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10 April 2008

Of Mischievous Sprites

I have a tale to tell about a Kuttichathan. For those of you who do not know what that means, how shall I explain? Can I call it a ghost? No. A vampire? No, not at all. A poltergeist? Well, maybe, but that is not exactly it, either. For those of you Keralites who know your ancestral homes, the legends that abound around them and the pranks that are played without your knowledge, a 'Kuttichathan' needs no introduction. For others, I really cannot explain him to my satisfaction or yours.

Suffice it to say he does exist.

Ah well, maybe some things are better unexplained. My personal Kuttichathan is at my shoulder prodding me to set his story down. How do I know? Well, I have just lost sight of a paper I laid on this very table only a few minutes ago, that's how I know.
But, oh, I have twisted things about. What a way to tell a story. It is a shame for a teller of tales to get before herself. Every story must needs begin at the beginning. For there, in the beginning, is the seed of all things to come. So wait awhile and rest, and hear me out with patience.

In the beginning there was a small flat in a city that was once called Bombay. They have changed it to some outlandish name now, but I am old-fashioned, so I shall call it by the name it had been called for ages. So, in the beginning there was a small flat in Bombay. A tiny little flat, where the living room doubled as a bedroom in the night and the single bedroom doubled as an everything-room in the daytime. Where the kitchen-window served as a meeting place for crows and pigeons, and the kitchen itself as a dining room. Where you opened your window and looked straight at your neighbour's kitchen. And all these rooms were so piled up with things that you couldn't stand in the middle of it and twirl your arms without hitting something or someone.

The point I am trying to make is this: you couldn't hide anything in any of these rooms because there was no place for anything to be hid.

I now come to the crux of the matter -- in spite of having place only to stand and breathe, we still managed to lose a startlingly large number of things. My husband's life insurance policy, our cupboard keys, my mother-in-law's change purse, the house keys, odd bits of paper that you never think you need until you lose it and suddenly it becomes a matter of life and death to get your hands on it, every pen in the house (especially pens), oh, all sorts of things. Of course, we ransacked the house, turning it upside down, or inside out if you prefer, looking for all the things we lost. And of course, we either found them in places where we were very sure we had NOT kept them or we never found them at all.

In tones ranging from the angry to the exasperated to the whining, we all said, quite emphatically, that we really had kept this or that or the other here, but of course, someone must have moved it! It was as if the louder we said it, the less culpable we were. My husband sifted through the dustbin every other day looking for things lost, under the vague belief that if it was not anywhere in the house, it had to be in the trash. Finally, exasperated beyond belief, my mother-in-law said, “I really can't think where these things disappear to. We must be having a Kuttichathan in the house.”

Now, dear people, I must apologise. Cast your eyes at the first paragraph, and discerning readers that you are, you will at once notice that this is where the explanation should come in. But since you would have already discerned what or who a Kuttichathan is, I shall now proceed with the rest of the story. Allow me.

So, now, all was explained. At least, to my discerning mind it was. I was sure I even knew where it lived. My husband had an ancient radio on which he used to listen to his favourite Sangeet Sarita program. It had been placed lovingly on an even more ancient shelf in the living room, a shelf that looked as if it had never been touched since the day he came into the house as a six-month-old baby 39 years ago. On his return from his first visit to the US, he discovered much to his chagrin that his mother had sold the radio to her favourite raddiwallah. In fact, the shelf itself had been given away and in its place was a spanking new entertainment centre, with a new TV to boot.

After hearing this story, I was quite sure that the Kuttichathan angry at losing his old home, must have shifted behind the TV, and not finding it quite to his liking (after all, it wasn't quite so dusty, or crowded now), had decided to play mischief. But, I digress.

I was talking about how I was sure the Kuttichathan was not a figment of my mother-in-law's imagination. After all, if there was a Kuttichathan loose in the house, it explained how my favourite pearl bracelet that I was sure I had kept safely inside my cupboard (and which had inexplicably disappeared when I looked for it a week later) was discovered behind the amplifier in the living room. My husband, I think, remained unconvinced. Oh, he did say, that time he lost his favourite Parker pen, that he rather thought that the Kuttichathan had it, but as he continued to look under the sofa cushions at the same time, I do not think he was a true believer.

