“Some had name and fame and honour,
Learned they were and wise and strong;
Some were nameless, poor unlettered
Weak in all but grief and wrong.”
Often, when I look back on my childhood days, one particular character keeps coming back in my memory. It is the character of Chowda, the cowherd.
Chowda was the cowherd for our entire village. It was a hereditary occupation for him. He had a permanent house near the residence of the biggest landlord of our village. We used to refer to his house as Gudi.His wife was called Kundi. His eldest son was called Thippa. Thippa was in our age-group and was a good company for us. Both Chowda and Thippa would address the elderly males as Aiah and youngsters like us as Sannaiah.
Chowda had several roles to play in our daily life; So much so that his official occupation of cattle grazing was relegated to the background on many occasions. He would be visiting each house in the morning at about 8 AM. By that time the daily feeding and milking of the cows were expected to be completed. He was to be given yele-adke (a system of giving pieces of arecanut, pan leaves and tobacco to all labourers/servants daily- practiced only in Malnad) by each household. He would gather all the cows and buffaloes from each house, herd them together and proceed to the hills, fields or nearby forest for grazing depending on the season. All the cows were given names by the households and he could recognize them by their names. Generally he would carry a flute with him. He would keep playing the same. The sound of flute in the morning would herald his arrival! This would also help us to know his location at any given time.
By evening 5 PM, Chowda would ensure that all the animals reached their sheds. He used to have some tough time during the visit of tigers to our village. This was almost an annual affair in those days. The tiger would arrive at a cave called Oranagal on the top of a small hill. Its roaring could be heard up to far off places during the nights. It would manage to catch some cow or calf during their grazing. It would drag it all the way to its cave and enjoy its meal. We could know the fate of our animals only in the evening. If any animal was found missing its fate could be presumed to have been sealed. I remember such occasions when we had to simply mourn the loss of our beloved animals. We used to weep loudly on such occasions as we could not accept the loss of animals which were so dear to us.
Chowda was mostly helpless on such occasions. Still there were occasions when he could save the animals by his intelligent moves when the tiger was about to strike. He had also the misfortune to announce the death of certain animals which were dragged away by the tiger in his very presence! He had to accept it as a professional hazard! The villagers did appreciate his predicament and never made him responsible for such loss.
Chowda had the responsibility to remove and bury the dead bodies of the animals. His cash earnings used to be very limited. People used to offer him meals, breakfast, coffee etc. He was always a very satisfied man and his necessities were very much limited. He used to wear only the secondhand dresses (used and worn out) offered by the villagers. He hated the very concept of washing the clothes! My eldest brother used to threaten him saying that he would give him a cake of washing soap and make him wash his clothes! Chowda used to simply run away on hearing this! He would rather wait to get another set of used dress to get rid of the existing dirty dress!
Chowda was liked by village women as he would bring them forest produce like soapnut, bellatte leaves (leaves of a particular plant which would be boiled in water and used to wash the women’s hair in place of soap), etc. For boys like us he would make flutes and pettlu out of tender bamboo wood. While the whole world knows the flute, the item Pettlu is known only in Malnad. It is made by cutting out a small length of tender bamboo. The pettlu bush is peculiar to Malnad and it bears Pettlu kai (small fruit like produce). These are used like bullets in the Pettlu. They are inserted in the hallow portion of the Pettlu and shot out by pushing them with force by an instrument called gaja made out of wood.
Every year the Pettlu Habba (festival) is celebrated by the children of Malnad. The festival date is fixed as per the Vontikoppal and Sringeri Panchangams. The supply of Pettlu used to be taken care of by Chowda and later by his son Thippa. We used to celebrate this festival with full gusto. We enjoyed the shooting of Pettlu as if we were firing a gun itself. There used to be full support and co-operation from the elders.
Chowda was a master in storytelling and gossip spreading. As he used to visit all the houses he was privy to certain inside information. He would either overhear or gather directly from the family members such private information. His whole disposition and manners used to be so endearing that the people would willingly convey such matter to him. He had a knack of soliciting and collecting such news. He would add his own spice and disclose the same to another household in a very presentable format. This would cost them only a cup of coffee and yele-adke. In those days there used to be no newspapers or radio and the news was always at a premium. People were hungry to hear any form of gossip and story. Our Chowda was the only village media available and the cheapest at that! He knew it well and enjoyed his monopoly!
At his old age Chowda found it difficult to manage. His son Thippa was a vagabond. Even though he was a good boy he neither attended the school nor was interested in his hereditary occupation. There came a stage where Chowda would simply come in the morning rounds to collect the yele-adke and coffee. He would gather the animals and let them off without any further supervision from him. In the evening most of the animals would return to the sheds on their own by force of habit. He would just check in at each house enquiring their return. If any of the animals was missing he would leave stating that he would go in search of them - which he never did.
I distinctly remember one particular day when I was returning from my school. I saw Thippa on the way and in the usual manner spoke to him jokingly. Thippa was upset. Addressing me as ‘Sannaiah,’ he told me to spare him on that day at least! He left the place in a huff.
On returning home, I was told by my mother that Chowda was no more. All of a sudden the truth dawned on me that I could never see Chowda in my life again. The one common thread that ran through the entire village was broken for ever. Chowda’s flute went silent and was to be heard no more. The only vocal media of the village was closed down permanently. Chowda went away unwept, unhonoured and unsung.
Today when I am writing down this memoir of Chowda, tears come to my eyes. Chowda’s distinctive personality appears in front of me and expresses the gratitude for recording his story and immortalizing him for the future generations. I feel a sense of satisfaction amidst the sorrowful memory. I pray for the soul of Chowda that is playing the flute in the great heavens!
A V Krishnamurthy
7th July 2008