‘Alright children, we are going to learn multiplication tables today,’ Lakshmi closed her book and turned towards her class, ‘If I have three boxes containing three mangoes each, how many mangoes do I have in total?’
After explaining the concept of multiplication, she set her class to work on the table of 3. A gentle breeze wafted in through the window making her smile. Lakshmi loved her job. She, along with her grandfather Muthukalai, ran the only school of her village in their ancestral property. She looked through the windows to the jackfruit trees were a family of squirrels scurried around in a chaotic way that only they understood. She felt blessed.
Her reverie was broken by the school gardener who announced that Ponrayan, the village bigshot, had arrived and demanded to speak with her. Lakshmi was dreading this moment. Ponrayan came from old money and he ran a spate of illegal businesses. He quarried granite and sand without the knowledge of the Government and operated three liquor shops inside their tiny village. Lakshmi felt it was three too many.
Ponrayan had had his eyes on Lakshmi’s ancestral property for a while now. The 3-acre property was located smack in the centre of the village. Ponrayan had indirectly tried to express his interest in buying but Lakshmi and her grandfather had played dumb and had been averting the inevitable.
Lakshmi cursed her luck as she walked towards the office room. A whiff of cheap perfume came out in a blast from inside. She composed herself and walked inside.
‘Listen, woman. I need this building. It’s in a prime location,’ Ponrayan spat at Lakshmi. His perfume combined with his persona made her wanted to retch.
‘Sir, but the school?’
‘Pah! Who said anything about closing the damned school? Just don’t run it here. In fact I’m ready to give my 2-acre land along with the market value of this property. Take it. It’s more than a fair deal. Build your school there.’
Ponrayan’s site was twenty kilometres outside the village. Commute would become a huge problem for the children.
‘Sir, your site is too far away. You cannot expect the children to come so far a distance to study.’
‘Pah! Curses! Let them study if they want to. Isn’t that how education should work? That the worthy only should learn? I don’t care if the children study or not. If they don’t study, they have a job waiting for them in my liquor shops.’ He gave her an oily smile that churned her insides, ‘I need this place. You have time till evening. Make your mind before that. Otherwise, I’ll make sure that this place is mine one way or the other.’
His perfume lingered for a long time along with his threat.
That afternoon, over lunch, Lakshmi vented her feelings to her grandfather. Muthukalai, an ex-Army man, was much revered in their tiny village.
Muthukalai had a distant look as he listened to his granddaughter. A man of few words, he focused on his meagre meal of rice, greens and lentils instead of interrupting her with his views. He finished eating, went out and washed his hand and came back with a mischievous grin.
‘Don’t worry, dear! I’ll take care of our village bigshot. At what time does he want you to call on him?’
‘Five in the evening, thatha*’
‘Jai Nagamba!’ Muthukalai burped and promptly went or his afternoon siesta. Lakshmi was surprised. Her grandfather had never uttered the name of Nagamba – the snake goddess before.
Muthukalai was present at Ponrayan’s shop at exactly 5 PM. He informed Ponrayan that he had some specific details to discuss regarding the property.
Within ten minutes Ponrayan dropped all his claims on the property.
That evening, Lakshmi and Muthukalai were sitting under the huge peepal tree in the school grounds. Muthukalai was engrossed with the branches.
‘What happened, thatha*?’
‘The school is safe for a long time, dear one.’ He sipped his coffee with a smile.
‘But how? Just few hours back he was ready to thrash us and take the place. How did he give up?’
Muthukalai smiled, ‘Look over there!’ Up in the branches, a snake slithered towards a crow’s nest. ‘I told him that this site is home to few Komberi Mookans†.’
Lakshmi sniggered, “But, aren’t they non-venomous?”
He shrugged, ‘Well, Ponrayan would have known that if he had ever stepped inside a school.’
NOTES: * Thatha – Grandfather in the South Indian language of Tamil
†Komberi Mookan – Dendrelaphis tristis (bronzeback or Daudin’s bronzeback) is a species of tree-snake found in South Asia
Myth – In rural parts of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, people believe that Komberi Mookans are very vengeful. If Mookans are wronged, according to belief, they extract their revenge by imparting a lethal bite and follow the corpse until they are buried or cremated.
Fact – Komberi Mookans are non-venomous and they prefer to live in trees. They prey on small birds and rodents.