My uncle’s body glistened with sweat and sun. He was squeezing the water content out of raw rubber sheets. It’s an elaborate process, this rubber making.
Achaachan collects the sap that trickles out of the rubber tree. Small furrows are shaved into this soft-wooded tree to stream out the milky substance. This is collected in coconut shells that are fastened onto the tree. The collected sap is then poured out into Aluminium dishes. Diluted acid is poured into this to allow coagulation. The mixture is allowed to stand overnight. The next day, we kids inspect the dishes before Achaachan does. It looks like a huge piece of rectangular-shaped cheese, with water collected on top of it. Achaachan never allowed us to touch the rubber until he had washed them with water. He used huge squeezers to take out the last bit of water from these rectangular pieces of rubber. While squeezing, it is flattened out into huge white sheets that are then dried in the sun. The yellowed sheets are then packed off to the market. We never knew what became of it, after that. This was just one of the mysteries about my Achaachan’s profession.
There were others too. He had a plantation of Cocoa plants. The fruit, when pried open, would reveal stony seeds encased in fleshy white pulp. Achaachan passed on the fleshy white to us. It tasted sweet and together, with four of my cousins, we cleaned out a whole basket full of them! As we kids lay on the grass, we wondered about how this tropical fruits transformed into the cosmopolitan chocolates we gorged.
What a name we call him… Achaachan, I thought. He is my mother’s elder brother. She would ideally be the one who calls him “Achaachan”, which means ‘elder brother’ in those parts of Kerala. We grew up hearing her address this huge man Achaachan, and so the naming convention was tweaked and the word stuck. Wonder if they ever squabbled as kids.
One of them raced uphill. He yelled something about meeting under the Tamarind tree (kudam puli). We city folks puffed and panted all the way up to meet him. There he sat, feasting on a bright orange fruit. It looked like an orange that had just been peeled. The juice from the fruit escaped from the corner of him mouth and landed on his pristine shirt. I looked on with water filling in my mouth. I imagined the yellow fruit to have a pulpy sweet taste. At least that is what I thought it would be, from the expression the boy wore. I dislike tangy flavoured fruits. This, I soon figured out, was one of them. With a grimace, I walked further uphill. We were not allowed to go any further without the grown-ups. There were the ruins of an old house out there.
The soft muddy floor felt glorious beneath my bare feet. If you took the efforts, you could actually drive hard twigs into the floor. So soft, this was. The gaps on the dilapidated roof reminded me of my own mouth, with some of my milk teeth missing. You could see the sky through the roof. Cool! I ventured into one of the darker areas of the house that was. I did have some not so old memories of spending a vacation fortnight in this house. I remembered sitting in the porch that was, and staring at my grandfather’s shiny hairless head. We have sat together, him piously perched on the slab, while I dangled and swung my short legs. Drinking sweet water from tender coconuts. He rarely spoke. Sometimes, he would tie a homemade swing for me and motion me to go have fun… Funny how many memories you can stash away in the back of your head, for ages. And then, one fine day, after fifteen to twenty years, it all comes flooding back to you.
My mother called him ‘Appan’ (Father, in Malayalam). We also called him the same, not aware of the meaning of the word, in the beginning. Later on, just like Achaachan, the name stuck. For us, these Malayalam terms functioned like sweet sounding first names. I don’t remember many things about Appan. Like, I don’t know the exact date when he died. I just know that it was in April 1991. His lips looked so alive and pink that day. I don’t remember the stories he must have told me. But I do remember his chequered blue lungi. I remember the endless moments I spent sitting with him under the Badam tree, watching autumned leaves fall. I remember him descending into the family well to clean it. I remember how, even till the end, he preferred an icy cold bath. I remember how his daughter—my mother—would sit and discuss old distant relatives. Most of all, I remember the distinct smell he and everything he owned, had.
As is usual, such entries will always remain incomplete. I am never too sure how to end them.