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Tit-for-tat revenge killing between RSS and CPM in Kerala has been going on for four decades. Here is our detailed story from November 2003 when the toll was 119.

Set against the placid palm-fringed beauty of northern Kerala is the world’s longest running saga of revenge. For over 30 years, local workers of the CPM and RSS have been killing each other, in the most violent manner possible, for seemingly no reason bar settling a previous score. The toll so far: 119 killed, more than a thousand maimed. And tragically the end seems to be nowhere in sight

First blood

Among those who tend the underworld’s grapevine, there is only one commandment, the  eleventh: thou shall not divulge the truth. To them, information like money, is meant to be laundered. It can be divulged for the right price but only after doctoring. It can be so exaggerated that an ordinary delinquent attains mythic proportions or so pruned as to encourage complacency about a dangerous assassin. 

This means that ‘information’ is never what it seems. It has no provenance and rarely comes with instructions on the package. And it isn’t easier to come by, when the man you are investigating has been dead for 18 years. A man who eluded one of the most secretive and biggest manhunts in Kerala but then came home once too often, and had his head blown off.

To begin with, all I have is a monochrome snap and a handful of dates. The police files on him are of little help; the shorthand accounts suggest false or pretended comprehension and leave no echoes to ponder upon. Nothing seems to have been left here. To harp on the man’s undoubted prowess in martial arts and his propensity for conducting his operations alone is to persist with the one-dimensional image already in existence: the Ronin, the renegade, the samurai with no sensei.

Considering the limited options, a good lead is the man’s moniker itself, originally that of a legendary 19th century villain, which hints at a man from the north. I start therefore from the north, Kerala’s Malabar region and epicentre of the continuing feud between the Marxists represented by the Communist Party (Marxist) or CPM and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The communists have been active in Kerala from the early decades of the 20th century while the RSS started making its presence felt only after Independence. Confrontations came about gradually, but once it started, the conflict has proved to be a protracted one. It’s a feud that was provoked by radically differing political ideologies: the RSS emphasising on the past, where the crucial components are religion and tradition, the Marxists emphasising progress which considered religion an ‘opiate of the masses’ and demanded a break with traditions like the caste system. Yet over the years that it has simmered, seemed to die down only to burst anew with horrifying violence, it has increasingly acquired the atavistic hues of plain vendetta.

It has now lasted more than 30 years and shows no sign of abating. The cost so far: 119 dead and more than a thousand maimed. There is no estimate of the value of the property destroyed by country bombs. 

Who drew first blood remains unclear with each side alleging that it was the other. Available evidence suggests that the first fatality of the feud was an RSS worker in Kannur way back in 1958. Vadikkal Ramakrishnan was at the forefront in agitating for the rehabilitation of retrenched workers following the closure of a factory and he seems to have provoked the ire of the communists who considered labour-related problems their monopoly. There is no documentation of any RSS retaliation for Ramakrishnan’s murder, probably because they were still too weak at that time. 

Grieving relative of murdered Marxist worker in Kannur

Then came the Thalaserry riots in 1971 which, in the official Marxist view, was the beginning of the feud. Initially, the violence followed the pattern of communal riots everywhere in India, as Hindu and Muslim mobs attacked each other. Then the Marxists entered the scene, ostensibly as ‘rescuers’ of the Muslims. The CPM claims that Nelliyil Mohammed Ashraf, a youth who was killed in a bomb attack, was the first martyr at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists. The CPM strategy was to avoid head-on confrontation with Hindu mobs, focussing instead on targeting select RSS functionaries. The RSS retaliated in kind. What followed was a gory instance of scorekeeping as each side notched up 20 victims before agreeing to a truce. In the next few years, the feud spread to other parts of Malabar. However, in all these places, as though by unspoken rule, each incident never involved more than a few casualties, often only one or two, and always featured hit-and-run tactics.

The declaration of National Emergency in 1975 gave the conflict a new dimension. Marxist and RSS cadres encountering each other in crowded prisons started to discover that they shared more than a common enemy in the form of Indira Gandhi’s regime—political idealism was their common calling card, however  different their respective worldviews might be. 