I, for one, had begun to believe wholeheartedly in the presence of the Kuttichathan. After all, he gave us a readymade alibi. In any case, whether we believed in him or not, he was a constant presence in our conversation every time something was misplaced. He lived in our already crowded consciousness for nearly 4 years.

It was then that we had to come to the US. In the melee of relocation, I think we left our pet Kuttichathan behind. In any case, for nearly two years after we came here, we had no trouble finding our things. As time passed, we conveniently forgot the exasperation of looking for misplaced objects. All went well, until I returned to India with my son to bring my mother-in-law back with me. The trip was uneventful, and we duly returned after five weeks, bringing back bags and bags of goodies to keep us going until the next trip home.

Of course, after two years blissfully free from arguing about whose fault it really was that we lost such and such, and trash being something we discarded without a second glance, I had quite forgotten our old pal. My mother-in-law had complained of feeling lonely; how were we to guess that our very own Kuttichathan shared the feeling? He probably felt betrayed that we left without taking him along. In any case, the first inkling I had about his presence was when I noticed the absence of our bags on the airport carousel. Remember? The bags filled with goodies?

My moans of anguish were drowned by my mother-in-law's very real distress. She had stepped into the US at the end of August, and she had no clothes to wear! Everything, but everything, went downhill after that. It was as if he was punishing us for daring to leave him behind.

In the intervening years, he has made life as miserable as he could. Anything that could be lost was lost. My purse, our doctor's bills, my son's homework, credit card bills, and oh, I forgot, pens! It seemed that he hadn't gotten over his pen fetish. Some things turned up of course, in the most unexpected places, but others have been consigned to the happy hunting grounds of the unforgotten yet irreplaceable. My husband half-believes in the existence of the mischievous sprite, but he cannot bring his logical, trained engineer's mind to fully believe in something or someone whose presence is only dimly guessed at. Of course, his logical, trained engineer's mind does not stop him from continuing to dig into our trashcan every other day. I am beginning to suspect, though, that he is on his way to becoming a true believer, especially when I hear him muttering dire things about the fate of the Kuttichathan if only he could get his hands on him.

I, on the other hand, am beginning to rather like the character. Mischievous he may be, frustrating it definitely is to not be able to find something you were sure you had kept on the table only a minute ago, but, oh, what a relief to sit back when you are sure whatever is lost is not anywhere around, at least not where you expected it to be, and say, “It is the Kuttichathan again.” And not feel the slightest degree of self-blame.

Some of you must have experienced inexplicable things happening in your houses. Well, don't look far, it has to be a Kuttichathan. Or a Brahmarakshas. Or a poltergeist, for want of anything better to call it. A Kuttichathan by any other name would be just as mischievous.

We went to India this December, and bless me if our pal didn't hitch a ride back. Maybe he was feeling nostalgic too. Maybe he wanted to bring back his personal stack of everything he had pinched from us over the years, so he could set up a home away from home in the US. Who is to tell? Anyway, in travelling between Bombay-Calicut-Trichur-Bangalore-Trichur-Bombay we missed (you will notice I do not say 'lost' anymore) our son's shoes, our house keys, the suitcase keys, books, a sari blouse… We drove our families mad searching for stuff. Every time we found something, we lost something else.

Our families think we are incredibly careless. But I know we are being framed. I tell you it is the Kuttichathan. It has to be. If not, how can you explain two loss-free happy years? We have been back in the US now for over a month and a half and the saga of lost things continues. All I can say is that Kuttichathans make extremely loyal pets. You may leave them but they won't leave you.

© Anuradha Warrier
2002

6 comments:

  1. This is so nicely written! I like it!

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  2. This is so nicely written! I like it!

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  3. I have a what did you call it? a kuttichathan (I'd to scroll up to see how to spell it) at home too. It (he?) routinely takes my office papers away. Is he the same as a 'brahmarakshas'? That is what (or who) I'm familiar with.

    (As you can see, I'm whiling the night away reading your blog.)

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  4. I'm glad you found my blog useful as an insomnia cure. :) To answer your question, no, a Brahmarakshas is a Brahman who a) has not passed his knowledge on b) has not followed the strictures that govern the life of a Brahman c) died an unnatural death. You pick.

    A kuttichathan is a mischievous spirit; originally supposed to have been created by Shiva to kill Bringasura. He was later sent to earth. Hmm, wonder why?

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