothamangalam. A 100 meter walkway separated the massive iron gates and the entrance of the church. There was a huge ground that bordered with a thick rubber plantation which belonged to the church itself.
Praveen checked his watch. The betrothal was supposed to be at 11:00 AM and it was already 10:55. He increased his speed by rapidly moving crutches back and forth and Vishnu walked by his side. Vishnu’s attempts to hold Praveen went futile since the soldier brushed off his hand whenever he attempted to hold Praveen’s forearms. Praveen somehow seemed to be miffed at the sight of the white Maruti Esteem Car, brand new and fresh out of the showroom. It was decorated with red roses and a pink ribbon ran across its length proclaiming it as a gift for the groom. In other words- an expensive dowry.
As Vishnu and Praveen reached the entrance of the church people started staring at Praveen. All three of the massive teak wood doors of the church were open to accommodate a river of invitees that flooded the church and the premise. The doors were unique in the sense when they were closed; they depicted the life of Jesus Christ in chronological order. The carvings over the doors just brimmed with life. Nobody knew exactly who crafted those doors because the church had a history that dated almost a 1000 year back.
There were people swarming in and around the church premise. Alas nobody was expecting Praveen to be there. Some of his old classmates saw Praveen heading for the church with the boy and immediately came to assist him, but Praveen rejected their offer. Even then they were kind enough to make enough space for him and the Vishnu to squeeze in.
Once they were inside Vishnu parted the crowd and they slowly moved towards the Altar. But unfortunately their progress was short lived. Praveen and Vishnu got completely jammed once they got to the middle. Vishnu looked around and found a healthy looking middle aged man sitting in the wooden bench wearing a white kurtha. He immediately requested the man to give his seat to Praveen who by now was squirming in pain. The man looked at Vishnu and Praveen in tandem…like a pendulum his little beady eyes kept glancing at the boy and the soldier. Then with a not-so-willing-heart he got up. But Praveen kept looking over the crowd to catch a glimpse of Neethu. There was no way he could succeed. Smelling an opportunity a fat lady tried to sit in the bench. Vishnu immediately blocked her stride:
“avade nik ammachi…e pavam onnu irrunote… (you keep standing…let the poor man sit…)” he stared at her with anger boiling in his eyes and the fat lady backed off.
Vishnu then made Praveen sit in that bench. Praveen was sweating profusely due to the heat and throbbing pain that seemed to rip his body in two. He sat in the wooden bench, with eyes shut tight. In that excruciating pain Praveen blabbered:
“I have to see Neethu…one last time…” and thanks to the endless cacophony…no one except Vishnu heard those words. As Praveen clutched his fist around the iron crutches, the speakers came to life.
The head priest, Reverend Father Kuriakose’s baritone voice came to life over the microphone.
“Silence…” his calm yet powerful voice somehow pulled the hall to a pin drop silence.
After a routine discourse of prayers he finally came down to the business. Vishnu kept looking left and right…as if trying to locate his friends. His attempts seemed to fail him. By now Praveen was experiencing an agony like he had never experienced before. He felt as if his mind and body would burst anytime. He sat there with his eyes shut and forehead declined over the crutches.
“Mr. Bastian, son of Pullikaatil Mathai and Elsamma…are you willing to take Neethu Mary George, daughter of Valiyaveetil Samuel George and Mary Kochanna as your rightful wife?” the sound of Kuriakose Achan (Father) boomed through the hall.
“Yes…” replied a confident Bastian.
“Neethu Mary George, daughter of Valiyaveetil Samuel George and Mary Kochanna …are you willing to take Mr. Bastian, son of Pullikaatil Mathai and Elsamma as your rightful husband?” the sound of Kuriakose Achan (Father) again thundered across the hall.
The church suddenly went silent like a graveyard waiting for Neethu’s answer. Seconds seemed to follow each other into infinity and then the reply punched the crowd:
“Noooooooooooo” and it was not Neethu’s voice neither it was Praveen’s. It was a boy’s vocal completely on fire!!! It sounded as if an SFI student comrade had shouted a slogan. Every head turned towards the direction of the boy and Vishnu shouted again:
“Noooooooooooooooooo” people were clueless as to what the hell was happening.
