Ksaver and Koragappa

Funny how bootlegging was a way of life among those considered enterprising in them years of my growing up. Not for me for heavens sake, but among folks in the surrounding villages, and among the smart ones on our coffee estate. No one was supposed to know or talk about this activity; but I knew, as did everyone else, who took interest in what was happening around him.

I particularly remember two of our tenants, Koragappa and Xavier, who tilled the paddy fields and parted certain percentage of the produce to us, landlords, as genn or annual rent. Ksaver, as we called Xavier, paid less rent because his fields were on a higher plane than those of Koragappa - which were bang on the banks of our perennial stream, and considered more prime.

Koragappa with his close cropped pepper and salt hair and a muscular frame that masked his advanced years, would always be seen in the fields with nothing more than his kashti loincloth. Ploughing away with a pair of buffaloes, or with his spade channelling the water flows from one field to another. Despite the familiar sight of his exhibited near nakedness, there was around him an air of quiet efficiency and an affluence that belied his thatched existence. He toiled well, brooked no nonsense, and paid his annual dues in time. And he even managed to encroach on a considerably large piece of adjacent government land to grow coffee on, construct his own pad and have a big fisciculture tank. We children kept away from him, admiring him only from a distance. Till one day his body was found floating on the waters of the tank he himself had dug. A mystery, that never got solved. Not by the police, anyway! Much later, it was Ksaver that shared with me his own theory on this.

Ksaver was a thoroughbred scamp; if there ever was one. Unlike Koragappa, he always fell short in his annual dues, and forever made excuses - blaming it all on the weather gods, the inadequate or unseasonal rains, or the ailing limping bullocks. A shifty mercurial character flitting from one thing to another like quick-silver, and forever on the wanted list of the lone policeman from the town station who made his village rounds regularly once a month.

But he was a handy man par excellence, which perhaps was the reason why Ksaver was such a favourite with pater. In a contingency, it was Ksaver's services that were commandeered, and he'd invariably rise to the occasion when sent for. Especially on that festive occasion when a pig had to be slaughtered, or when pater's underfoot had to be branded with red hot irons to drive out a severe attack of the chills. And no one could skin or dress a 'game' as well as Ksaver, who was also a good shikar to boot. So apart from being a tenant tilling land on annual contract, he was privileged to be on the estate rolls too, his sole job to provide game meat to the Sahukar's table.

Witnessing with sheer awe and horror him branding under dad's feet, listening to the sizzling sound of flesh singe, and inhaling the fumes of burnt flesh all in a jiffy, was enough to instil in us youngsters a healthy respect for this diminutive little funny faced man. But it was his qualification as a hunter that attracted us to Ksaver like little nails to a magnet. And many were my days holidaying on the estate that found me accompanying this character when out on his search for a young buck, rabbit, water fowl, green pigeon or even white cranes in the water logged fields. It was during these forays that he regaled me with his stories, of escapades and skirmishes with the law, particularly relating to the brewing of some finest of country arrack, that fetched him more mulah than what he got for toiling in the fields, he'd defensively confess.

Sworn to total secrecy, he had divulged to me his modus operandi for bootlegging. In the jungle, permanently buried in the ground in a secluded secret spot under dense foliage, was his large earthenware pot, to ferment ten to twenty Kgs of jaggery at a time over a period of 21days. The lid on the mouth of the pot kept carefully hidden from view with twigs and dry leaf atop it, would be moved each day to stir the 'wash' inside, and to add to it further inputs of food waste and fruit, and at times rotting meat. To my expression of astonishment, he had fired back that at least he kept it clean. Others with no scruples did not hesitate to lift the lid and defecate into the contents just to give it the extra kick, - he had conspiratorially disclosed to my utter horror and disgust! Several such pots were tucked away in the jungle, facilitating him to maintain a cycle with a frequency of once a week for distilling his fermented 'stock'. Which, he did in the dead of night, for fear of prying eyes and exposure to the hands of law. The bottled liquor then remained similarly buried under earth, to be supplied to his regulars only under the light of stars. He had shown me how he ferried the bottles hanging from the neck inside his shirt, to avoid detection!

It was Ksaver who also revealed to me that for all his exterior, Koragappa was the biggest distiller of all, and that it was rivalry over this bootlegging activity that resulted in his ending up on his watery grave. Leaving me wondering to this day, "….rivalry with whom?"

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Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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