Any deficiencies in the story is regretted. Will be polished later. But please feel free to point them out.
Kochu Neeli was born in a remote place, far from the hustle and bustle of the city. She has only heard of pattanam, which can be reached by walking for long hours to the nearest village and then riding something called a bus. Kochu Neeli hasn’t seen a bus ever. But one day along comes Sharadamma and whisks Kochu Neeli away from her parents, to the city of Trivandrum or Thiruvananthapuram, the alias it goes by in the present. Sharadamma wants someone to help her with the housework. Kochu Neeli’s father pockets the money from Sharadamma, and promptly forgets the existence of Kochu Neeli even before the car is out of sight. Sitting with her cloth bundle tightly clutched in her hands, Kochu Neeli looks in wonder within and without. The insides of the car is as interesting and awe-inspiring to her as the passing scenery, and the huge snorting brutes called buses plying the roads.
Eventually Kochu Neeli reaches Thiruvananthapuram. It is so different from her tiny hamlet of a few huts. She stares in wonder at the buildings made of mortar and brick, at the tarred roads, the people, and the vehicles. She has only seen houses with mud walls and thatched roofs. People in her village mostly move around on foot, or sometimes, by bullock cart. Only one man has a rusty cycle which he rides huffing and puffing. Kochu Neeli stares at everything around her in awe and finally, unable to contain herself, exclaims,
Ente Daivame! Enthoru VALYA pattanam! (OMG, what a BIG city) Ethra pokkamulla kettidangal! (What tall buildings)
Sharadamma finds this amusing to say the least. Big city? This onam kera moola (slang for ‘this hole of a place’) called Thiruvananthapuram? Not that Sharadamma dislikes her naadu(land), but since she has been to Mumbai, she feels she knows what a city truly is. Her trip had been to her daughter’s house. Her daughter and her son-in-law stayed in a cooped up apartment the size of a handkerchief, somewhere in the suburbs of Mumbai. It had all luxuries, but Sharadamma did not like it one bit and so never returned for another visit after that. One day while there, they, her daughter and son-in-law, had taken her on a bus ride to see Mumbai. That is when she had seen the very tall buildings. There was that grotesque multi-storeyed house too, where some rich man or other lives. Sharadamma does not remember his name, but knows he is some big shot. She says none of these things to Kochu Neeli. Instead, she looks at her and says disdainfully,
“You call this a city?! You should go to Mumbai! Now that is what a big city looks like. And these buildings are nothing but pygmies next to those there. So many very, very tall buildings!”
The driver stops the car right in front of a tall building and Kochu Neeli gets out along with Sharadamma and stares. She is still trying to imagine a city bigger than this pattanam, and buildings taller than this block of Heera Apartment (she does not yet know its name) where Sharadamma resides in. She cannot, so gives up. She decides Sharadamma is lying, but keeps the thought to herself. There just cannot be any city bigger than Thiruvananthapuram or buildings higher than the ones she noticed, she decides. If they make buildings any taller than this apartment block, wouldn’t it touch the Moon? She quickly closes her eyes at the thought and chants a small prayer to herself. Moon is their God’s abode. Kochu Neeli knows that no good comes of humans getting too close to God’s abode. Gods are an easily provoked lot, prone to jealousy if humans try to best them.
Soon Kochu Neeli is put to work in Sharadamma’s house. She has a lot to do and learn. Sharadamma is an efficient teacher and also a taskmaster. The first time Sharadamma shows her how to use the flush in the washing convenience, Kochu Neeli runs out of the toilet, terrified at the sound of the gushing water. What magic could that be? But by and by Kochu Neeli settles down, overcomes a lot of her fears and becomes adept at managing the day to day works of the house. She learns that apart from the daughter in Mumbai, Sharadamma also has a son and that this apartment she stays in belongs to him. She also finds out that her son has been asking Sharadamma to go live with him and family, and that she has been refusing steadfastly all these years. That America cannot be reached by train or car is the main reason that Sharadamma gives for refusing to visit. Kochu Neeli does not understand what a train is.
One day Sharadamma is all atwitter. Sharadamma’s son and family are coming home. Kochu Neeli hears her mention aeroplanes. Sharadamma tells her what a plane is. She tries her best to imagine a metal bird with people in its tummy and fails miserably. She is anxious about the metal bird inadvertently hitting and destroying the Moon. But she has a lot to do now that she keeps aside her fearful thoughts and concentrates on the work at hand. Sharadamma too chips in as there is lot to do and the pair of them get down to making a lot of goodies that Sharadamma’s little grandsons might want to eat. They fill containers with murukku, oma pori, ari unda and more such delicacies Kochu Neeli has only now learnt to make.