Almost everyone gaped in the direction of the boy with their mouth wide open and totally dumbfounded. The only exception was Father Kuriakose. Praveen lifted his head totally stunned by this unexpected twist of events. He searched for Vishnu, but the boy had already pushed his way through the crowd towards the altar.
Vishnu stood in front of Father Kuriakose and looked straight at George, Neethu’s dad and shouted at him:
“How the hell can you marry your daughter to another man when you had already agreed her hand to Praveen…?”
He glowered at Neethu who was already in tears and then at Bastian:
“How do you feel stealing the love of a man who lost his leg trying to protect you man?”
Bastian bent his otherwise high-held head. There was shame oozing out of his face.
Praveen by now had limped his way through the crowd and almost reached the place where Vishnu stood. He felt the marble floor slipping under his feet with each stride. And yes he was in pain.
The boy looked straight in the eyes of Father Kuriakose and roared:
“Father…Neethu Miss belongs to this man…she loves him still…the marriage should be between Neethu Miss and Praveen and not with this pig who has just money in his mind….”
But before Vishnu could finish his words, two burley men with hairy chest, massive arms and thick beard tried to catch hold of him. They were Neethu’s twin uncles Martin and James, the people who brought Bastian’s alliance. Like a panther Vishnu tried to evade them but Martin caught Vishnu by his collar. Vishnu turned with a speed of lightning and slapped Martin right across his face. The man fell down as if an elephant had wacked him with its trunk. But James headed menacingly in Vishnu’s direction and Vishnu kicked him on his chest…the man went down sprawling across the floor.
“Orupad thadi edutha kaiya achayo…kalikale…( This hand has lifted heavy timber…don’t mess with me…)”
The people had no clue what was happening till then… but slowly they started grasping the situation and started to close down upon the boy. Vishnu sensed the tension around him… he aimed for the east door that was relatively free. He started retracting his steps…and as he turned and dashed for the door he shouted a question at Neethu:
“Neethuuu are you willing to marry Praveen…?”
That very moment Praveen’s crutches slipped from the floor and he fell down with a thud…and Neethu ran towards Praveen to support him. Meanwhile men crashed through the crowd trying to catch hold of Vishnu who had ruined the wedding. But Neethu did not give a crap and held Praveen’s head in her lap. Her never ending love for Praveen fell like rains of monsoon, cleansing his face completely with sweet salinity.
Father Kuriakose wanted no more nonsense in his Church and spoke over the microphone:
“Neethu Mary George…Are you willing to accept Praveen Thomas as your rightful husband?”
It was not clear if her reply was YES or NO…but clear as day light, her lips were on Praveen’s lips.
Valiyaveetil George had a stroke at that moment and Mary Kochanna fainted on the spot, but everyone in that church began to clap. It thundered for a good 15 minutes and tears flowed down the eyes of everyone…even Father Kuriakose.
Meanwhile, without knowing what had just happened inside the church, men were running behind the boy who ruined a wonderful marriage. There were shouts and clamor from outside.
“Pidikada avane…nikada chekka avade…(Catch him…stop you arrogant brat)” they kept shouting at Vishnu who was as quick as a rabbit and zigzagged around people who tried to catch him.
He circled the church ground, exhausting his pursuers before running through the main gate and into a crowd that was waving Indian flags. By the time people came chasing him, crackers were being burst right in the middle of the road. The boy was nowhere to be seen and adding to that the smoke from the firecrackers blurred their vision.
They saw placards carrying pictures of Sri. Atal Bihari Vajpayee waving the “V” sign. India had taken back the final peak of Batalik sector and had won the Kargil War. And people were on the roads celebrating the victory.
It was Vijay Divas for the Nation and off course a Vijay Divas for Praveen & Neethu. ❤ ❤ ❤
Inside the church, as people softly pulled up newly weds, Praveen asked Neethu:
“Your student is one hell of a guy Neethu…if it was not for him…”
“The boy…who did all this stuff…he told me you were taking Strength of Material for his batch”
Neethu looked at Praveen for a long time and replied…
“I have no clue Praveen…I’m seeing that boy for the first time in my life…Do you know him?”
