Friday, 14 March 2014

Malai kallan, The High Range Robber


It was almost nine in the morning. Suresh stopped the car by the side of a wider part of the narrow Gap Road , now called the Kochi - Madurai Highway, single lane most of the Ghat section.

I wont take much time” he assured me as he disappeared. I knew Suresh and his love for sight seeing well and was sure he would be away for quite some time.I was not worried, there was ample space for other vehicles, which were very rare, to pass by. I had a lot of time before my engagement in the evening in Munnar town, which was hardly 12 kilometers away.

'Malai Kallan' ( The High Range Robber ) a signage by the road said, below the picture of a half naked man running away carrying a small sac over his shoulders. He looked just like the thief out of Tamil cartoons. The signage stood out amongst the numerous road signs on the highway due to its green color and style. The picture of a man half naked with hills in the background in such cold weather made me curious.

I walked up to it. There was a small writeup about the Malai Kallan Thankayya Narayanan - how he looted the rich travelers in the good old days and helped the poor and needy. But I found it all the more strange as it looked like I knew the Malai Kallan. 

We both were new comers in class 6 B in Munnar High School. I was just ten and he was about sixteen. There were many of his age in the class, but he was mostly a loner and I was too timid to have friends. He was a handsome boy good at studies and sang well enough to be called to perform during the class meetings. I still remember the then popular Tamil song 'Aasaiye alai pole .....” ( Desire is like waves..) that was one of his favourites. He even drew well, the sketches he made on the black board impressed the ten year old me.

At times we were the only ones left  back in the class room while others made use of the school grounds. Being in the same room all by ourselves made us familiar with each other, though not friends, as we never talked.

It was in a foot ball game during the PT class that our cordial existence came to an end. We were in opposing teams and I blocked the ball four times. That evening rushing down after the class some one pushed me. I fell down spilling all the books in my bag, luckily I was unhurt.

The news of the accident reached my home faster than I thought, through my sister and her friends I guess. My father seemed to have inquired about the incident and about the boy who was responsible. That brought Thankayya and his stepfather to our doorstep on Saturday evening. The stepfather Prabhakaran used the opportunity to hit the boy hard before my father could intervene. The stepfather-son relationship did not look at its best.

The punishment seemed very harsh to me, specially as there was no definite proof that Thankayya was the culprit. But I could do nothing about it. After the father - son duo left I heard my parents too say so. Thereafter Thankayya avoided me at all costs, so I never had an opportunity to explain to him my innocence in the matter.

Cinema shed at Munnar was run by the British tea estate company in those days. Being very meticulous they had a trial run before screening any fresh movie. To ensure that the film runs smoothly, they said. It happened on Friday afternoons as new ones were invariably screened on Saturdays. The tin walls of the shed had many holes and the doors were not always closed tightly, leaving gaps which offered the boys opportunity to watch the movies during the lunch interval.

One Friday afternoon I was so absorbed in watching the screen through the hole that I did not hear the bell or notice others leaving. There were a few others including Thankayya at the doors. It seemed that they had decided to skip a period. I was afraid to go to the class late alone so I too continued watching till the end of the period.

Thankayya and others were in front of me to the school. Every one other than Thankayya was allowed to go to their classes. He was directed to the Head Mistress's room. Contrary to my expectation I too was directed to meet her. HM. Miss Thomas knew my parents well, so I waited for a minute wondering if there was a way to escape. But the peon was watching me, so I walked into the HM's room.

The HM was in a bad mood and there was a senior girl in the room, crying. 'This is the fellow' she kept repeating between sobs.
'No Miss Thomas, I was......' Thankayya stopped as the Head Mistress turned towards me.
'Where were you last period?... at the cinema?' She asked.
'Yes Madam I did not hear the bell', I answered.
'You did not!. But I am sure the entire Munnar town could hear the children running down the steps shouting'. She said. The school which was housed in an old three storied tea factory, the building had steel stairs.
'But that is at the end of the period and not at the beginning' I wanted to say but decided against it. 'Thankayya and others were also there' I said instead
'Was he there ?. …..Do you know him?' she asked.
'He is in my class' I explained.

Now the tone of the crying girl changed, she started saying 'he looked like this fellow'
'Both of you, off to your class' the HM ordered.

Thereafter there was a marked change in Thankayya's attitude towards me. He did not avoid me any more. But we were not friends. 

Thankayya did not come to the class after the Christmas vacation. He was among the few from the class who joined the estate as temporary laborers. I left the school for a boarding school at the end of the year and visited the estates only during vacations.

On one of those visits I was told that Thankayya was arrested for rolling down a boulder on the wind screen of the manager's car for refusing him work. He was below the employable age. The beautiful Sky Blue Plymouth station wagon was one of the numerous cars I dreamt of getting from the cave, where in the thieves stored their booty, just like the cave in the story of Ali Baba. My dreams were largely populated with automotives of various kinds & my escapades with them.

They had to let him go as there was no witness or evidence and Thankayya was a minor as per the company's records. But his name started appearing in the police records as a criminal.
The first hold up of estate workers returning from their native place at Korangani by Thankayya and barber Muthu ( The only barber who ever said that my hair was beautiful, I was bald by thirty) was a sensation for the people of Munnar. But they were not arrested.

The second reported robbery was at the Gap, (not far from the signage that announced his legend today) it earned him the name Malai Kallan. The Tamil robin Hood. This time he was arrested. I had heard nothing of him for all these years, till this morning.

I had to spend the night in Munnar as my work there did not finish in time. Though my stay was arranged at a good hotel I preferred to stay with my cousin. He was much elder to me & had spend all his life in Munnar. He knew the nooks and corners of the place and all those who lived there.

On my mentioning Malaikallan Thankayya a smile crept to his face. He walked up to his bookshelf and returned with a file. He took out a news paper cutting for me. The Malayalam 4M daily carried a photo of the sign board and a sketch of the Kallan from it. It described with flourish the legend of the Malaikallan, how he exploited the rich and helped the poor. It mentioned the Tamil movie 'Malaikallan' based on our hero.

My cousin smiled his usual smile. Thankayya had worked in his workshop for a few years after school. He was honest and well mannered. According to my cousin It was the barber Muthu who waylaid a group of workers who owed him money, explaining the absence of a formal complaint and arrest. But that gave Thankayya's step father the idea to stage the second incident. 
Though the movie was made much earlier the hero of the film was fresh in the memory of the people of Munnar at that time as it was screened in Munnar only a year ago. So Thankayya became Malai Kallan for them.

People who knew Thankayya helped him prove his innocence in court. His mother left the estates with him as soon as he was released, waiting only to collect her dues from the factory. Thankayya finished his schooling & joined Government service. He rose to be the director of the Tourism dept by the time of his retirement.

The sketch of 'The Kallan' on the signage was made by himself, my cousin says. He had come to meet my cousin in Munnar before his retirement. He had asked about me too. 

I was glad that he remembered me. The Malaikallan's first friend.

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