That fifty-para paddy field is owned by someone in Vaikom. Kesavan Nair has been cultivating it for the last forty years. Before that, Kesavan Nair’s uncle was its cultivator.
Some ten years ago, when paddy prices were as high as five to seven rupees a bushel, rich people from Changanassery and Thiruvalla, had come there for paddy cultivation. They got on lease, groups of paddy fields. They used a tractor for deepploughing and new fertilisers, to produce bumper crops. And they made huge profits. Kesavan Nair’s fifty para was in the centre of such groups of fields. Big – time farmer, Outhakkutty, met Kesavan Nair one day, on the mud-bund of the field. The crop in the “fifty” was poor when compared to those around it. Outhakkutty broke in, by way of exchanging civilities: “Why is the paddy not lush and robust enough? Didn’t you use fertilisers?”
That question struck Kesavan Nair’s heart. The neighbouring farmer insinuates that the paddy he cultivates is inferior in growth!
“After you big guys came, can we drain out the water at the right times? No time is convenient enough for you. We can do farm work only at your convenience”.
Outhakkutty, an arch diplomat, said, “Why do you say that, Uncle Kesavan? I had specifically arranged with my people to pay heed to your convenience.”
Kesavan Nair was cross. “Oh! Nice arrangement indeed! I could water the land only after my paddy seedlings had wilted in the sun. I went after your servant, begging. He said he can’t because you had instructed him not to give water to me.”
Outhakkutty had to counter that accusation. “Will there be any such difficulty, if you do the sowing at the same time as in the neighbouring fields?”
Kesavan Nair was piqued. “Don’t teach me all that. It’s not yesterday that I started cultivating paddy.
Kesavan Nair continued, increasingly irritated, “No one becomes a farmer by pouring in money, dumping fertilisers and raising a crop of paddy.”
After a few days, Kesavan Nair and Outhakkutty’s servant quarrelled with each other, upon the mud-bund of the field. On all sides there was water. But the “fifty” was parched dry and cracked up and the shoots were wilted. Kesavan Nair, heart-broken at the sight, cut a breach in the mud-bund. The servant sealed it up. They pushed and jostled each other. It would have culminated in murder. Luckily, that did not happen. Three or four days later, the crop in Kesavan Nair’s “fifty” was submerged up to the tips of the plants in water. The top of the shoots were not at all to be seen above the water’s surface. That servant’s doing! When the time came for the sunning of Outhakkutty’s paddy plants, the water was diverted to Kesavan Nair’s “fifty”. How was he to drain that water away? Where will he take it to? Can he drink it all up? Kesavan Nair’s shoots began to rot.
Kuttichovan, a friend of Kesavan Nair, asked in consternation, “Why don’t we cut open breaches on the bunds at night and divert the water back to the other fields?”
Kesavan Nair did not like that idea. He said, “That should not be done in punchakandam. Cut open bunds in the dead of night! Can a farmer do that, Kutty? Let me perish. I will not do what should not be done.”
Then another friend, Kutty Mappila, said, “Are all the things happening now, befitting a puncha-kandam?”
Kesavan Nair said he would never perpetrate that adharma. Kutty Mappila, who was listening to it all, said, half-soliloquising. “So it was good that I leased out my piece of land to Outhakkutty. Or else, my fate too would have been the same now.” Kuttichovan also said the same thing. Of the 500 acre complex, only Kesavan Nair’s five acres remained outside Outhakutty’s domain. Listening to the talk of his friends, Kesavan Nair said, “I too could have entrusted mine to him. But, what else is there for my livelihood? What work will I do? You, Kutty Mappila, get at least 500 coconuts. Kuttychovan has four sons, working. I have only this field on lease. And I can eke out a living, only by tilling it.”
That night, the water in the “fifty” somehow drained away. Someone had breached the mud-bunds at night. Certainly it was not Kesavan Nair. Since that water spread evenly into the fields surrounding that field, no ill effects had occurred to the crops of those fields. It was clear that the farmer of the neighbouring fields had let in water to that “fifty” on purpose.
Next morning, Kesavan Nair went out to the field and saw for himself. Who had perpetrated this adharma? The weight of that sin would fall on him alone. He had not known anything about it. He wondered how he was going to prove his innocence.
