A lower caste government clerk during the day. A revered god by the night.
Jayaram Vengayil currently lives in Kannur, Kerala. At the age of 56, he is rekindling his passion for storytelling.
Chungan had never liked his name. So when he was selected as a Lower Division clerk in the revenue department, the first thing he did was to change it to something more dignified. He had always admired A.K. Gopalan, the firebrand Communist leader and so, through entry in the official gazette, he had transformed himself into C. Gopalan. Chungan was now history. He was glad about that. The name reeked of his past, his roots which he always wanted to hide. It announced to the world that he belonged to one of the backward tribes. In fact, the tribe to which he belonged was known for only one thing – they practiced the ritual Theyyam dance, a public performance of which was a must in every well-to-do Hindu joint family in North Malabar.
Chungan secretly liked being known as a skilled Theyyam dancer, which he no doubt was. So he continued performing even though he now had a full-time job. He enjoyed basking in the few hours of glory during the numerous performances that he was called upon to make with other members of his extended family during the Theyyam season that stretched from November to April. This was the time that the old Chungan briefly came alive again– but this was the Chungan who was possessed by a divine power, not the weak, exploited tribal urchin. The Chungan who was the all-powerful oracle and soothsayer. To whose every prophecy and blessing, men and women of substance hung on to like their lives depended on it. And then next morning, after the night-long performance was over, he was once again the respectable office-goer, C. Gopalan, his Honda bike whirring through the traffic of Thalassery like a drunken mosquito.
He was looking forward to tonight’s performance.
As he rested in the wings waiting for his turn to come, he dreamt in gleeful anticipation of the generous tips that the sponsoring family members were going to lavish on him. They were all big engineers and doctors. In London and New York and other places of which he had only heard of in newspapers. But like most Malayalis true to their breed, wherever they were in the world, they would descend every year, on their hometown Thalassery when it was Theyyam time. Chungan’s item, if you could call it that, was the highlight of the night’s performance. He would dress up in a dazzling costume with majestic head gear as the goddess, Thiruvarkattu Bhagawathi, the sponsoring family’s deity, going into a divine trance as the Devi subsumed every fibre of his being.
After the minor theyyams had finished their performances, his was the tour de force that started well past midnight and ended around day break. Once it was over, he would allow individual family members to come and seek his (or rather the Devi’s) blessings on matters ranging from the mundane like a tiff with one’s spouse to the serious like a struggle with a terminal illness. He had mastered the art of dance and of handing out godly advice and mouthing divine prophecies in equal measure from his illustrious father Kunchambu who had donned the colours of Thiruvarkattu Bhagawathi before him.
Tonight as always, Chungan didn’t fail to impress. The audience from nonagenarian grand-aunt nodding wisely to sleepy youngsters staring open-mouthed let forth periodic gasps of wonderment and awe as he swirled around with godly abandon, his sweaty face painted in rich hues, glowing in the fiery light of a hundred torches. At last he sat down on his pedestal slowly letting the divine power seep through him, and acquire control of his mind and his faculties. Now he was ready to start the prophecies and blessings. Only when the devotees’ hands stretched out towards him with crumpled currency notes within them, did the mortal Chungan awaken momentarily to take stock of the situation. Otherwise, he was the goddess personified, talking to her flock, guiding them through the travails of life. He eyed the queue in front of him, from nubile match-seekers anxious to know if they would find the right partners to tired old mothers whose sons had deserted them. They stretched out in front of him, one hand holding offerings of mundus or lighted lamps while in the other fist they clutched their dakshinas which could range from a few rupees in the case of the poorer cousins to a few thousands if the seeker was looking for a major favour.
He held each one’s hand comfortingly as he spoke consoling words into their ears. People behind would strain to listen to the others’ problems and the Goddess’ pronouncements. He liked to keep them guessing by lowering his tone and whispering into each devotee’s ear while the bystanders struggled to catch any possible snatches of gossip. So and so’s husband is cheating on her, they would whisper to each other after the night’s proceedings were over, or so and so’s got into a financial mess. Chungan could have given a psychiatrist a lesson in his own craft. One look at each cowering devotee and he could sense the matter on which he or she sought divine intervention. So much so that people waited for him to guess why they were there without them saying and as always he guessed right.
When he had worked his way to the end of the queue and there was no one left except him and the rest of the troupe, Chungan eyed the pile of offerings with satisfaction. Enough to buy booze for the next few weeks, he mused. It was a pity that he had to share the loot with the other members of the troupe. But, poor chaps, the younger ones were jobless for the rest of the year as they patiently sat the government exams for the seats reserved for the backward communities and the older ones were enveloped in a drunken stupor between one season and the next, waking only to be possessed by the gods during the performances. He was better off, at least he had a respectable job.
His job in the revenue department was to prepare building permits based on the field officer’s report and then put them up for the village officer’s signature. While it was a seemingly mundane role it opened up immense possibilities. He could twist the wordings around so the permit would be issued with conditions that would make the applicant spend more or cause delay in the fulfilment of the itinerant Malayali’s ultimate goal of building a palatial house in his native village. He could just sit on it and make the applicant squirm with anxiety.
The next day, Chungan arrived early to the office and settled into his cozy corner with satisfaction. He always felt energized after a performance even though he wouldn’t have slept a wink the previous night. It was as if the residue of the goddess’ presence still permeated his being. He looked up at the queue of people standing in front of him, clutching their applications in one hand while the fist of the other was tantalizingly closed tight. The first person in the queue appeared vaguely familiar. Chungan looked at him closely. I have seen him somewhere, he thought. ‘What is it?’ he asked with natural authority. ‘It’s about my building permit, you have issued a modification order for the plan saying it’s too close to the neighbouring plot. I need your help, sir to make it happen, please’ the man smiled ingratiatingly. ‘Let me see,’ mumbled Chungan, still wondering where he had seen this man before. And then it struck him, he was Ramankutty, a member of the family from yesterday’s theyyam, who had fallen on hard times because his sons had cheated him of his wealth. Now after years of struggle and the blessings of Thiruvarkattu Bhagawathi, he was at last going to build his own house. A modest dwelling for himself and his all-suffering wife. Now this modification order would affect his plans significantly. Something he could ill-afford.
Of course, there was no way Ramankutty would recognise him without his costume and warpaint, as he always dressed in an isolated corner when making his appearance at their family shrine. He cringed unawares in front of Chungan today, in the same way that he had flung his hands helplessly before the goddess the previous night, seeking her intervention to help him overcome the obstacles in putting a roof over his head. He was a senior member of the family but didn’t get the respect he deserved because of his modest standing. Chungan looked at him benevolently. He eyed the closed fist for a split second then averted his gaze. His eyes shone fiercely with the light of a hundred torches. The incessant beat of the drums rose to a crescendo in his ears in tune with his thumping heartbeat. ‘Go back, my child,’ he whispered, ’Devi is with you. Everything will be alright just have faith in me.’ Before the fist could open he had signed the document and sent it for signature.
Ramankutty could hear in the background the mesmeric chants of Thiruvarkattu Bhagawathi. He saw the fire of a hundred torches in the eyes of the man before him. The distant thump of the temple drums rose to a deafening crescendo in his ears as he left the office with the permit in his hands.