In Shalini Srinivasan’s novel Vanamala and the Cephalopod, Thambi is one of the characters the author and her editors loved! However, since the novel did not allow Thambi to get his full share of attention, Shalini also wrote three separate Tales of Thambi, which we are happy to share with you!
Thambi hunched over his counter trying not to think of what the policemen were doing to his shop as they searched it.
The Inspector from Mysore smiled sympathetically. He was a thinnish energetic-looking man, with bright eyes and a fine bushy moustache, slightly upturned at the ends.
‘The older kid, Vanamala, was seen here the morning before she disappeared. And then she said something to her parents about selling the smaller one. And a finding a letter from your shop. Naturally her parents thought she was being silly. And we agree, but we need to check all the same. Procedure, you see. We don’t think you look like a kidnapper, but we need to follow all the leads.’
‘Follow them,’ said Thambi sadly, ‘but can’t you do it without disarranging my shop?’
‘It was quite messy to begin with,’ said the Inspector.
Thambi liked him less now. ‘It was arranged specifically. I had everything where I wanted it. Now it’s your mess, not mine! How will I ever find anything?’ he cried.
The Inspector’s fine moustache quivered as he smiled. He was quite sure now that Thambi had nothing to do with the Hay lot. So he nodded his head doorwards. The other policemen wandered out with vague smiles to Thambi.
‘Thank you for cooperating. See you!’ said the Inspector. Then he left, tugging at his moustache.
Thambi unhappily started putting his things back. The chillies were extra tiring—they seemed to have got mixed up with everything.
When he was done, he decided he needed a walk.
Thambi stuck his I AM ON LEAVE. GO AWAY PLEASE sign on the door and went off. His mind was a daze of troughs and sparkly combs, but his feet were very clear. They walked straight to Kapinagaram, the largest farm in Basavakere. It was owned by Aravidu Narasimha, the town’s only known criminal. And it was full of hay.
Thambi walked confidently to the cowshed. It was a large fine cowshed, the largest and finest in Basavakere. Aravidu Narasimha had a gigantic herd by Basavakere standards—twenty cows, three calves and a large handsome bull. They were all highly bred Kangeyam cattle, massive and grey, like little mountains. They were much admired in Basavakere, where most of the cows were the lankier Amritmahals.
‘Admiring my cattle?’ asked Aravidu Narasimha smugly. He was leaning on a wall and watching Thambi, as large and sturdy as his cows. Like them, he had a broad, snub nose, a permanently shouty voice, and a general air of cheerfulness. Thambi actually preferred the pointy Amritmahals, but he didn’t say that.
‘They are fine beasts,’ he said, patting a Kangeyam. ‘Very fine indeed. My wife likes them very much, you know. She says the milk has a certain flavour …’
Aravidu Narasimha smirked some more.
‘It’s the best milk in the world. Certainly the creamiest. I got these cows special from Thanjavur, you know. Docile like puppies! And they’re so strong! You should see how they plough my fields and pull my carts! I’m thinking of racing them next year.’
‘Too docile for us!’ said Thambi. ‘We only keep a few cows. And mostly for the company. We don’t need much milk. The occasional plough yes, and in an emergency it’s good to have a cart, but …’
Aravidu Narasimha nodded. ‘You’re just sentimental. Now your wife has the right idea! Your Amritmahals are nice cows, but strength is essential if you ask me!’
Thambi began to feel annoyed but remembered just in time that Aravidu Narasimha had admired Lalitha many years ago, before she was his wife, and that she had eventually married him, Thambi, rather than the owner of Basavakere’s largest farm and cowshed and herd and cows.
‘My wife Lalitha,’ he said grandly, ‘believes that your extra-creamy milk is due entirely to those fine robust cows of yours. But my theory is that your hay is somewhat special too.’
‘You’re not wrong!’ said Aravidu Narasimha, all pleased. ‘I do use special hay. The grass is grown on the banks of the Kaveri near Thanjavur, where these cows are from. Then they dry it in the hot sun and I bring it here on the train. Watered with that sweetest and holiest of water, is it any surprise the grass has special creamy powers? It’s special, I tell you!’
‘That does sound special,’ said Thambi. He patted a small reddish calf who had wandered up to him. It would only turn grey when it was full-grown. It snuffled kindly at him.
‘Try some!’ said Aravidu Narasimha. He held a half-empty sack up to Thambi.
‘Err, no thanks,’ said Thambi, backing away a little.
‘Haaaha! Not for you, for your cows!’
‘Ah. Yes,’ said Thambi. ‘I could I suppose.’
‘That’ll be twenty rupees,’ said Aravidu Narasimha with his smarmiest grin yet.
‘Huh?’ said Thambi.
‘Special price, for you. I’m not even counting the train freight charges.’
‘Ok,’ said Thambi helplessly, digging in his pocket. He was sorry he’d come. He wanted to go home now.
‘An excellent decision! Your cows will thank you!’ said Aravidu Narasimha in his loud booming voice, making Thambi’s head hurt. Then he boomed some more and insisted on showing Thambi his butter.
Ten long and loud minutes later, Thambi found himself wandering down the road clutching a large sack of hay. He was no wiser about the kidnappings. He no longer suspected that dreadful Aravidu Narasimha had anything to do with anything, him and his stupid cattle.
Thambi’s feet, still doing most of the thinking, took the shortest road home. They walked along the Basavan lake, on the pleasant road lined with Honge trees on either side. Thambi’s feet stomped on the carpet of pinkish-whitish flowers that fell from the trees. Pleased, they started walking slower, and Thambi’s mind stopped thinking about the kidnappings and started to think about all the things he had to do that day.
It wasn’t that Thambi wasn’t sad about Pingu and Vanamala disappearing, and it wasn’t that he didn’t, on the whole, want them to come back. But something in the fine weather—the wispy clouds, perhaps, or the mild breeze that blew in from the lake, filled with the faint scent of the flowers, or the glittering greenish water—made him wonder if maybe it wasn’t someone else’s job. That snotty policeman and his fine moustache perhaps, or their parents.
Thambi went home.
As it happened, Lalitha was very pleased with the special hay. She claimed she could smell the special sweetness of the Kaveri water in it.
And the cows seemed not to hate it. Though with their cows it was hard to tell, for they looked down their long solemn noses at everything and then ate it violently and hungrily as if they had had been starved for weeks. Which was a lie as Thambi well knew, for they could fit a lot of hay into their bony frames, those cows. And their ribs would still stick out making it look like Thambi was starving them.
Though the leaf and the letter and the kids and his empty, present-less trough still yawned in his mind, dull and black, Thambi found he didn’t mind much. He had a shop to run, after all. And supplies to get. And ah yes, a visit to Kaapi Kamlesh.