Two days passed thus. On the third day, in the morning, before anyone woke up, Kesavan Nair went to the field and looked around. The weak shoots, which had been flattened to the ground, had started rising up, in the sun’s warmth. His crop wouldn’t perish. After three or four days of getting the sun, the shoots should be soaked a little by letting in water for one day, and some manure put in. Then, the crop would be excellent, first rate.
Where could he raise the money from? Who would give him money? The household expenses were met by the proceeds from the four milch cows. Kesavan Nair toyed with the idea of selling one of them to raise the funds. But his wife wouldn’t agree to it.
“The shoots are properly sunned, aren’t they, Uncle Kesavan?
Kesavan Nair turned around. It was Outhakutty. Suddenly Kesavan Nair’s obsession about the adharma upset him. Outhakutty stood there as if he had caught the culprit. He, Kesavan Nair, should give him a proper explanation. He had to establish his innocence in the matter. With a troubled smile, Kesavan Nair said, “Upon my granduncle! Upon this ‘puncha-kandam’ which is true to its tradition, it is not I who breached the bund, Outhakutty! I am a true farmer. A farmer worth his name would never do such an adharma.”
Outhakutty watched Kesavan Nair’s anxiety. “Why do you swear by your ancestors, Uncle Kesavan? It is not you who breached the bund. It’s I who did it. I did it because I saw your paddy submerged.”
Kesavan Nair was relieved. His eyes shone. “Is it true? Tell me the truth! Oh, it’s such a relief! May you do well in life, my boy! I feared I would have to carry the weight of this infamy with me till my death.”
Outhakutty once more said emphatically. “Yes, Uncle Kesavan. It’s I who did it. Although you hate me, can I hate you? When I saw that sight, my heart nearly stopped. I opened the breach. Let my paddy perish, if it has to, I said to myself”.
Outhakutty said, glancing all over the “fifty”. “If you could sprinkle a little manure, the crop would be excellent, Uncle Kesavan.”
“I was thinking of that just now.”
“Then you have to do it.”
“One should have money for that. Money! I don’t have money”.
“If you want a good crop, you should spend money.”
“The times are such.”
Outhakutty said, as if because of his fondness for Kesavan Nair: “Uncle Kesavan! May I say something?”
“Why are you taking all this trouble, Uncle Kesavan? I’ll give you the lease-rent for the landlord at Vaikom and fifty bushels of paddy extra. Hand over the field to me. Why toil so much in your old age?”
Kesavan Nair suddenly became another person altogether. He was furious. Yet, controlling his anger, he said: “No, no. Keep that thought to yourself Outhakutty. We have cultivated this field right from the times of our ancestors. No one else shall cultivate it.”
“That’s all right. You are the lessee of the Vaikom landlord. And I will be your lessee”.
“No. That won’t do. I was born a farmer. Farming is my occupation. And I have five heads of cattle, besides. They need the hay. No. It won’t work, Outhakutty….”
No manure was put in the “fifty”. The crop was bad. Dismal, that is. During the harvest season, Kesavan Nair could not get hold of reapers. All around, Outhakutty’s first-rate crop was there; if they reaped that the reapers would get two bushels of paddy as percentage wage.
The paddy was getting overripe. At last, the members of Kutty Mappila’s and Kuttichovan’s families, and Kesavan Nair’s family members together reaped the field.
The crop was very, very bad. It was doubtful whether there would be sufficient paddy to pay the lease-rent. Kutty Mappila, Kuttichovan and Kesavan Nair conferred together. Kutty Mappila’s opinion was that the lease-rent need only be proportionate to the crop output. Till that moment, there wasn’t even a grain of paddy as outstanding payment of rent. “You can give more, if next year’s crop is better.”
Kesavan Nair couldn’t agree to that
“This is the only piece of land the landlord has. And he has only this much of paddy to get. We have collected the crop. We should give the whole rent. The land will turn barren, if the landlord’s tears fall on it.”
The entire crop was just sufficient for the payment of the lease-rent. What remained for Kesavan Nair was just a ton and a half bushels of paddy, spillage on the threshing floor and the chaff! He couldn’t make good even the seed- paddy and the labour charges!
