E Harikumar

To The Unknown Realms

E Harikumar


The question "Now" is only in my mind. Kuttettan already knew and decided what to do next. I said I cannot do it.

"Why did you say that, Dad?" Vandana is asking.

"I could not go to that attic another time, just that."

"Dad was so afraid of it?"

"Truly, yes my darling. I was scared. I was only 15 years old. There was something dreadful on that attic. I don't know what, just a feeling that some invisible being is lurking behind watching us. Then that click sound we hear after we close the lid and move. It was not my own imagination, even Kuttettan had heard it. Not only that, the box could be opened only by me, and then the haste with which the astrologer Panikkar uncle grabbed the horoscope back from Kuttettan when he heard that my birth star was Mercury. There is something in all these, something we would never understand.

Vandana fell silent. She was contemplating. I had gone several times to that nalukettu with her. But never have I shown her the attic. I didn't even mention that such a place exists in that huge mansion. So she won't have any idea what the atmosphere would be on the top floor. Once in a month or so when we go there for a couple of days' stay, we open only two or three rooms, two rooms on the ground floor and one on the first floor. That was the room used by me and Kuttettan. Our neighbor Bhargavi Amma's daughter Devi would come and help. Her husband is in the gulf, having a good job.

"They are much better off than us." Indira used to say. It is a mild warning that I should not treat her just as a helping hand. Devi comes to help due to an old allegiance. Her mother Bhargavi Amma was working as a maid in this tharwad. Devi comes and sweeps the floor and keeps the rooms tidy, helps Indira in cooking. If I had to come back to Kochi earlier than scheduled Devi comes to stay to keep company for Indira during night. When Indira and Vandana sleep on the big bed, Devi will sleep in Vandana's small bed that is kept on the other side of the room.

What I was trying to tell is that our movements in that huge mansion were limited to all these three rooms and in nadumittam that is the middle portion with sky view. Vandana never showed any interest in getting the other rooms open. May be she was not curious enough to explore the whole house. She was only interested in the trees in the compound and the bath in the lotus pond at 8 in the morning.

Now that she knew about the chess board, she was eager to see all those places. She asked.

"And then, Dad, you didn't go with him?"

"You're talking about your uncle! If he decided to do a thing, he would do it the very moment. I had to concede finally. I went with him."

"And then?"

I was thinking, and then what happened. What I was trying to run away from, I was being dragged into that by some inscrutable force. Kuttettan was only an instrument in it. Uncle works in the field even on Sundays. Says the rice plants do not have holidays. We would be very careful not to be in his eye view, since if he sees us he would entrust us with some work and that day is spoiled. We would watch him from the verandah on the first floor. Kuttettan said. "Come."

I need not ask 'where'. I follow him as if in a drugged trance.

"What will you do with that picture?" I asked him.

"You don't know. This man, you know, he was very intelligent. Perhaps he would have hidden a note under his picture. If we get that note we could decipher the meaning of the chess board. The key to decipher the keyboard is very important."

The search was indeed tiresome. I did not know how many heavy beams we had to stoop down. I looked to the place where the writing table was lying. Yes, contrary to my expectation, it was there and I moved on quickly. Kuttettan was not watching it. There is only one object in his mind, a framed photo. He didn't even know the size of it. I think he believed that he would see it in a vertical position on one of the walls. The wall on the right side was higher compared to the left side where it is lower side of the roof. I was surprised to see the vast area on the attic. After walking for quite some time I lost my sense of direction. I asked.

"Kuttattan, how can we go back?"

Kuttettan suddenly turned to face me. He hadn't given a thought to it. He traced back a little and we were baffled it was not the way we walked to reach there. Kuttettan also looked a bit perturbed. It is as if you have reached a maze, the alleys don't reach anywhere and no alley looked the same.

"How come so many discarded items here on the rooftop attic?" I was surprised.

"This nalukettu is so old and many a generation lived here. These must be the items discarded by them."

There were China jars which are as tall as me and looked to be in good condition. Why have they been discarded? Finally we reached an opening to a staircase down.

"Which is this staircase?"

