Soon after I turned seven, I returned to my hometown in Kerala with my family. When my grandfather turned up at the bus stop, he was dressed in a neatly pressed, lightly starched shirt and dhoti with an umbrella in one hand and a clerk’s bag in the other. For his pains to impress us, he received a chubby boy in a bahama shirt, checkered shorts with a videogame in one hand and a fruit packet in the other. It was an awkward meeting.
Almost immediately after moving into my grandparents’ home, I began to view Appuppan as a distant figurehead out of tune with my life. I desperately shut him out along with everything in our quiet village. I silently ignored him and whiled away the mind-numbingly slow moments on my videogame. I would have played it that whole summer too had it not died.
Kerala’s climate has never been forgiving to delicate electronics. It was either the scorching sun or the endless downpour that killed my toy. I don’t know which to blame. One day, I left it on the roofless porch of our house in a lapse of judgment. A few hours later, I returned to find it dead. I dismantled it and made some feeble attempts to reassemble it, but the game did not yield. It just sat there, lifeless.
I tried to pretend nothing had happened. But I could not have been more bored. As I began ranting, the peaceful quiet of our house came under attack. I unnerved everyone in the family with my constant complaints. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I seemed to have struck a nerve because soon enough, Appuppan got up from his chair and stepped outside the house.
He walked up to a short, young coconut tree and sliced off a leaf with his rusty machete. Coconut leaves are special; unlike banana leaves, they are extremely thin, long and durable. And until then, I never thought of them as more than leaves. In Appuppan’s ancient hands, they turned into clay. Reaching into the depths of his childhood memories, he twisted the ends of the leaf here, there, across, under and over itself until lo and behold, a rounded cube sat in his hands. He handed it to me and said, “See, it’s a ball.”
The pessimist that I am, I expected it to unravel immediately. But, it lasted more than three whole days. And even after I had exhausted its utility, Appuppan was more than happy to slice off another leaf and work his magic. As the days flew by, I invented new games to while away the time. And Appuppan was always there to refill the supply. An average coconut tree has something like twenty branches and more than a hundred leaves on each branch. That summer, between him and I, we barely used an entire branch. To a tree, that’s like pulling a hair off your head. But to my Appuppan and me, it was a limb across the gulf between us.