The lease-rent paddy was carried to the landlord’s house. The landlord was a Thirumulpad. Kesavan Nair had sensed that there was a slight change of expression on Thirumulpad’s face. What was unusual was that he asked whether the entire leaserent paddy had been brought. And he made this comment: “My information was that this year I would not get the entire lease-rent paddy.”
Kesavan Nair gave a quick repartee. “Isn’t it at least a hundred years, since we took this “fifty” for cultivation, Thirumeni? Is there even a grain of paddy outstanding as lease-rent payment?”
Thirumulpad didn’t say a word.
The lease-rent paddy was measured out without leaving even a grain as deficit. Still, Thirumulpad’s face didn’t exhibit any trace of satisfaction.
He gave lunch to Kesavan Nair and the boatmen as usual.
When Kesavan Nair approached, after lunch, to take leave, Thirumulpad told him that he had something to say to him.
“What is it?” asked Kesavan Nair.
The reply was abrupt. “Someone has approached me with an offer to take the land on an increased rate of rent. He is a very smart person too. Kesavan, you should relinquish the land.”
An idea dawned upon Kesavan Nair. “What increase of rent is proposed now?”
“A hundred bushels of paddy. And the person is very sound. How will I recover any arrears you may accumulate?”
Kesavan Nair argued hotly: “So far there are no arrears.”
No one spoke for sometime. Kesavan Nair continued. “Thirumeni, I shall give you that increased rate of rent.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, Thirumeni. I know who has approached you. It’s Outhakkutty. But he is not a true farmer, Thirumeni. The likes of him don’t love the soil. They’ll put in a lot of fertilisers, prodigally extract the fertility of the soil and raise good crops. After four or five years, your land will turn into useless, bran-like soil. Not even grass will sprout there”.
Thirumulpad was walking back and forth the length of the verandah. He didn’t speak a word. Kesavan Nair continued to speak. The words choked his throat. His eyes brimmed with tears. “It’s this field I saw, when I was born. The sweat of my ancestors has also added to its fertility. I have loved only that field in my entire life.”
Kesavan Nair broke down. “N-no! You shouldn’t evict me from there, Thirumeni”. Even Thirumulpad’s heart seemed to melt a little. He said, “I must get my rent”. Kesavan Nair sobbed. “I’ll give you that rent.”
The next day, Kesavan Nair called the ploughmen and he had the field ploughed once. He didn’t even think how he was going to pay them wages. From that day, the ploughmen pestered him for payment of wages. How could he have the land ploughed again, without paying the wages for the first ploughing? Thus the field fell fallow. The neighbouring fields were regularly ploughed every month. The “fifty” was overgrown with weeds
It was time for the sowing of the next crop. The work of putting up the mudbunds was over. The water was being drained. The “fifty” was lying vacant, without being ploughed, without weeding, without the soil being prepared. Poor Kesavan Nair didn’t even have the necessary seed-paddy. His fight then turned towards his wife. One cow must be sold. She didn’t like the idea, though. Kesavan Nair sold a cow without the consent of his wife. The money the cow’s sale brought in was sufficient only for ten bushels of seed-paddy and ten rupees for the labour charges. Kesavan Nair tied up the seed-paddy and put it in water. He took out the seed the following day. Not even half of it had germinated. And he was supposed to sow that day itself. Kutty Mappila advised him to sow it as it was. It will germinate, lying in the soil! That’s the only way out, besides. He did just that.
The paddy was growing robustly in the neighbouring fields. In the “fifty”, weeds had grown thickly. Not even a single shoot was to be seen. The harvest that year was over. There was no need to reap the “fifty”. The date of handing over the lease-rent paddy had expired. Thirumulpad reached the spot. Kesavan Nair was in hiding. For three days, Thirumulpad went about looking for him. He was not to be found.
The next day, Outhakkutty’s men got into the “fifty” and ploughed the field. Thirumulpad stood on the mud-bund, looking on. The sowing of the next crop was over. Early every morning, Kesavan Nair would go out to the fields, like a farmer who had a crop to look after. On watching him go, one would think that he really had a crop somewhere. He returned home only after the day had progressed. It was the habit of forty years.
The paddy in the “fifty” was growing high, as if challenging Kesavan Nair. He’d go there everyday. When once he spotted a slight yellowing of the plants, his heart burned. He sought out Outhakkutty and reported the matter. Not only that; he stood by and had the necessary remedial measures carried out.