Thampachan - A Friend
An old story and an old cursed treasure are discovered by the writer in Travancore after exploring an old attic in the family house. From Guest writer Job Xavier
Christmas time always finds me busy, with my own cottage industry of recycling greeting cards from the old ones my father has stored in the attic. Although most people have now switched to sending e-greetings, the joy of getting a nicely worded card cannot substitute even the most animated e- card. And since everyone in my family has taken a decision to keep sending Christmas cards every year, the stock of the old cards rarely runs dry. In the attic, I normally spend a few hours rummaging through these old cards, selecting the ones with the least writings in ink and if the cards are exceptionally pretty ,I tear out the inside pages and adding some artistically designed paper, make a brand new card and send to some friends and relatives far away from home. Some of these cards were so well appreciated that I keep getting queries as to where I buy them from.
Last year I decided to visit the attic rather early, in November itself as I had plans to travel and even spend Christmas abroad with a relative. It was important that I finish my annual recycling of cards as a number of relatives and friends looked forward to my cards, forming an essential part of their Christmas collection. With leisurely abandon, I went through all the old wooden boxes my father had kept and I realised that some of these had not been opened for years. Going through some of them was so exhilarating an experience that I barely noticed the passage of time .While I found a lot of material to arouse my artistic interest, I was fascinated by a bundle of palm leaves that was used in the old days as writing material by my forefathers and with great difficulty, I could discern the letters and the writing in these leaves. Written in a neat hand, they became very clear when I rubbed some ash over the letters. Written in a flowery and stylish Malayalam that was often difficult to comprehend, I had a trying time going through the lengthy introduction to obviously what turned out to be the prologue to an interesting story regarding something apparently hidden in a faraway place.
As the language and the syntax used were getting more and more difficult, I decided to take the help of an older friend who has better acquaintance with the earlier language and was able to translate a highly literary narration into something I could understand. Together, we went through the palm leaves, which ran into 92 leaflets with enough words to fill a modern book of at least 200 pages. What emerged was a story so fascinating as to keep the two of us awake for a full night till we came to the end of the tale.
Before the days of roads and bridges, my village formed the northern end of the state of Travancore and the tip of the village adjoining the river that separated it from Kochi, with a check post and all the paraphernalia associated with the boundaries of two kingdoms .And as in most such places, my village also had a band of men who would defy the Customs officials, and deal in smuggled goods to make a tidy sum. The local hero in these exploits was a person named Varky, a tall, fair and handsome man who in his days is said to have generated a lot of folklore, most of them relating to acts of bravado and how he used, as a matter of habit, to make fools of the Authorities.
Varky was romantic too; the story is told of how this handsome, young and carefree hero fell in love with the beautiful girl of a well known family that obviously would not have allowed their beloved daughter to marry a hooligan .But the girl was equally mad with love for him and defying all odds, decided to get married to him. Her powerful family was determined to prevent the marriage to save their honour. The wily Varky managed to get the girl to escape from the house and reaching a faraway place, he got the marriage solemnized with a thali chain in his hand and a dagger at his hip, ready for any eventuality.
Though in perfect bliss for a while, Varky’s luck seems to have run out soon and he was shortly captured by the Police and with increasing age and rough handling by his captors, he died in jail in his fifties, leaving behind a widow and three children, to fend for themselves in the world. Soon after, the woman and children were taken away by one of her relatives and no one heard of them anymore.
The narrative often spoke of Varky’s journey to a distant place to the north of Malabar after each of his successful smuggling outings. Though the early anecdote did not reveal much about these journeys except the constant mention of one Thampachan,the latter half suddenly turned the full attention of the story as it were, onto a place called ‘Chira’ in the north of Malabar, where Varky is reported to have been meeting Thampachan often. Though Chira by itself does not denote a proper name as the word in the language stands for a bank near a stream or a muddy field, we were struck by the repetitive use of the word as a place name and even more so when elaborate guidelines were provided for reaching this place. Our curiosity was soon rewarded when we read on and discovered, not entirely to our surprise that Varky had indeed been putting away a sizeable amount of his earnings with Thampachan whom he definitely trusted. These amounts were to be made available to his wife and children in the event of, as he feared his untimely death. As ill luck would have it, his wife knew nothing of this legacy and having been removed from all contact with their husband’s associates probably could not be contacted by Thampachan.
The writer of this chronicle who had met Thampachan and knew of the legacy, had put down every detail, hoping someday to get in touch with someone who might know the lady and her children How this parchment came to be in the attic in my father’s old house was a mystery not explainable by any in the family. But one remark towards the end of the document mentioned clearly that Thampachan was a magician well versed in the art of black magic and he had buried the treasure in his own compound with a curse attached that anyone who found it and did not return to Varky’s wife and children would go mad and die of leprosy, a curse frightful enough to deter, we felt, even the most adventurous.
