In Unni R's latest work, a witch hunt for an invisible rooster exposes the foibles of a privileged, fanatical society
Known for his short stories and screenplays, The Cock is the Culprit is Unni's first novel, which brilliantly exposes the patriarchy, politics, privilege and bigotry prevalent in Kerala society.
Through a sharp, satirical and hilarious narrative, award-winning writer Unni R tells the story of an invisible rooster from a small village in Kerala, who starts crowing at odd hours — during prayers or in the middle of mass at church or the azaan in the mosque — and finally ends up interrupting the national anthem at school. Regarded as an immediate threat to national security and a blot on national pride, the powerful among the villagers embark on a witch hunt to track down this invisible cock, owned by Naaniyamma, an elderly lady in the village, and at once bring it to justice.
Known for his short stories and screenplays, The Cock is the Culprit is the Malayalam author's first novel, which brilliantly exposes the patriarchy, politics, privilege and bigotry prevalent in Kerala society, between hilarious incidents and sarcasm.
The excerpt that follows describes why some of the villagers decide to hunt down the rooster with fervour, while others demand that the case made against Naaniyamma and those standing up for her be withdrawn with immediate effect.
Translated by J Devika
‘The right to protest is a fundamental right of all citizens, male or female. Kochukuttan’s only fault was that he exercised it. If someone protests when the police suddenly close in on an old lady who lives all alone, and the complainant refuses to reveal the reason for complaining, that is a positive indicator of the freedom that citizens enjoy in a democracy. If the person who protested is pointed out to the police and they arrest him in violation of his rights, that can only be evidence of a dictatorial tendency. It is particularly condemnable when such an act is perpetrated by someone so venerable in age and knowledge. To trap a young man getting ready to work abroad in such a case is nothing less than destroying his dreams. Therefore we demand that the reasons for the personal enmity shown towards Naaniyamma be revealed post-haste. Also, the case filed against Kochukuttan must be withdrawn immediately.’
When Chaakku crumpled and flung away this statement that the Citizens’ Forum had prepared, Krishnankutty, taking note of the pitiful state of the piece of paper and also the murderous rage on his brother-in-law’s face, told him: ‘Aliya, this is going to go far. It won’t end where we want it to end.’
Chaakku didn’t get what he was hinting at.
‘You’ve been illegally filling up ten whole paras of paddy fields. On top of that, you’ve encroached on the panchayat road while building this house … people know of it. If anyone digs it up, there will be a resurvey. The work on the paddy land will be stayed. So, really, do you want a run-in with the locals?’
Chaakku was silent for some time.
Then he asked, ‘So what are you leading up to, Krishnankutty?’
‘Withdraw the complaint against the boy. And tell people what’s going on with Naaniyamma.’
‘I can withdraw the complaint. But what about the other thing? That’s going to affect national security!’
A female voice from inside the house reminded him that he should first take care of his own security before worrying about national security. Chechi opens her mouth rarely, thought Krishnankutty, but when she does, she thulps you.
The refusal to give in, on one side; so much illegal stuff, on the other. When it struck him that small defeats can lead to large victories, Chaakku realised that one must view these not as surrender but as appropriate tactics. He nodded in such a way that Krishnankutty could see that it was precisely such a realisation that was swinging left and right inside Chaakku’s head.
Krishnankutty informed him of the Citizens’ Forum’s decision to meet him at the SNDP Yogam hall late that afternoon. Chaakku did not conceal his discomfort at having to forego his siesta. ‘What’s wrong with meeting now?’
‘Kochu is sleeping. He’s the defendant, right? Let him wake up and then we will meet—that’s what they are saying.’
Chaakku nodded. But before Krishnankutty stepped out, he made another attempt. ‘Do we have to meet in their hall? Why not meet at the Nair Karayogam?’
‘It doesn’t have a ceiling fan,’ said Krishnankutty.
Chaakku sat before Krishnankutty, Kurup saar, Mathai, members of various political parties who had come together to form the Citizens’ Forum, Kochukuttan, and some fifty other people, like a lone warrior facing a whole army. Since no introduction or prayer was called for, Kurup saar ended the confusion about how to start by announcing ‘Let us begin’ with a shake of his head. Chaakku made the first offering: ‘I am withdrawing the complaint against Sri Kochukuttan.’
The room rang with the applause of everyone except Kochukuttan. When it stopped, he spoke up: ‘Before that, the complaint against Naaniyamma must be dropped.’
Chaakku looked at Krishnankutty and Kurup saar. Kurup saar got up and said in his naturally mild voice, ‘Naaniyamma is a good woman. No one has any doubt about that. But one is not sure if the rooster in her house has the same goodness of character.’
There was a general sense of puzzlement all around.
‘It’s only natural that when one files a complaint against a rooster, it becomes a complaint against its owner.’
The audience continued to gawp.
‘Mr Chandrasenan Nair has had an experience with Naaniyamma’s rooster that may strike you as really odd, but it is one that poses a serious threat to our national security and is indeed a blot on our national pride. That is why he had to file such a case.’
Now the audience seemed to be not only taken aback, but also genuinely worried. Kurup saar sat down. Chaakku got up to speak:
‘Two days back, some ten or fifteen of us had gathered in the frontyard of my house to honour the sacred memory of our martyrs and discuss the threats raised by terrorism. We had decided to begin with a silent prayer. All of us stood up and closed our eyes to pray. Suddenly, there was a sharp crowing. Surprised by such a sharp sound, our eyes opened involuntarily! We then saw a rooster on the boundary wall. I have seen it before many times. It had never encroached into our premises. I had never ever heard it crow, either. And yes, this same rooster was behaving thus, in such an unprecedented way! Go away, you fowl—we first yelled at it politely. But no. Not only did it refuse to leave, it kept crowing louder and louder. In short, a day set apart for sacred memories and thoughts was lost to crowing and screeching. My complaint was against this utterly unusual crowing. I thought it was necessary to have it investigated. The truth is this. And other than this, I haven’t complained against the old lady, nor do I want to trouble her in her ripe old age.’
When Chaakku ended his speech, some people were torn between many things: What to say now? What is the truth? And where is the lie in this? Where are we right now? Others were sceptical — what conspiracy could possibly lurk behind a cock’s crowing?
While they were taking their time to emerge from the complexity of the situation, Kurup saar asked, ‘Now tell us, should Chaakku withdraw the complaint or not?’
When that plunged most of the audience into yet another dilemma, Kochukuttan alone raised his nose and mouth towards reason and logic, trying to breathe.
All the others agreed that it was only fair to lodge a complaint against a creature that let out an ugly sound when the sacred memory of the brave martyrs of the nation was being evoked. Naaniyamma became irrelevant before the glory of the nation.
As they were about to leave, Chaakku revealed yet another detail: ‘That rooster is still crowing. Full of sarcasm. If you strain your ears, you can hear it.’
No one had anticipated such a revelation.
The above extract from Unni R's The Cock is the Culprit, translated by J Devika, has been reproduced here with permission from Eka, an imprint of Westland Publications
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