Thus began a period of open bonhomie and collaboration following the lifting of the Emergency in 1977. This period also saw the exponential growth of RSS membership in Kerala: in feud-prone Thalaserry taluka alone the number of RSS shakas rose three-fold from less than 20 before Emergency, to more than 60 by 1978. This growth was mainly the result of mass crossovers of Marxist cadres, especially agricultural labourers, fisher-folk and other underprivileged sections of society. An apprehensive CPM leadership began resorting to intimidation to stem the tide. Dark clouds began to gather once again and the murder of RSS swayamsevak, Ponmuda Chandran, the son of a local Marxist leader, in Kannur ended the honeymoon. The killings began again, all over Kerala. 

With the Marxist-led government coming to power in the state for the third time in 1980, CPM violence increased as a hapless police looked on. The RSS gave as good as it got, its hit squads crisscrossing the state. Kuttanadu in Alleppey district briefly came to rival Kannur as the vortex of the feud with a series of spectacular killings that saw, among others, the decapitation of notorious CPM leader Thangappan in Mancombu, and months later the murder of CPM local secretary-turned-pracharak Kidangara Vishwambaran by a Marxist team, half of whom were women. When the police fished Vishwambaran’s body from the backwaters into which, already grievously hurt, he had jumped to try and escape, they had to prise open his fingers as each hand still held a dagger. 

The Left Democratic Front government was prematurely ejected from power because law and order was beginning to collapse and in the ensuing elections, the Congress and its allies were voted to power. The night the results were announced, six RSS workers were murdered in Trichur but the next 12 to 13 years saw relative calm with only the occasional murder and retaliation. When the Nayanar government came back in 1996, the feud flared up again. Three days into its term and an RSS activist was killed in Kannur. 

In the next five years, 45 people were killed, 25 from the RSS, 20 from the CPM. The highpoint was the hacking to death of RSS pracharak and school-teacher KT Jayakrishan inside his own classroom on December 1999 in front of stunned sixth standard students. On August 26, 2003 a fast track court in Thalassery sentenced five CPM workers to death. The punitive judgement hardly appears to have sobered the CPM bosses as they are preparing to unleash an ‘unprecedented’ mass agitation against the court ruling. Revenge killings are bound to follow. They seem to have begun already: on Onam day, September 8, an RSS worker Mankothu Jayachandran was hacked to death by a CPM mob of 30 people. The saga continues…

Flowers of the dead

When it rains, Kerala is a different place. We are caught in a traffic snarl during Calicut’s evening rush hour. Rain hammers against the bus window. The gantries overhead show white directions on placid green rectangles, places you’d never want to visit. Once out of the city’s suburbs, the bus gathers speed and we pass through the bucolic expanse of north Malabar.

Between Badagara and Mahe, we have the Arabian Sea on our left and on the rugged beaches the mist blows aimlessly, while the sky is motionless and the sea lilac-grey. Intermittently, we encounter neon-lit rows of posh bungalows, shopping malls and petrol stations. It’s a landscape created by foreign remittance. 

We disembark short of Poyillur, which is on the road to Pannur and find a guide waiting. For more than 15 minutes, we climb a country road with numerous bends, the trees closing in on either side and at the steepest point, the jeep’s engine is pushed harder than it cares for. 

At the Thangal household, introductions are curt and formal and right away, we are ushered in for dinner and soon thereafter to our beds. It is only 10.30 pm but it might as well be midnight. Our room, with its teak-panelled walls, is snug but once the lights are out, it becomes disconcertingly dark. Only the treble hum of the ceiling fan, seemingly a recent acquisition in this ancient place, relieves the unfamiliarity. 

In the morning, I discover that the house is shaped like a scimitar, every detail conceived with an eye for defence. An oversized kitchen and dining chamber (both rooms are without a view) form the sword’s perpendicular portion that separates the blade from the hilt. The hilt itself is a long, narrow hall that combines the granary and servant quarters and has one of the mansion’s two entrances. From the kitchen block the whole house curves to a deadly point at the east end where the living rooms lie. The original builder must have believed that trouble would come from that direction because all the first-floor windows are huddled there like lookouts. Not surprisingly, for this was once the high road for Tipu Sultan’s invasion of Malabar and has been perennially criss-crossed by the armies of rampaging rajas. These days, it is however the safest place in the area, the present Thangal’s writ being law, his non-partisan stance making his decisions, welcome to all.