As usual with such stories, though fascinating in themselves, we lost track, with getting back to the normal affairs of day to day living. As if by pure chance, I had gone to visit the old father of a neighbour and as the old man loves to keep any visitor engaged with talk of the wonderful old days, I let myself in for a good chat and we chatted for a long while; of the old village life and the wonderful things his generation had to eat and drink. On a hunch, I asked him if he had heard of our recent acquaintance Varky .For a moment he seemed rather lost and thinking that I had asked the wrong person, was about to change the topic when he seemed to have some difficulty speaking up. While I waited thinking if our long conversation had tired him, he spoke and in very soft tones, told me that he knew Varky very well and could tell me a lot about him though he had not met Varky personally.
Happy that I would hear a lot more of this fascinating character, I was pleasantly surprised when the good man started saying, “Yes I know a lot about him, a lot more than anyone else alive. I know exactly what he looked like, the clothes he wore at his wedding, and the way he parted his thick hair and even the even the last words he spoke to my grandmother before he went on his last journey where he eventually died.
“Yes” he continued, “I am even supposed to resemble him a great deal”
Before I could express my astonishment, he continued “Do you know that I too married almost like him?”
Of course I had heard that he had a torrid love affair before he married his love who even now was an elegant and stately lady who had presented him with a lovely daughter who was married into a known family. Coming in the wake of my own recent introduction to the hero of our conversation, this revelation was too much for me to assimilate in one sitting. Without thinking much, I asked him whether he had at all heard of any legacy left behind by Varky and was even more surprised when he said that his grandmother had told him about it but as no one quite knew anything more than a few vague details, they had decided to leave it at that; as the fanciful musings of a distressed soul worshipping her hero who died so young. Common sense told me to shut up then and not excite the old man till I had discussed the issue thoroughly with at least my friend and may be go through the leaflets one more time.
A quick reading of the palm leaves and putting together the version I had heard from Varky’s grandson; we had no other option but try our hand at finding the hidden treasure.
Preparations were made for our journey to the place we had read about in the parchment in my attic and with some encouragement from the old relative and grandson of Varky, we set off in right earnest. It was easy enough to find the town mentioned in the narrative, but we had a lot of difficulty getting to the ‘Chira’. As expected, this word by itself meant very little as it denoted the literal term for a bank which could be anywhere. Realizing the futility of our task, we decided to stay overnight at a small hotel and almost immediately struck up conversation with the owner who was rather curious to know of our trip to such a place which had almost nothing to offer a tourist. As luck would have it, my friend asked him if he had heard of Thampachan, a famed magician. Of course he had and thinking we had come from far to seek the man’s services, told us that he had died a long time ago and although some of his descendants were now carrying on after him, they were no match and hardly attracted much attention, let alone magic shows. But the hotel owner could tell us where exactly to find Thampachan’s earlier abode which he said now stood abandoned for decades.
We found an old, run down house, with weeds growing all around. There was no one around and an eerie silence hung around the remains of the hut. Realizing that any treasure to be found might be buried, we did not want to draw attention by digging in broad daylight. That night, scared, with our hearts in our mouths, we dug up a good deal of the place quitely and turned the inside of his hut into a mine, going deep but turned up nothing. The following day was spent in going through the manuscript for the umpteenth time, looking for hidden clues which my friend was sure, existed. We dug around the house for two more nights but got nowhere. With no more clues, we decided to try for one last time the next night, resigning to the fact that we were perhaps not destined to get it or probably someone else has already beaten us to it.
On the first day, I had been rather fascinated by a large stone idol that stood in the yard and on our last night there, I told my friend of my desire to explore the idol. My friend, the more knowledgeable in the occult, tried to dissuade me from going further saying that idols and artifacts used by magicians were best left untouched.
I was rather adamant and started hacking at the solid granite. The outer layer gave way after a long struggle and we were fascinated to see another idol, this time, in a reclining position, with a bulging belly. Though not exquisitely carved, it had a certain beauty that was appealing. I lifted the piece and found it rather heavy. On an impulse my friend snatched it from me and started tugging at the belly and what seemed like a button attached to it.
“It has to come off “he said and sure enough, we could see a gap where the joints held. Working feverishly we praised open the belly and whooped with joy when a big and heavy bundle tumbled out. Opening the tightly bound leather bag, we found a large number of gold pieces.
Back in our room, we counted the pieces; there were 518 shiny gold slabs, each weighing a good bit. In the bag was a letter written by Varky to his wife which said,
‘Dear one, during my life time I could not provide you with the luxuries you were used to. But we had a happy time. I have saved up this gold and for fear of the police, have kept 520 gold pieces with my trusted friend Thampachan who will reach them to you if anything should happen to me. They should see you and the children through a lot many years. With love, Varky.’
Below that was written in a neat hand ‘You will find them all here minus two pieces I used, to buy the idol. Thampachan. ‘
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A.J Job Xavier
Mumbai, May 2015