People-watching has been a favourite pass time ever since I can remember. Our farm in rural Nanjangud proffers enough opportunities to nurture this hobby of mine, and offers a ring-side view to a parade of many eccentric and intriguing characters.
Navilu Kaadu is sandwiched between the two hamlets of Hunasanaalu and Chikgaati….both conveniently located barely a kilometre in the northern and southern directions of our farm.
The erstwhile owner of our farm had shared a precious list of handymen to help with electric repairs, masonry, plumbing, labour supply, manure and more.
Most of these service providers, including my motley crew of women helpers, hail from Chikghaati. Our caretaker at Navilu Kaadu, C. Swamy or C. Saamy as he likes to call himself, hails from Hunasanaalu.
Caste plays a disproportionately large role in rural hinterlands. While a majority of the villagers in Hunasanaalu belong to one caste, the Chikgaati clique belongs to a ‘rival’ caste. People of either village routinely turn their noses down at each other owing to caste dynamics.
We had to first seek out M. Swamy, the village electrician from Chikgaati on a bright morning in the summer of 2018, when our irrigation pump threw in the towel. Ever since, the inevitably frustrating and in hindsight amusing encounters with M. Swamy, have greatly tempered the initial exhilaration we felt when we signed on the dotted line and turned farmers.
A slightly built man, M. Swamy shoots-forth words like bullets from a gun whose aim is forever wide off the mark.
When not baiting unsuspecting victims to part with crisp currency notes, M. Swamy can be found doing temple rounds of all major and minor deities in the area praying for more scapegoats to ‘electrify’ with the endless schemes in his arsenal!
On the said morning, after convincing us that he was minutes away from our farm for nearly four hours, M. Swamy finally made his grand appearance on his Hero Honda motorbike, with his assistant Shivu riding pillion, just a little after the sun had moved over our heads towards the western horizon.
M. Swamy wears his shiny black hair parted straight along the middle, the weight of slathered oil doing its best to hold down the stubborn curls on either side. The betel juice stained mouth and the fiery red vermilion on his wide forehead stand-out like beacons in an otherwise unremarkable, clean-shaven face.
With an enthusiastic ‘Namaskaara Saar’ to Sandeep, M. Swamy set about reeling-off all the reasons for his delay, from his child needing a hospital trip, to a marriage alliance he had to broker for his grandfather’s second wife’s third son’s wife’s brother’s daughter!
My presence is rarely acknowledged by male visitors at the farm unless I butt in and impose myself on the cosy camaraderie, and when I do, the response is nonchalantly directed towards Sandeep.
We were soon in the company of two local linemen from the electricity department who had also caught wind of our arrival at the farm and had hurried over in anticipation of a profitable afternoon call. M. Swamy and the linemen vanished for over half an hour thereafter to investigate the cause of the power disruption, and soon returned to announce that a nearby transformer was misbehaving and they had set it right.
The seemingly senior among the two linemen then took off on a tirade against M. Swamy alleging that the irrigation pump set had been installed illegally without applying for requisite permissions from the electricity department.
M. Swamy had helped the previous owner of our farm with the installation and somehow, the owner, possibly due to having been misled or misinformed, had decided to get it installed bypassing the legal route.
It was from that moment on that our misadventures with M. Swamy commenced. He convinced us that he would get our electricity line for the pump legalized and extracted a couple of thousands as an advance. It would take us several more visits and a massive cat and mouse game, to have M. Swamy finally complete the task and legalize our electricity line for the irrigation pump.
M. Swamy now initiated fresh groundwork for his next project with us. He began calling Sandeep during all hours of the day and night, and interrupted many an official meeting to make a case for grounding an electrical wire that extended from our irrigation pump to one of the electric poles. He effectively used fear psychosis by claiming that it could put lives in danger, should the wire one day come untethered.
On our next visit, M. Swamy magically appeared within a few minutes of our arrival at Navilu Kaadu, and went on to list out his preparations for the grounding work on our farm. He had come prepared with some material too, thrust a piece of paper with an ‘estimate’ for the job, and pressed for an advance.
He promised a hassle-free transition of the wire in question from its lofty mid-air setting to a safe harbour two feet underground. “Give me the contract for the whole thing….I can even get the trench dug for the cable and save you the trouble”, he said.
Worried as we were about the potential dangers of an exposed electric wire, and swayed by the assurance of an ‘end-to-end’ package deal, we instantly agreed to let M. Swamy commence the work and handed part of the amount scrawled on his hand-written ‘estimate’ after a minor show of negotiations.