During the Moplah [as the Muslims of Malabar are popularly called] riots of 1921, a conflagration that rendered British control over Malabar ineffectual for months but also witnessed many excesses on the part of the rebels, the house had been besieged by upwards of a thousand armed men. The rebels demanded that the then thangal—granduncle to the present one—hand over the Hindu families seeking refuge there. The thangal himself had 50 Moplah retainers, all of them experts in kallari, Kerala’s renowned martial art, and to a man, they stood by their patron. The rebels couldn’t have been deterred by that alone but withdrew eventually. They probably thought that the thangal’s blood on their hands would mean bad karma . 

I had heard this story before coming here and now I ask my host about it. He recounts it, deadpan. We face each other across a mahogany table glistening like a lake, its companion chairs uncomfortable to sit on. I bring up the topic of the Kannur killings. He listens carefully before answering in his quiet and dignified style: “Sometimes, I think these parties [the CPM and the RSS] take themselves too seriously. Not long ago, in a village in this taluka, I heard of an incident where a man made a girl pregnant, then went on to marry another woman whom he abandoned as well. He was castrated. The RSS reportedly did it. A police case was filed and a witness was found. The RSS tried to dissuade the witness, failed, and then they did away with him. I hear it won a lot of local approval. You know, such ruthless vigilantism can be a good thing when it comes to loose morals.” 

Ghost town

Later in the day, armed with the Thangal’s impeccable recommendation which opened every door in town for me, I encountered the same kind of judgement from others in the area, gathered in front of stores. It seems to stem from a deep uncaring, as if they have sources of disillusionment which they can, with some satisfaction, keep in the dark. The Iritty-Pannur area has not seen anything of the feud for more than a year but the incidents of March 2002 are still alive in local memory. Four people died in a day, two each from either side in a sequence of ambush and retaliation. But for now, the situation is almost dreamlike in its normalcy: inside the local CPM party office, the tea-time dusk is only heightened by the single, un-shaded bulb. The men reclining on benches arranged in rows smoke bidis endlessly, expertly blowing smoke away from each other’s faces. R N Purshottaman, the local secretary, is a garrulous man and, while the rest remain silent, he lectures me on how the RSS is the root cause of everything—the murders, the growing communal divide, why, even the lingering underdevelopment of Malabar. 

I have heard these chestnuts before and will hear, with no more justification, something of the same from the other side too. Let’s get to specifics, I say, trying to pigeonhole the comrade, and reel out some conspicuous examples of recent CPM atrocities: especially, the beheading of a schoolteacher, an RSS pracharak, in front of his primary school class. He doesn’t miss a beat, not comrade Purshottaman, but retorts, “Revenge is regrettable but necessary if the enemy is to be deterred.” 
Fair enough, though often there is no dividing line between an act of retaliation and an unprovoked attack. But shouldn’t revenge yield to a civilised form of deterrence? I ask. In persisting with the feud, aren’t the Marxists becoming like the Bourbons, who learnt nothing and forgot nothing? 

Purshottaman’s answer is disingenuous, “A lasting end to hostilities should be their concern. The Marxist party is the acknowledged, proven instrument of progress and the Sangh Parivar is trying to usurp that role. They should stop doing that if they want us to bury the hatchet.”

Try saying that at an RSS shaka. This then is the tragedy here: no sense of the analogue, of overlapping and shared spaces, only a digital divide. It is either them or us. To the youth, who flock to either party because it is at first a refuge from rural poverty, ultimately the party becomes who they are. It gives them a tribe and a cause. The enemy is everyone else. 

The next steps are implicit in this: active violence and the possibility of violent death. Few of these young men can conceive of a long-term future. To become a phayalman (a generic term for a muscle man) and die a martyr is to be memorialised on a poster. Their faces appear in four-colour glory all over town and if their death is dramatic enough, all over the state. Faces surrounded by fists, and mouths crying defiance, with their dates. In death, the comrade or pracharak achieves what life has denied him. He is finally someone and has a wall poster to prove it.

Finished with the party office, I stroll through the town. It’s barely 8 pm and the streets are empty in an unofficial curfew. The last shops are being shut, the vertical and numbered planks slid into the groove one after the other. A man clambers on to a moped, a couple of sacks balanced behind him, and rides off into the darkness.

I come to the corner where in the afternoon I had seen a bare persimmon with its sun-bright orange fruit. Now in the uncertain light, they look sinister, like witch’s apples, turning transparent as they ripen and rot. Below them are clusters of marigold—yellow, white, pink and rust. They are grown to be used during cremation and subsequently at every anniversary to adorn the grave. These are the extravagant, abundant and long-lasting flowers of the dead. I remember the thangal’s words, his parting shot in the morning as I was putting away my notepad. “They fight each other so bitterly, basically, because they are so similar. Their aim is the same—some kind of universal justice.” 

A Perfect Assassin

In the First Information Report (FIR), the crime scene is described with almost juvenile glee. As though after a lifetime devoted to detail, the police writer was suddenly discovering that procedure meant precision, but could include precociousness as well—“north slope incline—30 degrees, south slope incline—18 degrees… material 1 (body part) resting on road bridge’s crest, almost dead centre, 5.5 ft. from left, 4.5 ft. from right, facing north-south…material 3 (body part) approximately half a kilometre from material 1…Material 2 (blood-stained newspaper) dated four days prior to the event…assailants unknown, numbering not more than four as confirmed by a police dog…crime time roughly 3.30 am…motive—political rivalry…”, and finally, as though the tidiness of the work could not resist such a conjecture, “assailants certainly not amateurs…use of sword or cleaver suggests hereditary butcher by vocation… not matching any known profiles from the surrounding districts…”

Kochappy Devassy remembers that late January morning in 1980 as unusually cold. As he left his brick-and-thatch house for the paddy fields, dawn was just breaking and the last threads of mist were clinging to the thistles. A furlong from his house, he stumbled on something and looked down at the oiled russet feathers of a dead bird glinting like tinfoil. Picking it up and turning it over, he thought it looked like one of those ruse birds that lure predators away from their nest with their brief, awkward flight. He was wondering if this was a new type of jay or hoopoe when he heard a woman scream. 
It seemed like something (someone?) had fallen into the canal. With dead bird, duffel bag and sickle, he ran to the bridge, taking a shortcut, tearing through an overgrown patch of runner beans. He saw no one on the bridge, only a vague shape like an ornamental gourd in the middle of the road. Coming closer it took him a full moment to register what, or rather who it was. He dropped his things and staggered back to the bridge’s railing and then he saw the woman who had screamed, now sitting stunned and silent on the riverbank.

Miles away, sleep still eluded Sasidharan. Outside his room, he could hear Kottayam town stir itself in preparation for another long day and he knew he had to wait for a couple of hours before confirmation reached him. The previous evening he had been to Mancombu, anonymous, casing the area for the last time, ensuring there would be no last-minute glitches. He relayed the information to the squad in their safe house and left for Kottayam. If it had gone as planned—he could positively feel the hair stand on end on his forearms—it would shock Kerala as only the Naxalite outrages had in the late ’ 60s.

Sasidharan was convinced the Marxists were bent on physically eliminating political rivals and that they had to be stopped. In Kuttanadu, the rice granary of Kerala, the refusal to countenance trade union diktats by tenant farmers, themselves only marginally better off than the agricultural labourers, combined with the growing exodus from CPM ranks to the Sangh Parivar had led the Marxists to unleash a reign of terror. Now, finally, terror would be met with terror; a severed head on a bridge ought to give the Marxist leaders and their goons some pause. 

In recounting to us what happened then, Sasidharan clearly remembers his anxiety over the four-man RSS hit squad escaping from the Kuttanadu region. It was not only the peculiar topography of the water-logged area or its preponderance of die-hard Marxist supporters, but also the fact that the police could be expected to be over-zealous because the Marxist-led Left Democratic Front was in power in the state. But the squad included Ayyappan and if anyone could get them out of a hole, it was he. 

Kannur

Ayyappan’s reputation preceded him. He was such an extraordinary abhayasi, (martial art adept), that he had acquired the nickname of a 19th century semi-mythical figure Wayanadan Thampan. His 20th century avatar was so good that subsequently the Sangh Parivar hagiographers credited him with magical powers that enabled him to be at many places at the same time. Sashidharan explains: “His operational coup de grace was to decapitate his victim with a single slash of the urumi [the five-foot flexible sword, coiled around the waist when not in use] and there was evidence of his handiwork all the way from Kannur to Kuttanadu. Here was an assailant almost invisible, completely implacable and immune to capture. It was easy to believe that he would never be killed which is what probably got him his alias, but the original Wayanadan Thampan was primarily known for his sexual exploits.” 

