In the beginning, the villagers heard Maya Anthurjanam . Cries in the night. Sudden laughter echoing from the estate. Soon, some started catching glimpses of a woman in tattered clothing, covered in dirt with wild hair. The villagers left the woman alone. Some where deep inside their collective souls ,they felt responsible for her fate by not acting. The guilt made them sympathetic.
The village children named her Madan Bhranthi. The name stuck. The poojari of the Devi temple left her the temple prasad, served on a banana leaf,every night at the oottupura floor.No one in the village taunted her. No stone were thrown at her. No children teased her by calling her names and chasing her. The village left her alone. They left the cursed thravad alone. They left her to her dreams and memories - or whatever was left of it.
Madan Bhranthi never left the illum or the estate, apart to snatch the banana leaf left for her at the temple, which was very close to the tharavadu. Her life became the bedtime story for a new generation of children. Every child who ever, out of curiosity, ventured into the tharavadu , was given a thrashing or at the very least, a toungue lashing. Madan Tharavadu and its Bharanthi stood at that realms where reality meets myth.
Attu had seen her once or he thinks. He had gone looking for the kutti that had been hit into the Madan Tharavadu estate. They had been playing kuttiyum kolum . Attu was one of the fielders. Balu hit the kutti right into the coconut grove that bordered our make shift play ground which was the village road. Being the smallest, Attu was bullied into retrieving the kutti from the estate. We stood at the edge of the thorn bush fence, while Attu climbed the fence and walked in exaggerated stealth into the darkness of the estate.
A few minutes passed. The only sound being the buzz of the dragon flies that hovered near the paddy fields. We peered with intense concentration at the faint khaki color of Attu's shorts , which was the only thing we could make out.
Then Attu screamed. In seconds he had jumped over the fence and continued running. We didn't question. All of us ran.
Attu ran all the way to his hut, with us following him in sheer panic, even though we had no idea what we were running from. We found Attu behind the wall of the well that stood behind his hut; squatting; his hands wrapped around his knees and shaking. Rivulets of oily sweat ran from his head onto his skinny back.
Attu had seen Madan Bhranthi!
Attu became a celebrity among us for quite sometime. Slowly we pieced together the whole story, eventhough Attu's version became more dramatic and colorful each time he retold his experiences.
Attu had gone into the estate , which was in some ancient time, a coconut grove, but now, completely overrun by shrubs. It was very dark there. The sunlight broke the foliage in few areas. He started walking in the general direction he had seen the kutti fly. He was looking , rummaging through the dry leaves , cursing Balu, when he suddenly got a feeling that he was not alone.
Here Attu's voice drops in decible, while he continues the rest of his story in whispers
Someone was standing in front of him.
It was Madan Bhranthi. She was old. Her matted grey hair fell upto her waist. The mundu she had wrapped around her waist was dirty and torn in many places. A thin thorthu was drapped across her shoulder, covering her breast. Attu could not take his eyes off her eyes. It was bright and searching. She reached out to Attu. In her hands , she held the Kutti.
In the coming days, I convinced Attu to accompany me to Madan Tharavadu. The truth was that I lacked the courage to go there alone. Ammumma's rendition of Vishnu Namboodri hanging from the wooden beam had a profound impression on me. Infact that image scared me more than running into Madan Bharanthi.
Atleast she was alive.
On the designated day, we took the same route Attu had taken earlier. He led the way, with me holding onto the back of his shorts. He showed me the very spot where he had seen the Madan Bharanthi. I looked around expecting her to come rushing out with the kutti in her hand crying out : here take it, take it , take it...
There was no body there. All we heard was the chirpping of the crickets and the farway haunting call of a solitary Chempothu.
Upon my insistence , we walked further torwards the Illum. Now I walked in front, with Attu holding onto my petticoat.Every now and then, I pushed down Attu's hold on the tip of my petticoat to avoid it being raised too high.
Thus we walked , one behind the other, pushing our way through the thick vegetation , towards the legendary Madan Tharavadu.
Bhranthi : Mad woman. Bhrant means delusional.
Oottupura : Feeding halls in temples where free food is distribued to devotees and the hungry.
Chempothu : A fairly big black bird with red wings. Makes a hooting sound.