Praveen was shocked and closed his eyes in complete disbelief.
What are you talking about Neethu…”
She just shrugged helplessly.
Praveen and Neethu got married and in a formal ceremony and both the families reconciled. Her uncle Martin still had a shaking jaw and James felt a pinch of pain every time he breathed.
Neethu’s father, Valiyaveetil George tried his level best to make Praveen accept the Maruti Esteem Car, but Praveen would not budge. He fitted a wooden prosthetic leg and brought a second hand Maruti 800. He then customized the car to suit his physical condition. Praveen received award for his bravery in the battlefield and was re-assigned to a clerical profile in the MES (Military Engineering Service in Kochi Naval Base).
As for the boy Vishnu, it was like he had vanished completely off the surface of earth. Praveen went in search for him to Avarachan’s furniture shop. Sure there was a Balan Ashari there, but he did not have a son named Vishnu…in fact he did not have a son at all.
Praveen and Neethu kept searching for that one face that changed their destiny for good wherever they went but it would just not show up. Many a times Praveen racked his brain trying to recollect where he had seen that face earlier.
Exactly one year from that day Neethu gave birth to a baby boy. They named him Vishnu Das in the fond memory of the boy who changed their life. Father Kuriakose was shocked in the beginning, but he was a very liberal person who believed in belief and faith rather than names.
Neethu and Praveen were the last to leave the church after the mamaodisa (naming ceremony) function. Neethu got into the car with the baby and as Praveen opened the car door, father Kuriakose called him. Praveen limped back towards the entrance of the church, towards were Father Kuriakose stood.
“Sorry for making you walk son…”
“It’s OK Father…what is the matter?”
“Come here I need to talk to you….You always wanted to know who that boy was…right?”
“Yes…Father. It is so strange I keep getting the feeling that I have seen that boy somewhere…” As Praveen spoke, Monichan (the Church helper) closed one of the three doors of the church…the rightmost one that depicted Judas’s betrayal and eventual end of Jesus Christ on a cross.
“The question haunted me as well…when the boy looked in my eyes for the first time…I felt the world just went empty…” Father Kuriakose put his hand lovingly across Praveen’s shoulders as Monichan closed the main and central door that had beautiful carvings of Jesus working his miracles and delivering his sermons over mount. Praveen and Father Kuriakose stared at its miraculous beauty.
Then Kuriakose Achan spoke:
“Strange are his ways my boy… When people are sincere and have true love in their hearts he will transcend and bleed for them… You call him Jesus, Allah or Vishnu…he comes in different names but he is one and the same…”
“Why are you telling me this Father?” Praveen was perplexed now.
“ ’coz I think we have figured who that boy was and where he came from…”
“Really?” Praveen was exuberant.
Monichan closed the third and leftmost door.
“Come let’s have a look at the first door…”
Slowly Praveen limped towards the first of the three massive teakwood doors. And then he stared at those beautiful carvings.
He saw men on camel guided by the northern star…then Birth of Jesus on a bed of hay, in a cave with virgin Mary, Joseph and lots of innocent cattle.
His childhood in the streets of Nazareth. And finally, a young Jesus helping Joseph as a carpenter. Suddenly the truth struck Praveen like a thunderbolt. The face in that carving had a very close resemblance to that of the boy who saved his love.
Praveen went on his knees then and there. He closed his eyes in a deep prayer of gratitude. The clouds gathered over the beautiful town of Kothamangalam and in seconds it started raining like heaven.
To all the officers of the Indian Armed Forces who are risking every second of their lives for us. My friend Praveen who is serving the nation in Uniform (only his name has been borrowed)…Salutes to you officer!!!
To Neethu who always urged me write Kothamangalam Chronicles…this is for you dear.
To Nuna… my classmate who keep complaining that my stories are too short. Hope you find this story long enough 😛
And last but not the least…the beautiful town and outskirts of Kothamangalam. To the gorgeous and romantic MA college campus. Both have wonderful stories hidden in their misty haze of greenery and eye candy landscape. It’s only that we gotta look for them in the right places!!!