This marked another defining moment in our dealings with M. Swamy when he left promising to return with a few workers to help dig a trench for the cable. After a couple of hours, realization eventually dawned on us that we were actually witnessing one of M. Swamy’s infamous vanishing acts…….he had just pulled a Houdini* on us!
He finally returned our calls on the third morning, the day we were about to return to Bengaluru. He convinced us that his workers were on the way to dig a trench and that we should extend our stay by a day so he could finish the work. Gullible as we were, we agreed and a long wait ensued yet again, with nary a fly representing M. Swamy anywhere in our vicinity for the three hours that followed.
We eventually locked-up the grounding material inside the cottage, and decided to head-out the same day and get our weary selves to Bengaluru, even if a couple of hours later than originally planned. It would take us two more visits and some dogged pursuit of M. Swamy, before he decided to bestow us with an appearance.
Our frustration boiled-over when we heard M. Swamy’s ludicrous reason for the undue delay this time. He stoically stated that his young assistant Shivu’s wife had been kidnapped by a neighbour…..it appeared to be a love triangle. He had been busy all these days trying to help Shivu nullify the opposing force of the other interested party and recover his wife!
Soon Shivu, the very man who had suffered the kidnapping of his wife, made an appearance on the scene on a moped with a worker riding pillion. Another of M. Swamy’s boys followed on a second bike with a dishevelled-looking woman riding pillion. She was the worker’s wife, they said.
Having showed the worker and his wife to the spot for the trench, the retinue disappeared. Delirious with joy and relief that the work finally seemed to be inching towards closure, Sandeep and I turned our attention to other tasks on the farm. I couldn’t help surrender to the urge of performing a little victory jig!
About an hour later, having cooked our meal for the afternoon, I trekked towards the pump area on the farm to see how the trench was coming along. From a distance, I spotted the trench-digger’s wife crouched on the ground alongside the man labouring away at his work. As I approached, I could hear him cajoling her to sit under the shade of a tree till he was done.
She soon turned around and yelled to me, “You have had your meal, where is mine?” Her flustered husband hastened to inform me that she was unwell and I should ignore her. The norm in the region is for workers to get their own packed lunch. M. Swamy hadn’t mentioned anything otherwise that morning about us having to make lunch arrangements for the trench-digger and his wife. We’d assumed it was all covered in the ‘package’.
Another helper on the farm mentioned that the trench-digger’s wife was an alcoholic and was rarely in her senses. Bheemiah, the trench-digger was a poor municipality sweeper from Chikghaati, and took his wife Mahadevi along everywhere as she refused to stay back alone in the house.
Having already snared us with a tidy sum as advance for the grounding work, M. Swamy had now left behind this poor couple for us to extract a two feet deep, twenty-five feet long trench from. Ensuring Mahadevi and her husband were fed from our kitchen that afternoon, I cajoled her to stay with me near the cottage and babysat her for the rest of the day so as to allow the unfortunate man to complete digging the trench.
Bheemiah left at the end of the work day taking Mahadevi along, but not before abusing M. Swamy with the choicest of expletives that greatly enriched our vocabulary, for having conned him of his rightful wage. We had little choice but to make good the supposed shortfall in Bheemiah’s wage.
The minor treachery notwithstanding, we felt nothing but gratitude when M. Swamy and his men reappeared the next morning, laid the cable in the trench and finally completed the grounding work.
He had also come prepared to launch his next perfidy. Handing us some forms that were printed in Kannada, he asked us to sign them so he could get the electricity connection to our cottage officially transferred from the old owner’s name to ours. He also put forth his usual requisition for an advance to get the job done.
I read through the form only to realize that it was actually an application for regularization of electricity connections to illegal irrigation pump sets, an M. Swamy-misadventure we had recently managed to extricate ourselves from.
M. Swamy was stumped when he realized I could read and understand the Kannada application form, and went on to adopt his usual tact….‘confound them if you cannot convince them’. Having been sufficiently enlightened to his guileful ways by now, we stood our ground and refused to part with any more moolah till he got us the right forms for the job.
Last heard, M. Swamy had pulled his Houdini act on another newly minted farmer like us in our neighbourhood, having secured a hefty advance to install an electric pole in his farm.
Our unsuspecting neighbour got a bore well dug, installed an irrigation pump, planted mango saplings of the alphonso variety, and had to suffer the heartbreak of witnessing them all wither away without water, as M. Swamy vanished without laying an electricity line for the irrigation pump set.
*Harry Houdini was a Hungarian-born American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts.