Odayil Ninnu – a Malayalam story

December 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

A man’s childhood is the shortest in his/her lifespan; although he is said to grow out of it by 12 into an awkward teenager, for all practical purposes, his childhood memories are only of 6 or 7 years, beginning more often from his 5th year, the first 5 years he is too young to remember anything.  And so, those comparatively short 6 or 7 learning years are the most impressionable years of his lifetime and he carries them through life.


In my case, too, the stories I distinctly remember and the characters finely etched in memory are very, very few, even though in later life I did read quite a lot of books.  The following story is one of those very few that left an indelible imprint in my memory.


It’s a Malayalam novel titled, “Odayil Ninnu” (loosely translated, From the bank of a river) by P. Keshava Dev, an author of some repute then.  It formed a part of my school syllabus when I was in the IX or X class in the early 1960s.


The chief protagonist of the story is Pappu.  As a child he is a bully and terrorizes the neighborhood with his practical pranks.  People in the village stream into his house and relate to the parents the tales of woes that his pranks and deeds caused them.  All efforts by his parents to reform his fail and, in desperation, his dad drives him out of the house.  The mother’s heart, however, cannot bear the thought of her dear son going famished and she, when the father is not around, feeds him stealthily.  There is this famous line in the story to reinforce a mother’s unrestrained, unbound love for her kids, “There is only one court of law that forgives all crimes – it’s a mother’s heart”.


There is a touching scene in the story when Pappu bids farewell to his village.


As he grows up he becomes a rickshaw-puller but his hallmark of a boisterous child remains.  For all his hardy exterior, however, he has a soft inner core.


One day he finds a little 5-year-old girl crying alone beside the banks of a river (hence the story’s title).  That’s where the hinge of his Fate turns.


He learns she is a fatherless child and the reason why she was weeping was she had lost what her mother had told her to buy and bring home.  He pacifies her, gets the things she had lost and takes her home.  Their poverty moves him and his rudderless life suddenly finds a new direction.  He instantly develops an affinity for them and resolves to help them and bring up the girl as his own daughter.  He starts visiting them every day with their daily necessities.


Her mother in the initial stages has serious misgivings about his daily visits and his ulterior motives for helping a wretched family.  As days pass her fears melt away, she begins to like him and persuades him to make their home his own.  He then moves in.


The girl adores the ‘uncle’.  She is the apple of his eyes and his entire universe revolves around her.  He works harder than ever before to give her a good education and to see that she suffers from no complexes in the company of her friends or classmates.


She grows up to be a vivacious, voluptuous teenager and falls in love with a well-off boy in the neighbourhood.  In order to meet her ever-rising life-style Pappu has to slog it out for long hours unmindful of his own failing health through malnutrition.  The first tell-tale sign of his failing health is his recurring coughs, the early warning symptom of TB.


There is a subtle, yet marked, slow change in the girl’s behavior towards her uncle.  She finds him to be a rustic, illiterate man always in shabby clothes and doing a profession that is something below her new-found status and dignity in society.   She abhors the unsaid relationship between her mother and Pappu.  Gradually her disliking turns into loathing for Pappu.  She keeps her background away from her boyfriend and never takes him home giving some excuse or the other in spite of his keenness in knowing more about her.  She fears she would lose him forever if she were to tell all.


Her lover, as it turns out, is much more mature and understanding.  On his own he unravels her background and makes her realize the greatness of Pappu and the sacrifices he had made for her sake.


By then Pappu is too ill but he keeps on with his rickshaw-pulling as he does not want to be a burden on anyone.  The story ends with the unending coughs of Pappu in the distance.


The change in behavior of the girl as she grows, towards a man whom she had adored once is not something unique; we do find such instances in real life.  The genesis of the problem is, we say goodbye to our commonsense – the heart losing to head – and needlessly tie ourselves into knots fearful of the society, the moral crusaders who are much more skilful hiding their own skeletons.


There is an apt quote that succinctly sums up our irrational thinking, “If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, they must be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies.


The story was later made into Tamil and Hindi films as well, with the late thespian Shivaji Ganesan doing Pappu in the Tamil film and Rajesh Khanna in the Hindi version, and both films titled, “Babu”

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