Finally d-day arrives. The metal bird lands, as Kochu Neeli thinks of it. She had been praying that it would land safely. Sharadamma’s son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren troop into the house in due course. Kochu Neeli stares open-mouthed from behind the kitchen door at the new arrivals. They look so different, hair, attire, the strange way they talk, everything. Food is served and eaten amidst chatter and lots of laughter. Finally things quieten down. Sharadamma’s son says he wants to rest and goes into the bedroom. The daughter-in-law also follows suit. The grandsons are on the drawing room sofa, peering into something rectangular, like a phone, with concentration write large over their faces. Kochu Neeli wonders what they are up to.
Finally Kochu Neeli is done with the kitchen work. She wipes that last the plate clean with the dry towel as Sharadamma has shown her to do. Now she can sit down and give rest to her aching back and legs. Just then she hears the door bell and scrambles to her feet. Sharadamma waves her down and goes herself to open the door. In walks Thresiakutty as she usually does round about this time. She is Sharadamma’s friend from the apartment across who stays all by herself. Kochu Neeli knows how both the friends like to chat. She likes to sit listening to all that they talk about.
“Vanno?” (Have they come?), asks Thresiakutty
Sharadamma nods happily.
“Urangukaya…” (They are sleeping)
She points to her grandchildren who are busy to even look up. They are now lolling on the carpet. Sharadamma regales her friend with tales of their achievements which her son has updated her with. Slowly the conversation tapers off and the friends now talk sporadically of this and that in a desultory way. As is wont to happen at such times, Sharadamma skilfully brings the conversation back to the high point of her life, her visit to Mumbai. Kochu Neeli’s ears perk up. She wants to hear again about the tall buildings. Hearing of it never failed to fill her with dread and at the same time excitement too. Sharadamma starts off as usual with the first step of her trip, the packing of the different pickles and other goodies for her daughter and son-in-law, and goes on to the bus ride she took with them, and eventually the tall buildings she saw.
Thresiakutty has been to foreign lands a few times to visit her son and his family. She has not gone anywhere since a few years before Sharadamma has moved in next door. The reason is simple. She lost her son and family in a plane crash. She is now all alone. She does not see any reason to tell Sharadamma that she has taken flights across continents, been inside taller buildings, and seen bigger cities. Being a listener by nature, she simply listens to her friend and lets her chatter wash over her own loneliness. She has heard Sharadamma’s story almost every other day the past year. Yet she listens once more in rapt attention for the nth time, trying to fill her own loneliness with the chatter of her friend.
“What a city, Thresiakutty! The height of some of the buildings!” Sharadamma says, for the nth time too. “Believe me, they truly touch the sky. They are the tallest in the world, you know!”
In the kitchen Kochu Neeli listens with wonder filling her being. She tries to imagine a building touching the sky and feels her hair stand on end. Of course, the buildings should never touch the Moon or the Moon would be defiled and the humans cursed. She knows that.
Meanwhile, the grandsons have stopped playing and are listening to Grandma, a smile on their face. At the last sentence from Sharadamma, they openly snigger. Sharadamma peers at them through her glasses and asks,
“Enthaada kuttikale?” (What’s up children?)
“Ammamma (Grandma), you don’t know a thing. New York is a bigger city than Mumbai. It has taller buildings too! In fact there are many other cities that have skyscrapers taller than those in Mumbai!” exclaims the younger of the two.
“And even they don’t touch the sky!” quips the other
Both of them dissolve into helpless laughter.
Thresiakutty looks at the curtains not wanting to embarrass Sharadamma who now sports a deflated look.
“Kochu Neeli, bring the chai for Thresiakutty!” Sharadamma calls out ignoring the boys who have gone back to their game.
In the kitchen, Kochu Neeli is faint with worry. Her hand shakes, as she pours out the tea into the cup. She knows humans are doomed. The tallest buildings in New York surely must have reached close to the Moon. The Gods must even now be planning revenge. Will she see her parents and siblings before it starts and ends too, for it had to? Tears rolls down Kochu Neeli’s cheeks. One big fat one, unknown to her, dives off her cheek and into the tea meant for Thresiakutty. The salty drop is lost in the sweetness of the tea.