Kottarath Sankunni’s Aithiha Mala (1909), a quasi-historical text on Kerala’s famous personages and places, is more specific. It depicts the original Thampan somewhat in the manner of a Jekyll and Hyde, a necromancer who is actually extremely old and has to periodically seduce virgins and then murder them to hang on to his youth. Sasidharan had spent an entire week with the squad, helping them scout for the best access and exit routes and to study the target’s daily pattern. He had no prior experience in such matters but had volunteered only because of his knowledge of the region—he had been pracharak in Kuttanadu for three years—and because he had no doubt about the rightness of what needed to be done. One day, however, when he was observing the target he had a queasy feeling—not guilt, not fear—just a strange unease when he thought of the victim and the casual annihilation that awaited him.

In that excruciating week, Sasidharan says he was too excited to train a microscopic gaze at Thampan. He did notice one thing: though Thampan was unassuming and never displayed any aggression, the others circled him warily, as if he were a pit too deep to fall into. 

Sasidharan takes me to meet Gargi, a man who ‘handled’ many RSS hit men including Thampan during the ’70s and ’80s. He warns me however that Gargi is “a difficult type, very reticent and probably all you will get is a ‘feel’ of how things were done, not any concrete details.”

We meet Gargi one afternoon at a house in Trichur in central Kerala. He is in his late ’70’s , with fulvous tufts of hair in his ears and a nice rueful smile. With his walking stick and thick bifocals he has the unbuttoned look of a ghazal ustad walking in his garden. It’s almost impossible to imagine him as a mentor for political assassins. 

Finally, my immobility delivers him from his own and Gargi removes his spectacles and polishes them, slowly, methodically. By way of preface, he remarks, “Thampan was someone who wished to live at the edge of his skin. He gave no story, made no claims. The action he sought, the risks he took were a way of compensating for his extra adrenaline.” 

In his own day, 20 years ago, Gargi was known to be an extremely hard taskmaster. His ‘wards’ dreaded his bad opinion. He offered no praise; the best they could hope for was indifference. Sasidharan says Gargi kept his men relentlessly occupied, even if it was with mundane things and that this daily attention, this continuous tinkering was a way to keep these men, who were not given much to self-reflection, from questioning their fragile mortality. He sought to strip them of all identity and all ‘normal’ concerns. 

It’s almost evening before Gargi opens up a little. “Wayanadan Thampan had a mind with no warps, the mind of a good doctor. He could kill a man on the street and then go back and finish his lunch. He had no use for morals. He hated criminals, considering them vermin, but he tried to share the woes of others.” 

He remembers a trying period for Thampan in the early days of their acquaintance. An operation in Calicut failed and though everyone concerned took it in their stride, Thampan was devastated. “For close to two years, he became incommunicado,” Gargi reveals. “He began a special diet: the meat of certain snakes, that of the udumbu (the varanus), the liver of black cats, the brain of goats mixed with egg yolk, etc. I assumed he was hoping that some of their abilities would be transferred to him.” Later, Thampan told Gargi that for months he used to vomit copiously every day and had severe and unending stomach pains. One day after his self-imposed exile Gargi met Thampan in a safe house. He found him stropping his urumi on a square of hard leather. He told Gargi, “Now I am ready.”

What did Thampan look like? Gargi waves his hand, “Nondescript.” I suspect Gargi is thinking he has already revealed too much. Earlier, Sasidharan had shown me a photograph, which he refused to part with, of Thampan with two others. The light in the picture is poor and I can be certain of only a narrow, dark face, cropped hair and a moustache. Sasidharan had appended his own description: how Thampan’s short figure, though wiry and powerful, appeared to be flawed somewhere. He had a limp, rather, a list to one side. It was probably caused by some minor hip defect or maybe one of his legs was fractionally shorter. But his oblique scuttle, or at least so it seemed to Sasidharan, was part of the mystery and menace of the man, the elusive nature of his disability making it more sinister than a straightforward impediment would have.

A few days after meeting Gargi, I find in the Mathrubhumi’s archives what I had been looking for—a three-para story tucked away in an inside page reporting the death of Thampan in October 1985. “Ayyappan, an RSS activist, also known as Wayanadan Thampan, was killed by suspected Marxist party workers at Nayathode yesterday. He was stepping out of a stream, one of the by-ways of the Periyar river, having just finished his bath, when the assailants hurled country bombs at him. He died on the spot… Ayyappan’s mother, a neighbour confirmed, refused to attend the funeral, claiming she had no tears left for a son who had made so many mothers weep.’’