We climbed down that staircase. It was made of thick wood. On one side is whitewashed wall and on the other side a crafted handrail and a wooden panel that enclosed the staircase. We do not remember to have come across such a stairway in any room downstairs. The staircase we climbed up was a temporary rickety stair.

Only when we reached down did we realize that we are standing in front of a locked door. We climbed up and again started our journey through the maze. By that time we had almost forgotten the purpose of our visit. At least I had forgotten that. Suddenly in front of us was a table with one leg missing and on it three large framed photos lying upside down. Kuttettan's face brightened.

"The photos, they're here."

The photo on top was laden with dust. We turned it upside down. It was an old lady. She was topless as was the custom a hundred years ago, exhibiting huge breasts. Her face looked wrinkled. The next photo was that of an old man. He had thick eyebrows and very sharp penetrating eyes. He had a piece of cloth, a dhothi kept carefully on his shoulder. He was not wearing a shirt. He had a mark on his face made with sandalwood paste. A walking stick with handcrafted handle was kept leaning on the armrest of the chair. The chair was the same as the first photo. The frame of the third photo was brittle and there was fungus on the glass. However the face was clear. He looked short in nature.

"This could be the photo." Kuttettan said. "This one looks the oldest."

"Now, how can we get out of this place?" I asked. We turned back to the way we had reached there. To our great surprise there in front of us was the rickety staircase through which we had climbed up without any hindrance! Then through which alleys have we been walking and how have we reached the place from where we had started.

After reaching our room Kuttettan said.

"What do you think?" He was wiping the photo with a slightly wet cloth. I did not say anything. The long journey through the uncertainty of the maze had made me tired and perplexed.

The cleaning didn't do much to the photo. The fungus was inside the glass. Rains of many decades had made a firm cover of fungus on it.

"Le's remove the frame and see if there is any note inside the frame."

Kuttettan turned over the photo and inspected. The cardboard on the backside was brittle. Using a small knife he tried to remove the rusted nails to take out the board. When he tried to take the board out of the frame it broke. Realizing that he cannot take out the board in one piece, he started tearing it into pieces. After half an hour's toil he took out the photo. It wasn't a photo, but a painting.

"Those days there was no photography. So they catch hold of a painter and sit in front of him. Sometimes it takes days to finish one portrait.'

I was looking at him with admiration. There was hardly a thing that he did not know.

The painting was in good condition. The fungus on the glass has not affected the portrait.

"This is surprising." Kuttettan said, "Don't you think so?"

I just nodded. As for me I have transcended the boundary wall of surprises and rationality. I was thinking whether we had travelled such a great distance on the attic, or was it just an illusion?

"Kuttettan, it looks like we had walked such a long distance on the attic. Is there so much alleys on the attic?"

Kuttettan fell silent. He was contemplating something. He too has started realizing the absurdity of the whole thing.

"Yeah, right you are. And we had seen a stairs down with a closed door. All these..... Were they real?"

"I dunno."

Kuttettan brushed aside the thought and started inspecting the picture. He was disappointed that there was no note or inscription inside the frame.

"Doesn't matter, this old man looks to be very tricky. He might have made a mention somewhere on the picture."

He took the photo to the window for a close inspection. I had started losing faith in it. I thought it is just a photo and it is not going to prove anything, and that we had wasted a day on the attic. I watched with compassion Kuttettan closely inspecting it with a magnifying glass with black handle. After the inspection which took over ten minutes, Kuttettan kept the picture on the table and sat on the bed leaning on the head piece. His face looked pathetic.

I took the photo and looked at it. It was just a portrait, nothing more. On the lower right side there was a name in Hindi or Sanskrit. It could be that of the painter. Krishnarayar or something like that.

About this translation

An unusual novel by E Harikumar originally published in Malayalam (Ariyathalangalilekk oru kavatam അറിയാത്തലങ്ങളി'ലേക്ക് ഒരു കവാടം). In this novel, you will see many things beyond your logic. Every fifteen years a wonderful and unusual phenomenon changes a person's life completely. Irrational ecstasies often take the character to the mysterious levels of time.

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