On Sundays, our part of Akathethara gets even quieter than usual. Most of our neighbours are Christians, and they are particularly disciplined in the matter of church attendance. After the motorcycles, cars and scooters rumble out in the morning, peace settles on the land, and even the dogs don’t bark. If we listen closely, we can hear people singing in the tiny Pentecostal Church across from the old quarry.
I, of course, observe no sabbath. My Sunday mornings start just as my other mornings do, with a brisk massacre of garden pests. As I step out to get the newspaper, I flick a caterpillar off my slippers and squash it before it multiplies and defoliates every one of our trees. A couple of snails on the bottom step get the same treatment for having chewed on the lilies all night. On the way to the gate I twirl a stick through industrial-strength spider webs. And if there are chickens on the driveway, I throw stones at them.
I won’t bother apologizing for those stones, since they have no more effect than Palestinian stones on Israeli armoured tanks (and anyway, my aim is hopeless). The hens squawk and run four steps as a matter of form, then it’s business as usual. These are destructive fowl, and they breach our fence from every direction. Shanti’s chickens from the west, Ambika’s from the south, and Telephone Paul’s from the far east. They scrape the soil away from our pepper vines till the vines dry up and die. They kick our precious cow dung into the path, where it gets washed away. In one afternoon, they undo a week’s worth of leaf raking. During the summer they look for worms just where we have watered and mulched the newest plants, turning over the soil and exposing the tender roots.
Saar is pro-poultry. He reminds me that they eat up the rhinoceros beetle larvae and kill mice. When I told Ambika that Muthu had seen a baby cobra slip under the fence last week, she said that explained the ko-ko-ko from her chickens. Mrs Paulose confirms that chickens don’t squawk for nothing. When they make a noise, she says, we should go take a look.
The chickens have their natural enemies. Shanti’s own dogs used to polish off some, till she gave the dogs away. Now stray dogs do the honours, helped by cats and snakes. Hawks and kites swoop down to pick up the stragglers. Bird flu hasn’t appeared yet, but there are some unexplained deaths.
Hostilities cooled rather suddenly from my end when Dr Vaidyalingam pronounced a sentence of doom on my bones unless I built up my calcium. He recommended eggs. Shanti told me the government’s poultry farm was a good source of eggs from naadan or indigenous hens, although nothing could beat the taste of eggs from free-range hens. A week later she gave me five eggs she had got from Mini, who lives two doors away. They were varying shades of pale brown, and delicious.
Word of my egg-eating was instantly in the public domain. When I stepped to Mrs Paulose’s house to ask how to pot an anthurium, she offered to make me a bit of chicken curry. Not that she was recommending I attain her own operatic build, she said, but if I wanted to be healthier, chicken would really do the job. I explained that there was a huge gulf in my mind between egg and chicken. She listened carefully to my views, and then she offered fish curry.
Alarmed at the thought that she would wander in with a covered dish one fine day when my elderly relatives were visiting, I told her Saar doesn’t even like the thought of eggs in the house (Saar has his uses as a bogeyman). The next morning Mrs Paulose called over the fence and said she had something for me.
She was holding a newspaper-wrapped parcel and she said, don’t mind this being a little black, that’s because I smoked it. It turned out to be a bunch of bananas.
My neighbours now sneak eggs over the fence when Saar goes out of town. And I’ve cut down on the stone-throwing, at least when they’re watching.
This is part of a continuing series on life in Akathethara in Kerala.
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