Heroes don't have to be those in the limelight. Like Nnuli the petite, topless, don't-even-know-how-many-years-old relic who swept our largish compound. Her four foot figure beside the gate, with her broom over her shoulder was what one saw while stepping out of the house. This never failed to elicit utterances of irritation from the conservative individuals that considered the broom an inauspicious sight. My mother would beg Nnnooli, in vain, to lose the broom when people set out. Nnooli would then declare that her broom was an instrument that kept places clean and nothing could be more auspicious than that. I suspect she deliberately took her stance by the gate with her broom at exactly the time when people entered or exited or perhaps the broom had simply become a part of her anatomy.
The only clothing that this pint sized woman wore was a yellowing white cloth around her waist, it covered her from waist to calf. Her polished brown skin was always clean while her graying hair was ever rough and unkempt. During the monsoons when she hugged her slight body against the cold, I'd risked suggesting that she wear a blouse only to receive her angry protest against modern styles which she believed were uncalled for. So you can imagine what she thought about footwear. Happiness, to her, was a basin of gruel from rice harvested in the family fields and pieces of dry fish to go with it. She lamented the lack of both since the fields had long since changed ownership and fish was taboo in our household. Of course she could have lived in her own house, across the road and eaten what she wanted, if her drunkard and insane son, Ayyappan, hadn't beaten her out of it.
Ayyappan beat not only his mother, but also his wife and infant daughter. But to Nnnooli he was her dearest son. Whatever she got, she gave him until my mother started a post office account in her name. Nnnooli did have another son, Koran who had run away to Malaaya several decades before. The story goes that he had sent her a letter from there. Unable to read, she had given it to her then master to read it and it just got lost. The master's flippancy did not anger her, nor did the tragedy of a long lost son defeat her. She simply believed that he would come one day and when her property was divided among her children, she insisted that a share be retained for Koran too.
Nnnooli's sparse attire was not because of shortage. Her wooden box, which she cleaned regularly and scattered with naphthalene balls, was full of new mundus, thorthus and veshtis. These she wore when she went to Tirunnavaya every full moon day of Karkkidakam to perform the rites for departed souls. Once my parents and I took her to the Guruvayur temple about 2 hours from our place and she got lost in the crowd. Our search was futile and we were desperate. We had no idea if she had money on her, besides she was illiterate. The police was informed. We returned home, not knowing what to tell her crazy son. And who should be waiting at the gate with her broom, but the delightedly smiling little old Innooli! We hugged her in relief while she proudly related how she had asked her way around, hopped into a bus, demanded the conductor to take her to Valancherry even without payment.
I loved to watch her work, eat or bathe, and sometimes would ask her to sing her old songs. With a laugh she would favour me with the tuneless strains of quaint songs of bygone days, the words strange to my young ears. Occasionally she spoke of her husband Krishnan whom she had married as a child, loved much and lost. She reminisced about Krishnan's mother and her patient efforts with the playful child that Nnooli was. She would intersperse her chatter with imitations of people, including me. Whenever I left home to hostel or later work and even later to my husband's place, she would have one request - naphthalene balls for her wooden box. She once asked me for a nose stud and I got her one with a red stone. She didn't have a piercing. But the day she got it, it shone bright on her reddened nose. Apparently she had pierced her own nose with the stem of the stud! The nose ring and a gold chain on her bare bosom made her even more beautiful.
Nnooli was ageless, but as the years flew by, she began to get disoriented. Her sweeping went on the whole day. She would rescatter the leaves that she had just swept and sweep them all over again. She would shake her broom at the drumstick tree for shedding its leaves and shout loud curses at it. She had a store of the choicest bad words for the hapless fauna that my poor mother had to hear through the day. She would scold the weeds that she pulled out, daring them to reappear at their own peril. She ignored my mother's entreaties to her to have her meals on time . Her work had become her life, her eyes recognised the soil and the grass and the dry leaves. And when she looked at us or her family, it was as if we were strangers.
It got so bad that the broom had to be wrenched out of her hands and she was taken to her own house. Without her work, Nnooli's life probably had no meaning. She ate less and less each day. Her body that had never had an ounce of extra flesh became thinner than ever. That was her condition when I arrived home for the holidays. I went to her house and she lay there like a child, a white cloth around her waist, the nose stud and gold chain sparkling against her burnished brown skin. Ayyapan's wife told me that Nnooli kept talking solely about my brother, me and my parents. I sat by her and she was calling out our names, but she looked at me with unknowing eyes. They told her who I was but it made no difference. I realised that for, her Anu Thambratty was some one else who had watched her eat and requested songs and got her naphthalene balls.
That evening she died. My mother gave the post office savings which Nnooli had instructed be used for her funeral. Of course there was much more remaining for her children to share as always.
I don't know why I think of Nnooli as a hero. I don't know if this post has done justice to her .
I look at the compound of the house and see it overrun with weeds and scattered with dry leaves as if they too missed Nnooli's scolding endearments