I tried to contact Gargi, phoning him at his Trichur place, to ask him about that melodramatic part of the report, to hear what he thought of it. He says “hello”, recognises me, enquires if everything is fine, and hears out my question. There is an audible pause, then prolonged static and I keep saying “hello”…then a click at the other end. I look down at my own instrument and mouth a last “hello” into a dead line, an unheeding past. I had somehow, somewhere, in the course of working on this story, started to romanticise people like Gargi, thinking him an old man who was not exactly cold, a rock who was not fully stone. 

The peace that failed

On the cusp of the new millennium, Kannur saw yet another round of bloodletting. What distinguished the ‘mad December’ of 1999 was the sheer sadism on either side. This time murder wasn’t enough. The victims were beheaded. Or they were killed in front of their families. Even the minor decencies of a violent feud were being jettisoned.

A shocked public tried to intervene with a flurry of peace initiatives. Former Supreme Court justice V R Krishna Iyer and other notables prevailed on top leaders from both camps to desist from provocative statements and to implement confidence-building measures on the ground. For some time, the Marxist government of E K Nayanar had been trying to smuggle in legislation restricting the activities of RSS shakas and this had stirred up things. 

 A police raid on suspected hideout

The main apprehension was that the police would be given arbitrary powers and eventually turned into a pawn of the CPM. Former Intelligence Bureau (IB) head M K Ramakrishnan says, “Every ruling party tries to influence the police but the Marxists had evolved a systematic programme to subvert professionalism and make the police partisan. Earlier, the Marxist influence used to be limited to non-coms but as some of the blatantly one-sided acts in Kannur suggest, they have a solid say with the top brass too.”

Krishna Iyer managed to persuade the Marxist leadership to relent on the question of police partisanship and to even issue a statement indicating in carefully measured terms, that they wanted to see the violence end permanently. Iyer and his team worked out a solid, tamper-proof set of proposals that would, among other things, compel both sides to ignore sporadic acts of violence “[that are] individual in scope…[and] motivated by vengeance” during the “initial incubation… and cooling-off period.”

Peace, it seemed, would finally prevail in Kannur as both sides agreed to meet in mid-2000 in Ernakulam and attest all the major proposals. On the day of the conference it was however revealed that the signatory from the CPM side would not be its state secretary or some other top honcho, but only a district-level functionary from Kannur. The top RSS leaders assembled in the city cited this as a typical example of Marxist dissembling and walked out of the conference. The Marxists, in turn, called the RSS reaction ‘reckless’ and its alacrity an indication of how, all along, they were only paying lip service to the peace process. All this was par for the Kannur course: so much of the problem there, after all, lies in the blame game. In less than 24 hours, the Krishna Iyer Recommendations, endorsed with such absolute pusillanimity by one and all, had become what came to be called, only half in jest, ‘the Krishna Iyer Retraction’. 

CPM leader, C P John does not believe mutual mistrust is the only reason why seemingly cast-iron proposals crumble here. John was one of the Young Turks, a rising star in the CPM when party patriarch E M S Namboodiripad was still active, but following serious ideological differences with the dominant faction, quit the party with one of the-then dons of Malabar, M V Raghavan, to form the CMP. He says, “There are of course, factors like ideology and vendetta but what makes Kannur such a combustible mix is the CPM’s cynicism. Many of its young leaders want the feud kept alive to advance their own ambitions and to discourage democracy in the party. In a siege-like atmosphere, transparency is the main casualty; nobody has the time or inclination to look at the political qualities of their leadership or at what private profiteering they might be indulging in.” One cannot discount an element of pique in John’s comments about his former comrades but there is no denying that the CPM’s septuagenarian leadership, renowned for red tape and respiratory failure, allows unscrupulous elements a lot of leverage. 

John adds that for the Marxists, violence and intimidation are bred in the bone and that how much ever one tries, certain beasts cannot be house trained. “Just as a leopard,” he says, “cannot change its spots, so too you can’t expect the CPM to stop trying to liquidate its opponents. Some people think that the party can be domesticated, made a pet, so to speak, which is worse.” Inside the house, the leopard can indeed be an uncongenial and incontinent companion; although once topped, tailed and turned into a handbag, it has its uses. John should know—having survived in the CPM jungle—that there is no glamour to such creatures, just violence, tribal hatred and the picayune state of the perpetually aggrieved. Once out of the jungle and into more salubrious environs, John has ruthlessly kept the leopard away, allowing only handbags through the door into his brand of politics. 

