Ambujam walked rapidly all the while adjusting her madisar (sari). Her destination today was her village post office and the big street clock already showed 4:50 PM. The postmaster was not known for his punctuality and was known to close the post office early if he wished to join in for a game of cards with the old timers in Cheta’s tea shop.
Cheta’s tea shop was the meeting place of the tiny village of Palayur where the residents, mainly men, met every evening for the latest news and village gossip. This tiny idyllic village in the foothills of Anaimalai mountain was where Ambujam lived. The 150-odd residents were a close knit community consisting of diverse religions and castes & were proud of the fact that the peaceful life in the village did not need a police station. The nearest police station was twenty kilometers away in the Valparai town at the top of the mountain.
Ambujam reached the bottom step of the entrance to the post office just as the postmaster was about to lock the post office, just as she had suspected. The postmaster, Mani, stopped closing the door and offered her an easy smile.
“What, Ambu mami? Letters to post?”
“No, no. I want to send a money order to my nephew, Vedantham. He is studying EEE (Engineering) in Chennai, you know.”
“Yes, yes. I remember. The amount of times you have sent him money, how can I forget? The poor boy lost his parents, didn’t he?”
“Yes, that’s why I take care of him now. Can you just send the money order?”
“Sure. Come in. Come in.”
Satisfied, Ambujam finished handing over the money and the form and started her way back to her house.
Mani’s fellow players in the card game hailed him as he came close.
“What happened Mani? Why the delay?”
“Ambu Mami came just as I was closing up.”
Sethu, the new labourer, piped up.
“Who is she?”
“Ambu Mami is quite a character. Her husband, Krishnamoorthy, worked in the IRS department but died 30 years ago in 1955, in a train accident. Ambu Mami was just married to him for a year when he died. She must be in her fifties now but she has stayed alone since her husband’s death. Her brother lives just a few kilometers away in Valparai but she refused to move to his house.”
“Ok, your regular widow then. What’s so special about her?”
“Well, here is a thing. We always knew she was intelligent but for the past few years she has shown a knack for finding out things that no one else can.”
Sethu was intrigued.
“Ten years ago, Palur villagers who are downstream to us, accused us of overusing the river. The water coming to their village had been decreasing for years and they thought we were the reason. When we denied their claims, they vowed revenge on us.
A few days later, the cattle in our village started dying mysteriously one by one. Initially we thought the Palur villagers were responsible and kept a close watch on them. But we found no evidence of foul play. The cows and buffaloes ate the chaff of our fields and drank the same river water that we drank. Yet, they kept dying. The veterinarian from Valparai couldn’t find the reason. He remarked that the cows all seemed healthy except for the fact that they died.
Naturally, we were all worried. The milk from the cows were the major source of income for the village. Finally we had no choice but to call in the police from Valparai. But they found no link to the Palur villagers! It was Ambu mami who solved the case.”
“Ambu mami told the P.C (police constable) that the cows were dying because they were became sick after they ate the leaves of the nochi plants in the hedgerows. She definitely said the Palur milkman who came frequently to our village for selling excess milk was responsible. The P.C arrested him. The milkman confessed that his fellow villagers had made him poison those plants knowing the cows routine. We never knew how she found that.”
“Yes, ever since then, Ambu mami has helped to solve many such mysteries in the village. We have come to look on her as the native thuparivalan (detective), I tell you!”
Ambujam relaxed in her main living hall over a cup of kaapi (coffee). Her thoughts were also focused on the cattle incident many years ago. These villagers would never understand, she thought with a hint of condescension. Her paatima (Grandmother) had always told her of the prophecy which said there will come a day when cows would start dying mysteriously.
When the P.C had asked her who was responsible for the death of the cows, she of course, couldn’t point fingers at the goddess. Not unless she wanted the wrath of the goddess upon her. Her eyes wandered and she had seen Ramu’s cow eating nochi leaves just then. Recognizing this as a divine sign, she had told the P.C that the nochi plants were poisoned.
The Palur milkman really shouldn’t have worn a black veshti that day. That too, after she had warned him that she hated the colour so many times. The sight of his scornful face and black veshti had been enough to point fingers at him.
The Palur milkman deserved all the beatings he got from the P.C for wearing that ghastly veshti. But she never did know why he confessed to the crime instead of telling the truth about the prophecy. Maybe he was fearful of the wrath of the goddess too!
Author’s note: This post is a part of 8 part detective series featuring Ambu Mami. Stay tuned! Introducing Deepa Krishnamurthy, talented artist and painter who will be doing the illustrations for this series for the remaining posts.