We always knew that on the day Mathukutty died, there would be those who would suddenly go soft on him. That’s what death does, we knew, though we were only children. There would be those who would cluck their tongues and say they always believed he was innocent. That he had suffered yet had always been gentle. They would lower their eyes and say he deserved a proper funeral, not the sorry excuse the state would provide. Even we boys would feel a little sorry for Mathukutty, not that we loved him; we only fetched him beedis and water and sometimes cheap, stale buns on days he decided to have lunch. Fat Ramesh might even cry a little, for he never refused food and emotion. I don’t know what made us think of his death when we watched Mathukutty taking his nap at the sawmill on the afternoons.
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Not that anyone was tough on him while he lived. Not at all. If anything, Shankaran Mothalali, the owner of the mill, and the other workers were rather kind to Mathukutty as though they wished to compensate for the 14-odd years he had spent in jail. Perhaps, one thing that helped was the reason he went to jail — he had killed the man who had been his wife’s lover. Many people thought what he had done was honourable: he had gone over to the stone quarry where the lover-boy was sleeping under a tree and had calmly placed a boulder upon his head. Murderer Mathukutty, recently released from prison, had pulped out a man’s brains for honour. He was the man who, one day, appeared at the junction of our dreams and nightmares, and that’s why we spied on him, morning, noon and evening.
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At first, on our holidays, we took turns to look through the window of the sawmill, as he cut wood with the artful roughness of a surgeon amputating limbs. It ensnared our imagination to watch him speak to no one at all. All those years, his only relationship was with wood. When the other workers cracked their crass jokes or passed lurid comments at Janu who came to give them tea, this man did not even look up. He continued rubbing away at a piece of wood like he had a mission for it.
We discreetly observed Mathukutty in the evenings after his work. To our surprise, we found that he slept on a dilapidated stone bench to the south of the prison walls. On cold nights, he lit a small fire by the dirty, fortress-like wall and cuddled closer to it with the satisfaction of a bird that had come back to its nest. Some mornings he walked by the jail gates and looked — as though casually — at its impermeable stance, thinking thoughts just as impermeable. The south side, where he had set up his nest, was the most abandoned corner of all. Only one-night lovers and those who smoked pot came there. Once on a Sunday noon, an excitable teenaged lover scribbled his shy girl’s name and his own upon that wall, with a heart and arrow in between.
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The same instant, we saw Mathukutty get off his bench and walk away. We found out that he returned after the lovers had left, with a new cloth, some water and even a bit of detergent to scrape away at the wall until the message the lovers had meant for eternity couldn’t be traced at all. Away from Mathukutty’s corner, the wall had a lot of other scribbles, some done in chalk, some carved with sharp stones. Many of these were unspeakably vulgar words or phrases, such as our parents would be scandalised to know we had seen. But these were from before, and Mathukutty never attempted to rub them off. It was the next day, a Monday, that he connected with us boys for the first time.
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He looked towards our window, and for all the pains we took to scuttle away from his view, he nonchalantly waved for us to come inside the sawing room. He counted out small change and asked us to bring him a pack of Apple beedis and, in return for the favour, buy ourselves some candy. From that day on, he gave us money to get him things almost every day. Was it a subtle acknowledgement that we were his friends? Never once did he smile at us or ask our names or ask us where we lived. But we watched him work openly after that.
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When we sawed off branches with our rusty saw, he did not come over and teach us how wood should be cut. When Fat Ramesh once cried because wood-dust had gone into his eye, Mathukutty did not run up to help. When on some evenings, we had been near the prison wall for a long time, he did not tell us that it was late in the day and we had better be returning home. Even when we grew up and thought back on our days of watching Mathukutty, we wouldn’t be able to name the relationship we shared with him.
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Then one mid-morning, two of the workers fought. Only the three of them were at work that day as it was a festival. The two men began joking to each other about their marriages. One said the other’s wife walked him around on a leash. The other replied that the first had broken his leash and that is why his wife went around like an abandoned pup. Their laughter grew more and more strained. Mathukutty continued to work without even looking up. Soon, the two workers were at each other’s throats. The punches could be heard, like rubber on tarmac, and before the boss rushed in and separated them, one had a permanent scar down his neck and the other had a black eye.
“Why didn’t you separate them, Mathukutty?” Shankaran Mothalali said, panting. “Y-you just continued with your work!” For the first time, perhaps, Mathukutty actually spoke in complete sentences. He spoke quietly, looking his boss in the eye: “They need a common enemy, Mothalali. You are too good to them. In the jail, we had the jailers. A common enemy unifies folks.”
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I still wonder if Mathukutty was speaking as much about himself as about others. Outside those walls, was it because there was no common enemy that he could not connect with anyone? Why did he keep returning to that doomed south wall? Why did he not fly away after 14 years of captivity? Was he now truly incapable of love and friendship and brotherhood?
I often fantasised in those days about what would happen if there was a flood or an earthquake in our town. If there were massive rescue operations, would our Mathukutty join in, or would he save his skin and even abandon his beloved prison building and flee? Those arms, old but stern, that cut through wood and made rough surfaces smooth, they could pull little babies out of rubble or a drowning lady to life. But would they bother? At that time, I was sure they would. Mathukutty would not just connect with people but prove that he was deeper, stronger and bolder than most.
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But today I am not sure at all. I think it is more likely that Mathukutty wouldn’t bother about anyone else. He would swim his way out, go live somewhere else and make his fire to warm against. Perhaps, he would come back later, because he wouldn’t get his sleep anywhere too far from his prison. But he was unlikely to help anyone else because 14 years is too long a time. There are consequences of captivity that outlast life itself. Yes, I do draw comfort from the fact that there is no way of knowing for sure.
But back to my story, there’s nothing much more to tell. We were Mathukutty fans for a few of our boyhood years. The candy we bought while getting him things lent a sweetness to our memory of him, though he was never more than the stranger he always had been. On the day he died, we hurried over to the bench upon which he lay facing the prison wall. A milkman who had taken a shortcut that day had discovered him, and we learned about his death the moment we had reached the sawmill. For the first time ever, we actually came close to take a look at his bit of the wall. We had never come close to it when he was alive, but now that they had taken his body away, we took the liberty.
For the first time, we saw Mathukutty’s own scribbles. They were cartoonish and very rudimentary. For a man who had erased the lovers’ scribbles, Mathukutty himself had done quite a lot of them. There were all kinds of figures lightly etched that couldn’t have been seen unless you almost put your face to the cement. They were done with stone during countless nights by the small fire. There were people and gods, letters of the alphabet, wood and saw, keys, policemen in caps and with batons, prison bars and even a calendar in tabular form at one end. The calendar was, of course, a series, with older dates scratched out. The last date was last week, so Mathukutty had been lazy the last few days. Or, perhaps, rather unwell.
Only we children gave heed to the scratches. They made all of us a little sentimental and Ramesh began to cry. I don’t blame him, for here was the mind of Mathukutty at last, scribbled endlessly. Somewhere on the other side of these walls, too, there must be similar scribbles that he had made to make his mind fly free during the 14 long years that he was inside.
Manu Bhattathiri is the author of The Town That Laughed