A mother’s story

“Do you know the smell of burnt hair?” asks Dr R Vijayan at Kannur’s district hospital. “It’s worse than the smell of burnt flesh.”He has worked at most of the troubled areas of north Kerala and has got to do his bit at a half-a-dozen or so of, what in medical parlance is called, ‘major incident procedures’: simultaneously attending to multiple victims torn apart by swords or country bombs. In all these areas, as though by unwritten rule, even the hospitals are segregated and, during an incident, victims from both parties never find themselves in the same place.

The doctors know the drill: once the victims arrive at the casualty ward or the temporary triage hastily set up, the resident doctor does a quick once-over, gauges the damage and then his assistants shoot the appropriate quantity of anaesthetic and then get to work with surgical soaps and scrub brushes. Dr Vijayan often joins them—with manicure scissors, magnifying glass and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, he picks at slivers of shrapnel, splinters of wood and strips of cloth along with bits of blackened, brittle skin. 

“The first time I did this, I remember thinking that it was like picking chips of old paint from a thick coat of new paint,” he says. “The thought still comes back.”Inside the casualty ward it often gets stuffy, with the many IV bottles and the drooping amber tubes and a huge pedestal fan in the corner going like crazy, and everywhere a rank medicinal odour. During the procedure, sometimes a patient, despite being heavily sedated, squirms in his bed as if it were spread with rock salt, and steam puffs out of the holes in the oxygen mask in quick, unsteady chugs. Some of the unconscious patients, reveals Dr Vijayan, even get a hard-on, which the assistants or nurses discourage with a few flicks of their fingernails—the way they would tap a morphine syringe to get rid of air bubbles, only harder. Eventually, some of the victims are saved and some are not. For Vijayan, it feels like a hard task finally ended; not done well but simply done with.“It is easier for victims to deal with the physical injuries, even the ones that end in amputation or other permanent disabilities. The mental trauma is harder to bear, the wounds there are seldom healed and this applies to some of the close relations of the victims as well,’’ Vijayan explains. 

I meet the doctor on my second morning in Kannur. I have with me a list of names, of innocent bystanders traumatised in the extreme—the eight-year-old girl who lost her right foot in an explosion but had it sewed back 10 hours later and 200 miles away at Ernakulam’s specialists hospital; the dozen or more five-year-olds who went into shock or hysteria and still wake up with nightmares having seen their young teacher’s head chopped off by bearded assailants; the man whose two sons and wife were killed while he himself, mistaken for dead, survived—yet I want to meet someone whose suffering has been forgotten, who has not been like the others immortalised in the Malayalee conscience.

Dead body of murdered RSS activist

There is a woman who lives in Kottiyur, on the road from Tellicherry to Mananthavadi whose son was killed years ago. She saw his corpse but still can’t believe he’s dead. “At times, she appears reconciled to the loss but then periodically something slips; some everyday principle of continuity. It’s as if some element that tells her where she is, in her own story, ceases to function. At least this is how the counsellor at the trauma clinic in Calicut explained her condition to me when we took her there,” Vijayan says.

That day it is raining and I tell myself it ought to get more sunny for me to be able to listen to that woman speak. So I stay put in Kannur. Next morning, the rain continues but I haul myself up to Tellicherry. At Tellicherry, I can either endure a two-hour bus journey on a ghat road in blinding rain or hire a cab. The cabbies want more money than I want to pay. I go back to the Tellicherry bus station and in the meantime the bus has left.

Looking back, it occurs to me that if I had really wanted to see that woman, document her story, I should have paid the Rs 750 the taxi men wanted for a 120 km ride. Eventually, re-prioritising my day was a much simpler option. Perhaps this dull instinct is the very reason why people remember the toddlers at the Mokeri East school than the mother from Kottiyur—some human tragedies are more convenient to access than others.

In the end, documenting human tragedies turns into a reductive ritual: exploiting the misery of the few and the boredom of many, a search for drama or irony or a sad story with a concise moral; something that can be condensed into a sound byte and filed away for reference. Like this one that Dr Vijayan recounts: “She wonders aloud to anyone who is listening what her son might look like when he emerges from hiding—hollow-eyed, clothes in tatters, lice in his hair… That she had better keep his bath ready and some warm gingelly oil…”

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